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.

TV Writers: How To Navigate Staffing Season

Photo Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

By Kelly Jo Brick

Television staffing has become a year round opportunity for writers, but how does a new writer maneuver his or her way through the process of getting hired on a show?

The Writers Guild Foundation brought together a group of TV writers including:

Elias Benavidez  (BEYOND)

Niceole Levy  (SHADES OF BLUE, THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA)

Joe Lawson  (THIS IS US, JANE THE VIRGIN)

Shernold Edwards (HAND OF GOD, SLEEPY HOLLOW)

Moises Zamora (AMERICAN CRIME)

And moderator Brandon Easton (MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER) to share their own struggles with breaking in, writing the scripts that got them hired, what to expect when meeting with executives and showrunners and how the staffing landscape has been changing.

GETTING STAFFED IF YOU DON’T HAVE REPRESENTATION.

  • Apply for the television fellowships. Those programs can get you meetings and help put you up for a show before you ever have representation.
  • Talk to everyone you possibly can in the industry, but don’t be annoying. If an executive or other writer offers to stay in touch, believe it.
  • Representation sometimes does find you. Take workshops like UCLA classes. Referrals are often what lead to getting someone to rep you. Agents generally come in after you have a job.
  • Always keep writing. That’s what’s going to get you in the room.

SHOULD YOU WRITE SPECS OF CURRENT SHOWS?

  • Writing a spec will help you build a muscle that you will need. Good writing is good writing and that will help you no matter what.
  • Some execs won’t submit a writer who doesn’t have a spec in their portfolio. Have at least one that you love, to show you can write in the voice of someone else, because that’s the job.
  • Original voice is very important. Have an original pilot and a spec. It has you prepared for whichever an executive or showrunner will want.
  • Reading and writing specs are a good way to train you mind to look beyond the pilot.

HOW MUCH DOES IT MATTER TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW?

  • Write what you are passionate about. If it’s interesting to you, it’s interesting to them.
  • Think about how you want to market yourself.
  • Have something you want to say, channel your experiences and feelings into your characters and story.
  • Agents and managers have a passion barometer. They can tell if you care about what you’re working on. When you put your whole being into a script, people can tell.

STAFFING IS ALL YEAR LONG. HOW HAS THAT CHANGED THE HIRING ENVIRONMENT FOR NEWER WRITERS?

  • There aren’t a lot of network, 20 plus episode a season jobs anymore.
  • Shows are top heavy, but there are a few lower level positions.
  • Executives change jobs all the time. They also share with other people when they meet a writer they like, so if that one job doesn’t hit, still keep that relationship going. You never know where it can lead.
  • Part of getting a lower level staff job is building a fan club of people who want to help you succeed. There’s nothing that will endear you more to someone than genuine enthusiasm.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN MEETINGS WITH EXECUTIVES AND SHOWRUNNERS.

  • Know your personal story and be ready to share it. Also be able to tell them what shows you’re watching.
  • Do your research on who you’re meeting with, but don’t get too personal.
  • Be able to talk about what you like from their pilots, what you’re excited to write about and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Just be passionate about what you love about the show.
  • Try to find a personal connection to a character in the showrunner’s script. That can build conversation.
  • Know what they read of yours so you’re prepared to answer any questions they have about it.
  • Sometimes people will ask what you don’t like about a show. Prep a positive way to talk about it.
  • Some executives bait you into crapping on other shows. Don’t do it.

TIPS ON SURVIVING UNTIL YOU GET THAT FIRST JOB.

  • If you’re worried about money, you can’t write. It’s too scary. Do whatever you need to in order to keep yourself alive and comfortable. If you have to, sacrifice sleep or other things, but keep writing.
  • Build a routine around your day job to make sure you’re still leaving time for writing and networking.
  • Don’t get tunnel vision. If you don’t live life, you won’t have anything to write about. Do other things.
  • Be prepared for a lot of uncertainty. Am I going to get the agent? Am I going to get the manager? Am I going to get this job? Am I going to keep this job? What if the show gets cancelled? It never ends. You have to find a way to manage it.
  • You have to ask for stuff, because nobody will offer to introduce you to his or her agent. You have that one shot you can ask. They’ll either say yes or no. You can’t be afraid to ask.

WHAT ARE THE EXPECTATIONS FOR A FIRST TIMER IN THE ROOM?

  • If you can say one thing of value before lunch and one in the afternoon, that’s good. Don’t force stuff out of your mouth because you want to be heard.
  • Read the room. See, hear, listen. See what the room needs. If everyone talks, you don’t need to. Build that skill of understanding for what the room does and doesn’t need.
  • Watch who is successful at pitching in the room and model their behavior.
  • It’s not your job to challenge the boss. Do whatever you can do to add to your showrunner’s idea.
  • Remember, just because you’re not talking, doesn’t mean you’re not working.

