“I think you just need to be proven once. You need one person to take a chance on you… Its kind of
bullshit, because it’s not like you’ve improved as a writer just because you’ve sold something… but it
The Tracking Board is proud to present 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 writers working in television today. From their humble beginnings to their big breaks, these writers give us the inside track on what it takes to write for a network.
TB contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe sat down with Steve Basilone, a Los Angeles based writer who’s staffed on the NBC comedy, The Goldbergs. Together with his writing partner Annie Mebane, they’ve written for such shows as Community, Happy Endings, Breaking In and The Michael J. Fox Show. We chatted with Steve about becoming a writer, the support of writing partners, and why working in television is so gratifying.
——————⇒ When did you begin writing professionally?
Steve: My major was acting but I always wanted to be a writer, so I took a bunch of non-fiction writing classes at Emmerson College in Boston. Myself and a couple other friends started a comedy troupe, that’s how I started writing comedy. My last semester of senior year was out here (Los Angeles). I had interned for some magazines in New York between my sophomore and junior year. The publisher was starting a magazine in LA, right when I moved out here so I was fortunate. As soon as I graduated, I was already being paid to do some writing. Mostly socialite empty kind of garbage pieces, but I was still getting paid to write.
——————⇒ Did you continue acting after moving to LA?
I did this terrible zombie movie. It was fun but I got tired of just waiting around for good work. You would get a script to audition for and be like oh man, I really hope I get to be in this piece of shit. It was like, why am I just sitting around waiting for other opportunities to come to me? So I started writing more. I worked with a buddy of mine who was in the comedy troupe, Dan Levy. We wrote a feature together. That was a big thing. Previous to that, writing a hundred pages just felt like an insurmountable task. You do it once, it’s not very good, but you’ve done it so you know you can.
I started writing more features and pilots with Dan. Then I teamed up with my now writing partner, a lovely lady who I also went to school with, Annie Mebane. We started a writers group but the other people in the group kind of fell away, so we started writing together.
We had an opportunity to do an open writing assignment for this production company, a dance spoof. We turned that around in like two or three weeks, got really lucky and sold it. That was our big foot in the door. After that, we bounced around doing re-write work, pitching on open assignments and taking out pitches. We had traction here and there, but then came the writers strike. (The feature world) was fun but it was also exhausting because it’s little inconsistent. We just never got to the place where we were consistently working. Five years ago we got our first job on Happy Endings and we’ve been in TV ever since.
——————⇒ I noticed your current showrunner, Adam Goldberg, was also a script consultant for one of your episodes of Community.
Yes, because at the time, he had an overall deal with SONY. Often times when people have a deal, they’ll just get put on a show if they don’t have their own show going. They do like two or three days a week while they develop new material. In the course of him working at Community, he pitched and sold The Goldbergs.
We met Adam on a FOX show called Breaking In, which was a really small room, only seven episodes and six writers. We were staff writers at the time, but because Adam doesn’t buy into hierarchy that much, he was like whoever’s got ideas, put them out there. We clicked with him immediately, so we ended up getting a lot of power on that show.
Since then, he’s been a big champion of our careers and taught us a lot of things. We’re very much grateful for him, so it’s nice to go back working for him.
——————⇒ I heard someone say recently that you just need one person to be a champion in your career.
It’s interesting, I think you just need to be proven once. You need one person to take a chance on you.
Steve: It’s interesting, I think you just need to be proven once. You need one person to take a chance on you. If you’re a feature writer you just have to get that first spec sale, sell a pitch or whatever. Its kind of bullshit, because it’s not like you’ve improved as a writer just because you’ve sold something. You may have the same capability as two, five years before, but it validates you.
It’s the same thing with TV. It’s just really hard getting that first job, but once you do, as long as you’re relatively talented, a positive presence to have in a room and a hard worker, you’ll go on to work for a long time I think. That’s kind of been our experience for the most part. I think it also helps that I’m part of a partnership so I feel like in that regard we’re a pretty good bargain. We’re both fairly competent people and pretty good at this in our own right but you get two bodies for the price of one, so that also helps in TV.
——————⇒ How do you work with your writing partner Annie? Has the process changed over the years?
It has. I think we’ve become a little more efficient in the television gambit. Whenever we’re working on something original– a new pilot, a feature or we’re taking out a pitch– we’ll work together. Creating original characters, defining a voice or a tone or something new, we’ll do all that together. We might bounce back and forth outlining or emailing ideas, but in terms of actually writing, we’re sitting on a couch, going back and forth. In TV, like on The Goldbergs or Community, the voice is already defined. You already know the characters, how the stories function. We usually split things up and come back for a final pass together.
We’re out to draft right now. I took half the script and Annie took the other half. I wrote mine over the weekend and I think she’s finishing up hers right now. Tomorrow we’ll have a competed draft. Then we’ll go through it– well this joke works, this shit is dry, it’s a little bit soft here, we need to punch it. It’s nice because it’s like having a filter. You always have somebody to prod you along.
