Homeland: Getting Staffed on a TV Show with Jonathan Redding
Jake: My guest today is Jonathan Redding. Jonathan is the newest faculty member at Jacob Krueger Studio.
Jonathan was a writer on Homeland, which, if you haven’t watched, is an extraordinary show. We’re going to be talking about how Homeland was built, and what was it like to be in that room, especially as your first staff gig as a staff writer.
Jonathan began as a playwright and a dramaturg. And we’ll talk a little bit about the journey from playwriting to TV drama writing and how those things are related and connected. Jonathan, why don’t you just start off by telling us a little bit about your journey.
Jonathan: I shall, but first, just let me say thank you so much for having me on. I am a fan of this podcast. And I’m so excited to be here. I’m so excited to be working with you. This is really fun for me.
The big thing for me, Homeland was when I first got staffed. That was really my introduction into the industry. I had been pursuing it for quite a while before that, but I had mainly been in the theater world. I had been a playwright and a dramaturg and an actor.
I had been resident playwright to a theater in Santa Monica called The Broad Stage Regional Theater for a number of years, and while I was there, I got to work alongside some incredible artists: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Shakespeare’s Globe of London and Anna Deavere Smith came, and did workshops with us.
I was part of the early development process for Hadestown. Anaïs Mitchell still just had the concept album because Dale Franzen. who wound up being the executive producer of the Broadway run, was at the time, our artistic director.
That was back when it was just first being workshopped, with actors singing it live, and trying to put together some simple kind of movement and things to it.
Prior to that, I had my own company called the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, who are perennial Ovation Award nominees out here. And had a number of celebrated and award-winning plays, including The War Cycle, which was a trilogy of plays.
Still, breaking in was a struggle for a long time. I had been writing specs and features for a long time. When I first came to town, I brought with me spec episodes of The Shield and Lost, they were in the middle of their runs. That is how long ago I started this march.
Homeland was my first show. It took so long! So long to get to.
Jake: I think it’s actually very heartening for students to understand that, yes, some people get lucky– and I always say, you never know when luck will come! Luck could happen tomorrow, luck could happen in 10 years. But I think, the people who are successful are often people for whom the luck doesn’t necessarily happen when they want it to, but they keep writing, they keep pushing, and pushing and pushing.
It’s very valuable to understand that it may take you a long time to build a career. And that’s not because you’re failing. That’s because you’re doing something really hard.
Jonathan: Yeah. It’s like Theseus’ boat. You start out with your piece of material, your one or two scripts, and you think, this is the thing, and it’s going to get me there.
And then by the time you’ve actually reached a destination, or reached some far long part of your journey, every part of the boat underneath you has been replaced, patched over and become new. And you are the constant.
Jake: Yeah. I love that as a concept, especially because there’s so much bad advice out there. I get writers all the time, saying, well, this person told me I should write this script. And then I write that script. And then somebody else said, I should write something like this instead. So I wrote that. And then somebody else said I should write something like this other thing. And I wrote that too. And none of it worked!
And it’s really easy to tell a writer: You should _______, as if somebody has all the magical answers. But like you said, really, the common denominator is you and your voice. And especially at the beginning, if you’re trying to get staffed on a show, it’s about people reading your work and thinking, Wow! Only Jonathan Redding can give me that. That’s such a unique thing about him.
That’s the only reason to hire a new writer is that they’re giving you that unique thing. Because if you’re looking for someone who can simply execute a formula there are so many more experienced writers you can hire.
So how are you going to show that unique thing? You’re going to do that by writing something that you’re crazy about, and that you’re desperate to create.
How did you get staffed? Did they find you? Did you find them? What did that process look like?
Jonathan: You know how everybody that works in this industry has a crazy story of how they wound up working? Yeah, it really is true.
I had been in the theater world, I had made friends through my time in the theater, with people that worked in the industry, just because I had been at it. I’d been out here for years, 12 years at that point.
The first person that I sat down and asked out to coffee, to just say, I want to do this and try to pick his brain was Dan Attias, who is an incredibly seasoned director of drama television. He’s directed every great show. He was a repeat director for Homeland that they brought back every season.
