The Bricks of Breaking in: Sal Calleros on Mentorship

Former TVWriter™ Contributing Editor Kelly Jo Brick is writing for FinalDraft.Com now, but every once in awhile we get lucky and spot something she’s done there that has extra value for our visitors.

Such is the case with this interview of Sal Calleros, a former TVWriter™ Spec Scriptacular Competition Finalist and now co-executive producer of a delightful little show called The Good Doctor:

by Kelly Jo Brick

Sal Calleros

Mentorship can be vital to a writer looking to break into the industry, but finding a mentor and building a relationship with that person can be challenging.

Sal Calleros, co-EP of The Good Doctor, credits mentorship for a big part of the growth and development of his career. From participating in the Disney-ABC Writing Program to writing for shows including Private Practice, Rizzoli & Isles,Killer Women, Sneaky Pete and Snowfall, Sal’s experiences inform how working with various mentors — and now mentoring others — plays a significant role in his success.

Final Draft: As you were starting out, how important was mentorship to the development of your writing career?

Sal Calleros: It was very important, but I didn’t realize how important it was at the time.

I got started through the Disney fellowship. While you’re in the fellowship, you go through a series of mentors; half the year you’re with a mentor from the network and they help you develop a script. The other half, they put you with a mentor from the production side, at that time it was Touchstone Television. They set you up with a producer on that side who also helps you develop a spec. That mentor was fantastic. A lot of the time what a mentor can do is just give you encouragement.

Even though I was in a fellowship — and this never stops — it always feels like oh, I’m here by accident; like, any minute they’re going to find out I’m a fraud and I’m going to get kicked out or I’m going to get fired … What [the mentor] did, when I turned in my first draft, he said something like, “Oh, yeah. You should be doing this. You can do this.” He shepherded me through the process. He would give me great advice as I was writing the script. That’s when I realized a mentor is super important. How big it can be.

FD: In that type of relationship, what do you feel like you give back to the mentor?

SC: Everybody loves discovering that writer, because there are a lot of people trying to break in. When you find that writer that it’s like, oh my God, this is somebody who actually can do this, it’s very encouraging because the one thing you want to do is pluck them and plug them into the process. That’s just one more person in the system that will help keep it going. Talent, that is what is going to create the next big show and that’s what’s going to keep the Writers Guild and the stuff that we do vibrant and new.

I love reading something and then being like, oh my God, this writer has it. This is somebody I can see working. It’s rare to find somebody who is really good at it. When you read a script and you’re like, this person’s got talent; they have a voice. They can tell a great story and then in the back of your head you’re like, if I ever have a show, this is somebody I would hire. It’s a treat to find somebody like that….

Read it all at finaldraft.com

THE SNOW CAKE

LB’s NOTE: Some people really know how to live. Others know how to tell us about life. Leslie Coff is one of the rare ones who does both. Simultaneously, even:

by Leslie Coff

We had the house on the hill.

Years ago, when we lived in Atlanta, our house was that corner house — and because of that hill, when we would get our annual two inches of snow (that would of course melt the next day), it was to our house that all the neighborhood kids would come to sled.

We had sleds, you see. Having moved from The North – St. Louis — we were fully equipped for the annual twenty-four hours of ‘hard winter’.

My husband and I would wake early, seeing that the storm had come and quickly did an inventory of our kitchen: was there enough hot cocoa for at least two dozen? And what other goodies were to be had?

And if they were to be had — could I make them into something wonderful?

Over the years, at dawn, I would make brownies, cupcakes, using any and all ingredients that I could find, knowing there would be fun and fabulous children who arrive — and over time would be cold and hungry from sledding on our hill.

One year, in my pantry, I found flour, eggs, gummy bears, applesauce, orange juice, pudding, powdered sugar. Knowing what I know of kitchen chemistry (or not!) I combined it all, poured it into a roasting pan and — (tada!) — snow cake.

By ten in the morning the kids began to arrive. Sledding on our “northern” sleds, on their makeshift sleds, on their bottoms, laughing and shouting and calling, they were a sight to see.

We loved every minute.

After about an hour they began to pile into my house. At least a dozen pairs of socks now going round and round in my dryer, followed by at least a dozen pair of wet pants..

The legs associated with such pants were covered in our pajamas, our sweatpants….now sitting at the long kitchen table, sipping cocoa, eating snow cake.

