Showrunners: An Excerpt
There’s no sense sugarcoating it: the opportunities for a newbie writer getting their foot in the writers’ room door can be few and very far between. Writers’ room production assistant or writer assistant gigs are rare, so there’s fierce
competition to snag one. Also, getting your writing read by people who can help foster it is another adventure all on its own. But the good news is that everyone that eventually gets hired as a writer had to come up the ladder like everyone else. Plus there’s no fixed path for it to happen. Are there any inside tips to attaining that proverbial brass ring?
To put it simply: write often, rewrite, rinse, repeat.
Add persistence and networking and you have a better shot at hitting your goal career. To illustrate from personal experience, these showrunners share their stories on how they kept up their spirits and determination to finally break into the writers’ circle.
RONALD D. MOORE, Showrunner: Battlestar Galactica, Outlander
I don’t know if I was disheartened in the interim before I sold the first spec [an original script based on an existing series]. I think I was just confused. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I started and stopped various scripts. My friend and I co-wrote a feature spec together once. I spec’d out a Cheers script and started various other features, but never finished them. I kind of bopped around from odd job to odd job, telling myself I’m here to be a writer and started working at New World International in their sales department and servicing. Somebody would sell a movie to Taiwan and I would be the guy who would actually send them the print and publicity materials and make sure the money was gotten in return. So I was sort of in the business, that was as close as I was to being in the business, and I went through periods where I thought I’m never going to do this, or that this is ridiculous.
Then I started dating this girl who found out that I was a huge fan of the original Star Trek series. She had worked at Star Trek: The Next Generation and had helped to cast the pilot, so she still had a couple of contacts over there. She said, “You know, I could probably get you a tour of the sets,” because they had regularly scheduled set tours in those days as so many people wanted to go visit the Star Trek sets. I said, “Oh God, that’d be amazing,” and “please, please, please make the call.” So she made a call and sure enough got me onto a set tour. It turns out in retrospect that was the key moment of my career because I just decided what the hell, I’m going to write a spec script for a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode and take it with me, which was very atypical for me. I wasn’t the guy that was knocking on people’s doors and walking into offices with scripts. I was much lazier than that, but somehow the actual visit to the Trek set focused me and I decided I was going to do this.
I sat down and wrote a spec script called “The Bonding” and I brought it with me when they gave me the set tour. There was this young man who was giving me the tour and I conned him into reading it; he was one of Gene Roddenberry’s assistants. He gave it to the woman that became my first agent. She submitted it to the show formally and it sat in a slush pile for about seven months. At the beginning of the third season a new executive producer came on board, the late Michael Piller, who started going through the slush pile looking for scripts and he found my script, bought it and asked me to write another one. I wrote a second one and then shortly after that he let go a writer on the staff and I got this call one day just saying, “I need a staff writer, can you start working tomorrow?” I said yes, and I was there ten years.
DAMON LINDELOF, Showrunner: Lost, The Leftovers
My first paying job, after doing a couple of internships, was working for an agency. I knew that they were the middlemen for all business. So, if I eventually wanted to be a writer, and agents represented writers and sold writers’ work to studios, I felt like it would be a good idea to understand what it was that made agents sign people in the first place. I looked at LA as my grad school. I approached it as, “Well, I have to have talent, so I don’t know whether I have that or not, but let’s assume for argument’s sake that I do, how do I market myself as a commodity?”
I got a year of completely and totally irrelevant business experience. Then once I understood how the agencies worked, I moved on to the studios. I wanted to see what the buyers thought. From their perspective, what was a marketable movie and who were writers that they wanted to work with over and over again? I did that for a year at Paramount, where I read a lot of scripts. My boss, a guy by the name of Michael Hackett, was a creative executive there. His job was to, essentially, read around 25 scripts a week; that’s two or three scripts a day. Every weekend, we’d send home this thing called “weekend read.” I probably spent 10,000 hours just reading scripts over the course of the four years that I spent at Paramount, one year working for an executive, then the following three years working as a creative executive for a producer.
By the time I had gone through my five years of post-graduate work and now understood how the business was, I said, “Maybe it’s time for me to make a go of it as a writer.” So, I emailed everybody that I knew and said, “I want to quit my job as an executive. I know that I want to be a writer, but I can’t make that leap yet. I’ll be a writer’s assistant. I’ll get their coffee. I’ll do their dry-cleaning. I’ll wash their cars. Just get my foot in the door and I’ll do the rest.” One thing led to another and I was successful in beginning to develop my TV writer career.
DAVID SHORE, Showrunner: House
I was a lawyer and I had a friend that was out in LA writing, and I decided if I didn’t give it a shot then I was never going to give it a shot. I also figured I’d come out here for two years and if I fell flat on my face it would just be an interesting story to tell people years later. I had no paid work for two years after I first came out here. I holed up in an apartment with my savings and started writing—trying to write. It’s a tough business to break into. It is. I would send my stuff out and it took me about a year to get an agent, and it took me about a year after that to get an assignment, and then a year after that to get a second job. In hindsight, I’m thrilled with that progress.
My first job was a CBS show called Due South, which was not a legal show. Then I did another show up in Canada which was also not a legal show. I came back here and got on legal shows and I’m sure I got on them to a greater or lesser extent because of my legal background, and that worried me a little bit. I didn’t want to be known as a lawyer who could write a little. I wanted to be known as a writer. I specifically didn’t want to create a legal show when it came time for House. I’m not sure I wanted to create a medical show, but I specifically didn’t want to create a legal show.
