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Exclusive Interviews

Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian

By | Exclusive Interviews

Sev Ohanian and Aneesh Chaganty, who won the 2014 Script Pipeline First Look Project and placed as 2015 Screenwriting finalists for their script Animal Heist, have been steadily building the foundation for a phenomenal career. Their thriller Searching, starring John Cho, was picked up by Sony at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival for $5 million and released to massive critical acclaim. Their next feature, Run, will be produced by Lionsgate.

You originally thought of Searching as a short, and then turned it into a feature. Was the development process as grueling as one would naturally believe it to be? And how did you find a way to make the “gimmick” so. . . un-gimmicky? 

Aneesh: So the only reason we ever decided to expand it from 8 minutes to a feature film is because we found a way not to make it a gimmick. And ultimately, if I had to give one answer as to why it didn’t feel like a gimmick it’s because it was emotional. We had come up with the opening scene, the opening montage–in a weird way–to prove that even though this wasn’t the first film made taking place on screens, in a lot of ways, hopefully it would be the first one that felt cinematic. Something thrilling that makes you forget what you’re watching is on screens. And to us, if we could execute that for 90 minutes, let’s go in that direction.

But in order to do that, essentially we had to pay attention to story structure and make sure that whatever we were doing we never did it twice. We were following a very classic, almost basic screenwriting structure, but within that structure, constantly evolving every beat. So we told ourselves to, for example, never have two iMessage conversations. Like everything is happening once. We studied every button on a computer screen and asked what the emotional implication of this is, where in the story does this implication belong. . . .

If you had been in the position where you had to circulate this script cold to industry, as great as it is, do you think it would have had a tough time gaining traction? It’s just a script that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated, right?

Sev: I think if I’m being honest and blunt: between my reputation as a producer, Aneesh’s job as a former Google director, making commercials, and the strength of the script itself. . . I have a feeling we probably could have found a decent amount of success. And also, not to mention, the prior success of Unfriended. Because this isn’t the first movie made on a computer screen. For us, just the sheer fact that it wasn’t a spec, it was always a writing assignment, made us never even think about that question. At no point in the months or years that Aneesh and I have been writing partners did we ever think, “let’s write a spec of a movie that takes place on computer screens.” This is entirely a result of Bazelevs [producers of Searching] liking us and asking us to present them something.

I don’t think I’ve seen a writer/director duo hustle on the marketing front as much as you two have. It’s crucial, and I know your bona fide motivation is fueled 100% by how much you believe in this film. And rightfully so. But given the storytelling logistics and the hurdles in carving out an identity for the film, was there ever a point in the development or production process, even in the days before Sundance, where you were like “is this even gonna work? Will audiences get it?” Did doubt ever start to creep in, or did you know for certain you had a hit on your hands before the Sony pickup?

Aneesh: Every day. Every day we wondered.

I mean, ultimately, our bet was that by basing this extremely unconventional visual style in a classic and studied and timeless structure, in a lot of ways, we would be making something that marries those two extremes, but at the end of the day, what we were trying to do was something that had never been done before. And when you’re doing that, you just don’t know if people are going to like it or if it’s going to be good. We had strong instincts, we had strong feelings that the final product would turn out well. But there were times at every stage of the process–whether it was in the writing, in the production, the pre-production, or in the year and a half we spent editing–where we were wondering “is this gonna be worth it? Is this something that’s actually gonna be capital G good?” As opposed to an interesting experiment.

And that was our bet, but it was a bet we were making. We really didn’t know until that first screening on January 20th [2018] at Sundance when we were like “That paid off. . . . All of that paid off.”

You were a finalist in the 2015 Script Pipeline Screenwriting season and won the 2014 First Look Project (Action/Adventure) for a script called Animal Heist. It was clear to us you both had serious writing chops. But on the spectrum of genres, that script would fall somewhere around the polar opposite of Searching. How do you manage to find such a tremendous range?

Sev: What we’ve worked on, or written, or will make is always going to be less about the genre and more about the experience of the read and the “watch” of the movie. We’re really drawn to engaging and propulsive stories that have a real momentum and don’t waste time in getting the story started. But at its core, there always has to be a gooey center of heart. I think that’s reflected in Searching, and it was certainly reflected in Animal Heist (for you and the other two people who ever read that script). Our next one we have set up (Run) is also a thriller, but the one we want to do beyond that is not necessarily a thriller, and we have so many more that, hopefully, we get a chance to make someday. They’re all going to be different genres, but they’ll always be connected by the fact that they’ll be engaging, propulsive, and still have a big emotional core at its center.

Should writers only pursue stories they’re passionate about, or, what now seems like a generic tip, should they stick to a certain genre? Personally, I think the latter has always been patently false–and frankly, really bad advice–but it’s subjective. How does one give themselves a chance to get noticed?

Aneesh: Good question. No screenwriters I know are like “I can only do one thing.” We all grew up on a love of movies, not a love of genre, for the most part. Slumdog Millionaire is one of my favorite movies ever, and it’s not a thriller, but it feels thrilling. As a brand, I do think establishing yourself early on in your career (which is where I think we are right now) is important, but the brand doesn’t have to be the same answer everyone else has. There just has to be something very specific. For us, every single thing we’ve done has dealt with parents and kids. Whether it’s Animal Heist or the Google blast commercial Seige or Searching or our next movie, which is a mother and daughter, and the one after that about a father and son. . . . Within that, hopefully, we have stories that are, as Sev said, propulsive.

I think it’s an easier sell to anybody when you can package yourself in some way, but you don’t have to be limited by the connotations the word “brand” gets you. You can create your own definition of what that is and make it understandable and clear from your work.

Safe to assume, any great script or pitch that crosses your field of vision, you’ll want to jump on. But when pursuing new projects, do you have a preference between developing material yourself from the ground up, or finding new scripts to produce or direct?

Sev: I think we’re open, but because we knew in the middle of making Searching what our next script would be and are now about to embark on that journey, we already know what the one beyond that’s going to be.

