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.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Kellie Griffin

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, Kellie Griffin photopersistence, hard work and not giving up.

A one day gig as an audience page started writer Kellie Griffin’s path that took her from receptionist to writers’ assistant to writing for House of Payne and Reed Between the Lines.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?

An audience page, but that was for a day.  I moved out here in March of 2000. My sister came out to visit me and we got tickets in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater to go to a show taping. Once we went to the taping, I asked the audience page if they were hiring, they said no but you can send your resume. I saw that somebody from the actual show came up and sat in the audience and I tapped them and I asked if they were hiring and they said no, but you can send your resume. That night I sent my resume to both places.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of months and then the audience people called first. They were hiring but it was like $8 an hour.   I turned it down. And then some friends were like, “No you gotta call them back and take the job because then you’ll at least be in the building. “

While I was there, I ran into the same person I tapped on the shoulder a couple months before with the show. And they said, “Well, we didn’t call you because we didn’t have anything, but if you want to send your resume again, you can.” So I sent it again. And the next day they called. I ended up the receptionist by that Thursday and that was the Parkers on UPN.

WHAT DID THAT POSITION LEAD TO?

I completed the whole second season at the Parkers and then a writers’ assistant didn’t return the next season and they asked me if I was interested in being a writers’ assistant. I didn’t know what a writers’ assistant did, but I was like, “Okay.”

I was a writers’ assistant for two seasons. Which was the best job I’ve ever had because you sit in the room with the writers and you get to hear how the stories are being broken down. When people are pitching jokes, you hear the execs say why they like it or why they don’t like it. So I’m just in there typing and just absorbing it all. It was an awesome experience.

WHEN DID YOU GET YOUR FIRST OPPORTUNITY TO WRITE FOR A SHOW?

The Parkers got the announcement the show was going to be cancelled in the 5th season. The creator let all the assistants write an episode. That was it, I wrote my first episode. That put me in the Writers Guild. And then the show was cancelled and then I just went on from there being a writers’ assistant on different shows.

HOW DID YOU THEN GET THE POSITION WITH TYLER PERRY’S HOUSE OF PAYNE?

One day, clocking into work, I got a random phone call from Reuben Cannon. Reuben Cannon is a casting director turned producer. So he says that Tyler Perry was looking to do a TV show and was looking for writers and he had gotten my name from Ralph Farquhar. Ralph Farquhar was Executive Producer of The Parkers and Second Time Around, the two shows I worked on when I first started in the business.

They asked me to send something that Tyler could read and it had to be Tyler’s stuff. He had a whole bunch of stage plays that he had done that were on DVD. So I watched all his DVDs in like a day. One of them, Meet the Browns, at the end of the play, there’s a funeral. So I decided to write a script that starts with the reading of the will. I put jokes in there that I would never, ever put in my own stuff, because it was going to him and based on what I saw of his plays, what he likes. I got a phone call within a week, that Tyler wants to meet me. He loved it, said I captured his voice.

He asked me if I had any other friends that wrote and he said, “Well, can you get some people and meet me at my house?” So I gathered some people. We went out to his house in Malibu and sat there and talked about his idea and basically in his living room came up with the idea for House of Payne. He asked me if me and my friends could write him 10 episodes and just get them to him. I was like, “Sure.”

He started this new model, called the 10/90 model now. So he presented the 10 episodes. They had shot them and everything. He presented the ten episodes and basically said I guarantee your ratings will hit this number. If it doesn’t, I walk away, if it does, you’ll owe me 90 more. That’s kinda how it started.

It surpassed the number so they gave him 90 episodes.  He asked me could I come to Atlanta. So I basically relocated to Atlanta for like 3 years back and forth. We hired some local writers in Atlanta and then the writers I was already working with here stayed here and then we did this speakerphone thing all day long.

So I was literally running a room simultaneously on two different coasts on the speakerphone, asking people in L.A. if they had any feedback and asking people in Atlanta what they wanted to say. And that’s how we went over every single script.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?

Just recognize that everybody’s journey is different. There is no formula to it. And you can’t compare yourself to this person that came in and got a job in a month and this other person that’s been here for 3 years and is still trying.

Don’t say I’m too old to do this. I think I was 32. I mean I had a Masters Degree. I had a whole other career up until this point. I had to humble myself and get coffee for people, and do things and type. It worked out. My mom was initially upset because she was like, “What are you doing? Why are you answering phones? You have a master’s degree.” But cut two years later when I sold a show and paid for the house and all that stuff and she was like, “Oh, okay.”

Be a sponge. That’s what I did. Sit in the writers’ room and just listen, absorb everything. If anybody can get a job as a writers’ assistant as your first job if you want to be a writer, it’s the best job to have.

Today’s TV Writing Deals Dept: 10/7/12

Old TV writing joke: “Know why TV writers brag about their deals? Cuz that’s all they have.” Think about it:

  • Tyler Perry (TYLER PERRY’s HOUSE OF PAYNE, MEET THE BROWNS) is writing and producing 2 new shows for OWN, in return for which he now has a very large ownership stake in the net. (Jeeze, nobody ever told us we had to buy our way into TV…and yet it definitely makes sense. Depressing sense, but sense.)
  • Douglas Segal (THREE KINGS) is writing a supernatural drama about a devil trying to save “compromised souls” for the CW. (Let that be a lesson to us all: No compromise! No surrender! Oh, that isn’t what it means?)
  • M. Night Shyamalan (THE SIXTH SENSE) & John Glenn (EAGLE EYE) are writing the pilot for LOST HORIZON for NBC. (Strangely, LOST HORIZON isn’t based on the book of the same name but on MOBY DICK. We figure somebody misread their high school reading list and still hasn’t been corrected.)
  • Ryan Murphy (GLEE, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, THE NEW NORMAL) is writing the pilot for MONTAUK, a conspiracy thriller, for Fox and an unnamed sitcom for NBC. (Yes, it’s true. We don’t even know this guy and we hate him. We really do. And if that isn’t the essence of showbiz, what is?)
  • Charley and Vlas Parlapanides (IMMORTALS) are writing THE CENTURIAN, about a Marine working with the angel of his best friend for CBS. (The way we hear it, the original pitch was about a Marine working with “the agent” of his best friend, but something got lost in the translation and who’s going to argue with a “Yes?”)
  • GIRLS creator Lena Dunham will be getting over $3,500,000 for her book of essays, Not That Kind of Girl, (because she’s got herself a very hot, in, and trendy series and why should she settle for less?)