MIKE KELLEY, Showrunner: Revenge
As an assistant, I worked on a number of failed endeavors. I started my training ground at Warner Brothers on a show called Charlie Grace. Bob Singer produced it. It’s actually funny, I was going to leave town and go back to Chicago and throw in the towel the night before I got a job on that show as the script coordinator, which is a really important job in the life of a series. I had no idea how to do it. This girl at the bar, as I was sitting there sort of drowning my sorrows for free because it was the only way I could do it at the time, said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I’m just leaving town tomorrow.” She said, “Why?” I said, “I couldn’t make a go of it.” She said, “So you want to be a writer?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Listen, I’m the script coordinator on Lois and Clark and I happen to know that the producers are looking for a script coordinator for Charlie Grace.” I said, “I have no idea how to do that job.” She said, “You will by morning.”
I went in and she said, “He’s the best script coordinator in town, give him the job.” I learned from there about how to write television. As a script coordinator all the drafts go through your computer; every revision, everything from the writer’s first pass through to the showrunner’s final polish. You learn a lot very quickly.
After I wrote a spec script for Providence, I was invited to come on the staff as a staff writer, and there are steps in between. Frankly, if you’re lucky, you get to take each step along the way, and I did from assistant all the way through to where I am now as an executive producer. You start as a staff writer, then you go to story editor, and then executive story editor, and co-producer, and producer, and supervising producer, and co-ep, and then executive producer on the show if you get a show. For me, every one of those steps is important. You learn something new and the responsibilities get a little bit greater.
PAM DAVIS, Producer: Intelligence
If you go back way back in time, in university I wrote a children’s book, so I did a little publishing. I did a little magazine editing. When I was doing a magazine, I ended up at the Toronto Film Festival and somebody at the festival was doing a TV show, so I ended up doing TV and getting involved with more film and film financing. Then I met people who were going down to LA so I would visit them. At which point I met the Canadian Mafia down here, which is basically that all Canadians seem to introduce each other to everybody else. I bothered David Shore long enough and he said, “Come pitch me,” and I got to do a freelance on one of his shows, called Family Law. Then when he created House, he asked if I wanted to be part of it.
STEVEN S. DeKNIGHT, Showrunner: Spartacus
I wanted to be an actor, and then I realized I wasn’t tall enough or talented enough to actually be a successful actor, so I switched to playwriting and then I went to UCLA for my grad work as a playwright. I spent an extra year going through the screen-writing program at UCLA, because I decided I really wanted to write movies. Then I graduated, and I thought in six months to a year I’ll get my career going and break in. During that time I got a job teaching English as a second language at a Japanese school in Van Nuys, and it was a great job.
Six and a half years later I could not get arrested. Everything I tried, nothing happened. I could not get any traction in features, and those were the dark days. I was living in a second-floor apartment in Glendale with no air conditioner. I was writing spec scripts—I’d work all day and then I’d come home and work on my writing. In the summer it was so hot I actually had to type naked because there was no air conditioning. My friends were all worried they’d find me electrocuted because I was sweating into the keyboard. It was hellish, literally hellish! But I kept plugging away, I kept plugging away, and then I thought, “Well, I watch a lot of TV and I love television so maybe I should, just as an exercise, write a spec TV script.”
I was watching Deep Space Nine at the time so I wrote a Deep Space Nine spec about a giant Ferengi. Basically, Ferengi are dwarf-sized, so it was all about why Ferengis are small, which I sympathize with! I did this as an exercise, but nobody wanted to read it. Agents didn’t want to read it, Deep Space Nine didn’t want to read it and they accepted everything, so I just put it in a drawer. About a year later a buddy of mine that I went to school with, Delroy Robinson, calls me up and says, “Hey, I’m coordinating this MTV show that’s created by Roland Joffé from The Killing Fields. It’s absolutely horrible, it will never get on the air, but if they pick it up I can get your stuff to Roland Joffé’s people.” I go “Great,” and I completely forget about it.
Four months later he calls me up and says, “I don’t know how it happened, but they picked us up. Send me something.” I sent him this Deep Space Nine script, which is the only television script I had. So he sends it to Roland Joffé’s people and the guy that reads it is a huge Deep Space Nine fan. It’s that kind of coincidence and happenstances that are career builders, and that’s how I got my first job, doing Undressed. After four seasons, which is kind of like dog years, we had like 140 half-hour episodes in that period of time.
I decided to get a higher-profile agent to try to get off this show and get a mainstream network show. Again I took my favorite show on TV at the time, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and I wrote a spec about it called “Xander the Slayer.” It was about why men can’t be slayers; basically, it goes to our heads and we become uncontrollable. It got into Joss Whedon’s people’s hands and I had a meeting with them, not with Joss but with his people, about coming on for the animated TV show they were trying to get off the ground. They said Joss has to read the script, and I spent the next, I think, eight weeks chewing my nails, and then I finally got a call that said, “Joss Whedon wants to see you.” It’s like being summoned by the Pope. And that was really when I felt like I think my career had really started: once I had worked with Joss on two seasons of Buffy, and then two seasons on Angel. He also gave me my directing chance and started my directing career.