By Diana Peterson
Glen Mazzara is currently working as an Executive Producer on Jada Pinkett Smith’s new show HAWTHORNE for TNT. Glen is most recognized for his work for six seasons as an Executive Producer/Writer on THE SHIELD. He has also worked on CRASH, LIFE, STANDOFF and NASH BRIDGES. I met Glen while working as an assistant on NBC’s LIFE where Glen worked as a Co-Executive Producer.
DIANA PETERSON: How did you first get started in Hollywood?
GLEN MAZZARA: I’m originally from New York City and always wanted to be a writer. I had a job in hospital administration and managed an emergency room, that was just a job to pay the bills. I knew I wanted to be a writer and did some research. I thought given the skills I had from my job that TV would be a good career for me because a lot of what I was doing was crisis management, budget...those are skills that you need as a TV producer. I learned how to write a spec and I wrote several of them. I was in New York and was just calling people out in Los Angeles. I would ask friends, do you know anyone in LA? Then I would call that person and try to get a number. So for about four or five years I just made cold calls. Finally, through a series of connections, I got my script to a manager who was interested in representing me and we connected with an agent. Then I came out for staffing season. I was in Hollywood for only a couple of weeks, but because I had done so much groundwork and written so many specs, I got a pitch meeting at Nash Bridges very quickly. My first meeting was with Carlton Cuse and Shawn Ryan. I just bombed that meeting, but they felt bad, brought me back, and I sold them a freelance idea. I was then was hired onto staff and was on that show for two years. Then I was out of work for a year and a half and just could not get a job. I wrote a lot of specs and realized that a lot of what I was writing in my specs were not helpful, not good, and not job worthy, so I had to relearn how to write a spec. Then by the time I was doing that... I was working for THE SHIELD.
DP: So how did you learn how to write a spec to begin with? Did you watch the show and just kind of wing it? Or did you read books? Take classes?
GM: No, I never took a class. I maybe read a few books. I did take the Robert McKee story seminar. But I never took any screenwriting classes. I wrote an ER, a Homicide and a Buffy. I watched those shows and studied them and figured out what was the heart of those shows. Then I wrote those specs very quickly when I was out of work and didn’t know any better. The important thing was I just wrote them and moved on. There was a spark and they were fun and loose and kind of sloppy. What was interesting was that as I learned how to write my spec writing dried up. I started writing for what I thought the networks were going to schedule and where there were open spots. I started second guessing myself a lot more so my writing dried up and it wasn’t fun.
Since I’ve become a producer I read a hundred specs a year. Most specs are pretty well written, but you’re really only looking for the top 1%. What’s interesting is that they don’t have to nail what the show is – they have good dialogue, the characters are right, the voices are right, and that check list is complete, but a lot of them are just not fun or exciting or surprising in the way that you need to be when you’re going for a job on a staff. So when I read a spec I am looking for something that impresses me, something that I wouldn’t have thought, something that goes above and beyond. That’s the hardest thing to get in a spec. It has to be memorable and most specs are not memorable. Most specs are good, but it needs to be memorable in the way that a great hour of TV is memorable so that it stands out of the pack.
DP: And do you see things that are kind of like fan fiction versus an actual episode? What characters wouldn’t actually do in the show; what a fan would imagine.
GM: I would push in that direction. When I would write a spec I would not try to write what I thought the writers could write because otherwise they don’t need me for their staff. They can do that job. I would write what I would want to see. There is a talented writer who was on LIFE, Melissa Scrivner, and she was thinking about what spec to write. The biggest episode of TV around that time was the Sopranos finale. I said, why don’t you write what comes next? So she did a synopsis of the finale episode and the fade to black, then wrote about what happens when the picture comes back up and then the guy walks into the restaurant and sees Tony Soprano. That’s a good spec. That is something that people want to see. That is something that an Executive or showrunner will remember. That’s the one that tells us the real Sopranos finale.
