In this week’s interview, writer and FSU alumni Dave Metzger shares his experience as the writers’ assistant on NBC’s The Blacklist. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave right after his first freelance episode of the show aired on February 18th 2016. Get ready to hear about everything from his experience writing ‘Drexel’ in the basement of The Blacklist’s office to the kind of genuine insight you can only get from rising the ranks of Hollywood.
Tune in for highlights on…
What it takes to write an episode of network television
Writers’ assistant responsibilities and expectations
A view into the inner workings of a writers’ room
Follow him on Twitter for more.
How long have you been working on The Blacklist?
I’ve been the writers’ assistant since the beginning of season 1. Before that I was the assistant to an established producer named John Davis. John’s a producer on The Blacklist, and I was his assistant in the time he was first developing the show, from idea and script through to the pilot being made and the show being picked up to series. John Davis is very well known in the movie business. He’s made just under 100 features, starting with the first Predator film back in 1987. In all those years, he had never made a TV show. But in 2012 and 2013, he and a producer at his company, a really smart and talented producer working for him, a guy named John Fox, decided to start developing TV shows. One of those ended up being The Blacklist.
So, while they were developing it, I was John Davis’s assistant, and so I was reading drafts of the script as they came in. It was really exciting to see the show slowly taking shape. And I even had the opportunity, very informally, of participating in discussions about things like casting, even before James Spader was cast, before we had any idea he would become the face of the show.
Eventually my job as John’s assistant led to me getting a job as the writers’ assistant on The Blacklist. I had worked really hard for John for around two years. When it looked like The Blacklist was going to get picked up to series by NBC, I went to him and said, ‘if it does happen, if we’re fortunate enough for that to happen, I would like the chance to apply for the job of being the writers’ assistant on that show.’ And John agreed to support me.
So I was able to interview, and I guess I did well enough in my interview, along with his words of recommendation, that I was hired as the writers’ assistant for season one. So I’ve been working on the show since the beginning.
That’s a bold move. I feel like a lot of people are very afraid. They would be afraid to say that to their boss – say exactly what they want to do.
It was not something I took lightly. I knew John really well at that point. He and I had a really positive working relationship I knew that he not only liked me, but trusted me. And he knew my work ethic. Also, by then, I had been working for him for two years. I think he knew I didn’t intend to be his assistant for the rest of my life. And he didn’t want that for me – I’ve heard stories of some bosses who do want that, want their assistants to stick around as long as possible. But John is not that way; he genuinely wants to see his assistants go on and be successful, so he was a huge support to me transition up to this job.
Of course, I knew I couldn’t ask him for unlimited favors, but I went to him and said, ‘this is the thing that I want’. Just to interview for that job. And I interviewed and got it. Which is very fortunate, you know, because a lot of people start out as writers’ PAs and work their way up to becoming EP assistants and eventually to becoming writers’ assistants. That’s not the path that I was on, not that I got to skip that step, exactly, because I kind of had to put in an equivalent amount of time as John’s assistant. But had he not branched out into TV, I would not have had that particular opportunity, I would have had to have found a different way into TV writing. Also, maybe I should say, I was already 30 at that point. I was, maybe, more responsible; and I had been writing on my own for a long time. That, I think, was helpful.
You moved out here after graduate school, right? Did you know you wanted to be a television writer?
I went to grad school at Florida State University. I started writing kind of seriously in my undergrad years, and I knew I had some talent for it. But being talented, having a knack for it, is not the same as being good. I was very inexperienced, and it takes years of work to refine ‘having a knack for it’ into being able to write at a professional level. That was still a long way off for me. Anyway, in film school, I thought maybe I wanted to direct features. Maybe that’s like everybody, or many people. And there was still, in 2005, this ’90s mindset’, from a time when many more features were being made, that a young writer could just get hot, pitch something, and sell it. Kind of become an overnight success in the feature world. Which I guess still does happen; but it happens much, much less frequently than it used to. So I had that late 90s, early 2000s idea, that un-produced writers were selling pitches written on the back of cocktail napkins, and that concept of the business was totally wrong and out-of-date.
