Case #10: Javier Grillo-Marxuach

Interview by Sandie for Daemon’s TV

Javier Grillo-MarxuachJAVIER GRILLO-MARXUACH is probably not a name you would recognize without shows like The Pretender, Charmed, Lost, and Medium attached to it. We are here to change this.

Meet Javier Grillo-Marxuach, one of the writers (and sometimes producer) behind some of your favorite shows, including the ones mentioned above and much more. He is also one of the writers that was affected by the strike and it is with that in mind that he was kind enough to take time to speak to us about his career as a writer and how it was affected by the strike.

A fun fact you should know before reading the interview is that in addition to writing for television, Javier Grillo-Marxuach has also written a few comic books, including The Middleman, which was recently picked up as a series by ABC Family. You can visit The Middleman website and The Middleman blog for more information about it.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach also has a website and a blog you can visit where you can learn more about him and his career, as well as what he is up to nowadays.

Can you talk about how you got into writing?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. It’s something that being where I am now is sort of a dream come true, it’s a lifelong ambition. I was born in Puerto Rico, and I think probably around the time that I was seven, I saw Star Wars for the first time and realized I wanted to write for movies and later for TV. And it was from there that later in my life, my parents moved the family to the United States and I wound up spending a lot of my formative years here and going to grad school at the University of Southern California at the School of Cinema and Television and getting a degree in Screenwriting. From there I was recruited by NBC and I became an executive, almost out of grad school. They wanted somebody who had a background in writing that could come and start at the ground level, sort of a Junior Associate in the company. I think they were hoping to groom an Executive who had the ability to talk to writers and to really come at it from the point of view of a creative. I was working Current and Development at NBC and it lasted about two years before this call of writing for television became the dominant force in my life and I left the network end. My first job was on Seaquest 2032 in 1995. I’ve been writing ever since.

How was your experience on Lost?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: I’m tremendously proud of it. It was two really eventful years in my life. I was not just a producer and a writer on the show, my involvement with it started before the pilot was shot. I was sort of part of a little think-tank of writers that came together to really develop the series and all that. I feel like I was really part of the genesis of the series, and for it to go from that to being the amazingly huge hit that it is now, a force and popular culture [icon] that it is, it’s really gratifying. I won an Emmy as part of my work on the show. How do you underplay that? It was a really wonderful roller coaster. You don’t always get to go on a show and see it kind of rule the world, you know? (laughs) I had been writing professionally for many years already by the time that I began to work on Lost, and I’ve done some really great shows, some shows that people really love, and some shows that were very successful, but Lost is that kind of hit show that goes from being a mere television show to really being a cultural force. You have to love and respect having been a part of something like that.

Currently you are a co-executive producer and writer on Medium, can you talk about the differences between this show compared to the other ones you have worked on?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It’s interesting, I thought when I went to work on Medium that we’d be using a lot of my experience writing on genre, because it is about a psychic detective, but really the show is vastly different from anything I’ve ever written before because it’s so family driven. It was a real challenge because I’ve never written on anything with that kind of familial dynamic to it. Most of the shows that I’ve written on, I was really writing for characters who were not parents and put in situations that were sort of out of this world. If you look at something like Charmed, or Seaquest, or The Chronicle, they were really shows about people in very extraordinary situations. And you can say that about Allison Dubois, but really Medium is so much about her interaction with her family and all that, so it was really and continues to be very much a show that is many times more about Allison and her husband and her family and the kitchen sink rather than the supernatural aspect. It was a learning experience for me, because I’m not a parent, so it was a world that I hadn’t really touched before creatively.

The one thing I did notice about Medium is that, as opposed to shows like CSI where sometimes, if you keep watching it on a regular basis, you can sort of guess who the criminal is or what is going to happen, in Medium I very rarely can figure what is going to happen. How do you come up with storylines like this?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It really was about the alchemy between Glenn Gordon Caron‘s sensibility–which is very specific: he really doesn’t like to put anything on the screen that he hasn’t seen before, and he’s such a student of film, he really pushes for things that are unique and things that are very different– and René Echevarria, who is also the executive producer on the show and a magnificent creative guy who runs the writers of that show. It really is about the alchemy between those two sensibilities and about what Glenn believes to be quality television. I think every show is a direct reflection of its executive producer in some way, especially the person who created it, and I think when you watch Lost, you’re really seeing a sort of guided tour into the mind of Damon Lindelof in a lot of ways. And in a lot of ways, Medium is like that in terms of Glenn’s taste and what Glenn thinks is a good mystery and what isn’t and all that. It was a show that was very challenging and very specific, but I think what you see on the screen is ultimately very much a reflection of his belief in what is quality television.

I actually have had the privilege of having worked for a lot of people that I consider to be sort of unique voices esthetically. Graham Yost on Boomtown, Silvio Horta, who is the creator of Ugly Betty, whom I worked with twice, on The Chronicle and Jake 2.0, Glenn is just a titan, and Damon and J.J. [Abrams], these are people who are pretty visionary people and it’s been a real privilege to work with a lot of guys at that level.

How has the strike affected you in your professional and personal life?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: It had a pretty vast effect on me professionally because just as the strike winds were gathering, my pilot The Middleman was greenlit by ABC Family. I was in Canada, several months into prep on my pilot, when the strike hit. First, there was this very powerful movement among the show runner community for people to strike completely, for not only not to write, but to also not produce. I was in a situation where I had to make a very difficult decision of whether to do as a lot of people out of respect were doing, or continue to produce my pilot. Ultimately I chose to produce my pilot for a variety of professional and personal reasons, but it was a very difficult decision and a very difficult place to be, between having to decide what would best serve the strike and what would best serve the crew of my pilot, some of my own creative goals, and some of my contractual obligations. It was a really difficult place to be and now that I’m back in Los Angeles, with the pilot that has been produced, I’m in a situation where I have always stood in solidarity with the Guild and with what the strike is about. It’s something that I believe in deeply, and at the same time I have a pilot that has been picked up as a series sitting on the shelf. I recognize that the one nice thing about that is one of the reasons why I was able to make the decision to produce the pilot is that it isn’t something that the studios or the networks can monetize, this is just a pilot, this is just a proof of concept, it’s not a series where they have episodes that they could air or anything like that. But it’s a difficult thing. I have something that I want to go and continue to create, and put out there and show to the world because I’m very proud of it, and I can’t. And the reason I can’t is because there are business practices on the part of the studios that are deeply unfair and that have to be fought against. In an ideal world, we would by nature be sort of understood to have a great stake in the process and in the business of television and be given a fair deal because it’s what we deserve and instead, the business is such that we have to fight for it. It’s a really sad thing because, as the strike is proving, without a healthy dose of respect for your creative people, you wind up with no television at all.

What are you doing now during the strike? Are you working on different projects? Are you writing a new comic book?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: I’m always writing and I’m always creating. It doesn’t matter if I’m on strike or not because I’m a writer and that’s what I do, regardless of the venue. The sad part is that I can’t talk about it and I can’t put anything out there because I’m on strike.

Can you talk a little bit about your comic book The Middleman? What’s the story and how did you come up with it?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: The Middleman was a pilot that I wrote on spec almost ten years ago. I wrote it because it was something that I thought was funny and wanted to see on television. Ultimately I couldn’t get any traction with it. It was something where people sort of read it and didn’t quite see the vision of it. A few years after I wrote it, I went to work on Lost and I worked with a guy called Paul Dini, and Paul really encouraged me to pursue it as a comic book, which I did. I wound up working with Les McClaine at Viper Comics and also I have been publishing three volumes of it, three graphic novels of this character and of this world. The way that I think it’s interesting vis-a-vis the strike is that by going out and being very entrepreneurial with the project, with the property, I was ultimately able to get a deal to put it on television. I feel like that’s something that we as writers are going to have to embrace much more whole-heartedly in the post-strike era, because collective bargaining is going to get us some of the things we want, but I think we need to also individually take control of our destiny, and take control of our intellectual property, and find ways of generating intellectual property, before we actually sell our stuff to the corporations. I think it’s going to be a way that writers like myself are going to have better contracts and contracts that are more reflective of our own creative agendas and our own needs. For me, The Middleman was something that I did because I wanted to see this out there and I had to find the work around the fact that it didn’t sell at first as a television pilot. I really look at it as something that is indicative of a way that writers, especially now that we’ve been engaged in this struggle against the corporations for intellectual property rights and so on, are going to be able to own what we make and sell it closer to our own terms rather than on the terms of the corporations.

A lot of people assume that writers are just being unreasonable because they are “paid so much,” but it seems that writers have different occupations, they can’t just write, they need to have different projects.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: The idea that writers are being unreasonable demonstrates a lack of perspective because we are creating something that is exploitable over many different areas of media. A television show isn’t like a car where you stamp out a car 5 million times to sell 5 million cars. Every individual episode of a television show is an individual work of art and I truly believe that. Just like every individual film is the same way, and more so in the case of film, every film is basically a start up company that has to create one product and that one product becomes what it sells over and over again. I think that it’s very easy to think that this is a labor struggle, that it’s commensurate with any other number of labor struggles, but I think this is really about the intellectual rights to each individual work of art. And the money the Studios are making on these things, especially now with new media, is so vast, and you only have to look at the compensation of the CEOs of the companies to get an idea. If they think writers are overpaid, they should look at what the CEOs of media conglomerate make. And look at that as whether or not that’s proportionate to the work that is actually done. In the context of that, and in the context of the actual amount of money that the Studios are making exploiting these sort of individual works of art that we provide them with, I don’t think that the demands are unreasonable.

Also, the idea that writers are all overpaid is not an accurate one. First of all, writers have a much shorter lifespan in their field than most people do. There is no such thing as job security in writing, and a lot of what writers live on are those residuals, and those residuals were hard fought for for exactly that reason. A lot of people don’t have long careers in film and television. It is a tremendously difficult place to break into and it’s a tremendously difficult business to survive in. It’s a business where creating that one individual piece of art that the Studio can then exploit infinitely is a tremendously time and soul consuming thing. So a lot of writers, they may be starting out, they may be at the end of their career, what they have to show for it is this catalog of scripts that have been produced, and the residuals money becomes a way that you can continue to live based on all the work that you have done.

Have you been surprised by the support the strike has gotten?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: Yes. I think this is a different world than it was in the eighties, the last time that the Guild was on strike. The great thing about having worked on a show like Lost and on other shows that were sort of fan-based shows in the infancy and now sort of early growth of the web, is that fans have become much more cognizant of the role of the writer. On a show like Lost, people know who wrote what episode, on shows like Buffy, people know who wrote what episode, and they even know what the voices of the individual writers are like and what their ideas are like, and people have become fans of writers in a way that they have never been before. I think that people can see the value of what we bring to table. People no longer think of us as these faceless rounds that out generic pieces of television. And again, for me as a writer being able to have a blog and connect with fans, and be better known by the fans, and have my contribution understood by the fans is a huge deal. So honestly the support is surprising and it’s fantastic, but I think it reflects the era we live in now. It’s an era where fans have greater access to the people behind the scenes of a show and where they’re able to really personalize the creative people behind a show. I think the strike has been really well-run in terms of reaching out to the fans and reaching out to people who love television and films, and really telling them, “This is why we’re fighting,” and I think people ultimately understand that.

What are your plans once the strike gets resolved?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: Well, The Middleman has been picked up by ABC Family, so I’m basically sitting on my hands just waiting for the strike to end so that I can produce my show. And when it does, I’ll be very grateful to the Guild because I’ll know that I’ll be doing it under better conditions than I sold it.

Should we expect The Middleman to premiere during the Fall (’08)?

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: All of the scheduling and premiere dates are sort of up to ABC Family because they’re contingent on the strike ending. So it really will depend on when the strike ends and when the deal is made. I have great hope in that our negotiating committee will be able to do that and I hope that the companies will step up and really give us a deal that respects what we do.

Out of everything you have worked on, which one was your favorite and why?

(Laughs) There’s no favorite. I think that there are things that you do like Lost that take over your life and become such a force above and beyond the series that you can only love them for the experience that you had. There’s a show that I did in the early 2000’s, it’s called The Chronicle, which was just a little show on the Sci-Fi channel that we did 22 episodes. That was just a fantastically rewarding experience, but didn’t have the success of say something like Lost. There’s a show like Boomtown that I worked on after The Chronicle, which was run by Graham Yost, and it was a spectacularly complicated experiment in non-linear story telling that was very critically acclaimed. Ultimately it didn’t find an audience, but that I am tremendously proud of because it was really trying to push the boundaries of how your present story on television. So you know, every show is different and it’s not that I hold every show equally but to pick a favorite is kind of unfair because there’s so many different shows that you do that give you different experiences and where you learn different things.

Case #9: Cathryn Michon

Interview by Sandie for Daemon’s TV

CATHRYN MICHONCATHRYN MICHON is one of the many writers who was affected by the strike. She was nice enough to take time out of her day to speak with me last week and talk about how she started writing, the way the strike has affected her, as well as her plans once the strike is over.

Cathryn Michon is a writer but also an actress and stand-up comic. Some of her writing credits include China Beach, Diagnosis Murder, and Side Order of Life. In addition, Cathryn Michon is also the author of two books The Grrl Genius Guide to Life and The Grrl Genius Guide to Sex both based on her very own Grrl Genius philosophy. More recently, Cathryn Michon has produced a film, Cook-Off!, slated for release in 2008. You can visit Cathryn Michon’s website to learn more about her and her Grrl Genius philosophy.

Can you talk a little bit about how you got into writing?

Cathryn Michon: I am an alumni of The Second City in Chicago, so I actually came to writing through improv, and I am also an actress and a comic. So my entree into writing was really more writing down stuff that we said earlier that was funny. My introduction to writing for television is kind of one of those great lucky breakable time things. I had a play that I had written that the woman who was the reader for China Beach had seen. She knew me from Carnegie Mellon and recommended me to John Wells, Carol Flint, and Lydia Woodward on China Beach. They wanted to hire a very young woman writer because this was the last season of the show and it was a show about young women. So they decided to hire someone as young and inexperienced as the actual characters on the show. I was hired as what is called a “staff writer,” which means you don’t get screen credit on the weekly show, you just kind of get to go to film school for free and that’s what happened to me. It was a huge break and those people have been great mentors to me and I’m really grateful to them.

Can you talk a little more about that experience on China Beach? How does the staff writing work?

Cathryn Michon:Well, that show was really one of the best experiences you could ever have and John Wells and John Sacret Young were really the reasons for that. Even though I was the lowest person on the totem pole, I was included in everything and I learned everything about editing, casting, dubbing, production meetings, concept meetings. We were included in everything, which is not always the case on a TV show: it tends to be very hierarchical and usually only higher level staff get to go to all those things. I actually wrote two episodes of the show, but I really got to learn all these other production things which was such an amazing opportunity.

Can you talk about your experience on Side Order of Life and how different it was from China Beach?

Cathryn Michon: That experience was great also. The woman who created the show, Margaret Nagle, is a friend of mine and someone who is, like me, also an actress. Margaret is one of the best natural storytellers you’d ever want to meet, if you have lunch with her she’ll tell you a bunch of great stories. She’s just a storyteller and I was one of many friends that encouraged her into “You gotta write that stuff down, you ought to consider being a writer as well as an actress” so just as a friend I read many drafts of the show and talked out things with her long before it was picked up by Lifetime. I think it was a great show, and since the topic is the strike, I sort of feel like many things, it hasn’t officially not been picked up but since nothing can be picked up at this time its future is pretty uncertain, and I think that’s unfortunate because it really was a lovely show. I mean it got some of the best reviews I’ve ever seen for a pilot.

I was looking forward to finding out what happened next on Side Order of Life, so I hope I’m not going to be disappointed.

Cathryn Michon: Yes. You know Margaret has very much got a big vision for where she wants the show to go. This is such a weird and awful time. I wasn’t in the business last time there was a strike and people are not meant to not work. So it’s just a pretty strange time.

On that note, how has the strike affected you in your personal and in your professional life?

Cathryn Michon: Really bad (laughs). Well, in our professional lives, everyone does not have a professional life as far as Hollywood is concerned at the moment. Most of my friends are in show business, just because we all work such long hours, those are the people you know, and I don’t know anyone that hasn’t been affected. Even my hairdresser told me that on the first day of the strike his appointments were down 25%. Everybody says the same thing, it really just affects everyone here. The loss in income to the city has been really bad. I know that you guys are supportive of writers, it’s been said many times we are really just looking for a fair deal in new media. The way the payment of actors, writers, and directors is structured is that we take a risk along with the company. We get paid for our initial work and then if the work we created is successful, if it goes into syndication, or it goes into reruns, or on DVD, or whatever the further downstream version of it is, we then share in that success. If it’s a flop, we don’t. That’s pretty fair, and if you had to pay everyone up front for as successful as anything might be, no one could afford to make entertainment, it would be too expensive. All we’re really asking for is the same kind of split whether you watch it on your computer screen or a TV screen, whether you get it from Netflix or download it to your hard drive. We are not asking for anything more than we’ve ever gotten, we’re just asking for the same. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

Do you have any projects that you are working on during the strike?

Cathryn Michon: Oh sure. We’re mostly independent contractors/freelancers. I’ve published books. I’m a stand up comic. I’ve always worked on things that aren’t necessarily film or television projects and I’m part of Strike TV, which is a venture where we are introducing web content that we are creating. I would have been interested in that regardless of whether or not there was a strike. I’m an independent filmmaker. We had a film that premiered at this past year’s Aspen Comedy Festival. So for a long time I’ve been doing things that are outside of the studio network system, as well as working on shows like Side Order of Life. So yes, I’m still working on the things I’m allowed to work on, I just can’t write a screenplay for someone else and I can’t work on someone else’s TV show and I can’t pitch projects.

What is the name of the film you mentioned that was at the Aspen Comedy Festival?

Cathryn Michon: It’s a film that was adapted from a book I wrote. It’s adapted from a chapter in The Grrl Genius Guide to Life and it’s called Cook-Off! and it’s sort of Best In Show meets A Million Dollar Bake Off. It has an amazing cast with Diedrich Bader, who was in Office Space, Stephen Root, who also was in Office Space, Mindy Sterling, who is in Austin Powers, Markie Post, who is in There Is Something About Mary, a bunch of people from the cast of Reno 911!, a bunch of people from Curb Your Enthusiasm, a lot of improvisers, because a lot of the dialogue in the movie was improvised. As far as we know it’s supposed to come out in 2008, but that’s up to powers that be that aren’t me. It won the Jury Prize at Aspen for Best Comedy Performance and everywhere it’s been shown so far people have loved it, so it’s a really cool project.

