TV WRITING: Your First Years In The Writers Room

Photo Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

by Kelly Jo Brick

From finding representation to landing the first staff writing gig and navigating the writers’ room, everyone’s path to breaking in is different. The Writers Guild Foundation brought together Polina Diaz (FULLER HOUSE), Kay Oyegun (THIS IS US, QUEEN SUGAR), Robert Padnick (THE OFFICE, MAN SEEKING WOMAN) and Britta Lundin (RIVERDALE) to talk about the highlights and challenges of their first years writing for television.

WRITING THE SCRIPT TO LAND YOUR FIRST JOB

Write the script you’re really scared to write, because it’s probably the one most personal to you and will resonate the most with other people. It doesn’t matter if nobody’s going to buy it or it’s too expensive. Just write what you want to for your sample.

BUILDING YOUR NETWORK

It’s totally fine if you move to Los Angeles without knowing anybody, you’re just going to meet those people naturally. Work backwards from what you have and build on that. Do you have friends who are in the entertainment business? Do you have friends who have friends in the industry? Just be really thoughtful.

Meet people who you maybe want to be friends with. It’s so not schmoozing people at a mixer and handing them your business card. It’s like going to a birthday party and talking to someone and learning about them and caring about them. Later maybe they’ll be like, oh, I like your project, maybe I want to read your script. That’s the kind of networking that’s going to be most helpful.

Go out to drinks once or twice a week just to chat with people and see what’s up with their lives and exchange scripts. You meet a lot of people through writing groups and reading their work. Doing that long enough, you build up a group of friends and people who care about you as a person and want to see you succeed.

If you’re a comedy writer, there are definitely comedy communities that you can be part of like Upright Citizens Brigade or Groundlings. While you’re doing that, do things to get noticed, Twitter feeds, web series. People notice funny people all the time. There are ways to stand out if you’re just really creative or working really hard at it.

MAKING THAT FIRST IMPRESSION WITH REPS – IS YOUR MATERIAL NOT GOOD OR ARE YOU SENDING IT TO THE WRONG PERSON?

The question of how good I am versus how people are receiving me is going to haunt us for all of our careers. One thing you should have in your life is really honest critique partners who will tell you the truth. Hopefully you have a writing group or a friend who will be like, this needs more work or this isn’t your script, you have to write something else. If you have people who seem really smart and know what they’re talking about and they say it’s good, then maybe it’s good and you’re just sending it to the wrong person. It’s important to do your research and know what kind of stuff that manager or agent represents or what their other clients are doing. If they only do genre stuff and you’re sending out a romantic comedy, it might not be the right match.

It’s really important to know your brand. Before you think of yourself as a brand or as a business, which you really are, you have to know what you love and what excites you. Hone in on your craft and make sure what you’re writing is solid. Send the best thing you have. You have to fight for it. If they’re not into you, they’re not into you. Move on to the next person.

THE CHALLENGES OF WRITING FOR A TV SHOW BASED ON A BOOK

You change so many things and you move things around. You apologize to the author constantly, because so much of the book is changed. We try to be truthful to the core essence of the book and also be respectful to the fans who read and loved the book. You do your best and try to be truthful to it, but you don’t have to be married to it.

HOW TO ACT IN THE ROOM AS A NEW WRITER

Read the room. Am I talking too much? Does anyone look annoyed by how much I’m talking? Do they look annoyed by how little I’m talking? Definitely when you’re a staff writer, it depends on the showrunner and the staff for how much you should speak.

Some people don’t really care about the politics, they say if you have a good idea, just say it. For some shows there definitely is a hierarchy and you have to read that out. When you’re a staff writer, you’re never going to go in the room and be like, I know what the A story is or this is what your show is. For comedy, you’re there to pitch jokes when they’re stuck on something or pitch ideas, but don’t command the room.

