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Engineering Your TV Drama Pilot w/ Ron McCants
Jake: My guest this week is the newest mentor at Jacob Krueger Studio, Ron McCants. Ron is a wonderful writer, he is a playwright, he is a TV writer, and he is also a development executive, which is a very exciting combination because he has worked on both sides of the screen, in addition to working in comics and in many other fields. So, he brings a really vast wealth of information.
He is also a tremendous activist. We’re actually partnering with Ron as part of our Black Lives Matter initiatives with his project called The Parity Project. So, I’m sure we’re going to get to talk a little bit about that as well.
I want to start by welcoming you Ron. We’re so happy to have you. And I wanted to ask you a little bit about how you came to this place as a writer? What is your origin story?
Ron: What is my origin story? So, that’s a great question. I always ask people what their origin story is. And mine is that I started off in Missouri–I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska but I was raised mostly in Missouri– and I did really well with science and math and I ended up going to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and I was put in this remedial writing class based off of my SAT scores.
Now, my math, it was like through the roof kind of deal, but the verbal, hmm, barely average. And I was at the bottom of this remedial writing class. And then, I worked from the bottom to the top of that class. I worked with a tutor, I worked with my professor and I found out I could write an essay.
And then I decided, “Let me make a commitment to myself,” so I took a writing course every term while I was at school, and I found myself in this playwriting class and we had a reading at my first show. I was like, “this was amazing I am going to do this for the rest of my life.” Joe Sutton, who was my professor at the time, told me, “You know, you had a good reading, don’t make a commitment like that.”
But, you know, almost 20 years later I’m still doing it, but as a TV writer. And so, that’s kind of how it all started.
Jake: A lot of writers make that transition, starting in the world of theatre and moving into the world of television. And you’re one of the people who have done that successfully. So, I’m curious, what were the skills that you took from playwriting that you brought into your TV writing career and what had to change as you started to make that transition into writing for the screen?
Ron: Well, I was mostly an engineer so I really knew myself. As a playwright, you always almost have to have another job, so you live your life and you get all these experiences.
And I think the thing that I take most from playwriting is the way in which I might build the show.
As a playwright, a lot of times you approach things with a question or you wonder about a concept and you figure out what the world is, you figure out what you’re trying to say– this, that and the other. And then, you find your characters and you say, “Will this character do this thing for me because I’m trying to explore this, that or the other?”
Whereas in the TV world, you usually first start with an idea or a world but you start thinking about the character first, and what their journey is and like how you would make something for an American market in most cases.
Understanding the difference between how TV and plays are created, I think is a key thing. And so, what I’ve taken from the playwriting world is how to develop conceptual shows that make you think, but also are compelling and interesting and have great characters that TV requires.
I also appreciate the community of theatre. I think that’s probably what led me to starting the nonprofit. I’m more of a community minded person because of my experience in the theatre.
I feel like in order for me to be fulfilled and satisfied like I can’t just focus on my own career, because that can go up and down and everywhere. But what I can also do and have control of is the impact that I have on other people; providing access to mentees and people who are coming up, sharing the stuff that I know.
Because, you don’t know what this career will present in five years, ten years or even sometimes two months from now, but the things that you can control is what you contribute. And I found that through theatre.
Jake: Beautiful. So I have to ask, with your background in engineering, in what ways is writing a TV show like engineering and in what ways is it not?
Ron: Well, it’s very similar to engineering because engineers are very creative people. Almost everything people do, all the technology, it is all because an engineer thought about a problem and solved it or found a way to solve it. And they continue, to try to fix it, right?
And there is a process to it. Every day as an engineer you have one question that you’re usually trying to solve or one thing that you’re doing and you develop a process through which you know that by doing these 3 steps… or 26 steps, X, Y, Z is going to be accomplished.
And when things are really big– like say we want this whole campus to go green– you know it first starts off with the mandate. We’re going to make it go green, but what are the little pieces that need to take place for that to happen?
So when you are a dynamic thinker like that, coming over in TV, what I’m shooting for in becoming a showrunner or a producer along the way is to use those same skills. Because a team of people, I can manage, I get budgets, I get all that stuff that stuff comes second nature, you know, relationships, getting something done, but there is a process to it.
