Every aspiring television writer dreams of running their own show one day. But here’s a little secret: established TV writers do too.
During a panel discussion entitled Television: The Writers Room at the 2015 Film Independent Forum, five prominent television writers discussed the challenges of staying creatively engaged—and keeping their dream shows alive—while supporting someone else’s vision.
“I always come from a place of: my job is to support my showrunner,” said Sonay Hoffman who writes for American Crime under creator and executive producer (and Film Independent Spirit Award winner) John Ridley. “It’s not my show. He’s the one with the vision. So when you’re writing on a show, your job is to mimic the voice of the creator the best you can. And it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your voice. You’ll find yourself working on a procedural when you write something like Nashville—that’s where your heart is and that’s your strongest voice—but you do your best.”
Dana Calvo, who writes for Narcos said sometimes serving another’s vision can be frustrating. She recalled times on the show when she would finish a page-one rewrite of her episode and director and producer Jose Padilha would come into town and, without having read her draft, would say: “I have an idea.” And then leave Calvo to start all over again.
At those times, it was important for her to remember that this job was only temporary and it was up to her to take something from the experience.
“At the end of the day, I sat my desk across from this incredible writer, story editor Andy Black, and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to learn how write action sequences from Andy who is this incredible action writer,’” said Calvo. “You say, ‘I’m going to take this with me,’ and I think that helps you keep a little bit for yourself.”
Transparent writer Bridget Bedard said she feels lucky that the show she writes for is good match for the tone she likes to write. “I do feel like it’s in my voice… And that’s very satisfying,” she said.
But Bedard admits that it’s important for her to remember she’s playing just one role in a large ensemble. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the day when she’ll take the lead. “There are those low days when you have to think, ‘Well, one day I’ll have my own show.’ Just keep your own thing going on the side.”
Wendy Calhoun, who writes for Empire, says there’s no way she could stay creatively engaged in the writers room if she didn’t write her own material on the side. “The way I stay sane is I write my own stuff, constantly. It reminds me of my voice so that I keep my voice sharp.”
But Calhoun, who has worked on several series over the last decade, says each show also influences her voice. “There’s something that is happening. I don’t know if it’s unconscious or what it is. But definitely the specs I wrote after Revenge are different than the ones [I wrote] after Nashville… But the only way that I’m able to find that voice again is to sit down and write something just for me.”
Azazel Jacobs, a writer on Doll & Em, said he finds himself in a slightly different position. As the show’s sole director, any issues he has with the scenes he writes with series creators and stars Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells he gets to work out for himself on set.
“There are times where I’ll walk away from something where we’ve gotten to a certain place and I’m not totally sure how we’re going to work it out.” He said that going on location with the cinematographer and figuring out the blocking often leads to a breakthrough.
But most of the writers on the panel haven’t had the luxury of that much control.
“When you get your script back and you find one word in it that’s yours, it can be a bit demoralizing,” said Hoffman. “But you just [have to] put yourself in [the mindset] that, ‘My showrunner had a time when they were rewritten and they had to deal with it and this is their moment. This is their time to shine. And my job is to be there for them.’”
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger