BEYOND WORDS – Celebrating Writers Guild Award-Nominated Writers

Photo Credit: Michael Jones/WGAW

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety gathered together several of this year’s award-nominated writers to speak about their films. From craft to the business side of entertainment, nominees shared inspiring stories of the persistence and drive it took to get their movies made, the worst notes they ever received and that sometimes you need to break the rules.

TVWriter.com’s Contributing Editor, Kelly Jo Brick, talked with several of the writers to discover what’s the best advice they received early on in their writing careers.

ALLISON SCHROEDER – HIDDEN FIGURES

Some of the best advice I got was that it is a marathon, not a sprint. Which I think was really key, because there were definitely moments where I was like nothing is happening and I’m stalled. You have to remember that is part of the business and you have to keep going. There will be highs and lows.

ERIC HEISSERER – ARRIVAL

Build a community. Find a group of peers. Your way in is almost never going to be someone who is already established. It’s going to be someone who breaks in and takes you with them. That’s how I’ve seen it happen a lot. I think there are more opportunities for those kind of groups now than there were before. The internet is a big part of that. Also there’s a greater awareness about how movies get made.

TAYLOR SHERIDAN – HELL OR HIGH WATER

I got no advice when I started out, but I’ll give some advice that I told myself, which was write the movie you want to see and that’s what I did.

BARRY JENKINS – MOONLIGHT

When you’re starting out you want to write what you know. That is what was told to me and I think it was the best advice as far as trying to get images and characters on the page. I think the characters I knew were the best training for that. You have to read screenplays too. Most up and coming screenwriters watch a lot of movies, but they don’t read a lot of scripts. We all know what the great scripts are from the last thirty years and we should all be reading those when starting out.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PANEL

WHAT THE WRITERS LEARNED FROM MAKING THEIR MOVIES:

THEODORE MELFI – HIDDEN FIGURES

The process of making HIDDEN FIGURES and working with a very diverse cast and a very diverse crew has shown me that I never want to make a movie with four white guys with wigs. I want to stay on that path and represent the world as we see it.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE – LA LA LAND

One thing I learned is to not get too disheartened when things in your career and the life of a project seem like a death knell. Disasters, I had a lot of those on this project specifically and I look back now and say, “Oh, I’m glad the movie didn’t get made at that moment because I wasn’t ready to make it. I’m glad it didn’t go down this path.” I hope to have that sort of Zen about things going forward.

KENNETH LONERGAN – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

I think I learned along the way both internally, creatively with the film itself and also the experience of making the film and showing people the film, that often wherever there is this terrible adversity and people are getting pushed into painful situations, there seems to be somewhere in the equation an equal amount of love and effort to help each other through it.

RHETT REESE – DEADPOOL

I didn’t learn anything from DEADPOOL, but I do think that unfortunately Hollywood is trying to, like should they be making more R-rated movies or action movies or breaking the 4th wall and all these things. DEADPOOL existed because it wasn’t learning any lessons from any previous film. It was just on its own weird course. I feel like it’s really incumbent upon us on artists to not do what the studios do and analyze failures and successes and different elements inside them and start to either move away from those elements or use more of those elements because you’re chasing success or trying to avoid failure and just to chart your own path.

PAUL WERNICK – DEADPOOL

You need the passion to push that ball up the hill. Oftentimes it falls back on you and you have to have the fortitude and the passion and the love to keep pushing, because you will hear no a lot and it can crush you. But if you have that passion to not take no for an answer and to keep pushing, then somehow, someway you will get it done.

ERIC HEISSERER

Probably the biggest lesson I learned is that writing on spec can be really good therapy. It also encouraged me that I actually realized four of the last five specs I have written have female protagonists. It really is my sincere hope that at some time in the future the only way for me to get those kind of movies made is to write them on spec because I hope if they’re assignments, they go to women.

GETTING YOUR PROJECTS OUT THERE AND BREAKING IN:

KENNETH LONERGAN

I think just knowing what you want most out of a particular project and what you’re willing to give up for it, will equip you far better to field all the things that come at you while you try to get the movie made and when you’re tempted by someone saying, “Hey, we’ll make it for you and we love it,” and then after you sign the contract they say, “By the way, we want to change the ending,” which is what means most to you. If you know in advance that you’re not going to do that, that you’d rather not make the movie than change the ending, you’re in a much stronger position. You have negative power as a screenwriter. You have no positive power, but you can always say no, I don’t want to do it under these circumstances and knowing that can be really helpful.

BARRY JENKINS

I think the transition from student to professional has to be self-generated, especially in 2017. You just gotta write that amazing film. It’s better if you can go out and direct that amazing script as well, but it’s about self-generating. Take out a $100 or $1,000 and go make a film.

