Interview by Jo for Jopinionated
As someone who loves and works with music, I was tremendously honored and excited to be given the opportunity to interview David Leaf. As I prepared to speak with this amazing music historian and writer, I popped in my Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE CD and re-read David’s eight page liner note introduction.
David Leaf is the king of pop culture and music retrospectives. He is one of the Peabody Award-winning writers of the 9/11 telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes, for which he also received an Emmy nomination, and he won a Writers Guild award in 2003 for The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of Performing Arts. In addition, David is a documentary filmmaker: he wrote, directed, and produced the Grammy-nominated Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE, and co-wrote, co-directed, and produced The U.S. vs. John Lennon.
David has been called “Brian Wilson’s biographer,” and he’s authored the books The Beach Boys and the California Myth and Bee Gees: The Authorized Biography. He also received a Grammy nomination for “Best Historical Recording” for writing the books that accompanied The Pet Sound Sessions 4-CD boxed set, which he also produced.
In addition to the WGAW, David Leaf is a member of the Authors Guild, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, ASCAP, The Society of Professional Journalists and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He even gets to vote annually for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
I always told stories. I just didn’t start writing them down until I was about 13. I’m lucky in that I believe I was born with a certain ability to glibly synthesize information and tell a story. What my high school history teacher used to call “BS.” In junior high, I was writing about sports for the school paper and was even sports editor of the Latin newspaper. In school, I was a class clown. Or at least I thought I was funny.
How were you first introduced to Brian Wilson, in what was to become a lifelong friendship?
For my college newspaper, I had written an article about Brian. That was inspired by reading about his roller coaster of a life in Rolling Stone. At that time, I was inspired by the work of Edward R. Murrow, and thought I could be a crusading journalist. So I decided that I wanted to write a book and tell the real story of Brian Wilson’s life.
I met him just after moving to California. I was shooting baskets with a friend at a local YMCA in 1976. Brian walked onto the court with his cousin, who asked us if we wanted to play 2-on-2 with him. What really makes this story even more unbelievable is that his cousin was an NBA player. Anyway, a few years later, when I wrote and published my biography of him, we weren’t friends at that point. Thanks to some friends of his, who wanted me to have a better understanding of what he was really like, I’d gotten the chance to spend a little time around him while I was writing the book. Through the 1980s, I continued to see him around town. Ironically, given what inspired your “adoption” of me, it was during the WGA strike in 1988 that I got a job at Warner Brothers Records that put me into regular contact with Brian. So it was around then that we began to develop a friendship.
Are there any writers who have had an influence on your careers? Who are your mentors in this industry?
For sports writing (which is how I started), Larry Merchant. For journalism, Pete Hamill. Both wrote for the New York Post, which had an amazing, diverse collection of columnists when I was a kid. As for authors – Kurt Vonnegut. To me, his world view was essential, letting me know it was okay to see things differently than conventional wisdom would suggest. And of course, I’m the cliché: J.D. Salinger. In fact, the first chapter of The Beach Boys and the California Myth opens with a quote from The Catcher in the Rye.
I guess if I had a mentor, although he would have laughed at the idea, you could say my comedy writing mentor was Greg Fields. Working with him was like getting a Masters in comedy writing. He was extremely influential for me, teaching me how to spend every minute in the office making comedy out of life, teaching me that nothing was off limits when it came to comedy. He knew how to make everything funny without being mean. I think he was an extraordinarily talented comedy writer.
How long have you been a member of the Writers Guild of America?
For just over twenty years now. I wrote my first spec features and spec sitcoms in the early/mid-1980s. Then, I earned my WGA membership in 1987 writing a Beach Boys anniversary special for ABC television. A year after that, I got hired as a staff writer on The New Leave it to Beaver.
How has the Writers Strike affected your current development deals and projects?
Being on strike and picket line felt like being inside a TiVO and waiting for someone to hit play. Everything was in suspended animation. It was a frustrating yet unavoidable situation for everybody. I had spent most of last year writing, developing and pitching, and I guess the way it affected my current deals was to bring everything to grinding halt. Now we all hope to reignite the momentum that our projects had.
What level of involvement with the Writers Strike have you had? Have you been out on the picket lines? How often are you able to participate? Can you describe that experience?
I was on strike in 1988, but it was different back then in terms of organization and membership involvement; we only picketed sporadically. This time, it was very well organized. I was on a specific team with a specific assignment, 4 days a week for four hours a day. From my point of view, it was very important to be on the line every day. And from the team I was on, there were about a half dozen regulars who walked together and became friends. It was like being in a writers’ room, without any deadlines or scripts to write. It was a very good support system during what were tough times for everyone.
