“If you start placing in contests, then you start to feel like you have some forward momentum, and then, and it’s odd, you do start to have forward momentum.”
The Tracking Board is proud to present a “Get to know your Launch Pad Mentors” edition of the Mini Series, our new series highlighting our candid interviews with working writers and filmmakers. In this series, we meet with passionate individuals who discuss their writing process and the insight that they’ve gained by working in the industry. In collaboration with the 2015 Launch Pad Pilots Competition, we’ve set out to talk with writers working in television today. From their humble beginnings to their big breaks, these writers give us the inside track on what it takes to write for a network.
TB contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe sat down with Talia Gonzalez and Bisanne Masoud, two dynamic writing partners currently staffed on the 5th season of the hit MTV series Teen Wolf and this year’s official mentors for Launch Pad Pilot Competition winners. In 2013 they were top 25 finalists in The Tracking Board’s first Launch Pad Features Competition with their script 20 Minutes South. They took some time out to chat with us about their journey so far; how industry contests like Launch Pad help up-and-coming writers; lessons they’ve learned along the way and how failure is a part of success.
——————⇒ How did you find your way into writing and to each other?
Bisanne: We met in acting school over 7 years ago at NYU. When we graduated we decided to write a play, just based on the fact that Mindy Kaling wrote one for the NY Fringe Festival and that lead to her eventually being staffed on The Office!
It went up as part of the mid-town theater festival. The feedback we got was that it was like a sitcom, like TV on stage. We started writing on spec, including a Nurse Jackie script. That was the first one we did to get a hang of television writing and to have something to send out to the network programs.
——————⇒ So you gave up the acting?
Bisanne: Originally we’d thought we would write this play and we’d be in it. But that idea went out the window very early on.
Talia: It was just as exciting to see people embody the characters that we had created and do it better than could have. We knew we were stepping away from acting because writing just felt more comfortable and right.
——————⇒ There seems to be many different paths to a writing career.
Talia: If anyone asks the question how do I break in? Well the first thing is—write well. Your skill level will get better the more you write. That’s why I think contests like Launch Pad are so beneficial, regardless of where you place or what opportunities arise, it gives you a gauge of how well you stack up to other writers. We were semi-finalists for the Nickelodeon network writing programs, finalists for Warner Brothers and then others contests as well. You start to see what scripts do well and you gain confidence that way.
From there it’s just looking to the network of people that you already know. The connections we’ve made and the people that have helped us along were often times strangers connected by two or three people in between. That’s one of the loveliest parts of being here in LA. You think that it’s going to be cutthroat and people are going to be protective of their opportunities and their contacts. But if you are a genuine person, you do the work and your scripts are ready when asked for then people are more than willing to help.
It’s an industry where at any moment someone could break through. Someone gives you an opportunity, then maybe years later, you return the favor in some way. So keep writing, submit to contests and make real relationships with people. Eventually it will hit. It’s just a matter of not getting discouraged because the timeline for everyone is a little bit different. We have a really good friend who just won The Nicholl Fellowship and it took him ten years!
——————⇒ Do you believe that if you want to be working in TV and movies you have to be in LA?
You’ve got to look at it as—this is the career I’ve chosen and I’m sticking with it. There’s going to be ups and downs at every level, but there’s always an opportunity behind that.
Talia: Absolutely. Everyone you meet here is going to be involved in the entertainment industry to some extent. I think you definitely narrow the scope of the people you can meet and the networks that you can build for yourself if you’re not living in Los Angeles. But specifically for TV, I think you have to be here.
We’ve been in LA about 2-3 years. Bisanne moved over and I was going back and forth for a little while. I don’t regret the time I spent in NY because it gave me experiences and you write about your experience.
You get here when you get here. Even if it means you have to spent time writing elsewhere in the world. It’s all relevant and it will eventually come out in your writing in really interesting ways.
Bisanne: I felt really lucky that by the time I moved here I knew some people. A lot of them were writers and they were just massively helpful telling us about stuff, but also just as friends. When I moved here I felt that I was part of something. Even when I wasn’t working in the business at all I still felt part of a community.