And it turned out, by that point, I had an old friend of my wife’s who was a post-production assistant on Homeland, who knew the whole support staff. And another acquaintance that I knew a little bit through the Ojai Playwrights Conference was Charlotte Stoudt, who had been a staff writer on Homeland and who has gone on to have this wonderful career. Charlotte’s awesome. And she’s, I believe, running The Morning Show right now.
I had this little smattering of people that were involved in Homeland and I talked to them… and nothing happened. And I went on pursuing other things.
Then, there were some openings on the support staff. And I came in to interview, and I crushed the interview, it was so great. I really liked everyone and everyone liked me… And they didn’t hire me.
Jake: What did it mean to crush the interview? I think a lot of people don’t even know what that interview looks like, or what somebody is looking for when you show up for that.
Jonathan: I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. I think the notion most people have in their minds is that you’re coming over from being in the mailroom at an agency, being on a lit desk or you’re a set PA and you’re involved in that aspect of it, and you’re trying to get closer to the orbit of the room.
That’s one way that people can break in. You can target those PA jobs that are in production or that are on a show peripheral to the room. And you don’t go in there right away and do this. But over time, you do an excellent job and you impress everybody, and you’re really kind, especially when it’s really hard to be kind! That’s a clutch skill! You build goodwill, and sooner or later people will ask you what it is you’re trying to do.
And you can let that be known.
The way that I did, I didn’t come to the interview from any of those expected places. I went into this interview from a completely different world. And my message was essentially, Yeah, I’m here to chop wood and carry water. I wanted to be a staff writer, but I wasn’t really in a place where I was going to just get hired straight across. I’m not a known playwright. And mostly my dramaturgical work was in support of ensembles, and playwrights. So I’m coming in with my work experience. And I’m talking about all of the different sorts of things that I’ve done, and the collaborative environments that I’ve been in, and artists that I’ve worked with before.
But really a big part of it is just how you click with the support staff that’s already there. And I did things like research everybody, because everybody on that support staff is also an aspiring filmmaker or writer or artist. They have short films, they have histories and they have things that they did while they were in school. They have a GoFundMe. They have something on HollyShorts that you can go and see. You don’t want to stalk these people, but I wanted to have a sense of everybody’s voices and their interests. I genuinely liked them. It was a great set of people.
Afterwards, when they didn’t hire me, I reached out to each of them and said, Hey, I know it didn’t work out. But I really liked meeting you guys. I don’t know a lot of people. I don’t have a ton of peers that are at this breaking-in-as-an-assistant kind of place because I’m new to this sphere and moving over from another career path. Could I take you out to lunch, or go take out the coffee that we just talked about. And can I pick your brain about what your day-to-day job is like, what you do on this desk?
I made some really good friends. And we became friends, and now we read each other’s work, and we stay in touch and the seeds of some of those friendships was there.
And it wasn’t a mercenary thing. That’s an important and a fine distinction, because you can feel when somebody’s coming at you just with an agenda. You can feel that. Everybody wants to be making things. Everybody wants to advance. And it’s very hard, it’s very competitive. We all understand that. But if you’re looking for friends, and you’re being “other-minded” and interested in people beyond what they can do for you, they can sense that as well. That has been the energy I’ve tried to bring to everything. And to think of building friendships instead of making instead of networking.
Jake: I think that’s such an amazing point. And it does take a lot of the pressure off. It’s so easy to think you’re supposed to wow everyone you talk to. But the truth is, some people are not your people. And you’re not for everybody, either. Nor should you be. You get that if you’re internet dating. But sometimes when we get out into the networking world, we don’t know that.
And it can lead to feelings of failure, and it can also lead you to acting crazy, because you’re just trying so hard! As opposed to coming at each meeting from a more curious place: are you my people?
So many writers would have taken the rejection you experienced as they don’t like me.
Jonathan: And it has nothing to do with that! No, you come away from a meeting like that going, No, I know they liked me. We’d liked each other. There was a spirit there. That was a really fun conversation.
That’s what I mean by crushing the interview. I had all my facts in order. I was able to answer every question and talk about myself. I was able to do it honestly. I was able to do it from a place of relaxation. But I didn’t go in there to perform, I went to connect.
You can move a little bit into your extrovert function when you go to a meeting like that.