The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.


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.

Web Series: ‘Creatures of Yes’

There’s something about this series of short (2 t0 3 minutes) webisodes that keeps blowing all of us away. Watch the entire series below and see if you can keep yourself from wondering, “How the hell can these puppets be so cute and so sophisticated at the same time?”

See? This shit be funny.

The Creatures of Yes is a new experimental television show made by Jacob Graham and Co. in Brooklyn NY. It’s about people discovering the world around them and learning to appreciate each other’s differences. It addresses modern, relevant topics head-on with humor and sensitivity.

The Creatures of Yes website is HERE

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Marc Zicree, Part 2

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

by Kelly Jo Brick

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 1 is HERE

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 animation to science fiction, Marc Zicree has written hundreds of hours of TV for shows including SMURFS, SUPER FRIENDS, SLIDERS, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and BABYLON 5. His drive and desire to learn from the writers he most admired helped Marc develop his career in television. Currently, he is writing, directing and producing SPACE COMMAND, a series of science fiction features starring Doug Jones, Armin Shimerman and Mira Furlan.

WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

When I was growing up, the three shows that made me want to be a writer were the original STAR TREK, the original TWILIGHT ZONE and the original OUTER LIMITS. My heroes weren’t the actors, they were the writers: Richard Matheson and Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, D.C. Fontana, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury. As soon as I was old enough, I started going to science fiction conventions and meeting a lot of these writers.

They became mentors, many of them. So the thing I think served me the best was recognizing who are the best people doing the work I wanted to do and then learning from them directly and learning from what they were doing. Really studying how they did these things. Reading their scripts, talking with them, finding out what the ins and outs were of both the art and the craft and the business too, because you need all three to have a career.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS TAKING THEIR FIRST MEETINGS?

Be present. Many, many meetings you’re so in your head and you’re so thinking about the past, the future, you’re not present. There are many pitches I took as a producer where I would ask a question and the person would answer a different question because they weren’t present. So be present. Be friendly.

Be warm, be genuine. Authenticity is very important. Don’t flake. You’d be amazed at how many people flake. All you have to do is do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it.

AND ONCE YOU GET ON A TV STAFF?

Have a work ethic. Work hard. I know some people who have done very well because when they got on staff they were the first person at the office and the last person to leave and that was noticed.

Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Be pleasant. Be positive. Be upbeat. Don’t complain. Don’t gossip. It’s pretty obvious stuff, but you’d be surprised by how many people fall into negativity, complaining, all that stuff.

ON GROWING YOUR CAREER ONCE YOU GET IN THE DOOR.

It’s not an easy road. You want things to go smoothly, but they don’t. People ask me how I broke into television and it’s more like a burglar working a neighborhood. It’s always about reinvention and I’ve always been extremely ambitious. My goal from when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 years old was to create and run my own science fiction series and now that’s what I’m doing with SPACE COMMAND.

You have to break in and break in and break in. It’s an ongoing process and I’m still doing that even now. You have to be endlessly inventive. You have to be driven and enthusiastic and surround yourself with people who will believe in you even when you falter.

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

Often people want to know how to break in and what I say with that is right now the best way is to apply to the writing fellowships. The real question is how can people know you’re a good writer without reading you. Everyone hates to read and there’s not enough time in the day to read everybody’s scripts and so if it’s like, well, I’ve won this ABC Fellowship or I was in this Sundance Screenplay Lab or any of these things, then it’s like, well, OK, let’s check out this person’s writing.

Also with a lot of these studio and network writing fellowships, they’ll give you money and they’ll give you a career. So that’s one way, but the main thing is to not expect some agent is going to take you on board, wave a magic wand and make it happen.

You have to figure out how to kick the door down, how to get attention. It might be making a web series; it might be doing an indie film that wins at a festival. It might be writing a spec script that you get to some actor and he starts blogging and tweeting about it because he loves it and he has several million fans. It’s anything that’s going to get you attention. It always starts with the work.

THE IMPORTANCE OF FEEDBACK.

What I would urge writers to do is first of all, write well. Get feedback from professionals. Make sure that you’re getting feedback because most scripts aren’t strong enough. They’re not well written enough. Write and write and write and get feedback.

Ray Bradbury told me he wrote every day for 10 years before he wrote a single word that he thought was worth anything. So don’t just assume that because you’re working hard that you’re accomplishing what you’re setting out to do. Writing is a two way street. It’s what you intend to say and what the audience perceives, so you have to make sure what you intend to say is what they’re getting.

HOW CROWDFUNDING HAS BEEN A GAMECHANGER.

