It’s fast. It’s rewarding. And it’s not for the faint of heart. This is how panelists at the School of Communication’s annual Festival of Writing Writer’s Panel described the rapid-fire world of writing for TV. The panel of dramatic TV writers generously shared their insights with students from the School of Communication and the school’s MFA Program in Writing for the Screen and Stage. They were:
Eric Charmelo (WCAS95), who, along with his writing partner Nicole Snyder (C97), is a co-executive producer on the CW series Supernatural.
David Levine (C97), the vice president of original programming at HBO, whose current projects include True Blood, True Detective, and Game of Thrones.
Melanie Marnich, who has written for Big Love and The Big C and is currently a writer on the new AMC series Low Winter Sun.
Angela Robinson, who directed Herbie: Fully Loaded for Disney and is currently a co-executive producer on True Blood.
The panel was moderated by Thomas Bradshaw, assistant professor of radio/television/film.
Talk of TV ruled the afternoon, despite that all four panelists started their careers in either theatre or film. “I love theatre,” said Robinson, who worked for a time at Playwrights Horizons. “My feeling is that the best play is better than the best movie or television show. But mediocre theatre is worse than the worst thing on TV.”
Marnich voiced a feeling shared by many that television is increasingly becoming a medium for high-caliber, innovative storytelling. “The shows I’ve worked on for cable have all been pretty subversive—a show about plural marriage, a comedy about someone who’s dying,” she said. “And the directive has always been make it complex, make it deep, put in some speed bumps.” There’s a growing sense in television, she said, “that edgier is better. That’s something I love in theatre and I’m finding it now in TV.”
Charmelo, who started in film, said he grew tired of working on material that never got made. His “gateway drug into television,” he said, was a two-hour pilot about sorority girls for Showtime, and he hasn’t turned back since.
“In TV, the writers are the bosses,” he said. “On the feature side, you’re just a hired gun, but on the television side you’re a producer. You can actually see your work on screen within three to six months after you write it.”
Levine, the only non-writer on the panel, said he knew early he wanted to work in Hollywood. “I like to read prodigiously,” he explained, “so I thought if I could read for a living for the movies, that’d be a great career for me.”
One of the many facets of his job at HBO is helping writers develop new material. “I’m very writer-centric,” he said. “I’m really passionate about the writing process. Really getting into it with you, getting the best of what I can on the page. I like to be the first sounding board for you. That’s my job.”
He joked that he was the “connective tissue” on the panel, since he’d worked with everyone on it, including moderator Thomas Bradshaw, with whom he’s developing a new pilot for HBO with Oprah Winfrey’s production company, Harpo.
Levine described the changing nature of television programming. “You guys watch television on your computers and your phones,” he told the audience, “and we make television for screens. So how do we change the experience of the screen? That’s what we’re focusing on now.” He mentioned HBO GO Interactive Viewing and Facebook applications for various shows.
The entire panel of writers discussed the importance of really knowing the show you’re writing for and the proper relationship to the material. “You have to be 100% invested,” Marnich said, “and zero percent attached.”
Commitment means long hours. Charmelo said when he was a show creator on the series Ringer he was averaging maybe three hours of sleep a night. “I just started sleeping in my office at Culver Studios,” he said. “And it was haunted, too. It was the old Citizen Kane soundstage. It was weird.”
When the discussion was opened for questions, one student asked the panel about a conundrum well known to writers of all kinds: how do you deal with rejection?
“Someone once told me something I found very helpful,” Robinson said. “Success involves the time it takes between when you get knocked down to when you get back up. If you can shorten that get-up-and-go time, you’re in good shape.” She then told a story about a Hollywood executive who, at the time Robinson met her, had just come out on the losing side of a very big deal.
“The story was all over the trades,” Robinson said. “It was very public and humiliating, and I’ll never forget her response. She just shrugged and said, ‘He won. I lost. Next.’”
The Writers Panel is hosted by the School of Communication’s Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS) and the Department of Radio/TV/Film’s MFA program in writing for screen and stage.