SUBLIME PRIMETIME 2016 – Writing Advice From Emmy-Nominated Writers

Photo courtesy of Michael Jones/WGAW
Photo courtesy of Michael Jones/WGAW

by Kelly Jo Brick

Sublime Primetime, an annual event presented by the Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety, hosted several of this year’s Emmy-nominated writers who discussed the inspirations for their nominated episodes, the importance of research and realism in the stories they tell, how they got their first breaks and the need for greater diversity both on the screen and behind the camera.

These Emmy-nominated writers shared with TVWriter.com their advice for writers who are just starting out in the business.

Joel Fields (THE AMERICANS) – Write a lot and read a lot. I remember once when I was having a moment in my career where I was struggling, I was talking to my agent about it and he gave me some great advice. He said, “Keep writing.” I think that’s what it’s all about. Find what you’re passionate about and the stories you want to tell and tell them.

Joe Weisberg (THE AMERICANS) – Something I observed is how important it is to not feel like you’ve got this one project and that’s the thing you’re doing. It’s great to focus on one project until you’re done. It’s not that you need to be writing three things simultaneously, but once you’re done writing something, usually you go on to something else right away. It’s not like you need to wait and see if that project is going to be made into a show in order to start writing something else. I used to write novels and sometimes you’d spend years on something and take a break for a couple years. It was just a different type of thing. The world of television is really great to just keep moving.

Scott Alexander (THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY) – My best advice is to write something that you want to see. Don’t write something that you think you can sell or something that you think will be popular in the marketplace. We wrote movies that we wanted to see. That’s sort of how we broke through.

Larry Karaszewski (THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY) – My advice to up-and-coming writers is to always write something that you want to see. That sounds silly to say, but a lot of people try to write to the marketplace, like that movie came out last Friday, I should write a movie like that. I’m a big believer in write the movie you want to see. Write the movie that if you opened a newspaper and saw the ad for it, you would be excited, you’d be the first person in line to see it. Hopefully if you do that, someone else is going to feel that way and if for some reason it doesn’t happen, at least you followed the thing that you really wanted to do.

Alex Gregory (VEEP) – I can’t even imagine how different it is for young writers now. When I started out it was very simple. You wrote sitcom specs, you got them to a friend who had an agent, the agent’s assistant would read them and pass them to the agent. If they liked it, then they’d bring you in and represent you. Now I don’t even know how it works. I would suspect the best thing you can do is make short internet films that show your voice, because that’s something that doesn’t take money. You don’t need to wait for people’s permission. You don’t need to have contacts. You don’t need to get it to a friend. Ultimately, television has now just become long form cinema. It used to be with a four camera comedy, there was a certain rhythm that you really needed to show you could mimic. Single camera comedies without laugh tracks are basically movies and so if you can write for a movie, you can essentially write for TV now. It’s a lot more fluid of a situation.

Peter Huyck (VEEP) – Move to Los Angeles. That’s the first step. You’d like to think a brilliant script from anywhere in the world can get you attention, but you probably need to be here. So many of my friends got their breaks because they were working in the industry at a very, very low level. So if you start as an intern, a dog walker, a nanny, whatever it is, once you get that foot in the door, a lot of people are very nice and will help you and support you and read your material. So don’t be afraid to take a job that you’re not particularly thrilled about if it’s for the right person.

Marti Noxon (UnREAL) – To me the best advice always is that plot should always serve character. Sometimes I think when you’re starting off, you get caught up in making a plot that’s really unique and creative, but unless the characters are really strong and you really care about them, it won’t have the same impact. So for me, when I started working on BUFFY, what was so great about that experience is that all those stories came from character and then the monsters and the big bads and all that, is what grew out of character-based story. I find the writers who really work from that place are a lot more interesting.

Sarah G. Shapiro (UnREAL) – I think it’s really good for everybody to take responsibility to educate themselves as much as possible. I know from a lot of other established writers that when younger or beginning people reach out asking for advice, it’s really hard if that advice is readily available. It’s really better if you come with specific questions. One thing that I always advise is there’s a podcast series called The Children of Tendu and I sort of say I’d be happy to have coffee with you, but listen to the whole series first, because there’s so much information available out there. Read the dramatic writing books, do everything you can, educate yourself as much as you can, so that when you come to ask for mentorship, it’s really specific, like I finished my hour pilot, I feel like it needs a trim, could you look at it. People who have created shows and such, we are so ungodly busy, that while we want to help people who are coming up, it’s a lot easier if it’s a bite size piece of help.

Alex Rubens (KEY & PEELE) – I’ve jokingly said that the best way to break in is to have your best friend from kindergarten be friends with someone who ends up getting his own show, which is how I broke in. More seriously, I think it’s a risky choice that you make because you have to make it, because it’s what you care about. It’s how you want to live your life. For those of us who do this, whether we have broken in or are trying to, the common ground is that we value this extremely highly in life. It’s some meaning of life stuff, just devoting yourself. If it’s something that you care about that much, then you care about it that much and you devote your life to it.

