HWAS is pleased to feature our first writer interview. In today’s article PRISON BREAK Writers’ Assistant Michael Glenn interviews Story Editor Christian Trokey.
MICHAEL GLENN: What made you decide to pursue a writing career in television, as opposed to other mediums?
CHRISTIAN TROKEY: I actually fell into television. I grew up not watching a whole lot of it. After moving out to L.A. and working a series of bum gigs on the agency/management side, I got the opportunity to move over to television when writer David Hollander hired me to assist him on his series THE GUARDIAN. After seeing how great of a medium television can be, where a writer can really dig deep into a character, darken them up a little bit and knock em’ around, I knew this was where I wanted to be.
MICHAEL GLENN: After you were staffed on PRISON BREAK, what was your first day like in the room and also your feelings on getting your first script?
CHRISTIAN TROKEY: I had already spent a year working in the writer’s room – as a writer’s assistant on the series, so my first day (actually my first couple weeks) were just about trying to get comfortable with vocalizing my opinions and ideas. There’s definitely a transition going from someone who’s opinion isn’t necessarily asked for, to suddenly having to give it all the time. As far as my first script, I got the opportunity to write with my good friend, and very talented writer Nick Santora, who in addition to working on Prison Break, also writes novels, movies, and creates reality television series in his sleep. The guy is CRAZY GOOD and very prolific. I knew Nick would have my back – and as we proceeded into the outline and eventually writing of the script, he offered suggestions, and gave great notes and guidance that made the process a lot easier.
MICHAEL GLENN: After you have had the opportunity to collaborate with a producer on your first script, how does that compare with your experience of independently writing a script?
CHRISTIAN TROKEY: All of our scripts, outlines, and just the very breaking of the stories was done as a group – so you always felt like your material was part of a collective. Showrunner Matt Olmstead and the other producers just wanted to tell the best story that we could. Sometimes you’d put a little something extra into one of your scripts that wasn’t in an outline -- and it would get struck down. Other times, people would say they liked it and it would stay. As far as comparing it to writing a script independently… working with such a talented group of writers who gave great notes, and added great ideas, meant that you weren’t alone in the writing of your scripts. Everyone was looking out for everyone else because at the end of the day, we all wanted the show to succeed so we could keep working.
MICHAEL GLENN: Given the short amount of time to write an episode, how did you prepare yourself to finish a script with such a tight deadline?
CHRISTIAN TROKEY: By telling my wife not to look for me until the script was done… there were a lot of late nights, working until 3. And of course weekends don’t exist when you’re on deadline. Oh, and lots of caffeine and Mastodon/Slayer on my iPod.
MICHAEL GLENN: After you were staffed, how did you mentally prepare yourself to be in the writers room all day and dealing with the pressure of having to pitch ideas? Did it come easy for you?
CHRISTIAN TROKEY: I prepared myself by spending every night brainstorming ideas for the next day. I found I tended to come up with better stuff when I had time to really think something through, instead of just pitching a half-thought concept. That said, there were plenty of times when you’re in the room, and you’re just talking about an episode for the first time, and you’re just saying whatever’s coming to you at that very moment. I pitched stuff I thought was really good and it got rejected – and other times when I pitched half-conceived notions that ended up on the screen. You just never know. Matt Olmstead and the other producers were very open to hearing any idea – no matter how hair brained it might be… cause you just never knew what might take on a life of it’s own after everyone started batting it around.
MICHAEL GLENN: What kind of advice, if any, was given to you by any of the producers on the show once you became a part of the writing staff?
CHRISTIAN TROKEY: I think some of the best advice I got from showrunner Matt Olmstead was not trying to write things ‘too safe’ – but instead, going completely nuts with a script… to the point of being audacious, knowing that we could always dial back on something. On one of my first scripts I played it too safe. I was afraid I’d go too far, and instead discovered, I hadn’t gone far enough. Matt’s an extremely talented, and very professional guy, who’s been running shows for a long time and wants everyone to succeed. His advice has really stuck with me, and has definitely shaped the way I break story now and construct scenes.
Thanks again to everyone that came out. We had a great time! See you at our next mixer.
By Diana Peterson
ABC Disney Fellowship night at Hollywood Billiards on Tuesday April 28th proved to be a fabulous success. Jeane and I would like to thank our speakers, ABC Disney Writing Fellowship Director Frank Gonzalez and Ollie Ashtari-Larki, for taking time out of their busy schedules to give a presentation to HWAS members and stay for a question and answer session afterwards.
I've provided a summary below of my notes from Frank and Ollie’s presentation and our Q&A:
Applications for the 2010 fellowship became available online May 1. Ollie recommends that you download this application now, create a checklist for yourself and complete the application by May 31st. This will allow you to focus solely on your script knowing that all other application materials are prepared. It’s also important to note that ABC Disney does not read original material. A spec script from an existing show television show should be submitted.
