Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Michael Peterson

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

by Kelly Jo Brick

IMG_1650

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.

Michael Peterson moved to L.A. with the goal of being involved in film, initially leaning toward directing. Once in California, he began writing features with his brother. Although several projects sold, none were ever made. At his wife’s suggestion, he transitioned to television and found the collaboration and camaraderie of the writers’ room more suited for him. Michael’s first TV show was BONES where through the years he has risen from staff writer to showrunner.

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON QUESTIONS YOU’RE ASKED BY ASPIRING WRITERS?

How do I do it? How do I break in? What will lead to that break? What will get me an agent, a manager? I’m a big believer in the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour theory. You need to have many ideas. Don’t be precious with your ideas. I’ve met people who’ve written just one script over the course of five years. You can’t do that. You’re holding it too dear. Just write all the time. Don’t find an excuse to not write.

WERE THERE ANY TV SHOWS OR MOVIES THAT INSPIRED YOU AS A WRITER?

I was a child of Spielberg. That was a huge influence to me. Also my dad was always good at finding interesting things that most people didn’t watch and introducing me to stuff.

In college I changed my schedule around because I found out the library had these places where you could just sit down, put on earphones and watch a movie. So I would schedule my classes and have two to three hour breaks in between each class so that I could watch a movie in between classes. I worked my way through every list I could find. The top 100 movies of all time. Every single one. I wanted to know everything. That’s been great. Not everybody has a real encyclopedic knowledge of their own medium, so it’s useful. I would recommend to everybody. Just see everything you possibly can. It helps.

WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED WHEN YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

The first time in the writers’ room I was basically told that you have two times to pitch it and you gotta shut up the third time. Two strikes and you’re out. The person running the room at the time told me very bluntly, she said, “Michael, shut the #%@! up.” It was the best advice I was ever given. Because there are times where you just have to give up or come at it from a different angle. You can’t just beat people down into submission.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?

I didn’t know anybody. At the time my brother was living in San Francisco doing video games and he knew one person. This guy had been a producer on one of the STAR WARS films. I went up and met with this guy and asked if he had any advice for me. He said, “Offer your services for free. Someone will hire you and then once you prove yourself, you’ll start to get paid.”

So I came down to L.A. and basically went around offering my services. I met at this company, Valdoro Entertainment which is Steven de Souza’s company, he wrote 48 HOURS, DIE HARD, DIE HARD 2. He was pretty much the hottest writer in town.

It was very funny, I was waiting for the interview and the woman in charge of the office had to get up and take care of another candidate. The phone started ringing. I had seen her answering the phone, “Valdoro Entertainment.” So I just picked up the phone myself, I’m like, “Valdoro Entertainment,” and it was Steven on the line. We talked for a minute and I took down the message. The office manager came back and I go, “By the way Steven called, here’s the message.” She got a kick out of that and the next thing you know, I was hired.

That was my first real foray. I felt great. I wasn’t getting paid, but I’d been in L.A. for four days and I got a job working for a big writer and learned a ton. I was there for like 2 ½ years.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR TRANSITION FROM FEATURES TO TV.

The transition was inspired by my wife who just said, “Let’s go get a steady job, that seems like a nice way to go.”

I was actually feverish and sitting there watching MONK one day and I was mad. I go, “This is an idea I would have come up with, the obsessive-compulsive detective. It’s as obvious as the criminal who solves crimes because he knows everything.” Then I’m like, all right and I started typing at that moment. So that’s what I wrote. It was basically WHITE COLLAR before WHITE COLLAR came out. WHITE COLLAR actually sold two weeks after mine. We had different takes, but it sold, so it was great. That was my big break.

It was the best month of my life. I got married. I was in Bora Bora and my agent sent me an email saying you have a meeting the day you come back. I flew back and went to 20th that afternoon then went to the movies, by the time we came out, it had sold, but it never got made.

20th wanted me to write one more thing for them so they introduced me to a bunch of different showrunners including Hart Hanson. We hit it off, but it was just really for him to mentor me. We were working back and forth and he was like, I’d offer you a job if I could, but I can’t. It’s the middle of the season. It’s impossible.

