“In this job, if there’s an opportunity then sometimes you just have to take it.”
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 DJ Doyle, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter who has worked on the cult television series Heroes and currently works as a staff writer on Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. He recently took some time out to chat about his journey to becoming a writer, what makes a good writer’s assistant, and learning how and when to pitch in the writers room.
——————⇒ How did you become a writer?
I actually started out as an accountant in college but I was a TV fanatic so I decided to switch over to a film studies major. I caught the bug for writing by messing around on different film projects with my friends. When college ended, I packed up my car and drove from Massachusetts to California.
I knew some kids out here who had graduated the year before. Some others very quickly came out. There were six of us renting a house together—all guys, all just moved out here and scrapping by. It was great. They were my support group and we’ve still got some strong friendships till this day.
——————⇒ How did you go about getting work?
DJ: I reached out to people I knew. There’s not much of a resume process out here. It’s more like—hey I know this guy, he might be good for this. That’s how I got my first assistant job, as a writer’s PA on the TV show Heroes.
I actually got the job because the show was sued over a cross branding issue. So they had to create a new legal clearances position to make sure that never happened again. They promoted their writer’s PA to this position and he was a good friend of mine, so he gave me a heads up. I was working as a temp on the show Survivor as a tape logger, which is a terrible job, you’re literally transcribing film all day. When I heard about that PA job, I stopped everything, retyped my resume and quit two days later to go to Heroes.
——————⇒ What’s the difference between a writer’s PA and a writer’s assistant?
DJ: Writer’s PA is making sure the office runs. It’s the basic day-to-day things. You’re getting lunch, making photocopies of scripts, distributing paperwork and keeping the ten or so different writers all in the loop.
A writer’s assistant is responsible for keeping continuity inside the room. As they’re breaking script, you’re taking notes on everything they’ve pitched and written on the board. You’re the first resource for any research or story knowledge. You have to know the show inside and out.
On a daily basis, you’re taking everything discussed in the room and making a coherent pitch document, or notes. This is vital for any writer to reference. Especially those who aren’t in the room because they’re either out writing or on set somewhere. You are the go-to for continuity. They might ask—hey what happened third act of episode 105? Did we ever say how old this person is or where they’re from? What was this person’s storyline? So you’re responsible for keeping story.
——————⇒ What makes a really good writers assistant?
Be able to type really fast. You don’t want to miss a pitch, but if you do, be brave enough to ask for the writer to repeat the idea. The two seconds that takes will save you from the horror of having to admit you missed a pitch later. And it’s always the pitch they loved that they ask for. But if you can’t type fast, that’s fine, keep an audio recorder running just as a safety. That’s especially important to make sure you’ve picked up the nuance of a joke or how a scene was pitched. The faster and cleaner you can type on the fly, the better off you’ll be. You won’t be sitting there at eleven o’clock at night still transcribing and cleaning up your notes.
Having a sense of the room and what’s going to be important later on is vital. As well as being able to prioritize things that are being pitched. Of course you want to be able to pull up alternate pitches, but you get a sense of when the writers are on to something crucial and that needs to be taken down verbatim.
What you’re aiming for is to encapsulate the story discussion in an edited way that’s straightforward and coherent for the person reading the notes the next day. So they can read through them quickly and understand what they missed while they were out of the room. If you can do that, you’re gold.
It’s also important to know the tone of the show and get to a place where you can pitch, sometimes. You’re doing this job because you want to become a writer. Well you have a front row seat to a writer’s room and you need to take advantage of that—slowly and with tact. This is potentially a place for you to cut your teeth and learn when it is acceptable to pitch, as well as the timing and the structure of a good pitch.
If you have a good pitch that gets the room unstuck, they’ll love you for it.
——————⇒ How do you know when is a good time to pitch? Does it vary from room to room?
Don’t pitch against what a room is working towards. If they’re trying to build a particular story, help move forward on that story.
DJ: Yes. Some rooms don’t expect a writer’s assistant to speak up at all. I was very lucky that S.H.E.I.L.D. was very welcoming to me pitching. Though it still had to be at the right time. Like if an executive producer is in the room and they’re trying to steer conversation in a certain way, don’t cut them off. Also, don’t pitch against what a room is working towards. If they’re trying to build a particular story, help move forward on that story instead of pushing for some idea you personally like. Again, you’re there as a resource for the room.