And there is a process to TV writing, you don’t just wake up and say, “Well, we’re going to write episode three!” No, we’ve thought about it. You have to think through all the different steps and how things affect characters, how things affect the story, not only for episode three but down the road in this season or in the following season or maybe five seasons later… you have to be able to think like that.
And I think that’s partly training, a lot of it is skill, some of that is knowing what you want to say. But I think in those ways, it is similar. You have to think dynamically, you have to think about process, you have to do the same thing every day. If you want to be a real writer, you need to write every single day. You need to watch a lot of TV, every single day. And you can’t get bored from it– or if you do you’ve just got to find a way to get more excited.
As an engineer, you don’t ask, “Are you bored? Are you tired of doing this thing?” You know, they just do it. And so, I say that if you want to be a TV writer, look at engineers and how they accomplish what they accomplish.
Jake: I love what you’re saying and I love the approach: thinking of screenwriting as a thought process or TV writing as a thought process, rather than thinking of it as “I either have the talent or I don’t.” Thinking of it as something you do and a way of thinking and a particular set of skills.
What I love about that is the way it kind of puts you in control of your own destiny rather than feeling like, “Well I was born with this or I was born without this.”
And of course that makes me think about The Parity Project and what you are doing for so many writers even as you pursue your own career. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the Parity Project and how it works and what your mission is?
Ron: Yeah, well The Parity Project, it’s meant to promote fairness and economic equity and inclusion for black professional entertainment professionals– and this is inclusive of everyone; reps, executives, writers, directors, everything.
It came from my experience on a show. I was on Speechless. I did really well. Then, I got a call the week before we were supposed to go back, “Ron I don’t have the money for you,” And I’m like “why did you renege on me?”
And I found that in the community of black writers, my story wasn’t that unusual. I had gotten on Speechless through the Disney ABC Writing Program. They were the ones who introduced me, and they were the ones who were paying for my role.
And I found that many black people who were writers got their first jobs through one of these programs, but then they didn’t staff again. And I said, “Something is off about that.”
And then “The Race in the Writers’ Room” Report comes out November 2017 from the Color of Change and that verified all of my concerns through data.
And I was like, “We have to do something about this!” So we had a town hall, which led to developing these 12 or so initiatives and they were all like, “These are all great, these are going to address our needs as a community of professional writers in the union, but Ron, can you do all these things?” And I was like, “Uh, all right, I’m trying to do my career, but all right, let me do this.”
And so we got a group of writers together, and we went after those twelve things, and we were successful with about nine of them. And I was hoping that it would be done, but three years later we developed a whole nonprofit out of this because we developed some core competencies around the data, around how the unions were working, around what the numbers actually meant.
Because, at the end of the day, when you look at anything, you should just look at the money. I come from finance– that’s what I ended up doing in my parallel career. If you look at the money, it will tell you the story.
And so, the story was that from 2012 to 2017, black writers made 3.6% of the money that all writers in Hollywood made– and that was over six billion dollars was made. We made 203 million over those five years. That’s nothing. It is chump change. These are people’s mortgages, people have dreams, nobody is different.
And so, I was like, this has to stop. Because what’s on the table is like actually 753 million dollars! Because that’s 13.4% of that pot. [13.4% is the percentage of black people in the overall population. But only 3.6% of money from writing was going to black writers] And if all things are equal, at a minimum, that 13.4% should have gone to this community, that should have gone to these stories. And so, we need to figure out a way to get there.
And that has led us to create some really cool programs, like the Each One Teach One career mentorship program. We’re saying, “alright what are the things that we can do as a black community, what’s our super power?” Our super power in this country is to come together. And we can link hands, join hands– and you look out for one other person to your right, you look out for the other person on your left– you join hands and you help them through their career.
And so that’s one of the things. And once everything is funded, it’s going to be nationwide and eventually international, so that the Hollywood bubble gets popped at least for us. Because we want to make sure that stories are coming in from people who got out of prison or people who grew up in Oakland or people who grew up in Missouri where I come from– that they have an opportunity to tell their stories if they have the talent.
