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Jane Espenson - Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the trade
mardi 8 juin 2010, par Webmaster
Now that we know which shows we’ll see during the 2010-2011 TV season, the real work can begin : writing them. Six genre-show pros — veterans of shows like Lost, BSG, and Fringe — reveal what happens behind closed doors.
For this roundtable, we recruited writers and producers from all over : rookie "baby" writers like Deric A. Hughes (Warehouse 13) ; mid-level writer-producers like Zack Stentz (Fringe, Terminator : The Sarah Connor Chronicles) ; co-executive producers like Amy Berg (Eureka, The 4400) ; and top-level wizards who’ve run their own shows, like Jane Espenson (Caprica, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), John Rogers (Leverage, The Jackie Chan Adventures), and Javier Grillo-Marxuach (The Middleman, Lost). And here’s what they had to say.
For the layman, what is a writers room ? What service does it perform for a television show ?
Jane Espenson : The writers’ room is the sleazy hotel room in which stories are conceived. On most shows, this is where the writers spend the majority of their time, coming up with ideas for episodes and then breaking those stories into acts and scenes and moments before an individual writer is sent out to turn the story into an outline and then a script. On a traditional multi-camera sitcom, the room is also where the script is rewritten by the entire staff working as a team to improve the jokes and story after the script is written. Some drama shows don’t have rooms at all — each writer works one-on-one with the showrunner to conceive and "break" their own episode. I’m told that The X-Files, for example, did not have a traditional room.
John Rogers : It varies from show to show. A writers room is a way for the head writer to collect all the writers in one place, hear their ideas, comment on them, have the other writers contribute and share ideas, and assemble them into not just scripts but an overall feeling for what the year’s worth of stories are gonna be. It’s a clearinghouse.
Deric A. Hughes : It’s a place where a group of like-minded folks (in our case, for our show, mostly people who can speak nerd/geek fluently and understand how to write for television) come up with stories that will best serve show for which they’ve been hired to write for. Usually this means trying to come up with one great compelling character moment, one memorable scene, until finally you have enough great character moments and memorable scenes to fill one hour of television. And then once that’s finished, wash, rinse, repeat.
Zack Stentz : A writer’s room is at its best the collective brain of a TV show — the place where the writing staff gets together and, under the leadership of the showrunner, plots out the season and "breaks" individual episodes.
Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the tradeAmy Berg (second from left) : In many ways, it’s the treehouse you had in your backyard as a kid. A safe place where you can let you imagination take over without threat of censorship or judgment. The room is where ideas are put through the ringer. Where sidetracks in conversations take you down new, more interesting paths. Where personal histories become character fodder. And where passionate debate yields results that are otherwise unattainable by a single voice.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach : When you are facing down the barrel of 22 hours of televised narrative that have to be produced in the course of about 10 months, it really is very difficult for any single writer to completely generate all of that material by themselves, with very rare exceptions. And the writers room is really the closest thing in creativity to a kind of process that allows you to churn out episodic scripts week after week, to feel the ravenous beast that is production. Every seven to eight days, production needs to be fed a new script. And it eats scripts with extreme prejudice.
What don’t people understand about writers rooms — people who think that it’s just a bunch of people having a conversation ?
Amy Berg : You know the movie Twelve Angry Men ? That’s what the room is like, but instead of wrestling with a case we’re wrestling with ideas. It’s a roomful of incredibly opinionated people trying to agree on one thing. And once that thing is agreed upon, we rip it completely apart and then put the pieces back together to find the freshest take on it. That’s how episodes of television are conceived. It’s an exhausting process. We’re not digging ditches all day, but there’s not a single writer who isn’t wiped out by the time they get home.
Deric A. Hughes : Actually, it is a bunch of people having conversations — a lot of very fun, interesting and sometimes thought-provoking conversations bent towards the task of creating (hopefully) entertaining episodes of television — but conversations nonetheless.
Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the tradeJane Espenson : It used to be that writers would often be asked "which character do you write for," which made me think that people were picturing a sort of role-playing scenario in which we would use improv to plot the stories, but I haven’t been asked that in a long time. I think depictions of the writers rooms in works like The Dick Van Dyke Show, 30 Rock [above], Studio 60, and Neil Simon’s "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" show something close-ish to the real thing, although they tend to focus on the fun free-flowing joke-cracking part of the process, not the thinkier working-out-the-plot part. Because that’s kind of boring to watch.
John Rogers : I don’t think they understand that the most important thing in television is the timely delivery of scripted material. If we have a bad day, if we have some blank pages, if we have writers block, then the machine stops and we move inexorably close to bankrupting the company. If the writers room doesn’t work, the show doesn’t work. If the show doesn’t work, hundreds of people are out of jobs. And that is, at least in my writers room, evermost in our minds — that we are the people who lay the track for the train. So we had best move with a combination of creativity and alacrity.
What makes for a good writers room, personnel-wise ? Environment wise ?
Amy Berg : People think writers are non-aggressive, socially awkward types. The ones who stood in the corner during school dances. Maybe that’s true of feature writers, but in television that’s not the case at all. Most television writers are natural leaders. And when you stick a bunch of leaders in a room together, there are going to be clashes. That’s why personality is key. If you have multiple Type A personalities on your staff, that’s going to be trouble. The job is enough of a pressure-cooker as it is, and having that added intensity and negativity around is only going to make it more difficult.
Jane Espenson : The physical environment can vary a lot from show to show. Sometimes there’s a table that everyone sits around, sometimes just a room with comfy chairs and sofas. Sometimes it’s in the showrunner’s office. Sometimes it’s in a clean-and-corporate setting, sometimes it’s peeling paint and a window propped open with a book. Personally, I don’t care as long as there is enough corkboard space.
Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the tradeJohn Rogers : It should be bright and spacious and have access to a fridge. I think the biggest thing is that it should be a fun place where writers feel safe to say anything. Even if that’s an obscene joke about someone else’s child. A good writer’s room is loose and funny. We run our one-hour room like a sitcom room : writers come in, they pitch ideas, we all comment on them, we have a big board we put cards up on, we break it as much as we can break it, everyone throws in their two cents, the writer goes off and distills it down. Not every one-hour does that. A lot of one-hours, there is no writers room. We don’t do it that way because Leverage is a difficult show with a lot of moving parts so you never know who’s gonna have the odd fact or weird thing that’s gonna give us the way out or the way in.
Zack Stentz : In my experience, a good writers room comes from the combination of having a collection of strong, confident voices who feel free to argue ideas without having to worry about politics and protocol and rank, and at the same time having a strong hand on the tiller to guide discussions and keep people focused when they threaten to go off on digressions or tangents. On The Sarah Connor Chronicles we used to call it "going down the rabbit hole" — and it usually involved discussions of time-travel mechanics that lasted several hours and rarely accomplished everything.
As a showrunner, how do you go about creating that mix ?
Jane Espenson : You want good writers and you want enough of them to be good in the room, not just on the page. On a drama, a room benefits from writers with a good and fast sense of structure. On a comedy a good room person is probably the one with the quickest and sharpest joke-pitching ability. Of course, there’s more to the job than being in the room. A writer who is silent in the room may still be excelling by turning in brilliant drafts. You create that mix by hiring people who have the skills your staff lacks at that moment.
John Rogers : It’s like being a baseball coach. You have a good mix of writers of different abilities : some people are very research heavy, some people are very good with dialogue or character, some people pitch certain types of stories.... It’s just making sure your lineup has a good mix of skills.