ALLISON SCHROEDER

I went to film school. When a lot of students got out, they just wanted to be a director. They wanted to be successful instantly. I don’t think that’s a reality. I was happy to learn and I was happy to write on that board in the writers’ room as a production assistant. I am proud I wrote MEAN GIRLS 2, because MEAN GIRLS 2 meant I could pay my rent. It was a wonderful experience. It’s okay to take some jobs to learn. They don’t have to all be prestigious. I just urge you to take the jobs. If you’re being hired to be a writer, that is one of the luckiest things in the world.

TODD BLACK, PRODUCER – FENCES

You gotta write. You have a computer, you have a yellow pad, go write and use your iPhone. Get some friends who are actors and go make a short film. You don’t need millions of dollars to do it. You just have to write something. Don’t wait for anybody. No one is going to offer it to you. I never understand when people say I’m waiting for the phone to ring. You’re going to be waiting a long time if you don’t generate it.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Rashad Raisani – Part Two

A series of interviews with hard-working writers –
by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

An alum of NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Rashad Raisani got his first writing job on the USA Network show BURN NOTICE where he rose from staff writer to co-executive producer. He also wrote for WHITE COLLAR and was executive producer on the NBC spy drama ALLEGIANCE. Rashad is currently developing projects as part of an overall deal with Universal Television.

WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET ASKED BY ASPIRING WRITERS?

How to get an agent is probably the number one question. The big secret about agents is they’re always there when they need you; they’re not there for you. Great agents are great. They’re invaluable really, but when you’re starting out, an agent is not going to help you. Even when they sign you, it’s going to be so much on you to get those first meetings.

I always try to encourage that the best way to get an agent is don’t care about getting an agent. They’ll find you when you’re ready. When you write them query letters or chase them around, I just have found that it doesn’t do you any good.

The better thing to do it to get to know writers who work in the business and develop relationships with them, whether it be just email correspondence or cocktails or lunches or you can work as an assistant or script coordinator or an intern. You make those kind of relationships, they’re the people who will then call or email their agent and say, hey, I’ve got this untested, but really promising writer, you should read them. Me calling my agent and saying, “Listen, you have to check this person out,” carries more weight than you advocating for yourself to an agent.

WHEN STAFFING, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A WRITER?

The first thing is the writing. The script has to in some way give me a pang of oh my goodness, I could never do that. There are so many scripts that do it, which is great.

The first bar is clearing that one. The second one, it really all boils down to preparation. Do people come into a meeting flatfooted? It’s a different version of Glen Mazzara’s advice to me, which was a lot of people come to a meeting and just wait for you to talk and say, “So, tell me about yourself.” They want you to drive it, but they don’t think about the fact that that showrunner has had to read 400 or 500 scripts, they’ve had to do 20 meetings.

They have so many pressures on them that the more you can alleviate it for them by subtly guiding the conversation, by having a great story about yourself that invites organic questions that they don’t have to think too hard about creating in their mind. They can say, “Oh, that’s cool, tell me about that.”

The other thing I try to recommend to people is, what they’re thinking about when they’re looking at you is: A) Is this someone I can sit in a room with for a long time and B) is this person going to be a font of ideas. The advice I give to people is prepare by reading non-fiction books about the subject that you’re going in on. Once you can show you have a little bit of mastery on the subject, it will instantly make them go, “Okay, good. This person knows more about it than I do. That’s a relief.”

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR A NEW WRITER WHEN THEY FIRST GET IN THE WRITERS’ ROOM?

With staff writers, especially first time staff writers, there’s two different camps. Some people say you should come in with guns blazing. You shouldn’t defer to anybody creatively, you should speak for yourself and then there are other people who say staff writers should be seen and not heard. I tend to favor being an outspoken writer, because I think the titles are very artificial in terms of co-executive producer versus staff writer versus story editor, but that said, I do think that as a staff writer you really don’t know anything about how the machine works, so I always encourage writers to take two or three days to observe the flow of the room and see how people talk and who talks over who and what the etiquette is and when you can tell an idea has died or when you can see that there’s a sparkle in the showrunner’s eye and that’s something to try and build on. There’s nothing wrong with not talking too much the first two days, but then once you get a flow, you have to just jump in.

The other thing is there’s a tendency, especially among junior writers, when they pitch something it’s often met with silence. The feeling is that people aren’t getting it or they’re waiting for you to say more, but they’re not. Often people are just processing what you said and so by continuing to talk, if they like your idea, you can talk them out of it and if they hate your idea, you’re just pouring gasoline on the fire.

