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.

Kelly Jo Brick: Takeaways from the Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference

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Terry Rossio and Shane Black in Austin, TX.  Photo courtesy of Austin Film Festival (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference, an event dedicated to focusing on writers’ contributions to television and film, celebrated its 22nd year by bringing together aspiring and established writers, producers, filmmakers, development executives, agents, managers and directors.

Attendees to the screenwriting conference had the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of panels on writing for television and film. TVWriter.com was there to bring you some of the top takeaways from the event.

ABOUT BREAKING IN –

  • “To me, a good script is a good script, is a good script.” It takes writing 12 scripts to finally hit your groove as a writer. Write pilots and features to find your voice, then write a spec or two of a current show just so you know you can write in another’s voice and, “Don’t submit a script unless it’s good. You only get one shot.” – Matthew Gross, Producer, BODY OF PROOF, DIRTY SEXY MONEY
  • “Don’t just write one pilot. Write ten of them. Don’t ever stop.” The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh are going to be better. Keep writing. — Mark Goffman, LIMITLESS, SLEEPY HOLLOW
  • Write plays. Many showrunners expressed their interest in reading and considering plays as a writing sample for staffing.
  • Writers tend to isolate themselves. Surround yourself with other writers and supporters. If you’re part of a herd, you’re protected. You might get jostled around, a little banged up, but when you’re in the group, a cheetah isn’t going to be able to grab you like it would if you were on your own. – Shane Black, LETHAL WEAPON
  • “If you can possibly give it up, give it up. The only reason you should do this is because you have no choice.” – Wes Brown, GOLIATH
  • “Don’t give out your script until it’s absolutely ready.” You only get one chance. First impressions are important. – Lindsay Goffman, Head of Development 3AD.
  • Always have something else, another script, ideas you could pitch. As a writer, keep cranking out content. – Matthew McDuffie, ODD GIRL OUT, BURNING BODHI
  • Your first script to get in will often never get made, but it helps you develop your voice and get in. – Mark Swift, FREDDY VS. JASON, FRIDAY THE 13TH

TAKING MEETINGS

  • “It all starts with the material and the talent.” Never undercut the value that you represent, so when you go into a meeting, own the space. You are worthy and deserve to be there. – Shane Black
  • Be confident. Breathe and remember, “This is my time. This is my space. This is the chair they’re paying me to be in.” — Pamela Ribon, SAMANTHA WHO?, HOT PROPERTIES
  • When you go into a meeting own it. If they ask if you’ve thought of changing something, don’t immediately say yes. Own what you created, so your passion shows. – Erika Weinstein, Director of Scripted Programming at AMC
  • Have questions. – Amy Berg, COUNTERPART, DA VINCI’S DEMONS

WHEN YOU GET ON A STAFF

  • The process of finding your place in the room can be interesting, “Figure out how you serve the showrunner and make his/her life easier.” — Chris Provenzano, JUSTIFIED, MAD MEN
  • “Working in a writers’ room is about serving the showrunner.”  Every showrunner is different so take time to learn what he or she needs and wants. – Stu Zicherman, THE AMERICANS

CHOOSING WHAT TO WRITE

  • “Write what excites you.” – Lindsay Goffman
  • “If you chase anything in the marketplace, it’s gone by the time you get there. So make something as unique as possible.” — Chris Provenzano
  • When you’re starting out, “Write your best stuff and forget about the budget. Get it down. Today that’s not your problem. Today your problem is to tell the story,” Jeb Stuart, DIE HARD.
  • An idea has no value. Write, write, write. – Nancy Pimental, SHAMELESS, SOUTH PARK
  • “There’s a channel for pretty much whatever you want to create.” Write to your strength and passion. Let the cards fall from there and with so many outlets out there, it will find the right home. – Mark Goffman
  • The next script can rebrand you. Only you can write yourself into a corner. – Amy Berg
  • “Starting is the hardest part.” You just have to start, period. – Shane Black

STORYTELLING

  • Action should always further story or character.  “If you imbed the story in the action, they can’t cut it.” – Jeb Stuart
  • Stories are like making coffee, they occur in drips and drops. You have to let it percolate, after a while, it be will become thick and rich. – Shane Black

DEALING WITH YOUR NEGATIVE INNER VOICE

  • Reason with it, then go watch TV. The people who wrote those shows got through it, you can too. – Issa Rae, THE MISADVENTURES OF AWKWARD BLACK GIRL
  • Keep writing. Your mind gets distracted by the problems and interest of writing and loses that fear. – Shane Black
  • Enjoy the process. We all have fear and self-loathing. Celebrate all the small victories. – Mark Swift

GETTING NOTES

  • Listen first, because they’re noticing something that didn’t work. Even if the advice seems dumb, there is an issue and you have to figure out what they’re really noticing and find a solution. – Peter Craig, THE TOWN, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PARTS I AND II.
  • Hear the note behind the note. They’re not giving you the answer, but something isn’t working and it’s up to you as the writer to figure it out. As you approach the note, be humble and smart and remind yourself, “I can do it. I’m good enough. I can come up with something else.” — Chris Provenzano

Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. 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.