Stephen Molton is a Pulitzer Prize nominated author, screenwriter, producer, professor, artist, and former television executive with a passion for writing and teaching.
Harper Collins published Stephen’s first novel, Brave Talk in 1987. His most recent book, Brothers in Arms: The Kennedys, the Castros and the Politics of Murder (co-authored with Gus Russo), was published in 2008 by Bloomsbury USA which nominated it for the Pulitzer Prize. He has written movies and miniseries for Showtime, New Line Cinema, Paramount Pictures and Viacom Networks, and produced two documentary features. His latest movie, Border Crossing, adapted from the novel by Pat Barker and co-written with Frank Pugliese (House of Cards) was released in 2017.
As an HBO, MTV, and Showtime executive, Molton developed such TV productions as Elvis Meets Nixon, Harlan County War, Charms for the Easy Life, Tricks and Hiroshima. Molton serves as a popular professor of screenwriting at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and he has taught at NYU’s Tisch School, SUNY Stony Brook/Southampton, the TV Writers Studio/Long Island University, and the Mediterranean Film Institute/Athens.
We’re living in what some people call the “Golden Age of TV.” Do you see this Golden Age continuing for awhile, or changing soon?
It’s actually sort of a third Golden Age. The first was in the 1950s (Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theater, Philco Playhouse, etc.), the era of the earliest TV writers, Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal, Lillian Hellman, Horton Foote, and the upstarts at the Actors Studio. The second came with cable TV which widened the audience. Now this third one, where much of the indie film movement has found itself, is producing even more radical programming. I think it will continue because the platforms keep expanding, the business models keep evolving to monetize it, and America and the world are in a state of unprecedented flux. Globally, we are the story crossroads and stories are constantly prefiguring the next human reality, even as they’re reflecting it.
What makes a good TV Pilot?
A “good TV pilot” is one that takes us to the edge of a gravitational force field, a labyrinth full of possible paths or what the industry calls a “story engine.” (I prefer an architectural and psychological metaphor to a mechanical one.) It’s generally a story that is operating on all levels of conflict, internal, interpersonal, and societal, and it’s mostly reliant on two things, vivid characters (including at least one antagonist) and an irresistible World of some kind; that is, a multi-dimensional honeycomb of possible interactions. I always say that watching a movie is like going on a road trip. Watching a pilot is more like moving in to a “wondrous strange” apartment building full of light and shadow.
You teach the TV Drama class here, what was with the ending of LOST?
LOST got lost way before that last episode, if you ask any of the show’s writers. The show was a genre trickster, actually the most genre-busting series on TV at the time. It went through genres like Louis Armstrong went through handkerchiefs onstage, with crazy delight. Really. It went from disaster drama to mystical / science fiction to supernatural thriller to scientific mystery to wilderness soap opera to religious fantasy and then it just…exploded, I guess…
You’ve worked on books, TV, and film. Do you approach writing for each of these mediums differently?
Yes, just the same way that actors use different muscles if they’re projecting their voices under a proscenium arch or murmuring in front of a camera. Each medium has different elasticity and charm, and you get used to its story capacities. For example, TV is actually more a descendant of theatre and radio than of film because it’s so much more dialogue-driven than movies are. We watch movies. We tend to listen to TV, so you write them differently. Books, or course, allow you to veer in and out through the subjective realms, directly, whereas in a movie it’s more necessary to portray the inner lives of characters through their words and actions.
What makes a story compelling? What pulls people in to keep watching, or keep reading a story?
What makes a story compelling is how it disrupts a life at the outset. We are story-telling animals because we are all having these intense internal discussions with ourselves so we need stories to help us sort out our own, much as we ponder our dreams when we wake up. A great story begins with a life thrown out of balance and a character who must take action some-how to re-balance it, knowing that in all likelihood, the newly re-balanced life will be quite different from the former one.
Do you have any favorite writers working right now?
Oh, boy…. Favorite writers, I don’t know. I loved what Sarah Treem did on “In Treatment.” I’m smitten by the work of many others, from whoever it was who wrote “Bloodlines” to J. J. Abrams to David Mamet. There’s such an embarrassment of riches on the writing front that it’s hard to know where to begin.
