Friday February 8, 2013
TV dramas are nothing without writers
By S. INDRAMALAR
Our favourite TV characters owe more to the unsung behind-the-scenes heroes — the writers — than we realise.
OFTEN, we identify a television show with its cast and the characters they play. Claire Danes and Damian Lewis (and their characters, Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody), for example, are what comes to mind when we think of spy-thriller Homeland and James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), as contemptible as his character may be, is THE face of The Sopranos.
But the truth is, TV dramas would be nothing without their writers. There would be no Carrie or Nicholas without show creators Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon and their team, nor would the Soprano clan exist if not for David Chase, Terence Winter and their team of about a dozen scribes.
For the most part, these writers remain nameless and faceless. There are the exceptional few like JJ Abrams (creator/writer of series like Alias, Lost and Fringe) and Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal) whose successful shows made them well known in turn.
But we often don’t see the talented writers who back them up – those who actually provide the dialogue, sustain the story and shape the characters we know and love.
As much as they seem real and relatable, TV characters aren’t real. They are the result of random events, emotions and impulses that are thrown together by this group of men and women who huddle together in a room, exchanging thoughts, ideas, life stories, secrets and gossip. The sum of this exchange – which takes place in what is dubbed “the writers room” – results in some of the best shows on TV. Well, and also some of the not-so-successful ones.
“Every show you have seen on TV gets its start in the writers room,” says Adele Lim, a Malaysian writer who has written for popular American dramas like Private Practice, Life On Mars and One Tree Hill.
“The writers room is where an idea is developed into a complete story. It’s where the writers pitch their ideas ... where writers spend 90% of their time. It’s partly brainstorming, partly story collaboration and also partly a group therapy session because, really, the best stories have their roots in personal experience.
“There is a lot of sharing intimate details of what we’ve each been through. I know a lot of personal stories and intimate details about most (of the) writers I work with ... things even their wives and husbands don’t know. We’re talking about experiments with drugs, fantasies, affairs, brushes with the law … things we don’t usually share with anyone, we end up talking about in the writers room.
“Sure, you go in thinking that you are not going to share details of your own stories. But let me tell you this: after being in a room with the same people every day, for hours and hours, for many months … you’re going to be telling them everything!” says Lim, with a laugh.
The 35-year-old was recently in Malaysia to visit her family. A former columnist with The Star, she readily agreed to speak on the subject of screenwriting for television dramas to an audience comprising writers and budding writers while she was back on holiday.
During the session, which was open to the public, Lim shared her story of how she broke into TV writing. She also spoke about the role of writers in television, offering insight into the industry which is not common knowledge.
The pecking order
“In America, TV writers run the show,” she says. The writers room typically has between four and 12 writers, each at different levels – you have the executive producer, co-executive producer, producer, co-producer, executive story editor, story editor, staff writer and writers’ assistant. The titles are misleading … essentially, everyone is a writer.
“A writer is always involved in some level of production. The titles are based on the level of experience and pay grade. The main person running the show is the show runner (who) is responsible for (its) creative direction,” she explains.
Lim got her start in TV writing in the late 1990s when she applied for the position of writers’ assistant for the fantasy adventure series Xena: Warrior Princess.
“You can get in (the industry) through all kinds of ways. You may come out of college with an amazing (writing) sample and get work immediately but generally in TV, you move up the ranks by first being a writers’ assistant. I got very lucky. I got my ‘in’ pretty early, as a writers’ assistant for Xena, which, though a rather ridiculous show, was very well written.
“I applied for the position after seeing an ad in a trade magazine. It was a miracle that I got the job because my resume was nonexistent. I later found out that the executive producer who interviewed me had a ‘thing’ for Asian girls and that’s how I landed the position! No, no ... he was really very nice and didn’t try anything with me although there was a string of Asian-sounding girls calling the office asking for him!
“I didn’t become a writer for that show but it’s gave me my ‘in’. The writers on the show were all very helpful … they helped me with my writing samples and also helped me get representation which then landed me my first writing job. (On John Doe, starring Prison Break’s Dominic Purcell, which ran from 2002-2003.)
“Newbies don’t generally send their material out to shows; they have to have an agent. And it isn’t easy getting an agent… you generally have to be recommended by others and the way you do this is by first becoming a writers’ assistant,” she shared.
Paying your dues
A writers’ assistant’s duties are wide-ranging: from note-taking (writing down detailed notes for the writers as they discuss and break down story ideas) to acting as a personal assistant, fixing appointments, answering phone calls and doing coffee runs.
“An assistant’s job is really good training. Sure, you will have to run around and perhaps organise your boss’ cat’s acupuncture session and pick up his dry cleaning but, more importantly, you get to learn all about the craft and how the process works. You are in the room where all stories get discussed, taking notes as the ideas are broken down.
“You basically learn everything ... so that when you do get your first job as a writer, you’re not an idiot. You already know how everything works,” says Lim.
While getting a foot in the door is tough enough, staying in the industry is equally hard.
“Many writers don’t stay because they don’t do well in the writers room. 90% of the game is survival and being able to make it from year to year. I’ve been very lucky and I have been able to get on shows every year. The key is building good relationships. When a show runner is putting a writers room together, he (or she) will tend to hire writers they are sure of to work on the show … people they have worked with before. Which is why it is important to have a good reputation and to be easy to work with,” she says.
A writer’s longevity also depends on their ability to write seamlessly to someone else’s vision and work the rigours of production where a new script is required to be written and ready to be shot every five to seven days (this is including the many re-writes).
“People don’t think about the production schedule when they are watching a show. The schedule is relentless! You have to shoot a new episode every seven or eight days and this schedule keeps on going regardless of whether the script is ready.
“Sometimes, the writers get stuck on a story and can’t figure their way out … and this is why you find that even in the best series, you have a few episodes in a season that are just so-so … that don’t completely make sense.
“It’s not because the writers don’t care but it’s because we literally run out of time and have to put something together because the episode has to run. Sometimes, the script isn’t all ready when shooting begins and the writers give the cast a few pages of the script while completing the rest! Often, this occurs when something unforeseen happens. It’s not ideal but a few episodes will be sub-par,” Lim explains.
Her advice for aspiring writers who hope to break into TV writing is to “keep at it”.
“If you are a writer who really loves what you do, keep writing. If you stick with it, have good material and build a good reputation, you will continue to work. Writing is a creative endeavour and you have to trust your instincts and write from your heart in order to make a good show.
“Having said that, TV shows are about what people want and sometimes, people don’t always know what they want. You’ve got to give them something new and see if it works. But you must have faith in yourself.”