Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg has penned such films as BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, CON AIR, HIGH FIDELITY and GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS. Scott transitioned to TV in 2007 when he created and Executive Produced ABC’s OCTOBER ROAD. He then Executive Produced and developed LIFE ON MARS for ABC. Scott is currently working on an upcoming ABC show, HAPPY TOWN, that he created with producing partners Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec.
DIANA PETERSON: How did you get your start in Hollywood and at what point did you find your voice as a writer?
SCOTT ROSENBERG: I was always a writer. It was the only thing I was ever good at. Even in elementary school; I was the kid that would write the poem to read to the entire class. Then when I was going to college in Boston, I was a creative writing minor. There was this girl that I liked that was moving to LA for a year before she started law school. I followed her out here ‘cause I liked her. That’s how I got my career started. I started as a stalker. If you’re out in California, you eventually find your way to this thing called the screenplay. ‘Cause I loved movies and I started reading a whole bunch of screenplays and then I started writing a whole bunch of screenplays and then I eventually applied to USC and I went there for a bit. Then I went to UCLA. Then I went back to NYU. I basically went to all the fancy film schools, but I never graduated.
DP: That’s interesting. I actually attended UCLA’s film school as an undergrad and noticed that you’re always listed in the alumni book. I had no idea that you didn’t graduate.
SR: All three schools claim that I’m an alumni. The funniest thing is that every year all three schools send me a letter saying if you want to graduate just fill out this form. They all want to be able to claim you as an alumni any time you have any kind of credit.
DP: Did any of those programs help you at all in terms of finding an agent or is that something that you did on your own?
SR: They all helped me in their different ways. When I was at UCLA I came in third place in this thing called the Samuel Goldwyn Awards and that’s how I got my first agent. Then a friend of my mine, Gary Fleder, who was at USC, asked me to write what became his thesis film and I did. Every year there’s the hot shit short film and that year it was ours. So I went from my little agent to a bigger agent. Joel Silver loved our short and he was doing the show TALES FROM THE CRYPT. He hired us immediately, Gary to direct and for me to write. We did a couple of those and then it went from there. We later sold him a pitch, then we were on our way. I had meetings and people interested in me, but it takes that first person to say, “I’m actually going to pay this guy money.” Then everybody else who was saying, “We like him, but he’s never done anything,” they all went...“Oh, well, Joel Silver hired him, okay.” Then I started working.
DP: It seems that you had a lot of early success but did you ever encounter mistakes? Pitfalls?
SR: Mistakes? I don’t know if there were any terrible mistakes. I remember I used to wear a necktie to every meeting. Not a suit. Just a shirt and a necktie. I’m from Boston. People out here are way more casual. I don’t think I made any mistakes, but purely on the anecdotal. I had a meeting with this guy, I don’t remember who he was, but he was a pretty powerful fellow. I didn’t have a car at the time; I rode a motorcycle and it was broken. So my girlfriend at the time was giving me a ride to his office on the Sony lot. We were stopped at a red light and this guy was crossing. My girlfriend, by mistake, inched out a little bit and almost hit him. He got really pissed, turned around, and called her a very nasty name. And I was nervous about this meeting and everything so I just went crazy on this guy, calling him a fucking asshole and how dare you talk to my girl this way. My girl was, like, Scott settle down, stop it. She literally drove me away from this guy cause it was going to get bloody and...you know where this story is going...she drops me off and I walk into the meeting and that’s who I’m meeting with.
DP: That’s a great story.
SR: It was at the point where there was nothing either of us could do besides laugh. He smiled at me and I smiled at him and we had the meeting.
DP: Is working in TV as rewarding for you as working in features? Or is it hard to compare because it’s an entirely different beast?
