Monday, March 1, 2010

Interview with JERICHO and HUMAN TARGET's Robert Levine: Part I - Climbing the ladder as a writer's assistant

A few weeks ago, Robert Levine was generous enough to grant me an hour and a half of his time to trace his career in TV writing. Robert is currently a writer and executive story editor on Human Target and he’s been a staff writer on Jericho and Harper’s Island, as well has having writing credits on Judging Amy and Close to Home.

Like many writers in this business, Levine broke in by working as an assistant to show-runner Carol Barbee ( Jericho, Swingtown, Three Rivers) , and that’s where we begin our conversation.

How did you end up getting a job as Carol Barbee’s assistant?

The short version is that I started as an office PA on Judging Amy, which was a show that I just sent my resume into. I got hired because someone I knew through friends worked on the show and had been there several years so she put my resume on the top of the pile. So I started that job, probably 2003, and that’s a very, well you probably know…

Yeah I’ve done that too. Making copies, answering phones and so on.

Yeah, and the longer version is that I’d been in TV before that. My very first job – the reason I got into TV and wanted to be a TV writer – was… I’d been out in LA close to a year. I’d been interning, just for free and really struggling, trying to PA, freelance, whatever, and didn’t really have a good idea what I wanted to do. I’d always wanted to be a director in college, but you come out here… and you really don’t know where to start. I got really lucky because someone I knew through [college] … her dad, Steve Feke, had been a TV producer. He was going to China to do a show with these two producers. They were going to do this very weird thing where they were going to skip the whole pilot process altogether, go to China, shoot 22 hours of show, fund it themselves and then bring the whole thing back to the States and sell it as one big thing.

So like a negative pickup on a series.

22 hours. Shoot the whole thing in China. Build the studio we were gonna shoot at, bring all the cast from the States, bring a lot of the talent from Australia and Europe, but most of the crew would be native Chinese people… This happens now, more so. Fox does this, a branch of Fox does this. They don’t shoot a pilot, they just order a show and shoot it very cheaply. I don’t know if it’s quite worked out for anything. It certainly didn’t work out for this show.

Anyway, my friend comes to me and says “my dad needs an assistant to go over there for him for however long it’s going to take to shoot 22 episodes.” And I had nothing else going…

So if someone offers you a job…

Why not, you know? I had no idea what I was getting into. So that was actually my introduction to television because Feke… had been a movie guy first and then he’d been a TV guy for longer. He said to me the reason you do TV versus movies is because if you are a writer you are the creative center of the show. As opposed to a movie where there are 40 writers on one movie and the director and the producers are really the ones making the decisions. As a writer, you could toil on a movie for however long and your name’s not even on it and none of the work you do ever reaches the screen, whereas in TV you’re making all those decisions and you’re writing something that you’re gonna see produced. You know that so you get that gratification of “I wrote it. Someone’s gonna shoot it, see if it works or not.” He kept saying to me “That’s why you do TV.”

The other side of that coin is that the production schedule is so compressed. You have to produce, effectively, a movie every eight days, whereas a movie schedule could be anything from 45 [days] to whatever. They have all the time in the world. In TV you have to shoot seven and a half to eight pages a day and that really dictates everything. It dictates how you conceive the show, the sets that you use, the characters that you use. It’s all about how are we able to produce an hour of television in eight days, over and over and over again? Without stopping. Because shutting down in TV is death. It’s a freight train. Once it starts, it just keeps going.

So we got [to China.] We had a certain number of scripts [but once you start figuring things out] a lot of the things [you thought you could do] you can’t do. A lot of things about the show don’t work, you’re writing to certain characters because they’re better actors… It requires new scripts and changes to the scripts and my boss was in a position where he was effectively doing it all himself so you could look down the road on the schedule and see that there were these two scripts that hadn’t been written yet, just waiting there. They were like this chasm that this train was threatening to ride into at any moment.

