Case #13: David Leaf

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 LeafDavid 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.


Case #7: Debra J. Fisher & Erica Messer

Interviews by Jill for the Criminal Minds Writers blog

While quantity isn’t always better than quality, sometimes you get very lucky and find both as is in the case of the Criminal Minds‘ writing team of Debra J. Fisher and Erica Messer. Criminal Minds‘ “Gruesome Twosome” as they are called by the cast, crew and fans of the show because they have written some of the darkest and eeriest episodes of series, have a long and successful track record of delivering quality writing for such shows as The O.C., Alias, and Charmed .

Thanks to my position as the editor of Criminal Minds Fanatic, I had the chance to interview these two writer/producers–who were once assistants on Party of Five together. Debra and Erica had a lot to say about working on CM that we didn’t have room for here, but you can read both pieces in their entirety here and here.

How did you guys become writers?

Erica Messer on the picket line.Erica Messer: It’s always been a part of who I am. In 4th grade I wrote a book called Pickleberry Place about a land of pickles but the king was a cucumber. I was looking for the inherent drama even back then. Most of my writing in college was for documentary work in which I also directed and edited those projects.

In 1997, I wrote a spec for Ally McBeal and got a lot of feedback from the Party of Five writers [I worked for at the time]. I wasn’t sure what to do with the spec, but thought writing another one would be a good idea. Then the development executive for Keyser/Lippman Productions pitched an idea for a screenplay and she suggested Deb and I write it together. We did. It’ll never see the light of day. We knew we wanted to write in television and the best way to do that is to write television samples. So we did that. Once and Again was our first spec, which got us our literary agents. Then we wrote Sex and the City and off of those two scripts we met JJ Abrams for Alias. We were thrilled to get our first job writing on that show. It was an amazing introduction to the world that we’re working in now…

Debra Fisher on the picket line.Debra J. Fisher: When I first packed my bags and moved to California, I truly didn’t know what aspect of the industry I wanted to be in. While at UMD I tried everything. Directing, writing, recording radio spots. Anything and any class I could take, I was there. I loved all of it. So when I arrived in LA I worked for FREE on USC and UCLA grad student films. I worked on sets, in the camera department. I was a P.A. getting doughnuts. My parents loved the fact that after graduation from college I was making little or no money getting doughnuts. Soon I joined this company that helped place production assistants to companies. I went in and met with them and they told me I should no be working on sets, that I should be a producers’ or directors’ assistant. Somehow I landed a paying job at a company called Ruby-Spears Productions. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears used to work at Hanna Barbera and did Scooby Doo and such. I became the script coordinator, working with the writers’ on Mega Man and Skysurfer Strike Force. It was fun!

After a year or so I needed to make more money and got offered a job at Warner Bros TV animation dept. That was great. It was a short lived show called Waynehead and I got to meet the entire Wayans family. They did all the voices. I really got a chance to sit in the writers’ room at this point. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVED IT. Sitting around with other people coming up with ideas? And you get paid for it? And you get to write the script? I thought I had died and gone to heaven. One of the writers, David Wyatt, who I haven’t spoken to since is the whole reason I started to take a stab at it myself. (He left to write on a Cosby series.) I was talking to him about writing and he was like, “Just do it!” So I did. But my first love was what they called in animation, “live action.”

I loved me some relationship drama and my favorite shows were Party of Five and My So Called Life. If you didn’t know, I am Angela Chase! Kidding. That was my life growing up. No, I’m really serious about that. So somehow, someway, I heard through a guy I met that THE ASSISTANT TO THE CREATORS AND EXEC PRODUCERS WAS LEAVING. The guy got me an interview. I almost threw up. I had a pre meeting with Rick Draughon. He left to write for soaps, by the way. He thought I would be a great assistant for them and I was the first to meet with Chris [Keyser] and Amy [Lippman]. I thought the meeting went really well, but I wasn’t sure. When I was driving home, Rick called me to tell me that not only did it go well, but Chris and Amy canceled all their other interviews! I almost wrecked my car. I was so over the moon happy. I wanted to be a writer and these were the two people on the planet on the very show that I wanted to work on. I started in October of 1996. The TV season had already started in May for writers and July for production. I had a lot to learn and I was assisting two people. It was a lot of work! It was fast-paced and it was the best learning experience for anyone that wants to work on a TV series.

The production stages were on the Sony lot as well as the editorial dept so just like Criminal Minds, everything was there. The writers were all around me, meeting every day. Concept meetings, budget meetings, network and studio notes calls. Everything went through me. I was the gate keeper to Chris and Amy. I even got to read drafts of the early scripts! It was great. But then reality set in…

I had no time to write! I was exhausted every day when I went home. Enter… Erica….

Erica had started worked at PO5 at the writers’ assistant in Dec of 1997. By 1998, Chris and Amy got a lucrative overall deal. They got to have two assistants. It was an easy decision for them to promote Erica. So we both assisted them. It was great, too, because Erica wanted to be a writer. We would read each other’s stuff. Our stuff was awful!

