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Lost writer advice: Keep people reading—and be nice to everyone

Writer and producer Jeff Pinkner (C87), who’s at work on the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man and is also developing a new TV series for Dreamworks, was on campus last week to meet with students and share his thoughts on the creative process and how to break in to screenwriting. At a breakfast discussion with master of fine arts students in the Writing for Screen and Stage program moderated by program director and Department of Radio/TV/Film chair David Tolchinsky, Pinkner shared a theory he’d heard from a Hollywood friend about dinner parties.

“Every dinner party that’s good, by the end you’ve talked about sex, death, or body parts,” he told the students. “And any spec you write should deal with one of those things in the first three pages. Your whole role with a spec script is to keep people reading.”

It’s an art over which Pinkner has shown a dazzling mastery. His earlier work on shows like Lost and Alias exposed television audiences to the complex, multi-narrative storytelling that has since become a mainstay of the genre. “All those shows are family dramas masquerading as something else,” he told the students. “Alias was a family drama masquerading as a spy show. Lost is a family drama masquerading as a suspense-thriller. Fringe is a family drama masquerading as a procedural cop show.”

For over an hour, Pinkner generously shared insights on what made those shows tick. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he said he was taught to analyze a problem from every side, that “there’s no right answer—just a careful consideration of the material. “That has served me most as a writer,” he said. “When I look at a scene or a character’s motivation, I think, OK, what’s the opposite? What’s a different way to attack this problem?”

He encouraged the students to take improv classes, which, he said, would help spark this same flexible thinking. “And you guys have an amazing resource,” he said. “You can sign up at Second City and take their introductory classes.”

Pinkner offered advice on how to pitch story ideas, how to handle meetings with studio execs, and how to cure writer’s block (“I go for a drive, I take walks, I take showers”). His most important piece of advice, however, was simple—and one often echoed by Northwestern faculty and alumni. “Be nice to everybody,” he said. “You have no idea where your break’s going to come from. It will, I promise you, come from somewhere you don’t expect.

“Sam Raimi has a story about having to go to pitch to his former personal assistant,” he said. “If you’re not nice to people it will come back to bite you, and if you are nice they will want to see you succeed.”