What inspired you to write the “Grrl Genius” books?

Cathryn Michon: I don’t know about you, but most women I know suffer from unreasonably low self-esteem, though most of them are great. And they never think they’re pretty enough, or smart enough, or talented enough, and I am certainly no exception. So I decided to start over-compensating just so that I could get to normal. I just decided to declare myself a Grrl Genius based on nothing, no IQ test or anything, I just thought “Well, I’ll just aim high and see if I can end up at average” and I found that that idea resonated with a lot of people. And even guys like it, because guys are tired of women having low self-esteem. Every guy in the world dreads the most horrible question he could ever be asked “Do I look fat?” I say in my act it’s like Sophie’s Choice to a man, there’s no good answer, even acknowledging the question it means that you look fat in something or could be fat, so that’s sort of where the idea for the books came about and they have proved to be rather enduringly popular, so I’m grateful for that.

What’s the difference between writing a book and writing for a show?

Cathryn Michon: Well, writing for a book, if it’s terrible, there is really no one to blame but you (laughs). You can’t say “Oh well, you know that actress wasn’t really funny or the director wasn’t very talented or the network made me do it” or any of that. I have been really privileged, both books, the “Grrl Genius” books, had an amazing editor, a woman named Diane Reverand, and she loved my voice and only made the books better. But it’s a nervous feeling to know when it goes out to reviewers and what not that if they don’t like it you really have no one else to blame. I never thought that I would think that that was something that I would long for, but the first time the book went out I was like “Oh my God, if they don’t like it, it really is my fault.” But I was really lucky, both books got really encouraging and rave reviews so I didn’t get ripped by anybody.

Which one do you like writing better for?

Cathryn Michon: What I really like the best is what I got to do on “Cook-Off!” which was writing the script and then being in the cast and being part of it. That’s my background, as a writer performer, that was my favorite thing. I also hosted a television show for two years called Grrl Genius at the Movies where I got to kind of do the same thing and that’s probably my favorite; to do what Larry David does on Curb Your Enthusiasm and what Tina Fey does on 30 Rock, where you are both the writer and the performer.

How has the strike affected you performing now that you can’t really write?

Cathryn Michon: It affected it badly, except this series that we are doing on Strike TV that I am allowed to do. It’s internet content, I mean that’s the whole thing we’re fighting over so we don’t actually have a contract yet for the internet so I am allowed to do that work. I’m a member of SAG also, but SAG actors are allowed to work on the internet as well.

What are your plans once the strike gets resolved? What’s the first thing that you want to do?

Cathryn Michon: I’m gonna go to Disneyland. (laughs) No, we have a number of projects that were in process that we hope will still exist. I work alone and then I also have a writing partner. W. Bruce Cameron is my writing partner sometimes, and we have a couple of film projects that we are hoping to resurrect once the whole strike ends. I would love it if Side Order of Life came back and working on that again that would be great. You know, we just move forward. We’re independent contractors so we would be back in the place we always are which is working on things and getting things going and hoping that things get picked up that we’ve gotten going and that’s our lives and we’re used to that. What’s been really awful is the idea that no matter what you do, nothing can happen. I’m used to rejection. Obviously we hear no much more often than we hear yes and that’s okay. We just want a chance to hear no. Now I’m looking forward to no actually, no would be exciting.

Some people think that all the writers are really rich, can you tell us your side of that argument?

Cathryn Michon: Well, there has been these sort of dueling numbers. The AMPTP put up some number that I don’t even know where they got that said the average writer makes something like $200,000 in a year. It isn’t backed up by the figures from our own union who believe me we all pay dues to on what we make, so they know exactly what we make, and the figure is much closer to $50,000-60,000 a year. And the nature of it is, let’s say you’re a screenwriter, screenplays often sell in six figures but you don’t necessarily sell one every year. Somebody might have a great big screenplay sell where they made $200,000-300,000, but they might not sell one for 3 years. So you have to plan very carefully. But say your screenplay gets made and then that’s where all those things like the residual payments and all that come in. There are many years that I worked on something and then didn’t work for a while and the only reason I had health care or income was because something was in reruns or syndication. I can’t tell you how many times I have thanked Mister Dick Van Dyke as I worked on Diagnosis Murder and man, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of income, because it’s been such a huge success in syndication.

Have you been surprised by the support the strike has gotten?

Cathryn Michon: It’s just really touching. I think writers are pretty used to being the ignored ones and think that fans just think that “Oh, the actors make that stuff up.” There has certainly been shows that I worked on where people wrote really nice fan letters or something, but I don’t think we ever anticipated that fans would be so supportive of us and it’s been really cool.

Is there something else you would like to add?

Cathryn Michon: For the most part most people in Hollywood, not just writers, actors and directors as well, we’re middle-class to upper-middle class people. We went to college, we did whatever we did to get into this business, but the idea that most members of SAG or most members of the WGA are a bunch of millionaires or are just greedy is inaccurate. We’re mostly just regular middle or upper-middle class people. We make the kind of income and have the kind of problems that you’d expect to have if you were a college graduate who went into a profession. What bothers me is that everyone assumes that working in entertainment is glamorous and anyone that’s involved must have millions of dollars, I wish it were true and I actually hope it will be true. We take a risk first, we take a risk before Warner Bros. takes a risk, we risk our time, we risk our reputation, we risk our ideas. We’re entrepreneurs, and having produced an independent film I know how expensive it is and I know how much work it is and we should be partners. Most of the people that I worked with on the studio side are great people, I just hope that when this is settled everybody can get back to just being normal and stop the name calling and the demonizing on both sides, because it’s not helpful, we have to work together.

Case #8: Ellen Sandler

Interview by Therese for Writer Unboxed

Ellen SandlerELLEN SANDLER is the author of The TV Writer’s Workbook, (Bantam/Dell, 2007) and received an Emmy nomination for her work as Co-Executive Producer for the CBS hit series, Everybody Loves Raymond. She has worked as a writer/producer for more than 20 network television comedies including ABC’s long running series, Coach and has created original pilots for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox Family, Oxygen, The Disney Channel and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. A prominent script consultant, she works with both professionals and emerging writers and can be contacted through her website.