SR: I never expected it to last as long as it did. I was just going to go do this one show. And then one show became two shows and now three shows. I definitely want to get back into writing the movies, but the one thing that you just can’t deny in TV is that instant validation. In features, on my luckiest movie, it was a year, from page to stage. In TV, if I want to put my conversation with you on TV right now, we’d be shooting it in a week. It’s unbelievable and it’s also very seductive because the writer is the boss, whereas in features ...and I’ve been lucky in features, I’ve definitely been involved more so than a lot of screenwriters, but here (in TV) it’s like every piece of music I want to put in the show I decide. When it comes to casting, I decide. Wardrobe. It’s all...like the director. The director in features is like what the Executive Producer/Writer is in TV. It can’t be beat. It’s the reason why a lot of these feature guys...when they come to TV they sort of get addicted to it.
DP: Given the current climate of the industry, would you suggest that young writers go into film or television? Or does it just come down to writing what you love?
SR: I think now more than ever the line of demarcation is very blurred. I think you can do both. It’s probably easier to get a feature going, or get work in features. On “Happy Town” we’re hiring writers and every writer that we hire has to have had credits. So how the hell are you supposed to break in? There really isn’t a tremendous spec market in TV because they aren’t even going to read your scripts if you write a spec pilot. But in features if you just keep writing, you can write whatever you want.
I get those calls all the time about how to break in. It’s really frustrating from both ends of that question. There is no one set rule. If you talk to ten writers they will tell ten different ways of how they broke in. Whereas talk to ten stockbrokers and they’ll tell a different (kind of) story...“Well, I went to this business school and I started on this guy’s desk and that’s how I wound up on Wall Street.” But in screenwriting everyone has a different way, everyone has a different avenue, so it’s really very frustrating to try to give advice on that level. The easy answer, but it sounds pat and glib and obnoxious is...just to write a good script ‘cause they are dying for it. All my friends that are agents and producers and directors say that when that great script comes along in town everybody knows about it. And I think that in features it affords you to basically take the leash.
DP: Do you advise young writers to have an industry assistant job, whether it’s a production company or agency, versus learning about the industry but doing something outside of it to get a different experience?
SR: This has been my mantra for years. I think everybody should do one year of working in the industry and then immediately just bagging groceries at Ralphs. The reason I say that is that jobs in the industry are incredibly difficult and time consuming. You work fifteen hour days and you have to think about it when you come home. What all of that does is it takes you away from your writing. When I first got to LA I was doing all these industry jobs and I was exhausted and I wasn’t writing. All of a sudden I was like I am not doing this anymore. So I literally got a job as a truck driver. When I parked that truck at six o’clock at night I didn’t think about that truck until six o’clock the next morning. It was such a brain dead job that it allowed me to come home and do what was most important; sit down at the computer and start writing. I think that a lot of people get that industry job ‘cause our friends and our family back home are all worried about us and they say you’re never going to make it. You have a better chance of winning the NY State Lottery then selling a screenplay. So you say, “Hey, look mom and dad, I got a job at the WEST WING,” or “Look mom and dad, I’m working for Dick Clark.” But that’s not really helping us get where we want to go, which is to be paid to write. You know it’s that same thing, “Look mom and dad, I’m working at this grocery store.” Then mom and dad tell their friends and nobody’s happy. I understand why people do it, but I really think if you’re a real writer, you should be writing. You should be doing whatever you have to do to put food on the table, but it should never get in the way of the writing.
DP: What’s your writing process? And how does the way you approach a pilot for television differ from the way you approach a screenplay?
SR: In TV we have a writing staff. There are 10 people sitting in the writers’ room and we all outline together. It’s also different because you are dealing with acts (for commercial breaks). We basically do it all together and then the writer peels off and writes that script. So it’s a little different because in features. You are outlining in the same way, but in three acts. At a certain point I come up with a good idea for a movie and I think about it a lot. For a couple weeks I drive around with it and then when I feel like I am ready, I will sit down and will write 1-60 or 1-75 beats: #1 he walks into the bar, #2 he meets the girl...it’s very loose. Then knowing where act one ends and act three ends and it’s being constantly revised and then everyday I sit down and you know when I’m actually scripting...I check off #2, #4, and I get this sense of accomplishment.
DP: Besides approaching writing, how do you approach research? I’ve been compiling something of an ongoing reading list and would love to know what you recommend young writers read.
SR: I always say all you really need is a box set of all the Billy Wilder movies. They were really brilliant scripts and all over the map in terms of genres, movies like SOME LIKE IT HOT and SUNSET BLVD. If I’m giving a gift I will send that. Starting out it’s just so helpful. The book Conversations with Wilder is also great. There are also a lot of great screenwriting books by UCLA professors Richard Walter and Lew Hunter. What you can definitely learn quickly is structure. I don’t think you can learn dialogue, but you can learn structure. You can either write dialogue or you can’t. Like playing the guitar or pitching a 95 mile per hour fast ball. Just watching movies is so helpful; good movies and bad movies.
DP: If you were to pick a favorite scene from your work, what would that be?
SR: One of my favorite scenes is in BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, with Natalie Portman at the ice-skating pond. I think we nailed that, but other than that nothing really comes to mind. I think you’re never really satisfied with any of them.
DP: And finally, what advice do you have for young writers on finding a mentor?
SR: I think it’s like anything else. You find somebody who you admire tremendously. I think you have to be realistic, you can’t say, “Martin Scorsese, I want you to be my mentor.” Find somebody that is realistic, but who has inspired you in some way. There is nothing like a great letter. I have a few people who’ve written me and said the right thing. It was a combination of the way they wrote it, what they wrote, and kissing my ass in the appropriate way. So I said, sure, I’d love to sit down and have coffee with you. It’s very simplistic because if you write somebody an impassioned letter and you don’t hear back, then you didn’t want them to be your mentor anyway. Don’t be afraid to write from the heart without appearing psychotic. You’ll be surprised at the response.
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.
Pang-Ni Landrum is a writer on Nickelodeon’s The Troop. Previously, she was a writer for Six Degrees and Malcolm in the Middle. She has also served as the Former Co-Chair of the WGA, Asian American Writers Committee. As a mentor, Pang-Ni has provided me with a lot of gems of wisdom over the years and here is some.
JEANE WONG: How did you get your first gig?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I don’t know if it still exists, but at the time, Warner Brothers had a Production Assistants Program. I accidentally discovered it through cold calling production companies on the lot. This woman – let’s call her Chatty Cathy – excitedly told me all about it, who to contact at Human Resources and how to apply. If the HR person thought you were a fit, your name was put into a pool with other applicants. Then, when a Warner Brothers show needed a P.A., they would set up interviews with people in this pool. Luckily, I got accepted into this group, but by then had already secured a receptionist gig elsewhere. Before I could call to tell Warner Bros. to withdraw my name from the program, one of their series had left me a message to come in for an interview. Since I hadn’t officially started my other job, I met with the show and by the end of the day I had my first paying gig in Hollywood: being a production assistant on Friends. Oh, and it turns out, I was replacing their previous P.A. – none other than Chatty Cathy – because she talked too much on the phone.
JEANE WONG: How did you get promoted from PA to Writers’ Assistant?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I was fortunate that the executive producers/creators of the show first looked to promote from within. If they were interested, all the P.A.s had an opportunity to interview for two positions for the following season; one being writers’ assistant. I must’ve done well in the interview because I got the job. It also didn’t hurt that prior to this, when the writers’ room needed someone to fill in for the writers’ assistant for an hour, I volunteered and had the typing skills needed to keep up.
