Jeff Melvoin is currently executive producer on ARMY WIVES and previously worked on ALIAS, NORTHERN EXPOSURE, PICKET FENCES, HILL STREET BLUES, and REMINGTON STEELE.
CB: I guess we should start with how you got started.
JM: Well, I only have the long version; there is no short version. In college I did a lot of theater. I started out acting and quickly got more into directing. And then reality struck and I didn’t know quite what I was going to do to make a living. I didn’t feel I was ready to come to Hollywood. I felt despite my background that I didn’t have a lot to offer the world necessarily as a writer.
I was a cub reporter for Fairchild Publications in Washington, then Miami, and that led in turn eventually to work for Time Magazine as a correspondent in New York, and I thought, this isn’t what I want to do, but I can do this for five years, and quit when I’m 30 and have my creative life ahead of me. It gave me a lot of different experiences. I worked in the Boston bureau after New York, then Los Angeles, and I had done a number of interesting stories in the past month or two, and I thought it wasn’t going to get any better, so I walked in and resigned.
I called a friend of mine who worked at MTM [Mary Tyler Moore Productions] and I said I want to write scripts. He said, “TV or film?” I said, “What’s the difference? He says, "Nobody tells Paramount how many movies they have to make every year, but TV needs three hours a night." And I thought, that sounds like a better bet. There was a show, REMINGTON STEELE, and I thought, I know something about detective fiction, and I really loved the form, so he helped me put together a spec script, and I ended up getting hired by REMINGTON STEELE to do a script, and while I was working that out, for the second season, they made me an offer to join the writing staff. I went from staff writer to story editor to writer-producer and by the time the show ended I was a supervising producer.
And then I became a co-executive producer on HILL STREET [BLUES], which was a rather chaotic year in its seventh season, but an honor to work on that show. Then I went into development, which doesn’t quite exist in the same way as it did then. Back then there was a lot of money being thrown at people, and I actually made more money in an office writing two pilots a year than I did when I was working my butt off helping HILL STREET in its final year. I ended up having three pilots produced in a four year period but nothing that made the fall schedule, which is probably just as well because I don’t know if I was really prepared to what it would have done to my marriage or psyche at the time.
I was discouraged and I thought I would start to write movies, and my wife said that there was a new show on the air that she thought I would like and it turned out to be NORTHERN EXPOSURE. I stayed on for four years until the series ended, wrote 18 episodes and rewrote a few others. And that springboarded me to my first executive-producer job, which was working on PICKET FENCES. David Kelley had had three years of PICKET FENCES and was burnt out on it, wanted to do other things, so he asked if I would take that over. I call that chapter of my life “fools rush in.” David was great, and it was a terrific experience but it's not easy to follow someone like David Kelley.
Since then, there have been plenty of offers to help shows that are getting on their feet. In the case of ALIAS, for example, I happened to be in Rome with my wife on our anniversary and I got a call from J. J. Abrams in the middle of the night saying he was looking for someone to help with the fourth season, and it turned out that I knew half the staff, and I liked the show, and my kids liked the show, which was very important, and so I did that. That was a situation where I was helping out with a show that was an established hit, but after the third year, which is the one where Jennifer Garner wakes up and it’s two years later, people got a little confused, and the network still harbored this hope that they could get new viewers to the series, so we tried to find a way to reboot the series in a way that you could bring new eyeballs to it. From the most bottomline perspective, the idea was to get a fifth season, and we did that, so at that point I felt my job was done, and moved on to IN JUSTICE, a short-lived series created by Robert and Michelle King, who went on to create THE GOOD WIFE.
Sometime after that, I got a call that there was this Lifetime series that was in trouble, and I told my agent that I wasn’t interested in a Lifetime series and I really wasn’t interested in something called ARMY WIVES, and he said just take a look at it, and I did and thought it was terrific. And I said, you know what, I don’t care what you call it, I don’t care what the network is, this is really interesting work. I’ve never seen these characters before, I’ve never seen a situation quite like this, and I think I can help it.
CB: It seems like it must have taken a tremendous leap of faith to quit Time and say I'm going to write this script. What gave you the faith to do that?
JM: It was really just a pact I had between me and myself, that I said this is what I want to try. And I do believe we only go around once in this life. And through both choice and circumstance I was still single, so I had no obligations. I was just very drawn to it. And I also felt that you had to make a total commitment to it at some point. I don't want it to make it seem like it wasn't without bumps and scratches. At one point I even took the law boards. It makes a better story than it was actually at the time. It was full of uncertainty. But someone who's truly ambitious often develops this sense of patience about things.
CB: Just to go back to something, I’m curious what sort of stuff you learned on REMINGTON STEELE.