Q: What basic things do the strikers want? And why do you think there’s such resistance to giving them those rights?

ES: From the WGA website:

Industry experts agree that in the next 2-5 years most American televisions will be connected to the Internet and the shows and movies you watch will be transmitted via an Internet connection. Corporate revenue from video downloading is estimated to be $1 billion for the next three years; proceeds from video streaming will be $3 billion during the next two years.

Writers are asking for Guild coverage of writing for the Internet, basic residuals for Internet content reuse, and the tools to enforce this agreement. These residuals are not a bonus for writers; they are a critical part of compensation.

It should be noted that residuals are not royalties. Television writers do not hold the copyright to their work, the studios do. Residuals are the legitimate compensation that writers are paid if the shows do well and studios make more money by putting shows into reruns. If the shows do not do well enough to warrant reruns, then writers forgo the residual payments.

The media conglomerates are refusing to grant the Writers Guild jurisdiction over original writing for the Internet, though nearly ALL writing will likely be transmitted this way in the future and will in the future be the source of studio profits. Without a contract, a fair contract, that addresses new media writers won’t be compensated.

Q: How do you think this time away from script writing might affect the episodes of various shows still to be written?

ES: Time lost is time lost. If and when the Writer’s Guild reaches an agreement with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) it is highly likely that the TV season will be significantly shortened. If the strike continues this year’s television season could be severely limited. The strike will also affect next year’s television season. New shows (pilots) would normally be written right now in order to be in the production pipe line for next fall. One possible result of this strike could be that television networks will abandon the season approach that they have traditionally used and begin putting shows on the air at any time, whenever something is ready to go. That could actually turn out to be a benefit in the long run.

Q: Let’s talk about how television writing works. Do most shows have a “bible?” How detailed are they? Are they in-depth encyclopedias or just general outlines of the main characters and themes of the series?

ES: The “bible” for a TV show is a general term for the development work that goes into creating a set of new characters and the world they exist in for any new show on television. The content and format of that development material is determined by the writer(s) who create the show. There is not an industry standard on how much detail or in what form such material exists. Each writer creates the characters and background in their own way. The specific details that end up in the material referred to as the show’s bible depends largely on that show’s creator and the network executives that are “working” with that writer.

Q: What about a show’s template? In your experience has this been well identified before the start of a series, and communicated to the writing team? Is a template more a blessing or a curse?

ES: The pilot of any good television show is the show’s template. However it is not written in stone and as more stories are written the show finds its footing and some things may change and evolve. For example, on Sex in the City, Carrie stopped talking directly into the camera, and on Lost, the flashbacks became flash-forwards.

The nature of series television is repeatability. Familiar characters and familiar story structure is what keeps audiences coming back week after week. In that sense the template or format is a blessing. If a writer sees the show’s template as a curse, I would suggest finding another career, because working with the show’s template is the job.

Q: How do you go about writing an episode? Is it plotted first? Do you break the story down with the writing team before one writer assembles all the thoughts and ideas?

ES: Each head writer has his or her own way of running their writing room. There will usually be pitches from the writers – sometimes formal and sometimes just talking about what’s going on in their lives. My pitches will usually come from experiences from my own life translated into a character on the show. The head writer, aka show runner, decides which pitches will be further explored – sometimes a writer will do that work on their own and sometimes it will be worked out with the entire room. Breaking the story is a big job and all writers need to get feedback and help from the rest of the writing staff. But the head writer is the one who has the final say, so that is the approval you need. (I do know of shows where writers have spent all day in the room breaking a story, just to have the head writer return from editing last week’s show, and throw out the entire story.) After the story is broken, one writer will often take the story to script, but sometimes more than one writer will work on the script. In a time crunch, the script could be assigned to several different writers. It is even possible that the writer who originally pitched the idea isn’t assigned to write any part of it. And of course, even if one writer writes the entire script, it will be rewritten, perhaps beyond recognition once it goes into production.

Q: In what ways does the writing process work well with such a large group? Where do you think it could use improvement? If it breaks down, where?

ES: Television is definitely a collaborative process – which I happen to find stimulating and sometimes even fun. It can also be frustrating when you see some part of your work changed but with the amount of work that has to get done and the tight deadlines we are always under, I’ll take all the help I can get.

Q: By the time a new season begins, how many episodes have been written? How many are generated in the off-season?

ES: Writers will usually start their season about two months before production starts filming. When the first episode of the new season actually airs can vary greatly from about a month after filming starts to maybe six months (if it is a mid-season show). Consequently, there will probably be at least 6 episodes written before the first one airs, and there may be 16 or more. That’s the way the vast majority of commercial network shows work. It creates a difficult workload and usually a frantic pace. Many cable shows will have the entire season of episodes completed before they begin airing. That’s how David Chase and HBO handled The Sopranos and in my opinion that’s a ringing testament to effectiveness of a calmer work schedule.

Q:Is there a general outline for the arc of the season, or does the writing team make it up as they go along?

ES: This may depend, at least in part, on how serialized the show is. On a show with a storyline that spans the entire season, the writers may have a detailed outline for that story’s arc. On a show that has stand-alone episodes, the writers may just know that they want two of the characters to be in a romantic relationship by the end.

Q: Please tell us about your book, The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts. What topics do you cover, and what does it offer would-be television writers?

ES: I wrote the book as a companion workbook to augment my speaking engagements and writing workshops. The book takes the reader through a step by step process of creating story structure, which is useful for any kind of narrative writing. Television scripts are all about story structure, they are also short and simple, therefore they make a great examples for writers to learn structure. My book also provides exercises for finding original story ideas and giving unique voice to characters with fresh dialogue. I also discuss many practical professional matters such as how to work with agents and managers, dos and don’ts of cover letters, protocols for pitch meetings, what to include and what not to leave out of any pitch – and I illustrate all these topics with many examples from my professional and personal life.

Q: Tell me a little about how television writers pitch their ideas. What do you think other writers can learn form their process?

ES: The key to pitching is to keep it short and simple. It shows confidence in your idea and respect for the person you’re pitching to. Pitching is often a terrifying experience for a writer and yet it is an essential skill for anyone who wants to work in television and film. It’s a basic part of the business. You are pitching story ideas and suggestions for rewrites all the time. It’s so important that I have a whole section in my book about pitching.

