“Your brand is only what you tell people it is and what you can show for it. That’s the key, you have to be able to show what you can do.”
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. In part two of our interview, Lewaa chats about how to create a diverse career; not waiting to make your own content and lessons he learned along the way.
——————⇒ We get told to be brand specific, not only in the medium we choose, but the genre we want to work in. How have you been able to navigate your career across these different mediums such as film, television, documentary and comics?
I have a slightly more unconventional take on this issue. I think we need to be in service of what ignites us as artists. I can be a comedy writer who loves drama, or a drama writer who loves novels. I think artists can be as multifaceted as their own taste.
I let passion drive me and drive what I choose to work on. If I want to do a horror movie next, that’s fine, but I’ve got to ask myself—How do I brand myself in that direction while still working on a show like The Goldbergs and maintain that brand?
The idea is, your brand is only what you tell people it is and what you can show for it. That’s the key, you have to be able to show what you can do.
If I go into a meeting for a one-hour drama and my sample is The Goldbergs, they’re not going to believe I can do it. But if I go in and say—this is why I resonate with your show, these are the themes that are interesting to me and here is a one-hour drama sample I wrote to back it up—then that’s different.
When I went into the meeting with Adam, I hadn’t worked in network television before, but we talked about how I’d grown up with virtually the same family dynamics and I had anecdotes that expressed that.
As people we have diverse experiences. When you’re building your business plan like I did, I asked—what part of me is comedy? What do I really resonate with and how can I pitch myself?
For The Goldbergs I found I could pitch myself as the youngest of a family who was this slightly geeky, artistic kid and wanted to be a filmmaker. So there were a lot of areas where I could relate to Adam and his childhood experience.
Now I’m also doing a movie on Montgomery Cliff, the 1950s actor. What I love specifically about this story is it’s a love story that deals with what I think we’re all dealing with—our struggles with how to remain authentic in a world where we are constantly being scrutinized.
——————⇒ It’s refreshing to see that you, in a way, refuse to be pigeonholed.
LN: I don’t think you should ever have to feel stuck doing just one thing. My experience spans The Goldbergs, Documentaries, I’m working on a comic, we just got director attached and we’re in development on the Montgomery Cliff film and my next script is a horror. They could not be more separate projects. But the thing is, you’ve got to write something good. Because no one’s going to read a great script and say, no actually, I think I’ll pass because they haven’t proved themselves. You already did with that script.
——————⇒ How do your reps deal with it? It must make them nervous!
Too many people expect their Agents to lift too much of the weight. But you gotta prove yourself if you’re asking people to have faith in your vision.
LN: My reps deserve a lot of credit. When I went in to meet with my manager I talked about Alan Ball, Greg Berlanti, Aaron Sorkin. These are people I want to emulate. I want a career like Joss Whedon where he does Buffy, a musical, The Avengers and Shakespeare.
See it’s okay when these guys do different things but we’re told not to think big, not to think like the people we idolise. Alan Ball did American Beauty, Six Feet Under then he did True Blood. So why not? Why can’t we do that?
You have to enrol people in your vision. Your agent and manager are joining 10% of your company. I was honest with them when we first met. I shared my vision with them and showed them my samples so they could have something to go out and sell me in line with what my vision is. If they only wanted me to be in one specific area then they would not have been the right reps for me.
Your job is to inspire confidence in them. Too many people expect their Agents to lift too much of the weight. But you gotta prove yourself if you’re asking people to have faith in your vision. Especially if you’re hopping genres. That’s what I was talking about at the beginning of the interview, taking those jumps when you only have a very small net is the best thing you can do in your work. But there is the reality that you’re going to be held to a higher standard. When I go out with a one-hour drama, the question will be, can this guy do drama? So I’ve got to knock it out. Which means I’ve got to spend time learning it. It’s a different set of skills from writing comedy.
It’s my job to be the leader of my career. Which means it’s my job to teach people, to show people, to make people believe in me. People shouldn’t just believe I can go write a horror movie. I have a responsibility to prove that I can do it and do it at a high level. And if I can’t, I need to seek out the tools, the experts and the experience. That’s on me.
——————⇒ I noticed you’ve got a few short films to your credit. Is that what you’ve been doing? Just going there and doing it yourself?
LN: Absolutely. It’s essential. And why not? You’ve got movies like Tangerine that just went to Sundance and that was shot on an iPhone 5S.
Because I come from a producing background, I think for me, these are opportunities that I have to make for myself.
The thing I’ve learned is that audience will forgive anything except bad taste and bad sound. So many times we think we can’t go out and make something because it has to have this, this and that—all of which comes down to you waiting for what you think is enough money to make your film, but no! What people want is something exciting, they want a voice, they want taste and perspective.
Remember too, it’s all a stepping stone, because your 100 thousand dollar movie leads to your 250 thousand dollar movie which leads to your 1 million dollar movie. It’s an industry where people lean towards saying no most of the time so you have to give them a reason to say yes.
When people think they can’t take the next step until everything is primed, that’s procrastination masked and manipulated. Just take it. You can’t be so precious that you get nothing done. Doing nothing, that’s the biggest crime. Cause you’re the one giving yourself the ‘no’ don’t do that – trust there are people for that.
——————⇒ When you’re trying something new outside of what you’re known for, what’s your process before you put the script out there? How do you know it’s a good enough?
I have to be able to look at the script and say, this is a good piece of work and I’m able to justify it. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I can look at it a see the foundation is there. The characters are strong. I can articulate thematically what it’s about and why.