DP: What shows do you think are good to spec?
GM: I think the show spec right now is a TRUE BLOOD. I haven’t heard of one. I haven’t read one. It’s smart, it’s funny, there’s character stuff there, you can have really interesting plots. It would hit a lot of different points. It would show a lot of different talents. If you were a sexually explicit writer that’s a good script to write. If you were a violent crime driven person you could write that. If you were a comedian, you could too. I think that’s really something that hasn’t been tapped. I don’t think anyone is writing one and now that the show is picked up I expect it to be on for a few years. I would want to be one of the first spec true bloods out there.
I would try to spec one of the newer shows. I think BREAKING BAD would be a very good spec. I think people are doing BREAKING BAD specs now, though, it’s like the new RESCUE ME.
DP: I just finished a BREAKING BAD spec.
GM: It’s a good show to spec. Also, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. I don’t know if people like to read them or not. I just read a spec FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. Anyone writing a FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS has to remember that Coach and Tami are number 1 and 2 on the call sheet. It’s important for spec writers to make sure that they write for the main characters and give the main characters an interesting dilemma. In a spec many people will write for their quirky characters. For example, in a THE SHIELD spec, they may not write a very interesting Vic Mackey story, they may write for the other characters in the show and not showcase the main character. That’s something that I think spec writers don’t realize that showrunners look at. Can you write for my main character? Do you get the heart of the show?
DP: And so during staffing season are you more interested in reading original or spec material?
GM: I like reading original material. I’ll read a spec first because a spec will tell me within a page where a writer is in their level of writing. In a spec, I’ll usually read a teaser, the first act and if I like it, I’ll skip to the act breaks. A lot of people just blow their act breaks. They don’t understand that an act break...now we really have to solve the crime that is a lame act break. The act breaks all have to be twists and I don’t think people use them properly. If someone is not doing that, I believe that writer does not understand TV form and if I hire that person to staff, I am going to have to do most of the heavy lifting for them. What I am trying to do is hire a writer, not only a person who has ideas but a person who I am not going to have to teach how to write. I am looking for a certain level of competency. But since most specs are competent I assume that there will be a certain level. Then I look for something that impresses me, something that inspires me, something that makes me want to meet this writer, something that I had wish I had thought of. I am really looking for artistic vision. Not someone who just tries to cover their bases of writing a spec that represents the show. I am looking for someone that is trying to push the boundaries because, as I run a show, that is what I need to do every week.
DP: When I started out at LIFE and first heard the term “breaking story.” I heard people talk about “breaking story” and it felt like some mythological process involving an idea and a whiteboard. So I went out and bought a whiteboard, then I thought well now what do I put on this whiteboard? Let’s say you’re working on a pilot. You’ve already pitched the pilot and you’re trying to write an outline. What’s your process of breaking story like?
GM: When you’re breaking an episode you really need to know what your story is and you need to sum up your story. This is the one in which X does this. And that action really needs to be an emotional reaction. They are upset that their wife is leaving them so they punch out their boss. The action of the story needs to be emotionally motivated. So, I come up with a big emotional scene for the payoff first. Then I figure out what is the best way to twist my character to get them to that emotional payoff or insight. But the character must be active in every single scene. It’s not an interesting script for a character to learn some revelation. Like, oh my god, Darth Vader is really my father. That’s not interesting. Too much of TV and too many specs are about people passively receiving information. Some revelation. The truth is an audience rarely gives a shit.
TV comes down to a very simple rule: Cool people do cool things every week. That’s TV. If you don’t have cool people doing cool things every week you may have a very intelligent, very well done show, but people are probably not going to watch it. Notice that I am not saying cool people learn cool things every week. It’s not about learning. It’s about doing stuff. Jack Bauer kicks ass every week. Bryan Cranston has a problem and does something every week that is interesting. So I come up with that dilemma, that problem, and that emotional payoff and then I figure out the order of the scenes. Very quickly the story will fall into place. If I am trying to contrive a story to get to the emotional payoff I am forcing it and the story is not working. Once I have this emotional through line I then start at the beginning. In every scene I ask myself what would really happen next. I forget about the ending of the story and I end up building scene by scene. And if the story changes, the story changes, because I am finding a new emotional core.