Be pithy and succinct when you pitch, then back up and let the room digest it. If they like it, that’s great. If they don’t, then no big deal. I think people also get so in their own head about pitching that they think, oh, they didn’t like my idea, I suck, but people don’t get how rare someone who’s pitching ideas is. An original idea being pitched, even if it doesn’t work, it’s often very illuminating to what the idea needs to be and if somebody’s not doing the heavy lifting of throwing ideas out, then the room stalls and ultimately fails.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS AT THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?

To cultivate their love for what they are doing, because it’s so easy to focus on the results of their writing, whether it be get an agent or get a job or finish my script so I can go do something else. There’s always these external goals, the more you can try and get rid of those motivations to write, the better you’ll write, because then you’ll be moe present in your own writing. It is its own reward.

I think part of cultivating that is to really take time to celebrate your own writing. Whether you finish an act or finish a script or whatever it is, it’s always a big deal to have completed something. So whether it’s going out to a restaurant with somebody you like or having a drink or dessert, whatever it is to just take time to savor it, because as happy as you are about writing right now, especially if you haven’t broken through yet, that’s as happy as you’ll ever be about it. You’ll just get paid more and the pressure will be higher. That’s the only thing that is going to change.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Rashad Raisani – Part One

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

An alum of NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Rashad Raisani originally moved to Los Angeles with the goal of becoming a feature writer, but found television to be a much better fit. He got his first writing job on the USA Network show BURN NOTICE where he rose from staff writer to co-executive producer. He also wrote for WHITE COLLAR and was executive producer on the NBC drama ALLEGIANCE. Currently he is developing projects as part of an overall deal with Universal Television.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I think I have always known I wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. We moved around a lot because my dad was in the military. Between the ages of 3 and 10 we were living abroad, so the only connection I had to America, a place where I really didn’t have any memories of actually being, were the TV shows that were the same no matter which base we were living on.

When I’d move to a new place and feel really lonely or displaced because all my friends had changed over, I’d go back to movies and TV shows because they were the one source of comfort that stayed the same no matter where we lived.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY?

The first thing I did, because I had no other resources, was become an assistant to a literary manager. This guy had exceptional taste and had all these great writers. The first thing he said when I started working for him was, “I want you to read everything that all of my writers have written.”

He had this whole bookshelf full of scripts, so I just read all of them. I saved all the TV people for last because I had no interest in them or television, but the very last script in the entire bunch completely blew my mind and I can even remember where I was when I read it and screaming, “Holy shit,” on a plane when I read this moment. It was by this young story editor on a show called THE SHIELD and the guy’s name was Kurt Sutter. That’s when I started to say, “Wow, I’ve really been sucking it up in movies.” At that time I’d been out here for a about year and not only had I not gotten traction professionally, but artistically and creatively I was struggling with the form of features, specifically the second act of a movie. It was just eternally vexing to me.

When I read that SHIELD script, there was just something so intuitive about how they had broken the story. They had like four or five plots. When one of them started to peter out a little bit, they’d cut to another exciting one. I just thought this is a great way to tell stories. From that moment on I decided okay, I’m going to try TV.

WHERE DID THAT FIRST ASSISTANT JOB LEAD TO?

I kind of fell for all the trappings of the wrong things, meaning an expense account, an office and an assistant of my own. I started working as a literary manager/development executive for two years. On the positive side, I was working in television actively. We were trying to set up projects. We represented some real talent, but on the negative side for my own artistic development, I wasn’t writing. I didn’t write a word for about two years.

WHAT WAS A BIG TURNING POINT IN YOUR WRITING CAREER?

It was a confluence of a few things and kismet played a strange role. For example, when I was temping and unemployed, but was sending scripts out everywhere, I talked to my wife and I said, “Listen, I really think it would be worthwhile for me to be an assistant on a television show.” And she said, “Well, I get it, but you really need to now think about writing. You’ve done the assistant thing for years. It’s been four years and really I want you to rise on your own merits at this point with your own writing.”

We made a deal that there was one script I had read by a guy named Rand Ravich on a show called LIFE. I said if anything opens up, I don’t care if it’s sweeping the floors, I want to work on that show. I think the world of Rand Ravich’s writing and also that script. Wouldn’t you know it that completely out of the blue I get a phone call from Glen Mazzara, who was in THE SHIELD DVD that we watched. He had gotten my resume through a friend of a friend and said he needed an assistant. So I started working for Glen.