Los Angeles feels very small after awhile, smaller than NY ever did. If you go to the mixers and the events, if you enter the contests it’s the same faces and names everywhere. Everyone is “coming up” together and it’s nice.
——————⇒ Your script 20 Minutes South was the script that landed you in the 2013 Launch Pad Features Competition. How many did you write before that one?
Talia: It was nice to be recognized in Launch Pad for that script. It was funny, with the first feature we wrote we’d bought the screenwriting book Save the Cat and we’re literally going chapter-by-chapter—okay this should happen, now this should happen. That’s how steep the learning curve was because we didn’t go to film school and we didn’t know the structure of features. We knew the structure of television writing basically from watching Nurse Jackie episodes enough to see—oh there’s 3 storylines happening, that’s how that works.
Bisanne: We’d written a bunch of television specs by then, and an original pilot, but only one feature prior to 20 Minutes South. We learned to write features on those two scripts. I don’t even consider either of them as done. Some day we’d like to go back and rework them. Especially now the whole process in finding the structure and finding the story makes much more sense.
——————⇒ Tell me a little about your experience placing in the Launch Pad Competition?
It (Launch Pad) has become a very highly regarded script contest within the many, many contests in LA. It’s definitely something to put on your resume and people will know it.
Talia: That was the first year of the contest. Now it has become a very highly regarded script contest within the many, many contests in LA. It’s definitely something to put on your resume and people will know it. I think in a couple of years it will continue to become massively successful because the people behind The Tracking Board have decided to run it in such a hands on way. Also because of the caliber and industry reach that they have. Half of the top 25 was getting representation.
Being apart of that 25 gave us the confidence to say, this is our second feature. We’re still learning, but we must be doing something right. We just need to continue working on our craft and eventually it’s going to hit and it did. You don’t always get what you want at the time you wanted it. But it’s all good. You just have to be patient.
——————⇒ How much does placing in contests and competitions mean if you don’t actually win them?
Bisanne: The network writing fellowships and programs are so highly regarded here, but it’s like playing the lottery, the competition is so steep. To get even that far as a finalist or semifinalist, we felt very lucky.
Talia: And with every contest there are people whose scripts end up in the right places. If your script is good and you believe in your talent and you’ve placed in other contests and you have a sense that you’re not delusional—
Bisanne: I think you always suspect that you are delusional, but at the same time you have to keep telling yourself that you’re not.
It’s bizarre, because you have to think that your work is good enough otherwise why would you be bothering to do it? At the same time recognizing that your work can always improve. It’s hard to be optimistic but also try not to expect too much from everything.
Talia: But you have to put your work into contests, unless you’re lucky and you’re repped right off the bat. But to me, contests like Launch Pad seem like a really proactive thing you can do for your career.
Bisanne: And even if something doesn’t directly result from contest placement—and this is sort of a nebulous concept—but there’s this momentum that begins to happen with your career. Contests also give you deadlines. The contests are going to help you create content. As soon as you’re done with one, start something else. Just keep producing work. If you start placing in contests, then you start to feel like you have some forward momentum, and then, and it’s odd, you do start to have forward momentum. It’s very easy to feel stuck. That’s why we were always trying to be up to a couple of different things. Like working on this script for this contest and this one for that contest. Having a coffee with this person to pick their brain. If you make sure you’ve always got a few things going at once, then things turn into other things.
Even when you have an agent or manger you still have to go out and sell yourself.
Talia: In some ways the contests allow you to create your own PR sound bite, which is so important in Hollywood because you do have to sell yourself. Even when you have an agent or manger you still have to go out and sell yourself. Placing in contests allow you a way to humbly brag about yourself when people ask you what you’re working on. That’s important also when you’re approaching agents or managers.
They’re only making 10-15% so they need to know that you are proactive about your career. That you’re getting your work out there. If you approach someone and say I wrote all these scripts but they’re just sitting in my computer, it doesn’t sound as good as if you say well I was top 25 at Tracking Board.