Unless you’re on staff on a show, you probably don’t spend that much time with writers. Being on the picket line provided the opportunity to reconnect with other people trying to do same things you were; writing, selling, pitching, developing, etc. We had some great days out there and were lucky with the terrific weather in California. We’d tell each other stories, talk about the business and the creative part of writing. It was a positive part of the strike – the sense of being in it together.
Another positive thing was that we were able to walk and talk with some of our own writing heroes; major screenwriters, legendary TV writers like Allan Burns (Mary Tyler Moore), Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart Show), Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Cheers and Frasier) and writers from The Simpsons. It was a community of writers and ideas. Unlike the strike in 1988, we felt like we were working together in battle. We were on strike; that’s where we should have been, out on the picket lines. We didn’t start the fight or pick it, but once we were in it… we were in it for the duration.
How did you become involved with FremantleMedia, the company responsible for shows like American Idol?
Can you reveal any details about your future plans with them?
I was approached a few years ago to work on a multi-part History of Rock and Roll project. We’re still developing it and hope to get it made sometime soon. They contacted me after Beautiful Dreamer appeared on the BBC, and I was flattered to be considered by them for such a prestigious project. And there’s a production from my company that’s “in the works” that they’ll be distributing.
Your long list of credits as a writer/producer of music specials for television is very impressive, from benefit and live concerts to pop culture icon profiles. You’ve covered artists and performers as varied as Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Christopher Reeve, Billy Joel, the Marx Brothers, the Bee Gees, Jonathan Winters and Nat King Cole. Do you approach an opportunity to write for and about these particular individuals as an admirer, as a writer, or both?
For me, the idea usually starts in the same place—what is it about these artists that I love and think is important for others to know about? I then figure out how to tell their story using their work to speak for themselves, which is essential when the artist is no longer with us. I don’t ignore sensational aspects of an artist’s life, but my focus is more on the artist and how they created their art. Naturally, their private life will come into the story as it affects their work, but it won’t come into the story unless it’s relevant. In some senses, I’m a fan and proselytizer, but more than anything else, I consider myself a storyteller. I ask myself, what is the most important story I can tell about that particular artist, a story that you as a viewer need to know.
Watching these retrospectives, if you are a fan, you might get a deeper understanding and love for the artist. If you’re not a fan, you might become one. Or at least come to respect the artist. The goal is to experience their art and at the same time, enhance your appreciation of their work. I want to keep the focus on where the art came from, but also get the artists to reveal something about themselves. Most of all, I make the show I would want to watch.
Besides specials and awards show, your career as a primetime television writer for series has been sporadic; a staff writer on The New Leave It to Beaver from 1988-1999 and Party of Five and Beverly Hills 90210 retrospectives. Were sitcoms and primetime dramas just not your cup of tea?
Not at all. I’ve always been a big TV addict, I love sitcoms and one-hour dramas. I started as staff writer on The New Leave it To Beaver in mid-February of 1988, but within three weeks the industry went on strike. When the strike was over, I did one full season of that show. That was just about my favorite job of all time, being on staff on a sitcom. I would love to do it again in the future. You’re paid to reveal your “inner smartass.” There is nothing more fun that trying to make people laugh all day long.
Now that the Writers Strike appears is over, do you look forward to a normal life of writing and producing again? Is there a specific project that you’ve been itching to return to?
I don’t know if there is any such thing as normal life for a writer. The last four months, however, have been very abnormal. During this strike, I shut down for the first time in a very long time. The only writing I did was e-mail. But the reality is that in the blink of an eye, many of us went from “striking writer” to “unemployed writer.” It’s very strange. But we are all pretty excited that we can get back to it. We’re all going to have to readjust, but we are all anxious to put this behind us and get back to where we were before the strike started.
There are two projects in particular that I want to reignite ASAP. One is a feature spec, the first draft of which I finished just before the strike started. I can’t wait to take that out into the marketplace. I’m really proud of it. I think writers often feel that ‘this is the best work I’ve ever done.’ But this is a script that really ties together everything I want to do as a writer, and hopefully someone out there will see that and also see the movie I see. The other is a feature spec pitch that I sold. I am looking forward to my agent completing the deal so I can start outlining and writing it.
But I’ve learned not to predict what’s next in my writing career, because I certainly didn’t plan my career to go the way it went. I didn’t plan to become a director and yet I became one. I didn’t set out to make retrospectives, but I’ve done a lot of them. I didn’t plan to spend lots of time developing and pitching as a producer, but that is what I’ve done. I came to L.A. to write sitcoms and write movies. Last year, with the developing, pitching, and writing I did, I was back in touch with “pure” writing. Even the picketing had that effect. I feel much more like a writer today than I did a year ago.
Thank you so much to David for participating in this interview, and for sharing some of his incredible experiences with us! To read additional questions and answers, head over to Jopinionated.