DP: I’m curious about your rewrite process. I know it’s different when you’re on a show because a lot of that is affected by studio notes and the room, but let’s say again you’re writing a pilot. You’ve gotten notes from the network or whoever you’re working with project and you know you need to do my rewrite. What are you thoughts from there?
GM: I consider the notes. And what is important about notes is that I never take a note directly. I don’t take dialogue notes. It’s my job as an artist to say what the show is. And if I am writing a script I have a particular reason for writing that script.
So I’ll listen to what the notes are – this point is confusing or I don’t understand this. This is too soft. This is too cliché. I’ll take those notes and then I’ll start from page one and I will completely rewrite every script.
I think a lot of writers feel that their scripts are good and then go back and just sort of put a Band-Aid there. They address a note or tweak a line and think that is addressing a note. That may be addressing a note. But I tend to extensively rewrite my scripts from page one every time I sit down to do a rewrite. So much so that very often I’ll turn in a rewrite that will feel like a completely different script and other writers that I am working with or different producers will be surprised at how extensively I rewrote. So I am constantly rewriting because every script is different so every draft is different and once I’ve written something and it’s out in the world that’s fine. I’ve written it. So now I’ll go write another draft. I’m putting this stuff out in the world, so it’s always changing. It’s a living thing and each draft is a different child.
DP: When you first went into a writers’ room how did you navigate that? Was that scary for you? Where you not sure what you could say or couldn’t say?
GM: When I first went into the writers’ room as a staff writer it was very frightening because experienced writers just know what they are doing. I have a bit of advice for staff writers, actually, a lot of advice. Writers are artists. Therefore they are quirky. They are insecure. They are angry. They are full of anxiety. They are overly sensitive. These are the traits that make them a writer. I think Hollywood does a disservice to their writers because they expect us to be legal clerks who sit quietly at a desk and write for ten hours a day and hit our marks. That’s not the creative process. So all of the writers’ fears and anxieties and hostilities and loves come out in a writers’ room. And it needs to be a safe haven. So the number one rule is:
(1) Do not knock something off the table unless you are going to replace it. Do not just piss on someone’s idea without offering one better. That’s not fair. That’s not kind. That’s not respectful and that’s not your job. Your job is to generate ideas.
(2) I believe staff writers should be respectful of the hierarchy. Be very careful to listen. Do not interrupt a showrunner. Listen to everything that the showrunner says because that is the vision of the show.
(3) I would not get caught up in any politics. I would not discuss any of the other writers behind their backs. I would never say anything as a staff writer that could not be repeated because chances are it will. So do not say anything that you feel would hurt someone’s feelings.
(4) Staff writers are often looking for validation as artists when they’re in a writers’ room. If their idea is knocked off the table they very often dig in to explain why their idea was good while they’re looking for validation. They don’t understand that the writers’ room has its own energy and flow. And they have to get into that flow and start to generate other ideas. There should be an endless supply of ideas. That’s their job, not just to defend one idea. And if someone else pitches that same idea four hours later and then it works, they cannot express resentment. They just have to go with that flow.
DP: What advice do you have for young writers on finding a mentor? As an assistant I’ve often heard that your boss can turn into your mentor, but I’m not sure how you make that happen.