Our society is obsessed, Twitter’s obsessed, with introverts and extroverts as if we’re all one or the other. But really that’s a spectrum and we all have both extremes. We vacillate between them. And some of us maybe are more frequently in one than the other.
You bring your energy up, and you present like you’re going into a job interview, but make it about other people. Make the conversation about other people and be curious about other people. And don’t ever think that the thing you’re really talking about is “the job.” That’s not what you’re talking about. Because most of the time, you’re not going to get whatever the job is. But the people can travel with you! If you like each other, that’s for free. And dividends arise from that, and careers arise from that, and not from really needing to crush this moment.
Jake: Yes, I really love that. I always think a “no” is just an opportunity to find a mentor. And everybody likes being a mentor. Being a mentor is awesome.
Jonathan: Everyone that works in this industry was helped. I didn’t understand this in the beginning, I didn’t understand that you could just go up to people and ask for a little bit of their time, ask to have a cup of coffee, ask to have a conversation with them.
There will be some people that are too busy, that say, no, that ghost you. And you let that go. You forget that, because everybody’s life is crazy. And you let people know that there are no worries. But you swing back every two months.
If somebody says yes, and they’re not ghosting, but they keep punting, they keep kicking the can down the road, then you put it in your calendar, and a couple months later, you come back and say, Hey, you don’t want to be a bother, just want to put a bug in your ear. If you’re still up for this, I’d love to sit down and chat. And if not, I totally get it. I hope you’re doing well, and I’ll talk to you later.
A mentor of mine referred to that as elegant persistence.
Jake: These networking skills, these soft skills, are so important. We’re writers, and a lot of us think that it all takes place between you and your keyboard. On the business side, it can’t. And especially in the TV world, when they’re interviewing somebody, they’re also asking themselves, is this person going to be valuable in the room?
Jonathan: Oh, yeah. 1000%. More important than your sample is whether they think they can use you interpersonally. There are plenty of “good enough” samples. They want to know who you are and what their estimation of working with you round the clock for however many months will be like. That’s got to take you the rest of the way.
You want them to leave the meeting saying I really liked this person: funny, great references, they’ve been vouched for by this person and that person, and I just know we’re going to have a good experience. I just feel really good about the experience I’ll have with this person, and they’ve pitched some useful things and the sample is not bad.
Jake: Because you’re literally locked in a room with these people. You’re banging your head against an episode with these people. You want them to be people you enjoy working with!
Jonathan: Which is not to say you should sandbag your sample. Write great samples. But if you come in there with something brilliant, but you’re prickly and they think: this person is going to be difficult down the stretch. This is not a person I want to be in the foxhole with when we’re two episodes behind and $4 million over budget and I’ve got a star in open mutiny, you’re not going to get the job. They want to know that you’re a good person, a team player, a source of positive energy.
Jake: I learned this in a crazy way. I started as a producer. We were doing a project and we had to get a British writer because of financing. I was the person who was in charge of reading all these British writers and trying to find the right person.
I busted into my boss’s office so excited.I was like, you are never going to guess who I just got for this project. I’m not going to share the person’s name here, but he’s won an Academy Award, he’s written some of my favorite screenplays. And he wanted to do it! I’m like, YES! And I’m expecting a hug and maybe fireworks or something from my boss.
And my boss goes, Oh no, that’s like inviting a bear into the room. And I’m like, but he’s the best bear in the world. And my boss responded, Absolutely not, if I hired him, I would completely lose control of the project.
That was such an incredible lesson, actually, for me as a writer. Because I was much more interested, always, in writing than producing. But it’s such an interesting lesson because I could not have found a better writer for this project. But it’s not just about that. It’s about I’m going to be working with this person for a year in a series for many years. Are my ideas going to be honored? Are my needs going to be cared about? Is it going to be a two way street or a one way street?
Jonathan: Fortunately, it seems that the tide is moving in the direction of the real jerks kind of being pushed out. It’s becoming unacceptable to be nasty in the room. That’s part of this inclusivity and justice movement. There are kinds of behavior that are not going to be tolerated.
But the flip side of that is that now it is an expectation that you’d be a good gal or dude.
Jake: Which is good, because it was not that way in my time. I can tell you.