But we’re human at the end of the day. Aneesh and I had a pretty frank conversation with each other a few months ago. We realized that, even though we had a spreadsheet with literally a hundred ideas–what we call “story molecules”–we should be more realistic and remember that, besides being writing partners, Aneesh is a director and I’m a producer, and there’s only so much somebody can direct or produce.

This might seem so far off your radar right now, but: you totally have to make Animal Heist. We recall it getting good feedback from industry, however it was admittedly a tricky one to place given the type of premise. Elevate and reframe as an animated feature. . . ? An option, anyway.

Aneesh: Honestly, yeah. I think we could go in any direction. I mean, looking back on it, Animal Heist was the first thing we wrote together. It was the first time we both got excited about something, and we learned a lot from the entire experience. Not only on what to write and how to write, how to work together, but also what not to do. What to avoid. One of the things I look at now about Animal Heist is “yeah. . . that’s a harder sell.” With Searching, I can pitch it to you–it’s a thriller, this is what it’s about, it’s a very clear package. Animal Heist is a lot different. Is it a PG movie? It is a G movie? Is it a PG-13 movie? Is it live-action or animated? There are a lot of questions up in the air.

I think absolutely it can be an animated film. In fact, that’s not the first time I’ve heard that. At this point, whatever anyone wants to take it as, let’s go in that direction. What I love about that script is the impression of “what exactly is this?” has taught us to answer that question on every single film from now on. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say, too, that without Animal HeistSearching wouldn’t exist. Aside from the fact that it was our first time working together, it’s a huge-scale heist movie with so many machinations and moving parts. All of those elements are very much present in Searching. The complexity of figuring out how to pull off a heist movie is probably not that much harder than having to pull off the actual heist. And with Searching, the main thing is that it’s a mystery, and what are mysteries if not puzzles? So it prepared us to be disciplined, how to reveal each piece.

Humility aside–because everyone realizes Searching is destined, on some level, for cinema history–what’s the dream project you would love to be a part of and is now (or can be) within reach?

Sev: I’ll let Aneesh answer this one.

Aneesh: Oh yeah, I know why Sev let me answer this. . . because the answer is very simple. It’s Mission Impossible.

Mission Impossible is one of the big reasons I make movies in the first place. I grew up going to watch those movies, and I am a completely unchained Tom Cruise fan. Everything that he does is gold. I think he’s the last movie star, and it would be an honor of honors to have a chance to make (hopefully) the final Mission Impossible movie with him. A Mission Impossible that makes you cry would be really, really cool.

Sev: You want to have, like, Logan but Mission Impossible.

Aneesh: It would just be called Ethan, I think.

Sev: What about Mission Impossible: Animal Heist?

Aneesh: . . . we could think about it.

It’s different for every person in the industry. For you two, what is the absolute ultimate peak career mark? Or–is there a peak?

Sev: Man, I don’t know. . . .

I think that’s a problem Aneesh and I probably both share, in that we both tend to be perfectionists. That mark? I would have probably told you two years ago it’d be to write a script together that gets into Sundance, and now the mark has changed, and it’s going to keep changing. It’s part of what drives us. And it’s hard to ever feel as accomplished as you can be–there’s always more to do.

If I can have a filmography that’s mainstream–specifically mainstream–and progressive, that would be awesome. Putting out pure emotion and getting rid of the negative connotation surrounding the word “mainstream” would be great. Most of what we get these days is just recycled, manufactured material, but if we can push mainstream back in an original direction and in an emotional direction, I think it would be a very cool achievement.

But. . . ask us again in 6 years. In the context of achievement, if you had asked us this question 5 years ago, the answer would have been to write something that would get the attention of a script competition. The first competition we submitted to was you guys [Script Pipeline]. I specifically remember we entered having no clue whether we were halfway decent writers, and then I’ll never forget the day where, Matt, I think you called me directly and I was like, “yo, did you call the right number? Are you sure?” I called Aneesh right after and said “dude, we won.”

It was completely “okay, cool. . . we may not suck at this, and we can probably keep going.” Thank you guys for being the first people who ever told us that we could put a couple words together.

Follow Sev: Twitter | Instagram

Follow Aneesh: Twitter | Instagram

Nick Watson

By | Exclusive Interviews

Nick Watson landed on Script Pipeline’s radar in 2015 when he placed as a runner-up in the Great TV Show Idea Competition with his pitch for Mr. Doom, an animated series. After reviewing several of Nick’s scripts in the years following, it was clear he was destined for a career in TV writing. That prophecy rang true: he went on to write for Hasbro’s Littlest Pet Shop, and in 2018, joined the staff of the TBS animated series Final Space.

We’ve had a lot of incredible writers over the past 20 years from outside the United States. Canada, the UK, and Australia mostly. Strangely enough (and I have no evidence why this is the case, but I’ve been around long enough to claim it as truth) so many of the best non-US writers come from Australia. . . . Are they teaching something magically different, or is the culture for emerging writers more supportive and structured as far as education? Do you feel as though you built, or were provided, a solid foundation before coming to Los Angeles?

Funnily enough, I’d say it’s almost the opposite. The Australian entertainment industry is so small and under-funded that the kind of opportunities available here in the U.S. (internships, assistant jobs, writers’ PA and writers’ assistant positions) are almost non-existent in Australia. So I think it’s a survival of the fittest thing, where those of us who want it the most are forced to seek out every resource and every avenue available to try to build our careers. Whether it’s making our own stuff, voraciously reading screenwriting books, listening to podcasts, attending conferences, or for many, packing up and moving overseas to where the opportunities actually are. Only the most determined, persistent, and passionate writers will keep at it, because it’s just so hard to even get that first foot in the door. So those who are here really want it.

In terms of education, I’d say Australia is about on-par with anywhere else, but the main issue is that the biggest benefit of a lot of film schools is the prestige of the name, and the alumni network and resources. You lose all that when you have to move to an entirely new country in order to get work.

