TB Presents: Mini-Series – Part One Of Our Interview With Writer/Producer Aaron Ginsburg

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“All the jobs I’d done up in my life had been training me for this moment. It was very clear.”

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 Aaron Ginsburg, a Los Angeles based writer/producer with over a decade’s experience in television, film and theater. He’s known for his work on The Good Guys, Intelligence, and The Thrilling Adventure Hour. He currently writes and produces the critically acclaimed CW series, The 100. He joined us for a chat about his journey so far, what it takes to make it in the industry, and the professional writing process.

See the second part of our interview with Aaron here

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⇒ How did you find your way to writing?

 

 

Photographed backstage at "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles, CA.

I didn’t know I was going to be writer until I was in college, my parents knew much earlier than that. It was a surprise to me. I wanted to be an actor. I was so determined that I guess I’d forgotten that I’d done a lot of writing my whole life along the way.

I’m from Denver, Colorado. I went to SMU in Dallas, Texas. It was a great program, really intense. Everyone there is really talented and it became instantly clear to me that I’d make a terrible an actor. Within months, the people who ran the program told me, we brought you here because we could see something in you. You’re a writer and a director and producer. Not an actor. And they were right. So I started writing and directing and producing right off the bat.

 

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⇒ Did you have a particular breaking in moment?

 

 

Not really. It’s never as easy as that. I’ve had a lot of little two-steps forward, one-step back moments. And I think that’s what the journey is really. I was working on a show called The Oaks for FOX. It was going to be my big break. The showrunner was Shawn Ryan (who created a show called The Shield), which is amazing. We had a really small room, everything was just lined up to be this great thing for me, and then… the writers strike happened and the show didn’t get picked up. It was devastating.

I did so many weird jobs before I got my foot into the right door. I used to be a journalist myself. I used to write stories about my experiences for Script Magazine and every month I would interview some famous feature writer; Aaron Sorkin, Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, or someone like that. A lot of those interviews would be assigned to me by the magazine’s editor. I ended up saying to the magazine, I want to interview some TV writers.

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So, I set up an interview with Matt Nix who created Burn Notice, and I told him that I wanted to do this unusual thing where, instead of just an interview, we would  break into an off-the-grid CIA building and then blow it up while I interview him. And he was like, what?? It was like the most absurd thing I could think of, but he was really excited about it. And in the end he was so impressed with the article. Months later we were actually working together on a pilot idea.

Matt, then, sold a show called The Good Guys, and he called me up and said, Bad news: I can’t pitch the show we’ve been working on because I’m too busy now. I sold this other show. Good news: I want you to come write on it. That was the first big break. I felt like: I’ve finally made it! I was writing professionally, full-time. I was producing a bunch of episodes, and flying back and forth from Texas (where the show as filmed). But after one season, twenty episodes, the show wasn’t picked up and I was back out there, hunting for another job.

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⇒ Was The Good Guys the first show you produced?

 

 

Still From “The Good Guys”

Yeah, I was dunked into the deep end. It was great. I had experience producing live theatre. The budgets are smaller, but you’re still dealing with actors and costumes and sets. A lot of it is very similar actually; just the stakes are a lot higher when there’s that much money on the line.

So, after The Good Guys, I continued to write articles for that magazine, and my articles became increasingly weirder. One of my last ones, I ended up setting up an interview with Hart Hanson. He created Bones. I did the same sort of treatment that I did with Matt Nicks.

We did this really absurd Bones-style interview where I start to interview Hart, and then we find a mangled bloody body and I accuse him of murder. By the end of the interview, we solve the murder. It’s really silly, but Hart ended up liking it so much, he offered me a job on his next FOX show called The Finder.

It was a great way for me to meet him and then show him that I understand his tone and style, because my article was structured in the same way that his TV series was. Everything goes back to structure, if you haven’t already figured that out. But that interviewing thing was a great way for me to talk to a ton of amazing writers and hear how they did it, and then make connections that eventually helped me get hired. But I guess The Good Guys on FOX was my first “Okay, I’m officially getting paid to do this for real” job.

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⇒ What was the biggest lesson you learned working on The Good Guys?

 

There were a couple big lessons. It’s going to sound pretentious and I don’t mean it to sound like that at all, but I realized that I can do this. The pilot was being made while Wade (my writing partner) and I were writing the third episode of the series.

Matt was writing the second episode, but he asked me to go and produce it for him because he couldn’t be there. I’d never produced anything on that scale before.