It’s funny because film school – the program at Florida State University is not overtly about television at all. Even though the degree says ‘Film, Television and Recording Arts,’ the MFA program had, at the time, really no emphasis on television as a medium at all. But the way the school is structured, somewhat coincidentally or accidentally, it’s actually more like working on a TV show than a series of features in a lot of ways, especially from a writing perspective. Because, you’re working with a group of people in a collaborative environment, on different stories, over months and years; but you’re doing these little pieces, one at a time, all strung together one after another. And you’re workshopping stories together, revising them and bouncing them back-and-forth, as a group. And you’re doing a lot of different shows – short films, in that case – simultaneously. It was an incredibly collaborative experience.
I realized, leaving school, I was going to leave behind this synergistic environment where everyone was trying to make each other’s ideas better, and move into the world of features, which, as a writer, is a lot more solo writing, sitting by yourself for three months thinking about your idea alone. And the collaborative environment – that’s an environment where I really thrive. I’m a pretty gregarious, social person. And I realized TV is a place that is much more suited for that type of working – where you can work, as a writer, collaboratively with a group of people.
And simultaneously, I was observing that the feature industry was collapsing. Or at least, if not collapsing, it was, and is, rapidly contracting. Having worked in features for two, two and a half years, first at internships, and then for Davis, it was really clear that there were fewer films being made in 2016 than there were in 2006 and even fewer than were being made in 1996. And the movies that are being made are one of two types: low budget films and very high budget films. The 40-million-dollar or 60-million-dollar movie, which used to be the place for a younger writer to maybe cut their teeth, is now much less common.
Meanwhile, television is sort of going through this explosive renaissance. There used to be 3 broadcast networks, then there were 4 networks; and now, suddenly, there are 100 networks. And they all need content, which allows for a huge variety of different stories. And simultaneously, there’s this creative explosion, where shows can be darker, more complex, more serialized, more varied, and more interesting to write. Television is going through a golden age, which you hear all the time. So for all those reasons, it seemed like a good idea to go into TV.
How did you end up at Davis?
My first year in film school – at Florida State, they throw you in the deep end, and give you these jobs that are, sometimes, incredible amounts of work – I was the Unit Production Manager on a big ‘thesis’ film. This was a short film, one with a pretty big budget, with intensive preproduction and production spanning around six weeks. And on that show, I worked for a guy who was the lead producer on that film, a guy named Eric Leong. We really killed ourselves working that student film. Literally, 120 hour weeks for six weeks. Very little sleep. He was in the class above me, and graduated a year before I did. Then a year later I graduated and then I moved to Alaska for two years. And then I moved out to L.A., and I was working at an Apple Store out here, and I was interning at a bunch of places.
Eric Leong, meanwhile, became one of John Davis’ assistants, he and another mutual friend from school, Paul. And Paul left to direct a feature. So Eric, having known me from film school and having worked closely together in that really intense time in our lives, said, “I think I can get you an interview for this job working for John Davis, on my recommendation”. I interviewed, ended up getting that job, and that was my first paid job working in the movie business.
Wait, wait… You moved to Alaska for 2 years?
Yeah, so I grew up in Oregon, went to undergrad at The University of Oregon. When I graduated, I had this really clear direction. I wanted to get into the film business. I decided to go to film school in Florida, of all places, and my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife, was just like, “All right, I’ll follow you to Florida.”
She basically worked a job outside of her career for two years, supporting me while I was in school. So when I graduated, everyone was moving to LA or New York, a few people stayed in Florida. Meanwhile, my wife was ready for graduate school herself. And the program she wanted to do happened to be up in Alaska, at this tiny school in the mountains. She had supported me for two years, so then I was like fuck it, we’re moving to Alaska.
Were you writing all that time? When did you seriously start writing?
I was writing all of that time. And, yeah, I was seriously writing, on-and-off before that. I really started to think that I might go into movies and TV at the end of my sophomore year of undergrad. One semester, I had a great writing class, and another great class called media aesthetics, which was an introduction to film studies. Taking those two classes simultaneously, I realized: I could be writing screenplays. It’s an epiphany that a lot of writers have, at different ages – maybe sometime in high school or college – where you’re like, “The movies that I love? A regular person just sat down at a computer or a typewriter and came up with all of that.” Like, it seems self-evident, but that moment when you realize, “these things that I care so much about were created by a person just like me. And if I work hard, maybe I can do that, too.” Also, this is kind of a tangent but it was impactful for me, that right around that time, when I was first starting to think about how scripts are constructed by regular people, maybe flawed people, the movie Adaptation came out, which was that brilliant, postmodern Charlie Kauffman movie which is about screenwriting and authorship and all of that. I happened to go see that film basically right as I was having that big epiphany. And you know I was reading McKee, and Brian Cox appears as McKee in that movie, yelling at the writer for doing voiceover and all of that. That was around the same, I’m going to say that was around the same month or so that I started writing seriously, writing every day. It might have been the same week. So that’s silly, but that was kind of big for me.