You’re facing a lot of the same obstacles climbing the ladder as someone who was bred in LA, but besides the logistical hiccups, have you had to adapt your style of writing? Your approach? Comedy is comedy, right? It’s universal?

From a more technical standpoint, it actually took me a while to adjust to writing in American English rather than Australian/British English. Not just the spelling–like z’s instead s’s, and cutting the u’s after the o’s–but also certain words we use that you guys don’t. Like I was writing ‘fairy floss’ for ‘cotton candy’, or ‘cupboard’ for ‘closet’, little things that might throw an American reader off. Also it’s worth noting that scripts in Australia are written on A4 paper, not Letter. This means that each page has about an inch more room for dialogue and action, so when you convert your scripts across to the US format, suddenly your script is 5 pages too long.

From a creative standpoint, I do think comedy is pretty universal. There are cultural tendencies–Australians and Brits tend to like awkward cringe-humor and absurdism a little more, but we’re all raised on American TV and movies, so most of us are inspired by similar things and have the same touchstones. When writing for animation, the universality of story and comedy is especially apparent because they end up dubbing your work into a dozen different languages and streaming it around the world. Writing something that’s going to be viewed by people of all age ranges and cultures teaches you to rely less heavily on clever language for your jokes and lean more into visual humor. Stuff that’s universally relatable and funny.

Your comic timing is excellent, your writing is sound. TV is just your wheelhouse, from our vantage point. While it’s not surprising, how did you end up on Final Space?

As with all of these things, it was a number of factors coming together at once, plus good timing, and a bit of luck. I had seen Olan’s Final Space pilot that he made with New Form when it came out on YouTube and fell in love with it years before it was going to be made into a TV series. The next time he was in L.A., we grabbed coffee and kept in touch. When I heard from my agent that Final Space was staffing up, she hit up the network, studio, and production company to submit my material, and I reached out to Olan. He told me to send him my script, and literally two days later, I had a meeting with him and the showrunner, plus a couple of the execs from New Form and Conaco. It went great, we all really clicked, and after one last meeting with the network, I found out I got the job. I’ve been a life-long sci-fi nerd and animation fan, so being able to combine the two on this show was like a dream come true.

Writer X, fresh out of college, wants to work on a TV series. There are 50 different roads leading to that reality, right? So this answer is going to be subjective, but what do you think is the best road? Or to make it easier: some of the best roads?

In my eyes, the assistant track is the best way to learn how this industry works from the inside-out and gain a lot of really valuable knowledge that will serve you well later in your career. Plus–most importantly–meet the right people. And I’m not talking about just meeting big-name execs, or writers, or producers. I mean meeting the other assistants and coordinators and people at your level who you’re going to grow with, and help each other out, and in 5-10 years are going to become those execs, writers, and producers. I think if you’re not on the ground in L.A. and working in (or adjacent to) the entertainment industry, you’re going to find it much harder to ‘break in.’ It’s not impossible by any means, but be aware that it’s going to take both more time and more effort on your part.

New writers seem to get a lot of recycled advice. Not bad advice, per se, but perpetually the same advice. One of those being the unapologetically ambiguous “go network.” Because “you have to know someone” to break in. Aside from the obvious–that, yeah, everyone has to know someone at some point to do much of anything–what is the reality of networking, what does it mean, and how important is it to meet as many people as possible? Especially for someone who, in all likelihood, came to Los Angeles “cold,” with few open doors to Hollywood.

Aside from the actual writing, I’d say networking is probably the second most important thing that a writer can do. TV Writing is an inherently social job: you’re sitting in a room with 10 other people for 8-12 hours a day, 5 days a week, talking. Your bread-and-butter when you’re looking for work as a writer is taking meetings, so one of the most important skills you can have is to be able to make a good impression on other people on a regular basis. You will have your ‘about me’ spiel nailed down and regurgitate it about a hundred times a year, so start practicing now. That’s not to say it’s all soulless and manipulative, in reality it feels more like constantly making new friends and acquaintances, and building genuine relationships, rather than ‘contacts’ that you can ‘use.’

One of the most important things I did when I moved to LA and didn’t know anyone was to get to know some people. Even that final step before you get a job as a TV writer, the showrunner meeting, is a social ‘test’ to see if you would be good in the room. And the way you’re going to keep getting work after that is through other writers you have worked with, who want to work with you again. I can confidently say that if you hole yourself up in your room and just write and never make an effort to meet people, it will be very difficult to have a successful career as a writer, at least for TV. So go to mixers, drinks, networking events–plan your own things and invite people to those. Be unashamed about your hobbies and interests, and find kindred spirits in the industry. The best relationships you’ll build are the ones where you barely talk about ‘the industry’ at all.

We know plenty of writers who have sold specs, who have had films produced, been staffed on shows, worked in high-ranking capacities on cable and network television. . . and it’s still a struggle. Creatives in general are in this constant loop of trying to prove themselves. Which in a way is a good thing, it helps weed out the ones who aren’t serious about their craft. Still: how do you stay motivated?

It’s tough. I think all writers struggle with impostor syndrome, that feeling of not being good enough, like somehow you’re just fooling people that you’re good enough and they’re all going to find out and you’ll be exposed as a fraud. Even when you’re sitting in a writers’ room, getting paid to write because a dozen people all believed in you enough to give you that job over 200 others, it can be hard to shake. A lot of people have an idealized vision of the life of a writer, where you’re employed year-round in a cushy job where you get to tell jokes and make up stories for a living. Instead, it’s more like finally getting your dream job only to be fired every six months because your company may or may not exist anymore.

The best way I’ve found to stay motivated is to get some perspective. To look back at how far you’ve come from where you started. It’s easy to downplay your achievements when you accrue them gradually. “Oh, it’s just a freelance script,” or, “just a staff writer job,” all the way up to, “oh it was just an Emmy nomination“. But if you had a chance to go back and tell your younger self what you’re doing now, chances are they would be pretty stoked. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs in your career, so make sure you give yourself permission to be happy in those moments where you have achieved something.