Laughing.

It was, perhaps the best cake I had ever made. And accidentally. Our guests were beyond happy.

The cheeks and noses were red: theirs.

The eyes were shining: ours

The magic of the Atlanta snows lasted only one day — and some years they didn’t come at all.

But they were a window into a wonderful world: the world of children and their excitement, their fullness, their energy.

Since those years the kids have scattered, in fact, we scattered and moved to the Real North where snow lasts for months.

Last year, one of the young men died accidentally.

I flew back for the funeral. I found them all, all those little faces, red and shining…

Now in grace and grief.

They were the same little people whose snowy socks went around and around my dryer.

But older now.

Sobered by life — and loss.

But those years we shared of the magical snows were something to behold.
Memorialized by the memory of life — and a cake made from applesauce, gummy bears and pudding.


Leslie Coff writes and makes all manner of Snow Cakes, now in Madison, Wisconsin. This post first appeared on one of the most honest places on the interwebs – Leslie’s blog

PJ McIlvaine: In The Zone

Now THIS is the zone where we’ve always wanted to be!

by PJ McIlvaine

Writing can be a long, rough, exasperating, never-ending, demanding, heartbreaking slog. Anyone who claims that they were an “overnight” success, ahem, I’d take that with a grain of Himalayan pink salt.

Writing is lonely. The only people speaking to you are the voices in your head. And if you don’t listen to them, man, do they get cross.

Writing is physically demanding. If you wait for inspiration to strike, you may end up as old as Methuselah. I have written through flu, sinus attacks, kidney stones, the kids throwing up in pots beside me, and other untold miseries and tragedies…you name it, I’ve done it, survived and even thrived. I’m not saying I’ve done it well or that it’s easy. That’s a story for another day.

But when you’re in the zone…ahhh, it’s bliss, it’s orgasmic, it’s floating on air, it’s that wonderful, heady, intoxicating zone, and there is no better feeling in the entire world, besides, maybe, a bowl of cookies and cream ice cream or snuggling up to your loved one on a cold winter night or rocking out to John Fogerty. And I’m saying that’s a big freaking maybe.

But the zone, that elusive zone…I never know when I’m going to be in the zone. The muse is fickle and fleeting. But when the zone comes knocking, I damn well know it and I must heed the call. I take full advantage of it because who knows how long it’s going to last.

For I have learned the hard way that the zone has a mind of its own and I ignore it at my own peril. My hard drive is littered with half-completed books, barely begun scripts, and aborted first pages. I allowed myself to be distracted by other shiny new objects. Now I’m older and wiser. I let the zone do the driving. I’m merely the passenger.

So what does being in the zone mean, exactly?

Well, I can only speak for myself, but it’s when I’m seized with an idea to the point of obsession and exclusion of all other ideas. Oh, to the outside world, you seem completely ordinary. You do the routine, mundane chores like laundry and going to the market. Nothing to see here, move on.

But inside…that’s a different story entirely. I breathe it like a forbidden romance. I literally cannot think of anything else, no matter what I do or where I go. It’s branded into my brain. It courses through my veins like a rolling river. I close my eyes and voila, it’s all there, unfolding like a movie: the plot, the characters, the voices, the surroundings, complications, drama, everything and anything. I may not have the entire story fully fleshed out from beginning to end, but I have a general sense of how it goes. I find that writing it down in an outline is NOT helpful and even hinders me. I’ll usually write a paragraph or so, sometimes even just chapter headings as a guide post, but that’s it.

And also with the zone, and maybe this is the most crucial part, it waits patiently, well, maybe not so patiently, for me to write it all down before it disappears like cotton candy in a five-year old’s sticky hands.

When I’m fully enmeshed in the zone, it’s like being on auto-pilot. The words pour out of me, all coming from a higher power, and I dream up with things that later, even I wonder where the hell did THAT come from. The best way to describe it is like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I know I’m going to hit land eventually, and I hope that when I do, I’ll be okay, gulp.

Over time, I’ve learned to trust my zone. Now that isn’t to say that when I’m in it that there aren’t ebbs and flows. There are, plenty of them. It might steer me in the wrong direction and I have to make a course correction. Sometimes I’ll write something not knowing how it’s going to play out and then, boom, subconsciously the answer will come to me when I least expect it or when I’m doing something else. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with a brilliant scene washing my hair or taking the dog out for a walk.