JM: There is no one way to do a show. There’s a lot of ways to fail, but there’s a fair number of ways to succeed, too. There are a few basic principles that apply, and the most important is that you have to have quality scripts on time. And so one thing that I learned as I was moving from writer to more of a writer-producer is that if you have to err on giving more time to the outline or more time to the script initially, depending on the show, and again this was a mystery, I would err on the side of the outline, because it’s much easier to fix the story in outline than it is in the script. If you get to the script and you say these stories aren’t working, then you have to kind of reverse-engineer them and figure out where the problems are, and that’s a lot harder. It’s like cutting through the brambles to get back to a bigger picture. When you’re writing a script, you are slogging through the jungle. When you’re writing an outline, you’re more at 10,000 feet and you can survey the landscape and get a sense of what’s going on. But when you’re in the swamp, it’s hard. And when there’s pressure and time is running out, it’s even harder.
Another thing that I would advise people is try to get into a “teaching hospital.” I’ll explain: six, seven years ago I approached John Wells with this idea of a showrunner training program because I felt that since the time that I had started, the apprenticeship way of learning was becoming increasingly rare. With more people competing, even with more spaces, the talent was getting thinner, shows were lasting a briefer period of time. An analogy I like to make is that shows tend to be either teaching hospitals or private hospitals. A teaching hospital is where the resident in charge looks at his staff like a bunch of interns he’s taking on rounds, and you can look at the patient, which is the script, and say, okay, what’s wrong with this. And very often in new shows, the creator is teaching themselves at the same time, so there’s no opportunity to provide a teaching hospital.
CB: It sounds like you’re saying that there are very few teaching hospitals nowadays.
JM: I think you’re right, I think there are fewer. But I think it’s not necessarily because there are fewer people who are willing to mentor; it’s because the pressures and the multiplicity of voices giving notes and the impact of those voices have become more pronounced over the last years. We’re in a very curious time because the pie is being sliced into many, many more pieces. Which should provide more opportunity, yes, but it also provides more opportunity for hysteria, chaos, and just general madness. I think that people who want to make it as writer-producers are more responsible for learning as much as they can on their own without the benefit of necessarily being a part of a stable organization. It’s very tough to even assimilate what it is you’re learning, because if you’re just trying to keep your head above water, it’s not the best way to learn how to swim, or swim competitively and improve your time, especially if the writer next to you is grabbing your head to keep from drowning him or herself.
CB: So what does that mean for a writer trying to break in? Obviously it makes it more competitive, but because we have to be responsible for learning as much as possible, do you suggest going to film school? Does that seem required these days?
JM: I don’t think so necessarily. What I do think is that there’s value to living as an adult outside of this town prior to trying to make it as a writer. I think that while there are a hundred examples of people who can make it having come out here from college, I think what helps your writing is developing confidence in yourself as a person, having experiences that don’t necessarily reflect those of everybody else in town.
CB: More specifically, how about writing samples?
JM: Well, let's talk about spec scripts and then about spec pilots. The way it was when I got started, there was far less competition. There were three networks. The universe was very understandable and there were several genres and not too many shows that didn't fit into one of those genres. So if you wrote a REMINGTON STEELE, you could use it for a spec for HART TO HART or RIPTIDE. And also there was a common assumption that if I gave it to you, you knew those shows, so you could judge whether that was a good script. Today, any one of us would be hard-pressed to name a show that you think six people all watch. Let's take a show that's very popular, MAD MEN. It'd be very hard to spec a MAD MEN because it's serial. There was always a discussion when I was coming up, and I've been on many panels discussing it, if you write a spec, should you write it on the show you want to be on, and I said hell, yes. Why wouldn't you? And people would go, because they'll know where all the problems are. Well, okay, so you're saying, gee, I'm good enough to write on MAD MEN, but I'm not going to submit it because I'm afraid you'll see I'm not that good. Also, the show you love is the show you're going to write best because you're going to have to rewrite it many times to make it really good and only a show that you really care about is going to make you exert that kind of effort. But let's go back to the MAD MEN episode. Even if you wrote that really well, what else could you use that script for?
CB: Breaking Bad?
JM: That's another show that comes to mind. You have these edgy dark shows. But one's about a corporate environment in the 60s, the other's about the Southwest today. But again, good writing to me is good writing, so if you write a sensational script, I don't care what it is. Anyone with sensitivity should see that it’s quality work. That being said, that's not necessarily the way the world works. So you try to be smart as you can about what you pick. What can I write a spec of that I think would be as useful and as versatile as I can? Pick something you love, something you think you can learn from. Pick something you think will have the broadest appeal possible. If it's a choice between MAD MEN and HOUSE—let's say you like both those shows. House, being a one-off, it's easier to judge that script. It shows you can write a procedural at least. And there's a pretty good assumption, since HOUSE is the most popular show in the world right now, that a number of people will at least be familiar with the characters, and so if they read it, they can judge how well those characters have been used. And as a procedural, it shows that even if I, the prospective reader, am doing a procedural about cops in New Jersey, at least I see you understand how to put together a mystery. So having written your HOUSE, and saying, okay, well, now I have to write my MAD MEN, because that's what I want to do, fine, because at worst, it's another chance for you to write and get feedback from other people. And when you call a place and they say what do you have? You say, I have a MAD MEN, I have a HOUSE, they'll say, send me the HOUSE, or send me the MAD MEN. You never know.