Jonathan: There’s really not a level of talent, in my estimation, that is so special that you deserve to just be nasty to people. If you want to be a novelist who’s a misanthrope, and who lives in your isolated bubble and goes for long walks in the woods, and shouts at pigeons, fine, go do that. But if you’re going to work in the super collaborative media of television, you’re not that special.
Jake: Also, it does make sense that if you’re working on a group project, you’re going to get better results if you’ve got a great group than if you’ve got one gifted jerk.
But let’s bring this all back around to where we started: so you build these mentorship/friendship relationships out of what could have been felt like disaster, what happens next?
Jonathan: I have a couple of friendships that are circling around Homeland… and nothing happens.
There are openings on the support staff… I’m not hired.
I continue making friends. Some of these people I’m still friends with!
And then, something happens. Somebody’s getting married, one of the more senior assistants. They’re going to be short staffed during a crucial week and they need somebody that can come in and be the Writers PA, so that the Writers PA can bump up and do a more complicated job, which she’s more than capable of doing. So somebody needs to take her duties off of her shoulders for a week. It’s simple, simple stuff. But again, it’s that interpersonal thing. Because they’re in the middle of their flow.
They’re into scripts and into episodes, and it’s starting to get intense, and it’s starting to quicken and they’re understaffed a little bit, the room is understaffed. They don’t want to just bring in anybody. So they go, Oh, we really liked Jonathan. That was so great. Let’s see if he can cover us for a week as a temporary employee.
So of course, I shelve everything else that I have going on. I go help out, and I go crazy above and beyond that week.
If I’m given a task, I think about the two extra peripheral things around that task that I could do: Okay, we want you to stock the kitchen. I’m going to stock the kitchen for the week. But I’m also going to go through and reorganize and throw out all the expired yogurts. And I am going to empty and clean the fridge. And I am going to do a deep scrub of the tabletop with all of the coffee apparatus in the espresso machine. I’m going to take the espresso machine apart and clean its component parts. And I’m going to go to where they keep all of their notecards in their pens and their clipboards and all their office supplies, which by this point in the season are completely higgledy-piggledy and interspersed, and I’m going to straighten them and organize them so they can look nice. And I’m going to adjust the timezone of the clocks and make sure that the pictures are hanging straight. Everything I could possibly think to do that did not overstep my boundaries, I did.
At the end of that week, they said, Oh, my God, thank you. And I said, Oh, yeah, of course. It’s my pleasure. And you know, I want to come work here. I did the best I possibly could. Have a great rest of the season. This was a pleasure. I’m really glad you guys thought of me. And I left.
And nothing happened for a little while. And then I got a phone call to say that the Writers’ Personal Assistant, the room assistant, was leaving the show for personal reasons. And they wanted to know if I could come in and be the Writers’ PA permanently.
And this is entirely because I’d already done it. I had been in the room to take lunch orders. (That’s one of the things you do as the Writers’ PA). All of the writers had met me. And it was a no brainer for them to say, Oh, yeah, that guy, he was fine. Bring that guy. We don’t have two brain cells to give to this problem. Just that’s a face I’ve seen before. And I got that job.
Then a little bit after that. The woman who had been the Writers’ PA and who had bumped up unfortunately also had to leave the show for a health issue. And now there’s a Writers’ Assistant position open.
I had come in as a PA and immediately let it be known that I was a great researcher, that research was a big part of the dramaturgical work I had done, and that could I pick up any research slack for them. So I would take home research assignments, and do them, and bring them in the next day when I came to open up the office.
And it was just that, it was just hurling myself at everything I possibly could at every waking moment, and being the person to jump on a grenade and being the person to volunteer. That got me to be the Writers’ Assistant, and to get into the room behind the keyboard, taking the notes.
As I’m doing this, I’m also writing my own material and entering and winning some of the screenwriting competitions, which is a really dubious way to go about it, and a lot of them are scams, but some of them, like Slam Dance, are a really good experience.
Some of them are reputable, and some of them are good. Some of them have great follow-through with people that do well. And if you have the resources and are willing to put in a little bit of research and think about which ones might be worth applying to and which are not, it’s a route. It’s a way to try it. It did help.
Jake: I have a podcast about that. If you’re listening, and you want to look through the archives about how to identify which festivals and contests are real and which ones are scams.