Because, going back to that point that you were making about talent, I had a lot of talent. I have a lot of talent. When I went to Dartmouth, that was the one thing that I had, that’s probably the thing that got me in. And I was in the writing class and I was very talented, very creative, but I couldn’t write an essay to save my life, I didn’t understand the process.
So, if you are a talented person, there are a lot of times you know you’re going to win, but a lot of times you’re going to lose if you don’t have the skill and the craft. But those things can be taught.
And I’m not saying you have to be talented to win, as long as you have the skill and the craft, you can win. But if you also have the talent piece, there is a higher likelihood that you will win.
So we wanted to identify ways in order to help highly talented people, especially who are in these communities or may not have access to things say “hey, here’s an online platform, here are some people that can mentor you.” And as part of their responsibility as mentees to mentors, how about you try this thing out? In order for us to have more people not only in the writing sphere but also directors, gatekeepers, producers, because that’s what this is really going to take.
Jake: Yeah, and let me just give a shout out for your website, www.wewilldothis.com . You should check out what he is doing, because it’s really cool.
You know it is easy to be upset, right? We’re all kind of upset about what’s happening in our country right now.
But there’s a difference between being upset and being able to show the numbers so that you actually have what we talk about in all our screenwriting classes– a clear goal to navigate towards. Something that’s so a clear goal that you actually know if you’ve won.
And what I love about what you’ve done, Ron, is that saying, “Okay hold on, we’re 14% of the population, why are we only 3.8% of the money?” is such a brilliant way of not only pointing out the problem, but also the solution. You can actually measure the effectiveness of the project in bringing us to a place of parity. And I think this is such an exciting opportunity, because you can’t say no to the numbers. If you’re an executive, if you’re a studio head, those numbers don’t lie.
So, I really admire what you’re doing. And if you’re a listener, keep your ears out because we’re going to be doing a lot of stuff with Ron and with The Parity Project to help make our Studio a more diverse place, and to create opportunities for black writers and for other diverse writers who otherwise might not have an opportunity to get that mentorship.
So, to bring this back around in the screenwriting side of things. You’re a development executive as well, and I’m interested because you’re running a parallel career track that not many writers have insight about, where you’re actually actively working with a production company that makes stuff and you’re in charge of developing those projects and finding those voices and you’re also in a parallel track creating your own shows and writing television.
And so, I’m curious, when you take off your writer hat and put on your development executive hat, what changes in the way that you look at a script?
Ron: I get to do what I love to do all day is one way to look at it. By looking at other people’s scripts and helping them get to a place where something is viable for the market, I feel like I get a better understanding of what I need to do or what I can deliver to my scripts or my pitches or whatever.
I think that I’m constantly looking at the first ten pages of something. I think that’s really important: the concept, the meaning. Nothing has to be perfect, I don’t believe in that. I believe, though, that you have to have something to say. And I don’t believe a lot of people have anything to say, and that’s kind of frustrating.
And I’m excited about this new place we’re going in television. And, yes, we’re not going to make as much money as people in the 90s or 80s made from syndication, but you’ve got to work for the money and you’ve got to have something to say.
So that means it’s more of a meritocracy. It is about the material a little bit more. And that means that I feel a little bit more comfortable about that, because I know that I do well when it is a meritocracy.
Hollywood is not always a meritocracy. It is very much a “do I like you” kind of business. But there is going to come a point– and that point I think is now–where people are more focused on the content itself and the global market.
And so, by being able to have an expansive view of what the buyers are looking for, what they’re buying, interacting with agents and managers who know that I’m a writer, we’re developing a weird but very specific relationship that in the end will prove beneficial because I’m learning how to think like a producer. Once you get into this side of the industry, you’re like, “Wait, what? I get to actually say yes to things! Why am I not saying yes to my own stuff? I could produce my own stuff.” You know what I mean?
And that’s something I never really thought about before. But actually, I’m really good at building a team and I’m really good at figuring out who people are.
So, taking this track, not even veering off but doing a parallel career with this, has actually proven to be more helpful on the writing side. Being able to say, “I actually don’t have to justify some things to some people. I know who I want to speak to with my work. And I know how to produce my stuff, so maybe I should just do that.”