Anyhow, I got the essential advice: if you’re really going to make a run at this you really have to write everyday. And I’ve taken that seriously, I think it’s really important. I mean, in film school, we wrote a lot, but also I was learning to be a boom operator and a gaffer – we were working 13 hours a day, everyday – so I was immersed in film production and not writing, but as soon as I got out of film school, back to writing every day.
And I was working day jobs in Alaska, some of them long hours, but you’d have a coffee break for 15 minutes, and I would write on my coffee breaks, in my car, snow falling on the windshield with my little cup of coffee, just to write every day. Because that was my goal. I was like “I’m not going to waste this time up here in the mountains.” I have written nearly every day since then, which was about nine years ago. So that’s, you know, three thousand or so days.
I used to tell people, if you’re talented and you decide to start writing, it takes about 10 years to get good. Although now, I’ve been writing for 11 or 12 years and I’m like, “I’m still not that good.” So maybe it’s going to take 13.
How long did it take you to write the episode you did? How does that process work exactly?
There’s not a one sentence answer because there are a lot different parts to writing an episode of TV, especially on a show like The Blacklist. Each episode tells its stand-alone story, but also, and this is true in season 3 especially, there are a lot of serialized elements to every episode. You have to be aware of the larger, overarching story we’re telling as a group.
You can see some of the documents that sort of chart the long process that was writing the episode here. At the end of season 1, I had a tiny nugget of an idea, really just an image, of a guy watching a lot of screens in a sort of Howard Hughes way. Maybe this would be a guy who had access to a bunch of satellites and was watching things happening on a big wall of monitors, this weird shut-in. And that image, of a wall of screens, became a turning point in the story, the act out of 5 of the episode. But, through the process, we added on many more layers to the story, until it became something much bigger, richer, and I think much more interesting.
So that initial idea I had come up with, the wall of screens – we called it “The Unblinking Eye” – I pitched it, and my bosses, the showrunners were, like ‘it’s good but it doesn’t really fit.’ At least, it didn’t fit for the story or arc of Season 2. And then time passed, a year or more. At the beginning of season three, we were talking about a new batch of episodes. And “The Unblinking Eye” kept coming up, because it was a fundamentally interesting, but also flawed concept for a Blacklist episode. It was a great picture, but a guy looking at screens on its own is tricky as an episode of TV. You’ve got a bad guy who’s inherently passive, because the guy is not really doing anything out in the world. His whole thing is just taking information in, not out acting in the world.
Meanwhile we also wanted to do, for really long time, an episode that takes place in the world of art. In the world of the show, we’ve sometimes seen the lead, Reddington, buying and selling interesting paintings and sculptures; Or you’ll see him with a gorgeous, maybe priceless painting, just in the background of an apartment or warehouse or whatever. More broadly, Reddington is, in addition to being a ruthless, violent criminal, he’s a sophisticated guy, with refined tastes. That sort of juxtiposition is one of the most charming elements of his character and of the show. We thought it would be cool to have an episode that kind of dove into those elements more, and really lived in that world. But, just like the ‘Unblinking Eye’, the ‘World of Art’ didn’t seem like a full idea you could really build an episode around.
It was Jon Bokenkamp (creator and co-showrunner of The Blacklist), my boss, who came up with the idea of combining those two seemingly-disparate concepts into a single episode. And instantly – this was late August, early September of 2015 – instantly the whole episode started to gel. It was like okay, now I can kind of see how this episode would work. The shape of what would become a rough structure for the episode. And within a few days, another senior writer, Lukas Reiter, conceived a really clear, really simple vision of how the episode might be broken out. It was just a few moments, but they formed a clear beginning, middle and end. If it sounds easy, it’s not; that was a really terrific set of guideposts that really showed, ‘ok, this idea is not just cool; this could work as a complete story’. And that simple sketch became the skeleton around which I built the episode.