Then one day their development exec, Deborah Cincotta, suggested we take a stab at writing together. What a concept! We both want to write. We work for a writing team. Hmmmm. Good idea! So we wrote a really, really bad feature called ‘Blackout’ I think…. Amy Lippman was like, “You guys want to write in TV, right? Why aren’t you writing TV?” Good question, Amy.

So we wrote a Once and Again and got the attention of some agents. (We also got MAJOR, MAJOR, MAJOR notes from Amy that took our script to the next level.) Then we SIGNED with United Talent Agency and then wrote a Sex and the City. We spent the better part of 2000 going on meetings. Meeting the network and studio people. Our bosses, Chris and Amy were way cool about that. Way Cool.

It was close to May of 2001. There was the threat of another writers’ strike at that time. We would only be staff writers so we were waiting for shows to get staffed and hire the little people. Then one day…

… the phone rang at 9am and I answered it. There was a male voice on the other end and he asked to speak with me or Erica. It was JJ Abrams. I almost disconnected the called I was so freaked out. He said, “I really liked your scripts. Can you meet for coffee today?” Uh, duh. Sure.

We raced to the Palisades to meet with JJ Abrams because his show ALIAS had been picked up to MAJOR buzz and he was leaving for Hawaii with his family. But he wanted another female writer or two!

Our “coffee” turned into a two hour lunch. Man he grilled us. Thank god we were prepared. What stories would you want to tell about Sydney Bristow? How would you keep her accessible to the female audience? Thank god we had each other! After two hours he had to go! He needed to catch a plane. He said… “Let’s do this.”

I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life.

Erica and I jumped into our car and immediately called our agents. They simply said, “We’ll get into it” and hung up. We didn’t hear from them for three agonizing hours. What did they mean, they’ll get into it? We were dying. Then, they finally called and said, “Congrats! You start tomorrow!” Huh? You mean I’m never going to answer phones ever again? You mean I’ll never book trips for my bosses ever again? You mean I’m going to get paid to do the very thing I love? Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. As they say… The rest is history!

Most people really don’t understand exactly what a writer/producer does. Could you describe the writer’s production responsibilities?

ERICA: It varies from show-to-show. On Criminal Minds, each writer is encouraged to produce their own episodes. This means you are the expert of your episode and are there every step of the way. When prep begins and the meetings are back-to-back, you need to know your script better than anyone else. If your intention wasn’t clear in the script, it is your job to make it clear. If someone has an idea that would strengthen your script, you are thankful that you’re on a great show where everyone wants to make the best product. From prep, you continue onto the actual shooting of the episode. Getting to work with our crew is awesome. They are the best. The heroes of our show. After the shoot, the episode goes into post-production. The editor turns in a cut to the director and then the director turns in his/her cut to the producers. Once all of the producers watch the cut and give feedback, the writer of that episode joins the editor in the cutting room to get the episode ready for the studio and network. Their notes are incorporated, post-production does the rest of their magic with the score and then you get to watch!

Considering the subject matter of Criminal Minds, how do you keep from taking the show home with you at night?

DEBRA: In the beginning I definitely took the show home with me. I rescued a big, big dog and I got an alarm system on my house. I also learned how to fire a gun. Don’t mess with me, people. I can bench press my own weight and I can play football.

ERICA: At first I took it home. And still do, in some ways. But it doesn’t bother me as much now. It’s like a medical student who doesn’t see the blood anymore. The psychology of these criminals fascinates me and if I keep it clinical like that, I’m okay.

What’s the most fun part of working on Criminal Minds? What part do you dislike the most?

ERICA: It’s always talked about in business that success comes when you have the right product, process and people. After a few years of looking for this, I’ve hit the jackpot. Criminal Minds has been all of those things and more. It’s hard to single out the best part, but I’d have to say it’s the relationships I’ve made with every single person on this series. Ed Bernero encourages us to all know one another because we’re in this together.

What part do I dislike? I’ll let you know when it happens.

DEBRA: The people we work with are the most amazing part of this job. [Executive producer] Ed Bernero is a dream to work for. The entire writing staff is amazing. We spend hours and hours together, talking, debating, reading each other’s work, giving notes. I couldn’t think of a better group to spend all this time with. Also the entire crew. I work on a show where I know every single person I work with. Their names, their spouses’ name. Their kids’ names. That’s not the norm… usually…

What do I dislike the most? How fast you have to move in TV. Sometimes the end product can be affected by how little time you’ve had on a first draft or how little time you have to prep because you’re still doing rewrites. That’s a bummer sometimes.

What would you do if you weren’t a TV writer?

DEBRA: I would want to be a freelance photographer. A yoga and pilates teacher. A world explorer and a dog rescuer. I would spend more time with a cause close to my heart: Canine Companions for Independence.

ERICA: My immediate family has a history of civil service to this country. From local law enforcement to FBI, CIA, NASA and State Department, they’ve all tried to make our world a better place. I’d love to follow in their footsteps and become a real hero instead of just writing about them.