Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with DESIGNATED SURVIVOR’S Jeff Melvoin, Part 1

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

by Kelly Jo Brick

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, hard work and not giving up.

From high school in Highland Park, IL, to studying at Harvard, Jeff Melvoin found theater to be a strong influence on his creative ambitions. After working for trade publications, Jeff went on to be a correspondent for Time in New York then Boston. He transferred to Time’s Los Angeles office before eventually making the move to television where he landed a spot on the staff of REMINGTON STEELE. He’s been the executive producer for multiple series including ALIAS, ARMY WIVES and DESIGNATED SURVIVOR.

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

I was drawn to writing or to doing something creative as early as elementary school. I would go to the movies and come home and have to tell everybody everything that happened from beginning to end. When I entered high school and life got a little more serious, I thought I was going to be an attorney like my father. I started out in the Debate Club and I had some success there, but I found out I wasn’t enjoying it. Then in high school I fell under the influence of a very powerful and terrific drama teacher. Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry were two of my acting companions while I was there, so that’s just an indication of the level of excellent instruction we had.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY?

Writing for REMINGTON STEELE. What happened was, when I graduated from college, I did not have the confidence or any basis to start a career in the arts. I ended up back in the Chicago area, living at home for a brief period of time. I put together a resume for publishing and for journalism, because I figured I wanted to make a living somehow involved in writing. I had an uncle in the furniture business and he knew the guy who published their furniture paper, so I got a job working for some trade publications, Fairchild Publications, which published Women’s Wear Daily and a bunch of things. That led to an offer from Time magazine.

At 25 I became a correspondent for Time. It turns out they were trying to augment their ranks with some younger writers. I said, well this isn’t really what I want to do, but I’m only 25, I can do this for five years and quit when I’m 30 and still have my creative life ahead of me. The experience was great. I worked for them in New York. I went to Boston, then I requested a transfer to Los Angeles. They transferred me to Los Angeles, I gave them a good year and a half in Los Angeles and I was approaching my thirtieth birthday, I had a string of good stories for Time and so I left on a high. Then I called a friend of mine and I said, “Now what do I do?” He asked what I wanted to do and I said that I wanted to write scripts.

The way it worked back then was that you wrote spec material for existing shows. REMINGTON STEELE had just come on and I thought it was very clever. I wrote a spec REMINGTON STEELE. They actually bought a scene from it and put it into an existing episode and said if the show was renewed, we’ll bring you back. The show was renewed so they had me work on a script and while I was working on a script, they made me an offer to join as a staff writer.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES EARLY ON IN YOUR CAREER?

The business is a lot different now than it was when I broke in. I was every bit as nervous as everybody was breaking in. Breaking into TV has never been easy and writing well has never been easy, but there was less competition. I was lucky enough working on REMINGTON STEELE. It was a show where you could learn and make your mistakes with a kind boss. Where things became rougher and more challenging is when suddenly you’re becoming more of an actual producer and being responsible for other people’s work. That transition was tough and I think is tough for a lot of people.

The biggest challenge was making the jump to my next job, which was co-executive producer on HILL STREET BLUES. I had spent three years on REMINGTON STEELE, but HILL STREET was a big challenge because it was in its seventh year and its final year. We were trying to keep a show alive that had been terrific, but was reaching the end of the road. Making that jump in responsibility and handling the various different creative forces involved, that took a lot. It was trial by fire and you’re always learning.

WHAT CAREER AND WRITING ADVICE REALLY STUCK WITH YOU?

Most everything I learned that’s really put me in good stead in this business, I learned in high school from my drama teacher. She always said, “Play to the one smart person in the audience.” If there’s a choice between just doing something generic and having the specific and really knowing that somebody’s going to appreciate the fact that you actually took the time to find out how people speak in this particular environment or you got the detail right, that was important. In terms of attitude, she would always say that a show, whatever show we were doing, was a gift that we give the audience. I always thought that was a lovely way to think about preparing things and also how you treated other people. She was a stickler for everybody was an equal part of the production, whether it’s the star of the show or the second assistant prop person. Everybody has an equal stake in it. I think that’s important too.

There are so many things that Michael Gleason taught me about good writing and what to avoid. That meant some bad habits were shaken out early, like he wouldn’t allow us on REMINGTON STEELE to have mobsters or psychopaths as villains. Mobsters were too easy and psychopaths, well they can do anything because they’re crazy, so you didn’t have to do human motivation there.

I was very plot oriented, I’d written my thesis on detective fiction and so I tended to be very concerned about all the pieces fitting, but your job is to entertain and pace can cover a lot of problems. Raymond Chandler once wrote that when things get dull, have two men break into the room with guns. I didn’t fully appreciate how wise that bit of advice is, but I remember Michael Gleason once saying to me, “What happened to that little scene in there?” I forget what it was exactly. I said, “I couldn’t make it work.” And he said, “But it was funny. Make it work.” It was the destination, these little side excursions that were as important as the final goal. You just pick up stuff like that.

A friend of mine, John Wirth, who worked on NASH BRIDGES, apparently got this expression from Cheech Marin, which I’ve used often since, “There’s two ways to learn in life, the hard way and the harder way.” There is no easy way, but there are harder ways to learn and try to avoid those and learn as quickly as you can with minimal pain, but it’s going to be painful.

Coming Soon: Jeff shares advice on taking meetings and choosing what to write as your sample, plus what he looks for when hiring writers.