Be overly prepared. That is very helpful. You are a facilitator of someone else’s vision. Know the world, at least to an extent of what they’re planning on doing. If the show deals with a specific subject, research it. Nobody else, especially the higher ups, wants to do that work. Do it on your own without anyone asking. When it comes up in the conversation, you’re able to bring the world there.

Different shows have different processes. Some like story pitches that have a beginning, middle and end of a pitch. That can be overwhelming for certain people. It’s a skill you have to continue to develop. Sometimes your pitch doesn’t work, but at least there’s something in the space and world you did that allows for another idea to be generated off of that.

Find a senior writer in the room, be friends with that person and just check in off the record to ask for feedback. Different rooms have different vibes and landmines to watch out for. Have someone that seems sympathetic. Just pull them aside during coffee or lunch and be like, hey, how am I doing. Usually there’s a sympathetic soul that totally gets it, but they’re not going to give advice out of the blue if you don’t ask.

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.

 

Murder She Wrote – Women Who Write Crime

Photo Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

by Kelly Jo Brick

With approximately 60% of TV crime procedural viewership and 80% of crime literature being consumed by females, women have a very strong interest in crime drama. The Writers Guild Foundation explored this passion for crime procedurals and serial crime dramas by bringing in three highly successful female writers and creators to share their experiences in the genre.

Diane Frolov (CHICAGO MED, BOSCH, THE SOPRANOS), Judith McCreary (NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, SECRETS AND LIES, LAW & ORDER: SVU) and Chris Levinson (TYRANT, TOUCH, LAW & ORDER) spoke candidly about the craft, challenges, research and influences of writing TV crime drama.

WHY WOMEN LOVE THIS GENRE

We hide ourselves and observe and plot because we can’t always get to places directly. There’s an identification with looking at characters and how they get what they want.

A lot of it has to do with that we are by far mostly the victims and we’re trying to learn what not to do. It’s interesting because on SVU, the largest audience was girls 12 to 17. They were consuming the show and it was perhaps was in order to go that’s not going to happen to me.

IN TV PILOTS, WHY IS IT THAT WOMEN TEND TO BE THE VICTIMS

In pilots, there’s a shorthand. If you discover a dead body in the opening, you don’t want to be raising questions that deviate from your pilot story. So if it was a man, that already raises different questions as far as breaking the story. Who was able to overpower him? It’s not the norm. It’s not what we’re used to. We’re used to finding a dead woman in a field, in a trunk or a refrigerator. So in a certain way we’ve grown so accustom to it that we can just move past it. It says a lot that we can find a dead, mutilated woman and it doesn’t give us pause.

EVER WRITE SOMETHING WHERE YOU SAY, WHERE DID THAT COME FROM IN ME? AM I OKAY? SHOULD I GO TO THERAPY?

You discover places in yourself that you hadn’t looked at before. Experiencing that and being on the set with that can be very hard. When you actually write something on the page and, oh, this is fun. When you’re on set and you know it’s pretend, but it is still going on in front of you, you can feel really revolted.

HOW TO SWITCH GEARS BETWEEN STYLES OF SHOWS

A lot of what we write are mysteries even if they’re not “mystery, mysteries.” You’re still creating the same frame of what is this about, who is this person, what do they want and you’re asking those same questions. Those are the shows that really pull you in when they have those mysteries going. It’s not a big jump.

TIPS ON STRUCTURING A PROCEDURAL

You need drive. You have your dead body. You need to discover things about your dead body. You need people who care about that person being dead. You need to have the drive to solve whatever the case may be, but also make the audience care as much about that dead body as the people who are reflecting on who that person was. That is the difficult thing to do.

You have to do something to connect with the audience or you lose them and they’ll say, “Who cares.” It’s one thing FORENSIC FILES does very well. They take real cases and as you listen to the people who work on the case, you can see why they cared so much even though they have many other cases to do.

NAVIGATING BEING THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM

You’re often going to have to fight to be heard. Remember by being in the room, you’ve been invited to the table and have earned that seat. It is without a doubt harder, but don’t let it deter you.