What has been the high point of your career? *so far, anyway

It’s kind of simple, but I remember watching a video of the unveiling of Littlest Pet Shop: A World of Our Own at Hascon in Rhode Island, and there were a room full of kids with their parents watching this panel. When the exec said they were going to show them an episode from the show, this adorable cheer went up from the children in the audience. It was pure, unadulterated joy and excitement. I got teary thinking that something I had made was bringing that kind of happiness to kids all over the world, and that a generation was going to grow up watching it, like I had with my favorite animation when I was a kid. That feeling of your work really making a difference, no matter how small, and meaning something, was everything I could have hoped for.

. . . that, or getting to do the Final Space Virtual Reality experience at Comic Con 2018 that I helped create. Putting on the goggles and floating around in space with the characters I had just spent a season writing for was pretty damn cool.

Nick Watson

Nick is a TV comedy and animation writer originally from Australia, where he wrote for 3 seasons of late-night comedy and taught screenwriting at the University of Melbourne. Since moving to LA, he has worked as a Creative Executive, was a freelance writer for Hasbro Studios’ Littlest Pet Shop: A World of Our Own and joined the staff of TBS’ animated comedy series Final Space in 2018 during their second season. Nick was a finalist in the 2015 Script Pipeline Great TV Show Idea Competition, with his animated sitcom pilot Mr. Doom.

Follow Nick: Twitter

Heidi Nyburg

By | Exclusive Interviews

Heidi Nyburg followed up her top 10 finalist placing in Script Pipeline’s TV Writing Competition with a win in the 2017 Script Pipeline First Look Project for her pilot Silicon Curve. The series is loosely based on the story of her mother working in the male-dominated 1970s Silicon Valley. Soon after her win, the pilot garnered attention from producers and managers. She writes both features and TV material.

You’ve worked in entertainment for a while, but what made you jump into screenwriting? 

If by “for a while” you mean directed a few shorts and produced a feature in college, then yes, I am clearly an industry veteran. The truth is I started late, I did things backward, got the job first, then went to college. I have always loved writing, and while working as an analyst at Netflix, I took a weekend TV writing class at a community college in Cupertino. I knew that having story ideas wasn’t enough, it’s all in the execution, and I wanted to create something real. Later, I went back to college and studied television and film at San Jose State University. I took a screenwriting class there, and the first week, the professor used my scene as an example in class. We cast it, did a little table read, and everyone laughed in the right places. It was fun. I think I still have the audio recording because I thought it was really special to have that opportunity, and I’m kind of sappy like that. Looking back, it was pretty awful, so much description. I wrote my first feature in that class and then was invited to take the masters class as an undergrad.

But I think it was taking the UCLA professional programs in both TV and film that really solidified it for me. I had some fantastic teachers. The late John Sweet was an inspirational mentor to me, and Chuck Kim in the TV writing program. Both were instrumental in helping me elevate my writing. They asked good questions, which really pushed me to get to the root of the stories I was writing.

Although you’ve written features, it’s been your pilots that have cracked through (at least with Script Pipeline). For up-and-coming writers who kind of straddle the line, writing features and TV material equally, what are some of the key takeaways that help you transition between both? 

I started out writing features, and I’ll always be drawn to writing them. You get the entire story, it’s full circle. But I think I’ve focused on TV more because of the fantasy, the dream, of being able to see what the characters do next. I know none of my shows are shows yet, but I firmly believe that if you are going to do something, do it with the intent and the belief and the work ethic to make the end goal happen. That’s a super long and wordy way of saying act as if. If I’m writing a show, I’m writing the bible, too. I’m doing everything possible to make it a thing. Writing television offered more for me in terms of building a long-term world and characters I’d want to follow. And transitioning back and forth, I found that writing for TV has improved my feature writing. Learning to write act breaks in television and then transferring that technique to film scripts has helped me tremendously to create scenes that push the story forward. Even if you’re writing for streaming or premium cable where there are no commercial breaks, you still write to them, so that skill translates really well to film. I think every good film does that, every scene should be compelling enough to work as an act break.

I guess the takeaway is to let the lessons from one platform of writing spill over into your other writing. Be fluid about it and see what serves the story best. If you have a feature you’ve written that feels like it has more there, try rewriting it as a pilot. It worked for Sam Esmail with Mr. Robot.

Writers are bound to receive tons of advice. Some of it. . . well, probably unsolicited. Who were the figures that motivated you to keep it up–and more importantly, what guidance did they impart that continues to carry you through from script to script? How does a writer decide what advice to take and what advice to abandon? There can only be one direction, after all. At some point do you just trust your gut instinct?

I’ve been pretty lucky in that everyone around me has been supportive and encouraging. From my neighbor who listens to pitch after pitch on our walks, to friends who read drafts. And my husband, who has read everything I’ve written more times than I have and who has gotten quite good at giving serious notes. To put it diplomatically, he’s very objective. He reads my work like a loveless stranger; no holds barred. It’s kinda sexy, actually.

The least supportive person has been me. You know that voice that pops up? The “you’re not good enough” voice. “Who do you think you are? You’ll never be Shonda Rhimes.” Yes, that voice can be painfully specific. I spend some time pushing that stuff away. Ultimately, though, whenever I’ve thought of giving up, some bright spot will reveal itself, and I’ll laugh about ever contemplating it. I think this goes for anything you do that’s competitive and requires a person to keep trying harder: you reach a point where it’s more difficult psychologically to not pursue the goal than it is to pursue the goal. Giving up is always harder. It’s the death of a dream, and who wants that?

Advice to take or to abandon (I’m going to take that to mean notes). . . . I’m just gonna say it: I love notes. Notes are a gift. Whether at face value or for the note behind the note. The fact that someone took the time to read words that came out of my head still blows my mind. Most notes are incredibly helpful, and all notes have a spirit of the note that has something to reveal.

