“In a (writer’s) room, that’s what you begin to realize, you don’t pitch story, you perform story.”
The Tracking Board is proud to present the Mini Series, our 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 the television landscape.
TB contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe sat down with Lewaa Nasserdeen, a Los Angeles based writer who has worked across film, television and documentary. He is currently a staff writer on the hit ABC show The Goldbergs. Lewaa recently took some time out to chat about his unusual journey into television writing; building your tribe; getting the reader to “lean forward” and breaking story in the writer’s room.
——————⇒ How did you find your way to writing?
I was a director first. Writing wasn’t what I thought I would be doing, especially in high school. When I went back to see my English teacher, she was like—you’re a writer? They pay you?!
I’ve always loved movies and TV. My dad emigrated from Lebanon to Canada and his introduction to North American culture was Married With Children. We used to sit together and watch Married With Children and Three’s Company. Now he watches The Goldbergs so it feels like it’s come full circle.
I was the youngest and the artistic one in the family. My dad was always very encouraging. I wanted to become a filmmaker but back then there were no film schools where I lived in Edmonton.
I had to go to this small town called Red Deer to take their film program. For my fourth year I decided that I wanted to make my own movie. That led to me writing a script. This was actually a really important lesson, because I had the freedom of doing the thing I wanted to direct, as a result of that I was able to write the thing I wanted to write — with no mental restrictions. You realize that a lot of the time, you don’t give yourself that luxury. You write what you want to write, of course, but under the constraints of—will my agent like this? What’s the market like? How do I diversify myself? Is there something else already like this?
I finished that script and sent it over to my department heads. They responded to it and passed it onto a producer. That became my first optioned screenplay.
——————⇒ How old were you when you had the script optioned?
LN: I was nineteen when that happened. I was attached to direct. We had a budget and these big actors circling the project. It happened really fast. People were coming up to me, asking what did I have next? I was really thrust into it. So from there, in a way I had to reverse engineer my career. Meaning, I had to learn the craft as fast as possible because in Canada, the market is so much smaller that if you get any buzz, you have to capitalize on it. I wrote another film that got made and released in cinemas. That raised the profile a little bit more.
I think all writers have a little bit of imposter syndrome. I spent a lot of my time after these films still researching and reading about the craft. I try to be as much of a student of it as I can.
——————⇒ Besides hard work, what do you think has contributed to the success you’ve found?
LN: I’ve been very fortunate that there’s always been a consistency with the work. I think that’s been a result of taking some risky leaps and jumps in my career that, luckily for me, worked out. Taking big jumps can be incredibly scary and sometimes you don’t even know how big of a leap you’re taking until you look back with hindsight. But for your career, you’ve got to do it.
——————⇒ What’s an example of one of these leaps?
LN: In Canada I had a good job working in documentary television as a story editor. I loved my job and the people I worked with but I had this real urge to pack up and take a gamble on myself. I wanted to try Los Angeles and give it everything I had. So I booked a flight that week and was off.
——————⇒ Where did you get your drive from?
I had a mother who installed confidence with words and a father who installed a hard work ethic through actions. He would wake up; go to work and I never heard him complain.
I always remember the producer who optioned my script said—anyone can write one good script. Your second is your test. So there were a lot of times that I didn’t go out. I’ve always looked at my writing as my business so I’ve had guilt if I wasn’t working.
Also, because I was trying to get to America all my money went into visas. When you do get that visa, it’s not like you can say I’m going to f**k off travelling for six months now. You can’t. You only have a certain amount of time to come here and work. I love travelling but I try to find ways to do it within my work. Like when I went to Vietnam on a documentary.
I knew for me, going to LA was important to the trajectory of what I imagined my career to be. So I chose not to do things like going on vacation or spending that extra $100 on something that wasn’t towards that goal.
And that’s why I’m destructive now! (Laughter)
——————⇒ It’s hard enough breaking into Hollywood. Being from another country and unable to work without those hard-to-get visas adds a whole other set of complications. Tell me about the outsiders experience?
LN: My code is leap and the net will appear. We as people are designed to be our first line of criticism. Then we have the external world doing that. If you buy into the idea that something is not going to work out, it won’t. There’s a reason why you hear about those people who come out here on a whim, with no car, no money and it works out for them. Because what they’re really driven by was a really concrete idea of what they wanted.
There’s a lot of noise in this city and the way to break through is to be clear with what you want and reinstate that goal everyday.
——————⇒ You’re talking about focus?
You hear a lot of advice from writers who say—write what you know—when really, I think what they’re saying is write what you identify with…then it’s honest.
LN: Yes, strategic focus. Knowing where you want to land. I’ve been in situations where I’ve turned down a lot of great jobs because it wasn’t my lane. It’s important that you know what your lane is. Know where you want to go and what you wanted to do. For me, this means having a business plan. Knowing the things I like and the things that I relate to.
There were people I admired out here for what they were able to do with their portfolio. So when I got here, I asked—who are my mentors? What are the materials and resources out there? And what do I specifically have to offer that someone else doesn’t?
You hear a lot of advice from writers who say—write what you know—when really, I think what they’re saying is write what you identify with. Then it’s honest and when someone reads you, they can see that you have a specific point of view. Compared to the other writer who’s trying to copy someone else’s voice and not coming from a rooted place.
