Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With EMPIRE’s Wendy Calhoun

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.

DedWendy-Calhoun-200x300ication and persistence were the keys for writer Wendy Calhoun as she made the transition from documentary and reality to scripted drama with stops at Justified, Revenge and Nashville on her way to becoming the Co-Executive Producer at Empire.

WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I first knew when I was a sophomore in high school. I attended a performing arts high school in Dallas, TX. At that high school we had a playwriting class and my sophomore year I signed up for the class, wrote a play and it got produced. I got to see my words come to life on stage and I was hooked.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INDUSTRY JOB?

The first industry job came many years before the first writing job. I assisted a television agent and a feature film literary agent. I thought it was a great way just to be exposed to a lot of scripts. That’s what everyone told me. You want to read a lot, get on a lit agent desk, you’ll learn the whole lay of the land in Hollywood.

That led to about five years of being a Hollywood assistant. I skipped all around town. I went from there to working in development over at Disney. I worked at Sony Pictures for many years. Then I ended up working for Tim Burton.

I went on and got a job as an assistant to two executives at Village Roadshow Pictures. I ran the meetings and was in charge of all the scripts, kind of like a story coordinator. And finally they promoted me, so I became the Director of Creative Affairs there and I actually got to be the one giving the notes to the writers, which was interesting.

HOW DID YOUR FIRST WRITING JOB COME ABOUT?

It was the guys at Village who knew I was a writer, that offered me my first job.  They made me the head writer of a 52 half-hour series they had for Animal Planet. That was in 1999, that was my first television writing job. And from there, that led to like 7 years of writing documentaries and reality, but you know, that long path to get to that point actually paid off.

TELL US ABOUT MAKING THE TRANSITION FROM DOCUMENTARY TO SCRIPTED DRAMA.

It took about five years to make the transition. So while I was doing all the documentary shows and stuff, I was writing scripts when I wasn’t working. I was going out on meetings after meetings after meetings, dying of encouragement. People telling me, “Oh, your script’s really good,” and then not hiring me.

It was hard because there was a stigma, especially when I started doing reality stuff. When I was just, Animal Planet, Discovery, people are kinda cool about that but when you start telling them you’re doing some TLC and Hell’s Kitchen, they’re suddenly like that’s the end. Especially at that time, that was the enemy because so many scripted programs were getting replaced. Scripted people were angry and they saw the reality stuff as trash and they didn’t think you’re a real storyteller. There was a stigma for sure.

For some reason the executives that I used to meet with didn’t really carry that stigma, they sort of judged me by my written words which was nice, but it was a hard jump. I know a lot of people have tried to make it and weren’t able. It was by the grace of God that I made it. I think , for me, it was just a matter of persistence.

And honestly, when I had my interview that got me my first scripted job, I didn’t care anymore. I was done. I had been through the wringer. Five years of getting so close and not getting it.  And I was very happy at Hell’s Kitchen. I was doing good work, I was directing in the field. I was having a blast.

This meeting came along and I was in the middle of working on the finale and the last thing I wanted to do was leave the edit room and go do yet another meeting for disappointment. Sure enough I got the job offer, and I remember the guy who hired me is Peter Noah. He’s a great guy. This was called Raines and it starred Jeff Goldblum and that’s where I met Graham Yost and Peter Noah was on it.

Really, really great group of writers, actually Moira Walley-Beckett, who won the Emmy for Breaking Bad and Jennifer Cecil, who’s got a go pilot right now at ABC, and Bruce Rasmussen, who had done tons of comedy and was last on Dallas. I mean it was just a fine group of writers.

WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

I’m a bit of a dabbler. Like I’m that person that goes to the buffet and wants a little taste of everything, but not a full plate of anything. So as a writer when I was first starting out, especially while I was still doing documentary stuff, I was trying to be the jack-of-all-trades. I wanted to have every type of spec you could imagine so I could show everyone I could do it all.

But you really are a master of none. That’s the truth, so the piece of advice that was given to me was master something. Be an expert at something and in television writing that means within a genre.

So I started thinking about well, what do I really like. I happened to be doing a reality series for TLC called Ballroom Bootcamp where I spent about 6 weeks following a woman who was a real life CSI. And I always liked cops and I always like reading books about criminals and law enforcement and you know, I took a class and they were talking about the staples of television, that’s medical, legal and cop drama. So I thought well, okay, I’m going to focus on just writing cops.

And then I started doing a lot of research on cops so that I could tailor my spec and I just kept doing it and digging in and digging in, trying to make myself an expert in that field. So by the time I did go into that Raines room, I was the one taking people down to the lab because I had my friend there. I had already shot there.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?

Go sign yourself up for UCB, go sign yourself up for Second City, go sign yourself up for Groundlings, go take a class and make yourself get up and tell story in a way that requires you to listen and interact and it’s going to scare the pants out of you, but you need that. That way when you get ready to walk in that room for that job that you know you want more than anything in the world, you don’t care, you’ve been swinging without a net because you’re been taking these classes.

I’m telling you, it’s some of the best training and most writers need to do it. It gets you out of your head. I swear by it.


Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. Find out more about her HERE.