It opens up your mind.
Jake: I love what you’re saying about taking control of your career in that way. When I was coming up, it was extremely challenging. Everything was still shot on film, and while there was certainly an independent market, the level of access to money that you needed to actually make it happen made the threshold very high.
And I think one of the things that’s really exciting now is that we don’t need that huge amount of money. The barrier to entry in a way is higher than it has ever been because there’s so much out there, but in a way, it is also lower than it has ever been. Because, we have the power now to actually say, “Well I don’t need you to say yes. I’m going to say yes.”
And you can build your own audience and show what you can do and let Hollywood come knocking on your door, rather than the other way around.
Ron: Right. So one thing that we did with The Parity Project, we started a podcast. We realized, okay, so this is working. The conversation is shifting in Hollywood. And I’m not claiming credit or anything, because I’m not the kind of person, but people are talking about numbers and parity and equity, and you’re like, “Okay!” Because I know, a year, two years ago, you weren’t.
And, you see, there is a way to change culture. When you just talk about things and interact with folks who might adopt your thinking or your idea.
So we started The Parity Project Podcast because we realized, “Yo, like if this is happening in Hollywood, I wonder what it is like in aviation? I wonder what it is like as a politician.” All these things. And the cost of actually producing the podcast, minimal, right? So, why not do it?
As a creator, you should always be creating.
Jake: Yeah, and I love that idea of needing to create because you’re driven to create. Because so many people think that when a producer is reading a script what they’re looking for is a premise. And I remember when I was a producer– of course, you have to have a premise, if there is not a premise there is nothing there that I can sell, right?
Jake: But the idea that a producer buys a premise– that’s just not true. The premise is just the barrier to entry. That’s just the fee that you pay to enter. But I remember what I was really looking for when I read a script. I wanted the voice that I’ve never heard before; I wanted somebody who was disruptive in some way for me. And I wanted somebody who had something to say and who kind of grabbed me and shook me around a little bit with that.
Because going to bat for a new writer is a little scary. You are not able to impress your boss with numbers, “Okay here is a guy or here is a girl and you know she has done these 15 movies or these 15 shows and she has made this much money for the people she’s working for.” You’re saying, “Here’s this little baby writer and my boss might hate them or they might love them but I need to fight for them.”
And what makes us want to fight is when we feel– or at least for me– when I felt that passion. That this person has something to say that is slightly different than what everybody else is saying and that is slightly more truthful and is looking at the world a little bit more of a deep way.
Ron: Hmm, that’s fascinating. 1) I didn’t know that you were a producer before. 2) it is fascinating that you’ve come down to: what’s truth? Who is being disruptive?
And those are the things that you’re attracted to.
And it doesn’t mean that the baby writer is perfect, because people are going to love him or hate him, but that person has something to say and they’re baring their heart open. That’s what you have to do on your own stuff anyway, bare your heart open.
But, it is interesting to see your instinct is towards people who want to tell the truth. Who don’t disrupt for the sake of being disruptive, but because they have to, they’re compelled to.
Jake: Yeah, you we actually have a lot in common, I went to Dartmouth as well.
Ron: You did not!
Jake: Yes, class of ‘97 and I came to Dartmouth as a Government Major, because I was interested in politics and I wanted to change the world, and I stumbled into realizing that I was an artist. So yeah, we have a lot in common in that way.
Ron: That is fascinating, Dartmouth Big Green, Oh-my-God, I love it. You said you’re ‘97?
Ron: I’m ‘06.
Ron: Yeah, for all you listeners, this is lingo.
Jake: Yeah this is how Dartmouth people talk to each other [laughs]
Ron: I’m ’06, ‘03 [laughs]
Jake: But I want to bring it back around to that disruptive idea. Mike Daisey, who is a really brilliant monologist in the theatre world, said something that I think is really profound: “The truth is always disruptive, because it is so rarely spoken.”
And you can tell when an artist is being pretentiously disruptive “Oh look how unique I am!” When it is about the ego and “Look what a great writer I am.”