And when I do hit a low point, as all writers do, I just keep writing, even when it seems it’s hopeless, it’s treacle, it’s horrible, I don’t know what I’m doing (add your own reason). I know that eventually, the zone is going to come through if I just keep plugging away to finish the first draft. Once I finish that, the revising, the re-writing, all that is doable. The zone, the passion, carries me until I can type THE END which we all know, really isn’t.

Many people call it different things, for me it’s the zone. But whatever you call it, when it comes, grab it by the tail and don’t let go. And now, if you’ll excuse me, the zone, my BFF, is calling.


Pj McIlvaine is a prolific writer/author/screenwriter/writer/journalist. She has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, and a host of other places. Her Showtime movie, My Horrible Year (with Mimi Rogers, Karen Allen and Eric Stoltz) was nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Find out more about Ms. McIlvaine HERE. This article first in her most magical blog.

How We Screwed Up Showbiz Culture – and How We Can Fix It

Remember when show business was a cottage industry run by fans dedicated to producing the best films, TV shows, plays, whatever, for the enjoyment of just about everybody in the world?

We don’t either. But we can dream, can’t we? Here’s something to get you started:


by Tennyson E. Stead

Before I delve into the chronic misdeeds of our industrial showbusiness community, forgive me a paragraph or two to establish my credentials as your professor in this matter.

Much of my life in showbusiness until now has been defined by the work nobody in Hollywood actually wants to do, but that everyone would gladly take credit and experience for having done, if they could. For ten years, I learned the risks and rewards of producing by financing other people’s indie films with cold-calls to potential film investors. Most of my life has been spent on stage, and my classical theater education grounds my directing work in the fundamentals of dramaturgy and live performance.

How We Screwed the Showbiz Culture Up And How We Can Fix It

While I have literally lost count of how many screenplays I’ve written, I can say that eight have been optioned, sold, or written for hire – not counting the four I am producing myself. Between the producing, the years of finance calls, the years I’ve spent staring into one version or another of Final Draft and the decades I’ve invested in my theater community, I’m a product of habits that most people in Hollywood can’t find the time to develop.

Many readers already know that in 2013, I was struck in the head by a sword during a film shoot and suffered a debilitating traumatic brain injury. Apart from the many humbling and sobering symptoms I experienced (which you can read about in my Stage 32 article, Reality Checks from an Inspirational Cripple, my injury put me at a very high risk of stroke – so to ensure that my life in showbusiness wasn’t wasted, I wrote down and catalogued every single thing I knew at the time about building and maintaining success in entertainment. Among the many fruits that were borne by this exercise, I found a working definition of culture:

Our culture is the body of experience that people choose to have in common.

A Cultural Phenomenon

When circumstance forces a bunch of people together, whether it’s in a job that everybody hates or through some kind of economic or social disadvantage, that shared experience does very little to promote trust between them. Pushed together, people are generally willing to betray or hurt one another to establish some kind of control over their own environment. In contrast, finding out that we share something personal in common with another person, like a religion, a hobby, an educational focus, a favorite book, movie, song, show, sport, an ethical or moral system – literally any experience that we have voluntarily invested ourselves in – means we have some insight into what that person is capable of. In this way, our shared experiences become a baseline of trust for all our communication with other people and for all our collaborative labors.

If our culture is underpinning of all our communication and group effort, then the quality of our culture is going to have a huge impact on the excellence of our endeavors as a society. As content creators, our job is to decide what experiences people can and should expose themselves to as the foundation for their relationships with other people. Our community is responsible for stewardship over the mindfulness and selflessness with which we build our values as a society.

Uh oh.

When I was a kid, the least challenging way for a person to engage our culture was through sports. At the time, I resented the bullying and the disregard for intellectual pursuit that sports culture can promote. But as a ground-floor cultural standard, sports also promotes respect for hard work, the celebration of personal achievement, and the inherent value of cooperation. Remember when we could more or less assume everyone shared these values?

