Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Mark Goffman

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Lindsay and Mark Goffman
Lindsay and Mark Goffman

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.

Originally intending to be a speechwriter, Mark Goffman’s career led him to writing for a magazine in Brussels before he eventually got into the Warner Bros. Writers’ Workshop as a comedy writer. Since transitioning to drama, Mark has written for THE WEST WING, LAW & ORDER: SVU, WHITE COLLAR, ELEMENTARY, LIMITLESS and SLEEPY HOLLOW. In 2014, The Hollywood Reporter named Goffman as one of the 50 most influential showrunners.

WHEN AND HOW DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I’ve always written. I didn’t know I wanted to do it professionally for a long time. I wrote a book about a monkey that went into outer space when I was five. My step-grandmother used to tell me how wonderful that story was. She was a big fan. She really pushed me in the creative arts and encouraged it.

Three days after I graduated college I moved to Brussels and decided I was going to find a job there. Luckily I got this job working at the American Chamber of Commerce for their magazine. I really liked writing about international relations and politics and I was an Economics and Philosophy major, so I thought that you could make the world a better place by fostering greater relations and economies. From there I went to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I intended to do speechwriting and I consulted for a while.

I wrote some non-fiction and short stories on the side. One of them I gave to my brother, who was the only person at the time reading my fiction. He happened to be living in New York and dating a woman who was an assistant at an agency. I think the material was left on his kitchen table and she happened to pick it up and read it, really liked it, gave it to an agent, who then gave it to an agent in LA, who gave it to a producer. I was still at the Kennedy School studying for finals and I got a call that this producer wanted to meet with me about turning this short story into a movie.

I flew out to LA and it was zero degrees when I left Boston and it was 75 when I met with this producer in Pacific Palisades. I thought wow, I can do this and the weather’s nice and I can actually make up the facts. That sounds pretty cool. So after I graduated, I worked on that script for a while. It never got made, but it got me out there and got an agent and then I got into the Warner Bros. Workshop. I was accepted into the workshop for comedy writing. I had this reaction, oh, I just came from government, I need to show that I can write anything and not just about politics, so I wrote a SEINFELD episode.

WERE THERE ANY TV SHOWS THAT INFLUENCED YOU?

There were a few. FAMILY TIES was one of the first I remember that I just loved. It was a fantastic show. There were a lot of movies that really influenced me. INDIANA JONES and STAR WARS were like magic and really fostered and inspired me to have a sense of adventure and wonder about the world. I tried to bring that to my writing.

On the non-fiction side, I’ve always been interested in politics and public policy and history and so one of the really fun things about working on SLEEPY HOLLOW, was getting to combine all of those in one show. It’s a real blend and it’s fun to rewrite history from the point of view of the supernatural.

WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET ASKED BY ASPIRING WRITERS?

The most common question that I get is about how to get their material into the right hands and ironically I think that’s the last thing that you need to worry about, especially when you’re first writing.

Typically great material finds its way out there. All of us from executive producers and writers to producers and development executives are starving for great material, so to find those really special scripts that move you, make you think, laugh, look at a character differently, those are the ones you remember and stay with you. You gotta be one of those scripts. Those scripts will end up in the hands of the people who need to get them, eventually.

It might take a lot longer than you think, but don’t worry as much about the process of where to get them to, because as you start to give your script out to people you trust and like, then you’ll know when the script is ready, because those people will suddenly start to offer to send it to other people.

WHAT WAS SOME OF THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT YOUR CAREER?

Don’t get too precious about any one piece of material when you’re first starting out.   Write lots of things and as soon as you finish a script, start the next one.

I think it’s also important to try different genres. I made a point early on to do at least one project a year that is well outside of my comfort zone. That resulted in a documentary about ventriloquists, a play, a novel and a short film. Each of those really helped me grow as a writer and creator of entertainment.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB AS A STAFF WRITER?

My first staff job was on a half-hour comedy called ODD MAN OUT. I got that job through the Warner Bros. Writing Program. It was fun because on the one hand I was terrified. It was my first real staff job and I’d been given every piece of advice from don’t say anything for the first two months, to jump in at any point and you’ve got to feel your way because every room is different.

The truth is there are rooms where they don’t want staff writers to speak until spoken to and others where they’re supposed to be story machines and others where they’re joke machines and you just have to feel it out.