And those scripts are always off-putting; those scripts as a producer, you don’t want to work with that writer, you want to run and hide. Or, as a teacher, you want to break through and get their authentic self on the page, rather than the self that they think they need to put out there.
But sometimes you read a script and sometimes it is a very simple script, sometimes it is not even the most original concept at all, but you feel the truthfulness of the voice of the writer.
I don’t know why this is coming to be but I’m thinking of Winter’s Bone right now, which is a very simple story. It’s not braving a new world in the structural way, it’s not breaking new ground in what filmmaking can be. It is just this really simple story. But the voice of the writer is so clear and the voice of the character is so clear and the truthfulness is so clear. And that’s the film, of course, that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career.
So don’t be a disruptor to be a disruptor. Try to get your truth out on the page, and it will be disruptive because everybody else is painting by numbers their way through some formula that they learned, and you’re going, “Let me put my heart on this page for you” and I think that’s always a really powerful experience.
So, one of the things I’m curious about, when you’re thinking about a project, when you’re writing a script or when you’re reading a script, you talked about the idea that not every script is perfect and not every script that you’re passionate about is even fully working yet.
So, when you look at a script like that that is not fully working yet, how do you think about it? How do you find that truth? And how do you think about a rewrite– whether you’re a development executive helping a writer get their draft to the next level or whether you’re working on your own project?
Ron: Hmm, well, I feel that. I’ll start off as a development executive. Very few times will I read something and be like, “Okay, this is something that we should look at.” Because simply, not everything meets all the qualifications. They don’t pass that first 10 pages test (even though I might read the whole thing, because it comes highly recommended or whatever).
And a lot of times it doesn’t pass go, because there is no authenticity, or you feel that the thing is off.
And you’re wondering, “Why did this writer write this?”
“Are they writing it because they think I’m going to like it? How is this solving anything for them? Are they bleeding through the page?”
And a lot of times, people are not. And I’m just like, “You spent a lot of time writing this, I hope. And I’m glad you did. Great exercise. However, why did you write this? What are you trying to say?”
And that’s probably because I’m a playwright in my heart. And I think you should probably be trying to say something to your audience rather than creating something that you think people want to know. I tell people all the time, that would be one of the key things to veer you onto the wrong path, if you think you need to write something that somebody is going to like.
No! Don’t write that! Write the thing that you like, that you love, that you have to write. And a lot of times, that’s going to be messier, harder and everything– because it is sometimes this autobiographical fantasy, something that’s based on your life, probably in little pieces, because you’re still trying to figure out why mom slept with Santa Claus or whatever the thing is.
But when I’m looking at my stuff, I typically write autobiographical fantasies– and these are not “fantasies”– not fantasies in the sense of jumping worlds or magic or anything. It’s that I’m taking little pieces of my life to help remind me as I write the script that this is real. That the emotion is real. I experienced this. Or I know somebody who experienced that. And it helps ground me, and also the readers.
You can look at some of the stuff that I’ve written or even produced and even the stuff that’s produced on different shows– you know it’s mine. You know, “Oh that’s Ron’s.” And it does well, the reviews usually do well, and the reason for it is not because it is perfect. It is because I’m trying to say something.
I remember I had a play in San Diego, it won San Diego Critics Choice Award back in– I don’t know– 2009/2010 or something like that. But the play was three hours long! And I’m like, “But it’s sixty pages, how is it three hours long?”
It was probably 80 pages, but still you’re three hours long, so we had to eventually bring it back, bring it back, bring it back. But everybody felt really connected to the material, the actors and everyone. And the audience, they were incredibly forgiving on opening night and in the previews, because they weren’t thinking about the time that they were spending.
And I was sitting here mortified that I wasn’t able to figure this out and bring the time down.
But people were like “I’m so glad I saw this, because this reminds me of the relationship I have with my father.” And these are white people coming up to me, and these are the black cast. You know like that’s exactly why I wrote it. So that everyone can see their dad in this character and they see themselves in this character and revisit things in their life.