A good place to start is when it’s a relaxed day. You’re in there for long periods of time and you’ll get to know these people very well. So if people are screwing around in the morning, that may be a good time to say—Hey I had this idea the other night, maybe this could work…
Remember, many of your pitches will not be good ideas. You’ll know when you’re on to something that’s good. It’s a great feeling when the room to goes with your idea.
——————⇒ How did Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D. come to you?
After two and a half seasons at Heroes, I went to work on this other show called Touch with Kiefer Sutherland, that had the same producers as Heroes and was a fun show to be on. One of my friends was working at Marvel and he gave me the heads up about this show being developed that was based off the Avengers. He couldn’t tell me anything more than that because Marvel security is very tight. It was comical – I was sneaking out for this interview and I didn’t even know what the show was.
I found out later they had only just sold the idea and were going to open a small writers room of just executive producers to hammer out a script before Joss (Whedon) went off to do Avengers 2.
My friend said he could get me an interview but if I got the job, I would have to quit Touch and come across straight away. Politically, it would not have been good for him if he had gotten me in and then I didn’t take it. Mind you, that was the same guy who told me to quit Survivor with two days’ notice. I think he likes benevolently messing with my life.
It was another leap where I had to move fast. I took the interview and I had no idea if it was going to pan out or not, but it did. I had three days to settle things up at Touch, which was faster than I would have liked, but in this job, if there’s an opportunity then sometimes you just have to take it. I was on board as they were breaking outline of the pilot.
——————⇒ So you started as a writer’s assistant on SHIELD and you’ve since been credited with three episodes as writer. How did they come about?
DJ: I’d gotten a few good pitches in that had been used in the show and it’s part of the WGA agreement to have non-staff script once a year. So they decided they would give me that script to do with a co-executive producer, Paul Zbyszewski. Paul shepherded me through the whole thing. But it came from speaking up in the room and earning their trust with my pitches and my story-sense. That was a huge opportunity for me and I’ll always be grateful to them for doing that. The script went well. I think they felt good about the episode.
——————⇒ How did you and Paul go about writing together on that first episode?
You’re the first resource for any research or story knowledge. You have to know the show inside and out.
DJ: It was episode 20 of last year and because it was so late in the order, we only had two days to turn around the outline. So we basically split the script down the middle. I took the first half, he took the second. We both wrote our segments of the outline, then traded and read each others stuff. He gave me a ton of notes, very thorough. He’s good in that way. He made sure everything was up to snuff and then we handed in the outline. That went over pretty smoothly. Not too many changes at that point. Then it was on to the script. We did the same thing splitting the script, he gave me notes and helped me rewrite scenes.
Once we were happy with it we turned it into our bosses, the executive producers and from there they did a pass at it.
After I’d worked there about a year and half, they decided that on season two they’d move me up to staff writer. They gave me a real big shot. At that point they suddenly expected me to be able to write scripts and do it all on my own. (Laughter)
The first one they help you out. The second one, you’d better be able to swim. Once you’re staffed, it’s expected you’re able to do this.
——————⇒ Did you continue to write while you’d been working as an assistant?
DJ: I wrote spec scripts. I wrote a Friday Night Lights and few others. But what’s in fashion right now is to write original pilot episodes. Which is interesting because it’s not all that common to sell an original without working in the industry and the most valuable thing as a staff writer is to be able to mimic someone else’s voice. So it’s kind of curious to me that people don’t read specs as much unless you’re trying to get into a studio mentoring program. Some of those require a spec script but for the most part it’s original pilots and features.
——————⇒ What’s biggest challenge for writing in another person’s voice? How do you do it?
DJ: I find it easy to write in a character’s voice. As far as writing in another writer’s voice—I guess because we’ve read so much of each others stuff and it helped starting out as a writer’s assistant. I’ve gotten used to transcribing their cadence, seeing their outlines and going over different scripts. I’d been exposed to it enough that it became somewhat easier for me.
When writers come onto a show they’ve just got to read as much as they can. You have to have a feel for the pace and the tone. Consistency and attention to detail are imperative: you have to understand the perspectives of your characters, and their cadence, recurring turns of phrase…
Different writers definitely have different voices in their scripts, even on our show. You find this in the action mostly. Some writers are funnier than others in their descriptions, while others just get out the facts. They’re both brilliant but different ways of writing. As long as you can deliver the scene and characters in the feel of the show then you’re in a good position.
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