Tv writer for Weeds and Entourage etc., producer
Los Angeles, CA
A screenwriter is someone who writes scripts for the big screen or small screen. You start with a blank page and end up with a full script. Sometimes you do multiple steps—informal “beat sheets” that list the main events, or formal outlines. Some places like you to have written outlines, so you expand a beat sheet and turn it into a narrative outline, which basically ranges from just the plot and themes to including character descriptions, concept overviews, etc.
Depending on the project, you collaborate with people or do it solo. There are people who work in teams and are hired as teams. I don’t have a writing partner, but I’ve done single projects with different people. I like to collaborate, but I’m not part of a team.
If you’re on a team, you split your salary when you’re hired, so you may have more opportunities for jobs because people like to get two for the price of one. Writing is lonely and isolating, so it is less lonely to be on a team, but you also have to get along with your partner and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Like any partnership, they can be very meaningful or rife with conflict; I’ve seen a lot of partnerships dissolve over the years that have been successful for long stretches of time. Sometimes you just outgrow each other, hit your walls or get into disputes and end the partnership. I go back and forth. I’ve had great experiences in partnerships; they’re fun and less lonely, but I’ve never found someone who’s a perfect complement to me to work with on a daily basis.
One partnership I had was writing a movie with the cousin of a guy I went to high school with. It was a fun experience because he’s a funny human being and we had fun coming up with stuff together. A lot of writers have writing assistants, because they’re very helpful in the writing process. It’s just tricky to collaborate; you have to be a really good communicator and be diplomatic. I’m not the best communicator. I can be introverted and blunt.
Being a writer evolves into being a producer. You start as a staff writer, then move up the chain to story editor, executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer, and then the executive producer is the highest level. Most people follow the chain in their careers, but you can sometimes skip and jump. If you’re an executive story editor but you write a pilot that gets picked up, you can go from executive story editor to executive producer because you wrote the pilot. Otherwise, you usually get a bump a year or every two years when you’re a staff writer. Then, the showrunner is a term for the boss of the show; the CEO of the show. They are almost always the head writer of the show, and usually create the show as well. They have the creative control.
When I was on Weeds, I went from co-producer to executive producer, but my job didn’t change. I was essentially #3 on the show from start to finish. It was more of a pay bump due to the success of the show, not a responsibility change. Had the #2 departed, I may have been asked to be #2 and do what he did, but I did what I did for the whole run of the show. As a producer in television, you don’t finance the show, but produce aspects beyond writing. You do casting, editing, and help out on set.
The internet has really made the industry more competitive because it has given people more access. It’s not a secret anymore. Hollywood used to be a bit of a secret; it felt like a club. People didn’t know what went on here, but now you know what goes on here. And if you want to learn about script writing, there are a bazillion tools online to help you figure it out. Before, you had to come to LA, and just do what you could to network. Now, you can be creative with social media to get exposure, or forge contacts. The game has changed and there’s more access and competition now. It’s brutally competitive.
When I got into the business in the late 90s, if you had really good ideas, people valued them. People were looking for original ideas and concepts that could be developed into feature films. Now people don’t value high concept ideas as much. Other forms of intellectual property—like articles, social media content, or novels—have become so abundant that studios are less interested in your ideas and more interested in whether you can execute. Don’t get me wrong-- studios do buy ideas, but agents started selling intellectual property that doesn’t necessarily need to come from the vision of a writer. If you’re a good hack, that’s your commodity; that’s your tool. If you can execute an idea not generated by you—if you can turn an Instagram account or article into a tv show, the heavy lifting of development, then you’ll get hired. I can execute other people’s concepts well enough but I gravitate more to my own creativity as opposed to adapting something else from someone. Another thing that evolved out of agencies’ grab to sell content and intellectual property is that formats became popular. Agents or producers find a format—say a show in Israel—then get the rights, and then sell that show to the U.S. to make an American version.
It’s all a little nonsensical because often times the format is just some derivative version of a pre existing US show.
So we’re in the era of “peak TV;” business has never been more profitable for producers and studios because there are more shows than ever, but writers have gotten massively screwed and now we’re in a war with the agencies because there’s no middle class writer anymore. It’s a very complicated and ugly issue.
We all fired our agents several months ago, and there’s been no progress in talks between the Writers Guild Association (WGA) and the Association of Talent Agencies who we’re fighting. The big 4 agencies are what we’re fighting. They became monopolies; they sell and control most of the shows on TV. They became superpowers because they can block access to talent. And they don’t want to kill the golden goose.
I’ve been in the WGA since 2001 or 2002 when I got my first U.S. job. Most shows--there are some exceptions like animations-- are guild signatories, so if you get a job on a show, you have to be in the guild.
I’ve worked on shows like Entourage and Weeds, and I just finished as a consulting producer for a show called Kidding, which is a very dark show starring Jim Carey. Season one was pretty dark and season two will be lighter.