Applications are due July 1, 2009.
**Note: This year this will no longer be a Feature Writing Fellowship Program.
Last year there were 1,268 applicants. Eight were selected as fellows. Each year the program runs from February through February, paying fellows $961.54 a week ($50,000 annually) with benefits. Many writers get staffed on shows while as a fellow.
Once your application materials are in, professional readers will do a first pass reading of your spec script. Last year there were about twenty-two readers. It’s important that you spec a show that people are familiar with. It’s okay to spec a cable show, but make sure it’s a successful one that is at least in its second or third season. If a reader doesn’t know the show you’ve written a spec for, they’ll have a difficult time judging your writing.
The highest scoring scripts from the first pass go through a second read and then the top 50-60 scripts are read by fellowship executives. Applicants who make the cut will be contacted between November and mid-December for a phone interview. If the phone interview goes well the applicant proceeds to the three-day interview process.
The top 30-40 applicants are called in for the final interviews. The interview process tests their interpersonal skills, personality and experience.
- Day One Mixer: There will be a mixer with finalists and executives. When the night is over executives will discuss their perception of the finalists individually. They will be asking questions like; did he or she treat everyone at the mixer with respect? Can he or she work on a staff? Could he or she function within a writing room?
- Day Two Interviews: ABC Disney Executives will interview finalists individually.
- Day Three Panel Sessions: The panels will consist of producers from different shows who will ask further questions of finalists. This will give finalists a good idea of the kind of questions that Showrunners ask.
WHAT DOES A WRITING FELLOW DO?
You’ve made it into the fellowship program, now what?
First 30 Days: When you start the fellowship, the first thirty days is like a boot camp. You focus on story structure and participate in workshops. You will not only be improving your writing, but improving how you present yourself as a writer and how you pitch yourself. There will be guest lectures about pitching and how to present yourself, as well as an improv workshop.
During this time Creative Executives will be looking at your material to see if they respond to it and to get an idea of where you would fit in. You’ll have the chance to take meetings with ABC shows, where showrunners will be interviewing you not only as a fellow, but as a potential staff writer.
First 60 Days: If you haven’t been staffed within the first sixty days of the program you are now paired up with:
(a) Overall Executive Mentor: This Executive will be in current programming or development. This person is your checkpoint through the duration of the fellowship.
(b) Spec Script Mentor: This Creative Executive will work with you on your second spec.
(c) Alumni Membership Component: You will be paired up with three to four fellowship alumni who will mentor you throughout the year.
- Download application now and finish by May 31st, then focus on your script. Make a checklist to ensure that all application materials are together.
- Don’t be too fancy with your presentation.
- Scripts should be typed and in standard industry format.
- Triple check for typos and other mistakes as basic grammatical errors will hurt your application.
- Don’t staple your script.
- Autobiographical Summary: This should be about one paragraph. Be honest and open. What have you done that maybe isn’t listed on your resume? What kind of experiences have you had?
- Statement of Interest: What’s your pitch? Why would this program be good for you at this point in your career?
WHAT DOES ABC/DISNEY LOOK FOR IN A FELLOW?
A serious TV writer should have two spec scripts and one original pilot at the least. One of the first things Frank will ask all applicants is: What else have you written? They’re looking for writers with strong samples and good interpersonal skills. When Frank speaks with finalists he will be asking: Why does this make sense at this point in your career?
OF THE EIGHT FELLOWS: HOW MANY ARE COMEDY WRITERS AND HOW MANY ARE DRAMA WRITERS?
There is no hard and fast rule. This year there are six drama writers and two comedy writers. Next year this could change. It all comes down to the quality of the material submitted.
WHAT IF YOU SPEC A SHOW THAT RIDES THE LINE BETWEEN COMEDY AND DRAMA?
When submitting your application you have to check a box for comedy or drama. If you write a DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES spec (drama), you would check 1 hour drama. All one hours are dramas and all half hours are comedies for the sake of this application process.
WHAT ABOUT WRITING TEAMS?
Writing teams may submit, but of the eight fellows selected, a team fills two spots. If selected they will receive separate and equal salaries. Writing teams have been a part of the fellowship in the past, but it is harder to get selected as a team.
ARE THERE ANY SPECS THE ABC/DISNEY FELLOWSHIP PREFERS?
You don’t have to write a spec for an ABC show to be considered. You should spec a primetime network or cable show that’s been on at least three years (3 seasons) that is well known. It’s important to not only capture the voice of the show, but to really reflect your point of view. Bring something new to the table, something unique, while still working within the framework of the show.
Story Timeline: Your spec should be where the show is as of July 1st, 2009.
BEST ADVICE: KNOW YOURSELF
Applicants should know who they are, where they’ve come from and have an idea of where they fit within the ABC Family. You should have an idea going in what shows you think you could be staffed on and where you might perform best.
Thanks again everyone for coming out. See you at the next mixer!