The biggest surprise was, I’d prepared and had three really good stories I was really proud of on the first day that I was going to pitch because they said to come in with something you want to write about. I pitched all three on the first day and they’re like, “Great, we really like those.” Then day two they’re like, “Okay, what do you have?” I’m like, “Oh, I had ideas yesterday.” You realize you have to be very facile and you write every day.  Learning to hone that is part of the fun and collaboration of being on staff.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS AT THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?

I would say change your idea or adjust your idea of what success looks like, because it doesn’t have to be getting a script made or sold. Every script I’ve written has gotten me to where I am today because I used pieces of what I’ve learned from that experience, or met people along the way who became great friends or mentors and people who I would bounce ideas off of and that’s as important as anything else.

There were a lot of smaller steps to getting to that one big break where I finally got on THE WEST WING. Every one of those had to happen in order to get me to the next step and so a lot of the experience that I got in writing many scripts that no one should ever read, are still a part of that process.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

What Have We Learned from the 1st Week of the 2012 Season?

Some interesting bits, actually:

After One Week, Which TV Shows Look Good and Which Seem Doomed? – by Josef Adalian

Congratulations, fellow TV viewers: We’ve survived another premiere week! The networks threw all manner of new shows our way and forced us to fill our DVRs to bursting with returning favorites. It seems only fair that we repay their kindness by rushing to judgement about how their new lineups fared out of the gate, from the obvious winners to the Romney-esque losers. Yes, yes: One week does not a season make, particularly in an era when shows debut year-round and many viewers watch shows on their own damn schedules. But that caveat aside, we still think there are some early lessons to be drawn from the early days of the new season.

It’s more important than ever to pay attention to time-shifted viewing...

NBC has emerged from the Dark Ages

Fox is off to a rocky start...

We can already tell which shows are sticking around and which are doomed

TV’s grizzled veterans continue to defy gravity

Read the details

How “High Concept” Does Your Concept Have to Be?

No point in guessing. Just compare it to the premises for the shows below. Remember, regardless of what their ultimate fates may be, all these shows had premises that got them to the starting line…and scripts that took them beyond:

The Premise-O-Meter: Ranking the New TV Dramas – by Margaret Lyons (Vulture.Com)

ABC’s submarine drama Last Resort premieres tonight, and it’s a doozy: action, adventure, shouting, you name it. It’s great! But man, the show is heavy on concept: There’s a submarine, see, and it’s given an order to nuke Pakistan, but the captain doubts the integrity of the order, so he refuses to go through with it, and then they take over an island, and renegades, and the president, and a secret submarine prototype, and on and on and on. It’s a lot of premise. Not every fall show has this problem, though — there’s the other end of the spectrum, too, the premise-less end, the end where the show is about nothing and has nothing to say. Here are all your new fall dramas, ranked in order of complexity.

ACK! THAT’S A LOT OF PREMISE

Last Resort: See above.

Revolution: A close second. There’s a global blackout, and 15 years later, everything is run by scary militias, and there are freedom fighters and people who want to turn the lights back on, and a lady with a secret internet in her attic, and a girl whose parents are dead, and there’s sword-fighting and a few jokes. So far, the show is heavy on concept and light on character.

666 Park Avenue: An attractive young couple moves into the Manhattan apartment of their dreams, only to discover that the building and its residents are possessed by dark, supernatural forces. It’s sort of like Revenge, but with the devil instead of vengeance.

Nashville: A country music legend grapples with her fading stardom and there’s a young up-and-comer who’s trying to push her out of the spotlight. Enough of a hook to be a soap, but not so much nonsense that it feels like a bad episode of Melrose Place.

Elementary: Sherlock Holmes is now a British ex-pat living in present-day New York; Watson is now a woman and is Holmes’s sober-living companion. It’s fancy, but it’s still just a procedural.

Vegas: Just a ’70s cop show.

Chicago Fire: Dick Wolf made a show about firefighters. It’s sort of like Third Watch, except much dumber.

Emily Owens, MD: She’s a doctor. Mean girls exist.

The Mob Doctor: She’s a doctor. The mob exists.

Made In Jersey: She’s a lawyer. New Jersey exists.

ACK! THAT IS NOT ENOUGH OF A PREMISE

Yes, you’re right. The networks do not practice what they preach. Ask  your teachers in the film-TV department what that means. Let us know if they can even pretend to have an answer.

Are These The Best Shows of the Coming Season?