What TV Shows really stand out to you right now?
The stand-outs for me lately have been “The Leftovers” which deals in a very nuanced way w/ questions of belief and dread and the fracturing of community, themes that are sort of inexhaustible in today’s society, it seems to me. On a completely different trajectory, I thought that “Downton Abbey” had a certain power to engage, on the heals of movies like Altman’s “Gosford Park” and “Remains of the Day.” A guilty pleasure, sort of. We’re enchanted by wealth and privilege, when it isn’t grotesque. We’re reassured by the loyalty of the working class, but deep down, in this very American way, we know that the class distinctions finally give way to what we all have in common, morally and emotionally speaking. We recognize our inter-reliance or it all just falls into revolution, for better or for worse. “Sherlock” interests me sometimes, in and out.
Working on any projects of yours outside the studio you want to shamelessly plug?
I just finished a film with Bette Gordon, an indie based on Pat Barker’s novel, “Border Crossing.” The film itself is called “The Drowning,” starring Josh Charles, Julia Stiles, and a terrific up-and-comer named Avan Jogia. ‘Other things percolating. Stay tuned!
If you could bring three movies with you to a desert island, what three movies would you bring?
Three movies to a desert island…. Hmm. Well, today they would be “The Great Beauty,” “Selma,” and “Wings of Desire.” Tomorrow, could be anything. By this November, who knows…? “The Great Dictator,” “Primary Colors,” and “Reds,” maybe…
“Working with Steve has been invaluable to me as a writer. Whatever story you’re telling, Steve is wholly invested in it – the theme, the voice, the characters – but honestly, what has kept me working with him for so long is his investment in me as a writer and a person – and my work is all the better for it. He is the kind of mentor you need – someone who listens for the story you are trying to tell and challenges you to dig deep to tell it as best you can. He is always willing to field questions that delve into the business of screenwriting – thoughts on coverage (good or bad), agents and managers, bibles, developing a strong body of work – no matter how neurotic I get with those questions. I am incredibly grateful for the Jacob Krueger Studio and its ProTrack program which gives people like me, who don’t currently live in New York or L.A., an opportunity to work with someone of Steve’s caliber.”
“Steve was an incredible teacher. I learned so much from the class and the one on one session. He is an absolute natural when it comes to teaching. Steve was informative, extremely knowledgeable, warm, friendly and engaging. He paced each class efficiently and everyone received adequate time to share their work and to receive feedback. His written feedback was also extremely helpful and thorough. My writing grew tremendously from his class. He genuinely cares about his students and their success, and in each session, there was such an enthusiastic vibe. All of those qualities you’d want in a teacher can’t really be taught. But again, Steve is a natural at being a naturally outstanding and gifted instructor. I would definitely take more of his classes. Unfortunately, at the time, my almost zero finances, won’t allow it. But thank you for offering such amazing courses. I’m grateful to have been a student at JK, and for having Steve Molton as a teacher.”
“Steve was incredible to work with. I really appreciated his notes, his patience, his experience and his genuine passion for the story I was telling. I would absolutely recommend him as an instructor and would definitely consider taking another class with him if I could afford it.”
“I worked with Stephen privately after developing an original series in his TV Drama Intensive. Both the class and the session were remarkable. My goals were more than met. I came away with a pilot episode and a rough bible and a whole world of questions to sustain the project over multiple seasons. It was my first time diving into speculative/sci-fi as a genre and I could not have had a more brilliant mentor to witness the work as it grew. Steve is fiercely engaged with the world, morally, humanly, and artistically. He’s nurturing and expansive while having experience and savvy in the industry. His written notes on my pilot were incredibly valuable, focusing on micro choices line by line and meta structural concerns. My pilot has placed for the Sundance Episodic Lab, the Blacklist/Women in Film Episodic Lab, and I have my second meeting with a producer in LA this month who I pitched and has now read the pilot. I have taken many classes along the way and Steve’s was the best, by far. Not only did he get me and excite my writer like no other teacher, but the atmosphere of his “writer’s room” created really special chemistry amongst the participants. I came out of the class with two trusted writers who I trade reads with constantly. He’s incredible.”