I’d seen what Feke had been doing for a while, and a lot of times I was his proxy in meetings with people, and because I’d hear him talking about it all the time I’d absorb what his vision was for the show. So it was very easy for me to sell his vision or say, “Well, he’s not here but this is what I think he’d say he’d want.” I was a grunt, but I was learning how to run a show.

So at a certain point I was just like, “I could write an episode of this if you want me to.” And he just kind of looked at me and it was so crazy at that moment that I’m sure for him it was like, “Well what do I have to lose?” He was like, “Yeah, you know you’re gonna have to write it in like a week and I was like, “Ooookaaaay.” I ran back to my apartment and hammered out the script for this thing. Two weeks later they’re shooting it.

That’d be cool.

I was like “What?” It did seem crazy.

Sorta surreal being on stage, seeing your words being performed.

Dennis Hopper saying words that I wrote two weeks earlier in my apartment? It was cool, and from that point forward was where I got into the idea of it. But we finished the 22 [episodes] and then it never led to anything so I essentially had to start over [when I came back to L.A.] but at least I had it in my mind that this was something I could do. So I pursued it but eventually that lead to me just having to get a job as a PA at Judging Amy just to get my foot in the door of a network TV show. I tried to get writers’ assistant jobs, but those are pretty hard to get.

I worked a year as an office PA on the off-chance that at the end of the year, somehow I’d get a shot at working for the writers. It was a big gamble and I can’t tell you how close it came to not even working out. The season finished and I’d worked really hard on that show – it’s not a hard job, just the hours are long and you have no time to actually work on your writing either.

At the end of the fifth season of the show, they changed show-runners and almost all of the writing staff left because of this regime change, but two of the writers stayed. They were Carol Barbee and Barry O’Brien – and Carol became co-executive producer, sort of the second-in-command of the writers and above her they hired a guy who’d never written the show before to be the show-runner. But because she became the co-EP, Carol got to have an assistant and by the skin of my teeth, I met her. I think I either lobbied Amy Brenneman’s assistant or I lobbied someone over there to just get my name in front of Carol. Thankfully she’s just this very even-keeled person, so for her it was as simple as “Yeah, somebody wants to do the job, I’ll let them try. Or at least I’ll meet with them.” So I met her, she’s an incredibly friendly, down-to-Earth person, and just told her, “Yeah I want to write and I know everyone on the show because I’ve worked here for a year and everyone on the set. If you ever need to go to set I could tell you who everyone is.” It made sense to her so she was like, “Why not? You can be my assistant,” which was like the world to me.

Then I got another lucky break. Four weeks after they started the new season, the new show-runner left and Carol became the show-runner. So now I’m working for the boss and all of a sudden her office is the writers’ room. That show was in its sixth season and they had a non-writing executive producer on that show. Joe Stern ran casting and post-production.. The only thing Joe Stern didn’t run was the writing, so Carol was free to just focus on the writing – which is not normal. Especially nowadays. Nowadays they want one person to do everything, and it’s impossible for one person to do. But that show had a very stable foundation in terms of “Joe handled that stuff; Carol was in charge of the writing.” She could run the writers’ room all day, which meant that I didn’t have to man the phones all day. I could sit in the writers’ room with her and that was where I learned how writing for a show works.

The [new] writing staff were all sort of new writers for the most part. Carol and Barry were veterans. Everyone else was pretty much just a staff writer, coming up – their first job or second job, maybe. So it was a very democratic room. There wasn’t a lot of egos or anything because everyone was just learning and getting their feet so it was a very good environment to just learn how it works.

How did that translate into you getting to write an episode? Did you go to Carol and say “Hey, I’ve got an idea?” Or did she come to you and say “I know you want to write?”

It was a little of both. There’s different opinions on this, but I feel like you always want to say you’re a writer because that’s your intent and for the most part people will respect that. It’s like, of course you’re not in this business to be an office PA. You’re trying to get somewhere, why not say it? “I’m a writer.” Carol knew that. At the same time, I was careful not to be a nag about it. My priority was to be her assistant, to do whatever she needed. Luckily I was able to sit in the writers room and still do my job effectively.