So you’re getting to contest. You’re amazing at ordering lunch…
Jonathan: Now, I’m in here, and I’m doing the room notes. And Alex Gansa comes to me with a stack of books this high, about 40 years of conflict history in Afghanistan.
He says, Man, I’m so sorry, somebody needs to read these books. And I don’t have time. Somebody needs to synthesize this information. Because we’re going to be working with the author of two of these huge tomes by Steve Coll, who’s a brilliant journalist, brilliant conflict journalist, and brilliant geopolitical journalist. We need timelines, we need a Reader’s Digest version of this. We need reference materials that are concise because everything is so sprawling. We can’t just do Wikipedia and articles are so siloed, we need something more global.
And I said, I’ll have it back to you in two weeks.
I barely slept. I did my job and every quiet moment, and on every lunch break. As soon as I got home at night, I was speed reading and making notes and writing marginalia. I wound up creating this whole body of research of all of those things, digesting 40 years of Afghan conflict history. And they got it.
He looked at it, and he was like, this is incredible. To be honest, I don’t even really have time to keep referring back to this. So what we’re going to do is: I want you in the conversation. I want you pitching, and I want you to remind us of things. I want you there so that I can ask you things in the room. Because it’s completely wasted to have this material and then not know. You’re just going to be the thing now. You’re the encyclopedia.
That’s how I got invited into the process and entrusted with the process.
Then they started using my pitches. And there came up, with the last season– the last season was crazy.
There were several writers that they explored adding to that room that fell through for various reasons. And there came a point when they looked around, and they’re short staffed and I’m there and they were already using my pitches, and they were like, Okay, you’re a writer now. We need help. We just need more personnel.
And that’s how I got to be a staff writer, but it depended on all of these things that were completely unforeseeable, and that from the outside looked impossible. And it really taught me that every hard thing seems impossible, until it happens.
And then you’re like, wow, I can’t believe those things all happened in a row for me to get that job. But now I have it. And now I have credits, and now a whole other universe of things becomes possible, sprawling out from those credits.
Jake: So much of life is just doing great job! Like, it’s hard to intellectually draw the line from cleaning the espresso maker to writing for Homeland. And I think what happens to a lot of people is they get that “stocking the kitchen” job, but they come at it with resentment. Because this isn’t what they want to be doing.
But it’s true, people depend on people who do great work.
Jonathan: Yeah, and I guess that’s super common, surly support staff. Which is mind-numbing to me. You know, you’re there to work. You work. This is the show. You’re swabbing out the bathroom or whatever. But this is the show, this is the thing that you’ve dreamed about being a part of. And you don’t take pride in the execution of menial jobs, and if you’re not willing to bring 100% effort to something that is kind of mindless and that doesn’t demand enough or demand very much of you, then why should they think that you’ll have the grit to dig in and perform at a high level, doing something very demanding on short notice with crazy variables being thrown at you?
If they don’t think you will work your guts out for anything that you’re given, why would they put their faith in you when everything is so high stakes? Multimillion dollar episode budgets. People running the show that are worried about getting another season, worried about the renewal, worried about having to sit down with the studio and the network, because we’ve got to go back to this location, because we’ve realized that it’s important for the finale, but we’re going to have to go and ask for a couple of million extra dollars, and we’re already over budget, and they don’t want to do it, and my producer is about to go kill me in my sleep, and I got problems! They want to know that you are a no problems kind of guy.
Jake: I would love for you to talk about research. Because for a lot of writers, research is like a rabbit hole they get lost in. The research ends up becoming the project, and the research can gum up the creativity and the characters and the simplicity of the piece.
And at the same time, you’re writing a piece like Homeland, and obviously there’s a lot of research that needs to go into that because there’s a complicated world and there’s lots of geopolitics.
How do you balance that as a writer?
Jonathan: Okay, in a moment, I want to tell a cool story about how that works on Homeland, because it’s such a sterling example. Research is tricky. It is a skill. It varies from project to project.
I learned something on Homeland that was really useful, because early on, for me, there was a paralytic element to my concern over truthfulness and believability. And I think the thing that early career writers can fall into a lot is trying to anticipate and explain any question or bump that any audience member might possibly have. Any logic question you can think of about how this would not work in the real world, or whatever, you’re trying to come up with a way to explain and insert into your script. As a result your scripts can become this kind of elaborate blocking exercise, like in the football sense.