GROWING YOUR WRITING CAREER

If you want to write, produce or direct, film school isn’t necessarily the way to do it. Being a PA or assistant and working your way up is the best training you’ll ever get. Because film school, when they take your $100,000 or more, is not going to give you the benefit of working for peanuts while learning so much by being on sets and in the offices discovering how things work.

What’s the pecking order? What are you supposed to do? You’re meeting all the people who can give you your next job and your next job and your next job. Pretty soon you’ve learned it all.

HOW TO PITCH A PROCEDURAL

Leading with character is always wise. Go in and tell a personal story, why do I want to do this show, why this idea. If you make it personal, already they’re leaning in. Then pitch the tease. It should be exciting and it should whet their appetite. Then talk a little bit about the show and walk through the characters. After that, walk through the pilot story.

Have a pitch no longer than 20 minutes. If they have questions, you have done your job. With cable they expect you to have the season mapped out. They expect you to really know where you’re going. Once you’ve done that, they’ll ask how can you get us to a season two. Go in knowing. If it’s a procedural, know your rules.

KEEPING VILLAINS INTERESTING

A big pet peeve for the speakers is when you have a villain who is just crazy. You have to look at your villain the same way as you look at your lead. They need to be just as interesting. What makes that person behave the way that they do in the same way as what makes your lead behave the way that they do, they’re human. They’re the hero in their own story. Keep that in mind.

GETTING THE FACTS AND PROCEDURES RIGHT WHEN WRITING CRIME

Research, research, research and read real cases. You can use that as a basis for your writing. There are textbooks you can buy including Practical Guide to Homicide Investigation and Practical Guide to Sex-Related Homicide Investigation. Some police departments have programs for civilians where you can drive with officers and learn procedures like how you enter a house and how you do a variety of things as a police officer or investigator. It’s a great way to learn it so you can visualize it when you’re writing.

You must get the law right. Before you get it right, get your story up to speed. Get a great story then you can always go back and find the accurate procedural elements to it.

 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.

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.

MAKING THE CUT: 10 TIPS FROM WRITING FELLOWSHIP WINNERS

Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild Foundation brought together participants from several prestigious writing programs including the Nicholl Fellowship, NBC’s Writers on the Verge, the Disney/ABC Writing Program, Humanitas New Voices and the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. Panelists including Brandon Easton (Disney/ABC Writing Program), Brian Anthony (Writers on the Verge), Greta Heinemann (CBS Writers Mentoring Program & Humanitas New Voices), Andrew Lanham (Nicholl Fellowship) and Michael Werwie (Nicholl Fellowship) shared highlights and tips from their experiences both applying to and participating in these fellowships.

1 – Fellowships are just the start.

It’s important to remember that if you place in one of the fellowships, it’s just the beginning of a really long road, not the end. It feels momentous when it happens because you’ve been working so hard for a number of years, but it’s just a step. Use it as that, because it’s really hard to find those when you’re trying to break in. It’s the beginning of a much longer road and the harder road in certain ways as far as this happened, but it’s really not a big thing in the context of the industry at large. People are patting you on the back and they’re giving you all these compliments, although really it doesn’t translate directly into a career. Even if you get a job or two out of it, that is not a career. It’s not time to take your foot off the gas, it’s time to step down on it.

2 – They are not a magic bullet.

Celebrate the moment, but realize it’s not a single day thing. What you put into it, is what you get out of it. You can get one moment where you get a big accolade or you get a lot of recognition from something, but ultimately it’s the talent of the writing that’s going to determine whether or not the next step happens. Some people do get representation or staffed on a show. Some get one and not the other, some get neither, but getting in one of these programs is a huge step forward. They open the doors and it’s your responsibility do the most you can with the opportunity.

3 – Have a wealth of experiences and knowledge that can inform your writing. 

The fellowships are looking for someone who has a deep well to draw from, some other life that you’ve led before, and they’re looking for the ability to play nice with others.

4 – Make your script stand out to the reader.