That was a big break, just to be working for a bunch of incredible writers. I ended up working for 3 co-executive producers, there was Glen Mazzara, Jonathan Shapiro and Marjorie David, all of whom were exceptional talents and had very different approaches to writing, so I was able to not only make relationships with those incredibly talented and generous people, but also sponge up all their different approaches to the craft.

Within two months of that, I got my first agent. That was another big break. That was because I had sent scripts out, even some of them nine months before, and they just sort of worked their way up at agencies. Within just a few weeks of starting to work on LIFE, I started to meet agencies. Then within a week of that, I got my first showrunner meetings.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST WRITING JOB?

BURN NOTICE was my first staff job. I got the job 3 weeks before the writers’ strike. My first Writers Guild meeting was the president of the Guild announcing that we have decided to strike. It was a big bummer, but at the same time at least I felt like being on a young show that had some real promise and I was also a diversity hire to the show so I was free, so I felt like at some point entertainment would have to resume. The strike would have to end and I would have a job waiting for me.

I used the strike to read as many books about spy games and stuff like that that BURN NOTICE was about so that when the writers’ room resumed, I could hopefully have some things to contribute.

WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE BREAKING IN?

One of the greatest pieces of advice was by Glen Mazzara after I came in from my first agency meeting. He said that every meeting you’ll step into, chances are they’ll ask you some version of tell me about yourself, but Glen said nobody wants the facts. They don’t want to know what year you graduated from college, what you majored in.

They want your story and they want to know that you’re the underdog in your own story and your story ideally answers all the factual questions that they need to know and it has some deep crisis/soul kind of moment to it and then it culminates with a triumph and ends up with you on their couch. You give somebody a story like that and you entertain them, you make them like you. They’re going to remember you, which will set you apart from the thousands of meetings they have that month to staff that show.

Coming soon – more from Rashad including what he looks for when hiring writers, advice on getting representation and tips on taking meetings.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with VJ Boyd

A series of interviews with hard-working writers –
by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Photo courtesy of the Austin Film Festival

Photo courtesy of the Austin Film Festival

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.

VJ Boyd came up through the assistant ranks before breaking in as staff writer on JUSTIFIED. He’s gone on to write for THE PLAYER and is producing his pilot THE JURY for ABC. He, along with writer Mark Bianculli and producer Carol Mendelsohn, recently sold the drama DOOMSDAY to ABC.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I started writing when I was eleven. I wrote a story that I thought was going to be a novel, but it ended up being 21 pages, which was a lot for me. It was basically just a rip-off of CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, but I thought from then on that I wanted to be some kind of writer and so I wrote a screenplay when I was 16. I started reading all the books at the library about how to write fiction, short fiction, how to write screenplays and kind of advanced from there.

EARLY ON, WERE THERE ANY TV SHOWS OR MOVIES THAT GOT YOU EXCITED ABOUT WRITING?

I can’t really remember what movies made me want to write movies when I was 16. I know there were a lot of movies I hadn’t seen, so I would read the screenplays, like I read the screenplay for THE USUAL SUSPECTS, PULP FICTION, RESERVOIR DOGS and also SHAWSHANK.

When I was much younger, STAR WARS was a huge thing for me. I knew I wanted to do something with movies and so for a long time I was like, “I’m going to do special effects.” Then what I realized was I just wanted to tell stories. In grad school, when I started leaning toward writing for movies and TV more heavily, THE SHIELD was a big inspiration. That’s probably the show that made me want to write for TV. Watching the behind the scenes stuff on their DVDs on how they broke story, I was like, “Oh, I can do that. I can write these kind of stories.”

WHAT ADVICE DID YOU GET ALONG THE WAY THAT REALLY HELPED YOU AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

Someone said, “If you can think of anything else you can do that you’d be happy doing other than writing, then you should go do that, because it’s so difficult to succeed at and there’s no guarantee you will succeed, even if you’re good and even if you do all the right things.” You may be a great writer and a great person, but you just don’t get the opportunity, so you have to really love it. I made the decision to move out to L.A. and do it and to stick with it because I couldn’t think of anything else that I’d be happy doing.

Also always be writing. If you’re a writer, you should be writing. If you haven’t written anything this year, maybe you’re not a writer or maybe you need to try to write something and see if you really love it as much as you thought you did.

When I was assistant for Graham Yost, season one of JUSTIFIED and then also on FALLING SKIES season one, when Graham had a script he needed to write, he went in his office and he wrote it and then he came out and it was done. It was a job. It’s important to remember to treat it like a job. It’s not always going to be perfect. You can’t sit around waiting for inspiration. You gotta set a timeframe and get it done.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INDUSTRY JOB?