There was a liberty for me and being on Homeland. It’s such a high verisimilitude series. The texture of the world, the kinds of things that we’re dealing with, and that we’re talking about: the way the technology works, the way the government organizations were, the way that the diplomatic corps works and the NetSec world is all trying to have a level of truthfulness that allows the audience to believe in the heft of the world. So when you ask the audience to take the TV leap, they are able to do so and still believe in the world as a solid thing.
And that’s a tonal thing, because you watch some broadcast shows like Criminal Minds– one of these procedurals – you’re like, well, this is a TV world. These serial killers, this Machiavellian super genius doesn’t exist, there’s nothing like that. And we’re moving so fast, and everything’s so glossy, and we’re not stopping to think about small problems, procedural problems, things that they have to deal with in reality, that are human and minute. It moves like an action movie. You can feel that lighter “arcade physics” kind of tone.
There was a moment on Homeland when I got really hung up on this, because I had done so much research, and I knew all of these things, it just wouldn’t happen this way. This meeting just wouldn’t happen this way. It pulls me entirely out of it.
I was very gently told, very gently reminded, yes, that might be true. #1) nobody knows how this works. Like three people at Foggy Bottom know how this would really happen. And #2) this is a work of fiction.
And I would hear that echoed in a phrase of Chip Johannessen, who was a brilliant writer who was on a million things and ran Dexter at one point. He is acerbic and funny and dry and scary smart. But we’d be talking, they’d be shouting back and forth about some piece of research data that they had gotten from a consultant (because it was a show with a great consultant base), like, Oh, we’re talking to this Night Stalker pilot– this elite Special Forces pilot, who’s saying it wouldn’t work like this! And Chip would just call back from the room. Will you remind him that this is a work of fiction!
There is that dividing line, and it’s something that you have to feel your way into and figure out for yourself based on trial and error and your various drafts and revisions, where that feels right for the project that you’re working on now based on how realistic that project has to be.
If you are writing a show that is about vampires, you can choose to read Bram Stoker or not, or Anne Rice or not, or examine folklore about all of the different kinds of vampires– the jumping Vampires of Asia for example– all the different kinds of ideas of what vampires had been. Or. you can read nothing and make it up entirely from scratch because vampires don’t exist yet.
It’s a case-by-case thing. But I figured out, at the end of the day, you have to liberate yourself from the notion that you are presenting the real world. If you’re doing cinéma vérité, if you’re really trying to show people something that is grounded exactly in our world, like MareMayor of Easttown felt like: this is just “the world.” There’s no stylistic imposition on top of this at all. This is how small-town police really are. This is how this corner of America really is. If it just feels like the world you’re doing, then maybe you want to be very specific in your research of that region, and try and hue to it because you’re trying to make the audience feel that they’re just watching a real community.
Jake: You’d said something earlier about anticipating needs. And you were talking about it in relation to, being the PA. But it’s so much like mentorship. When you’re mentoring a writer or when you’re working on a show, when you’re a staff writer on the show, not every show, not every writer has the same needs.
I had a similar lesson because early in my career I was a research maniac. I wanted everything to be true.
But the truth is, that’s not possible. Even Mare of Easttown is heightened. Because the true world unfolds over– even Homeland unfolds over– many years. You can’t have your show, in an episode, unfold the way life unfolds in real-time.
Somebody said to me in a different way, this is a work of fiction, historical fiction. Somebody said it to me in a way that actually helped me so much.
They said, you have to navigate towards the fun.
That was so helpful to me, because I realized, yes, the fun is different in every show.
In BoJack Horseman the fun is a million pawns and industry jokes, and then moments that make you want to cry, that come out of nowhere.
And in Succession, the fun is watching these people who have everything, who are just in so much pain, and who are just causing so much pain for themselves, for each other, and for everyone around them. And the fun is watching them hurt each other.
In a way Arrested Development is the same thing with a lighter tone.
As you were describing it– you’re much more of an expert on Homeland, obviously, than I am– but if you didn’t have a believable world in Homeland, if you didn’t have all that research, if you didn’t have the consultants, if you didn’t have those books, then Homeland is not going to be fun, because it’s going to feel fake.