 

Challenging The Status Quo

Today, the least challenging way to engage our culture is through reality television. Instead of actively choosing which experiences an audience should be exposed to, our industry has let itself be defined by the search for content which larger and larger numbers of people are willing to accept. After generations spent mining our marketplace for data guiding us towards those projects to which our audience will offer the least resistance, we have gradually built a culture that requires nothing from the audience at all. Innocently enough, all this was done so that when any given project fails to make money, no one person in the system can ever be blamed for the financial loss – but in exchange for corporate job security, this culture is now the framework by which we communicate all matters of politics, science, public health, ethics, morality, and belief to one another as human beings.

That, my friends, is how we came to the place we’re at as a nation.

Rebuilding our cultural authority is a process that will take us decades, but it’s a process we can all engage directly as content creators. Setting an example for our colleagues in the industry is obviously vital, and setting an example for the audience gives them the means to be more discriminating and to help us curate our culture. Here are two simple things that every one of us can do to fix this:

ONE:
Fight the notion that success in Hollywood is a prize that gets handed out to whoever has the coolest idea or holds the winning lottery ticket.

If you haven’t noticed it yet, that value system is a product of our reality TV culture. Instead, start investing in your craft as though you were training for the Olympics. Start investing in the people around you based on how much and how well they develop their own craft. Make it all about the work.

 

Specifically, look at the quality of your contributions to a show not just in terms of how present and dedicated you are on the day of production. Measure yourself with a critical eye toward the day-in, day-out training and preparation you put into making yourself the artist that you are. Be the best person for the job not just because of your creativity and attitude, but because no human being could possibly keep up with your daily, unrelenting pursuit of growth. Embrace the fact that there are some objective measures for greatness and mediocrity in the arts, and turn that truth to your advantage.

Be the strongest example of your craft, and whatever you create becomes your legacy.

TWO:
Provide deliberate leadership to your community and audience. Get to know the craftspeople you’re working with and the audience you’re working for personally. Figure out what challenges these people and what excites them. Make some personal decisions about the work that would enrich their lives, and MAKE THAT. Be the person who’s paying attention to the experiences these people are sharing in common, and offer them something that will help them grow together as a community.

Take personal responsibility not just for the work you do on a production, but for the impact that work is having on the audience and the community your productions are building. If you can offer that community your personal support, then use social media. Show up to events in person, even if it means volunteering. Get involved…

…because someone has to. Because that’s our job. Because we create the tools by which people relate to one another, and because right now those people need our help.


Tennyson E. Stead an award-winning writer and director who carries a decade of experience as an independent film development and finance executive. Today, Stead’s primary labors revolve around writing, directing, and developing cinema and online content as the founder of a repertory film company called 8 Sided Films. This article first appeared on STAGE32.COM

Audio Drama: Big Finish Is A Big Deal

by Bob Tinsley

If you’re a Doctor Who fan and you don’t know about Big Finish Productions you are missing out on one of the best things ever. They started with well-loved TV shows and extended their lives with audio fiction.

Big Finish is a British company that has been turning out exceptional quality Doctor Who (and others, more later) audio stories for twenty years. What makes them different is that they use the original actors whenever they can. Their current stable of original doctors includes Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Peter Davison, and Colin Baker. Not only that, they have many of the original companions from the earlier Doctors as well as those above.

In addition they have other shows such as Dark Shadows, Unit, Jaco & Lightfoot (who appeared in The Talons of Weng Chiang, an episode of the Tom Baker/Louise Jameson run), The Prisoner, and Torchwood, among many others.

Their shows are very reasonably priced compared with Audible. Not only that, they have an enormous amount of free content, including full episodes, and two behind-the-scenes podcasts. There is also an exceptional monthly fanzine, called Vortex, professionally laid out and available, for free, as a PDF or Word doc. It contains news, interviews with cast and crew, including the Doctors, behind-the-scenes info, and fan letters. It is up to issue 121 as of March.

The following is an interview I conducted with Nicholas Briggs, co-executive producer of all things Big Finish.


RT: How did Big Finish get started, about 20 years ago if I remember correctly? Was it a shoestring operation originally?

Nick: It was very much a cottage industry, and our CEO Jason Haigh-Ellery expected to release about six CDs a year for no longer than three years. The original producer worked solely from his bedroom, but when demand and popularity increased, he hired an office space, and CD production doubled to 12 double-disc releases a year. Since then, it’s snowballed somewhat.

RT: What market gap did you see that made you want to start Big Finish?