For a few months, I was just working on it on the side, here and there, time permitting. Based on the concept, I knew the episode was going to fit later on in the season. In season 3 of The Blacklist, the first 8 or 9 episodes tell a specific serialized story that kind of concludes around episodes 8, 9, and 10; and then we had a series of episodes that were sort-of the aftershocks of that storyline. And the artist didn’t really fit in any of those moments. Instead, Luke suggested a really smart way of integrating the artist with what we knew would be the trajectory for the last 8 episodes of the year – the concept of the painting that appears in the final moments of the episode. So then my episode naturally fell in that section of the season, episode 15, in a place where we were sort of launching the story moving forward for the rest of this year and into the next. So for a while, I put my idea on the back-burner, and chipped away at it while I was helping other people on their episodes and did my normal job as the writers’ assistant.
Then in November and December, I kind of had some time set aside by myself, because everyone was busy on other scripts. I started to have a few hours here, and a half-day there, where I could just sort of sit by myself, and start to break the episode. I got input from other writers, of course. But the way it shook out I ended up mostly breaking the episode solo, in the basement. Kind of in my little hovel. By then, this was midway through season 3, so I had been sitting in the writers’ room for two and a half years, listening and participating as the first 50 episodes of The Blacklist were broken. And, some of those were quick breaks, but a many of them were tough and time consuming. We had a lot of false starts. A lot of coming up with one way to tell a story, then realizing: oh, there’s an even better way to do this episode, if we kind of tackle it in a different way. And, I think to our credit, you know we’re never afraid to do that, if it will make the story better. So by that time, I had helped to break, and made outlines of, many, many, many episodes of The Blacklist. Obviously, this was a unique education I was afforded, something I never could have gotten in, say, a class; or deduced myself just from watching and analyzing the show. I had so much hands-on experience, by that point, that I could just sit down in the basement and follow the guidance of the senior writers – who were like, ‘it should look roughly like this, and act one should start like this and then I feel like act three is a thing where this kind of happens, and then act five, this would be where this happens’ – I was able to take that simple sketch, and turn it into an outline of maybe 12-pages. And I could do it, not on autopilot or anything, it was a lot of thought and care and hard work in my little hovel. But it was something that I had gained the skill to do over those years of listening and taking notes and pitching in.
So I did that kind of by myself for a month or more. And, finally, I got to a point where I felt like, okay, this thing is getting close, this thing is getting ready for me to bring it to the other writers. And eventually the time came. My bosses, and all the other writers, some of whom I’d worked with for years, all came down into the basement to hear me walk them through the work I’d done. Honestly, it was kind of a scary moment. This thing I’d worked through in my head over and over a thousand times, suddenly saying it out loud to a bunch of people you really respect. And it’s not a short, rip-the-band-aid-off process; I pitched over the course of maybe 45 minutes, like a little show. At that point, you’re almost acting out the episode in real-time, you know? Because when it airs that’s about how long it would be. And, as you can see, I’m very verbose, so I took a long time to pitch all out. At the end, though, the response was really positive, really supportive. The bosses were like, ‘great job, kid. This is really cool.’ They had a couple of notes, really great smart notes. And then they tasked writers to supervise me, to write the outline and then the episode.
So that process of pitching it was in November of last year. And then I wrote an outline, the outline had some revisions, but was pretty much intact and then I started writing the episode. I wrote the first draft of the episode, with a lot of amazing help, really great support and scene work from Daniel Cerone, Dawn DeNoon, Brian Studler, really brilliant stuff. And with all of their contributions, I put together a draft that was revised and turned in on December 7th, 2015. Then it was revised several more times leading up to Christmas, and it was mostly done before the Christmas break. Between the 7th of December and the 21st of December, the episode was kind of in its final form.
We started shooting on the 7th of January, a ten day shoot, and then we started post, and finished the edit and locked picture and sound maybe 5 days before it aired, so mid-February. And it it aired on the 18th of February. So that was sort of the time frame.
You touched upon why the writers’ assistant position is so important and why it’s a coveted job. You grow and understand the process of what you’re doing. Can you talk about how that’s a valuable experience and what you do?