I was a writers’ P.A. on the show THE BEAST, the Patrick Swayze show. I got that about a month after moving to L.A., which is a pretty quick timeframe. I was very lucky. This doesn’t work for everybody; in fact I don’t know anybody else who it’s worked for. For me, I cold called production companies when I saw that shows were getting picked up to series and I asked, “Hey, I’m looking for an assistant job, can I send my resume?” I ended up being able to send my resume to THE BEAST and they interviewed me and hired me.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST OPPORTUNITY TO WRITE FOR A SHOW?

I was an assistant season one of JUSTIFIED. Then season two, one of the staff writers left to go work on another show and so I asked my boss if he’d read my stuff. I really wasn’t thinking he’d actually staff me, but I thought maybe I’d get a freelance, which is much more realistic. He did read a couple of my scripts. He liked one of them and he actually hired me as a staff writer. It was a huge opportunity. It was very good timing and again I was lucky, but I was also prepared for the opportunity.

WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET FROM ASPIRING WRITERS?

I get a lot of questions about how important is it to have a manager. Getting a manager isn’t that important. I’ve never gotten jobs through my representation really. They’ve set up meetings for me, but I got my first job through coming up as an assistant. Networking and making contacts on your own is more important than desperately trying to get a manager.

WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR UP-AND-COMING WRITERS?

Keep writing. Write something new all the time. I would also say don’t be afraid of networking. There are a lot of people, especially if they’re not from New York or L.A., who see networking as this transactional thing, as being a fake friend. I’m pretending to be your friend so I can get something from you, but you know what it is, it’s mutually beneficial for both of you. Like you both are trying to do the same thing. We’re both trying to be TV writers. We’re both trying to get assistant jobs, whatever it is. We’re not pretending to be best friends, but we’re like, hey, we’ll keep in touch, maybe we’ll get drinks and keep up with each other’s career every month or so. If I’ve got a job and I hear about one, I’ll tell you and vice versa.

It’s not being fake. Networking is a thing and it’s okay. You kinda have to get over the fact that Hollywood is all about relationships and networking is a thing. Don’t take it personally when people want to give you their card for networking and you’re like, oh, I thought we were friends. You can still be friends, but everyone is trying to do the same thing and trying to get that advantage and if you have a problem with that you might want to write novels.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Kelly Jo Brick – Women Who Run The Room

IMG_0612

Photo courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild Foundation brought together The Women Who Run The Room, a panel of showrunners who discussed the ins and outs of running a television show. The evening highlighted their experiences through the years including the challenges they’ve faced, how they developed their management style and what they look for when building their rooms.

DEVELOPING A MANAGEMENT STYLE AS A SHOWRUNNER

I sort of climbed every rung so I’ve seen every level in the business, starting out as a PA and working my way up. I’ve worked with some remarkable showrunners and was most helped by the John Wells school of showrunning, having spent five years on ER. The way that he did it was a lot of delegating and trusting in your people and letting people experience and produce their episodes and be in editorial. I think that’s an effective way to get people to work all in, interested in learning and loyal to you. – Dee Johnson (ER, THE GOOD WIFE, NASHVILLE)

I learned from David Crane and Marta Kauffman who ran an incredibly democratic room and involved us at a low level as much as possible. I’m very direct about the studio said this, the network wants this. Here we’re all going to solve that problem. So I prefer a management style that is inclusive and isn’t hierarchical and people should stay with their scripts as long as possible. Alexa Junge (GRACE AND FRANKIE, UNITED STATES OF TARA)

One of my big management things for production was I went to my department heads and said you have to hire 50 percent women. I want my set 50 percent women. On the last show I was on, I got on the bus and it was me and 45 men. – S.J. Hodges (GUIDANCE, THE PLAYER)

PUTTING TOGETHER A WRITING STAFF

You really have to get the intel on the folks you’re hiring. I do a lot of calling around. I need to know if they’re going to be good in the room. Nobody has to do everything. You can be good in the room or you can bring an interesting point of view that I think the show needs. Can you write? Are you great in the room? Are you fast? Are you oppositional? I need to know those things. Then hopefully I put together the right chemistry so everyone gets along. – Dee Johnson

My first piece of advice is for when you’re interviewing for jobs. Be an active participant in the interview. Don’t kiss ass, but you do have to be engaged in here’s what I love about your show. Here’s where I think I connect with it. What do you think you’re going to bring? Be present. – Lizzy Weiss (SWITCHED AT BIRTH, UNDRESSED)

I don’t need any single writer to do everything. I’m on a show now that is very much a hybrid, there’s a romantic element, there’s a genre element, there’s a big historical/political element and I tell people if you can do one of those I’m going to love you. – Laurie McCarthy (REIGN, GHOST WHISPERER)

