Frank Spotnitz on Creating Complex TV Series

frank spotnitzFrank Spotnitz
(photo by Glen Golightly)

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild Foundation recently hosted an evening with Frank Spotnitz as he shared his experiences and insights from his time writing for a variety of TV series including THE X-FILES, HUNTED, STRIKE BACK, ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION as well as taking us into the world of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, an Amazon series he has written, executive produced and developed. TVWriter.com’s Contributing Editor, Kelly Jo Brick, was there to bring you highlights from the event.

ADVICE FOR WRITERS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREER

My advice would be to have faith in themselves, to not get discouraged, to keep working hard. To know that you are a writer whether anybody’s paying you to write or not. And to be patient because it takes time to get your craft down. The only way to do it is to keep at it.

HOW HE GOT INTO WRITING

I think if you’re a writer there’s something wrong and I say that in the nicest possible way. Something has happened that is not good. It’s made you decide you should spend a long section of your life alone in a room staring at a screen. Why would you do that? There were some things that were not terribly satisfying in my life and part of that was moving around a lot as a child, which I think forced me to be sort of self-sufficient and it’s probably one of the reasons why I lived in my own head a lot. And I had parents who didn’t supervise my television watching.  So I watched thousands of hours, I watched everything.

HOW HE GOT HIS JOB ON THE X-FILES

I moved from Paris back to L.A. to go to film school. Before I started AFI, I was invited to join this book group and in this group were some really interesting people. One of them wrote TV movies for Disney and his name was Chris Carter. So I was in this book group for about two years. We’d meet every few months, read classic books and talk about them over dinner. Chris was a really nice guy, really smart. Then the book group came to an end. I finished film school and I’m watching TV one Friday night and oh, it’s THE X-FILES and Chris Carter, the guy from my book group had written the show. This is pretty good, so I kept watching.

Then toward the end of the first season, a friend of mine, who I’d known since I was ten years old, who also moved out here to be a writer, called me and said, “Frank, don’t you know that guy, Chris Carter?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, I’d like to write some episodes of THE X-FILES, could you call him for me and see if he’d hear my ideas?” Wow, this was really awkward. I’d never even called him to say congratulations on the show. I’m gonna call and ask a favor for a friend? But I had known him since I was ten. So I called. Chris takes my call and he goes, “Nah, I won’t hear your friend’s idea, but if you have an idea.”

It was easy to come up with ideas. I had watched every episode. So I go in, I thought it would just be him, and it was him and two or three other producers, rather intimidating. I pitched these three ideas and he shot them all down. So I left with my tail between my legs. Then like six weeks later, he calls me and says, “I didn’t buy any of your ideas, but they were all good. I’m losing two of my writers, how would you like to come on staff?”

That’s how it happened. I had not written for television, I was just out of film school, completely unqualified, replacing Glen Morgan and Jim Wong. Nothing could be more ridiculous. But I did have an immediate connection to the show and he was the kind of boss who gave you far more responsibility than he should have. So literally on the third day I was there, he sent me to the editing room to fix an episode. The episode was not working, so Frank, you go in and fix it. You’re out of film school. You’ve never worked on a television show before, go in there and fix it. Then he did the same thing, there’s a sound mix, I want you to go in and supervise it. Oh, okay. Somehow I stumbled through and I rose. I was Staff Writer then I was Executive Producer after three years.

WHAT HE LEARNED WORKING ON THE X-FILES

You can never be smart enough. The audience is always smarter than you. No matter how smart you think you are, they’re smarter than you. You can never be ambitious enough. You’d see writers who would come in, and I probably was guilty of it myself once or twice, not often though, and go, “Well, this will be a good episode. This will be good.” And if you say that, it’s going to suck.

Because you can’t aim for the middle and expect to reach the middle. Every time you write an episode, you gotta go, “This is going to be the greatest episode of television ever.” Also, the harder you apply yourself to something, the more energy you have to keep working hard. The moment you go, well, that’s good enough, I’ll stop there. The converse is true.