It’s funny because the writing that industry types and agents said would never sell was always the stuff that got me the most traction rather then the more commercial writing.
——————⇒ Why do you think that is?
LN: I think there are a lot of carbon copy ideas out there. Reading something different and unique is a jolt for people. It gets them out of that airplane mode you sometimes get into when reading a script. These people read 20-30 scripts a week. They’re literally on cruise control, so when you present something different, what it does is makes them lean forward.
So much of your job is to make someone lean forward. Our job is craft. If you’re able to write something different and with a sense of craft, then that has so much to do with someone passing your script on or saying—I want to bring this person in. This is an industry of referrals.
——————⇒ I’ve heard very similar things during this interview series. Agents and managers are looking for voice and consistency. They want to know you have a point of view and you can back it up with other work.
LN: Yes and these are people who read a ton of stuff. From the outsider perspective, I thought when I came here I was going to experience this big Hollywood machine. But really, it’s just people in jeans who don’t want to lose their job. It’s important for them to justify the stuff they develop. And maybe doing a 1930s period piece isn’t the best business strategy for some of them.
The advice I would give to people coming here is to—build your tribe. This is an industry where you need the support of people behind you to push you to the next step. That’s why this false sense of competition is so dumb. Help everyone that you can, even if they don’t help you. I’m a firm believer that cream rises to the top. That doesn’t just mean talent, that means character, good people. Build your tribe because there is going to be times when you fall back and you need other people’s hands to keep you up… and that’s my Oprah moment. (Laughter)
——————⇒ How do you deal with difficult personalities when you run into them?
What you are doing is collecting your experiences, putting it on the page through the lens of comedy or drama and saying: This is what I believe the world to be.
LN: Distance. My responsibility is to be an architect of my own life—the people I put in my life, the places I go, the situations that make me feel better. I think the key to dealing with a difficult person is to be nice and a really good listener. Because when you’re listening they can’t fight you. You’re not engaging.
That’s the other thing, my behavior doesn’t change. I always try to be nice. There’s obviously people I won’t connect with on a certain level but I don’t need to. I don’t need to be liked by everyone.
It only gets tricky when you start suffering from the ‘need to please/please love me’ syndrome. But we all fall into that at some stage because if I fail as a writer, it can feel like my perspective on life is failing and that can really affect you on a very visceral level. Because what you are doing is collecting your experiences, putting it on the page through the lens of comedy or drama and saying—This is what I believe the world to be. It’s literally you as a person. So when someone doesn’t resonate with that, it’s a sense of a personal rejection. It’s like someone looking at a picture of your little baby and being like, meh.
——————⇒ How did The Goldbergs come to you? What was that experience like?
The best experience! I was working in films. I was EP-ing a film that we were trying to get up. Movies move at a glacial pace. I was doing darker, character dramas and I was used to writing 120 pages but I always loved comedy and I wanted to explore the format of the half hour comedy. I decided to write a couple of original pilots and I was lucky that it resonated with some people at ABC. So I applied for their writing program.
Those programs are like the hunger games. 2000 applicants that keep narrowing down over 6 months. They narrowed it down to the final eight people. Three of them were comedy writers including me.
I felt like I had a lot of support in the drama route but I was new to comedy so I had to look at who could really help in my tribe? A couple of people from ABC became that support and going through the program I got the support of the network and the studio.
We had to pitch an idea for an episode of an ABC show. I was a fan of The Goldbergs season one, so I walked in pitched for that. Then we had to do a spec of an episode, so I wrote The Goldbergs.
When it came to taking showrunner meetings I was fortunate to meet with the Adam Goldberg. I was trying to be as strategic as possible knowing that this was a show that resonated with me. I knew the show and I knew how I personally related to the show. Plus he and I got along really well because I have this older brother, this older sister, this mother and my dad was always in his underwear. So there was a lot of experiences we had that were the same growing up in the eighties and nineties.
I love working in TV. It’s so different coming from the features world, you get to see eleven other people break stories, process stories and debate stories. It’s like this masterclass every day. Adam is brilliant at breaking story. I’ve never seen anyone just walk in and break a story like he does. He’s a story savant. My job is to service that. Sometimes we get to pitch ideas from our own lives and if it resonates, Adam will say, lets go with that. Then he will bring his flare to that idea. Sometimes we spend 5-6 hours in the room trying to break something and he will come in and go—boom, boom, boom! He’ll just nail it. We’ll go to the board and write exactly what he said.
Adam’s not only great with story but he’s a great performer too. He enrolls you in the vision so you’re able to see it. In a room that’s what you begin to realize, you don’t pitch story, you perform story.
——————⇒ How did you feel going into a room of experienced television writers when you’d come from such a different background?
This is an industry where you need the support of people behind you to push you to the next step… Help everyone that you can, even if they don’t help you.
LN: It was a little nerve wracking. Some people think, as long as the staff writer can put their pants on and sit down, they’re good, but I’ve never subscribed to that. I felt like it was my responsibility to contribute. Adam always made me feel valued. One of the smart things about that is, you take more pride in something when you’re feeling valued.
Every room has it’s own dynamics and it is important that you sit back, listen, learn and then know how you in your position can contribute to the ‘flow of the room’.
——————⇒ I’m so glad The Goldbergs got picked up again, I was worried when all these shows were getting cancelled…
LN: Yeah I know! People are really resonating with the show, which is a testament to everyone’s work on that show.
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