So, the truth, the authenticity, helped make it a very human story that everybody could connect to. And they didn’t necessarily see the color of my cast in the sense that they felt that it was “other” or they had to disassociate themselves from it, because even though those situations were specific, they saw themselves. And the truth was in the emotion, it was in the people.
So, when I look at my films or TV shows or whatever, I’m always writing towards that. What’s the truth of it? I look at these people not as their occupation or what they do or whether they are offensive to most folks. I look at them as my family, my friends, because that is how I am associating with them.
And they’ve done things, we all have, but I just look for that truth and presenting those voices in a way that you haven’t seen before, because I want you to love them as much as I do. And the only way to do that is to show you that truth and have you connect with them.
Jake: I often talk about the idea that every character you write is actually a part of you. It might be a part of you that you invite to the table every night when you have dinner. But the character might also be the part of you that’s super selfish or the part of you that has given up or the part of you that is dominated by fear. It might be something you love about yourself or it might be something that you are not even aware is present in you.
Jake: So, when we write, I think it gives us the ability to really get to know ourselves. And I love what you’re saying, because when we put our true selves out there, you allow other people to identify with those parts of themselves, right?
Ron: It’s brave; it’s brave to do that.
Jake: Yeah. And that’s our job. Our job is to teach people empathy. That’s really the job of a writer, is to put a character on the screen or on the stage that the audience may originally perceive as different from them, and to show the audience the part of them that lives in that character.
And I just think it is one of the things that I love about writing and I love that you’re talking about it in that way.
Ron: Yeah, I find on TV especially, the writers don’t always think like that, and I definitely do. I’m like, “Hey look at this person and how similar they are to us.” I think that’s one area I can see opportunity for vast improvement across the board.
Because you look at a TV show that’s about police or whatever, and always, always, always, always, they’re justifying the police or trying to make you empathize with the reason why they shot this person. And you’re like, “But they shot and killed someone, shouldn’t they go through the process here, the justice system?”
But we are not doing that! We are not, we are just not going to do that, we’re going to kill these black and brown bodies because they are not them, and they’ll never get an opportunity to really be full people.
But if you approach it from what we’re talking about, if you truly empathize, I think you have the opportunity to create much more compelling and interesting material. I just hope that that’s where we’re going in the future.
Jake: I don’t know if this is your experience, but my experience as a producer was if I gave somebody something they felt they could sell, I could get away with almost anything as far as the message.
And, if I didn’t give somebody something they thought they were going to make money from, then the message became really important. Then suddenly everyone is fighting over the message.
And there are producers like you, who are driven by something that’s greater than just “Let’s put some money in my pocket.” And even though Hollywood gets a bad rap– and there are a lot of people who deservedly have that rap– there are also people out there who are like you and who are out there trying to make the world a better place, just like everybody else.
But when you give a producer something that they know they can make money on, it allows them to fight those battles.
When we did Matthew Shepard, I was so worried about the studio. We did it for NBC, and at first I was like, “I wish this was cable. I’m scared, because I don’t know what they’re going to let me show.”
And I remember, I was so amazed, the network president came in, and he was personally involved with the development of the project and he said, “You show whatever you need to show and you let me fight the battle with the lawyers, you don’t worry about any of that.” And I was like, “Wow, this was not the picture that I have of how this was going to go!” But, we were doing something that mattered and he felt that and it made him want to fight.
And so, to kind of just turn the conversation because we’re starting to get towards the end of our time and I want to ask you one more important question. You’ve worked in a bunch of different writers’ rooms and they’re all different.
And I’m curious, when you’re developing yourself as a TV writer, you are not just developing your ability to write a script, you’re also developing your ability to be in a room, your ability to know which ideas to fight for and which ideas to let go, your ability to work with showrunners, to work in a team.
And I would just love for you to talk a little bit about your experience in different writers’ rooms and how they function and what is the most important skill to develop for yourself to succeed in that role?
Ron: I think the most important thing to develop is the ability to listen. And I mean like listen– to the executive producers, the co-producers, and especially the showrunner– hear what they’re actually saying and what they want.
You can have an incredible idea, it could solve the problem, the story problem, but if it is not on the path that these people were imagining, it could actually hurt you. Even if they choose to go with that idea, because it is out of the box or cool or it solves all the problems.
