“People are excited when a new writer comes out with a great script but if you can find your voice and make it shine in your script it’s better. And that’s what I did.”
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 State Of Affairs staff writer Michael Perri.
TB contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe sat down with Michael, a Los Angeles based writer who, in 2013, landed on The Young & Hungry List with his pilot script Nexxus and soon after won his place in TV fellowships, including NBC’s ”Writers on the Verge.” His first staffing job was on the NBC series State of Affairs. Mike recently took some time out chat to us about the importance of branding as a writer; taking meetings; dealing with “heat” and what it’s like working in the writer’s room.
——————⇒ What was your journey into writing?
As a kid, I grew up in foster care. I was this weird, creative kid in order to escape all the other foster kids, not ever getting know my biological father and what was going on–I laugh about it but it’s more of a defence mechanism–I created plays and comic books. I asked, or rather forced the other kids to perform in them. It always brought me joy, but after college my foster father put the fear of God into me about getting a job. So I went into computers.
I did some really cool things with computers. I worked in cyber intelligence. I did some technical consulting for the US Department of Defence and private companies, specializing in stuff that to this day I can’t believe I got to do.
But to me, that work was always soulless. I was living out here in Los Angeles when I lost both my foster parents. I was yearning to do something creative but I didn’t know what. I went back to what I loved as a kid, which was writing. So I started writing a bunch of different stuff. It wasn’t until my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, said to me—What’s your brand? What kind of writer do you want to be? What are you going to focus on?
That threw me through a loop. My wife works for Disney. She’s one of the people in charge of the Princess brand, so she’s on it!
——————⇒ So you were writing in a different genres?
MP: Yes. I had a comedy about a weed shop. Some folks and I teamed up. We created a webseries pilot and shot it. I was also doing an animated pilot that got animated and voiced. I did a sci-fi pilot. I did a play.
I realized what was working for me was when I wrote about twisted families or twisted technology. People seemed to like that. So I realized, that’s my brand—families or technology with a twist. Once I started to focus on that, I began to win awards and get into fellowships. My wife was right!
——————⇒ We get told as writers to focus on a particular genre but if you’ve found your theme’s are twisted families and technology, have you been able to put that out in different genre’s like comedy and drama?
MP: I’ve been focusing mostly on drama. Although, I’ve playing around with an idea about my family. My wife is Jewish and I’m Catholic—I joke that we’re cashews and because I’m non-Jewish, I’m known as a goy so I joke I’m her goy-toy. Her family is crazy. For example, her estranged brother came back to the family and wanted everyone to sign a behavior contract before attending his son’s bar mitzvah. Otherwise we’d be penalized a thousand dollars. So I think I might write about an f**ked up family but mostly I do drama. I know my reps would say that I’m getting out of my brand, but I would still like to do it.
What’s your brand? What kind of writer do you want to be? What are you going to focus on?
But yes, you have to decide if you do rom-com, sci-fi or horror. I had to take it to the next level and say I’m a drama writer who focuses on families with a twist. I wrote a militia pilot about these people who dress up like they’re in the military, go out and protect the town and a company they work for in Montana. Then I wrote about two estranged brothers who are computer whizzes and team up in an unusual way. That’s always been the theme and always more towards drama.
——————⇒ For those who don’t want to be stuck writing the same thing forever, when do you think the point is you can move away from your branding?
MP: I think there’s couple times you can do it. One is when you’re the toast of the town and people are going to buy anything from you. The second is if you write something different that’s great—but it has to be stellar—If I was to write the Goy-toy story it would have to be something funny, heartfelt and totally unique for anyone, let alone my reps to take seriously.
So that’s when you can do it, when you’re the toast of the town, you’re hot and people are ready to give you money to do whatever you want or when you’re just following your heart on something. But you’ve got to make sure it’s the best thing ever.
——————⇒ What are you working on at the moment?
MP: Right now I’m finishing a new pilot writing sample. I’m technically on hiatus from State of Affairs. We’re all just waiting to hear whether the show’s going to come back or not. So I’m preparing to interview for other shows.
——————⇒ That scary “audition” period…
MP: It is. Plus at our level, the staff writer/story editor level, they don’t really interview you just yet. That happens in a few weeks after they know what shows are coming back and what new pilots are going to get picked up. So we’re just waiting. Some writers have been picked up on other shows already but it’s a very scary time!
——————⇒ I can imagine it’s such a relief getting that first gig. You can breath a sigh of relief but really, you have to go through that process over and over again.
MP: Exactly. You’re always auditioning. You’re only as good as your last piece of material or the show that you were on, or a combo of both.
——————⇒ Your pilot script Nexxus is what landed you on the Young and Hungry List and got you a bit of exposure. What was that experience like?
It was the first step towards credibility and everyone wanting to read me. I think people are excited when a new writer comes out with a great script, but if you can fictionalize your truth in there it’s better. And that’s what I did. That script had technology and a family in it. I knew this technology kind of exists and I based the brother character on a friend of mine whose brother is a savant. He can solve any puzzle and he’s like a brother to me too.
So when people asked what inspired me, I can go into my own story. Same thing with Goy-toy. If I get to write that, then this family exists. It’s from my own experience.