Amy Berg : Putting a writing staff together is a lot like casting. You’re looking for the right chemistry. You’re not going to hire someone because they’re a great writer. You’re going to hire them because they’re a solid writer with great references and in their interview with you they didn’t come off as a total asshat. There are a lot of people out here who are good at their jobs. What you want are writers who you’re going to spend 12 hours a day with for nine months and not want to wring their necks.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach : TV writing is somewhat akin to competitive group therapy. And you want to have a group of people who can write well together and simultaneously challenge each other but also can play well together, work well together, and complement each others’ strengths. The other part of it is that as a showrunner, you’re meeting with a writer ; you read a script, you like it, you call him in, you have a one hour meeting with them. Based on that one-hour meeting, you decide if you wanna spend 12 hours a day in a room with him. So there’s still a lot of luck to it. It’s sort of like assembling one of those 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzles, maybe without the benefit of the cover to know what it looks like.
What’s the single most poisonous thing to a room’s chemistry ?
Amy Berg : Competition. I worked on a show once where on day one the showrunner came in and said that no one is guaranteed a script and that everyone was going to have to earn it. Now, I understand that to most people that doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all, but what that showrunner did was create an atmosphere that rewarded individual achievement over collaboration. A room cannot function on that kind of energy. You’re making a television show and you can’t do it by yourself. When writers are trying to beat each other out for more scripts (and script fees), it affects the entire vibe in the room. They start shooting down each other’s ideas more often. They compete for the showrunner’s attention. There’s more infighting and backstabbing. And once that all starts, there’s no getting the room back.
Deric A. Hughes : I think it’s being negative for the sake of just being negative. There’s nothing worse than when a person just says "no" to every single idea that someone might be trying to pitch and not even offer a valid reason why they’re saying "no" in the first place.
Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the tradeJavier Grillo-Marxuach : One of the rules I put in my writers room was Don’t Break Anything You Can’t Fix. Which is to say, if you don’t like an idea I don’t want to hear from you unless you can clearly articulate why you don’t think it’s any good and unless you have something to counter-pitch.
Zack Stentz : In my opinion, the single thing that most hurts a room’s chemistry is when writers feel like they have to pull their punches or worry more about the politics of the show and their own positions in the hierarchy than simply staying focused on making the best show possible. On The Sarah Connor Chronicles I felt free to say things to [executive producers] Josh Friedman and John Wirth that would have gotten me fired on other shows — I went straight at them when I vehemently disagreed with an idea. But they were confident and secure enough as writers and as leaders that they welcomed debate and dissension.
What’s the one thing a writers room can’t be without, aside from other writers ?
Deric A. Hughes : Food. Lots and lots of food ! And cookies and cakes and candies and sodas and teas and (in my writing partner’s case) coffee.... Need fuel to keep you going throughout the day, man. Oh, wait, is that why I gained 15 pounds last year ?
Zack Stentz : Snacks ! Seriously, it is a constant struggle for someone like me, who has very little self-control when it comes to food, to not put on a lot of weight while on staff. It’s like Halloween every day in a writers room. And it’s even more dangerous if your show shoots next door — then there are the temptations of the craft services table to deal with as well !
Jane Espenson : White boards and markers or corkboards and cards. Whichever — some way to record the work.
Amy Berg : There are two things that a writers room can’t live without : caffeine and toys. Caffeine is vital, as you’re working yourself into a state of mental exhaustion every day. By about 3:00 in the afternoon, you’re ready for a nap. Having toys around the office is an important reminder that the room is supposed to be playful. It helps keeps things light, fun, and imaginative. On Eureka, we always have a jigsaw puzzle set up in the kitchen. And in the writers room itself, there are toys on every table to play with. Puzzle games in particular are great because they work different parts of your brain to help keep you sharp and focused.
