“You want to be knowledgeable about the industry that you intend to make a career out of—so get educated, anyway you can.”
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 the lessons he’s learned along the way, pitching in the writers room, and the advice he wish he knew when he was starting out.
——————⇒ I imagine the experience as a writer’s assistant of trying to transcribe the core of a person’s pitch would have helped with your own pitching?
As a writer’s assistant you quickly see that people tend to talk in a circular fashion and meander in their ideas, so you learn to distill their pitches down to the root idea that they’re trying to convey. And because I’m actually a terrible pitch-man when I’m in the room, I like to prepare, mentally applying the same lessons I learned as a writers’ assistant: The aim is to be concise and find the core idea of what you’re trying to pitch. What’s the best way to encapsulate it?
You really have to work hard to sell your idea. The room moves fast. And it’s easy to lose people’s imagination – their minds move on – so you could have a brilliant idea, but if you can’t convey it well, then you’ve missed out. You’re going to get nervous when you pitch something, especially as an assistant, so you have to know exactly what you’re going to say.
——————⇒ Do you still get nervous when you get up to speak now as a staff writer?
DJ: Yeah, I still do. My room has been working together for two years now and we’re quite at ease with each other. That helps, because everything is a little more conversational.
If I’m running through my episode at the board to show the bosses what I’ve been working on—I’m totally nervous, because you’re defending your ideas. Some people have a natural way to pitch. Others have to work on it. I make sure to come in early and work everything out. Find a style or rhythm that works for you – create an alter-ego in your head if you have to.
——————⇒ What have been the biggest industry lessons you’ve learned along the way?
DJ: As a writers assistant on S.H.I.E.L.D. there was a story point that I disagreed with. I spoke up, I made an impassioned plea for them not to go down that road – and I did it in entirely the wrong way: I trashed a story as an assistant to my bosses, in front of their bosses, in the room, and at a time where we were under the gun to beat a deadline. It wasn’t constructive or tactful. It was a borderline fireable offense. And if it were another room, I probably would have been.
After the room wrapped I was pulled aside and kindly spoken to, but it was made clear that I had over stepped my boundaries. Which was fair. I’d totally screwed up. The good thing was, it did open up a dialogue. They said they liked the fact that I was pitching and to keep pitching, but to pick better times.
It really is an industry of attrition and it can be frustrating. But if you just stick around long enough, you hone your craft and put yourself out there—good things do eventually come.
It’s something you have to learn. It’s something I’ve seen good managers of people do, and it’s applicable anywhere: find not only the right words, but the right situation to convey a message. You can always wait five minutes and talk to someone outside the room. Or wait until things cool down. Definitely never speak when you’re too excited—either because you think an idea is great or you think it’s terrible. Collect your thoughts and then pitch well, and in the correct setting.
——————⇒ Besides the writing, what do you think you’ve done that’s helped get you where you are?
Story craft is above all. You’ve got to keep working at that.
Just sticking with it is one of the most important things. It really is an industry of attrition and it can be frustrating. But if you just stick around long enough, you hone your craft and put yourself out there—good things do eventually come. As maddening as the process can be, I think that’s one of the most important things.
It’s important to surround yourself with people who are in the industry, who understand what you’re going through and can help you along the way.
Virtually no one, especially in television, makes it on their own. I can point to five people, without whom my life would be completely different. Just having that tight-knit group of people who are going to watch your back and provide support is important.
——————⇒ What got you through those dark periods where it just didn’t look like anything was coming up ahead?
It doesn’t matter if you’re the lowest rung on the ladder, there’s a lot you’ll learn just by being in a writers’ office.
DJ: It was my friends and taking comfort in writing—chasing down an idea. If you’re not doing anything else, you might as well devote yourself to that. Working on your craft is something that’s only going to help you down the line. It also gives me back perspective, proves that I can accomplish something.
——————⇒ You’ve working in a specific genre of TV with both Heroes and S.H.E.I.L.D. Is that where your natural interest as a writer lies?
I grew up in the Star Wars, sci-fi and fantasy genre. I think it’s an interesting space to tell stories with cool opportunities but it’s not my only interest. I do like different genres—Friday Night Lights is another huge favorite show of mine. I could very easily find myself working in another genre.
I think because of the way shows recruit their writers and staff, you end up in a similar genre to what you started out in unless you make a conscious effort to change and branch out. The shows I’ve worked on have been, to a degree, because I’ve followed different bosses from show to show. So that steered me down a certain lane, but a lane that I’m excited to be on.
——————⇒ What would be your dream job? Past or present.
Working on your craft is something that’s only going to help you down the line.
DJ: The West Wing in the second season. Then again, it seems like Sorkin had his name on every script for the first four seasons, so maybe that’s a bad career move! But I loved that show. If I’m honest—that single season is why I moved out here. It’s what turned my interest specifically to television. So I would be insanely curious to see how it all came together.
There are so many shows I love right now. The Americans, I would love to write on that. I think they’re just masters at what they’re doing. That, or a completely sci-fi, crazy, space adventure-like show—the wilder the better. Something different where you’re sitting with five other writers saying, “Are we allowed to do that? Are we nuts?”
——————⇒ What advice would you have for your younger self, the guy that drove here straight after college?
I would actually suggest not doing it the way I did, which was to pack a bag and say, “I’m moving to LA”. No plan, no housing…the instinct was right, and that’s important. If you working in TV, you gotta be here. But my planning was crap. If you haven’t graduated yet, I would tell you to avail yourself of internships and get out here as soon as possible to scout it out.
Get some familiarity with how the industry works, the different steps along the way and what the different positions are while you’re still in school. It’s one thing I never did and I wish I had. When I got out of that car, I had no idea what the world was like here. I was on Mars. Internships and research could have potentially shaved a few years off my progress.
If you’re coming out here to LA and you are trying to get into television, reach out to people. Take as many informational meetings as you can and get to know people who are working in the industry. Find a way to familiarize yourself as quickly as possible.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the lowest rung on the ladder, there’s a lot you’ll learn just by being in a writers’ office. Or, I know people who have had great success working at agencies and television networks/studios because it’s a good way to get an overview of the industry, whereas working on a show is a very laser focused view of that specific show.
But if you can’t get a foot in, join a writers group, they’re designed to help keep you writing and you get to know other people who are doing the same thing. It will foster links to the industry. Anything in that vein that you can do, do it. Be proactive. You want to be knowledgeable about the industry that you intend to make a career out of—so get educated, anyway you can.
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