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.

Frank Spotnitz on Creating Complex TV Series

frank spotnitzFrank Spotnitz
(photo by Glen Golightly)

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild Foundation recently hosted an evening with Frank Spotnitz as he shared his experiences and insights from his time writing for a variety of TV series including THE X-FILES, HUNTED, STRIKE BACK, ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION as well as taking us into the world of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, an Amazon series he has written, executive produced and developed. TVWriter.com’s Contributing Editor, Kelly Jo Brick, was there to bring you highlights from the event.

ADVICE FOR WRITERS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREER

My advice would be to have faith in themselves, to not get discouraged, to keep working hard. To know that you are a writer whether anybody’s paying you to write or not. And to be patient because it takes time to get your craft down. The only way to do it is to keep at it.

HOW HE GOT INTO WRITING

I think if you’re a writer there’s something wrong and I say that in the nicest possible way. Something has happened that is not good. It’s made you decide you should spend a long section of your life alone in a room staring at a screen. Why would you do that? There were some things that were not terribly satisfying in my life and part of that was moving around a lot as a child, which I think forced me to be sort of self-sufficient and it’s probably one of the reasons why I lived in my own head a lot. And I had parents who didn’t supervise my television watching.  So I watched thousands of hours, I watched everything.

HOW HE GOT HIS JOB ON THE X-FILES

I moved from Paris back to L.A. to go to film school. Before I started AFI, I was invited to join this book group and in this group were some really interesting people. One of them wrote TV movies for Disney and his name was Chris Carter. So I was in this book group for about two years. We’d meet every few months, read classic books and talk about them over dinner. Chris was a really nice guy, really smart. Then the book group came to an end. I finished film school and I’m watching TV one Friday night and oh, it’s THE X-FILES and Chris Carter, the guy from my book group had written the show. This is pretty good, so I kept watching.

Then toward the end of the first season, a friend of mine, who I’d known since I was ten years old, who also moved out here to be a writer, called me and said, “Frank, don’t you know that guy, Chris Carter?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, I’d like to write some episodes of THE X-FILES, could you call him for me and see if he’d hear my ideas?” Wow, this was really awkward. I’d never even called him to say congratulations on the show. I’m gonna call and ask a favor for a friend? But I had known him since I was ten. So I called. Chris takes my call and he goes, “Nah, I won’t hear your friend’s idea, but if you have an idea.”

It was easy to come up with ideas. I had watched every episode. So I go in, I thought it would just be him, and it was him and two or three other producers, rather intimidating. I pitched these three ideas and he shot them all down. So I left with my tail between my legs. Then like six weeks later, he calls me and says, “I didn’t buy any of your ideas, but they were all good. I’m losing two of my writers, how would you like to come on staff?”

That’s how it happened. I had not written for television, I was just out of film school, completely unqualified, replacing Glen Morgan and Jim Wong. Nothing could be more ridiculous. But I did have an immediate connection to the show and he was the kind of boss who gave you far more responsibility than he should have. So literally on the third day I was there, he sent me to the editing room to fix an episode. The episode was not working, so Frank, you go in and fix it. You’re out of film school. You’ve never worked on a television show before, go in there and fix it. Then he did the same thing, there’s a sound mix, I want you to go in and supervise it. Oh, okay. Somehow I stumbled through and I rose. I was Staff Writer then I was Executive Producer after three years.

WHAT HE LEARNED WORKING ON THE X-FILES

You can never be smart enough. The audience is always smarter than you. No matter how smart you think you are, they’re smarter than you. You can never be ambitious enough. You’d see writers who would come in, and I probably was guilty of it myself once or twice, not often though, and go, “Well, this will be a good episode. This will be good.” And if you say that, it’s going to suck.

Because you can’t aim for the middle and expect to reach the middle. Every time you write an episode, you gotta go, “This is going to be the greatest episode of television ever.” Also, the harder you apply yourself to something, the more energy you have to keep working hard. The moment you go, well, that’s good enough, I’ll stop there. The converse is true.

HOW MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE CAME TO HIM

I had known David Zucker, who is the head of Scott Free’s television arm in Los Angeles, for a long time. I had written another pilot for him that didn’t go. He would come to London and we’d always have lunch. One day he said, “We’ve been trying to make MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE for years. We just struck out with the BBC and now Syfy wants to try. Would you take a crack at it?” HUNTED had just been cancelled so I said yeah. I love that book. I read it in college. We made the deal and I’m going to read this book again. Then I read it again and the book is not a television series. I said to myself, “What am I going to do?”

I asked to see some of the other versions of the script. Good writers, but they completely ignored the book. I realized okay, I’m not going to make exactly the book. So I thought, what’s this book about. What’s he trying to say? What are the central ideas in this book? How can I do a TV narrative that is true to his ideas? His ideas are mind blowing and difficult and complex, but that’s what makes it great. I took a lot of the characters. I added characters, but I was very deliberate and conscious of why I was changing it and just praying people wouldn’t hate me for the changes.

HOW DID HE MAP OUT THE STORY, ESPECIALLY GIVEN THAT PEOPLE MAY BE BINGE-VIEWING IT?

I was very aware that there would be a lot of people to watch it in a day, a weekend or a week and that changes your strategy. When you do episodic television and there’s a week between episodes, there’s a lot of repeating. If you were to do that in a streaming environment, it would be really irritating. So it felt to me like a more novelistic narrative. So in season two, it’s nothing like season one. It’s not the form that we know for TV. It’s like a novel where yes, the characters’ emotional lives absolutely are continuing, but the narrative is not a repeat. You gotta keep going forward and be fearless. It’s a huge canvas. You have a whole world to tell stories in and we just barely got a glimpse of it in season one.

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.