Nick: Doctor Who wasn’t on the television then. It was in the middle of a 16 year hiatus — which had only been broken by an American TV movie [Doctor Who, 1996] that hadn’t led to a new series being produced. There was a strong core of Doctor Who fans, and many of them had grown-up making audio recordings of classic Doctor Who episodes in the days before even domestic video recorders existed. So to some degree or another, a lot of our potential market were as used to listening to Doctor Who as they were watching it. And in many ways, old Doctor Who sounds better than it looks. The work of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and the many talented composers who wrote music for Doctor Who ensured that some of the ‘cracks’ created by wobbly sets or less than entirely convincing special effects or monsters were very effectively ‘papered over’ by some brilliant sounds and music. Add to that the fact that all of us there at the beginning were huge Doctor Who fans who had produced audio drama for fun, and you can see how we felt strongly that there was a market for Doctor Who audio drama.

RT: How tough was it to get the rights to Doctor Who and the other series?

Nick: It took Jason two goes. The first time round, in 1996, the American TV movie had just been made, and the BBC expected Doctor Who to take off massively. They’d already taken the original fiction Doctor Who books back in house, revoking the licence they had with Virgin Books, in anticipation of this big return of the series. So they weren’t really interested in forging a new relationship with a small company like Big Finish. They also probably thought that if Doctor Who audios were going to be made, they’d be made by the BBC. Sadly, at that time, the resurgence didn’t come along. So, two years later Jason went along again. Doctor Who had very much gone off the boil at the BBC, and so it was relatively easy to get permission.

RT: There are a lot of Doctor Who fanfiction sites over here now, but one thing they haven’t done is expand on the peripheral or supporting characters the way you have. Why did you decide to do that?

Nick: Firstly because we love all elements of the programme. But also because, with not all the Doctors available to us for one reason or another, a way of exploring all eras of the programme is to focus on supporting characters, and tell the stories from their point of view. That’s how The Companion Chronicles came about, for example. The first three Doctors had died quite some years before we started, so their eras were particularly being neglected by us. I thought we should find a way of covering the whole of Doctor Who history, so I suggested stories told by the Doctor’s companions, not least because many of the actors who played them still survived. I’m glad to say that it worked out rather well, and along the way we discovered that some of the actors were very good at imitating the voices of their Doctors.

RT: What gave you the idea to start Vortex and distribute it for free? How much help in maintaining and increasing your fan base do you think that has been?

Nick: This was very much an idea which was pioneered by Jason Haigh-Ellery. We resisted it for a long time, because of the workload involved. But ultimately, we found a brilliantly qualified editor in the person of Paul Spragg, who very quickly took over running it. Since Paul’s tragic, sudden death, our good friend and colleague Kenny Smith (who is a journalist in his day job!) has been doing a brilliant job with it. Our aim is always to give our audience as much free, extra content as we can. And we want to tell the stories of how much love, detail and attention goes into our work. That’s exactly what Vortex delivers, and, of course, it features questions from our listeners too. So it’s very much about getting people involved with us and helping them to get to know Big Finish as an important part of their lives.

RT: In addition to the TV show tie ins you also produce original content, eight new series I think. How has that worked out for you?

Nick: We’re really excited about these Big Finish Originals. It’s a tougher sell, of course, because original fiction does not come with the ready made audience that something like Doctor Who brings. But we are lucky enough to have inspired a lot of loyalty amongst our listeners, so that now we have an audience who will come with us into new territory.

RT: Your FAQ states that you occasionally hold script competitions. Approximately how often do those occur and are submissions from our side of the pond eligible?

Nick: Every year, we run the Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trips opportunity. So it’s not a competition. It’s a way for us to invite people to show us their work. Although there is a ‘winner’ whose work is selected to be produced, we do very often go back to some of the other submissions and commission work from them. We are keen to continually look for exciting new talent, and they can be from anywhere in the world.

Thanks to Nick Briggs for taking time out from an insane schedule to talk to me. If you haven’t already gone to Big Finish (www.bigfinish.com) do so immediately. I would recommend starting on their “Ranges” page. It contains everything they have, collected in different categories, including the free stuff and a “Start Here” category. It’s well worth your time whether you are a Doctor Who fan or just a fan of well-produced audio.


Bob Tinsley is an artist, writer, boataholic and a new pro in the field of Audio Drama. In other words, he’s an expert in finding new marketplaces, as he’s showing us here.