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.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Manager Zadoc Angell, Part 1

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

by Kelly Jo Brick

zadocucla

Finding the right representation can be a key component to growing and developing a writing career. TVWriter.com sat down with several managers to find out what they’re looking for in writers and what writers can be doing to help achieve success in the industry.

Literary Manager Zadoc Angell was always interested in the arts. David E. Kelley shows like Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, The Practice and Chicago Hope drew him to the entertainment industry. While in college at Harvard, he did five internships over two summers including working at Malcolm in the Middle, Carsey-Werner-Mandabach and The Bold and the Beautiful. He got his start at the boutique agency, Genesis, which was eventually bought out by Paradigm. After three years working as an agent, Zadoc transitioned into management, first working at Artists International before making the move to Echo Lake Entertainment.

WHY THE SWITCH FROM AGENT TO MANAGER?

Agency culture was not the perfect fit for me. I wanted something that was more creative, more nurturing, where I could be closer to my clients, more creative, more hands on, more thoughtful and strategic. I thought that might be management, but it took my current colleague, Dave Brown, recruiting me into management. He really saw the potential. He wanted somebody who was an expert in TV Lit. and that’s all I’ve done over these years. We had worked together at Genesis when I first moved out here in 2003. He recruited me and I am so thankful that he did because right away it felt like the right fit for my talents and skills and experiences.

I think my years as an agent helped so much in making me a great manager, because I already built a foundation of relationships. I know how to negotiate. I know how to sell. I’m not afraid of picking up the phone and calling a showrunner. It gave me a lot of skill sets and access that have really benefited me as a manager.

WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU GOT AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

When I was training for my first assistant desk the woman who trained me said, “Go to drinks with your fellow assistants.” It’s so simple, but the networking is a big part of it. I think whether on the business side or the creative side you have to be willing to be vulnerable and to ask people out to not just drinks, but dinners.

I do it constantly. I’m booked for breakfast, lunch, and dinner almost every day. I’m on the sales side, so that’s a big part of my job, but I think the same goes true for everybody. Everyone has to work on their network of relationships and not be afraid to introduce yourself to new people or someone you’ve only talked on the phone once. Ask them out. And the good thing is, everyone in the business does it.

WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET ASKED BY WRITERS THAT ARE LOOKING TO BREAK IN?

If it’s anywhere not in Los Angeles, the number one question is, “Do I have to move to LA?” Which is yes. If it’s in LA, people still ask the benefits of writing a spec of an existing TV series versus writing an original pilot. I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation. People stopped sending specs out as writers’ primary writing samples I want to say 9, 10 years ago. Once in a while you have a show that’s kind of old school and wants specs, but working TV writers don’t write them anymore.

The only reason to write them is to learn the craft. There’s value in analyzing your favorite television show and figuring out how you would crack that for yourself. It helps you understand the mechanics of TV and you can use those samples to get in most of the diversity programs.

We’re in an era of the original voice. That’s what people want. The young writers that we have now are way ahead of the older writers who came up through the spec system, because our young writers are writing original material from day one and coming up with lots of ideas. A pilot is one of the hardest things to write. It’s way more complicated than a screenplay and you put a lot of pressure on young writers to be able to write at that level right out of the gate, but it does kind of cull the herd a little bit and you see who can really crack that nut.

HOW DOES A WRITER GET HIS/HER MATERIAL TO YOU?

It’s tough. Most of the new clients that I consider are referrals from other people in the business who are established. Sometimes agents will send me their clients, sometimes lawyers, sometimes executives are doing a favor for a friend. Sometimes clients will refer friends who they think are talented to us. Usually the personal referral basis is how it tends to happen. Once in a while I’ve judged writing competitions and have found a client, but they are few and far between. I think most of the time it’s personal referrals.

WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT A WRITER, BEYOND THE WRITING, WHAT MAKES SOMEONE STAND OUT?

The writing is the calling card. You do have to love the material in order to meet with someone. Sometimes you’ll ask for more than one sample because what you don’t want is someone who is just a one hit wonder, so don’t be surprised if you get asked for more than one sample.

Once you get the meeting and you are in the room, we always look for a person’s personal salesmanship of themselves because that’s a huge part of being in this business, especially as a TV writer. TV writing is so social. You’re in a room together all day long. You hang out with each other, hire each other on different shows year after year after year. The social is as important as the writing, but you have to know the writing is what gets you the face-to-face meeting. That’s true with representatives. That’s true with executives. That’s true with showrunners.

Our job as managers and agents is to help open doors for a writer. But what really sucks is when you have a great piece of material, doors open and the writer goes in and they aren’t great in the meeting or they aren’t good about talking about themselves or they’re just not memorable. Not every meeting can be an A+, but some writers are shockingly bad about talking about themselves, which is essentially what a general meeting is.

Writers need to prepare what they want another person to know about themselves. What their key selling points are. Be able to talk about your life story in an interesting way. People will think their own life stories are boring. Not everyone can grow up on a dairy farm and come to Hollywood like I did. I love my story, I love telling it, but I want my clients to love their stories too.

Talk about where you’re from and if you are that kid that grew up in Orange County and went to USC and now you work in TV and film, still find a way to make it interesting. Find points in your life story where you maybe took a different path or made an unexpected choice or, if you’re a comedy writer, had something really funny and embarrassing happen to you.

Coming Soon – Part 2 with Manager Zadoc Angell as he shares advice about taking meetings, breaking in and mistakes he sees writers making.


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.