JEANE WONG: What things did you do as a Writers’ Assistant?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: The job is a lot harder than people realize. I’d say it’s one-part similar to being a courtroom stenographer, one-part office manager and one-part business affairs. Oh, and of course, one-part student. For anyone thinking being a writers’ assistant is their way to get a job writing, if you can’t type quickly, don’t even bother applying. Seriously. Go about it a different way. To be good at this job, there has to be a part of you that’s very anal. You not only need to type down what’s being said in the room (and some people speak very, very quickly), but you also have to be on top of and are responsible for putting out drafts and revisions of scripts, as well as sending in deal memos so writers get paid. I’m sure there are other aspects of the job I’m forgetting, but those are the main ones. Now if being a writers’ assistant still sounds like it’s right up your alley, then I can’t think of a better job to prep you for being on staff. Being in the writers’ room is education you can’t buy. It’s like graduate school for writing.
JEANE WONG: How did you get your first staffed job?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: While I was a Writers’ Assistant, my former writing partner and I applied to the Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop. It was a tough time because when we got into the workshop, my mom had terminal cancer and I was flying back and forth to Texas every few weeks. I felt bad for my partner because she essentially had to go through the workshop alone. But it all worked out. Because of our participation in the program, we not only got interest from agents (and eventual representation) but also our first writing staff gig: the short-lived The Brian Benben Show.
JEANE WONG: What questions are asked of you when interviewing for a writing position?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: It depends on the show runner and what she/he is looking for. Sometimes it’s a lot of small talk to see if you’ll fit in the room dynamic, or it could be show/series specific. Keep in mind that the show runner has to have liked your writing enough for you to even get to this stage, so make sure your scripts are solid. They’re your resume.
JEANE WONG: How do you dress for an interview like that?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Definitely casual. Nice shirt and nice jeans. Don’t do the suit, unless that’s you. But if it’s not, it will look like you’re trying too hard.
JEANE WONG: Back to the interview process, what kind of follow up do you do?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I need to improve on this myself, but when I do, it’s an email. Short and sweet.
JEANE WONG: How did you meet your writing partner? Later, when you went solo in your writing career, what did that feel like?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: We met in college and wrote together for almost six years. As for writing alone, I have to admit, in the beginning, I was terrified. One of the benefits of having a partner is being able to bounce ideas off one another. Suddenly, it was just me. Well, me and my dog, but let’s face it, she was going to think everything I did was brilliant as long as she got a treat. So I sucked it up, and did what all writers advise you to do: Write. I even did the “write what you know” thing and jotted down the recent saga of my parents passing (they died less than three weeks apart, I know, brilliant timing.) Thankfully, a friend read my sad attempt at writing this one-woman show and said, “You idiot. You should make these essays.” So I did. Which led to two pilot script deals and the confidence that I could do this on my own.
JEANE WONG: What’s your writing process?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Rough idea, beat sheet, outline, then script.
JEANE WONG: Generally speaking, what can you control in this business?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: What’s on the page. Before getting hired or having anything bought, the main thing you can control is what you write. Then, if you’re staffed on a show, it’s your behavior in the room. Realize that most writers are insecure and it’s normal to worry about how you’re doing, but when you get in a room, it’s about putting on a show. Not about you and your insecurities. If you’re on a show and it’s not one you’ve created, then your job is to make the show runner’s life easier – to get his/her vision onto the screen.
JEANE WONG: What was the notes process for you like in the room?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Know that you will be rewritten and if you’re not able to handle that, you shouldn’t write for television. Everyone gets notes. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t disagree. Just make sure they’re the ones you really want to go to the mat for and you better have sound reasons to back you up. Sometimes the writer in charge of the rewrite will agree with you, oftentimes, not. And that’s okay. You have to be smart with your battles. While it’s good to know when to fight for something, it’s even better to know when to let go.
