Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Interview with TV writer/blogger Margaux Froley – Part II: The Warner Brothers Television Fellowship and working on the staff of Privileged

Today we continue our chat with Privileged writer and "This is Your Pilot Speaking" blogger Margaux Froley, starting with a look at the Warner Bros Television Workshop Fellowship.

Part I - School, internships and assistant jobs

So getting back to the WB TV Fellowship, could you take me through the process that happens once you’re accepted?

The Fellowship is like TV Grad School in six months, one night a week for about six months. They spend the first couple weeks, maybe two months, telling you here’s what you need to know, here’s how you break down a show, practice pitching, how many storylines you need to have, things like that. That was in ’07. The Fellowship has evolved – my year we could pick whatever spec we wanted to write and now you have to choose among selected shows.

Shows connected to the program?

I believe they’re Warner shows, and I don’t know if that’s the current model so be careful quoting me on that. I chose to spec Gossip Girl – literally at the third episode of Gossip Girl I said “I’ll spec that thing.” One of the Warners execs tried to talk me out of it [because it was so new and might not last] and I remember saying to him, “If this show is as big as I think it’s gonna be, there will be other [shows] like it that will follow.” And at the time, Gossip Girl’s commercials were Clearasil and cell phones. Trust me, that doesn’t go out of style. Those people will always be selling something on TV.

And the CW’s bread-and-butter is something like Gossip Girl.

Totally! And that wasn’t even a hit at the time to be the signature of the network that it became. But One Tree Hill just will not die.

As I have said on the blog recently. You can’t bury the thing.

It won’t die! I wrote on my blog that it’s like the Law & Order of the CW. That show’s amazing. I’ve never seen it, but god love it.

They’re survivors. It’s got passionate fans who watch it seriously and my hat’s off to the executive producers.

Those numbers don’t dip, man.

They have the last laugh. I can throw stones all I like but it’s still on. But to get back on track, you go through all of that and…

[After we] pick a show to spec, the Fellowship divides us into smaller groups. There were 12 of us – three comedy and nine drama – so we got broken into groups of four and we all really work with each other on the writing. We had Christmas break to write our first drafts. I remember being in Tahoe pulling out my hair, my family and friends are having a great holiday and I was at home trying to learn out to write.

“I need a Jenny story, dammit!”

I read all the books, I was really into it. Then the four of us helped each other on our scripts and we were judged on how well we critiqued others as well as our writing. They talked about [writers’] room stuff… but it doesn’t prepare you. Four people – it’s not simulating a room… and I think every room is different. My husband’s a poker player and I really think there’s like a poker skill that relates to writers’ rooms. You’ve gotta get good at sizing up the table, knowing people’s positions, knowing how to read people… When I got on Privileged the biggest lesson was just to “shut the fuck up.” It’s the smartest thing you could do.

Don’t talk just to hear your own voice.

And Privileged was an amazing supportive room where we really were not concerned about rank and title, but you don’t pitch your shit ideas just to get something out there. But learning when to shut up was one of the most important skills. I was happy I learned that one early.

So how do they place you on writing staffs at the end of the Fellowship?

A lot of it is behind the scenes, but at the end of the Fellowship they kind of see where you’re at, which shows your work is best for. At the time I was on the comedy track. I met on the Bernie Mac [pilot] that was looking positive that year. It was actually one of my first good meetings. It didn’t get picked up and then Bernie Mac died that summer. A good last pilot on his way out, that’s for sure. I met on Spaced, which I thought was gonna be a good little pilot, but sadly didn’t go either.

So I was not at all keyed up for any of the dramas, I was stuck in the comedy realm and the comedy showrunners really didn’t want Fellows because it was a new regime on the Fellowship so they had to do a lot of proving themselves. They weren’t exactly keen on nobodies in their rooms – even though you’re free.

And just so I’m clear, what’s the timeline of this? Spring of 08?

No, this April-May. It’s a pretty quick shuffle at that point. At the time I didn’t have any original material. Everyone else in the Fellowship had multiple scripts in their back pocket. I got in on my first spec, and then wrote one in the program so I was really just bullshitting my way through at that point. It’s why I wrote my first play actually – I was just desperate for original material and I wasn’t gonna have time to write a pilot. A one-act play seemed like the quickest way to generate 20 pages of original material. I wrote that in a week or two in late April, just a “Hail Mary.” The drama people in the Fellowship were ahead of me when Privileged was going and my mentor at the time was a great executive and he helped me get in that pile and another friend from the Fellowship knew Rina Mimoun somehow, so I managed to get in that pile. I think Rina passed on a couple other Fellowship people. She liked my Gossip Girl, so… it was just luck, man. I got to meet with Rina and she was brilliant and we hit it off.

And were you familiar with her earlier work?

No, not at all. I was familiar with her in a funny way because the year before I had done a pilot with Shana, Shana’s husband also had a pilot at Warner Brothers and Rina had cast a bunch of people that he wanted, so internally we spent a season being “Oh this Rina Mimoun! What is she doing taking our good actors?” She made a great pilot that year too and nobody’s pilot went. I can’t say enough good things about Rina. She really taught me how to write TV, but is just a lovely person.

How does Rina run the room? Is it one of those things where she’s clearly the boss, or is it a more democratic way?

Rina had a very clear idea of what she wanted. It’s a serialized show, so [it would be] “here’s the arc we’re going to cover” or “I want the romance to blossom by this time.” At that point she was on-set and had a lot going on so we really had a lot of time in the room without her and I think in that sense it was really democratic because we’re all just trying to make a good show.

[After we’d break an episode] Rina would ultimately put everything up on the board and be the final voice on fleshing the episode out. As a group, I remember feeling everyone contributed to an episode and I don’t remember who gave what idea because it all really came together as a group. Every piece of the group was relevant to the final ideas, and again, Rina was a dream captain for all of that.

I meant to ask, does the program make an effort to put you on first season shows?

I think it’s just whatever’s available. With first season shows I think you have a bigger chance because there are so many positions. On already established shows, those assistants are getting to write, so you’re competing against that.

I guess the advantage of coming in first season is that you’re not “the new guy.”

Everyone’s the new guy, yeah. I don’t know what it would be like to go on a show that’s already been around because it seems intense in a different kind of way. It sounds scary.

Your episode was the 11th episode that season, so you had the chance to see everyone go before you. How does that work when it’s your turn?

I think I was literally the last [writer] to get an episode assigned. Everyone had gone once and then it was my turn because I was totally the bottom guy on the totem pole. We knew that my episode would be that one, but we didn’t know what the story would be until we got there. So my episode, as luck would have it, turned out to be a very sweet episode about all these blooming romances.

We all broke it as a group. I wrote the outline and a first draft and then some of the mid-to-high level writers did a first look at my first draft before I bothered Rina with it. My episode was a weird one where in outline form things worked and then on the page we were like “oooo… some story stuff got weird.” Then Rina and I split up some storylines in terms of tackling some bigger changes. I was just there to learn, shut up and be rewritten. Ultimately I think a fair amount of my stuff stayed in there but it was a very interesting experience.

And this late in the season are you cutting it closer with the deadlines?

We always did a really good job being on time. We never had any 3am nights. It was always kind of a 10-5 workday and very rarely did we need anything more.

You are so spoiled for your next job!

It ruined me. And to double it, I live in Larchmont and we shot at Paramount so I’d walk to work… We’d break at 5:30, 6:00 maybe if we were crazy, and I’m home at 5:35. It was awesome. I got to go home during lunch sometimes… stuff like that. I’m totally ruined [for the next show I work on.]

So since so much of your stuff survived into the episode, does it feel like something you wrote when you watch it?

Yes and no, because… it’s not my voice. I know the storylines I contributed over the season. I know some arcs I came up with. I have a hard time pointing to it and going “that’s my line” because it all becomes part of the process… I have no ego about it. It was neat to have my credit and see my name on screen. That was kind of a highlight.

My episode had the big Christmas tree thing, it was like this romantic gesture and I remember coming up with that. I feel like you’d have to have a pilot of your own to really feel that ownership completely.

You mentioned that some stuff worked better in the outline than in the script. What caused it?

I think it was because we had this sensitive storyline with Anne Archer and Michael Nouri, so we had this older generation storyline compared to the young girls and it was more about balancing out a big secret versus revealing and then where the characters were at that point, and my episode was the second half of a “To Be Continued…” episode so part of it was “Have we serviced finishing the storylines in the right way?” In outline it seemed good, on the page it might not have been as big a reveal as we thought… stuff like that.

Part III - Staffing season, getting representation and spec pilots