Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Michael Peterson

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

by Kelly Jo Brick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?

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

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

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

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

TELL US ABOUT YOUR TRANSITION FROM FEATURES TO TV.

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

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

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

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

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

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS LOOKING TO BREAK IN?

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

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

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