by Allie Theiss
Writer Daniel Thomsen has been at the top of TVWriter™’s radar for a long time and has worked on some of this minion’s favorite shows (TIME AFTER TIME, WESTWORLD, ONCE UPON A TIME, among many others). I’m delighted to have had the chance to talk to him about his enviable career.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
I grew up during the 1990s, in the rural rustbelt, before there was much attention given to writers in television. I was a passionate STAR TREK fan, but all that meant was I watched every new episode of TNG and DS9. It fed my storytelling imagination, but I didn’t pay attention to the names of the writers or anything like that. It just never occurred to me that I could write stories to make a living. That wasn’t my world.
I went to college in Boston for business and technology, and fiction writing was always just a (secret) hobby. Living in a big city for the first time exposed me to theater, music, and art. I started to see that people from all walks of life could participate in creative work.
And then, as luck would have it, I graduated right as the first “dot com” bubble collapsed. All the jobs I was hoping to get as a Web technology worker disappeared, and I was faced with a crisis that turned out to be very liberating: I could either stick around in Boston and wait for the economy to bounce back, or I could move to Los Angeles and try to turn my writing hobby into a career. There didn’t seem to be much to lose, so I packed up my car, drove across the country and gave it a shot.
Why did you pick the TV business to showcase your creativity?
There were a few reasons. First and foremost, the years I spent in business school gave me a very practical approach to starting my career, no matter what field it was in. One of the first questions I asked myself was: “How can I work my way up the ladder and get in the door?” I didn’t always have a lot of insight or awareness back then, but one thing I was very smart about was never assuming that “writer” could be an entry-level job — I didn’t have the experience, the training, or the connections.
I did some research and discovered that television had paying jobs for people who wanted to apprentice — production assistants, writers assistants, script coordinators, etc. I could move to Los Angeles and make enough money to pay my bills (barely) while learning the ropes of TV writing. In contrast, when I looked at the world of feature films, I didn’t see those jobs. Frankly, I wasn’t confident enough to be a guy who sat in his apartment, wrote spec scripts and counted on the fact that one of them would eventually win the lottery.
That’s a fairly emotionless answer, so I should also point out that I’ve always loved television more than movies. I grew up in a rural area of the country, and it was a long drive to get to the theaters. I like serialized stories, and I like that television can build rich, lifelike worlds the audience can keep coming back to week after week. To me, movies can feel very transactional. But when a great television show ends, we feel a genuine sense of loss. That’s powerful motivation for me as a writer.
What do you find challenging about writing TV shows for the fantasy/sci-fi genre?
Honestly, I think we’re in a GREAT era of television for fantasy and sci-fi. People are taking chances on unique, ambitious genre stories. Ten years ago, when I was working on THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, the challenge was that we needed to draw a huge number of viewers because we were on the Fox network in primetime. But we didn’t want to make a summer blockbuster; we wanted to tell a story for true fans of genre — an allegory that took Sarah and John Connor’s fight against Skynet and framed it as a mother’s endless fight to raise her child.
If we had done the show in 2017 and the same number of people watched it on Netflix or Hulu or Syfy, we probably would’ve been able to do more episodes. The economics are better now, and they allow storytellers to take more chances.
Today’s TV landscape is an embarrassment of genre riches. If the biggest challenge today is coming up with the idea that’s ambitious enough to make noise in the crowded marketplace… that’s an awesome challenge to face!
How did you first break into TV?
I hope LB won’t be too embarrassed for me to include the detail that he provided a lot of knowledge and assistance in my early career. When I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t know a single person, but I knew LB from his online classes, and his advice pointed me in the right direction.
I got a PA job in a writers’ office on a show called BIRDS OF PREY, spent my first year in LA getting lunches and coffee during the day, and delivering scripts at night. It was hard work that barely paid the rent, but I met a group of writers that directly paved the way for my future career. My various assistant jobs led to a freelance script assignment for a show called CLOSE TO HOME. The freelance script led to an agent and, after an anxious year of taking meetings, my first staff job on THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES.
But the only reason I got that staff job is the woman who created BIRDS OF PREY (and met me as the young idiot delivering her coffee) made a phone call that got my script read by the creator of SARAH CONNOR. From my first day on the job as her PA to my first day on the job as a staff writer, it was about five years of just scraping by.
I tell people who want to do this that, unless they have an incredible connection, they should expect to put in at least five years of networking before their break. Looking back, I’m proud of the way I hustled, but the hustle wasn’t everything — I got a few lucky bounces, too. It could easily have taken me a few years longer.
How does being a TV writer now compare to how you thought being a TV writer would be in regards to the way you have to write and not just the politics of showbiz?
The biggest adjustment to writing on staff is accepting that your ONLY job is to deliver your best, most creative ideas in the voice of the showrunner. When you’re thinking of ideas to pitch in the room, your thinking is always framed by, “How would the showrunner want to tell this story?” When you’re sitting down at the computer to write lines, you’re not just writing the lines that would otherwise come naturally to you. When you’re on set, and someone asks you a question, you’re answering on the showrunner’s behalf.
It’s a very tricky skill to learn, and there’s a balance to it, because most showrunners want you to incorporate some of your own voice into your work as well. But when I say balance, I mean 85% showrunner voice, 15% personal voice. Sometimes even less, depending on the job.
A staffing career isn’t like being a rock star. It’s like being the rhythm guitarist who plays alongside a rock star.
(Not coincidentally, I think that’s why so many more people are now trying to join the business as creators rather than as staff writers. The creators are the rock stars.)
It isn’t over yet. Join us next week for Part 2 of this conversation with Daniel Thomsen and the Big Question: “What path do you recommend a budding TV writer take to get hired onto a show?
Allie Theiss, is a TVWriter™ Contributing Writer and one of TVWriter™’s Recommended Writers. Check out her daily Story Prompts, Book Marketing ideas, and Script Magic on Instagram. Learn more about her HERE