WRITING SAMPLES FOR STAFFING

When I’m hiring I really miss seeing spec scripts of other shows, because then I can look at the person’s writing, because that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking to see is it grounded, will they accidently sacrifice character for a joke. You’re looking for beautiful writing and logical, grounded thinking so that you can be intimate with a character and feel like you’re going on this journey with them as opposed to someone who is on the periphery of the characters and you don’t feel a love for the story and a love for the characters. That’s all incredibly hard to do when someone’s trying to think of a new series. – Laurie McCarthy

It really has shifted away from the spec and everything is an original pilot. I like reading original pilots, but I really like reading a spec too, because I need to know this person can have a voice that is unique, but work in the confines of existing material. Do they write to an act out? Can they function with this kind of structure? I love plays and all that stuff too, but it doesn’t necessarily tell me you can write in a structure and you can emulate whatever voice needs to be emulated. – Dee Johnson

You have to then sell that writer to the people above you. You have to convince them you want to hire this person. So do they have a sample that spoon-feeds to the person that’s reading them that this is the person who can write on this particular show? That’s been hard because a lot of writers I like and know can do very well, don’t have the right sample. – S.J. Hodges

I choose a lot on ideas and personality. I used to look for soul because my show has a lot of soul. It is like dating. I want someone who is articulate in the room, has a different perspective than me. I think some people prefer someone who’s a strong writer; I just want a bunch of people who can break it all. – Lizzy Weiss

HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN THE ROOM

I care about the room, but I care more about somebody who can take notes, problem solve story problems and come back to me with solutions. If you can do that, you will work for years. – Alexa Junge

Speak with confidence. There’s still a problem I see with some women who say, “This is really a stupid idea.” I’ve never seen a man do that. In fact they’ll sell it as, “Here’s is a crazy idea.” Try not to apologize, because you’re coming from a place of weakness. Try to remember to speak from a place of confidence. You’re here for a reason. Don’t apologize. – Lizzy Weiss

DIVERSITY

I think you need a nudge sometimes. You need to be pushed by someone. It’s important in this time to say, “Come on, you need to do this.” – Lizzy Weiss

I find that the level of discourse is disturbingly low on this point. In the theater, there’s a raging conversation going on about can plays that we’ve seen be played by people of color. The answer is yes. We live in a diverse time. It’s incumbent on us to take that seriously and make that happen. – Alexa Junge

There’s a lot of hands on work that you need to do to once you do reach out to people who are diverse or to someone who is just breaking in. I’ve been on other shows where female directors had a really hard time on set. The DPs found them very difficult to work with and female leads often couldn’t take notes from them. I was incredibly determined that on this show, because we started with a lot of relatively unknown actors and I also kill people really quickly, I was like everyone’s replaceable including me and I would make a lot of noise on set if I felt like the DP was not supporting the director. Now we have at least half female directors. – Laurie McCarthy

The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Michael Peterson

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

IMG_1650

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.

Michael Peterson moved to L.A. with the goal of being involved in film, initially leaning toward directing. Once in California, he began writing features with his brother. Although several projects sold, none were ever made. At his wife’s suggestion, he transitioned to television and found the collaboration and camaraderie of the writers’ room more suited for him. Michael’s first TV show was BONES where through the years he has risen from staff writer to showrunner.

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON QUESTIONS YOU’RE ASKED BY ASPIRING WRITERS?

How do I do it? How do I break in? What will lead to that break? What will get me an agent, a manager? I’m a big believer in the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour theory. You need to have many ideas. Don’t be precious with your ideas. I’ve met people who’ve written just one script over the course of five years. You can’t do that. You’re holding it too dear. Just write all the time. Don’t find an excuse to not write.

WERE THERE ANY TV SHOWS OR MOVIES THAT INSPIRED YOU AS A WRITER?

I was a child of Spielberg. That was a huge influence to me. Also my dad was always good at finding interesting things that most people didn’t watch and introducing me to stuff.

In college I changed my schedule around because I found out the library had these places where you could just sit down, put on earphones and watch a movie. So I would schedule my classes and have two to three hour breaks in between each class so that I could watch a movie in between classes. I worked my way through every list I could find. The top 100 movies of all time. Every single one. I wanted to know everything. That’s been great. Not everybody has a real encyclopedic knowledge of their own medium, so it’s useful. I would recommend to everybody. Just see everything you possibly can. It helps.

WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED WHEN YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

The first time in the writers’ room I was basically told that you have two times to pitch it and you gotta shut up the third time. Two strikes and you’re out. The person running the room at the time told me very bluntly, she said, “Michael, shut the #%@! up.” It was the best advice I was ever given. Because there are times where you just have to give up or come at it from a different angle. You can’t just beat people down into submission.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?