As for deciding whether or not to use a note, I think about it a lot. I play the change out in my head, play out the ramifications. Some of the best notes have been ones where initially I’m almost repulsed by the idea, something that feels really backward. Sometimes it’s a note I’ve given myself. Something doesn’t feel right about a plot point, but I’ve been living with it so long it’s like a comfortable old sofa. So do the hard work, try to apply the note, make the change that seems impossible. Every single time, the story will be better for having done so. Even if you don’t end up using the feedback, the exercise of trying to use it will always be useful. I think the important thing to remember when receiving notes is to listen graciously. Every person who reads your work has a whole world they bring to the table, different perspectives, experience. Take it all in and decide what works best for the story.

And yeah, at some point it is a gut instinct. But most of the time, for me, it involves some insomnia. What if it doesn’t work? Ah, but what if it does?

Silicon Curve stood out to us on a number of levels regarding the writing, but also conceptually. It’s very “right now.” And such a stellar role for an actress. What made you decide to pursue it as a series? How much did your childhood and your mother’s experiences play a factor, maybe not in the direction of the plot, but the themes and some of the character inspirations.

Initially, I pursued the story because I kept noticing that the people talking about the birth of technology in the Valley were mostly men. And that’s not meant to sound anti-male-accomplishment at all. Yay men. It’s just that I knew, first hand, that there was a lot more story to tell. Growing up in Silicon Valley with aunts, a grandmother, and a mother who worked in tech meant that I knew those stories very well, and I thought wow, this is something people really don’t hear much about.

Plot-wise it felt much more like a series. It has that snapshot in time quality, it’s historical, it’s recognizable, the politics are there. The women and men in this story are growing and changing along with the country and society, sometimes quickly which causes a backlash, so there are growing pains. And I think looking back on those years, we are afforded an opportunity to see what has changed and what hasn’t changed. And of course, the advancing technology is there, but more importantly, I think the characters are what drives the story, their actions and their reactions to the world.

A lot of the stories in the pilot and in the bible are based on personal experience, but there was also a ton of research involved. In terms of themes, there’s a lot going on. The pilot touches on what it’s like to be the only person you can depend upon and the alone-ness of single parenthood. The fear of leaving something not great in exchange for the unknown. I think these questions and themes are relatable. And I’ve had people say don’t make Jill (the protagonist) stay with Randy (her husband), he’s so wrong for her, we won’t like her. But she kind of has to work that out for herself. And I think that makes her more interesting. What will compel her to leave or to stay? Will she be able to be alone or will she be in relationship after relationship? I think some of those answers will come from experiences in my life, and the way things played out for my mom.

Character-wise almost every person came from an impression of someone I knew, but then I intensified that impression and often combined them with another person. And Valerie is based on a friend from high school. And yeah, I hope you’re right, I hope Jill is actress bait. She’s flawed and I think she’d be a lot of fun to play. She’s inspired by an incredibly strong woman. A woman who had only been in the country a short time, had two small children, and was trying to make it all work but also trying to have a life of her own. I think a lot of people can relate to the push-pull of wanting more, against the odds.

What do you feel is the best starting point for a writer who just finished the first draft of their script? With Silicon Curve, for example, what was your next step? Is there any hesitancy when you decide the script is ready and it’s time to circulate it to industry, platforms like Script Pipeline, etc.?

I think the best place to start when you’ve got a solid first draft–like professional, no typos, on point with the formatting and act breaks–is to submit to contests. Despite any hesitancy, if you’ve done your best, I think at some point you just have to jump in. I sought out contests that have a reputation for giving good notes. Script Pipeline was one of the first contests I entered. And when I say good notes, I don’t mean notes that just tell you all the positive things about your work. I mean solid, constructive, sometimes uncomfortable notes that help you grow and better your story.

From the polished, ready-to-move-forward draft, I kept entering and rewriting and moved from quarterfinalist, to semifinalist, up the ranks until I won a couple of times. Eventually, you get to a place where the notes are from execs or a manager and they say OK, let’s leave it alone, we have it where we want it. That can be a little scary because I’m the kind of person who would reach into the television to tweak the dialogue if I could. And then always be working on the next thing.

Full disclosure: you have a family, you have kids. . . not unlike a lot of working writers. It isn’t just about carving time to write, we realize. It’s about carving time and getting in the right frame of mind. Everyone has their own creative system. What’s yours?

For me, it’s all about compartmentalizing. I’ve always got this side brain thing going, like a backburner always thinking about the script rewrite, or the new pilot. It helps to honestly identify your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I know I’m a morning person, so I save mornings and afternoons for writing and use nights for things like online classes or webinars or emails. It helps to surround yourself with people who don’t mind non-sequitur talk about your script. Ideas come when they come, so I jot down notes in my phone a lot, bits of dialogue, a conflict to work out, a new scene.

As for getting in the right frame of mind, for me, that’s a luxury I can’t afford. It’s work. Yes, it’s work that I love but, nonetheless, it’s work that needs to get done no matter what my frame of mind is. There are much better writers out there who are always in the right frame of mind, so I have to put myself there no matter what else is going on. I give myself deadlines, sometimes contest deadlines, fellowship deadlines, and now, get new pages to the manager deadlines. Also, I learned a trick from a guy I met who wrote for Rolling Stone, he said he always quits working for the day while he’s in the middle of writing a scene. Quit while you have something going so that when you come back to the page, you are instantly engaged in a scene that is already on its way. It works for me. Also typing with my kids on my lap is an undervalued skill that I’m hoping becomes an Olympic sport because I’m getting kind of good at it.

And lastly, I think it’s important to make a commitment to yourself to push forward, to find the time to work on your craft and not give up.

Heidi Nyburg

A television and film writer originally from Silicon Valley, Heidi attended the UCLA Professional Programs in both screenwriting and writing for television and studied with Richard Walter and John Sweet. She focuses on dramatic one-hour shows that explore themes of independence, grief, and sometimes, murder. Her pilots and features have placed in several respected contests, including her feature Mock Draft, which made the top 10% at the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, and Silicon Curve, based loosely on the career of her mother, which won the 2017 Script Pipeline First Look Project. Heidi has written and produced sketches and short films and produced a feature film, the coming of age comedy Always Learning, currently seeking distribution. She is managed by Sonia Gambaro of Pollinate Entertainment.