And the whole piece is such a commentary– it feels even more valid now as we look back at it, how prescient so much of that show was.
Jonathan: That was achieved in an interesting way. But yeah.
Jake: But the fun is, it’s got to feel like our real world, but the fun is really that Carrie is always going to fall in love with the wrong person. The fun is actually Carrie’s relationships, and Carrie’s mental illness, and Carrie’s sacrificing everything that she really wants for a country that doesn’t appreciate her.
Jonathan: And that’s so much the franchise! And it’s been often remarked, but the Cassandra archetype, Carrie was a character who was doomed to know the truth, but to be disbelieved.
And we’re watching her compulsively, repetitively dig holes for herself, that is going to make it so much harder for her to make her truth understood. Because she’s hopping into bed, literally and figuratively, with dangerous people and liars and spies. And she’s so mission-focused that she undermines herself as a narrator.
Jake: We talk about engine all the time. And there are obviously so many elements of engine. I’m sure, having written for and worked on the show, you could make a 5000 page bible to capture all the ingredients of what makes Homeland – Homeland.
Jonathan: But falling in love with the wrong people is a really succinct way to capture something so essential.
Jake: Exactly. When you’re building your engine, it needs to be that simple for you. Otherwise, your piece is going to feel diffuse.
Jonathan: Yeah, there’s an aliveness. What makes it personal? And what’s dangerous? What keeps people from telling themselves I know where this goes.
I’ve been kicking something around for a year that’s in development, that has mass around it, and just had that epiphany recently, where I’m sitting there realizing, I know where all of this goes. And that makes it a dead thing.
That idea was in Hamlet words. By the time a word reaches our lips, it’s dead.
And I had a thought to turn it on its head, and I thought, I have no idea where that goes! I need to follow that. And I still don’t know exactly, but I’ve got the bones of a pilot, and we’re going to see where that leads.
Jake: I’m glad you brought that up because outlining is very important when you’re working on a series, because you’ve got a team that’s going to have to be able to work together. At the same time, many writers get confused about how outlines are supposed to work. They believe that the outline is supposed to tie everything up with a bow. And I think that leads to exactly what you’re talking about, which is dead writing.
The way I look at it, my job is actually to paint myself into a corner that I don’t know how to get out of! Because if I don’t know how to get out of it, then certainly the character does not know how to get out of it. And then certainly the audience can’t predict how they’re going to get out of it.
And then I’ve just got to figure out what does “out of it” look like?
You don’t need to be writing a spy thriller to do that. It can be a drama, like Remains of the Day. How is he ever going to tell her that he loves her? It’s about allowing yourself to get messy, allowing yourself to get scared, and that kind of elevates, right into like a spiritual place where you’re actually going on a journey, as opposed to being the puppet master moving the pieces around..
Jonathan: Yeah. And instead of thinking schematically. When we think schematically, we almost can’t help but be derivative. And this is such an exciting time to be a writer, and to be an emerging writer, where so many orthodoxies and rigid thought patterns of what you can and can’t do are crumbling.
And for all of the business-side difficulties that have emerged from the streamer model, the creative potential is wild. To think of something like Ted Lasso, which I know you’ve talked about, you build this whole season around this Machiavellian person, around the plot of Major League. And then when you get to the moment where it all comes out in the open, he just forgives her! It just ends, it just diffuses, because that’s what the show is about.
The show is about this unflinchingly kind man dropped into this poisoned world, and how the world changes around him. And whether or not they’re winning soccer games, sure, it has some consequences for the team. But it doesn’t really matter in the show. The meat is the characters. That is radical. When I saw that, my wife and I were watching it and I was agape. My jaw was on the floor.
Do you understand what path they just took? That’s not how that’s supposed to work! He’s supposed to blow up at her. And there’s supposed a huge falling out. And then that’s the cliffhanger that’s going to platform you into Season 2. Now we have this major problem and this rift between these two characters… And instead they just were like, Nah, I forgive you.
Jake: Yeah, I was thinking about what we were discussing about research before. I was thinking about The Offer. I’m teaching a Masterclass on The Offer so it’s in my brain right now. And, so much of The Offer isn’t true.