I was ready to quit. I was done with the business. I was really at the point where I had enough sales that it felt decent. I wanted a family. I wanted a house, a mortgage. I wanted to feel like an adult. I was really just done and my wife told me to stick it out a little bit longer. We stuck it out a little bit longer and I got the call from Hart saying, “You start Monday.” I don’t know how they found budget or whatever else. They brought me in and just threw me in immediately. I’m the weird example of I started as a staff writer and now I’m the showrunner.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS LOOKING TO BREAK IN?

My big thing is find a good editor. Someone you can trust. Someone who can look at your material and give you good advice. I’ve met people who had a writers’ group where it was a great group and every single one of those people got staffed because it was that good.

Find somebody who doesn’t really need to be encouraging and can just give you the harsh notes. You’re not doing them any favor if you give them too many congratulations.

The tough thing is when you’re starting out; your script doesn’t have to be as good as a staff writer’s script who is already on a show. It needs to be better. Just keep making it until it’s absolutely fantastic, it stands out and it’s got a voice. Then go to the next script immediately, because you need a lot. You need a lot of ships; one of them will get to port, but send out a lot.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Manager Zadoc Angell, Part 2

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 of Echo Lake Entertainment brings with him the unique perspective of having worked first as an agent and now as a manager. He shares experiences and insights from his years building, growing and revitalizing writers’ careers.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU FACE AS A MANAGER?

The first is breaking in someone who’s totally new and hasn’t staffed before. It’s always hard to get that first job at the staff writer level and be taken seriously. People break in all different ways. It can be through your manager or agent submitting you to a show or it can be working your way up as a writers’ assistant or script coordinator or a showrunner assistant. It can be winning a contest, it can be getting into one of the network programs.

The other biggest challenge is career transition, when writers may have established themselves in some sort of fashion, let’s say as a comedy writer and now they want to be taken seriously as a drama writer or a veteran writer who has been around a long time, but has gone a little cold and you’re trying to reinvent their narrative and their story.

The good news about writers is that you can reinvent yourself through material. You can write that new special script in a different genre to help show people that you’re not just the category of writer they may have perceived you to be. We deal with these challenges all the time, but they’re big hurdles and they need a lot of strategy and thought and care put into achieving them for the client.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE WRITERS WHEN THEY’RE TAKING THEIR FIRST MEETINGS?

If it’s a showrunner meeting, the biggest thing I tell writers is to make sure that you’ve read the pilot script and you have very specific thoughts about it, meaning you responded to a particular character for a particular reason or particular joke or storyline or bit of dialogue or a key moment.

You have to realize that these showrunners are meeting with writers on the hour or the half hour and everyone’s saying they love it. Everyone says it’s great, but if you’re only speaking in generalities, it doesn’t mean anything to them. So if you really have read it and really have internalized it and really can talk about specifics, then that showrunner is much more likely to think that you actually cared about his or her show and you really thought about it.

The best is when you can take those things that you responded to and turn it into a conversation about yourself, where you responded to that character because she reminds you so much of your mother, then you’re talking about your mother and where you grew up. Then all of a sudden a showrunner is getting to know who you are and why you’re specifically right for his or her show, but you’re leading into the conversation by talking about that showrunner’s show and their writing.

The worst thing you can do is come out of a showrunner meeting and feel like they didn’t get to know you at all, because then why would I hire a writer that I don’t think is uniquely qualified for my show or that I got to know as a person on any level. You have to find ways to insert that in the conversation because quite often they only want to talk about their own show.

WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT YOUR JOB?

It’s funny because the things that are the most challenging are also the most rewarding. So when you do get that client their first staff job, it’s just so exciting. You know someone’s life has just changed and a dream has come true for them. That’s really fulfilling on a lot of levels and the career transition, when you’re able to take that client and get them into a new side of the business or achieve a long-term goal that seemed really hard to pull off, that’s when you feel the most fulfilled and the most pride.

One of my signature clients is Ingrid Escajeda who started out as a comedy writer. I got her, her first job on HANNAH MONTANA when I was a Coordinator at Paradigm. That was a big first for both of us, because she broke in and it was my first time staffing somebody and we were so thrilled. And then she went on to BETTER OFF TED on ABC for 2 seasons and coming off that she was really interested in becoming a drama writer. She thought that was maybe where she would find more success.