The people who are reading your script have read so many scripts they get numb after they read like 5 or 6 of them and are looking for something that makes them feel. Make your script more emotional, something that’s going to elicit more of a feeling from a reader. If you write comedies, try to write a dramedy and if you write horror movies, try to write something a little more psychological or dark.

5 – Build a peer network.

It’s important when you’re going through this process to stick together with other people who are going through it with you, because those people are at the same level as you and are going through the same things. You need an outlet, someone who understands. If your close friends are struggling writers, there’s only so much they’d be willing to tolerate when you’re having what seems to them as champagne problems.

6 – Take advantage of all opportunities that come with these programs while you’re in them.

The TV game is so much about building relationships and getting to know people, so while you have access to executives and other creatives, make sure to reach out, grab coffee or lunch and get to know them.

7 – Don’t look at diversity programs as a trap.

Some people have concerns about the possibility of being categorized as a diverse writer. Look at these programs as an opportunity. It’s a foot in the door, then it’s up to you from there to you to present on the page and as a person.

8 – The notes process can be key to improving not only your script, but also yourself as a writer.

Giving good notes is just as important as receiving good notes, because it helps develop your own objectivity. The more objective you can be with your own work, the more honest you can be with yourself about whether or not something is working. When you start working professionally, being a diagnostician is half the job. If you’re going out on feature rewrites, you’re diagnosing what isn’t working, if you’re in the TV room it’s how can you make this better. Developing that muscle is really important too.

9 – Can other contests help your writing career?

If you have a feature, you should be submitting to the Austin Film Festival’s competition every year. Austin’s one of the best festivals for screenwriters. They’re all about the writer. You’ll get representation if you place there and you can send your script in by genre, so you can win for sci-fi or comedy or other categories. As for smaller contests, any kind of publicity is great, so if it gets you read, who knows where that could lead to, but keep your expectations realistic. There are no-name contests that have launched careers, but the benefits of those are mostly just getting read and practice.

10 – If you haven’t won a fellowship, there are other ways to leverage your writing.

Cold queries are an option. It’s not very efficient, but things can happen because of it. There are many resources online to figure out email structures, management companies and such. Let agents come to you, but query managers. Producers can be pretty approachable too. It’s all a long game of research to figure out who are the right people to target for your type of writing. Also, there are no small victories, hold on to the accolades you get along the way and make sure to keep them as part of your resume. It gives you validation and puts you ahead of the rest.

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.

SUBLIME PRIMETIME 2016 – Writing Advice From Emmy-Nominated Writers

Photo courtesy of Michael Jones/WGAW

Photo courtesy of Michael Jones/WGAW

by Kelly Jo Brick

Sublime Primetime, an annual event presented by the Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety, hosted several of this year’s Emmy-nominated writers who discussed the inspirations for their nominated episodes, the importance of research and realism in the stories they tell, how they got their first breaks and the need for greater diversity both on the screen and behind the camera.

These Emmy-nominated writers shared with TVWriter.com their advice for writers who are just starting out in the business.

Joel Fields (THE AMERICANS) – Write a lot and read a lot. I remember once when I was having a moment in my career where I was struggling, I was talking to my agent about it and he gave me some great advice. He said, “Keep writing.” I think that’s what it’s all about. Find what you’re passionate about and the stories you want to tell and tell them.

Joe Weisberg (THE AMERICANS) – Something I observed is how important it is to not feel like you’ve got this one project and that’s the thing you’re doing. It’s great to focus on one project until you’re done. It’s not that you need to be writing three things simultaneously, but once you’re done writing something, usually you go on to something else right away. It’s not like you need to wait and see if that project is going to be made into a show in order to start writing something else. I used to write novels and sometimes you’d spend years on something and take a break for a couple years. It was just a different type of thing. The world of television is really great to just keep moving.

Scott Alexander (THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY) – My best advice is to write something that you want to see. Don’t write something that you think you can sell or something that you think will be popular in the marketplace. We wrote movies that we wanted to see. That’s sort of how we broke through.