John Rogers : A great writers’ assistant. A great writers’ assistant kind of does the job of your ego. Writers are all id : they’re all storming out ideas, they’re all riffing off each other, they’re all puking out these random associations of facts. A good writers’ assistant is getting all of that down, and when they do the summary notes, they often distill it down ; they often prioritize based what they know of the room what the real strong ideas are. A good writers’ assistant makes a world of difference. It is, possibly, behind the showrunner, the second most important person in a writers room.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach : One of the things I absolutely believe that no writers room should be without is a stupid stick. A stupid stick is a device that, when held by the person that’s pitching, shields that person from ridicule. I find that it’s actually the most useful tool I’ve ever seen in a writers room. A lot of the time, especially in the early going, people feel very unsafe, just talking about themselves, talking about any number of things. Like they’re gonna be mocked. I generally believe that the writers room has to be safe. A good stupid stick allows people to believe that they’re protected.
What was your first experience in a room like ?
Amy Berg : My first experience was one of my best experiences and has been hard to live up to. Kevin Kopelow and Heath Seifert are an amazing writing team who oversaw a few shows on Nickelodeon. I was their assistant for a couple months before they saw fit to promote me to writer. They ran the room with the most insanely upbeat energy I’ve ever seen. I worked with them for three years and there wasn’t one single bad day had in that room. The vibe was always positive. Everyone worked together, played together, succeeded or failed together. Those guys lived and breathed teamwork as a writing partnership and they brought that into the room with them.
Jane Espenson : Wonderful. I was briefly on a show called Dinosaurs, with a great showrunner named Bob Young who was very welcoming and patient. It was perfect.
John Rogers : My first experience was as a sitcom writer on Cosby. Not the first one that made everyone rich and famous, the second one that ended careers and lives. It was a very raucous writers room ; it was a straight-up comedy room : you sat in there for 12 hours a day, every week you had to rewrite the script from the ground up, and you shot it on Thursday, and you rewrote in between. You lived in that room and you were the lifeboat and you were pitching jokes and if you weren’t pitching jokes, you had to get the hell out of Dodge. Both Chris and I (Chris Downey, the other creator of Leverage) we both came out of that school of you must ever drive forward. You must always be typing, always be writing, always be pitching — always driving that show forward. And that the writers are a team.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach : My education in the writers room was actually on a show that didn’t have a writers room, and that was SeaQuest 2032. And that was a show where the showrunner hired a lot of high level people and he kind of let them create and develop their own ideas and write them as scripts. Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the tradeBut there were two lower level writers, I was the lowest guy on the totem pole, and the mid-level guy was Naren Shankar, who’d just left Star Trek : The Next Generation. But the great thing was that this was a guy that who’d learned how to break story and generate story the Michael Piller way. Michael Piller [left] is renowned for running a very strong writers room and believing very strongly that the room had to generate and collaborate. So Naren and I would meet and break story the traditional way. I don’t think it’s a surprise that Michael Piller discovered Naren, Ron Moore, Brannon Braga, and René Echevarria — all four of whom are very highly regarded showrunners in their own right.
Deric A. Hughes : On day one of me and my writing partner’s gig on Warehouse 13, our showrunner, Jack Kenny, said to everyone, "Here, inside the writers room, I don’t care about a person’s rank, I just want to hear good ideas. And if you don’t have any good ideas, I’ll find someone else that does." Now of course, he didn’t mean that you shouldn’t respect a person’s rank and history, but it should never preclude you from coming up with ideas and sharing them with the room. So when he said that, I think this immediately broke the ice and allowed everyone to relax, be themselves, and focus on coming up with great stories to tell.
Zack Stentz : My first experience of a writers’ room was a very lucky one. It was on Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda under Robert Wolfe, who was coming off of the very well-run Star Trek : Deep Space Nine and applied and even improved the room culture to create a very challenging but convivial environment for baby writers. One hears of rooms where staff writers aren’t supposed to speak at all — the Andromeda room couldn’t have been any more different.
What’s been your best experience ?
Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the tradeJane Espenson : Dinosaurs was such a warm place. And Buffy was amazing. And I was so proud of the staff on Caprica. But it would be hard to beat Battlestar Galactica. The room was absolutely packed with guys who were masters of storytelling and who wouldn’t let a single false moment slip through. We would discuss a story in general terms and while we were talking, Bradley Thompson would be writing on note cards. Then you’d look up and realize he’d pinned them to the board and there was a whole episode up there. They all made it look easy, but it’s not.