I think that’s what happened with Nexxus, people recognized it for the writing but also because it came from a truthful place. Which made people more interested in me as a writer and what I had to say. Just like with every good TV show there has to be an engine and I think it helped when they looked at me they could see, this is a guy who has other ideas from his own experience.
Sometimes a script will hit and people will love it, but that script might have taken three years to write that. They need someone who can write a new script every six months.
It also helped me get repped but then I lost those reps because the guy disappeared, I mean literally disappeared. His father was unfortunately ill back in South Korea and I couldn’t get a hold of him. So yes, the heat was great but I lost a year through not having someone making those calls for me.
I created another pilot because I just had to keep writing during that year. I got new reps because they liked my story and they knew I could explain who I was and where I was going as a writer.
That’s the other thing. Sometimes a script will hit and people will love it, but that script might have taken three years to write that. They (reps) need someone who can write a new script every six months.
——————⇒ Have you noticed how much time you generally have heat on you after something hits?
MP: It depends. I think you have about six months to a year. A lot of people came up to me and asked what else I had. I got advised that I needed to get into a fellowship. Now, in order to get into a fellowship here you have to write a spec of an existing show but I think those take you away from writing original material. It’s so time consuming. That’s what happened to me. I got into National Hispanic Media Coalition, the NHMC program which NBC and ABC oversee. Once I got into that, it all about specs, specs, specs at the time. Then, I got into NBC’s Writer’s on the Verge and that was all about specs and original material. But once you get to be a working writer, they only care about original materials.
——————⇒ It was the fellowship that led you to the State of Affairs staffing job? What was that experience like?
MP: Every year is different for television staffing. Last year they called it a blood bath. A lot of shows got cancelled and didn’t come back. There were fewer spots for writers.
The experience is this, you have street cred and you have heat because you just came out of one of these programs. You’s then a free hire because NBC will pay for your salary on an NBC show for up to “x” number of seasons or episodes. The good part is that people want to meet with you, but the bad is that there is still a stigma that you being free means you’re not good. You have to either overcome that or get on another network show and not have to deal with it.
But Writer’s on the Verge was the best thing ever. Jen Grisanti teaches it. Karen Horne is the executive mentor. It’s just an amazing experience. You’re taught how to think, act and be a working writer. They showed you how to break story and be in a room. I was just married and we had a kid on the way, but I would get notes on a Wednesday and have to turn a draft in on a Saturday. It was like a real life work situation.
All that gives you the cred. Because out of 2000 people, you are one of eight selected and you’ve got the backing of the network. Then you go on these general meetings with your network and other networks to prove you’re not crazy.
They read your material to prove you can write but then they want to know, who are you? When they’re setting up the room, they’re casting you like they would cast an actor. They’ll say–we need someone to be the voice of “xyz”. Or–we need someone who can generate ideas from a technical perspective. That’s what they’re looking for and that’s what the fellowship prepares you for.
Back to our year being a blood bath! I had a couple of generals–those are the meetings you go on so the network can bless you and say to the showrunners, this person isn’t crazy. From there your material gets put into a stack. The showrunner, or the showrunner’s assistant, or one of their ten assistants, reads you and decides if you go into the interview pile or the do-not-interview pile.
That heat got me a lot of general meetings around town but it only got me two showrunner meetings. Normally at our level you can get zero to 4 or 5 meetings. The year before I knew people who were getting 10 showrunner meetings. Mine were with a show called American Odyssey and State of Affairs. I thought I was going to get on American Odyssey, it was called The Odyssey at the time, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to do.
I had one of the last meetings in town for State of Affairs and I was literally one of the last people they hired on the show. The first showrunner on the show, Ed Bernero, decided to hire me on-the-spot which was really cool.
——————⇒ Oh wow, I bet that rarely happens.
It rarely happens. I’m from Chicago and he’s from Chicago. 80% of the meeting was about who I was and he loved my story. He talks with this strong Chicago accent and half an hour into the meeting he says–hold up, you want this job? I said yes. And he says–you fucking have this job. Then we continue for another half hour talking about life. So, that’s how that happened. But everybody’s story is different.
——————⇒ So you’ve done one season on State of Affairs and you have a story by credit for an episode.
Yeah I have a teleplay by credit shared with the showrunner, Joe Carnahan. I was supposed to co-write an episode, but that changed when they switched showrunners.
That came about because in my office, I kept a board of set-ups and pay offs, the things that must happen and the things that could happen. At the end when we were wrapping up the season that board became invaluable.
We were talking about how we’d set up this, this and that–it was coming down the last couple episodes and the question was, how were we going to pay everything off? From this board, I already had ideas on how to pay things off.
——————⇒ Where did you learn to do the board? Is it something you’ve always done?
MP: No, it was because the show was so serialized and we kept flipping and flopping story-lines. Although, one of my NHMC mentors, Geoff Harris and my go-to mentor, Tawnya Bhattacharya did always tell me to keep track of all my set ups and pay offs when I write. But, on this show, it was more of me being a new writer, I didn’t want to mess anything up or miss anything. I found that it also helped me generate ideas, because that’s the job as a staff writer.
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