There are two things that really sabotage writers. It shouldn’t be this way and the other is, it used to be like this. It used to work, why doesn’t it work now? Those two things you have to totally let go of. Say to yourself, what’s the problem? What are some actions I can take? One of my bosses, it was Richard Manning, an executive producer on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, he said, “Sometimes it doesn’t matter which direction you choose as long as you choose a direction and march.” I believe in that. So you say, okay, let’s take an action, if that doesn’t work we take another action. If the old things don’t work, try something new.

I mentor a lot of people through my roundtable and through classes that I teach. I started hearing about Kickstarter and Indiegogo. So I looked into them and saw that things were getting financed and because it frustrated me that executives at the studios and the networks were gatekeepers, I turned toward crowdfunding. I thought let’s try something else. Let’s see if I can raise money on Kickstarter and then I sold investment shares. With that I was able to shoot the first SPACE COMMAND movie.

It’s inventing an entirely new way of doing things. I love the new methods, the new modalities because I can utilize them and don’t have to ask permission. The lovely part is that I wrote the script exactly the way I wanted to write it. I cast all the actors I wanted to cast. I shot it exactly the way I wanted to shoot it. I didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission and if I’d gone to the network with the cast that I wanted to cast, I probably couldn’t have gotten most of these people, because the networks wouldn’t have wanted them.


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.

Question for LB: OMG! Are Those My Words That Actor Just Said?

Glad You Asked Department 1/8/18
by Larry Brody

Last week we presented a guest article about what it’s like to see your first script produced, and over the weekend a similar question came in from a TVWriter™ reader about my own personal experience in that regard. So I thought I’d share my answer here and now:


Where are they now? No, seriously, if you know, please comment below!

Question from Armando:

Dear Larry,

My longest running recurring dream is that I’m sitting in an easy chair, iPad in hand, watching as an episode I’ve written as the newest staffer on THE GOOD PLACE begins, with all the actors delivering my lines. It’s the most exciting dream I’ve ever had, even better than the one about Gal Gadot, her golden lasso, a tub filled with Lucky Charms cereal, and me.

You’ve had hundreds of TV episodes on the air. How does it feel to hear actors saying something you’ve written? In particular, did it feel the first time?

Answer from Yours Truly:

First of all, congratulations, Armando, on proving yourself a real writer. How, you may be wondering, did you do that? Very simply: You asked me about My First Time and it was a writing question instead of a sex question. So smile, dood, this proves you’ve got what it takes to go far.

My first produced script was an episode of the long gone series HERE COME THE BRIDES. I don’t remember anything about the story other than it involved the heroes helping a group of immigrants trying to build a new life for themselves in the rugged 1870s Pacific Northwest, believe it or not. But I do remember sitting down to watch the show the night it was on, eager to hear the actors uttering my words.

Unfortunately, an hour later, after the episode was over, I was still waiting. Because the thrill of seeing absolute proof that I was a professional writer of television never materialized in terms of anything other than my writing credit. I never got to experience the “Oh wow, they’re saying that I wrote” moment for one not uncommon reason:

The cast wasn’t saying what I wrote. My recollection is that about two-thirds of the dialog had been rewritten by the story editor and the remaining third had been changed by the actors themselves during the shoot. And the way I felt about that was dumbfounded.

What had they paid me all that money for? Why had they hired me to write two more episodes if nobody liked my dialog? What the fuck was going on?

I got the answers as I continued to work on HERE COME THE BRIDES and then other shows over the next couple of millennia. My experiences and conversation with various executives, producers, other writers, directors, actors, and their friends and lovers and even spouses brought the truth home:

Like all television writers, I was being paid to do the hard job of facing the blank page. Of organizing the material. Of writing dialog that gave everyone else involved enough of an idea about what should be there – but to their minds wasn’t – to make it easier for them to adapt the words to their own needs.

This is one of those occasions where I could go on and on and on, but you probably get the point. On HERE COME THE BRIDES and all the shows that followed, I was hired and re-hired as writer and then producer and then showrunner (and occasionally even praised to the skies) because my words came closer to what everyone involved wanted, or thought they wanted, than those of most of the other writers they’d worked with.

In fact, very often the praise came out something like this:

“Larry, that script was awesome. You’re a really good writer. Rewriting you is a cinch.”

Now that may not sound like much to you, Armando, and when I was starting out I wasn’t exactly tripping on that particular accolade myself, but my time in the trenches has had its teaching effect, and I’ve learned to appreciate the comment above.

Because when you get down to it, and the various needs and desires of everyone involved in a Hollywood production are taken into account, if those in charge like your work enough to keep asking for more, you’ve done the job you were hired for and then some.

Which is what being a pro, a real pro, is all about.

Here’s hoping that you get to experience the same acceptance I have, and that you embrace the joy a lot more quickly than I did. Relax, let yourself grin, and enjoy your very real and exciting success along with everything that leads to and follows from it.

In other words, good luck, kid. Say hi to Gal and the tub for me.


My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LYMI, LB