Deric A. Hughes : I think just being able to come into Warehouse room every single day and work with people you’ve respected and admired from past TV shows/movies/animation for years and are now treating you as an equal…well, or at least someone who deserves to be there in the first place.
Amy Berg : My current experience on Eureka is hard to top. It’s the exact right mix of humans. Everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to make the show the best it can be. It’s never about the individual, it’s always about the team. There are some showrunners who have been known to keep their writing staff at the office late because they’d rather work than go home. That’s both sad and cruel. And it’s not the case on Eureka. There’s a great respect here for the fact that we all have personal lives. We have families we want to see, things we have to do, places we have to be outside of the show. Whether that’s a doctor’s appointment, a school play, or a wedding out of town. We want to make sure that your life doesn’t stop just because production has started. Success is always sweeter when you have people to share it with. Camaraderie doesn’t guarantee success, but it makes it more achievable because it’s something we all want for each other and not just for ourselves.
Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the tradeZack Stentz : My best experience was on The Sarah Connor Chronicles — Josh had such a clear vision of the show he wanted to make (which was challenging and appealing), John was such a master at guiding the room and getting the most out of all of us, and there were literally no weak links in a diverse room full of people at all levels of experience. You had seasoned hands like Toni Graphia and Natalie Chaidez, and you had staff writers like Ian Goldberg, Dan Thomsen, and Denise The, who made me seethe with envy when I saw them turn in work that was far more accomplished than anything I was doing at their ages. I still mourn the demise of that show, and confess to getting irritated when I see praise heaped on other genre shows that don’t have 1/10th the ambition that we did.
John Rogers : This room. First year of Leverage, the studio had never done a show before, we had a tiny budget, we hired almost all staff writers because we had no money and we decided to go for volume — and we came up with one of the best years of television I’ve ever produced in 15 years. A rookie team with a lot of energy, a lot of gumption, a lot of ambition, and every single one of them worked their asses off. It was great to be in that situation where this is plainly impossible, and it turned out to be great.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach : I have to say, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I had a wonderful room on The Middleman. That was a show that I think was blessed in a lot of ways. We all loved the show, we all got along, and even though it was a fairly small room — I don’t think we ever had more than five people in it. It was just a room where everyone vibes really well.
Without naming names, what’s been your worst ?
John Rogers : I consulted on a show once, and it was hard to watch the network kind of beat up the showrunners. My relationship with TNT on Leverage is that they’re clearly supportive, they’re full creative partners, and they pretty much tell us when they don’t like something, but they hired us to run a show and they let us run a show. This other situation was very much that kind of...you could tell that the executive in particular was a frustrated showrunner or writer and he just beat the hell out of the guys who were running the room. I can’t imagine being in that situation ; I actually quit. Whenever you don’t see the script department working — and I know I talk like a 1950s screenwriter when I say "script department" — but every script department has it’s own rhythms, and whenever somebody interferes with it, you’re interfering with the very guts of a show. A smart network or a smart studio finds that once a staff is working, they stay out of their way.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach : I have worked with people who are absentee micromanagers, those are a lot of fun. The shows where the showrunner is never around and then they show up for 15 minutes twice a week and destroy everything and insist that everything be redone. The shows where the showrunner enters the writers room at 6:30 in the evening after we’ve been there since 10 am and goes "Right ! Let’s go to work." Look, no writers room is perfect, but the ones that work collaboratively are the best. The ones where you’re there to facilitate some emotional need of the showrunner are the worst.
Amy Berg : I’ve been confronted by misogyny on a staff before. It’s just sad that this sort of thing still exists. And being subjected to such cruel and unusual punishment on a daily basis can result in significant health problems. The really horrible thing about this kind of behavior is that it’s not something you can change. You can’t talk things out. I tried that. It’s just something that’s ingrained in people. And if you don’t have support from your showrunner (or if the person is your showrunner), all you can do is pack your stuff and move on to bigger and better things.