Q: Do you think it would be beneficial for writers outside television to set up a writing room, or take on several writing partners, as television writers do?

ES: I think participating in a writers group is a very good idea. Getting feedback from colleagues you respect is valuable.

Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about writing for television?

ES: This is the only question I don’t have to think about – It’s the $$$.

Q: When you watch a show, which elements do you look for? Which can you learn from?

ES: Like most people, when I watch television I’m usually looking to be entertained. Of course, what I find most entertaining is really great writing.

Q: Which shows have been your favorites?

ES: I love The Sopranos. I’ve watched every episode, many of them more than once, and I always find it an exhilarating experience. A new show I like is Mad Men, and I got completely mesmerized by Damages. I loved the character development and the constantly surprising discoveries. I love Curb Your Enthusiasm and I think The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are ground-breaking and hilarious shows. On network TV I get a big kick out of The Office, again I love the character work. I often watch Two and a Half Men and I always find myself laughing out loud. 30 Rock is a big favorite of mine; I think it’s fresh and I love the satiric humor, which I think is hard to get right—they do. I like Without a Trace and I confess to binging on Law and Order once in a while. There’s always one playing on some channel and I can sit for six hours and watch one after another. It doesn’t matter which version, I’ll watch any of them. It’s a brilliant format; it’s indestructible, it works every time and it’s completely addicting. Wow, stopping to think about it, I realize there really is a lot of good stuff on TV.

Thanks so much, Ellen Sandler, for a great interview…and some good tips re: what we should watch tonight, too!

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.

Case #6: Michael Jann

Interview by Dan for TiFaux

Ask Michael Jann what the hardest part about being a striking writer is and this is what he’ll say: “Besides the loss of paycheck, a loss of erections.”

Ask Michael Jann what his daily routine consists of during the strike and this is what he’ll say: “Hoping and praying the strike ends. Working on a book: The Five People You Meet In Hell. It’s about the AMPTP.”

Needless to state, Michael is a professional cut-up. For the past 15 years, he’s been writing monologue jokes for Jay Leno from his office (a media hub where he scans newspapers, surfs the internet, and sets the television to blare news, sports, Dr. Phil, Oprah and his self-professed favorite, Blind Date).

“I write and write and write and hand pages of jokes to Jay — the greatest boss in the world, always says thanks — and then [he] tells the jokes in front of about ten million people that night,” he says, adding, “I get paid for this.”

Now that the strike has hit, Jann, a Connecticut native, has found himself in the surreal position of picketing with his fellow writers.

“The picket lines are drudgery and boring beyond belief, but there’s one that is 90% Tonight Show writers, so I get to joke around with them and stay connected. We accomplish nothing picketing, except for providing moral support for one another. On windy days I throw my sign up in the air, and pretend it’s a kite. The sad thing is, it never really blows away.”

Michael Jann takes a break from walking in circles and accomplishing nothing.

Jann’s comedy career began in Catholic school back in Connecticut, getting in trouble for cracking jokes in class. In fact, he once claims to have had a yardstick broken over his back (“Giggling in church was a felony”).

After going to school at the University of Connecticut and diverting from his original plan to become a veterinarian (thanks to a D in botany), he went into advertising as a temporary career. Over the course of ten years, he wrote TV commercials in Hartford, Philadelphia, Boston and New York.

After that, though, he decided enough was enough and he switched coasts to move to Los Angeles. He bided his time writing for National Lampoon magazine and Nick At Night until Jay Leno began guest hosting on the Tonight Show and was accepting submissions from freelance jokesters via fax. Jann started writing for Leno at fifty bucks a joke and when Johnny Carson retired, Leno hired Jann on full-time.

Jann has nothing but effusive praise for his boss Jay, although some union members might still be fuming about his decision to write his own monologues.

“Jay was super supportive for two months, visiting the picket line every day. He had to go back — he is a brand that must maintain its viability. He is a force of nature — hasn’t taken a sick day once in fifteen years. I don’t begrudge him going back.”

For now, though, Jann is still on the picket lines.

“Picketing is surreal. No other word for finding yourself out in the street, walking in circles, holding a sign, accomplishing nothing.”

For now, he vents by doing personal writing.

“I hope that’s not against the rules.” he said. “I’m not being paid.”

Case #5: Eric Estrin

Interview by Fergus and Marcia for Pop Vultures
 

Eric Estrin at his computer Eric Estrin is a long-time member of the WGA, with television credits going back over twenty years. He has written for such diverse shows as Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote and The Outer Limits and also served as writer/producer on V.I.P.

Fergus and Marcia from Pop Vultures had a chance to ask him about the Writers’ Guild strike, and why it had to happen.

Can you tell how you came to writing, and how you got your break?
I studied journalism in college and was covering the entertainment industry freelance for a variety of newspapers and magazines. I was also the TV critic for Los Angeles magazine. After a couple of years of this, I decided to quit criticizing and start doing. Miami Vice was the hot new show at the time, and I was from Miami, had covered Miami as a journalist, and had a bunch of story ideas that went beyond the usual for that show. I teamed up with a partner, wrote a spec episode, and showed it to everyone we knew through our years of being around the business. We got an assignment for a show that never made it onto the air, but through that experience we joined the Writers Guild, found an agent and were soon invited into Miami Vice, where we wrote an episode.

How easy has it been to pick and choose your work?
In the beginning it was easier for me to work only for shows that I targeted. I was new in the business, and everyone who breaks in gets the benefit of the doubt as the possible “next big thing.” After a while you tend to get pigeonholed in a certain genre, but I always resisted that and tried to write for a variety of different one-hour dramas. My former partner (Michael Berlin) and I also had a budding movie career going, but it was torpedoed by the writers’ strike of 1988. After that we sort of struggled to get back into TV and had more trouble controlling our career paths, as we were no longer the flavor of the month, and new writers came along with more momentum. But I’m happy to look back at my success in a variety of genres — cop shows, women-oriented drama, fantasy and supernatural, and comedy-action. It reassures me that I’m always only a spec script away from taking any new path I want.

What’s the current WGA dispute about?
Mainly new media. The industry is undergoing a sea change now in terms of content delivery. When I broke in, most TV writing was done for three broadcast networks. Then four, five and six. Meanwhile cable boomed to the point where it has partially eclipsed broadcast as a source of quality scripted programming. Now content is moving to the Internet, to computers, cell phones and PDAs. The Writers Guild wants to make sure that those who create material for these new delivery systems are compensated fairly. And that when our material is re-used in these new media, we are paid fairly for that too.