But the big change is this idea of writing a spec pilot. Why would you want to read a spec pilot? You can understand it on its own terms. You don't have to watch the show the writer has written a spec script for. The problem is that pilots are terribly difficult to write well. It is a very strange form. And why write a pilot instead of a spec screenplay? It's length. To ask somebody to read 120 pages as opposed to sixty pages is to ask a lot. Which isn't to say that if you've written a really good screenplay, that you shouldn't submit that. But also, a well-written pilot will show an appreciation for the form. But where things get complicated is, subscription cable doesn't use act breaks, whereas most shows do. And I'd say that if you want to make a spec script as versatile as possible, I'd write one with act breaks. If you haven't written with act breaks, it's a little bit harder to appreciate, does the person really understand the form?
But pilots are just so hard because you're trying to create a vessel that can contain a hundred hours. I think the advantage is that you can write about something that really excites you, and structurally maybe it's a pilot where you can make a few changes and roll film. That's the other upside to the writer: it's not idle work. In the past, it would have been completely idle because no studio or network would ever consider making a spec pilot, but now there's more examples every year of spec pilots that got made: THE SHIELD, MAD MEN.
CB: So what would you recommend for people writing pilots?
JM: One of the advantages of writing a spec script—is that so much of the playing field is already determined for you. It's like going out to play tennis. You know what the rules are, you know where the lines are, and you know what you're supposed to do. But if you're writing a spec [pilot], you don't even know what the game is. Is there a net? What are the rules? What are the dimensions of the court? You can get agoraphobic almost. I think it would help to say, if I had to choose the show that I was working on, what would I like to be known as? Do I want Ryan Murphy's career? Do I want David Kelley's career? Whose material do I like? What kind of shows do you like, did you like growing up? So you say, all right, I'm going to write that kind of show. You want to provide as much discipline for yourself as you can. I fought this a lot when I was starting as a writer because I thought it was uncreative to compare yourself to anything else. The fact is no matter how complex or sophisticated your idea is, at the end of the day, if you can't explain your idea in two or three sentences, you'd better go back and think about it some more. And it needn’t come to you as two to three sentences necessarily, but it can. What inspired MIAMI VICE was two words, which was MTV cops: to use the hipness and all of the edge of MTV and marry it to a cop show.
Be your own worst critic. Show it to friends who won't just say, wow, this is great. You want people to say I don't get it. But you're not going to be judged on "could this really be made?" You're going to be judged on the writing. What you're really looking for is an intelligence, a sensitivity, a personality, something that comes through in the writing that makes you want to meet that person. If people want to turn the page, you're doing the job. The goal of the spec script is to get a meeting. Wow, who wrote this? Who could write this line? Who could have thought of this inventive twist? Eighty percent of the script was okay, but, man, you really hooked me here, and I laughed here, and yeah, I think your script's a mess, but I think you have talent. The first thing I sold, I wrote this spec Remington and I got a call right away that they wanted to buy the first scene. I'd written a costume party, and our heroes were looking for a thief. REMINGTON was dressed up as Sherlock Holmes looking very distinguished and he put Laura in a bunny outfit, and it turned out the thief had come dressed as a carrot, so you had this bunny running after the carrot. It was pretty stupid. But the thing is, at one point they see the guy make a snatch and run away, and [executive producer] Michael Gleason told me, "I wanted to meet the writer who wrote the line 'stop that carrot'."
CB: Was that the first script you ever wrote?
JM: Close to it. Idiot that I was, I’d actually written a spec pilot with this friend of mine. But the REMINGTON STEELE was the first spec script I had written. But I was 30, I had studied the form, this friend at MTM had given me a great deal of advice. When things broke, they broke rather quickly. I resigned from Time at the end of the year and I was on staff the next May. And then I found out, like Woody Allen said, 90% of life is just showing up. I think in this business, once you get your foot in door as a writer, if you can deliver, then you can hang around. This business always needs new talent. Most executive producers of any longevity and wisdom are always looking for writers to help, not because they want to help you, necessarily, but they want to help themselves. They don't want to be up until midnight every weekend rewriting. They want to find writers who can make their lives easier. And the best of them want to be able to say, oh man, I just hired the greatest writers ever; they're stars.
It's an illusion to think that once you're in as a writers assistant or a staff writer or any place that your future's assured because you're in the system, like school: now you're a freshman and then you're going to graduate. The lesson is just learn the craft and learn the underlying principles of what make scripts work, and what makes shows work, because you may not have the luxury of being on anyone's show for very long as a writer in this environment.
CB: So what’s next for you?
JM: Teaching holds a lot of appeal. I'm trying to do some other writing. I'm pleased that my showrunning ability has given me a certain profile and viability, and I don't minimize that, but the writer in me would like more opportunity to get back to work a little bit. I help break every story on ARMY WIVES and I do a fair amount of rewriting, but in the question of original writing, I haven't had much opportunity to do that. So some combination of teaching and continuing to write.
Of course, one of the things you learn in this business is that things can change in a heartbeat, but that's the way it looks right now.