I didn’t know anybody. At the time my brother was living in San Francisco doing video games and he knew one person. This guy had been a producer on one of the STAR WARS films. I went up and met with this guy and asked if he had any advice for me. He said, “Offer your services for free. Someone will hire you and then once you prove yourself, you’ll start to get paid.”

So I came down to L.A. and basically went around offering my services. I met at this company, Valdoro Entertainment which is Steven de Souza’s company, he wrote 48 HOURS, DIE HARD, DIE HARD 2. He was pretty much the hottest writer in town.

It was very funny, I was waiting for the interview and the woman in charge of the office had to get up and take care of another candidate. The phone started ringing. I had seen her answering the phone, “Valdoro Entertainment.” So I just picked up the phone myself, I’m like, “Valdoro Entertainment,” and it was Steven on the line. We talked for a minute and I took down the message. The office manager came back and I go, “By the way Steven called, here’s the message.” She got a kick out of that and the next thing you know, I was hired.

That was my first real foray. I felt great. I wasn’t getting paid, but I’d been in L.A. for four days and I got a job working for a big writer and learned a ton. I was there for like 2 ½ years.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR TRANSITION FROM FEATURES TO TV.

The transition was inspired by my wife who just said, “Let’s go get a steady job, that seems like a nice way to go.”

I was actually feverish and sitting there watching MONK one day and I was mad. I go, “This is an idea I would have come up with, the obsessive-compulsive detective. It’s as obvious as the criminal who solves crimes because he knows everything.” Then I’m like, all right and I started typing at that moment. So that’s what I wrote. It was basically WHITE COLLAR before WHITE COLLAR came out. WHITE COLLAR actually sold two weeks after mine. We had different takes, but it sold, so it was great. That was my big break.

It was the best month of my life. I got married. I was in Bora Bora and my agent sent me an email saying you have a meeting the day you come back. I flew back and went to 20th that afternoon then went to the movies, by the time we came out, it had sold, but it never got made.

20th wanted me to write one more thing for them so they introduced me to a bunch of different showrunners including Hart Hanson. We hit it off, but it was just really for him to mentor me. We were working back and forth and he was like, I’d offer you a job if I could, but I can’t. It’s the middle of the season. It’s impossible.

I was ready to quit. I was done with the business. I was really at the point where I had enough sales that it felt decent. I wanted a family. I wanted a house, a mortgage. I wanted to feel like an adult. I was really just done and my wife told me to stick it out a little bit longer. We stuck it out a little bit longer and I got the call from Hart saying, “You start Monday.” I don’t know how they found budget or whatever else. They brought me in and just threw me in immediately. I’m the weird example of I started as a staff writer and now I’m the showrunner.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS LOOKING TO BREAK IN?

My big thing is find a good editor. Someone you can trust. Someone who can look at your material and give you good advice. I’ve met people who had a writers’ group where it was a great group and every single one of those people got staffed because it was that good.

Find somebody who doesn’t really need to be encouraging and can just give you the harsh notes. You’re not doing them any favor if you give them too many congratulations.

The tough thing is when you’re starting out; your script doesn’t have to be as good as a staff writer’s script who is already on a show. It needs to be better. Just keep making it until it’s absolutely fantastic, it stands out and it’s got a voice. Then go to the next script immediately, because you need a lot. You need a lot of ships; one of them will get to port, but send out a lot.

Writers Guild Foundation – Breaking In At Any Age

IMG_1962

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild Foundation recently partnered with the Academy Education and Nicholl Fellowship Programs for a special event on how to break into the industry as a writer of any age.

Panelists including Ronald Bass (RAIN MAN, ENTRAPMENT), Douglas Jung (STAR TREK BEYOND, CONFIDENCE), Peter Landesman (CONCUSSION, KILL THE MESSENGER), Meg LeFauve (INSIDE OUT, THE GOOD DINOSAUR) and Linda Woolverton (ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, MALEFICENT) shared their breaking in experiences and discussed the challenges up and coming writers are facing.