Bisanne: And with agents, a lot of people think that once you have an agent or a manager your work is done. You just write your scripts and you sit at home and wait for them to call you with a meeting. No. You give them a list of everybody that you know. And every time you see a name you recognize on a project you let your agent know and see if they can get you a meeting. They can’t really make relationships for you but they can pass material along and that’s the way people will actually read something—if it comes through a legitimate channel. We feel like we hit the jackpot with all our reps. They work so hard, we love them. We just need to make sure we’re working even harder.
——————⇒ What’s been the biggest industry lesson that you’ve learned, maybe the hard way, that’s helped you in your career?
Talia: Like what do I want printed??
Bisanne: I know right?!
Talia: Okay I have two. With Warner Brothers or any of the writing programs, you’re not promised to be staffed on a show but it’s kind of part of the deal, it’s the prize. You go through this program and then they help get you staffed on this show, which will most likely get you an agent or a manger and thus begins your career. I remember being on this bus, driving home from Boston—I guess I was in NY at the time—I thought to myself, this is it. If I don’t get this then it’s over! I knew in my rational brain that wasn’t the case but when you have this big opportunity and you’ve made it down to the final, what was it, 14 for 8 slots out of 2000 scripts—you just hang so much hope on this one thing. The call came in and we didn’t get it.
See at that point, you have to know it’s subjective. You did everything you could. The work was there, it was good, you can recognise that. But it was like all of this hope just went down the drain. In that second and I thought—how else are we going to break in?? And then a year later, through another connection we got our material to our now agent who then helped us to get staffed on Teen Wolf.
So the industry lesson is that you have to look at it as a whole career. Don’t say I’ll give myself 5 years and if nothing happens… I don’t think you can do that with an artistic career. You’ve got to look at it as—this is the career I’ve chosen and I’m sticking with it. There’s going to be ups and downs at every level but there’s always an opportunity behind that. I hope that one day we sell something and then maybe we’re showrunners, but who knows, maybe it does or doesn’t go. But that’s okay. There’s going to be something down the line.
We were up for the Humanitas Fellowship the year after, we didn’t get it but it didn’t bother me as much. I realized, it’s just another check that someone is recognizing that the writing is good and to continue on.
There’s zero shame in failing in this business because everyone fails all the time.
Bisanne: I think in those situations you feel like you lost something, like we lost the fellowship. But it’s important to remember that you never had it, so you didn’t actually lose anything. You can’t lose something that no one even gave you to begin with, but you did get something. What you got was to be a finalist, you got recognized. So try to look at it like, I have something now that I didn’t have before I entered.
There’s also a thing called failing upwards. For example, if you have a pilot, you sell your pilot, they make your pilot but they don’t pick it up. No one looks at that person and thinks, agh, his pilot must not have been good. They think, wow! Someone made that guy’s pilot! And next year, maybe they’ll not only make his pilot but maybe it will get picked up.
There’s zero shame in failing in this business because everyone fails all the time. You just fail over and over and over again. Hopefully you have enough wins that you come out on the other side. Hopefully you look at your bank account and you’re making money and you’re living.
If you stacked up all the successes and failures of everyone who is successful, there would be way more failures. You don’t need that many successes. You get one good success and you’re on a TV show and then you’re good for awhile! You don’t have to have a million of them, just a few good ones.
All people are doing out here is screwing things up and failing. But the business is thriving! It’s like okay, that didn’t work, on to the next thing.
Contributor Miley Tunnecliffe is -based actress and screenwriter, known for the short films “Love in a Disabled Toilet,” “Bye Bye Lulu,” and “Barnesy’s Numbers.” Her comedic road-trip script, “Run Santos Run,” recently placed in the top 5% of 7500 unproduced screenplays entered in 2014’s Academy Nicholl Fellowships. She is also a co-head of Red Milestone Productions, which is based in Western Australia.
Follow Miley on Twitter: @mileytunn