Follow Heidi: Twitter

Tripper Clancy (Part 2)

By | Exclusive Interviews

Tripper won the 2009 Screenwriting Competition with his comedy Henry the Second. Soon after, he signed with manager Jake Wagner, leading to several studios projects sold and writing assignments with major companies. His action-comedy Stuber stars Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, and Iko Uwais. As his career continues to burn a path through Hollywood, he’s juggling multiple projects in both film and TV.

It’s been almost 10 years (…I know—that went fast) since you won the 2009 Screenwriting Competition with what was, and still is, one of the best grounded comedies we’ve read in Henry the Second. A lot has happened over that span, but everything seemed to get rolling when you signed with manager Jake Wagner. What was it that clicked? What do writers, of all levels, need to keep in mind when considering representation? 

The goal with representation—and this applies to a manager or an agent—is finding someone who actually wants to represent you as a writer and not just one piece of material you’ve written that might have a chance of selling. Unfortunately, when you’re starting out in the industry, you don’t have much choice in who reps you. You take anyone you can get, and oftentimes that person doesn’t share your vision for what your career path should look like.

I’ve enjoyed working with Jake because we have a very candid relationship, so even when I disagree with his opinion, we can have a healthy debate about it. The cold truth about representation is that when you book projects and generate income, your reps work harder for you. So the trick is finding reps that will work their ass off for you even if you’re in a slump because they know you can write your way out of it.

After winning the contest, you took part in the Fox writing program. The Ambassadors and Winter Break followed. Both were picked up. How did the program help push you forward, both in your development as a writer and your knowledge of the industry?

The Fox Writers Studio was an unbelievable experience, and I’m still friends with (and even working with) several people from that program. I’d say the most educational part of that job was working directly with studio execs at Fox, pitching them feature ideas, developing the script with them, getting their insights on a weekly basis. . . . When you’re writing a spec, you’re alone on an island, and you have no idea what producers or studio execs will think of your work. So at Fox, getting a constant window into their thought process was invaluable and definitely changed the way I think about movie concepts from a macro level.

Regardless of the fact you’re able to make a living off of writing, there’s surely a bit of frustration when a project is sold but goes unproduced, even if that’s a reality every writer recognizes. Is it easy to brush it off and move on?

No. It’s never easy to brush off a project that dies on the vine. You spent an extraordinary amount of time writing and rewriting it. A lot of times it can be really heartbreaking because there are a million ways for a feature project to fail and it’s almost never for the reason you might think. The only thing I can do is remind myself how fortunate I am to get to do this for a living, so if/when a project gets a green light, I can consider it a huge bonus. I also find it helpful not to dwell on projects after you hit send on the email and turn it into the studio. At that point, it’s out of your hands and up to the movie gods, so all you can do is move on and focus on the next thing.

Henry the Second has had some veterans (Shawn Levy and 21 Laps) shepherding it for years. What have been the diversions in getting it made?

21 Laps is still on board. It’s been a long, strange trip and I’m still hopeful that it’ll get made one day. I can’t tell you exactly why it hasn’t been made yet. We’ve come very close several times, but I think it has a lot to do with the tetris game of finding the right piece of talent for the right price who’s available at the right time and that has the right potential upside for the marketplace. Any original project that’s not based on IP has a tough road ahead, so the obstacles we’ve faced on Henry are not that uncommon. Some pretty amazing films took forever to get made, so who knows?

You sold the feature action-comedy Stuber to Fox, starring Kumail Nanjiani, Dave Bautista, and Iko Uwais. What was the process like from idea, to finished script, to getting such stellar talent attached?

Around December of 2015 my manager, Jake, sent me an email with a title (Stuber) and all he knew was maybe there was a comedy version of Collateral about an Uber driver named Stu. I have a deep love of 80s action comedies, and the characters, storyline and structure hit me immediately.

The next morning, I put together a three-page treatment and then a month or so later I had a draft of the script. It took a minute to find the right producers, and then in April of 2016, the script went out to every buyer in town, which led to Fox buying the script. After that, I did a couple of passes for the studio, and then our director, Michael Dowse, came on board, had some more notes, and then it was a matter of finding the right cast for it, which is its own rollercoaster.

I give all the credit to Dowse, the producers, and our exec at Fox for believing in the project and helping Kumail, Dave, and the rest of the cast see how much fun this movie could be. Most things in development at studios will never make it into production, which really makes you beyond grateful when it actually comes together.

Adapting a book to a screenplay with The Art of Fielding: is it a different beast, or not necessarily? How closely do you work with the author of the material, if at all?

Adapting a book is a slightly different process than working on an original idea. For starters, you have to determine how much the producers/studio execs love the material. Sometimes a place might own the rights to a book, but they’ll tell the writer: “All we really like is the basic concept, so feel free to use creative license for the rest.” The Art of Fielding is one of my favorite books of all time—I read it several years before it even became a potential job—so the producers and director and I all agreed that we’d try to stay as true to the novel as possible.

Novels don’t always have a traditional three-act structure, which is more common in features, so the first major decision is figuring out how to structure it as a movie. I spoke with the author a few times during the outline phase, which was super helpful, but then with each draft, I found myself needing to distance myself from the source material. At some point you have to ask yourself: “Am I writing the best adaptation or the best movie?” And that might mean cutting things you adore from the book or creating an extra scene here or there to bridge a storyline.

With a novel like The Art of Fielding, the characters are so rich and so layered that the most challenging obstacle for me was figuring out how to keep the thing under 125 pages.

There have been a number of other scripts—Hacker Camp with Hasbro, Stranded for Sony—all features. All comedies or a variation thereof. Is TV on the horizon? Directing?