Carolyn Omine (THE SIMPSONS) – I really think the internet is the way to go these days. There’s so many different kinds of comedy and the best way to show your kind of comedy is to be able to produce your own things and put it up on the internet. It’s a great way now. Also, the best advice I ever got, I think is that no matter what you write, if you’re writing something as a job, never write down to it, always write the very best version of whatever of it. Always do the very best.


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.

Sublime Primetime – Insights From Emmy-Nominated Writers

 Sublime Primetime

by Kelly Jo Brick

Several of this year’s Emmy-nominated writers attended the annual Sublime Primetime event presented by the Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety. Writers Elliott Kalan (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge), Joshua Brand (The Americans), Alec Berg (Silicon Valley), Stephanie Gillis (The Simpsons), Christine Nangle (Inside Amy Schumer), Semi Chellas (Mad Men) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) spoke about the episodes they submitted, their inspirations, challenges and the business of TV.

Emmy-nominated writers shared with TVWriter.com some of the best advice they got as they were growing their careers.

Elliott Kalan, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – “I think the main thing that stood out was to not either wait for the perfect moment or to hide yourself. Like not to feel like, well I’m really good, somebody’s going to come out and find me. It’s up to you to put yourself out there as best as you can and to go after every opportunity that you can and to not wait for somebody else to come to you, but in a professional way.  To put yourself out there in a way that people will either hear of you or get a sense of your material. And with the internet now, that’s kind of easier to do than ever.”

Semi Chellas, Mad Men – “At the Canadian Film Centre where I studied, the Artistic Director told us when we graduated, to all the writers, ‘Make sure to get dressed every day.’ That really has helped me. That’s the single best piece of advice I ever got. Because if you’re lying around in your pajamas, you’re probably not taking yourself seriously. You need to remember that advice more than you would think.”

Jane Anderson, Olive Kitteridge – “I have always written in a style true to my own heart. The worst thing you can do is to try to fit yourself into a style or genre that doesn’t belong to you. Find your own voice. And if you have a unique enough voice, the industry will eventually find you.”

Alec Berg, Silicon Valley – “I think the simplest advice I ever got which is probably the best, is write every day. Want to be writers fail because they don’t write.”

Matthew Weiner, Mad Men – “I got a piece of unsolicited advice when I was unhappy with one of my jobs, which was, a friend of mine said, ‘If you can write, you can change your career.’ So no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what it is, just keep writing. I wrote Mad Men on spec, at night, at another job. So that was part of it and I was like even if I don’t sell this, even if I don’t get to make it, I feel better and also, it changed my life. And you’re never too old to write a piece of new material. You’re never too established to write a new piece of material. If you want to have what people you admire have, you’ve got to keep writing.”

Writers also addressed the changing environment of television and competing in an atmosphere of nearly 400 scripted series spread across numerous platforms.

Jane Anderson – “I think what’s happening now is television has become what feature films were in the 70s, when incredible independent work was being done like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Right now we are overtaking the feature film industry for inventiveness and creativeness and getting out of the box. So I’m really proud to be in this medium right now.”

Matthew Weiner – “There was a lot of great TV in the past and then traditionally, the movie business comes in and scoops up all the writers and they end up in the movie business. And now it seems to be going the other way. For me, the Sopranos is sort of the beginning of what’s going on right now. To me, what’s been nice, is the audience has to pay attention and maybe you have to do something insane to stand out and you need to spend more for marketing and you have to get people to go to a new place to figure out how to do it, to see your show. But for the Writers Guild, the more jobs the better. The more shows the better.”

Semi Chellas – “I think of it the way I watch series now and it’s much more the way I used to read novels. I will take one at a time. I’ll watch it in chapters. If I’m liking it, I’ll look at my friends watching it too so we can have a book club about it.   I feel like that gives me an enormous sense of possibility that it’s not anymore about getting the right night, keeping people on through the commercials, those things that I started out being sort of driven by when I started writing for TV have kinda gone away and it now feels to me like going to a bookstore or a library and there’s all kinds of books and there’s books from ten years ago and there’s books from 100 years ago and you still are enjoying them and talking about them with people, so it gives me a sense of freedom.”

Stephanie Gillis, The Simpsons – “Animation, it’s just blown up, I mean the last 5 years it’s been incredible. I do feel like in terms of content, that there’s so much, there’s also so many possibilities.”

Panelists also reflected on the challenges they and their fellow writers are facing in the current marketplace.

Matthew Weiner – “It’s so lucrative right now to have a show. It still costs a lot of money to make a pilot and they’re all trying to find all these sneaky ways to get writers to do work for free. New ways invented every day. Where’s your bible, let’s open a fake writers’ room and we’ll put it on a fake TV set, can anybody draw, can you show me the whole show, can I have 50 scripts and whatever.  That’s always there to see what their investment’s going to be.

And we’re not here to complain about these things, we’re here to celebrate how great it is to be a writer, but it’s upsetting to see. My motto was always, and I imbued every single person I’ve ever worked with, with this idea that you cannot let them use your love of your work against you, because all of us would do it for free. That’s why we have agents and some have a union. And all this stuff, we would just do it and never think about it.”