JEANE WONG: How did you transition from a comedy writer to a drama writer while working on the show SIX DEGREES?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Writing a one-hour spec helped tremendously in my case. If you’re looking to make the transition, then you have to have a sample that shows you can pull off a longer narrative. I think it also helped that Six Degrees had a writers’ room. Some dramas don’t. So for me, the jump from comedy to drama wasn’t that jarring. Aside from meeting some pretty phenomenal writers, the best part about working on Six Degrees was getting the chance to live in New York. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
JEANE WONG: As a young writer can I learn as much on a successful show as an unsuccessful show?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Absolutely. Use your first years to absorb anything and everything you can – especially, if you want to run your own show one day. If a show runs well, ask yourself why? If a show seems to be going off the rails, again, why? Being aware of what works and what doesn’t will come in handy when it’s your turn to take the helm.
JEANE WONG: Did you have any mentors?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I don’t think they knew it at the time, but I’d have to say David Crane and Marta Kauffman at Friends and Linwood Boomer at Malcolm in the Middle.
JEANE WONG: And the answer everyone wants to know, getting jobs?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I know some of my writer friends feel it’s up to you to get you’re your own job, but I feel it’s a mix of both. While I know I’ve gotten gigs through recommendations from friends or friends of friends, I’ve also gotten many assignments through my reps. I say use whatever and all resources you can.
JEANE WONG: Do you have any thoughts on the economy and if it has affected the room?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Word around town is that this year was the worst staffing season. But people have been saying that for years. I do know that writing staffs are smaller and many friends, including myself, have been affected.
JEANE WONG: For EPs or lower level writers?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: For everyone. My friends and I joke that whatever level you are, is exactly the level no one’s looking for. At least that what it feels like. Every show is different with different needs. Some will be top heavy with few staff writers or vice versa. Just know that if you’re on a show, consider yourself to be one of the lucky ones.
JEANE WONG: After being in the business for so long, how do you stay positive especially with everyone saying how dismal the TV industry is?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: As cheesy as it sounds, I believe things will work out. The beauty of being writers (versus actors or directors) is that at the end of the day, all we need are a pen, paper and our ideas. We don’t have to rely on others to show our abilities. We just have to rely on ourselves. Ourselves and the page. And if it turns out no one likes an idea, no problem, you’ll have another one. And another, and another. Does it hurt getting rejected? Of, course. But this is Hollywood, people get rejected every second. So take a moment, go lick your wounds, then come back with an even better idea or an even more amazing script. I heard a writer say this at a seminar and I firmly believe it’s true: “No matter what, talent will win out.” So keep writing. Don’t listen to or get caught up on how so and so successful writer just landed a seven figure deal. Focus on your work. Because one day that seven figure deal writer will be you. You just have to believe in yourself (told you it was cheesy).
Film and television director Becky Smith recently completed her first feature “16 to Life” and has directed episodes for Lifetime’s “How To Look Good Naked,” Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and MTV’s “Parental Control." Becky also teaches at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, where I met her as an undergrad film and television student.
Becky recently emailed me this "informal list," gleaned from her own life experiences and from friends.
Dealing with Rejection in the Film Business
1. Success in Hollywood is determined by how well one deals with disappointment
2. The competition is fierce. If this is something you really want to do, great. Just know you might not get it. Go for it. You have nothing to lose.
3. You have to make your own opportunities most of the time
4. Doors will open if you persist, but not necessarily the ones you are expecting
5. Many filmmakers have made a first film that didn’t get a lot of attention, and moved on to their next film
6. You can tell yourself a story, i.e., “this is how it is” or “this is how things always go” – or you can step away from the story to see the possibilities…
7. Don’t “face reality”, create reality
8. Hope verses visualizing – leaving it up to the universe vs. taking action. Take action.
9. Genuinely have fun while you are setting goals and reaching for your goals, otherwise you won’t convince anyone of your enthusiasm, including yourself. A large amount of living is moving toward the destination, so enjoy the journey.
10. 99% of the stories that hold us back are incidents from our past that we’ve locked on to.
11. Don’t ask “why” – move forward.
12. Thinking small and playing small doesn’t serve you.
13. Often people’s lives are about “reacting to” instead of “taking action”.
14. It’s round one – CALM DOWN!