I’ll start with what the job is. When I first came to L.A., I didn’t really know what the different jobs were on a TV writers’ staff. It’s very common when you come into the movie and TV business to be an assistant for many years. And there are different levels or ‘ranks’ almost of assistants, almost like military ranks or corporate titles, just like there are different ranks or job titles for TV writers.
There are PAs – PA stands for production assistant [not to be confused with personal assistant]– those people work on set or in the production office, doing all kinds of grunt work. Anything that needs to be done, they do it. Filling in all the gaps. Hard work. Then we have our Writers’ PAs who have the same job, but in the writers’ room. And again it’s tough and thankless and demanding, where you’re just kind of doing everything that needs doing. Picking up food and making endless color-collated photocopies of scripts and filling out paperwork and making phone calls, all kinds of stuff.
Then there are Assistants to Executive Producers, who are folks that work directly for the Executive Producers – if it’s not clear, higher-ranking TV writers are Producers, and the highest-ranking of those are the Executive Producers, of which the one or two at the very top is the showrunner(s). So the Executive Producer Assistants are assistants, often people who were formerly Writers PAs, or assistants to other, non-writing hollywood-types. They typically sit at a desk and answer the EPs endless phone calls, set up meetings, keep the EPs schedule, co-ordinate all their travel, things like that. Then there are two more assistant-level jobs: Script Coordinator and Writers’ Assistant. The Script Coordinator is an assistant level position that’s high up, and can take years to get into. The Script Coordinator does a lot of things, but they are kind of the hub, kind of a funnel for all the documents, scripts, and parts of scripts, that come out of the writers room, on their way to the studio, the network, production (set), and post-production. They’re the keeper of the castle, in that sense. And, also, among many other things, they make sure that the scripts make sense, and track through. In the sense that scripts are blueprints of a TV show, they make sure that those blueprints are clear on a technical level. Like, random example, if on page 5 there is a guy named Dan and on page 10 there is a guy named Danny – are those two different guys to be played by two different actors? Or the same guy who sometimes gets called by a nickname? There are a million little things along those lines, and the Script Coordinator is in charge of keeping all of that straight for everybody.
And then there’s my job, the Writers’ Assistant. Writers’ Assistants are writers, or aspiring writers, with quite a bit of experience in the entertainment business already. You’ve already been an assistant, getting coffee, picking up people’s laundry for a long time, and worked your way up to this position, where your work is much more focused. And my job – it’s different probably for everybody – and, I should specify: I can really only speak to my experience, working on hour-long dramas. I think if you’re the Writers’ Assistant on a half-hour comedy, the situation is going to similar but not identical – But in my experience, the core of the job is basically to sit in the writers’ room and take notes while the whole team of writers are talking about the story of each episode, and the story of the season.
Which sounds like, “okay, anyone could do that job.” And, maybe there’s some truth to that. Anyone who’s ever taken notes in a lecture or anything knows the basics. The challenge is, really, knowing what to write down, and what to leave out, if that makes sense. For example, if you were, say, a perfect stenographer, if you could type 150 words a minute, you could just write down what everyone says, constantly throughout the day. This might sound ideal, because by day’s end you’d have a perfect transcript of everything that was discussed. But, actually, that would be far from ideal; it would be information overload. We basically talk, every day, for 8-12 hours pretty much without interruption, so a transcript of 8 hours would be maybe 100 pages, if it were verbatim. After a month, that would be 1000 pages or more, and that’s not useful. What’s useful is a clear, simple document that articulates the important things that were discussed or ‘landed on’ throughout a day’s work. The core ideas, along with helpful pitches of how to execute those ideas. I tell people who are just getting started taking notes in a writers room: you’re a writer, take the notes you would want if you were going to write an episode of TV based on those notes. If you think about it that way, from the writer’s perspective, you’re sitting down to write something that millions of people are going to watch, you’re on a deadline, and a whole team of people is waiting for your pages. From that view, you can see how having a thousand pages of dictation, a month’s worth of conversation, would be much less useful than a 17 page outline that contains the core of everything that was discussed in the order you’re going to write it, along with some pitches of dialogue and interesting ideas for how to execute those scenes.