Well the first thing I wanted to be was a hockey player, but that dream died around age 12 when I was injured and fractured my spine. Then I switched to golf. I really wanted to be a pro-golfer, and I moved to LA for that reason. I lived in Canada and got to be 5 handicap, so I thought if I played all year round rather than just in the summer months, I had a shot. It wasn’t that serious, it was more of a pipe dream, but I was pretty obsessed and disciplined in getting good. And I had no other ambition that I was interested in. I was more lost than anything; it was an escape.
Growing up in Montreal in the 80s, I watched a lot of TV, but didn’t know screenwriting was a thing. I didn’t know there were people writing the shows. My sister was into urban planning and had done it in school, and at the time I thought real estate development may be something I was interested in, so I thought urban planning would be a good background and went to school for that.
In retrospect, there are a lot of parallels between urban planning and screenwriting. With urban planning, you start with a blank page and map out a city, which is not that dissimilar to starting a screenplay. You draw your world and become the God of it using words, characters, and stories, which you do as a visionary urban planner. Also as an urban planner, the city has a planning department; the city already exists, and you improve it and revise it. Which is the same as a punch up person, or somebody that is hired after a script is written to make it funnier, or to do a polish or rewrite. That comes up fairly frequently for writers. It’s rare to be able to just design a whole city from scratch in today’s developed world.
After college, I moved to San Diego because my parents were snowbirds and had a condo there that was vacant. A friend of mine—my sisters’ best friend—visited me and she had studied film in college. We were both directionless, so we toyed with the idea of renting a camera and making a movie. I did buy some equipment, and my parents were on my back about me figuring out my life. To get them off my back I enrolled in a screenwriting course.
That course turned into a passion. I was OCD with sports—I’d get obsessed and practice until I was really good—and I took that into writing. I locked myself in a room and figured out how to do it, which took years. The class was the spark, and the instructor was a big part of my motivation. The course was basically writing a movie in 9 weeks. First, we brought in an outline, and I got good feedback on that. Then I had to write 15 pages of a script. I’d write 15 pages, bring it to class, people would take roles, and we’d do a reading. I got a lot of laughs and it fueled my confidence and motivation to keep going. My instructor was very encouraging too. Screenwriting was a lucrative industry at the time; people were buying concepts for a lot of money. If you had an idea—a high concept screenplay—you could do a 5-minute pitch and they could buy it from you for $1M. My instructor’s friend wrote a script for a million dollars in a bidding war, which appealed to my gambling nature.
My instructor kept encouraging me to finish the script, and gave me referrals for agents. The script was rejected everywhere but this experience was enough of a carrot dangler that I wanted to keep doing it. She invited me to join a more advanced workshop off-campus once a week. I did a lot of workshopping for a couple of years. I familiarized myself with the industry--read books on screenwriting, went to workshops to get instant feedback from 15 writers, and submitted my screenplays to film festivals for screenplay competitions. I was liking writing movies but I never sold the two I wrote.
Then sitcoms started booming. Seinfeld reawakened me to television, so I wrote a Seinfeld spec (something you write speculatively, meaning you’re not paid to write but hope to sell it after the fact), and the script got really good feedback.
In retrospect, there were weird lucky breaks here and there, including mt first credit on a show, “The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo” at Nickelodeon. In LA one of the writers in a workshop was from Canada and tipped me off about a kids show shooting in Canada for tax breaks. They needed a certain amount of Canadian talent, including writers, on their roster to fill a quota, which limited my competition. I sent a sample to the executive producer, got the job, and had my first produced episode of television. That was when I could call myself a writer. A year later I got on staff of a show also in Canada called “Big Wolf on Campus,” which was 22 episodes a year for 2 years. I went from broke to making a living. I’m still close with the writers on that show, and everyone—it was a small staff of 5 all in our late 20s—has made it, so that’s cool.
The weird second lucky break was when I met Jenji Kohan, who had written on a couple of shows at the time. My mom had a friend in Vancouver who sat next to Jenji on a flight to Israel. My mom happened to talk to that friend and got Jenji’s name and number for me to call her. I called and she gave me 20 minutes of her time. It was a weird call, and I never followed up because I felt like I was burdening her or bothering her. Then, 5-7 years later, she wrote a pilot called “The Stones” and I got a meeting on the show. It was serendipitous that I had talked to her earlier. She ended up hiring me and we became super close. We wrote pilots together subsequently; she has been the biggest influence in my career, and I just happened to have had a conversation with her around 5 years before I ever met her.
Writers rooms have pretty typical days, at least for Kidding and Weeds. The creator of Kidding was a writer on Weeds, so he was groomed there. The hours are really good on Kidding. We work from 10am to 4pm. During pre-production, we’ll get in, shoot the shit for 10 minutes, and start working--brainstorming, storyboarding, solving story problems, and outlining episodes. There are people in the writers room taking copious notes to record everything being said. First you try to outline the season and once you’ve figured out the macro story for the season, you go episode by episode. We do that for 2 ½ hours in the morning, take lunch and maybe walk around the studio or something like that, then do it for another hour and a half or two hours, then go home.