I think every screenwriter hopes to direct one day. I will likely cross that bridge down the line, but director jobs don’t grow on trees, so I will have to wait for the right opportunity. I actually feel like producing is a kind of a parallel skillset to screenwriting, since you’re almost always wearing a producer hat, asking yourself if a particular assignment is a good fit for you, or if a spec idea has a strong enough concept to find a studio home, having to interface with studio execs, managing expectations, etc.

TV is definitely something I’d like to get into and I have one project now that’s in its early stages, but just like features, it’s not easy to get a project off the ground, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.

Dream project to write. . . .

I love writing comedies, but I always find myself gravitating toward more serious subject matter. I’m currently writing a spec that’s pretty much a dream project. It’s based on a true story and it’s not remotely funny. Will it be any good? I’d like to hope so, but who the hell knows? It’s pushing me out of my comfort zone, which is something all writers should try from time to time. Be willing to suck every once in a while!

I guess for me a “dream project” is defined as anything that I’d be pumped to see on screen, so it’s a bit of a moving target as my tastes change.

Million dollar question—and we probably know the answer. There’s no real secret to all this, right? Part timing, part skill, part luck? Should be noted, too, that you’ve always been the most gracious and modest writer we’ve come across, and that truly goes a long way in maintaining and growing a flawless reputation in Hollywood.

However, beyond the intangibles, how does a writer get noticed and stay noticed? Meaning, we always hear about the ways writers can break in, whether it’s through a discovery platform like Script Pipeline or by catching the attention of someone in an influential position, but how do you keep the fire going once you have that spark?

No simple answer here. Work ethic is a huge part of it. There’s that famous quote: “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I’ve seen that with a lot of aspiring screenwriters. They fall in love with the romantic notion of being a screenwriter more than actually being a screenwriter. It’s a job. It’s a grind. And if you aren’t willing to generate new ideas and write new pages, you’re susceptible to having a short career.

Another part of the equation that helps is if you can avoid being an asshole. I know that sounds obvious, but the notes process on a script can be daunting and exhausting, and you’ll feel like people are trying to tear down all the great work you’ve done, but you have to keep your composure and keep the debate constructive. Remind yourself that everyone involved wants the best version of this script, so if there’s a disagreement, find a polite way to get to the heart of it without making enemies and burning bridges.

Lastly, I’d say you have to find a way to put yourself in a mental state where you’re willing to absorb the ups and the downs of the job. Don’t celebrate too hard on the highs, and don’t get too depressed with the lows. Be humble and recognize that anyone who’s willing to cut you a check is helping you extend this absurd fantasy of being a screenwriter.

Tripper Clancy

After working in the Fox Writers Studio in 2011, Tripper has gone on to write comedies and dramas of all shapes and sizes for Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Fox Animation, Paramount Animation, Hasbro, Amazon, and studios abroad. His original spec script, Stuber, sold to Fox in April of 2016 and stars Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista. He is also adapting the New York Times’ bestselling novel, The Art of Fielding, for producer Mike Tollin and Mandalay Sports Media, with Craig Johnson directing. Tripper has written two foreign language films, including Wolfgang Petersen’s German bank heist comedy, Four Against the Bank, which released in 2016.

Tripper lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Maggie, and their daughters, Olive and Ruby.

Follow Tripper: Twitter

Dan Perlman

By | Exclusive Interviews

Winner of Script Pipeline’s 11th Great TV Show Idea Competition with the animated comedy pitch Pro Losers, Dan is a multifaceted talent–a writer, director, and stand-up comicScript Pipeline reviewed the pilot script based on the Pro Losers concept and gave it a Recommend, later circulating the material to industry partners. Dan’s pilot episode for his award-winning series Flatbush Misdemeanors also received high marks, with Script Pipeline execs calling it “a low-key comedy carving its own road within the genre. . . a sort of dry, eccentric hybrid of High MaintenanceAtlanta, and Louie.”

As a writer and comic, how did you first get involved in the entertainment industry? Was it writing first, then stand-up comedy? In either case, how have both of them fueled or shaped the other?

Since I was a kid, I wanted to do stand-up. Just took a while to work up the courage. I was more comfortable writing early on, because you didn’t have to be in front of people, but stand-up’s always been the goal. I started writing sketches in college, then post-college. It was just a way to work a different muscle and put out jokes that didn’t work in a stand-up context. I’d been doing stand-up for a couple years when I had an idea for a narrative show, That’s My Bus!, and just started writing it on spec, then worked on it with a friend, before a network took interest. Stand-up’s my favorite thing—that’s what I do every night. I love writing and making projects, too, so hopefully they can continue to complement each other at higher levels. It’s fun as you gain confidence to sorta cut the bullshit and get to what you actually want to talk about and want to spend time figuring out how to talk about—in both stand-up and in writing. You also get funnier, sharper, more present. . . they’re very different skill-sets, but each one helps the other, just keeping your mind active and creating.

You’re a Script Pipeline contest winner, so we’re obviously fans of your writing and soon became fans of Flatbush Misdemeanors, the series you co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced. The challenges in content creation—whether it’s a short film, a pilot episode, or a feature—are clear. Budget and time being perhaps the most important. What did you learn from creating Flatbush? What were the “niche” hurdles that up-and-coming writer/directors might not realize? How do you best prepare?

Having no budget is obviously a huge hurdle, but it sorta forced us to be more creative. A lot of the elements that have become some of our favorite features of Flatbush—the chapter divides, the subtitles—came from us having to scrap other ideas that would’ve required a budget. Working with people you trust is so important. Kevin Iso (my collaborator, co-everything, on Flatbush) and I are both stand-ups. Every adult we cast is a stand-up, friends we know and love and have a sense of their voices, which helps with the writing. Stand-ups know who they are, so if you make them comfortable, they’ll make the end product better. Kareem Green, Aparna Nancherla, Drew Dowdey, Yamaneika Saunders, Kerry Coddett, Jeffrey Joseph, and more. They all did that. People we trust helped make the vibe on-set more comfortable as well, which just ups everyone’s performance.

