““Winning a contest like Launch Pad is a great reason why people should meet with you.”
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 Staff 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 lessons he learned in the industry; finding time to write with a young family and a taste of the advice he’ll give to the new writers in his upcoming role as mentor for the Launch Pad Pilots Contest.
——————⇒ You’re going to be mentoring our 2015 Launch Pad Winners. What can these writers expect from you as a mentor?
MP: Lots of alcohol! No I’m joking. They’re going to get honest feedback on their career and they’re going to hear my mistakes–without any filter. I tell people that writing is rewriting and you have to keep writing. You may think you’re ready but you’re not ready until you’re ready-ready as I like to say.
That’s what the writers are going to see and learn. Because even though they’ve won with this script, it’s about the marathon, not the sprint.
Even at my level, I’ve won contests, I’ve been in fellowships, I’m on a TV show, but you’re always still writing. It never ends. You’re only as good as your last script. You need to turn that critic off and just go for it. Just because you’ve made it, doesn’t mean you’ll make it.
For me, you have to be the CEO, the CMO and the chief motivation officer in your life and in your career. You need life balance and a fulfilling life. Don’t give up. Live life to the fullest. Get as much experience as you can, join the peace core! I don’t know. But realize that when it’s your time it’s your time. A lot of people think because they’re here, in LA, for a year or two and they’ve written two great scripts that it’s their time. And yeah, some people come here and in two years they’re selling shows. But it doesn’t happen like that for everyone. The most important thing is, don’t give up.
It took me a decade to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. But when I did, I never gave up.
——————⇒ What’s the biggest industry lesson you’ve learned along the way?
People say fake it till you make it! I did a lot of faking it until I made it but I wasn’t really honest with myself. I didn’t do the writing that I should have.
After my parents passed away I used my savings to rent an office on a lot called, The Lot. I was taking meetings when I didn’t have strong samples. I was basically lying to myself. I’ve always been good verbally and coming up with ideas but I didn’t have the work to show for it. There were many times when I had a meeting and people say–great! Send me something. But I’d never send them anything or I’d send them something and it was crap. I just wasn’t ready.
I think you should work on yourself and be ready to be ready. I thought I was ready, but I really wasn’t. I had to do the work.
So I got rid of that office, saved the money and just kept writing. Today I think I have 16 scripts that I’ve written. At the time, I think I had one or two. Writing is rewriting and you only get better with practice. So no more faking it till I make it.
——————⇒ And those 16 scripts, have they gone out or are some just going to stay at the bottom of the drawer?
MP: Some are just going to stay in my circular filing cabinet, yes. But every time you write those scripts, you learn, through the process of writing, how bad it is, or at least your wife tells you how bad it is. (Laughter)
I think coming to Hollywood, everyone wants to break in so badly they’re willing to lie, cheat and steal to get there. What I’ve found is that those people do exist and they’re making movies and TV shows. But in order to have a long lasting career, in order not to sell your soul and crush that soul along the way, you need to do the right thing and put in the work. A lot of people sit in coffee shops all day talking about how awesome they are, but they don’t have anything to show for it.
In order to have a long lasting career, you need to do the right thing and put in the work.
Another thing, I thought I was escaping corporate America to work with creative people who really had a passion about their art. What I found was–the kids who were the bullies on the playground, or who never got life experience are the same people you work with in entertainment as well. It’s just a different job. That was the biggest lesson learned.
There are difficult personalities, whether you work at a department store, in an office or on a writing staff. The same personalities exist, but you have to rise above that and remember you’re doing this because it’s your passion, it’s your art … and it’s the best job in the world!
And, as your job, especially as a staff writer, you mustn’t provoke those personalities and get caught up in all that. Your job is to generate ideas 99% of the time, I’m not physically writing anything. It’s all verbal. That was another lesson I learned–in a writers room; unless you’re out to script, you’re pitching ideas or writing things on the board. Like I said, it’s the coolest job in the world but it’s still a job.
——————⇒ Now that you’re a father to a 7 month old, how are you juggling the time you spend working with your home life?
MP: It was a tough adjustment and all my writer friends who are parents say the same thing. I used to be able to, as my wife says, disappear. I’d be at home, but I’d disappear for the weekend and just write or get things done.
After my son was born, I had to retrain myself to write in spurts and not to beat myself up if I only got one page done in 20 minutes. That’s just my life now. I’m picking hours to write that I never used to before. I wake up at four or five in the morning to write for two hours when ever I can. Now, I have balance and I know how to do it, but it was a big learning curve
——————⇒ Is there any particular area that’s suffering in the balance?
MP: (Laughter) It’s all suffering!