BREAKING IN

At the very beginning, there’s no pathway to this stuff. There’s no permission slip. It’s about understanding when an opportunity strikes and a door slithers open and really just not hearing no for an answer. — Peter Landesman

You just never know where it’s going to come from. It can be out of your hands in a certain way. I think that’s actually a good thing. — Douglas Jung

Do you want to write or do you want to be a writer? If writing is what you do and you’re excited about it, you get up early in the morning and you just lay it out there and you get to write, then you really got a shot. It will see you through it so many bad times, so many insults, so much failure, because you get to do it. If you hate doing it, but you just think you can make a good living doing it or get to hang out with actresses, have people know who I am or whatever, do something else. You’re doomed. — Ronald Bass

BUILDING YOUR SKILLS AS A WRITER

One thing that I got from film school that continues to help me still today is the idea of how to take criticism and how to give criticism. It seems like an easy thing to do. To have the skill set, to be able to do that and to separate your emotions and the natural defenses you have. That was really big. — Douglas Jung

How are you going to learn? You go and get 50,000 scripts of films you’ve seen and writers you admire. You read them and you steal them. You steal the ideas, the techniques, the decisions they made. That’s how you learn, because then you’re teaching yourself. — Ronald Bass

I think the best way to learn to write is to write as much as possible. Write eight scripts and write five, six, seven, re-writes of each of those eight, because by the sixth re-write you’re going to be like, “Oh, this is what I’m doing.” It’s going to take that many rewrites to even know what you’re doing. And read as many scripts as possible. That is the ground zero of learning to be a writer, doing it and writing and reading as many scripts as you can. — Meg LeFauve

TAKING MEETINGS

It’s really important to be curious about the world and to have a hunger. What’s in this room that’s drawing your attention; that makes your brain light up? That makes me think that you’re more than just this particular story you’re telling me right now because you’re trying to impress me. Is this a person who has a fluid mind? Are you hungry and want to know more about the world and tell a story about it? That person I want to be around, I want to share the energy of that human being. — Linda Woolverton

The best thing as a writer is if you can engage that executive in a conversation. You have to stay open in that meeting and not just walk in and be, “I’m pitching my story,” because it will flow and move around. They’re going to ask you questions. If you stay open and be honest about what you’re interested in and passionate about, you’ll find someone like-minded. — Meg LeFauve

PITCHING

It’s an absolute skill we should be teaching in classes, because you have to feel the room, you have to feel your audience. I did a lot of performing for kids. The performances for kids really helped me with the pitch, because I can feel, with kids, they don’t care. I have to keep them, I have to lower my voice, get them to lean forward. All that stuff I use when I go out to pitch. — Linda Woolverton

You have to be genuinely enthusiastic with the story you’re telling. You have to find the part of it that you love and the part of the performance that you love. You have to say it a million times to yourself so that you can say it in a very relaxed, conversational way, but you know, like a performer, where the notes are, you know where you want to hit it and really make them believe you love it, because you do love it. If you don’t love that story, don’t go in and pitch it. — Ronald Bass

A pitch is like a song and it’s gotta be musical. Leave your notes at home, I beg you. Here’s the thing, you have a few different versions of the song in your head. If it’s a warm room, you do the opera. If you gotta get the hell out of there because it’s bad, you do the one minute ditty. — Peter Landesman

WRITING AT ANY AGE

If you’re older, the bar is really high in terms of your work. It has to be really, really good, because it’s a young industry. They like young voices. They want freshness, but if the work is great, they don’t care. — Meg LeFauve

Screenwriter is my fourth career, directing is my fifth. And I found that I just rattle less easily about little things. I get nervous less. I have children and perspective and I’ve seen death and I traveled all over the world professionally before I became a screenwriter. I think it’s like anything else, it’s perspective and context. Everybody in the industry wants to feel safe, meaning they’re safe in your hands, you know you’re safe in their hands, they’re safe with story, they feel safe because they think you know what you’re doing. I think that level of maturity is an exponential additive to that. — Peter Landesman

CREATING A STRONG NARRATIVE DRIVE IN YOUR SCRIPT

What does character want and what is the hurt that is driving it?  What are in the obstacles in the way of it? What are they going to learn about themselves in the process that’s going to move us as an audience that we can relate to? — Linda Woolverton

The most important thing a writer needs to do is understand what their story is. What they’re dying to say about their world, their life, about living. If you can find that, then that will inject whatever you write with the kind of energy that is musical and infectious and good. — Peter Landesman

What are you afraid of? Push into the script where you feel the most resistance, because there might be amazing juice under there. — Meg LeFauve

RE-WRITING

You have to expect that the story that’s in you is going to take ten drafts, so get going. You’ve got ten drafts to write before it starts to really get good and gel. — Meg LeFauve

There’s an internal clock that tells you when you’re not really changing it in a way that’s improving the script for you and it’s kind of where you want it to be. Keep writing new scripts also. If you write several different things, you will learn, you will have more ideas, more things to sell, more confidence as a writer. Too many people stop at the first thing or the first two things and don’t keep generating new ideas. — Ronald Bass


The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.