There are going to be a million challenges, especially when you’re doing an independent thing on no budget. People’s schedules changing, location issues, all that. We write, direct, star, and produce it—it all leaves you spread very thin, handling the logistics in particular. The more help with that producing aspect, the more present you can be pre and during filming. Otherwise, you’ll realize on the way home an alt line that would’ve made the scene better, but you don’t have money or time for reshoots, so that’s it, onto the next. Heavily scripting the scene, running it with the actors as much as time allows before shooting, letting the lines settle into the actors’ voices so it feels natural, and making the vibe for the crew and cast comfortable on set. It’s all good experience. The more stuff I make, the more confident I feel in the process, because you’ve been through it before. Yeah, I’m just excited for that to continue.

The pilot you sold to Fox, That’s My Bus!, didn’t make it to series, however it must have represented a big step forward in your career. Did hitting a wall with a network (which, let’s be honest, is entirely common given the nature of television) change your approach at all with regards to the type of stories you write and develop? Or did this reaffirm that you were indeed on the right path?

It just gave me more motivation and direction. It meant a lot to get it to that pilot stage. That was the first pilot I’d ever written. To have FOX buy it—when no one knows who I am—was unexpected and cool, then to get to co-executive produce it as well. If/when I’m fortunate to be in a spot like that again, I’ll have gone through all of the steps before, so I’ll keep getting better at that side of it. The whole experience made me a better writer, creator, collaborator, and the fact that it didn’t go to series helped continue to motivate me in stand-up.

The only “change approach” sorta thing was co-creating/releasing Flatbush after that. When you work on a pilot for a network, you clear all these hurdles and work through all of these steps, and then, if it doesn’t go, no one gets to see the thing. It doesn’t exist. Putting out Flatbush, there was some feeling of, even if only 20 people see it, that’s something. We’re putting something out there and people can react to it and interact with it. It’s something that’ll exist. We’ve been fortunate to get some attention with Flatbush, awards and stuff [the first episode of Flatbush Misdemeanors became Oscar-qualified after winning the Grand Jury Award for Best Narrative Short at the Florida Film Festival]. The goal for this project is to make it a narrative half-hour for television, so we’ll see.

When coming up with new ideas and developing a series (or film), how much consideration do you give to the current marketplace? Do you pay attention to what’s selling, what’s thriving, what’s not getting picked up, and alter your course to suit the environment? Is it crucial for a writer to stick with the trends or try and, more or less, create a new trend?

The trends seem to change quickly and no one really knows what they want until everyone else wants it. If I altered course every time there was a new hit everyone was telling me to watch and tried to write a watered-down version of that, I don’t think I’d enjoy that process or grow much in terms of finding and honing my own voice.

I’d feel pretentious as hell if I said what writers should or shouldn’t do. All I can really speak to is my (limited) experience. I make the stuff I find interesting, that I’d want to see, stuff that I hope is funny and distinct and has its own feel. I like hitting different notes and pushing myself, both in stand-up and in writing/creating stuff. There’s so much I want to do and a lot of ’em will feel different, but hopefully it’ll all mesh together over my career. That’s the hope. And that I can build an audience of people who are into what I’m doing, as a stand-up who makes things. I don’t know. I have a lot more specific thoughts on this. . . if you’re reading this, nice reader, feel free to reach out if you’d like to talk about it more, otherwise we can just leave it here with me speaking vaguely on Script Pipeline’s site.

From your perspective—living in NYC, which, like Los Angeles, is one of the most competitive cities for creativity and talent—how does one make themselves seen and heard? No doubt you’ve seen uber-artistic people fall by the wayside. What’s the common denominator in the ones who succeed? How important is it to attract champions for your work and use that as both motivation and another stepping stone forward?

I’m not sure there is much of a common denominator. Sometimes it feels like complete anarchy out here. I just keep doing stand-up and making things and pushing myself to go further and not get complacent. Yeah, like you said, there are so many crazy funny, talented people who fall off. Talent feels kinda meaningless. It’s just relentlessness and some internal drive that can put you in a better position, maybe. And ideally you can find some enjoyment in the process from internal growth rather than external validation only. That’s easier said than done, but I give it a shot. Feeling that I can articulate an idea in stand-up better than I could have a year ago, fleshing out a premise on-stage or in a script, getting a better reaction for something that actually feels relevant to you—that’s all fuel.

I set goals, short and long-term, internal and external. That might be a cliche answer. If someone else said that to me when I was first starting, I’d probably think they were blowing me off, but that’s really all there is to do. Finding people who really believe in what you’re doing is rare and hugely beneficial, and I’m grateful whenever I’ve found that.

Oftentimes it can feel like no one’s listening. If you find people who listen and hear what you’re saying and seem to get you, don’t take that for granted.

Dan Perlman

Dan is a stand-up comedian and writer from New York City, performing stand-up every night at some of the top clubs and alternative rooms in the city, headlining Caroline’s on Broadway in 2018. Dan created and wrote an animated series, That’s My Bus!, which received a pilot order from FOX after winning 1st place at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival. Dan has appeared on TruTV, MTV2, and as a cast member on MTV’s Vidiots. As a writer-filmmaker, he has had four projects featured in the New York Television Festival, most recently the award-winning comedy series Flatbush Misdemeanors in which he co-stars and co-writes/directs. On radio, Dan was a writer for SiriusXM’s Bennington and Comedy Contributor for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio. Dan wrote for the 2017 WGA Awards, hosted by Lewis Black, and the 2018 WGA Awards, hosted by Amber Ruffin. As a stand-up, Dan’s festival credits include New York Comedy Festival, SF Sketchfest, Boston Comedy Festival, Limestone Comedy Fest, and Finger Lakes Comedy Competition (2015, 1st place).

View the first episode of Flatbush Misdemeanors on Vimeo.

Follow Dan: Twitter | Instagram