Larry Karaszewski (THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY) – My advice to up-and-coming writers is to always write something that you want to see. That sounds silly to say, but a lot of people try to write to the marketplace, like that movie came out last Friday, I should write a movie like that. I’m a big believer in write the movie you want to see. Write the movie that if you opened a newspaper and saw the ad for it, you would be excited, you’d be the first person in line to see it. Hopefully if you do that, someone else is going to feel that way and if for some reason it doesn’t happen, at least you followed the thing that you really wanted to do.

Alex Gregory (VEEP) – I can’t even imagine how different it is for young writers now. When I started out it was very simple. You wrote sitcom specs, you got them to a friend who had an agent, the agent’s assistant would read them and pass them to the agent. If they liked it, then they’d bring you in and represent you. Now I don’t even know how it works. I would suspect the best thing you can do is make short internet films that show your voice, because that’s something that doesn’t take money. You don’t need to wait for people’s permission. You don’t need to have contacts. You don’t need to get it to a friend. Ultimately, television has now just become long form cinema. It used to be with a four camera comedy, there was a certain rhythm that you really needed to show you could mimic. Single camera comedies without laugh tracks are basically movies and so if you can write for a movie, you can essentially write for TV now. It’s a lot more fluid of a situation.

Peter Huyck (VEEP) – Move to Los Angeles. That’s the first step. You’d like to think a brilliant script from anywhere in the world can get you attention, but you probably need to be here. So many of my friends got their breaks because they were working in the industry at a very, very low level. So if you start as an intern, a dog walker, a nanny, whatever it is, once you get that foot in the door, a lot of people are very nice and will help you and support you and read your material. So don’t be afraid to take a job that you’re not particularly thrilled about if it’s for the right person.

Marti Noxon (UnREAL) – To me the best advice always is that plot should always serve character. Sometimes I think when you’re starting off, you get caught up in making a plot that’s really unique and creative, but unless the characters are really strong and you really care about them, it won’t have the same impact. So for me, when I started working on BUFFY, what was so great about that experience is that all those stories came from character and then the monsters and the big bads and all that, is what grew out of character-based story. I find the writers who really work from that place are a lot more interesting.

Sarah G. Shapiro (UnREAL) – I think it’s really good for everybody to take responsibility to educate themselves as much as possible. I know from a lot of other established writers that when younger or beginning people reach out asking for advice, it’s really hard if that advice is readily available. It’s really better if you come with specific questions. One thing that I always advise is there’s a podcast series called The Children of Tendu and I sort of say I’d be happy to have coffee with you, but listen to the whole series first, because there’s so much information available out there. Read the dramatic writing books, do everything you can, educate yourself as much as you can, so that when you come to ask for mentorship, it’s really specific, like I finished my hour pilot, I feel like it needs a trim, could you look at it. People who have created shows and such, we are so ungodly busy, that while we want to help people who are coming up, it’s a lot easier if it’s a bite size piece of help.

Alex Rubens (KEY & PEELE) – I’ve jokingly said that the best way to break in is to have your best friend from kindergarten be friends with someone who ends up getting his own show, which is how I broke in. More seriously, I think it’s a risky choice that you make because you have to make it, because it’s what you care about. It’s how you want to live your life. For those of us who do this, whether we have broken in or are trying to, the common ground is that we value this extremely highly in life. It’s some meaning of life stuff, just devoting yourself. If it’s something that you care about that much, then you care about it that much and you devote your life to it.

Carolyn Omine (THE SIMPSONS) – I really think the internet is the way to go these days. There’s so many different kinds of comedy and the best way to show your kind of comedy is to be able to produce your own things and put it up on the internet. It’s a great way now. Also, the best advice I ever got, I think is that no matter what you write, if you’re writing something as a job, never write down to it, always write the very best version of whatever of it. Always do the very best.


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

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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.

Writers Guild Foundation – Breaking In At Any Age

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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.