A [writers] room is something that’s very organic. It’s one long conversation, essentially. If you listen enough and you’re good at reading where the room’s going and what problems people are trying to solve, you can start to speak up and contribute and pitch ideas. Any good room, I feel, should be a democracy where the best idea wins. It doesn’t matter who it comes from. That was the case on Judging Amy so if we were ever talking about a character I felt I had a take on or a story I felt I had a take on, I could pitch it and it would rise and fall on its own merits. Just contributing in that way, I think, made Carol realize that I was someone that might be able to do this.

On any given show, they’re supposed to assign one or two episodes to a freelancer who’s not a member of the staff. They’re supposed to be for writers who have worked in TV but didn’t get staffed so it’s a way to make sure that people like that can still have an income, health insurance, all that stuff. They also end up being opportunities for assistants on the show or people who want to rise up through the ranks. There were two that year and Carol assigned both of them to assistants on the show. I did not ask for it, but by then I had pitched stories.

So did she come in and say, “You’re doing episode 17, by the way?”

Yeah. It was amazing. A dream come true. Of course I knew on the board that the episode hadn’t been assigned yet, so I was anxious and she’d already assigned the first one to [another assistant] so I was hoping I’d be next. By then I’d pitched stories for other people’s episodes that had essentially been written and shot.

So you’d had your ideas heard already.

Yeah, though for her I’m sure it was a risk. Not that big a risk. The risk to the show-runner is “Well, I’m gonna get a script that I’m basically gonna have to rewrite from page one.” But we had a very close staff that worked very well together and because I think they were so young and just starting they were extremely helpful in terms of everyone helping everyone else. She assigned me the episode and I came back into the room with my ideas, and Judging Amy was very formulaic in that you knew what you had to pitch. You had to pitch a case for Amy, a case for her mom, and a personal arc.

So I came in with those and I pitched them. The room absorbed them, we worked them out. I stepped out, I wrote my outline. Everyone on the staff reads my outline before Carol even sees it. I get their notes, I revise it. By the time Carol gets it she’s getting something that’s been heavily vetted, in very good shape. Same thing for the drafts of the script, and since it was the sixth season Judging Amy was such a well-oiled machine. We were so ahead of schedule compared to other shows I’ve been on. You were able to write three or four drafts of the script before it went to the studio or network – before it ever went to Production. When Production got a script, that script was in very good shape. So I was able to write a draft, get all the writers to read it, get their notes, incorporate their notes. By the time it landed in front of Carol, it was the show.

So it wasn’t a case where you watch the episode now and go “Well, there’re two lines of mine in there.”

No, they were my ideas. And there are ideas in the show that are real stories of mine. For example, the personal story is that Amy’s daughter decides to be a vegetarian. It kind of knocks her mom for a loop because up until then she’s been a very straight-laced character and then all of a sudden she’s dressing in army fatigues and she’s got a nose ring and going out with a girl with red hair and she’s not eating meat so Amy kind of freaks out about it. Which is [based on] something I did when I came back freshman year of college and told my mom I’m not eating meat anymore. It was a problem for her and one of her solutions was… she knew I would eat fish… so she started putting shrimp and fish into everything she made for me. You know, like when you want a dog to eat a vitamin, you hide it in the dog food. So I wrote that in the script and it stayed. In terms of a first experience writing…

Sounds like a dream experience!

Pretty much a dream, yeah. You can’t imagine it happening in a more supportive environment. I went with Carol to another show, I wrote another freelance for her on that show and then by the time she was on the pilot for Jericho, she was willing to staff me as a staff writer.

Part II - Working on JERICHO's first season
Part III - Writing Season Two of Jericho
Part IV - Writing the Jericho comic book and getting an agent
Part V - Writing for Human Target


  1. Great article. I'm looking forward to the other parts of the interview.

    Gwen (ratkeeper)

  2. Great interview and can't wait to read the rest.