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

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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.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Craig Silverstein

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

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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.

Writer Craig Silverstein (TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES, NIKITA) built the foundations for his writing career back during his days at the University of Michigan where he had the great fortune to study under screenwriter Jim Burnstein (Renaissance Man, D3: The Mighty Ducks).

WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

The first time that I said I wanted to write movies was when I walked out of seeing Ghostbusters, I was ten. I think I tugged on my mom’s sleeve and said, “I want to write movies.” A couple years after that, I made some movies with my friends in middle school and high school. They were pretty elaborate for the time. We composed our scores for them and everything. It was all VHS. We edited it on decks and stuff.

HOW DID YOUR COLLEGE EXPERIENCE HELP YOU GROW AS A WRITER?

Jim Burnstein was a working Hollywood screenwriter who lived in Michigan. I think his class is the one that really changed my life and then also changed the whole film and television program at the University of Michigan. Literally, the script that I wrote in his class, is the one that I got a job off of out here. Not right away, but down the line and not even rewritten.

The school was primarily a theory and criticism kind of school, but everybody who goes to film school wants to make movies. The way they distinguished themselves is with that writing program spearheaded by Jim. The key point was that you wrote a feature length screenplay in one semester, which was not being offered anywhere at undergraduate level as far as I knew.

In this you had to write the entire thing. You had to write your outline, and learn, but you had to have a feature length screenplay done by the end of the semester. Then the most revolutionary thing he did was he had this class called Screenwriting 2. Screenwriting 2, all you did was rewrite the script you wrote in Screenwriting 1.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INDUSTRY JOB?

I was the assistant to these two producers, Harvey Kahn and Jonas Goodman on an independent feature called The Break Up starring Bridget Fonda and Kiefer Sutherland. It was a few months since I had arrived and I was starting to freak out. The money that I had come out with was pretty much gone. Then this guy said, “Oh, they’re looking. The producers on it are looking for somebody.” And that’s how it happens.

Actually the best job I had while trying to become a writer was I worked for Lucas Film THX in something called TAP, which is their Theater Alignment Program.   What it was, was the studios hiring TXH to check the work of the labs. Technicolor, Deluxe, whatever. They have a movie coming out. They’re producing all these reels. And the job was watching these individual reels of these movies. Literally the job was just you in a theater, at the screening rooms at the labs and a projectionist and that’s it. And you’re just watching these reels. My shift was from midnight to 8am.

WHEN DID YOUR WRITING CAREER REALLY START TO TAKE OFF?

So a friend of mine, her friend at the time was Bryan Singer’s assistant and he was prepping the first X-Men movie. She gave my script, that same script that I wrote in that class, to her high school friend who was out here too. He read it and gave it to Bryan Singer and Bryan Singer wanted to produce it.

The fact that Bryan Singer was interested in my script, even if not for him to direct, was the thing that got me an agent. By the way, the deal never came together, but the fact is for like three or four days when he was interested, I met with a few agents and I signed with one of them, at a kind of midsized agency.

Even when I signed with them it was still another year until I actually got that first writing job . During that year, I continued to get the THX shifts that I could and try to write. I did stress out and I gave myself an ulcer at a very young age, at like 24, 25, I had a flare up of ulcerative colitis.   I was in the hospital and it was a real big wake up call for me. I was fed through IV, they took me off of food.

It really ended up being a great thing because I came out of there going, “Oh wow, okay, hold on. Calm down. Maybe you’re not going to make it right away, but you definitely don’t want to be in the hospital so just calm down. Do whatever you need to do. Work at Starbucks, just keep writing your shit. Don’t set a time limit on it.” I don’t know if it’s because my mindset changed, but within 6 months I had my first writing job.

TELL US ABOUT THAT FIRST WRITING JOB.

It was from that same script. You know things kind of come around and what happened was those agents used to represent a guy, Matt Greenberg, who they were still friendly with. He was a feature writer who had started up his own television show called The Invisible Man. He had written this two hour pilot. They made it. They were going to series. He had never done TV before, so he was very comfortable reading a feature spec, which is how my script was sent to him. I got the call, it was like, “This guy has read your script. He likes it. He’d like you to come in and pitch ideas for The Invisible Man, maybe to be on staff.”

I read his script. I loved it. I came up with 6 ideas for episodes, two of which I thought were very good. I went in and I met with Matt and he was very nice and I pitched him these things and he loved these two or really one of them and said, “Look, you have no credits so I can’t hire you on staff because the positions that they were looking for were a Supervising Producer position and a Story Editor position. They couldn’t hire me as a Story Editor, having not done anything. But he said, “We’ll definitely, no matter what happens, buy that story and you can write the script or at the very least, buy the story.”

And what happened was they ended up hiring me on staff because they ended up breaking the story editor position into two term writer staff positions. Which is you’re paid scale, which was ten times more than I had ever been paid anything, but it’s a 6 week trial and it’s their option at the end of 6 weeks of what to do. If you make it through the 6 weeks, you get an additional 14 weeks.

One of the coolest things ever, was when I got the call that I was going to start on the show, it was on a Sunday, I was at Technicolor on a THX shift and I was in the theater by myself. I got this call from Matt and he said, “You know what, you’re going to start tomorrow. It’s at Universal.” And I’m like, “I’m at Universal, that’s where Technicolor is.”

On my first day as a paid writer, I pulled in to the same guest lot at Universal. The same exact spot that I had parked the day before, but instead of getting out and going left into Technicolor, I walked right, into the Universal lot and that place. I knew I had 6 weeks to prove myself and so I wrote this script and got picked up for 14 weeks and never looked back.

WHAT WAS SOME OF THE BEST ADVICE YOU GOT AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

So much I learned, I learned from the guy who ran the Invisible Man after Matt Greenberg left. David Levinson came in and became my mentor. One of the things he did was show me how you could be yourself, a very real person and still do it. You didn’t have to put on or be a certain kind of way or act a certain kind of way in order to do it.  He had stripped away so much of the politics and you know, he had a desk a computer and a phone, and he’s like, “This is all you need to run a show.”

Coming soon – more from Craig on becoming a showrunner and what he looks for when hiring writers.


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.