So that’s kind of the job. An hours worth of conversation sometimes will become five pages of notes, and sometimes that entire hour is distilled down to a single sentence. A whole argument can become: IMPORTANT: JOE REALIZES FRED IS LYING IN SCENE 4 – BUT AUDIENCE REALIZES FRED IS LYING IN SCENE 6.” or REDDINGTON: YOUTH IS WASTED ON THE YOUNG? WISDOM WASTED ON THE OLD. And sometimes writers are in the zone and pitch dialogue really fast, in incredible detail – some writers are gifted with the ability to just spit out words that really sing, just off the top of their heads – and that needs to be captured exactly, verbatim – other times people pitch the idea for dialogue but it doesn’t need to be captured verbatim, you just need to give them the concept of what was discussed and they’ll make it sing on the page when they have time and quiet. And then, remember, this whole thing is non-linear. So you might be talking about scene 33, and as you discuss it, you realize something important about scenes 10, 11, and 52. And so you have to capture that and kind of file it, really quickly, so that in the outline when you get to scene 10, all the relevant stuff is there, in a clear and simple order, regardless of which conversation spurred it two weeks ago. So you have to teach yourself to work and take notes in a non-linear way, making a rough sort of outline as you go, adjusting it, and constantly making it better – even as people around you are debating and revising and talking a mile a minute.
In some writers’ rooms it’s frowned upon to say anything, especially, I’ve heard, in a lot of comedy writers’ rooms. I’ve been really fortunate for a lot of reasons in this job, but one of the biggest, without question, is that even early on, I was encouraged to speak up and contribute ideas. And there was an environment that was fostered in season 1, of kind of like the best idea wins, it doesn’t matter who pitches it.
Even with that having been told to me. I operated for several months with a rule, which I’ll impart to anyone who’s going to have a chance to be in a writers room – be it as a writers’ assistant, or a writers’ PA job, or even as a staff writer on your first gig – my self-imposed rule was basically, at first, the first maybe two weeks of the room, I said nothing. I was like ‘thanks for offering me the ability to contribute, but I’m going to abstain for now’. And then I didn’t say anything. Even though, of course, I had ideas. But my self-imposed silence was frequently validated in those early days. I would be sitting there for hours and hours talking story. And at this point, I’d been writing on my own for around a decade. So of course, we’d get stuck on a problem, and I’d often have ideas. Sometimes things I thought were really clever. I’d be tempted to break my rule, just this once, make an exception and pitch something. And then I’d hold off, and inevitably someone would say something so much better, and I would be like okay, I’m really glad I didn’t speak up. Maybe that thing I thought wasn’t so clever after all! And to have said it, would have been self-indulgent, because in those early days, I really didn’t understand the show, or the showrunner’s taste; or moreover the intangibles of how to work in a room full of other writers. It’s something you kind of have to learn by being immersed in it, and I’m really glad I took the time to do that, to get a feel for the room and how to maybe start to be, not just self-indulgent, not just saying something because I liked it or it seemed clever, but sharing something that would really help address the specific problem currently at hand in the discussion.
And, time went on, and I did get a little more comfortable. I started to see which writers were helping move the story along the most, and I started to think, okay, I can do that too. And then my rule became, ‘all right, every day you can say one thing. And that’s it. Once you’ve said your one thing, you’ve used it for the day. So anytime I had something to say, I’d be like, ‘all right. Is this my one thing? Because it’s 12:15, we haven’t even stopped for lunch yet. And that means if I say this now, all afternoon if I have a good idea, I won’t be able to say it, ’cause I’ll have used my one thing for the day. And that was my rule for maybe two more months.
And I think it’s a really good one. Because I think it’s much more important as an assistant, when you’re a young writer and you’re good and talented and you’ve been whatever – living in Alaska for two years – or you’ve been waiting tables or driving an Uber – and meanwhile you’ve been working in a vacuum. You’ve got stories to tell and you’re busting your ass, working when your friends are out having fun, working on your coffee breaks, working on Saturdays, because you love it and you’re good at it. And then you might have a writers group of friends that are roughly at your skill level. Maybe you’re one of the best writers among your incredibly talented friends. Another way to put that is you’re one of the best writers you know. And then if you walk into a writers’ room (especially when I walked into The Blacklist writers’ room, which was a lot of brilliant and experienced writers, a lot of them at the producer level, people who had worked on Alias, House, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, people who had worked on shows that I had greatly admired), when you walk in you go from being the smartest writer in the room to the 18th smartest writer in the room. And it really behooves you to, with intention, shut up. And listen. Because these are people who, 20 years ago, were where you are now, and in the intervening years, they have made a lot of mistakes, and had a lot of hard-won successes; and you’re going to want to put aside your desire to impress them with how clever you are, and become an open receptor for their years of experience.