During production on a lot of shows, you still write while you shoot. So you’re editing, writing, and filming episodes simultaneously. There are a lot of duties once production starts. Sometimes the person credited with writing the episode will be on set. I’ve never been a big set person. When I was an executive producer on Weeds, I had triple duty: breaking/writing episodes, shooting, and editing. The days were cluttered with different responsibilities--helping with casting, then editing because there’s a cut of editing going on, but you still have to crack the finale. Technology has made it so that if you’re on the same lot, you get your feeds into your office and can watch from there. You have a person on set with whom you can walkie talkie, call, or text, if you see something you don’t like.
Being on set is a combination of boredom and constantly putting out fires. As executive producer, you tell directors how to direct. They’re not on the show all the time, so you have to get them to understand what you want tonally. Or tell them things like how we’re never going to use that shot in editing, so don’t waste your time.
It depends. Sometimes it’s the writing. You get writers block a lot and things don’t work, but you want to fix them and you feel like bashing your head against a wall.
Writing something that’s good is hard. Sometimes you write things you’re proud of and are great, and people think it’s great. But that just means when you write something that isn’t great, you hate yourself and think that your career is over. There’s a lot of self-doubt and anxiety that goes with this job. Experience is helpful with that kind of stuff, but sometimes it's the luck of the draw. Sometimes you write something that comes out quickly and works. Sometimes you work for three years on something and just can’t make it sizzle.
Another thing that’s challenging for me is effectively communicating with other people clearly and efficiently. When you’re battling ideas; you think you’re right and they think they’re right. Stubbornness has caused things to implode for me. It’s part ego and pride, but other times it’s just your sense and your gut. You have to stick to your guns if you believe in something or can’t be swayed to something someone else thinks is better.
The reward of seeing something that you’ve written performed by great actors and have it come to life. And feedback that’s good--I’m not sure if that’s validation or pride of having done something that’s touched people, entertained them, and made them laugh. I’ve written a few pilot scripts that I’m very proud of, one of which got made but didn’t get picked up for series. It was a last-minute decision not to pick it up for series, but the production itself didn’t turn out right. The script was great, but the actor and director weren’t tonally right for it, and I was young in my career and had a lot going on with a physical health problem, so I didn’t fully fight certain things in a way that I should have in retrospect.
I’m also proud of other pilots that haven’t gotten made. One I think is my best piece of writing but hasn’t been made yet and I have the rights back, so I’m hopeful I can make it happen in the future.
There were also a couple episodes of Weeds that I’m really proud of. I wrote a few of the more disturbing episodes of Weeds in terms of pushing the envelope with borderline vulgarity and edgy stuff at the time; those were fun.
But I don’t have an academy award winning movie yet. If I had an ultimate goal, it would be that. To have a movie that I write become some sort of Oscar winning movie. I haven’t written movies in quite a while though. I wrote a couple in the past but nothing has been made, although I have something that I wrote 10 years ago that I realized would make a good streaming show in today’s Netflix world of 30 episodes and 10 episodes a season.
That it is an amazing job all the time. It has a lot of pain that goes with it. Writing is often rejection, criticism, and can be a grueling exercise.
Writers don’t make as much money as people think, at least not anymore, so there’s that. And it’s a lot of work; it’s not a glamorous type of job. You sit around a table and it feels like you’re in a think tank.
It’s also really collaborative. The creator of a show gets a lot of credit, but in truth it’s a team of people that have helped somebody immensely.
But in the age of the internet, it’s hard to have things be really mysterious. There’s a lot written about what goes on in writers’ rooms.
Fortunately, I've chosen a profession that requires no dress code. This is especially good for me who likes to wear t shirts and track pants as much as possible. Jeans is dressing up for me.
I wouldn't advise anyone to go into tv writing. Most people don't make it, it's a grind, it's glamorized in ways that are deceptive and only a tiny percentage can carve out a career for themselves.
If you’re just trying to make a quick buck or you’re doing it for other reasons than you love it, you’ll get destroyed. It’s a really hard business. It’s demoralizing. You need the most amazing resiliency, unless you’re just a phenom talent and whatever. It’s a talent and skill set and you have to be capable and confident. 50,000 scripts get registered a year, and 300 movies get made. Just look at the numbers. Your odds of success are miniscule. And over the past 20 years, there’s so much more content that everything has been done before; being original is harder.
Don’t rely solely on agents for your own career whether you’re hot or you’re cold, because they have a lot of self-interest that you’re not aware of that can negatively impact you and your career. So in addition to being a writer, you’re the CEO of your life. You have to manage and navigate a lot of areas of your company and your brand. You’re a corporation in a sense, so I would say to take care of every facet of that, not just the writing, because ultimately, it’s more than that.
To my younger self, read more, watch more, keep studying and evolving, spend less time thinking you could've been a golf pro, maintain relationships better, manage your money, take care of physical health so it doesn't impact the job.
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
Martha Graham, choreographer
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