HOW MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE CAME TO HIM

I had known David Zucker, who is the head of Scott Free’s television arm in Los Angeles, for a long time. I had written another pilot for him that didn’t go. He would come to London and we’d always have lunch. One day he said, “We’ve been trying to make MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE for years. We just struck out with the BBC and now Syfy wants to try. Would you take a crack at it?” HUNTED had just been cancelled so I said yeah. I love that book. I read it in college. We made the deal and I’m going to read this book again. Then I read it again and the book is not a television series. I said to myself, “What am I going to do?”

I asked to see some of the other versions of the script. Good writers, but they completely ignored the book. I realized okay, I’m not going to make exactly the book. So I thought, what’s this book about. What’s he trying to say? What are the central ideas in this book? How can I do a TV narrative that is true to his ideas? His ideas are mind blowing and difficult and complex, but that’s what makes it great. I took a lot of the characters. I added characters, but I was very deliberate and conscious of why I was changing it and just praying people wouldn’t hate me for the changes.

HOW DID HE MAP OUT THE STORY, ESPECIALLY GIVEN THAT PEOPLE MAY BE BINGE-VIEWING IT?

I was very aware that there would be a lot of people to watch it in a day, a weekend or a week and that changes your strategy. When you do episodic television and there’s a week between episodes, there’s a lot of repeating. If you were to do that in a streaming environment, it would be really irritating. So it felt to me like a more novelistic narrative. So in season two, it’s nothing like season one. It’s not the form that we know for TV. It’s like a novel where yes, the characters’ emotional lives absolutely are continuing, but the narrative is not a repeat. You gotta keep going forward and be fearless. It’s a huge canvas. You have a whole world to tell stories in and we just barely got a glimpse of it in season one.

The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.


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.

Love & Money Dept – TV Writing Deals for 10/19/14

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Latest News About Writers Who Are Doing Better Than We Are
by munchman

  • Justin Halpern & Patrick Schumacker (SURVIVING JACK) are adapting astronaut Chris Hadfield‘s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, into a comedy for ABC. (Cuz, hey, they did great with their last astronaut comedy, didn’t they? You know…a little thing called I DREAM OF JEANNIE. No, Jeannie wasn’t the astronaut, dammit. That was Tony, her, you know, “master.” And, no, yer friendly neighborhood munchboy isn’t going into it any further cuz that’d be like marooning myself so I was Lost In Space….)
  • Wilson Bethel (HART OF DIXIE) has a deal to write an as-yet-unknown drama pilot at The CW. (Nope, not cuz he’s done such a great job of writing on HART cuz he hasn’t. He stars in that show…but, hey, this Hollywood, remember?)
  • Frank Spotnitz (TRANSPORTER) is developing RANSOM, a series about a hostage negotiator set for international exploitation presentation.  (Ooh, a series where week after week the hero talks to crazy and dangerous people and somehow he and the hostages all manage to survive. Oh, well, seeing the titles will probably be great for insomnia. Wonder if the FDA will approve it.)
  • Mark Cherry (DEVIOUS MAIDS) and Neal Baer (UNDER THE DOME) have partnered to create a series for The CW called CHEERLEADER DEATH SQUAD. (Honest. I swear to whatever god it is who cares that we swear. That’s the name. And no, I don’t have any more info than that although it may be available elsewhere cuz the name was enough for me to expectorate a little and call my mommy to ask if it’s okay if I move back into her womb. Sorry death squad and cheerleader fans.)

That’s it for now. Write in and tell munchilito what you’ve sold today. TVWriter™ can’t wait to brag to all your friends. (And, more importantly, enemies. Hehehe….)