And, also, a thing to realize is, when you’re starting out, I think your ratio of hits to misses is much more important than taking a lot of shots. Because taking shots and missing wastes everyones time. Better to keep your mouth shut, and then occasionally, when you do open it, you say something really smart, and simple, and helpful, that demonstrates you’re really thinking and keeping up with the conversation. Wait for those moments, rather than filling the air with half-baked ideas.
Also there are structural writing skills that you’re going to pick up, just by being around the process of breaking a large volume of episodes. If you’ve been on your own, and you’ve managed to write, say, 3 scripts a year, that’s a pretty solid output. But if you’re on a network drama, you’re going to be party to maybe 24 breaks in that same time. That’s 8 years worth of breaks at your previous pace. And the charge on those breaks is going to be led by a experienced hands. So you’re going to refine some skills very quickly, that would’ve taken years otherwise. Like, speaking from a very network perspective, just as an example – our show is 6 acts – that means there are 5 commercial breaks, and you want the story to turn or to move or intensify at the end of every act. And you know, the cop out is, I always say, Spiderman is falling and then you go to commercial, and then you come back and then Spiderman shoots a web and catches himself. And you’re like oh, right, he was never really in danger. Spiderman can’t fall when he’s next to a building because he can shoot a web. So you don’t want THAT. You want to have the story turn because you reveal new information that makes us reconsider everything we’ve seen in a new way, and ideally, you want to do that four or five times an episode. So to learn how to do that is not something that anyone is born with. That’s a hard skill that you develop only after seeing it happening over and over again, and then starting to participate in that happening. And that takes a long time.
This is kind of a tangent but it reminds me – it’s crazy because I have people that reach out to me now as a writers’ assistant because I’m on twitter and reddit and stuff, and they’re like, “I’m writing a spec episode of The Blacklist.” And I just feel like, boy, first, I’m glad that you want to spec The Blacklist because it means you like the show, that’s super cool and flattering. That’s awesome. But at the same time, it’s like, I’ve been working 40 hours a week for the last almost three years, every day, and I feel like I barely know how to write The Blacklist now. It’s challenging. It’s an unusual show, and it’s tricky to break. So only being immersed in that a couple years, was I even able to do the first sort of rough version that my bosses were like, “Nice try. Let me give you some pointers.” You know what I mean? Which was incredible. That was an incredible learning experience and I’ve learned so much in the last two and a half years. But it’s taken all that time, letting it seep in to my bones, for me to feel like I could do it.
I feel like I’m giving the wrong impression. I’m not trying to say, ‘if you’re not currently a writers assistant, don’t even try to write a TV show on spec.’ I guess I’m saying, ‘hey, this stuff is really, really hard to learn how to do. That’s kind of why it’s great, in part. But it is really hard. And if you agree with that, and take that seriously, than be patient with yourself. It’s okay if it takes you a long time to get good at it. Just keep working, do a large volume of work, and allow yourself to take however long it takes to become proficient at this really challenging thing.
What are the next steps you’re taking in your career?
If you want a job as a TV writer you have two options, you either get staffed on somebody else’s show or you create your own show. There used to be really only one option, which was you get staffed on somebody else’s show and you work your way up because there were 3 networks and there were 15 shows being made at a time. But now, we’re in an era where there are a hundred networks and there are a million platforms. And all those places are hungry for content, for shows. So my two options right now, broadly speaking, are get staffed on some else’s show or sell a TV show that I have written. So my future is one of those two things or don’t get a job.
So TV writers typically, traditionally, find out what their next year of their life is going to look like around the start of May. We call that Staffing Season, the weeks before and after the Upfront Presentations. Upfront Presentations are where the broadcast networks all rent out a big fancy venues in New York City, like Radio City Music Hall, and they invite all the advertisers to come, and then somebody famous, like, say Jimmy Fallon, gives a presentation, “these are the shows that are going to be on our networks in 3-4 months, in the fall, that you can put your advertisements on.” This year, they are in the third week of May for all the broadcast networks, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and The CW. And that is the first moment everyone has heard, officially, “these are all the shows that are going to be on broadcast TV.” So at that moment, if you’re a TV writer, that’s kind of the starting gun. You now know, these are all the shows; the shows need writers; so these are all the jobs that exist for me as a writer. These are the places I could potentially work next year.