So I went down to Dallas, Texas to produce my first episode of television, alone. Wade had to stay in Los Angeles, finish the writing and then start producing episode three because they overlapped. By the time Wade was producing episode three, I was back in the offices working on the next script.

So one lesson I learnt was: all the jobs I’d done up in my life had been training me for this moment. It was very clear. I’d written reality television and I’d produced hundreds and hundreds of hours of reality TV, dating shows, Japanese games shows, writing and producing, but I‘d never called it producing because at the end of the day it was reality TV and I was, agh, who cares?! Those were some really awful experiences. So, I’d done that plus live theater and all these other random jobs. And the big realization was– Holy shit, I can do this.

I meet a lot of writers who are just starting out, they finish a script and they’re like, it’s all done…the script is never done.

The more “writer” lesson is that you shouldn’t get precious about your writing when you’re writing professionally. I meet a lot of writers who are just starting out, they finish a script and they’re like, it’s all done! In TV you might write a draft twelve, fifteen times with different notes coming from the other writers, the creator, the network, the studio… Then Standards & Practices might have notes, the actors might have notes, the director might have notes… You’re doing draft after draft and the minute you dig your heels in, you’ve already lost, you’re not built for professional TV and film writing.

In The Good Guys I remember we finished our first or second draft. I gave it to Matt and he had a ton of notes. I can remember him saying, that’s not how the character would even say this line, and I think this joke could be better. I remember just being devastated. We worked so hard on this draft. I thought it was done. Now, I look back I’m like, oh how adorable I was, because the script is never done.

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⇒ So, you’re in a room with executives and they’re giving you notes you don’t necessarily agree with, how do you deal with that?

 

Either I’ll ask them questions back or you’ll pitch something else like, what if we just switched it to “this”? Does that satisfy your bump? If it’s a really big thing, one of those notes that make you go, Oh Jesus, you instead say, we’ll take a look at it. Let us the give that note the service of thinking about it on our own, where you’re not staring at us and then get back to you and see if we can address that. You don’t want to be babbling in the room.

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Miley Tunnecliffe and Aaron Ginsburg.

Partly because my wife is an executive, I have a very different take on it, but I don’t really see the executives as the enemy. They want the show to be good too. No one wants it to be terrible! So, I try to be diplomatic and keep those meetings fun and friendly. It does get heated sometimes, I’m not going to lie. There are moments where you fight for your idea. And they’ll fight back and say, I can hear you’re really passionate about it but it does not work. Then you have to go away and decide: do I want to really fight this or do I need to find another way to tell this beat of the story?

We have many note calls, not just one. We go through four or five difference sessions and they’re a couple hours long. I hear writers who are nervous about getting notes and that’s half the job! It’s like, what time is the next notes call? That’s the job.

I was taught by a couple of great people, including Matt Nix — who is famous for it — and the theory is this: anytime someone has a note on my stuff, I take it. I will listen to whatever someone said. Even if I don’t agree with the solution they have offered, for whatever reason what I wrote didn’t work. It bumped them or it didn’t land. Maybe the problem isn’t even in that scene. Maybe the problem’s in an earlier scene that I didn’t set up right. But, for whatever reason, it wasn’t a smooth read for that person. If you ignore notes, you’re doing yourself a disservice to not even consider them. You hear the notes, go back to the office, rewrite, turn it in, get more notes. To me it’s like a puzzle: how can I solve this?

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⇒ How long are you given to do that?

 

 

Aaron: The creator of Intelligence was a writer named Michael Seitzman, a very smart guy, great writer. He had a lot of opinions as to what that show needed to be and what he wanted it to be. We would pitch him ideas until there was one he liked. For that show, all the writers would break the episode as we imagined it, and then pitch it to Michael. He would say “no I think this should move over here, or I saw that surprise coming, can we tweak it.” By the end of that process it’s kind of a collaborative effect.

On Intelligence, and in a lot of shows, all the writers would sit in the room as we figured out our episode. Then, Wade and I would sit in everyone else’s room so that we could help then. We all wanted the show to succeed. It’s like the more brains the better, and then once the creator heard the pitch and said, Oh yeah that sounds like an episode, I don’t have anymore notes, that’s good, then Wade and I would go write the outline. And so on, and so forth.

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⇒ When you’re writing for a show like Intelligence. How much liberty do you have to create your own episodes?

 

Every show’s different. We have had to write entire scripts overnight sometimes. That doesn’t always happen. But you have to write fast in TV. I think you’re supposed to officially get seven business days. But a lot of time you’re developing the idea while you work. So, when you sit down to write the outline, a lot of it’s done already because you’ve been thinking about it so much. It doesn’t take that long to do it but it’s a team effort. You want to like the people you work with and you want to trust them because their ideas can make or break an episode.