GM: I have two bits of advice. Actually I have a few bits of advice. When you are seeking a mentor and you are an assistant you need to gain the person’s trust. If you sit there with your hand out and say, I am here to learn, I find that that creates resentment. It creates resentment between showrunners and producers because there is so much work to be done and those people are so fearful of delivering their own material. Their job is not to teach. So now you have put a burden on someone to teach you, but they are not necessarily teachers. What you need to do is realize that producers and showrunners have issues. They have problems. They have dilemmas. Everyday there is so much work to go around. You want to be a person that is constantly bringing them solutions. You want to be a person who is inventing them. Who is making their lives easier. A person who never embarrasses them. A person who never betrays their confidence. A person who constantly says, hey here’s an issue that you may or may not be aware of and here’s my proposed solution. You want to be a person who’s always offering solutions, not a person who is saying what do you want me to do.
When you do that you gain their trust and then people will relax and let their hair down. They will talk to you and confide in you and you will gain access because you are not demanding anything from them. And you’re not asking things from them. You are bringing things to them. You are being helpful and supportive.
I am a very mentoring person. So I like to mentor people. I read a lot of scripts and give detailed notes, but I am surprised at how often people who I help come back and ask for repeated help. And that shows in a way that they have a sense of entitlement because I am just being helpful and I think that people don’t realize that it’s a very tenuous boundary. You need to be careful how many times you ask someone to read your spec and give notes.
DP: So what’s an okay number of specs to show the same person? One? Two?
GM: If the writer’s getting better I’ll keep reading. If someone is going to give you notes take the notes. Appreciate the notes. Be thankful. Don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over. The person has to feel that it’s paying off.
DP: As a writers’ assistant on a show, beyond just taking notes and doing research, how else might you differentiate yourself?
GM: When writers’ assistants do research they need to break down the research and make it applicable to the story problem at hand. If someone just comes forward and says hey here’s a list of 40 websites that has to do with this crime you’re writing about, that’s not helpful. You’re looking for how does someone with a fake ID get through an airport. I want to know that specific thing. I don’t want 40 examples of it. I want to know exactly what I need to write so people need to help me. They need to anticipate that I have a particular problem and they need to help me with that.
I have not really met a writers’ assistant who does a great job of transcribing the running discussion in the writers’ room in a way that is useful for when people go to write. So even though I always have a writers’ assistant when I get notes, I take my own notes.
DP: What is useful in your opinion? For me, when I’m taking notes in the room I can transcribe everything everyone says. But when it comes down to the end of the day and I have thirty pages of notes, it’s hard for me to figure out what to cut down.
GM: You really have to use as your guide what the showrunner is approving, or the room runner if the showrunner isn’t there. The number two. What are they directing other people to write? So as all of that stuff is being explored if the showrunner is pitching snippets of dialogue that stuff needs to be there, but it ends up being sort of a chronological discussion and we write scenes. So I think somehow the material needs to be organized according to scene, but I’ve never seen anyone do that. And I’ve been on a lot of shows. I think if a writers’ assistant came up with a system where things were recalled and organized that would be interesting. I also think that things should be organized according to a bullet or outline fashion as opposed to long sentences.
DP: I’ve been compiling something of an ongoing reading list and would love to know what you recommend young writers read.
GM: I would really say that the best thing to do is to go to the WGA library and read TV scripts. If you want to learn how to paint you go to a museum to study the actual paintings. You don’t necessarily go to a lecture. Learn directly from the masters and read their works. I would read:
• Aaron Sorkin scripts
• BOB NEWHART finale
• David E. Kelly - Emmy award winning episodes of THE PRACTICE OR ALLY MCBEAL
• ER “Love’s Labor Lost”
• HILL STREET BLUES: Read the first script David Milch wrote, the third season premiere episode
• Larry Gelbart MASH scripts
• MARY TYLER MOORE “Chuckles the Clown”
• MASH series finale
• Rod Serling
• Paddy Chayefsky
• SOPRANOS: “Pine Barrens,” “Long Term Parking,” “College,” Frank Renzulli scripts
• THE SHIELD, last two episodes
Entertainment Weekly recently published the hundred best TV shows . I would find scripts for these shows and read them. I would not read “The Marketplace Today.” Part of what people don’t understand about TV is that it is a historical continuum and we take our place alongside these great TV writers.