Love & Money Dept – TV Writing Deals for 7/31/14

Latest News About Writers Who Are Doing Better Than We Are
by munchman

  • Frank Spotnitz (THE X-FILES) is adapting Phil Dick‘s mucho-kudo’ed masterpiece of fiction, The Man in the High Castle into a pilot for an Amazon Studios series. (There is so much wonderfulness in that sentence that I just have to sit back and taste it for a beat. If this comes anywhere near yer friendly neighborhood muncher’s expectations, I promise to stop mocking Amazon and except it as, oh, almost a genuine, professional studio-network-whatever. And who knows? Maybe I’ll toss out the “almost” bit too.)
  • Warren Ellis (currently a big deal comic book writer, don’tcha know?) has a deal with Universal Cable Productions to write an as-yet-untitled pilot about an as-yet-unspecified bunch of characters engaged in as-yet-unspecified, um, stuff. (I can hear the Warren Ellis fans celebrating already. As well that should.)
  • Taylor Elmore (JUSTIFIED) has a new overall deal with CBS TV Studios to develop and write and produce and all that good stuff that we all want to do. (And while I’m not a member of the JUSTIFIED Rave Society, I wish the Tayman all the luck and success in the world. Cuz I just can’t help meself. Y’all know how positive a nature the munchman has.)
  • Charlie Kaufman‘s (INSIDE JOHN MALKOVICH) FX pilot isn’t going to series after all. (Proving that even the A+ listers can get crapped on. Sorry, Charlie – and believe me, I mean it. Cuz if they can reject Charlie Kaufman, what chance do the rest of us writerly types have?)

Love & Money Dept – TV Writing Deals for 4/22/14

Latest News About Writers Who Are Doing Better Than We Are
by munchman

  • Frank Spotnitz (X FILES) & Nicholas Meyer (HOUDINI) have created the ultimate crime series: FREUD: THE SECRET CASEBOOK. (That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that it’s being set up in the UK, which means that most likely the show will take its sweet time coming to where we in the U.S. can see it without doing something illegal.)
  • Pivot TV has announced a whole passel of new shows for, you know, “younger viewers,” as in the same obnoxious demo that all TV shows these days are made for but presented as though only Pivot is doing this. Yer Friendly Neighborhood munchman is especially interested in FORTITUDE, created and run by Simon Donald (LOW WINTER SUN). (Cuz it’s set in – get this – “the Arctic town of Fortitude…surrounded by the savage beauty of the polar landscape,” and if there’s one thing this munchy one loves its looking at barren wastelands for at least an hour a week.)
  • Speaking of barren wastelands, Pivot also has LEADER TOWN, an animated comedy about an American family trying to fit into a Russian town, created and showrun by THE SIMPSONS’ Jeff Westbrook. (Warning note: This particular wasteland is a moral-ethical one. The town is where “the world’s deposed ex-leaders…live out their lives in luxury using their ill-goten gains.” Oh well, if there’s one thing THE SIMPSONS writers know about it’s…yeah, you guessed it, moral-ethical dilemmas.)

Love & Money Dept – TV Writing Deals for 4/17/14

Latest News About Writers Who Are Doing Better Than We Are
by munchman

  • Felicia Day (the Queen of Interweb Series) is developing a paranormal type thriller series for Hulu with Bryan Singer. (And since Yer Friendly Neighborhood munchman is a huge fan of Felicia’s, the fact that I don’t trust anything with Bryan Singer’s name on it isn’t gonna stop me from watching.)
  • Frank Spotnitz (TRANSPORTER: THE SERIES) has a new overall deal with Tandem Productions for the usual development stuff. (Anyone notice how much better a writer-producer Frank has become since moving his business to London. Guess he’s just gotta work a lot harder now to pay all those Brit taxes. Whatever it is, it’s a positive for viewers everywhere.)
  • Jeremy Dorner (THE KILLING) is developing RADIANT DOORS, based on Michael Swanwick’s short story, for WGN America. (Another “dystopian drama! Wowser, the munchie one can hardly wait – cuz fake dystopias are oh-so-much more fun than the real one we now live in.)
  • Christian Taylor (TEEN WOLF) is the new showrunner of the upcoming MTV “cyber thriller,” EYE CANDY, based on a book by the ever-popular R.L.Stine. (Watch out, fans. This is a complete retooling of the original pilot, which can mean only one thing: The powers-that-be don’t get whatever there is to be gotten from the original series of books featuring the character Victoria Justice.)