Note: the following originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2019 Film Independent Forum.
Contrary to what you may have heard, being a TV writer isn’t solely about the interminable daily ritual of placing, receiving and consuming each afternoon’s rigorously debated lunch order. No—there are also fantasy football teams to be managed and Nerf basketballs to be bounced from one end of the writers room to the other. That, plus the tricky business of using one’s imagination to dreaming up the characters, storylines and dialogue that so many millions of people around the world schedule their lives around—a highly demanding creative act that often requires just as much strategic distraction as it does pure artistic inspiration.
In fact, what happens inside the writers’ room often seems like a complete mystery to those of us on the outside. And really, there’s no such thing as a typical writers room experience—each show is as unique as the personalities shaping it, as is every individual writer’s career journey. Such was the subject of the Film Independent Forum panel “Adventures Inside the Writers Room” on Sunday, April 28 at LMU’s new Playa Vista campuses at #FiForum19.
Moderated by Grey’s Anatomy scribe Marlana Hope, the panel included writers Duncan Birmingham (Maron, Blunt Talk), creative partners Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith (Significant Mother, Life Sentence) and Ali LeRoi (Everybody Hates Chris, Survivor’s Remorse).
INSIDE THE TV WRITERS ROOM
Hierarchies. Although paths through the industry vary (as we’ll see), the “traditional hierarchy”—as Hope described it—works, up the chain, like this: Writers’ P.A. (whose job it is to run basic errands), Writers’ Assistant (who helps take and organize notes), Script Coordinator (tasked with incorporating script changes and clearances), Staff Writer, Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer/Consulting Producer, C0-Executive Producer and Executive Producer. “None of these titles mean anything or make any sense, but everybody just knows what they are,” said Hope, who herself began at the Script Coordinator level, working in the position for many years.
Alternate pathways. For Cardillo and Keith (partners of production shingle In Good Company), their path to becoming showrunners was more circuitous— beginning with a contest win that netted a soft development deal, which in turn yielded a round of pitch meetings ultimately resulting in a digital deal. Given a modest sum to create a web series, Cardillo and Keith instead shot their idea as a 22-minute TV pilot, which helped get them established in the medium.
Spec scripts vs. original material. “The only practical use of a spec for an existing show are the [studio] diversity programs,” said Hope—in contrast to previous years/decades, when spec scripts of existing hits were generally seen as an essential part of breaking into the TV biz. Now, she says, original pilots are more highly valued, even if said pilots are primarily intended as writing samples. “A pilot can have two purposes,” said Hope, “A pilot can be something for development, and it can live as a staffing sample [and] live as a staffing sample its entire life and never be developed,” she said.
Escaping the features-first mindset. “I liked TV immediately because it didn’t feel like I was being replaced by the director,” said Birmingham, who prior to gravitating to television had been working writing features—none of which were produced. Birmingham’s big break came when he was commissioned to write a sizzle reel for potential new project starring comedian and podcaster Marc Maron. “I thought, well, if I’m going to try to write something, I may as well write a whole pilot,” he said. The result was Maron, which ran for four seasons on IFC.
Buckling down. For the second season of Everybody Hates Chris, “We put up a board of A, B and C stories an we literally came up with 100 loglines of stories,” said LeRoi, who began his career as a comedian and producer. “We went through all these stories, it actually became a problem on the production side,” he said. “By the end of pre-production we had 18 scripts and the network wanted us to slow down. They were like, ‘we don’t have time to read all of this stuff!’”
Demonstrate good fundamentals. Hope warned aspiring writers against sending sloppy samples. “For the love of God, whatever is happening in our culture in terms of texting, [your sample] should be in English, it should have punctuation, words that should be capitalized should be capitalized,” she said. “Treat your scripts like a written document that is not a text. I can’t tell you how many scripts I see that don’t have punctuation at the end of a sentence. That’s not how this language is written—just don’t do [it].”
A writers room by any other name. “My favorite writers room, as far as physical space, was Blunt Talk,” said Birmingham. For that Starz show, the writers occupied the basement of showrunner Jonathan Ames’ basement… next to the pool. “We had pool privileges, so that was pretty nice,” he said. “Our first writers room was in our producers garage,” said Keith, adding, “next to his pool.” For LeRoi, “I prefer a conference table set-up, it’s just a nice, official workspace that gets everybody in the right mindset.”
Table reads. “Have a table read. I’ve always had a table read for anything I’ve ever written,” said Hope. “It’s super easy, you literally just invite some actor friends over and read it.” As the writer, she says, you shouldn’t read anything—not even stage direction—you should just sit and listen. “It’s not even about getting feedback from people, it’s about the experience of hearing it.”
The 2019 Film Independent Forum took place April 26-28, 2019 at the new LMU Playa Vista campus in Silicon Beach—click here to see what else happened, and don’t forget to come back next year! The 2019 Film Independent Forum was supported by Premier Sponsors SAGindie, Cast & Crew and University Partner Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television.
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(Header: IFC’s Maron)