The VIFF Film and TV Forum peeks into the writers' room
InThe Dick Van Dyke Show, it was a jocular boys’ club (with women). In The Larry Sanders Show, it was a piranha tank. And in 30 Rock, it’s the place where Liz Lemon wages a constant battle to protect her dignity.
It’s the writers’ room, the creative pressure cooker at the heart of any TV series and a place that clearly has a special fascination for viewers whenever the industry turns the camera on itself. For those of us on the outside looking in, the writers’ room is where the intense competition among brilliant people to bang out the best jokes and plot ideas can take on a pathological edge. In short, it’s terrifying.
But is that what the writers’ room is really like? You can find out when a panel of Hollywood pros give their impressions in Collective Brain: The Writers’ Room, at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival Film and TV Forum. Writer Kellie Ann Benz moderates the discussion, with guests that so far include Rick Cleveland—an Emmy-winning overachiever with credits that include The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, and Nurse Jackie—and Aaron Zelman, who graduated from his first job on Law & Order to helping produce and write the acclaimed AMC series The Killing.
Talking to the Georgia Straight from Los Angeles, Zelman says that the popular perception of the writers’ room as a high-tension octagon for battling supernerds is relatively true in the comedy world, which “by definition is about riffing and pitching jokes and one-upping each other”, he says.
On a drama like The Killing, however, it’s a little less vicious. “A lot of the time, you can have a room full of writers sitting in quiet contemplation of, you know, what would it look like if somebody tried to commit suicide? You maybe end up developing a bond with people, and a lot of stories end up coming out about people’s childhoods. It’s a sort of group therapy a lot of the time. There is that sense of, ‘This is where the good stuff comes from,’ people baring their souls, so you’re encouraged to do that.”
But still, it’s not a job for the squeamish. The writers’ room is prey to the same politics as any workplace, perhaps more than most, given its heightened insecurities, and Zelman notes that no showrunner (producer/head writer) wants “to fix your personality shit”. Beyond that, he adds, it helps to be a social animal. “It’s definitely a taste,” Zelman says. “There are extremely talented writers, especially some novelists and playwrights I’ve worked with, they hate the writers’ room. They didn’t become writers to deal with people for eight hours a day. They became a writer for quite the opposite reason, and sometimes they just go, ‘I can’t do this.’ ”
Whether or not you’re cut out for the group dynamic, Zelman and Justified creator and showrunner Graham Yost agree that in TV land, the writer is king. Yost, who’s coming to the Film and TV Forum to speak at the Creating a TV Series panel, has moved frequently between film and television since his early days on shows like Full House, and he recalls the hard lessons he learned when he sold, and was subsequently removed from, his first screenplay, for the blockbuster Speed.
“There was one writer who came in and did a job on the script that I thought really missed the whole spirit of the film,” he tells the Straight from Los Angeles, “and I was heartbroken. I remember that sort of dark night of the soul. You know in Springsteen songs people are always going for a drive to think about things? I did it that night. I went down to the bluffs at Palisades and just sat there looking at the ocean, going, ‘Dear God, this has been ruined.’ ”
Happily, Joss Whedon came along and revised the script to everyone’s satisfaction, but it serves to illustrate what Yost calls the “clarion call of television”, where the writer is in charge.
“Because there’s more freedom there,” Yost says, “and the ability to write more, and have more interesting stuff, and smaller stuff. It seems like the only movies being made cost either over a hundred million, or under 10. There are fewer opportunities there.”
Nonetheless, getting your foot in the door at one of the quality cable outlets like FX, AMC, or HBO is no easy thing, especially as we appear to be in the midst of a Golden Age of TV. Yost has some major cachet with all the work he’s done on various award-winning projects, perhaps most notably the highly praised NBC series Boomtown in 2002, but it is still, he notes, “a financial business”.
“What everyone wants is something with the quality of Boomtown and the longevity of 24, or longer,” he says. “And there are those shows on the air. West Wing was one, and The Sopranos, obviously, and now Mad Men and Breaking Bad, that sort of stuff. They are looking for those critical hits that also connect with an audience. So it’s funny, with Justified, now we’re going into our third season, and that makes things a lot easier for me in terms of pitching things, I’d say, because it’s had a great critical response, and it’s attracting something of an audience.”
And is “something of an audience” enough? Yost chuckles. “It’s still not a big network audience,” he offers, “but at least it’s staying on the air.”
The VIFF Film and TV Forum runs from Tuesday to Friday (September 27 to 30) at the Vancouver International Film Centre. More information is on the VIFF website.