Joshua Brand, The Americans – “I’m sort of at a different place along the trajectory in my career. So the guys who are at the top get paid very handsomely. But it’s become a much tougher business, not just for writers. Certainly going from cable shows and 13 episodes so these writers or the actors are working 6 months a year and then they’ve got to get another job. They have families and if they have a mortgage and how do you get another job because they then have an option on you for that show. It used to be working on a network show was 22 episodes and that would be your year. Income equality that we hear about affects the business as well. People who are getting squeezed are the people who are at the lower end. And it is much tougher from my perspective on those people than it was for myself starting out. It used to be that, I was talking to someone earlier who was a young writer and it used to be that on shows, a number of episodes were left for freelance writers and that’s not the case anymore.”

Christine Nangle, Inside Amy Schumer – “With us, with sketch comedy, things can go online and be digested much more easily than an entire episode of a show. So the issue that the Writers Guild has taken an interest in that we deal with is when an entire sketch is online and it will have a 5 second Comedy Central thing after it. And we’re not getting paid for it because it’s used as advertisement, promotion. And so it’s really frustrating. And so for us, it’s like a sketch is a like a chunk of our show and somebody can watch that and say oh, that’s funny and move on and that’s it. It’s not like there’s a cliffhanger where they’re going to tune into the show to see what happens next. It’s been incredibly helpful for us to have our sketches to go viral and get attention. But in terms from the writer’s perspective, seeing all our stuff online all the time and however many views it has and know it doesn’t exactly affect what you’re taking home at the end of the day, like I really hope that we can figure that out because I think that’s going to be a huge issue.”


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.

SUITS and the Unsustainable Premise

This should be required reading for everybody who ever wants to be involved with creating a television series. Which should mean, yeppers, everybody who comes to TVWriter™:

suits-mike-ross

by John Perich

I’ve been catching up on Seasons 1 and 2 of Suits, USA’s slick new legal drama. It plays like a quippier, faster, and more shallow version of Mad Men. It’s just clever enough for my taste, but it doesn’t wallow in its cleverness the way geekier shows do – one of my pet peeves. All that said, however, there are two things I struggle with.

(1) The catchy yet incomprehensible theme song. I’ve resorted to making up my own lyrics rather than guessing at what’s really being sung. “Gonna have a pizza pie / in your eye / Gonna split an onion bomb / with your mom …”

(2) The perilously unsustainable premise.

For those who haven’t indulged yet: Harvey Spector (played by Gabriel Macht, having emerged from the doghouse that the title role in Frank Miller’s The Spirit earned him) is a hotshot closer at the prestigious NYC law firm of Pearson Hardman. He’s been told to select a protege out of a pool of interviewing associates, but none of them impress him – except one kid, a scruffy blond with an encyclopedic knowledge of basic law and the photographic memory to prove it. It turns out that this kid, Mike Ross (Patrick Adams), isn’t actually a lawyer. In fact, not only has he never been to law school, he only stumbled into this interview as a way to hide from a drug deal gone bad. Intrigued by Mike’s quick wits and prodigious memory, Harvey hires him anyway.

Neat, right? It tells us something about Harvey right off – he’s a game-player, he values genius and improvisation more than experience, he’s willing to bend the rules to get the job done. It also binds Mike to him in an interesting way – Mike could get in trouble if caught, sure, but Harvey’s career will also be over. So you’ve got two loose cannons on the 50th floor, bending the law in order to serve it.

The only question: how long can they keep this up?

Practicing law without being admitted to the bar, for those who don’t have Mike Ross’s photographic memory, is uniformly illegal. The penalties vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in New York it’s a misdemeanor. But even without the legal threat, there’s the damage to the reputation of Pearson Hardman. Every time Mike fraudulently represents himself as a lawyer adds another scar to the Dorian Gray-like portrait that must, inevitably, be unveiled. He’s already appeared in court at least twice – most recently in “Break Point” (S2E5), representing a tennis phenom.

Not only has Mike not been admitted to the bar, he hasn’t even been to Harvard – and Pearson Hardman makes a point of only hiring Harvard graduates. So that’s at least two lies that Mike has to keep straight. Mike doesn’t even bother covering his tracks until “Dirty Little Secrets” (S1E4), and that’s with the unsolicited help of a computer hacker. And even when his record is (fraudulently) updated to create a Harvard law degree, he still has an awfully empty past – no college diploma, no prior legal work experience. If any other lawyer invested the amount of effort in checking out Mike’s past that Mike and Harvey invest in checking out their clients and opponents, Mike’s secret would be outed in a heartbeat.

So someone must eventually discover Mike’s secret. And someone, in fact, does – Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), managing partner of the firm (S2E1). The only reason she doesn’t can him and Harvey immediately is because a bigger threat rears its head. But how much damage could such a discovery do in the hands of Harvey’s intra-firm rival Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman)? Or the Boston lawyer who’s gunning for Harvey, Travis Tanner?

How long can this go on?

Read it all (lots more)