People say you don’t want a yes-man and you don’t want a person who’s just going to tell you it’s shit. I believe you want both. Sometimes you just need someone to say—it’s great! Even if it’s not. Then you need people who are going to challenge you on everything.
Which is so valuable, because it teaches you how to take notes.
It’s hard to take notes sometimes and it’s invaluable to learn how to shut-the-f**k-up and listen to what they’re saying. Then when they leave you can delete them off facebook or whatever. (Laughter)
You can’t be so precious that you get nothing done. Doing nothing, that’s the biggest crime. Cause you’re the one giving yourself the ‘no’ don’t do that
But you have to understand who those people are in your life because they come in handy at different stages. I’m my own harshest critic. I’ll pour through my scripts, scene by scene and ask myself—what is the intention of this scene? And is that intention coming across? When I’ve checked that. Then I’ll move on.
I have three friends who will read my material. These are people whose taste I respect and who I know will ask me big questions. When they give me their notes, Then I’ll have a set of questions for them—What about this? What did you experience here? What did you experience there?
I implement the notes I agree with. Usually when I hear the note three times I’ll do it no matter what, unless I’m really adamant about it. Then I’ll read my script in one sitting, on paper, not on my computer, because you have a difference experience when you’re reading something in your hand verses on a screen. You just catch things more. At least I do. I then type a report of my experience of that script. With all the negative stuff my new draft has to address and all the positive stuff I have to keep.
——————⇒ Tell me more about your business plan you mentioned, is it something in your head or do you write it down with specific steps and goals?
LN: It’s something that’s very tangible. I look at the year ahead of me, what I have coming up, like the film I’m developing, working in television which I love. I also want to finish this horror script. Then what I’m also doing is I’ve implemented in my plans time to take some breaks. Now that I’m more relaxed in my career, the best thing I can do is live a little.
I also have people in my life that keep me accountable. For example, I might share my goal for that day with them and ask, do you mind if I text you at ten to tell you whether I got to my goal or not. And vice versa with them for their goals. A lot of my friends are in the same boat. They’re on shows, they have deadlines so it’s like, great, how can I support you?
——————⇒ What advice would you have for someone going into a writers room for the first time?
You have to learn how to best contribute in the room. Find something you are good at, or the thing other writer’s don’t want to do. I enjoyed writing VO because it helped to reinforce the theme of the episode. I’d work on them during lunch and was able to contribute to that process. Also, when you’re in the room as a Staff Writer, the learning curve is massive.
You have to be patient with yourself. You have to understand that sometimes silence is your power and you have to remember to always push the bolder up the mountain.
Don’t stop to say ‘this doesn’t make sense’ unless you’re able to have a solution. Also, and this is important: Don’t ‘pitch on instinct, pitch on solution.’ If something doesn’t feel right, don’t just point it out. Try to find the magic way out of it.
——————⇒ Are you working towards running your own show or would you like more experience working on other shows?
When people think they can’t take the next step until everything is primed, that’s procrastination masked and manipulated. Just take it.
LN: The idea is eventually to be a showrunner but I’m loving this path and learning so much. But being a showrunner is almost an impossible job. You have to do so much and everyone looks to you to make the right decisions. Adam is such a great example to learn from, being able to see how he handles things is invaluable.
I have a bunch of friends who are staffed writers and we share stories of what we’ve seen work and not work. The good stuff is what we take and we’ll hopefully implement it on our own shows one day.
It definitely feels like I’m building to something like my own show. How and what that that will look like, I don’t know yet. I’m trying to figure out what my signature is. The good news is there is so much opportunity out there now.
——————⇒ In television?
LN: Yes, but I think in movies too. The way the digital platforms are working now, independent film is really finding a way out to audiences that it didn’t have before. If you look at films like It Follows and Arbitrage they did really well digitally. I think there are exciting times ahead for independent film.
——————⇒ What’s the biggest industry lessons you learned along the way?
When my first movie came out, it was not really a representation of the original script. They had changed some huge thematic ideas. It was good, but it didn’t feel like my authentic voice. At the time I was upset about that, because I felt like what I had signed up for wasn’t executed.
But the thing is, that’s a common reality when you’re working in this industry. Sometimes the finished film or television product after it’s gone through the process might not ideally be what you as a writer wanted it to be, but that’s not up to you.
Looking back, I’m just so grateful for that opportunity because what I didn’t realize at the time is that, you just need to get out there. And those filmmakers gave me a yes in an industry filled with no’s. I could not be more grateful to them. They did exceptional work taking the script and making their vision.
You determine the next step in your career. If you put something out there and you don’t get the reaction you wanted, then it’s up to you to change that.
Not everything is going to turn out but it doesn’t have to define your career. I think Kevin Smith said, this is the only industry where you can fail up, like where a hairdresser becomes an executive producer. You determine the next step in your career. If you put something out there and you don’t get the reaction you wanted, then it’s up to you to change that. You can only change that with the next thing you write or create.
The hardest lesson I learned was about not appreciating the moment because I was so excited about getting to the next one.
You’ll learn that there is no real top in this career. You’re always in the climbing stages of the industry. There is nowhere to climb to because your idea of the peak keeps moving higher and higher. So you’ve got to take a breather every now and then. And remember that your little success is someone else’s huge success. Don’t take that for granted. And I don’t.
Catch Lewaa’s episodes of The Goldbergs on ABC! Follow Lewaa on Twitter: @LewaaNass
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
Look out for the next interview coming soon!
Follow Lewaa on twitter: @LewaaNass
The 2015 Launch Pad Pilots Competition is now accepting submissions!