What happens in the room stays in the room
by Dara Resnik Creasey
In the first post of this series, I talked about 2006. The year my writing partner/husband and I almost-but-didn’t-get-staffed. It sucked. But we didn’t give up. And in January of 2007, Mark Goffman, a writer for whom my husband had interned years before, brought us in to interview for an open staff writing position on NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Before we could say, “You can’t handle the truth,” we were in our first writers’ room with one of my personal heroes — Aaron Sorkin!
I tried on seventeen outfits for my first day of work as a paid TV writer. We drove through the Warner Bros. gate, past the famous water tower, and parked in our first-ever studio lot spot (under a big tree that crapped sticky berries all over our car, but we didn’t care). We got an office that barely fit one person let alone two (the office actually became a joke in the series — Matthew Perry’s character holds a pencil in either hand, stretches out his arms and is able to write on both walls at the same time). I’ll never forget the first time I sat at the long conference room table with Aaron at the head. My head swam. How many stories should we pitch? How much should we talk? What was expected of us? It was a thrilling and terrifying experience.
What is it like in a writers’ room? We’ve only been in four, and they have all been incredibly different. Some have been run by the creator of the show, others are run by the number two or number three in charge. In some, you’re asked to sit in the room all day and pitch story ideas as you take chatty personal-life detours to keep things loose. In others, there is focused room time, balanced with do-your-own-thing office time. As a TV writer you have to be adaptable. Every show is its own beast. And I’m not even sure that’s figurative. Some rooms have actual beasts running them (thankfully, we have yet to suffer in one of those).
During our time on Studio 60, it was hard to tell where we stood with the show. Sorkin and Goffman were both liberal with praise and we were loathe to believe we were actually succeeding after so many years of being beat down by the business. (Side note: if you are not yet a working screenwriter, get ready for a lifetime of self-doubt and insecurity. It never, ever ends. No, really. Never.). But when that show came to an end and it was time to staff on another, we landed an amazing gig on a new ABC show that later became an after-market cult-hit: Pushing Daisies. And what came back to us was that a large part of getting that gig was the strong work we had done as staff writers on Studio 60. Now, many years, three shows later, and having seen several other staff writers both hit home runs and make rookie moves, it’s more apparent to me what we did right.
Thing #1 We Did Right: We came prepared.
We arrived on our first day well-versed in Sorkin’s oeuvre (I never get to use that word!), and the vernacular of the show. We had ideas for story pitches on day one, and were constantly revising and discussing new pitches on the way from the studio, at home, on the way back to the studio, in the middle of the night. You get the idea. We worked really, really hard. That extra really is there for a reason, because, as we promised Sorkin in our interview with him, “If you hire us, we will work our asses off for you, sir.” We read all the room notes. We read all the scripts. Our heads were in that show. We never took for granted the chance that Sorkin and Goffman took on us, and we were going to prove that they were right to do so.
Thing #2 We Did Right: We spoke up.
The Studio 60 room was an egalitarian place where rank didn’t matter, but even in those friendly rooms new writers are often afraid of pitching because they will look like fools. We had no such fears, because we are perfect. Just kidding. We were pissing our metaphorical (and maybe literal, but I’ll never admit to it) pants, but knew better than to show it. We had just enough confidence in our ideas to vocalize them. Calmly. Cogently. And at the right time.
Thing #3 We Did Right: We knew when to STFU.
Yes, it was an egalitarian room, but that doesn’t mean everyone wanted to hear what the new staff writers thought all the time. Sometimes our job was to let the seasoned professionals do their jobs and learn. And even if we weren’t learning, we knew instinctively that we had spoken up enough that day and we ought to let someone else do the talking. And there’s another part to the S-ingTheFUp too. Don’t talk outside of school. If you start blabbing to your industry friends that so-and-so on the staff made a crazy remark, or that there’s canoodling between writers, that blabbing will eventually make its way back to the People That Matter and that is a Very Bad Thing. What happens in the writers’ room stays in the writers’ room. When you have your next meeting with a showrunner, and they ask “Oh, how was it on That Show About Which I’ve Heard A lot of Gossip?” You simply say, “It was a great learning experience. I made some life long friends there.” Which brings me to…
Thing #4 We Did Right: We made good relationships.
When you’re stuck in a room with people for twelve hours a day, what matters even more than whether or not their pitches are stellar or their scripts are mind-blowing is whether you can stand being in a room with them for twelve hours a day. We always had smiles on our faces, we were adaptable to changes, and friendly to everyone (including the PAs who get your lunch — you’ll be working for one of them someday!). That plays-well-with-others stuff gets passed along to other showrunners faster than you might think. For the record, this is now the second time in this series I’ve mentioned relationships. That’s because they’re extra important.
Thing #5 We Did Right: We were prepared for the job to end.
While we were 99% dedicated to the show, we were also 1% dedicated to having a fresh sample in the event this gig ended. And when it did, we had a script at the ready so that all the other Things We Did Right would actually help us land the next gig.
Bonus Thing We Did Right: We dressed for the job.
Many other writers will disagree with me on this, but my belief is that TV writers should not look homeless. Each episode of television costs millions of dollars. I always dress neatly and professionally. I look like someone to whom one might vaguely consider entrusting millions of dollars. There’s a new staff writer on my current show and when he got promoted he started wearing a wool blazer to work. He takes endless crap for it, but he’s showing everyone he takes his new job seriously.
Stay tuned in two weeks for “Things I Did Write: Your First Script”.Tags: Aaron Sorkin, Dara Resnik Creasey, Develop good relationships, Dress professionally, Hollywood, Mark Goffman, Matthew Perry, Pushing Daisies, Screen and television writer, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Television, Warner Bros., Writer's room