So I told her to write a drama pilot. And she wrote a pilot about the LA Bomb Squad that was very RESCUE ME in tone and used the best of drama and comedy in one sample and it was gritty and compelling. I sent it to Graham Yost who was reading for JUSTIFIED.  He hired her and she was on JUSTIFIED for four years. Now she’s a Co-EP on EMPIRE and has an overall deal at 20th.

Her whole life has changed, but it changed through that one script. That piece of material that showed she could do it. And it didn’t happen overnight. We worked hard and were patient and did the right things. We got it to the right showrunner and the right show and it changed her whole profile as a writer in the community. When you do things like that, there is no better feeling.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST MISTAKES YOU SEE WRITERS MAKING?

Once you’re a successful writer and you’re working on shows full-time, it becomes very hard to write your own material and so it’s really important you find time to continue to write your own pilots or features or film shorts, even prose. Just have some sort of creative outlet for yourself outside of your day job, because the day job can be all consuming and it can drain you emotionally and creatively, but you’re writing for someone else, on someone else’s show that is their voice, their characters and what can happen is that you start to lose touch with your own creative fire. So it’s really important to keep that going.

You have to be incredibly disciplined to do it because it’s so easy when you have a full-time job and a life and a family and that sort of stuff to not find time for your own writing. But I find that the writers who do, they’re the ones who really need to write in order to breathe and ultimately have the most success.

WHAT CAN A WRITER DO TO HELP YOU DO YOUR JOB?

Write great material and be great in a room. There’s a marked difference when a writer goes into a room and has just an okay meeting and when they go into a room and they kill it, because when you call an executive for feedback, if there’s just middle of the road feedback, you made an introduction, but it’s not really going to add up to anything or go anywhere, but if the person that you met with is genuinely excited about you, there’s much more possibility of an opportunity coming out of that somehow, some way, whether it’s immediate or down the road, because they’re going to remember you for if not this thing, the next thing. They may be tracking that writer’s career. They’re excited about that person. You’re now on their recommended writers list when they’re thinking about writers for projects and staffing.

We work really hard to get our clients in rooms and get meetings and so if we’ve done all the work of opening the door, you’ve got to meet us halfway and barrel through that door and win over the people you’re talking to.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS IN EARLY STAGES IN THEIR CAREER LOOKING TO BREAK IN?

Write material that excites you, that is daring and different and bold. It’s bad when writers just try to write for the marketplace or try to copy something that’s popular right now. It tends not to be writers’ best work.

What’s probably going to break you through the clutter and get you your first representative and get you your first job is really compelling, exciting material that is a distinct voice, that is a distinct point of view, that people read and they get really excited about. Trying to write down the middle just doesn’t do anyone any good.

You also have to think of the kinds of content that the tastemakers in our business are watching. Most people are watching HBO and Showtime and Netflix and AMC and FX and so that kind of taste in material is quite prevalent in our business. So your edgy FX sample might be the thing that gets you a job on CRIMINAL MINDS. That’s the thing that people don’t realize sometimes, because the showrunner of CRIMINAL MINDS is probably watching FX’s programming.


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 Tracey Murray, Part 2

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

Tracey MurrayFinding 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.

Manager Tracey Murray spent 11 years as an agent at CAA before stepping into the world of management and is now a Managing Partner at Industry Entertainment. Tracey shares advice from what she’s learned over the years working with writers as both an agent and a manger.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST MISTAKES YOU SEE WRITERS MAKE?

I don’t know if I’d even call this a mistake, because sometimes it works out to be a positive, but sometimes they won’t let go of a project. I think it’s great to be tenacious and I think it’s great to exhaust all options, but there does come a point where you have to say, okay, we exhausted all the options and now it’s time to put it to bed. And sometimes there are writers that keep recycling the same product and that doesn’t bode well for the client. They need to generate new material.

The beauty of being a writer is a project is never dead, because maybe in a couple of years, someone will be looking for X project and you can bring out the old script and update it. But I think being too married to a project sometimes can be not a good thing.

WHAT KIND OF ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO A NEWER WRITER WHEN THEY GO INTO A MEETING?

Any time a client goes in for a meeting they need to be prepped. They need to be told what that executive covers, whether it’s a show for development, whether it’s a show for staffing. They need to know if it’s a network meeting. They should be familiar with the shows on that network.

If it’s a studio meeting you have to prep your client before they go in, give them a little bit about that executive, the background of the executive, just a little information so they go in armed and ready for that meeting.

WHEN A WRITER IS STARTING OUT, DO YOU WANT THEM TO WRITE A VARIETY OF MATERIAL OR STICK IN A CERTAIN AREA?

I think they stick to one area, at least in the beginning, because you have to brand yourself. If you want to work in comedy, you need at least two samples. If you want to branch out into drama, great, you need two samples in drama. But if you have one here and one there and the material doesn’t really go together, nobody knows where to put you. You need to pick a lane, focus on that and then you can move into other areas.

I remember when we were representing Jerry Bruckheimer and he was wanting to move into comedy and we were like, know your brand. And he stayed and became very successful with his brand and then he only recently moved into developing comedy. I don’t care if you’re in the beginning of your career or you’re in the middle of your career, you want to brand yourself.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE WITH BREAKING A NEW WRITER IN?

I think in the beginning of your career it’s hard to get your first job, but it’s all about having that great piece of material and getting you out there and getting you as many general meetings for the executives at the studios and networks to meet you, like you, put you on their lists and also start pushing you.

Pushing you with the showrunners, saying this guy or woman has great material, you’ve got to read them. I think the first job is a hard job to get, it really is, but it’s the same. I mean getting a job is getting someone a job. At any level, you need to get them out there. You need them to be in front of the studio and the network. You need them to meet with the producers, then you need to get them in front of the showrunner. So it’s the same process, it’s just in the beginning you don’t know anyone. As you start working on shows then you have people that can recommend you, put in a good word to their pal who’s on another show.

That’s why a lot of those programs are great in the beginning when you’re a young writer. The Warner Bros. Program, every network has a program now and all that is very helpful because you meet executives and those executives push you and that again is about forming those relationships. It’s a relationship business. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t care if you’re a manager, agent, writer, executive, it’s all about relationships.

It’s also people trusting you, trusting your taste.  As a representative, these executives, if you send them writers that they don’t respond to, they’re not going to pick up your call. If you send them good material, they will always pick up your call.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE ABOUT SUSTAINING A LONG CAREER AS A WRITER?

I think it’s always about writing new material. The cool thing about being a writer is you can write a great project and you can go get a hit on the air. As an actor, you look a certain way and you get to a certain age; it’s very different with a writer. If you write a great piece of material, it can change the whole landscape. So I think that at any stage in your career it’s about writing good material.

It’s about being the best and knowing the most you can about your business. So whether it’s going to the movies, whether it’s watching television shows, whether it’s reading scripts, whether it’s reading articles and magazines to generate ideas. It’s understanding your business, knowing your business. There are a lot of writers that I know who have been in the business a really long time, but they don’t understand the television business. They should make it a point to understand the television business because if you’re working in it, you should understand how it works and if you don’t, get someone to educate you and teach you a little more about it.

I think that’s the biggest advice at any stage of your career. Also working on those relationships. Whether it’s someone at the beginning of your career, you’ll grow up with those peers.  We all have at the beginning of your career other assistants that you’re at the same level with and then they become an executive at a studio or a network. Stay in contact with those people and keep those relationships alive. I think those are the biggest things you need to do in order to flourish in this business, because there are a lot of people trying to do the same thing that you’re trying to do and it’s those things that set you apart from the others.

WHERE DO YOU SEE TRENDS IN TV GOING?

It has changed a lot with all the various channels. Right now drama is super hot and it’s going to switch back to comedy. It always does. At one time it was comedy, now it’s drama. It will switch back.

I think that the networks are struggling because there are so many outlets now. That’s going to change too. It’s not going to look the way it does now. You may not have the networks. You may be watching it on your computer. I think there are people who are going to be viewing television differently. But it’s all sort of in the works as we speak. We’re seeing it with Amazon and Netflix. People are binge watching. And there’s something to be said about that.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS ABOUT GETTING STARTED AND DEVELOPING THEIR CAREERS?