Who have you, personally, learned the most from ?
Amy Berg : On the page, I would have to say I learned the most from Ira Steven Behr. I went into my experience on The 4400 as somewhat of a raw talent. I was not refined by any means. But the time I spent with Ira was incredibly valuable. We wrote a script together during the final season, and I got to witness his process beat-by-beat. It was amazing. He had high expectations for me and forced me to raise my game. John Rogers is an amazing story breaker. I learned a lot from him during my tenure on Leverage that I will take with me everywhere I go. I added a few more skills to my toolbox thanks to him. As far as the kind of person I want to be as a showrunner, I have to look no further than Eureka’s Bruce Miller and Jaime Paglia. They are two of the best humans on the planet. And the fact that they’re super-talented is a double bonus.
Jane Espenson : Joss Whedon, although there are other great candidates. Joss was the king of "why are we telling this story ?" He really impressed all his writers with the sense that a story had to be about something other than the characters and their world. It had to really have something to say about the real world. I try never to forget what he taught me.
John Rogers : Two people. One was Dean Devlin. Because he’s a very emotional guy. Everything comes from heart. He’s always like "How does this make me feel ?" And I was always a very technical writer, I mean, I write very complicated heist stuff, and having a guy who’s always like, "What’s the character beat here, what’s the moment ?" — I’ve definitely learned a lot just working with Dean. Also Cosby’s David Landsberg, who was my first showrunner. David was relentless ; we were in that writers room for 20 hours at a time and he sat at the head of that table and he never bitched us out, he never yelled at us — no matter how bad things got on Cosby, he never took it out on us. We were the lifeboat, we were gonna survive, we were gonna work together, we were gonna overcome this. He was just an inspiration ; he was the showrunner I wanted to be. The guy that, no matter how it happened, the staff would turn to and he’d say, "Okay, I got one more trick in the toolbox." He never gave up. That to me is what a showrunner is : the guy that’s got one more trick in the toolbox.
Zack Stentz : I’ve learned a ton from every single person I’ve worked with, from Andromeda’s Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer teaching me the concept of the "two-one punch" (leading with your most powerful emotion instead of building to it) to Jeff Pinkner masterfully pulling apart the structure of a Fringe episode to diagnose a problem. But I think I’ve learned the most from Josh Friedman, in how he constantly challenged me to look beyond the obvious way into a scene or an episode or a character, and to strip away unnecessary incident to find the core of truth and drama in whatever story we were telling.
Inside the writers room : Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the tradeJavier Grillo-Marxuach : I have learned things from so many different people. Lost’s Damon Lindelof is one of the most ingenious twisters of scene and story I’ve ever seen at work. He’s a guy that you give a scene that is very stock and he comes up with a genius way of making it different. Watching that muscle at work is an extraordinary thing — and you learn it by watching a guy do it. Graham Yost, who ran Boomtown was a guy who — Boomtown was a non-linear cop show, and he was a guy who could generate those non-linear stories in his head. And learning how to break story like him was an amazing education in lateral thinking. David Greenwalt is an extraordinary manager, and is also a guy who brings a lot of courage of his convictions to his storytelling. From him, I learned about being very committed and gutsy. Silvio Horta, on The Chronicle and Jake 2.0, is a guy who’s tremendously eager to give and to delegate and to let people flourish. That was a lesson in and of itself. I believe, very strongly, that a showrunner’s legacy is as much in the show they create as it is in the number of people that they train and they groom and put out into the world — and that dynamic, that teaching, happens in the writers room.
What’s it like as a baby writer ? As a showrunner ? Aside from the pay grade, how does the job differ ?