I think as writers we have to– especially when we’re at the lower levels– we have to learn to just row and row and row and row, even though, especially if you study this art, a lot of times you worry we’re not going on a right path. And you feel you know what the right thing is.
I’m thinking of one particular case. I would chime in, I would solve a lot of the problems because I’m like well that’s my talent, I can identify the problem and I can be like, “Okay this is a way and you can also do this,” that’s the engineering side of me.
Whereas, you know, even though the EPs have been dealing with this problem all day, I can come in and be like, “Oh, but what if you just do this, this, this and then you get that, that, that” and it sells, right?
Politics, I didn’t understand that at first, in a room where we would often be together and then we break into two. I think that I’ve taken those opportunities to learn how to row towards where the showrunner wants to go.
And not to say that I’m a “Yes, sir!” kind of guy, but I often allow the room to go down the wrong path and I choose which things I’m going to help solve. You have to be strategic about things.
I think in other rooms like the one I worked in, the Dick Wolf camp, you are not in the room very often with other writers, a lot of the time you’re in your own room, your own office, doodling your thumbs, reading the teleplays that we’ve produced before, and trying to make sure that when it is your turn to go pitch the episode that you’re all together– but you’ve got to help other folks.
So being able to figure out a way to develop a personable relationship with people, even though you are not technically together in a room, you need to go to their office, hang around a little bit. And I’m very productive, I don’t like hanging around, I’m just not that guy. If you tell me we’re going to have a beer, I’m like, “okay we’re going to have a beer, we’re going to have one beer and I’m leaving, I’m going to do something.”
But, being able to be comfortable and hang out, which is something I’m not really that good at, that’s actually something that I think people have to understand. Even though you work together, I certainly see things as professional relationship, we’re colleagues that’s it, you have to find a way to still be friendly or give that aura of “I’m your friend,” but also keep those professional barriers up if things get a little bit hairy.
Jake: Yeah, I love what you’re saying about listening, because in a way, it is funny but as a staff writer, your job is kind of similar to your job as a teacher. When it is your own script, your job is to tell the story you want to tell in a way that you want to tell it and the solutions that you love.
Jake: When you’re in a writers’ room or for that matter when you’re in a mentorship relationship, like when we meet with our ProTrack students, your job as the mentor or as the staff writer is not just to tell the story that you love and that you want to tell. Your job is to listen and to really understand the goal of the writer that you are serving.
Jake: And the solutions that you pitch need to serve their ideas– even if you think their idea is a terrible idea– you need to find a way to make their idea work to the very greatest degree.
I came up very, very young. I got my first break when I was actually still at Dartmouth, and so I was always the youngest person in the room. And one of the things that I learned that was so valuable was, do not open your mouth except to ask a question, until you know 100% that what you say is exactly what they need.
Because that first time you open your mouth is going to define you for them for the rest of your relationship.
So, if you open your mouth too early, before you know what they want and they go “Well, that doesn’t build what I’m building,” your voice is silenced.
But if you’re careful, and you show them “I get you, I get what you’re trying to do, I get what your goal is, I get why this matters to you, I get what the challenge is for you, and here is a suggestion that’s going to make your idea even better,” then suddenly you have influence.
And the first day, you are not going to move them off of their path. That is dangerous. But after you’ve given them seven or eight suggestions like that, you might say, “You know, I’m thinking about this season arc and I had this crazy idea,” and suddenly you find that you can start to move them.
I’d love for you to talk a little bit about how you develop those listening skills. How do you listen when you’re brimming with ideas and you know you can solve it?
Ron: I’m just going to be probably reiterating what you’re saying, because you do want to be very powerful, but in the solutions that you give, you need to be measured.
So, I take notes, handwritten notes. I know that the writer’s assistant is taking notes, but I want my own notes so that when I come in, I give a solution that is on point. And you pick and choose what those things are.
The one that pops in my head was on Speechless. It was my first staff job, and my agents at the time were like, “Ron, on the first day, you say one smart thing. Second day, you say two smart things. Third day, you say three. Maybe the fourth day you say four and then play it by ear from there. But keep it minimal because you’re a staff writer, they love you… whatever. They don’t need to hear from you.”
