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.