Jill Soloway answers the most frequently asked questions about TV
by Jill Soloway
Hello there. My name is Jill Soloway and I am a writer/director/mother/feminist/lover of slashes. Back in 2005, I wrote a little dirty/sexy/funny (more slashes) memoir called Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants. At the end of that book I added a section called “Brain Pickins” for aspiring writer/director/dreamer types who always seem to find their way to me, often opening the convo with a request to “pick my brain.” Sometimes they even offered sushi in exchange for help. I love to help. I have a problem with helping. But if I went to sushi with everyone who asked to pick my brain, I would never have time to write another word. And I would be an enormous sushi-fed giantess. So I put all the pickins in one place so that I could direct young writers there to gather at will.
I am so grateful Hollywood Journal still finds these so-called pickins relevant and offered to publish them here for you. These days I’m in pre-production for my own original comedy pilot for Amazon and amidst the national release of my first feature, Afternoon Delight, which premiered at Sundance where I was honored to win the Dramatic Directing Award, so I guess these tips are still working for me. And if you will, in exchange for these pickins, simply like us on Facebook to keep updated on the film’s path. Thank you!
This is part 3 of “Brain Pickins”
(an excerpt from Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants)
10) You know that feeling? That sigh of “I made it!” that my sister and I mistakenly had in the parking lot of Paramount? It never, ever comes. Never. Every moment where you’re supposed to be feeling that apex of joy, perhaps at the Emmys or Golden Globes — you feel nothing. Just sad, really. Bring a half a vicodin or something to get through it.
11) Fill your bucket. I read this somewhere, literally in those words, but I can’t remember who said it. He was a writer, a Parisian sort who awoke early, changed into his suit and tie, went into his office to write, came out at noon for a proper lunch, then back in until 5, when he signed off, every day without fail. He kept banker’s hours and treated it like a real job. But the coolest thing is that he said that part of his job was going out each night. He had to sit at the cafés and smoke Gaulouises, get into heated arguments with imperious young female artists, watch the passersby. He knew that he needed to be stimulated, even overstimulated, to have that overflow feeling when he sat down to write the next day.
If you don’t know what to write about, GET THE FUCK OUT OF YOUR HOUSE. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Get on a train. Walk into a strange barber shop and get a shave. Sit in a Vietnamese restaurant alone and order something by pointing. Go and see stuff. It’s as important a part of writing as writing.
12) Oh, on second thought, smoke all the pot you want. Who am I kidding? There were many years when marijuana was the only thing that made me want to write. But after watching countless friends fight with sobriety, and wondering when and how and where I would ever be able to stop smoking pot, I now believe that the only solution for addiction is to make your life something to which you want to show up. The main reason I can’t be high anymore is that I’m doing something that I want to get right. But I’m not here to judge. Do what you have to do. Just make sure you take at least one sober pass at whatever you do before you turn it in.
And now, the answers to the most frequently asked questions about TV writing:
1. On Six Feet Under, does each of you write for a different character? Yup, that’s what we do, I play Ruth and Craig plays Claire and we all jump around in leotards and improvise in character, voices and all. Nooooo, I’m lying. We don’t do that. We each write our own scripts. We give each other feedback and help each other outline, but we write from the privacy of our own hells.
2. Why are there so many producers? There aren’t really. There are just a lot of titles that writers get and a lot of them have the word producer in them. The titles go in a very specific order, just like the patches you get as you move up the ranks in swimming at camp. These are the titles, and each year, you move up one, bringing with it a slight increase in salary:
staff writer — tadpole
story editor — minnow
executive story editor – executive minnow
coproducer — koi
producer — trout
supervising producer – supervising trout
co-executive producer – whale
executive producer – whale shark
3. Can you come over and help me hook up my Tivo? No.
4. How much do TV writers make? Two thousand dollars a week. This is the starting salary and it doesn’t increase until you become an executive producer. It works like this: as a staff writer, you get Writer’s Guild minimum, which is around $2,000 a week. Your agent feels so bad for you that you have to live on that amount of money in L.A. that he doesn’t take his standard 10% commission. In year two, you make about ten percent more, so your agent takes out his commission and you’re back where you started. In year three, you start wondering why you’re not making any money, and have lunch with a guy who says that as your manager, he can make more money for you, so you agree to try it for a year. He gets fifteen percent. But you say yes anyway. You figure you’ve lived on two grand a week for two years, you can do it again.
By year four you really want them to demand more money for you. Your manager tells you it’s illegal for agents and managers to negotiate — they’re only allowed to take you to lunch and call you on Saturday mornings to see if you want to meet them at the mall with their kids because they’re bored. By the way, don’t feel bad that I’m making fun of agents. They’re the last remaining group it’s PC to makes jokes out. I think this is the second time I’ve said it in this book, but remember when John Lennon said Woman is the Nigger of the World? Agent is the Nigger of the Hollywood.
What you really need is a lawyer, and you find a lawyer whose connections and cojones get you a five percent raise. But when the lawyer gives you his bill, you say you can’t possibly afford that, and he says fine, I’ll just take five percent.
The next year there’s a reality TV boom and half as many written shows, so your agent tells you everyone’s dropping a level or two just to work. You go back down to executive minnow, then, a couple of years later, someone says “Desperate Housewives killed reality!” and you’re back up again. Now your gross income is over $200,000 a year and you can’t stand to see what’s being taken out for taxes. Besides, everyone says you really should incorporate after that amount, and all your friends have cute names for their corporations like Monkeys R Us Inc. and All Girls All Day Productions and you start to get jealous. You want to incorporate. You get high and make a list of twenty cute names, or you dig through your files and find that list of band names you and your friends made when you were high, and you pick one.
Now you need a business manager who can register this name with the state for you. He charges 5% and so although you’re making scads of money on paper, you’re still only seeing about two grand a week. But finally, the next year, you’ve got some breathing room. Whew.
Then you realize now that you’re incorporated, you’ve been getting gross checks, a ginormous tax bill is due. Your business manager puts aside the money and doesn’t let you touch it unless you want to go to jail with Martha Stewart. You’re back to just under two grand a week.
I’ve heard that when you become a showrunner you get extra money, more than your salary. Every time the show airs you get checks just for having been there when it was created, also known as Malibu money. I want Malibu money. I want that black American Express Card that Britney’s brother pulled out to pay for lunch when I met him last week to discuss projects. Also Jessica Simpson has one. She even loses hers.
That’s not so much to ask, is it? A black American Express card, and maybe the chance to fly in a private jet with Sean Penn and talk about scripts, once before I die. I heard about these two actress girls who wrote a script and Sean Penn invited them to chat with him in his plane. In the air. I was really, really jealous. Maybe if he said I was good I could make more than $2,000 a week.
From TINY LADIES IN SHINY PANTS by Jill Soloway. Copyright 2005 by Girl Thing, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.Tags: Brain Pickins, Entertainment industry, Film and television business, Hollywood, Jill Soloway, Screenwriter-Director, Television, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants