Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Interview with TV writer/blogger Margaux Froley – Part III: Staffing season, getting representation and spec pilots

Part I - School, internships and assistant jobs
Part II - The Warner Brothers Television Fellowship and working on the staff of Privileged

Today we wrap up our interview with writer Margaux Froley with a discussion about the sorts of TV specs that are currently having the most success in the marketplace.

So you worked on the rest of the first season of Privileged, but didn’t have a writing credit on any later episodes.

No… We had an order for 18 episodes and had we had 22 [the standard full-season order] I would have been 19 or 20.

And since you have a shortened season, I imagine the attitude on staff as the season winds down is “Alright, time to polish the specs and start taking meetings.”

If I was smart, yeah. I don’t think I got that at that point. I think it was a little too new for me. We finished working in January of ’09. I think we finished airing in March, but in March the CW decided to repeat the whole season during the summer… so we thought that was a really positive sign for a second season. It’s why we wrote season one with a cliffhanger, “We will not close these stories out.”

But yeah, I should have been much smarter about what came, but I was so spoiled by experience that I think I was a bit in denial about [the possibility of cancellation.] And I think the CW really didn’t have a decision until upfronts, so we really were on the fence for a while there. [In the end,] we were told we were the victim of the CW’s good development season. But it was doubly brutal to be canceled for a show like The Beautiful Life which then got canceled after two episodes. “Really? We could have done better than that!”

Since it happened so late, I assume there was less chance to interview for the next staffing season. Do you have an agent at this point?

A manager. That’s my saving grace.

Did you get the manager before or after you went through the program?

I got him at the tail end of the program. He came scouting through the program and he and I hit it off. He gets what I’m going for on the page. He sent me one of those writers’ dream letters, an email from someone you don’t know, saying “Hi, I discovered your script in a pile and I just loved it!” And I’m like “Oh my god, who is this person?” He actually didn’t want to sign me until I had original material so that’s also why I wrote that one-act. The fact he really liked that play was a big reason he wanted to get behind me for staffing. I really like the one-acts. It’s my favorite little indulgence in writing, so I’m working on a series of one-acts starting with that one and a friend in London is getting them produced.

I really took this year just to learn how to write pilots. The Fellowship didn’t really teach us about that. I think contractually it’s a sticky issue…

Then they’d own it, probably.

Yeah, there’s a very smart reason they can’t do that stuff. Writing a pilot is a very different beast than writing specs. I love to write specs – [but] they don’t help you. For staffing they will not be read.

That’s what I’m hearing and maybe I read this on your blog, so I apologize if I’m quoting you back to you.

I wanted to write a spec this year and my manager said – this is his quote – “It will not be worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Wow. So it’s all original material. If you want to break into TV, write pilots?

Yeah. Now, if you want to break into TV, the Fellowships are the best way to break in, and if you want to learn how to write TV you have to write a spec. I hope it does cycle back and specs become relevant again… What a spec is good for is so limited also, and part of that is that people are just writing original material and bottom line, you’d better blow people away.

You’ve gotta stand out in a stack of scripts. I was at a big agency last year for staffing and I know that I just got put in piles of scripts and my work didn’t stand out from those piles and I didn’t have the personal connections that would get my work to the top of those piles. Big agencies are in the volume business, so they have the clients they can slot in – but if you’re not writing some really stand-out material, I guarantee your stuff is useless.

And even with a pilot, you’ve got to have a damn good idea and execution because I’ve read some that have a threadbare idea that they spend 60 pages setting up and the story goes nowhere.

Well that speaks to the whole premise pilot thing. You can’t do the pilot about “Here’s how it all began.” Basically, [spec] pilots now are Episode 3s. The ball’s already rolling, where do you stand? Here’s a new adventure. But I still think you have to tip your hat to the origins of some sort so you’re not alienating your audience completely, but you can’t spend your time in set-up mode. Pilots can’t do that anymore. I spent a good six months having an issue with that like “How do you begin your story?” You kind of have to write the bullshit pilot and get it out of your system and then you write episode two and that’s your [spec] pilot [to send around.]

Because so much of finding a show is what you discover in building the premise and giving voice to those characters as they discover it.

And also in pilots you have to be more open to rewriting because you’re spending your first draft figuring out “Who are these people? How do they talk?” And then you can come back and obviously make them better. Writing a pilot is a different animal because you’ve got to create people as opposed to mimic people [in existing series] and that’s a different skill.

Which is different from features where you’re only telling one story with these people.

And you get to close it out. I used to only think in features and now I only think in TV. Just in terms of can you create big enough people to maintain a story, or a big enough world to maintain an ongoing thing as opposed to “This one thing happens and here’s how we solved it.” The spec [episode] is sadly a bygone thing.

So before we close this out, do you have any parting words for aspiring writers?

The reason, I started my blog was this year of writing pilots and pulling my hair out, and “wow, this is a whole different learning curve.” And I’m still on it… but I figured if I was going through the whole hair-pulling stage, somebody else probably was too. Then also in terms of my consulting stuff it’s been a very good way to keep the wheels turning and walking other people through their specs this year has kept me current on shows – and also with not being in a writers’ room this year it’s kept me speaking to writers. In consulting… I’m not nice about people’s work because that doesn’t help them.

No, I’m the same way.

That’s totally your job. There’s no growth from [polite feedback versus candid feedback]. And also there are so few people in this town who will be honest with you about your work. Agents don’t speak “Writer.” Same with managers. If you’re lucky they’ll spend time doing notes but it’s rare. A lot of people won’t bother to be that honest with you and that’s why I really like the consulting. It’s like, “Here’s the tough news that no one’s gonna tell you. Here’s how to make it better.” And for me it’s good brain teasers, so it’s been a fun process – blog/consulting.

Thanks to Margaux Froley for all her time, and if you haven't checked it out yet, go visit her blog at "This is Your Pilot Speaking."

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