And I kept that. I was like, “Okay.” And then, every time I opened my mouth was a sale, another sale. They got that, and they were like, “This guy, he knows what he is talking about.” And lo and behold, I remember the script for the finale. We had been going over it I think probably three days straight. Something was not working.
But at that point, I had developed enough rapport. My batting average was really high. And I ended up selling the solution for the finale. It was a thing that the showrunner needed; it was a little extra sauce. And he was like, “Yeah… helicopter. She comes in on a helicopter. That’s right.” And I was like, “Oh right, we’re there,” and it saved the day.
But it is because I was listening. And a lot of times, people weren’t necessarily listening. Eeven upper levels– if you’re in listening mode, you’re actively listening. While everyone else is in conversation, the showrunner might say something, it might be very tiny, and then it gets bulldozed over.
You can let them have their conversation but you can say, “Hey Scott, or whoever, you’d mentioned this little thing that you said and I don’t quite get what you mean that you felt guilty, because you had a brother who had cerebral palsy– but you felt guilty. Can you kind of explain that, because I want to get that?”
And that just shows that I’m listening– even though the room was trying to veer some other place–because I was the one person who was really listening to this guy, he was like, “This guy has got my back.”
And that’s the way I go about things, even when it comes to ProTrack and helping people. I am a just person.I am not going to give you the solution; I just refuse. I will give you a version of a solution, but I want you to come up with your own thing, because it is your story. It is not my story, it is not my idea.
So I believe in helping people to do the hard work themselves as writers, to find where they land.
And I think that takes a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of effort. You’ve got to get up too at four or three o’clock in the morning to do the hard thinking and solve your own things. So, that’s how I view it.
Jake: I think that that’s so valuable. And if you’re listening, that’s one of the ways you can actually know you have a good mentor. If a person is giving you a lot of ideas, you really should be very wary. If a person is saying, “Do this, and then do this, and then do this, and then do this,” you should be very wary because the chances are, you are not building your script anymore, you are building their script. And then you are not telling your truth anymore you are telling their truth.
And best case scenario, you’re going to end up with one great script that you can’t replicate because it is not yours.
But worst case scenario, you actually had an incredible, truthful, disruptive story in you that never got to come out, because you took somebody’s easy answer. You really want a person who pushes you for the hard answer, who is just there kind of pushing you up the hill until you kind of hit that eureka moment.
Ron, in addition to ProTrack, you are going to be teaching a TV Drama class for us. And so, I would love for you to speak a little bit about that class and what is it going to be like and what are people going to learn?
Ron: Well, I will say first that the class is going to be fun, energetic, lively. I think that there will be a lot of back and forth, because I use the Socratic method so I’ll ask a lot of questions about what’s exciting to people.
The expectations for the class: it is kind of like a survey class, where you learn a lot of different things to find where your interest and talents lie. They’re going to watch a lot of TV. They’re going to read a lot of scripts. We’re going to analyze those scripts through my prompts, answer questions. We’re going to think about things analytically.
We’ll learn how to write loglines, outlines, treatments, and know what people are actually looking for. And we’ll also get to write the opening teasers for many of these pilots. We’ll demo the work of the students, we’ll analyze what they present. it is going to be a lot of fun.
Jake: It sounds awesome. The goal of this class is really to give you the foundations so that you can either launch into completing your own project or so you have the foundation to be successful a program like Pro-Track or one of our Workshop programs.
So it is a really strong way to get your foundations if you are a TV drama writer. It also culminates with a one-on-one consultation with a professional writer, where you can bring 10 pages of your script, you could bring your teaser, you could bring your outline, you could bring your treatment, any 10 pages of your writing and you’ll meet one on one with a professional writer who will give you specific mentorship just about your project and just about what your next steps need to be.
Ron, I’m so very grateful to have you on our faculty; we’re really blessed to have you. This was a fabulous conversation and thank you so much for your time.
Ron: Thank you for having me. And I’m excited to be a part of your faculty; it is going to be fun. Thanks.
– Transcript edited for length and clarity
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