You’re always in the room until the last few episodes. While some people are in the room breaking episode nine, whoever’s writing episode eight is in their office, writing. And whoever’s writing the outline to episode seven is in their office, writing. And whoever’s producing episode six is on set.

Sometimes, you can be working on your outline for an episode and get stuck. Then you can grab another writer and ask, do you have 5 minutes? I just need to bounce some ideas off you. You can call your own mini-writers room whenever you want.

On Intelligence, we started shooting episode two while we were breaking episode four. We were only a little bit ahead. In a dream world, you want to have as much done in advance of production, but writing is hard. For us, we got far into one of the episodes and realized that maybe we had jumped the gun on a few plot things, so we had to go back and re-structure them so that the season would be better. That ended up putting us a little further behind. But we started Intelligence in July and the last day of the room was November. We were in the office almost every day unless we got assigned an outline or a script. Otherwise, all the writers are in the room working on the next one. There’s always another one so you have to constantly be working on it.

The process is the process, no matter how much experience you have. When you get it in the editing room and you’re looking at what you filmed, you have to be honest about the story.

The minute we finish an episode, we start editing it. In the world of TV, the editor will have started editing while you’re still filming, then the director will get 4 days (per the DGA) to do their cut and as the producers, we get our cut. We have 4 days before we have to turn it in.

Sometimes, when you sit down to see a cut of an episode, there are things that you filmed that are exactly as you wrote them, and you’re like, wow, that doesn’t work. It worked on the page, but it doesn’t work on the scene. Either we’re missing a beat or there are too many beats. For whatever reason some thing isn’t playing. We have to fix it.

The process is the process, no matter how much experience you have. When you get it in the editing room and you’re looking at what you filmed, you have to be honest about the story. You have to know what is needed and what to cut (and what to keep). You have to be ruthless and say, well, maybe we don’t need that extra button on the scene. I think we already got it with the eye roll. You don’t know those things when you’re writing a scene. You won’t know until it all comes together on film. So, you might as well film it all and then you have all that extra stuff to work with in the edit.

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⇒ Your twitter handle, @DrLawyercop, how did that come about?

 

Aaron Ginsburg on the set of The CW’s “The 100”

Back when we were working on that pilot, The Oaks. That was the one I mentioned earlier. It was a real moody haunted house series. It has a lot of similarities to American Horror Story, actually. That was the kind of tone. But we got all these notes from the executives, and these notes were not super helpful.

They wanted us to make it more commercial, more networky. They wanted us to change a character to make them a doctor so the haunted house show could have a “medical mystery” every week. And we where like “no, we’re not going to make him a doctor.” They were then like, “What if he’s a lawyer? He can solve a case every week and go home to this haunted house.” And we were like, “No, this isn’t like David E Kelley’s The Haunted House. We’re not doing that.” And then they were like, “What if he’s a cop? He solves a crime and then that crime has to do with the haunted house.” Sigh.

So, they didn’t pick up the show and Wade and I decided we would write a comedy pilot called Dr. Lawyercop, P.I., that would combine every single TV genre into one hour-long mash-up spec. All in one character. Our lead was a doctor and a lawyer and a cop and a P.I. Oh, and he also could cook! It was an attack on network TV, and that spec actually got us tons and tons of meetings. As we were writing it we were like, this is the un-producible pilot. It is so silly and it is so stupid. People loved it.

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⇒ What were you thinking when you sent it out to the industry?

 

 

Aaron: I couldn’t wait. I was like, what are they going to say?? Because when you read it, it starts out like a standard Law & Order episode, and then it starts to descend into madness and it never lets up. I don’t know how we managed to pull it off. By the end, there are vampires. I mean, insanity. It ends up having it’s own little internal mystery, too. It’s really fun. It’s the dumbest and smartest thing I ever wrote. But because it was not like any other spec out there, we got tons of meetings. We got our foot in a bunch of doors. We got our first big agent with this spec, and everyone was like, I wish we could find a way to make this into an actual TV show. Wade and I were absolutely stunned. We laughed at them: you can’t do that. We made sure of it. We literally wrote this script to be unmarketable. It could never sustain itself as a show!

See the second part of our interview with Aaron here

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Contributor Miley Tunnecliffe is Fremantle-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.
Twitter: @mileytunn

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Follow Aaron on twitter: @DrLawyercop
Follow Aaron on tumblr: aaronginsburg.tumblr.com

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Still quiet here.sas

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