Zack Stentz : The thing that makes a showrunner’s job so difficult is that one has to simultaneously be an artist and a manager, and those are two very different skill sets that only occasionally overlap. It’s a reason why so few make it all the way up— it’s a rare thing to find someone who simultaneously has an interesting and compelling vision and can effectively manage their staff, deal with temperamental actors, make a budget, and effectively interact with the executives from the studio and network.
Deric A. Hughes : As a baby writer, your first and most important job is to help contribute ideas to the room. When you have 13 episodes to tell and only a few short months to get scripts into production, you need to be a fountain of ideas for your showrunner. Because sitting there like a bump on a log and not saying anything is not going to help anyone achieve that goal. Even if you’re afraid what you have to say is a bad idea and it might get rejected, you need to get over that fear and speak what’s on your mind.
Amy Berg : The difference between a baby writer and a showrunner is enormous with regards to both responsibilities and expectations. The only real job of a baby writer is to take the episode they’ve been given and make the most out of it. There aren’t high expectations for them in the room because of their lack of experience. But if they give you something extra — if they work their asses off by doing research and constantly generating story ideas — they will work their way up the ladder very quickly. A showrunner is the overseer. They’re responsible for supervising every aspect of the production. Story breaking, script writing/rewriting, casting, editing, you name it. It’s a massive undertaking, both time-consuming and pressure-filled. A show’s success or failure is often placed squarely on the showrunner’s shoulders. Which is why they need a talented and supportive staff to back them up.
Jane Espenson : They can both be fun jobs and they can both be very stressful jobs. A baby writer has to worry about themselves a lot more — am I going to "stick" in the business ? Am I good enough to do this for a living ? Have I contributed today ? The showrunner usually has done this long enough that those questions have receded. But now they have to worry about everything else — all the details of getting a show made. These are very different jobs.
John Rogers : I was raised by guys who trained young writers and taught them to write and work and give them production responsibilities. And that’s what we did with all of these writers and those first-year baby staff writers are now leaving to go be producers on other shows on year three. Because we threw a lot at them, we didn’t just throw them on the first, we tried to teach them at the same time. And they learned really wonderfully. A lot of showrunners are just making a show, man. And there’s two reasons you shouldn’t do that. One, no show should be dependent on one guy. Personally thinking, I kind of refute the auteur theory in pretty much all produced television. And, two, if you don’t train your young writers to be producers, who’ll give you a consulting job when you’re in your 50s ? I mean, the whole point of my career is to launch young writers so eventually I can work three days a week on their show.
Are there any times as a showrunner/executive producer, you wish you were a baby writer ?
Amy Berg : Sure. You sleep more. You’re in better health. You have the time and energy to enjoy an active social life. There are some trade-offs. But writers like me didn’t get into this business to work for other people their entire careers. We want to be creators. And with that goal comes great responsibilities.
Jane Espenson : Oh yes, all the time. Well, maybe not a baby writer, but a mid-level writer — the level at which you get to have a lot of input on the show and write a lot of scripts, but at which there is still someone above you with whom to confirm your instincts and decisions.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach : The thing I learned about being a showrunner that has become crucial in my development, both as a showrunner and as a person : Credit is a self-renewable resource. So the more of it you give away to people who rightfully deserve it, the more of it you get back anyway. And that there’s more work than any one person can do, so delegating work shouldn’t be an object of fear. Frankly, after being in a lot of rooms, I don’t necessarily yearn for my days as a baby writer because I feel like as a showrunner if I’m willing to delegate and willing to trust and willing to teach and communicate, the writers will step up and do great work. Being the boss is nice and being a nice boss is better.
John Rogers : Oh, man. Yeah ! Sometimes, you really don’t want to be the guy with the toolbox. Sometimes, it’d be great if it was somebody else’s problem. But you know what ? Television, we make stuff. We make it. We write stuff and then people shoot it and it’s on the air. It’s the fastest turnaround for narrative or storytelling you can have. It’s worth paying pretty much any price for that, if you’re a guy who makes stuff up for a living.
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