Producers willing to finance a writer’s vision and bring it to life take a financial risk and they’re rewarded if the show becomes a hit. Writers also take a risk. We invest our time, our creativity and our very selves into making a script worthwhile. If a production company is able to reap benefits from that beyond the initial airing that we’re paid for, we deserve a small percentage of that too. What we’re asking for does not greatly impact the companies, but it makes a huge difference to the artists who create the product from nothing. This is the way book authors and playwrights are compensated too.

What’s to stop TV and film companies from hiring ‘scab’ writers, or writers from overseas?
Well, it’s not so easy to find scab writers who can deliver quality material in a professional way. It’s possible, but it’s a huge gamble for companies that are spending large sums of money on very tight production schedules and that are used to depending on not just one writer, but usually a team of quality writers to deliver what they need when they need it. On top of that, most writers with any talent want to be in the WGA so they can get treated fairly and receive decent benefits. They know that scabbing will greatly jeopardize that possibility. And also, most writers are by nature empathetic and sensitive to others’ situations, and they realize that scabbing hurts all writers and is wrong and unfair. The companies realize that too and they’ll all want to be in business with us again when the strike is over.

The strike has already halted many film and TV productions. Does the WGA have the full support of other workers in the industry?
We have a lot of support. “Full support” might be overstating it, because people are hurting financially and some of them are unable to see beyond their immediate pain. But I’ve been very encouraged by the strong support we’ve gotten from within our guild, from our colleagues in the Screen Actors Guild and the Director’s Guild of America, from those who work below the line and from the general public. All of us are suffering, and almost all of us realize the necessity of the strike as long as the companies resist treating us fairly.

How do you think the industry will be changed by this strike?
It’s already changing in a number of ways. On the TV side, which is what I’m most familiar with, you see the broadcast networks cutting costs by relying more on reality-type shows. This makes the networks less distinguishable from cable and Internet outlets, so viewers are migrating away from broadcast. The numbers show this has been happening since before the strike, and now it’s happening faster. When the strike is settled, most of the nets will invest heavily to get those viewers back, but one or two may decide to go the cheap route and settle for a smaller, less desirable (to advertisers) audience. That will create openings for the cable networks and the Internet to step in and take that audience away. At the same time, writers are realizing that we no longer need to work within the network system to get our ideas to the screen. Video cameras and editing programs are fairly inexpensive now, and anyone can post anything on the Internet. In the last couple of years, and especially since the strike, we’ve seen a huge jump in the quality of Internet programming. That’s going to continue, as writers disgusted with the current system learn that by becoming producers they can control and own their own material. That’s huge for writers. And technologically, things are changing so fast that it’s possible the networks won’t be viable at all in a few years. Content may be delivered to computers hooked up to big screens.

Have you spent much time on the picket line?
I live in Ventura County, about 30 miles from the nearest picket line, but I try to get out there a couple of times a week if I can. The mood on the line has been very positive throughout the strike. We can feel the support not only within the Guild but from the community as well. Most days we have actors marching with us, and it’s not unusual for below-the-line workers and even fans join our pickets. People donate food and drinks, and passing drivers honk their horns to let us know they’re behind us. It’s really different from our 1988 strike, where picketing was a lower key activity and whatever community support we had was much quieter. The result is greater attendance and greater resolve from within our ranks.

How else is this strike different from the 1988 one?
Obviously, we were much better prepared this time. The Guild brought in a longtime union organizer, David Young, to be our executive director a year before our strike vote. Young had little or no experience in the entertainment industry, and we took a lot of heat for going with “an outsider.” In the early days of the strike, the companies’ main thrust was that our leadership didn’t understand how business was done in Hollywood. This was widely reported as fact in the trades and the mainstream press. Actually, we did understand the traditional way of doing business, and we didn’t like it. So we turned it upside down, which really pissed a lot of people off. We struck sooner than we were expected to, not giving the companies a chance to stockpile scripts, and we’ve had strike teams working behind the scenes on a variety of creative strategies, including inter-guild outreach to SAG and DGA, location pickets and morale-boosting theme pickets. The other major difference from 1988 was that the companies, which control the media, controlled the coverage last time. This time, we’ve gotten our message out very well over the Internet, and we can really feel the difference in terms of national and international support. So that also helps morale, which is important when you’re involved in a long strike.

Any response to those that think the writers are just being greedy?
Obviously, they don’t understand the issues and in most cases don’t care to. There’s a percentage of writers whose work has made them wealthy and a larger percentage who struggle with varying degrees of success to get by in a very expensive city. The irony is, the extremely wealthy ones don’t need to strike at all; they’re doing it for the rest of us and for the writers who’ll come after us, just as those in previous generations fought to make conditions better for me and my peers.

So what are you currently working on?
Glad you asked, because I’m kicking off a project this week. It’s called the LAObserved ScriptProject. I’ve written the first four pages of an LA-based, political suspense thriller, and I’m asking readers to submit the next 1-5 pages each week. I’ll judge the entries and pick one submission weekly to carry the script forward. We’ll do this for six or eight months until the script is finished, with everyone whose pages are chosen getting a t-shirt and a chance to compete for a grand prize. I hope to get the first pages posted in the next few days.

As for actual, money-making, WGA-covered projects, I was getting this script project together when the strike started, so I have no assignments lined up. I have a couple of spec things, though — a TV pilot and a feature script — that I hope will lead to work when the strike is over.

Thanks to Eric for taking the time to answer our questions. And definitely check out the LAObserved ScriptProject — it’s sure to produce some interesting writing!

Case #4: Sam Kass

Interview by Liz for Glowy Box

Sam Kass isn’t a household name, though some of his credits certainly are. In a career full of highs and lows, Sam made the incredible leap from driving a cab in New York City while working as a playwright to writing for what many have called the greatest television show of all time – Seinfeld. He’s been a WGA member since 1994, but estimates that he only made enough money to support his wife and two children solely through writing for six or seven of those fourteen years.