Without ruining the show for anyone, they’re building a mafia story around the story of the making of The Godfather. And the mafia story, the mafia characters, are echoing lines from The Godfather and scenarios from The Godfather, but they’re gentle riffs.
Some of the people who were involved in The Godfather were upset: oh, that’s not exactly what happened. But as a piece, it is built out of the real stories of the making of The Godfather. But as a concept, the whole thing–the last episode isn’t perfect– but the whole thing is just such a joy!
And again, it’s completely wild. It is a completely wild choice that grows out of what’s true.
Jonathan: I love that play within a play, art imitates life frame.
Jake: We live at this incredible time. When I was coming up, TV was where you went to die, and now we’re living in this incredible time where you can take risks and where studios and streaming services are making money taking risks in this space. It’s incredibly empowering.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about working with writers. You’re going to be teaching Protrack for us, which is our mentorship program where we pair your One-on-One with Jonathan and he’ll read every page you write and work with you through your script, and through every draft you write, and mentor you for your whole career if you want.
We’re also, hopefully, in the winter, going to be offering a Writer’s Room class with you where it’s run like a real writers room and you’re the showrunner and we have students in the room who are each working on their own project as part of the group.
So I would love for you to talk a little bit, philosophically, about how you think about teaching. How do you think about working on scripts by new writers?
Jonathan: There are two things for me. I would imagine there are more things for you! For those that may not know Jake is an incredible teacher. There are teaching givens and orthodoxies because there are fundamentals that we need to understand about the field and we need to be able to apply to our own work.
And I like to use the word orthodoxies, because once you get to a higher level of skill and a familiarity in your toolkit, you realize that most things aren’t rules, that exceptions will pop up for things, and that it can eventually become limiting to say to yourself, well, now there has to be this big blow up because she’s confessed to Ted that she’s been trying to ruin the team. There was somebody who said, No, I’m going to buck that, and they made magic.
That’s not a great place to start with young writers, because you need to really understand the fundamentals of drama first. There’s that toolkit that’s kind of constant. What are these elements of seeing. How do we arrive at structure? How does structure arise out of character?
But then there’s also the piece of it that’s very individualized. And that’s very idiosyncratic. And that’s writer led. And I think it’s crucial to be able to hear and discern the excitement, and the zest, and where the love is, and where the fun is. Helping younger writers and emerging writers understand where they want to go, and what about this brings them alive.
And the project, the challenges to a specific page, to a specific script, to a specific project, are always going to be opportunities to keep returning to those fundamentals. But it’s a deeply personal and, I believe, spiritual thing, to try to help someone find their uniqueness in their voice.
I know you talk about this a lot, I really do believe that what we do is Promethean. We’re fire thieves. We’ve gone up there, and we’ve got a hold of something that’s alive. And it’s hot. And it’s dangerous. And even if it’s a sweet story about an animated dog that’s the best friend of a sick child, there’s something that is in that writer for whom this is deeply personal and resonant.
And your job as a mentor is to help them get down off the mountain without that fire going out. That’s the way that I like to think of it. And it’s hard to break that down into process because the fire is different every time and the writer is different every time and the descent is different every time.
The goal is to steal the fire and bring it to the people who need it.
Jake: Well, Jonathan, thank you so much. This was a fantastic podcast, we are so fortunate to have you on our faculty.
If you’d like to study with Jonathan, you can meet with him online from anywhere in the world.
Jonathan, if there’s one piece of advice that you would want to leave writers with? What would that be?
Jonathan: It would be surrender to the process and surrender to the fact that this is a life and a way of life. We get so obsessed with a specific result, but we don’t control the results.
If we are not able to surrender to the process of living and surrender to chance and circumstance and let the results take care of themselves, we can really hurt our effort to be successful and to get our stories out there and share them with people.
The results: that’s the universe’s problem. If your dream is to win an Oscar, that’s a dream. That’s not a goal. You can’t make that happen. But you can show up every day with an open heart, at your table. And any and all success emerges from that. It’s not the other way around.
Jake: That is really beautiful. Jonathan, what a wonderful place for us to end. Thank you so much for being part of the podcast and for coming aboard at the studio.
Jonathan: Thank you so much for having me. Yes. Very excited.
*Edited for length and clarity.