“Artists must always be striving for more, and if it feels scary, it means you’re doing something right.”
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.
——————⇒ How did you end up in a writing partnership with Wade McIntyre?
We met in college. I cast him as an actor in my adaptation of Buried Child by Sam Shepard and then later, he cast me in the lead of a play that he wrote called Hors d’Oeuvres. We became friends but we never wrote together until many years later. After college, he went on to grad school and I helped run a theater company in Dallas called Kitchen Dog Theater. It’s still there and lot of the same people are still running it. It’s one of the best regional theaters in the country. I try and go back and direct shows for them whenever I can.
Anyhow, I was around twenty-three, twenty-four when I came out to Los Angeles. Wade and I ran into each other randomly, and we gave each other the scripts we were working on. I had a bunch of suggestions for him and he had a bunch of suggestions for me. And we realized: what if we just team up and write them together? Then we’d have two samples overnight. So, we teamed up just to see what it would be like. Turns out, it was a lot of fun and we’ve been a partnership ever since then.
——————⇒ Tell me how you work with a writing partner.
It depends on the project. We’ve done it every which way. We make sure we break every story together. So, we sit in a room together and we figure out the story, the plot, the structure. We use this white board with magnetic index cards so you can write them and then erase them. We spend a lot of time figuring out the structure of the story and the characters together. I would say 75% of the project is spent breaking it. We don’t start the actual script writing until the story is figured out and we’re both on board. Then we write an outline.
A lot of writers who are starting out roll their eyes and think: I don’t need to write an outline, I can just start writing and I can figure it out along the way. I guess, I kind of chuckle at that. All right, maybe if you’re a genius you can do that… but I think that’s a great way to have a wandering, meandering story. In my opinion, it’s best to have a good roadmap before you start writing.
We are writing a feature film now and the outline for it is 47 pages long. The screenplay will ultimately be 125 pages and then we’ll trim it down. Within that, if there’s a line that’s important or a scene appears to us that makes us laugh, than that will be in the outline, but there’s no dialogue. We don’t do and then he said, and then she said, because dialogue is the easy part. I can write 100 scenes in the time it takes me to write one outline.
After we have a solid outline, we’ll take scenes, divide them up, write those scenes and then compile them. At the end of the day, that writing part is the last little bit. Everything else is together, figuring out the story. Making sure the structure holds, making sure the characters have journeys that pay off. Making sure all our set ups have pay offs.
There are still discoveries along the way. You always discover things in the scenes as you’re writing them, and you embrace those discoveries. But the thing that doesn’t get disrupted is that the scene functions as a structural piece of a big giant puzzle the same way.
——————⇒ You prefer to work in TV rather than film?
Aaron: I do. I like them both, but I prefer TV. That said, Wade and I do work in features. We sold a comedy to New Line (with Red Hour producing) and we’re writing that now. In addition, we’re in the process of finishing a new feature.
——————⇒ Was It On Spec? Are there directors attached to either of these films?
Yeah, most things are in the feature world. I love movies. I always will be straddling (between TV and features), but in movies the writer is second fiddle to the director. It’s a director’s medium. One of them has an actor attached. One of them has producers attached. We don’t have directors yet.
TV is the writer’s medium. We are the bosses, as it were. We write everything. We produce everything, directors look to us for guidance and everything happens fast. You can write something and be filming it within a month or less. In features, you can write something and it takes years and years before anything happens, and by then a hundred other people have re-written you.It’s a different industry.
I also love personally, the scope of story you can tell in a television show. The way the characters can change and grow. I always will be drawn to TV and I just love it. But features are great. They’re a whole different writing process in terms of structure.
——————⇒ What would be your ideal job right now?
Aaron: It would be similar to the job I have now. I feel like I have my ideal job really, the only difference would be, I would love to be running my own show. Writing TV is my ideal job. I have no problem writing for other shows. Wade and I are working on The 100 now, and I absolutely love it. The show is complex and dark and challenging, and I love going to work on it. So, I’m pretty happy. Writing TV is so much fun. Sure, it’s really hard, really stressful and challenging at times, but I think the next step for me is a show that Wade and I create together.
——————⇒ You don’t stop working on your own stuff just because you’re working on somebody else’s, do you?
No. We’re always working. So, right now, Wade and I are working on The 100, we are simultaneously writing two features on spec, plus the one we sold to New Line. We also write a comic book called Clone with another writer (and dear friend). That comic is published by SKYBOUND, The Walking Dead publisher. We do a new issue every month. We constantly work on that and we just finished a new pilot that we wrote on our own. So, yeah, we’re always writing endlessly.
Wade is a night owl. I get up really early. We do a lot. Always thinking of the next thing. Always developing, pitching, that’s just part of it. People in LA know that’s just how you have to be. I don’t know if people elsewhere know how hard it is, and how all-consuming it is. Writers write, if you’re not, writing you’re not a writer.
——————⇒ What else do you see as the difference between writers who are working and those who aren’t?
Aaron: I think that there is a good dose of luck that goes into it. To get your first break, I mean, a whole lot of crazy shit has to happen. A lot of things have to line up for you to get a break. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves. Luck is a big factor. But you have to be flexible, in terms of how you take notes, how the industry uses you and how you use it. There’s no wrong way in, there is no recipe.
Always thinking of the next thing. Always developing, pitching, that’s just part of it…Writers write, if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.