Whenever you are feeling kind of despondent the other person is usually the inverse of that. So it’s a good catalyst to keep working. I used to say when we worked in features, a first draft for us was kind of like a second or third draft because there’s a filtration process. If I’m going to write something that has too many dick jokes or is too overindulgent, then Annie sees it and is like, let’s cut some of this stuff out. I do the same thing for hers. So you know, it’s just having another set of eyes.
I really love working in TV because it’s consistent. There’s something about the instant gratification of it.
A writing partnership is really advantageous in many ways. Especially in television because it’s hard to get that first job, but once you do, you’re just meeting people and almost every job we’ve had has come off of another show. We’ve apparently made some friends at SONY. I know it was SONY people who pushed us through the door with Happy Endings and I know we got some recommendations from old bosses we had at Happy Endings and Community.
One job begets more jobs because you’re meeting people and making fans and friends. But it’s that first job, when you don’t have anyone who really knows you or knows you well… (a partnership) is just an added incentive. Here are two bodies and two minds.
Sometimes in a room that’s just what you need — people to pitch fixes or jokes. When you have a budget that only goes so far, if you’re a top heavy show and you’ve got a lot of EPs or co-EPs, if you can get two additional bodies for a staff writer’s price, that helps. There was a period of time where I was sick for a long time. That’s another reason I became a writer because I was acting and then I became sick for most of my 20s really. I just became less and less reliant on my body but I could always sit on a couch and write.
There was one year when I was on Community in which I ended up having my colon removed. I was in and out of hospitals for months. Everyone was super supportive and understanding. But it was nice for me knowing that while I wasn’t there, we as a team still had a presence. I still knew what was going on and Annie was still able to come to the plate for us.
——————⇒ How did that first job on Happy Endings come to you? Was it through an agent or your personal connections?
We had a manager at the time who was definitely hustling for us but that was more personal connections. The first script we had sold was with a company called Benderspink. I met this other kid named Dave Caspe at a wedding, who had just set up a script that he wrote through Benderspink. We became friends and for two or three years we just palled around. We were at similar stages of our career. He obviously jettisoned many levels, echelons above me. He sold the pitch for Happy Endings, the pilot went to shoot and it just worked out that he wanted a particularly young room because the whole cast was people in their late 20s, early 30s.
He wanted to have a lot of writers who had that voice so it felt real, authentic and kind of had a tone and a quality that a lot of other sitcoms didn’t have. He had read a bunch of our samples and we had been friends for a long time. We figured it would be a good fit. We’d also laid the groundwork because we’d met with SONY and with ABC. We’d done the staffing dance, which you have to do. You can’t just rely entirely on whatever connections you may have but you should definitely take advantage of whatever ones you do have.
——————⇒ Do you still have any aspirations with acting or is writing the focus now?
Steve: I think writing is the primary focus. I still like doing it. I did a bit role on The Michael J. Fox Show last year. That was super fun. It was like a Harpo Marx role. A guy who didn’t speak, who was the guide for a blind golfer/ jazz musician played by Jason Jones. But it was super fun getting to do scenes with a childhood hero, shot on a golf course with Michael J. Fox for three days. If I get to a place where I can create enough material and opportunities for myself, where I can do little things like that, I would love to do that.
——————⇒ You’re working in TV and TV is king at the moment, but what would be your preference? Did you grow up on movies or TV?
Both. My dad was super into movies, my mom was too, so every Friday night we’d go to the video rental store and we’d bring home two or three movies. Saturday morning and I would get up early and re-watch them. So, in the course of having rented a movie I would watch it two or three times. As I got older, I was a bit of a latch-key kid so I would come home and always be watching a movie or watching whatever was on syndication.
I just grew up in front of a television. So both I guess. I really love working in TV because it’s consistent. There’s something about the instant gratification of it.
Often times, you can write a joke, finish a storyline or a B story on a Thursday and it can be shooting on the following Monday. Then it’s on the air the Monday after that. The instantaneous nature of that is really gratifying.
I really love movies and, as a writer, I like the schedule that it affords you. You can set your own hours and you can do it on your couch, in your underwear, from home, or you can go to a coffee shop, set up an office, whatever. But there’s something about the communal nature of television. You’re not operating in a void. Comedy, drama rooms, you’re breaking out story together, sitting in a room with the same 8-10 people. But the community nature of it is quite nice. You’re making friends, not working by yourself, throwing ideas into a void and waiting until it’s a finished product before showing it to people. It’s like the same thing of having a writing partner, except you have 10 writing partners. I like that, it’s much more social which is something I tend to enjoy.
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.
Look out for Part Two of Steve’s interview coming tomorrow!
Follow Steve on twitter: @sbasilone
The 2015 Launch Pad Pilots Competition is now accepting submissions!