Writer Alison Willmore of IndieWire.Com thinks so, but we aren’t so sure:

Fall’s Five Most Promising-Looking New Network TV Shows – by Alison Willmore

Summer has come to an unofficial end, and with fall arrives the start of the TV season and a host of shiny new series. While the cable channels are on a year-round calendar these days, staggering their shows’ seasons throughout the year, the broadcast networks still use September and October to launch the majority of their returning and first-time programs. While the offerings on the big four networks don’t tend to display the creative freedom that cable series do, there’s always the chance that a new “30 Rock,” “Community” or “The Good Wife” sneaks in under the radar. Here are our picks for the five most promising-looking new shows on the big networks this fall, from a 1960s-set Western to a supernatural drama.

“666 Park Avenue”
Premiere: Sunday, September 30, at 10pm on ABC

The idea of something demonic lurking in the upscale apartment blocks of the Upper East Side is an appealing one — how else do people afford those rents?…

“Elementary”
Premiere: Tuesday, September 25, at 10pm on CBS

Obviously, if we had to choose only one modern-day interpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character, it would be the delightfully snippy incarnation of the legendary detective engineered by BBC and Benedict Cumberbatch

“The Mindy Project”
Premiere: Tuesday, September 25, at 9:30pm on Fox

“The Office” alum Mindy Kaling is a welcome addition to the continuing evolution and growing prominence of funny women on the big and small screens…

“Nashville”
Premiere: Wednesday, October 10, at 10pm on ABC

Connie Britton stole our hearts as mother (or for some, MILF) extraordinaire Tami Taylor on “Friday Night Lights,” and her well-deserved lead role in the ABC drama “Nashville,” written and created by Oscar-winning “Thelma & Louise” screenwriter Callie Khouri, suggests that her steel magnolia stylings are going to be put to appropriate use…

“Vegas”
Premiere: Tuesday, September 25, at 10pm on CBS

So last year’s “Mad Men” knockoffs “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am” didn’t make it to a second season (or, in the case of the former, very far into a first season). But while “Vegas” may also be set in the ’60s, it’s not another saga of retro drinking habits and sexism in one of our nation’s urban centers. “Vegas” is a Western, one set in the title town several decades before the arrival of the flagship “CSI” series…

Read it all

Sorry Alison, but only 1 of your 5 choices has a chance of working for me. THE MINDY PROJECT and NASHVILLE are for chicks, which leaves me out. The BBC’s SHERLOCK satisfies my need for, um, Sherlock so why settle for ELEMENTARY? And VEGAS? C’mon, we’re talking about the most overrated city in the U.S. With one of the country’s dullest actors in the lead.

But 666 PARK AVENUE, that we’ll check out. A Satanic building New York City’s Upper East Side? Which one isn’t? Sold.

ELEMENTARY Messing Too Much With Conan Doyle?

Comic-Con 2012: ‘Elementary’ Cast, Creators Defend Female Watson
by Lesley Goldberg

Sherlock Holmes has crossed the pond and arrived in New York, with CBS’ fresh take on the famed detective, Elementary, meeting the make-or-break audiences of Comic-Con.

Starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, the modern-day telling features Holmes relocating to the U.S., where he assists the NYPD in solving difficult cases. Liu takes on the role of Dr. Joan Watson — that’s right, Holmes’ right-hand man is a lovely lady — assigned to oversee Sherlock’s newfound sobriety…

Meanwhile, the pilot makes several references to Holmes’ unseen father, with the series creator noting that the character will “cast a shadow over a lot of what we do in the early goings.”

“I love the idea of him as a mysterious shadowy figure we’ll get to build and make a part of the series,” Doherty said.

Read it all

They had us at “Jonny Lee Miller, but we were gone at “Holmes’ unseen father.” Why that bugs us when we’re okay with Watson being an Asian woman and the whole thing being set in the U.S. in contemporary times and Holmes being fresh out of rehab we don’t know.

Maybe it’s our own daddy issues, but it seems to us that most, if not all, of the great mythological and literary heroes don’t have dads, or certainly don’t have their  fathers “casting a shadow over a lot of what we do….” Even when the daddies are gods they usually just, you know, spill their seed and move on and the kids don’t really care.

So we’ll be watching ELEMENTARY, but we’ll also be casting our own shadow over this show in a kind of “one false move and you’re out” Big Daddy sort of way.