I have a writing process. I go from a logline to a concept sheet, to a grid, to the outline, to the script. When I’m writing, I call it slipping-into-writer-mode. Previously, I would come home from work on a Friday and it would take me all Friday night just to slip into writers-mode. I’d go to sleep and then Saturday and Sunday I could just hit it.
I don’t have that luxury now. I have to get into it faster. Which means turning off the critic in my head, the one that says–this is crap! This is not good. It’s better to have something ugly to reshape then not to have anything at all.
There was a month where the lack of sleep, the worry, all that other stuff that was going on while I was on the show and then after the show combined and I would sit there, stymied. I couldn’t do anything because I was just so filled with worry. So, I had to learn to turn that critic off. Then I had to learn that I could write, even if I only got a page or five pages done in a couple hours. I used to just think in quantity–Look at me! I escaped for the weekend and wrote 25 pages of my script–But I can’t do that anymore.
——————⇒ So your son has actually made you a more efficient writer!
MP: Yes, but has be made me a better writer? That’s the bigger question. (Laughter)
——————⇒ Of the mentors you’ve had, what have you noticed has made a good mentor?
MP: Experience. There’s a great quote in this town, “opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.”
I look for people who can discern their own personal bullshit and not project it on to others. Someone who can be an objective voice between their own experience and finding out what are your goals. What you want to achieve. They can share how they got to where they are without making it seem like you need to do the exact same thing.
The consistent thing between everybody from Vince Gilligan down to the lowliest writers assistant on a show, is the best writing. You have to write your best. That takes practice, perseverance and persistence. I think a lot of people are trying to find a short cut through that, but there’s no magic formula. It doesn’t exist.
——————⇒ How do you know it’s your time? Because like you said, you thought it was your time but it wasn’t, so how do you actually know?
You have to write your best. That takes practice, perseverance and persistence.
I have a friend here, Lauren, who created a show called Awkward. When you read the pilot to Awkward, it’s Lauren. She says those things. It’s her point of view. It’s her funny words. When you meet her, you know she wrote that. If somebody read Nexxus and I came in the room and talked like a Californian surfer dude, that wouldn’t match.
The writing gets you past that first obstacle, it gets you in the door, but it’s you that ensures they give you the money!
——————⇒ What do you think you’ve done in your career that has contributed to you getting to where you are right now?
MP: I think it’s really goes back to what my wife asked of me, what kind of writer do I want to be? What kind of legacy do I want to leave? What is my brand? That’s the heart of it and what makes me tick now. It doesn’t mean if I don’t have a great idea about some dog or a penguin, I’m not going to write it. But really, at this level I have to think about my brand and keep focused.
——————⇒ When you first went into the State of Affairs writers’ room did that critic voice pop up?
Yes. We weren’t allowed to have phones or laptops in the room. They gave us a pad and paper because they want your attention. I would write ideas and sometimes someone would pitch the same idea before me and I would go aghhhh! Then it would get shot down and I’d be glad I never pitched it. Sometimes they’d pitch it and get the glory and I’d be kicking myself, because you want to show off too.
As staff writer, you’re always trying to generate material, but you don’t want to be the person always talking. You have to have a shared vision. Just like having a great script and knowing you’re ready to hand that script to someone. It’s the same thing when you hand that pitch verbally to somebody. You have to know it’s the best pitch and you have to do it fast and succinctly. Know the beginning, middle and end of your pitch. It has to be clear.
It also has to help build on the current story. You have to help them try to develop. You can’t be the person who says– this all sucks, what we really should be doing is this… that’s not your job, eventually the executive producer or writer whose episode is being broken will figure out if it sucks.
——————⇒ And sometimes the bad ideas are the bridge to the good ideas…
MP: Yeah, and sometimes people in the room just don’t want to hear if it’s a bad idea. Again, it’s that corporate setting. It’s like if you worked in a hospital. You’re the junior surgeon, someone’s about to have heart surgery and you question the chief about the way he’s going to do it. You just have to say yes, let’s do it that way… and if the patient dies, the patient dies! (Sad face)
——————⇒ Would you be recommending Launch Pad to fellow writers?
Of course. One thing about Launch Pad is that everyone gets noticed and the good people get reps. That’s your calling card to use. I used it to get reps, to set up meetings because it’s a conversation starter.
A lot of times you have to cold call people. Instead of saying, hi I’m Mike Perri and I’m a writer. It’s better to say, hi I’m Mike Perri, I was on the Young and Hungry List for my pilot, I just did a fellowship and I want to meet with you.
Those are the things that get you attention. So many people want to pick your brain in this town. I call it the–lets do lunch/ let’s do coffee. It’s better if you have a specific reason you want to pick their brains and winning a contest like Launch Pad is a great reason why people should meet with you.
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