And before that maybe you didn’t, or maybe you heard rumors of some shows that got picked up early, so there are a few weeks of lead up. But that’s the moment everyone scrambles. So the two weeks before that and the two weeks after that is the sort of chaos of everyone getting a job.
And it will be the same for me. So I will be going out for staffing this year. People will read what I wrote and have seen the episode of The Blacklist that I wrote. People will be offered samples of my writing, which are spec pilots that are not based on an existing show. It seems like nobody in the hour-long space is really interested in reading a spec episode of an existing show anymore, in my experience. I think it’s still prevalent in comedy, in hour-long staffing, people mainly want to read original spec pilots. I think it’s a little bit strange that people don’t want to read how you would write someone else’s voice because, in my limited experience, it is incredibly… it’s more important that you’re able to write in someone else’s voice, than your own voice. That’s the job you’re applying for; you’re not trying to create your own show, but, that’s not what people want. What’s sexy and exciting is an original pilot that you wrote on spec. Or, in that vein, a short story or a play, or maybe even the right feature. Something that shows off your voice. And then, as a backup, or if you’re applying to a diversity program, a spec episode of an existing series as a secondary thing.
I’ve had spec episodes of existing shows in my back pocket. Which I will no longer need, now that I’ve written an episode of The Blacklist, because that script can be sent out to fill the same purpose – demonstrating that I can write an episode of TV in someone else’s voice.
Basically I will be going up for staffing. Is it clear what staffing is? You’re applying for a job in a writer’s room. And I’m specifically applying for a job as the lowest level writer, a staff writer, on a show. The episode I wrote before, maybe I should clarify, was what’s called a ‘freelance episode’ of the show. So there is a thing called the freelance episode, which the WGA mandates. So if you have a 13-episode order, you do one freelance episode. If you have a 22-episode order, you would do two freelance episodes – don’t quote me on the numbers exactly, but I think that’s what it is. That means someone who is not direct writing employee of the show writes an episode of the show to broaden group of people writing, and help the next generation come up etc.So as an assistant, and not a full-fledged writer, I was offered one of the freelance episodes on my show.
The staff writer is someone who is at the lowest level of being like a contract week to week writer on the show. A staff writer receives a salary of X number of dollars a week. There’s a minimum, it’s like $3500 a week or something like that, and that is in exchange for being in the room and pitching ideas and stuff. And then if you were to write an episode you would get paid an episode fee in addition to that.
Then, as you continue your career, there are levels, through which writers are gradually promoted, sometimes at the rate of one level per year, sometimes a bit more gradually than that – staff writer, story editor, executive story editor – those are kind of the ‘writing level’ jobs. Then, beyond those, there are the ‘producer level’ jobs. In TV the people that produce the shows at the highest levels are the people that write the show – the co-producer, producer, supervising producer, consulting producer (which is a special case) and finally co-executive producer and executive producer
How have other people helped you? How are you using your network?
The Blacklist is a really great place to work because it attracts a lot of really smart upper level writers, often but not exclusively people who have overall deals. In our case, people who have overall deals at Sony because Sony produces Blacklist. When you have an overall deal, it means that you sign a contract with an entity, in this case Sony, and you say I’m going to work with you exclusively for a term of usually two years. And in that time I will work on whatever show you want me to work on and – typically this is how it works – and I will help you produce X amount of shows, either because I’ll write them myself or I’ll help younger writers write them and I’ll coach them or whatever.
So I have friends who are writers in that position and those people are an incredible resource. Folks on overall deals or just upper-level writers who are out on their own, either way, because they are experienced and have been through what I’m going through before, and have seen others go through it. So they are great advocates for me in terms of staffing – and even in terms of development, meaning writing your own show that gets sold and picked up to series. When you’re surrounded by people who do it, and they’re there encouraging you, saying, ‘hey, you could do this too,’ it demystifies it and makes it seem more attainable. So yeah, in part it’s networking, in the traditional sense. But even more, it’s giving you that sense of, “oh yeah, the people that are doing this are smart hardworking people. But they’re just people. You can do it too.” That’s what’s been the biggest help for me, so far.
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