The WGA has been there for Sam’s wife as she’s battled cancer for the past eight years. With a ticking clock on their health care eligibility, Sam worries that their insurance benefits could expire before he has the opportunity to land another writing job, leaving his wife without treatment. Despite this heart-wrenching situation, Sam and his wife both stand behind the WGA: “This strike is about more than just us. Hopefully it will end soon, and I’ll be able to secure a job that will keep our benefits going. Until then, I’ll get out on the picket line and do my duty.”

Sam’s courage and sense of humor during such difficult times made me grateful for the opportunity to interview him, and I am proud to introduce him to all of you.

 

Sam Kass with Larry David SAM KASS (pictured at left with Larry David) has written for Arli$$, Hudson Street, and Seinfeld. In 1994 he wrote and directed a film called The Search for One-eye Jimmy. Sam’s latest project is the soon to be released mockumentary Naked Movie, starring Sam (he also wrote and directed) along with Carmen Electra, Tori Spelling, Lou Diamond Phillips, David Carradine, and Jeff Garlin.

Did you always want to be a writer?
This whole thing started because of my mother. I was a terrible student growing up in Brooklyn, failing class after class. One of my teachers suggested to my mother that perhaps I could use a little structure. That somehow got turned into being sent to the New York Military Academy at West Point, which was not my idea of a good time. I would write my mother letters, begging her to get me out of there. My mother decided that my letters were so creative and well done that she proclaimed I would become a writer. And for the next ten years, all she’d ever buy me would be pens and notebooks. Basically, I had 435 pens and one pair of socks…

What was your first writing job? From there, how did you get your first big break?
I started off in New York as a playwright. By Off Broadway standards I was fairly successful, meaning that I only needed two part-time jobs to supplement my income. Here’s a little story—my play Lusting After Pipino’s Wife was a big Off Broadway hit. It ran for almost 2 years. I was driving a taxi at that time, and one night I picked up a woman several blocks from the theater. She was carrying my playbill and raving about the show. She never looked at the license on my meter, nor realized that she was being driven home by the playwright… That’s when I decided it was perhaps time to investigate Hollywood.

About a year later, in 1994, I had just written/directed my first film, The Search for One-eye Jimmy. It had a great cast; John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Beals, etc. At the time, Laurie David (Larry David’s wife) was a producer at Fox. She saw my film, and came to New York to offer me a pilot deal. I didn’t know what a pilot was. I didn’t know who Larry David was. I had barely heard of Seinfeld. I was a playwriting cab driver, living in a Brooklyn tenement with a wife and two little kids. Laurie convinced me to come to L.A and “pitch” my story to the executives at Fox. She was actually talking about my life story. So I did. And they bought it. And then we made perhaps the worst pilot ever. Laurie even brought in Larry to “consult.” If memory serves me correctly, he made it worse…if that was even possible.

The lead was played by an actor named Lew Schneider, who was so terrible he gave up acting after that pilot, and became a writer. To this day Lew still apologizes for “ruining” my pilot. Lew went on to write for Everybody Loves Raymond. I happen to know this because we were on a plane together: Lew in first class and me in coach. Episodes of Raymond played throughout the flight…6 hours of shows executive produced by Lew Schneider. In one episode he actually appeared….a nightmare at 30,000 feet.

How did you become a writer on Seinfeld? What was it like to write for one of the greatest shows of all time?
After the pilot debacle, I moved back to Brooklyn—for about a week. Then Larry David called and asked me to write for Seinfeld. I turned him down. Four times. My mother said that if I didn’t take the job, she’d kill herself. So I turned it down again—the funeral was the following week. (Just kidding.) Eventually, I relented, and we moved to Los Angeles. I kept my tenement apartment in Brooklyn, just in case. And 14 years later, I still have my taxi license—just in case. And with this strike, “just in case” could be here any moment.

Not many writers can boast that their first TV gig was perhaps the greatest series of all time. Mine was. In retrospect I realize that Seinfeld was the purest of all TV writing gigs. There was no “table,” where writers auctioned off lines in an attempt to one-up each other. Writers were actually allowed to write here… At my ex-agent’s urging, I left Seinfeld to work on a new Tony Danza show. [Hudson Street] was his comeback vehicle after Who’s the Boss? We both look at each other today and laugh. Actually, he laughs and I cry.

I have to ask, since you wrote the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer’s first name was revealed to be Cosmo. Who came up with Cosmo?
Larry actually came up with Cosmo, but there were several other names in the running. It was a huge secret up until tape night, and we blacked out all the Cosmo references in the script. NBC paranoia…

What is something you think people might be surprised by in terms of your lifestyle in Hollywood and your life as a working writer?
The biggest misconception is that TV writers are all rich. There are a lot of people on the picket line who laugh at that notion. I actually own a boutique in Santa Monica called Marcia Bloom. That’s my wife. She makes all the clothes herself, and now and then I’ll work behind the counter. Come on in—I’ll sign your Seinfeld memorabilia, and I’ll sell you a dress.

It seems like many writers have additional careers to supplement their writing income—your boutique is a good example. Would it be difficult for you to provide for your family on a writers’ salary alone?
Of the 14 years that I’ve been a member of the WGA, I’d say only 6 or 7 of those years I made enough money to support my family. There were 5 years that I made a lot of money, and that’s been a nest egg (although dwindling) throughout the years.

Can you explain why the issues surrounding the strike are important to you?
The issues we’re striking for are so basic– a tiny little piece of the Internet, and a couple of extra pennies on a DVD sale. Come on, guys! Are you kidding me?

Because of the strike, you haven’t been able to sell anything for three months. What has that meant for you financially?
Let me just say this– Eight years ago, my wife was given 6 months to live. She’s still here. Breast cancer, lung cancer, stem cell transplant, chemotherapy every week for 8 years. The WGA has been there for her. During the strike, the clock continues to tick on your health care eligibility. Your health care can expire without you having the opportunity to secure a job that would extend your benefits. Depending on how long this strike lasts, it is conceivable that our benefits could expire. My wife is uninsurable. No other company would take her on at this point.

We both stand behind the WGA during this period of uncertainty. This strike is about more than just us. Hopefully it will end soon, and I’ll be able to secure a job that will keep our benefits going. Until then, I’ll get out on the picket line and do my duty.

Sam adds…
There’s no doubt that my wife and family face a serious problem with her health, but it’s in no way any more ominous than what many Americans face today—there’s a health care crisis that affects one and all.