I definitely know that if you don’t write anything, you’re doing it wrong as a writer. If you’re siting there just waiting for someone to knock on your door, you’ve already lost. You have to be constantly creating stuff and now-a-days, with the internet and with cameras, the idea that people don’t just put out a web series or showcase their stuff in a short film or even a feature if you can afford it, is crazy! Because that’s a great way for you to show your voice and show you can do it. But you have to always be writing, you just have to be.
——————⇒ Do you believe you can find success as a writer by living outside of LA? Working in the Hollywood system?
Ah, no. I don’t think you can. Of course, that said, because there are no rules, there definitely are people who have done it. So, there’s always an exception. Different mediums are easier. In TV, the answer’s no. You have to be here. You can live in New York, maybe. The TV industry is not as big, but there are still quite a few shows produced there and a handful have their writers’ rooms there.
But a lot of people don’t have the ability to uproot their lives and move to LA. I mean it’s not like you just show up and you get a job the next day. It’s a commitment as you slog through. These are hard jobs to get. I don’t judge anyone who’s not here.
There are other ways, too. Like you could write a screenplay (from somewhere outside LA) that is so good and send it into a contest or somehow to an agent and it could get made. That is possible. For many years Robert Kirkman wrote The Walking Dead from Kentucky. He only moved to Los Angeles for the TV show. A lot of people write their comic books from where ever they are. That a comic book can turn into a TV show. And then there you go, you did it. But really, if you’re not here, it’s hard.
——————⇒ What advice would you have for aspiring writers?
It’s funny, it’s changed over the years. My advice is to know that it’s going to be hard. Know that this journey takes patience. Try not to get too frustrated too early. Believe me, it’s easy to get frustrated. Wade and I struggled to get our first scripted television job. I think it was eight to nine years of struggling to get our foot in the right door. I find that some new writers, they’ve only been here a year and they’re already frustrated. I was still hopeful after a year! Talk to me 10 years from now and we’ll see where you are.
It’s not easy to get in, but the other side of that is, during those 10 years where I was trying to get my first job, I was still making art. Some of that art was really, really crappy reality television show, but it’s not like I was working at a bar or working in an office. I was still in the industry, making contacts, learning skills. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning how to produce, learning how to make deadlines and learning to manage money and create material and make TV and edit episodes.
Show up and know that your grad school is going to be surviving. For me it’s teaming up with people. Constantly be writing, doing readings of your work. Find creative ways to get your work seen. If you’re just starting out, that’s the hardest thing. A really well done web series can open so many doors.
If you’re siting there just waiting for someone to knock on your door, you’ve already lost. You have to be constantly creating.
If you’re siting there just waiting for someone to knock on your door, you’ve already lost. You have to be constantly creating.
Wade and I wrote, directed and produced a web series that got us a bunch of meetings. Hilariously, it got banned. It’s a whole crazy, long story, but we completed 3 episodes and then we got banned by FOX, by the very people who were financing it! The series openly mocked the FBI’s attempts to stop piracy, and when the FOX execs saw the first few episodes they were like, oh my god, what have we financed?? We’ve got to stop this now, we need the FBI protecting our online interests!
I remember when we got the call. The execs were very sad about it. They explained: everyone loves the series, but we can’t release it. Politically, it’s just so dangerous for us right now. So it’s buried. We wrote, directed and produced it…and now it’s gone. But that story alone still gets us meetings. You never know what will be the thing that gets you in the door. Anyone who shows up in LA and then rests on their laurels, well good luck to you.
The reason I am always writing is because I can’t imagine doing anything else. I feel like if you’re someone who can do something else, then you should do it. Make no mistake, this business is hard.
——————⇒ It’s good to say yes to everything, but when you get to that point where you’ve taken on way too much and you’ve spread yourself thin. How do you find that balance?
Aaron: It depends on where you are in your career. Right now, Wade and I have a rule about how many jobs we will start that are unpaid jobs. If we have too many of those, we put one on the backburner until that slot opens up. But we can only do so many jobs that don’t pay us money. There are only so many hours in the day. It doesn’t even have to be a lot of money, but you know, buy my attention if you want it.
When you’re starting off, over-commit yourself. Eventually you’ll figure out, okay I can’t do that many. But sometimes you’ll be surprised. There was a time when we were doing, god, I remember we were writing three specs at once and two pilots, all over lapping. It was because we had different deadlines to make. We still do things for free, on spec, once and a while. It’s the only way to keep it your own.
——————⇒ Is that the same piece of advice you’d give to your younger self as well?
My younger self? Well…I remember when things started to get better for me, things started to turn. I had been in the midst of a really crappy year and a bunch of stuff that looked like it was going to happen, all these opportunities that seemed guaranteed, felt like you’ve made it, you’ve made it in the industry… They all fell through.
Suddenly, I was destitute and I couldn’t pay my rent, just the worst. I was like, from now on I’m just going to say “yes” to everything. Every possible crazy idea that comes my way, I’m just going to say “yes” to it, meet the people, and work on the projects. And when I did that, my life changed. Suddenly, new doors opened, new connections were made, I developed new skills and I was inspired, creatively.
Say “yes” to everything — expand your comfort zone and push yourself to be learn as much as you can. Artists must always be striving for more, and if it feels scary, it means you’re doing something right.
Aaron and Wade are currently writing on the critically acclaimed series, The 100, which is in its third season.
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.