Be tenacious. It’s a lot of hard work, but if you honestly work hard and put in the effort and the hours and you do a lot of the things I had mentioned, you’ll eventually find your way. It may not be immediately. But you will find your way. I think that it’s sometimes challenging to get rejection. You have to have thick skin and don’t take it personally and really persevere, truly because it’s such a fun business.

There are ups and downs and everyone has ups and downs in their careers. You can’t always be hot, hot, hot. At some point that is going to shift. But you just have to persevere. I think that’s the best advice.


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 Craig Silverstein, Part 2

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

TN_110_AP_0320_ 0160

From making films on VHS with his middle and high school friends to being the creator of Nikita and TURN: Washington’s Spies, writer Craig Silverstein shares his experiences and insights from being a showrunner and what he looks for when hiring writers.

TELL US ABOUT THE TRANSITION FROM BEING ON STAFF TO CREATING YOUR OWN SHOW.

In my case it was working my way up and learning the ropes and experiencing production, which I was very lucky to get to do and to have really encouraging showrunners.

By the end of the second season of The Invisible Man I had directed an episode. From going from just being a staff writer, I became a Co-Producer by the end of the thing and they let me direct once.   That was about the best first experience that I could have had.

From there I had kept going up and then when you do your own show, it starts with a pilot. So you have to do that. And my friend Dave, who was actually that guy from Ithaca that I drove out with, he had an idea for this thing called Town of Tomorrow and we developed it together into a pilot called, Newton, while I was working on a show called The Dead Zone.

We sold it to UPN and they picked it up as a pilot and that’s the thing that really put me into another category because the script became very well known. The pilot wasn’t good. We screwed up the pilot.

So how do you transition into that stuff? My experience is, you make mistakes. So I wrote a pilot script, figured out how to do that and then screwed up the pilot. I kind of trusted all these people who were more experienced than me to do their jobs and when they didn’t, I was kinda like, “Oh, my God.”

I had the wrong, trustful attitude going in, so in my next show, Standoff, I fixed all the mistakes and the pilot process went well, so it got picked up to series. Then I screwed up the series. The way I hired writers, the way I ran the room. Different things. It wasn’t bad, but I definitely made mistakes and I learned from those mistakes and applied them to the next thing, which was Nikita. And now I know how to run a series. That’s how it happened for me.

WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING TO HIRE A WRITER FOR YOUR STAFF, DO YOU PREFER TO READ ORIGINAL WORK OR A SPEC?

Definitely original. I want to hire someone to write like them, not like me. How they are at mimicking someone else’s voice or show is less interesting to me because I actually want something that is a little bit of outside of myself, like I wouldn’t have gone there. And so I need to see their original voice.

I also need to see how they would structure something given no parameters. You know how an episode of whatever is supposed to break out if you study it. I like to see how in their pilot or feature, they can structure. When I hired this guy, Albert Kim, for Nikita, his script that I read was a pilot called How to Cheat. It was a romantic comedy. It had nothing to do with action, spies or anything like that, but I came away going this guy knows how to structure a script and structure a scene. That’s more valuable to me. You can teach all the rest of the stuff.

BEYOND THE WRITING, WHAT ELSE MAKES A POTENTIAL STAFF WRITER STAND OUT TO YOU?

That’s a very intangible thing. For me it’s just an energy between two people. It’s sort of like if someone is going off and off and off about themselves, that’s kind of a warning sign.

I think that I can also sometimes tell now who really wants not just a job, but wants to work on this show. There is that difference and you can see it.

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

I think it is, “How did you get your start?” The thing I always say is, “Do you have your script together?” Because a surprising amount don’t have a script. They want to know where to pitch, but you have to have the paper, you have to have that. It has to be good and so it’s sort of like you have to have your sample. You have to have that original pilot or that feature. That is key because everything flows from that. It’s still all about the script.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS LOOKING TO MAKE THEIR START?

I always feel like to really love your characters and to write from your heart and your gut and not so much what you think. Don’t write with a reaction in mind, what you think someone else is going to like. There’s always going to be somebody who can come along to help you shape it and tailor it into something.

Write alone, but don’t be alone. Try to have friends and live your life because that stuff ends up creating more for your writing but also, it’s your thing to get your script around.

Didn’t read Part 1? It’s HERE


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.