Am I right that you studied fine art at SVA?
Yes, but the teachers pushed us in many different directions, and I started to do video art. As I started to do more videos, I would write little things for them and then put out casting calls—at SVA you get a lot of free actors—and then I got to a place where I wanted to write more than I wanted to make traditional visual art, as far as painting and drawing goes. Even though I still love it and do it all the time on my own, I don't show at any galleries anymore.
Are there things that you learned at SVA that help you in what you're doing today?
Many things I learned at SVA help me because it's all really related. You have an idea and you want to put it out there in some medium, whether it's a screenplay or a TV show or a painting or a piece of video art. I know it sounds super-cheesy, but all these things are related in that you have an idea and how do you want to show that idea. For instance, composition is a big part of shooting anything. Working with painting and drawings for so many years helped me develop a sense of where things should be in a frame, which is not so different from where things should appear in a shot on a TV show.
And then there's the editing. All the videos I made at SVA I edited on a computer. That ended up paying off big time, because I'm heavily involved in the editing process on the show. And having spent endless hours sitting at SVA working on some little piece of animation, just cutting frame by frame, using trial and error to figure out things like, wow, this feels like it needs a beat before he says such-and-such to make this emotion land. All those rhythms and all that stuff is still applicable and a huge help to me.
And the great thing about the MFA at SVA is you make whatever you want. It's not split up between painters and video artists and sculpture students. Everyone's together. That exposed me to all these ideas. That's a big part of sitting down to write. It can be so many different things.
What would you say inspired you most to make the change from fine art to screenwriting?
I don't know if any one thing inspired me to make the switch. I have to say a lot of it was luck—and moving to Los Angeles. I've obviously always been a huge fan of movies, so after I finished the MFA program I decided to move to L.A. and give the movies a shot. I started writing screenplays, and wrote one that happened to get into the right hands and it sold and that started a feature-writing career. And then after a few years of that I ended up pitching a TV show. It's kinda crazy lucky that it's gone this far.
What advice would you give graduating students who want to get into screenwriting?
I'd say, if you've got a film script that you think is good, move to L.A. and become an assistant or a PA. That way you meet other assistants—PAs and other people in the business and you can start throwing the script at everyone around you, and get anyone who will read it to read it.
Honestly, if you move out here and you're a young person, you're going to start hanging out with people who are your age, who are going to be assistants at agencies or production companies. You find your core group, and people feed
off one another to help get their work out there. In my opinion,
if you're not in Los Angeles you're at a huge disadvantage.
I'm not a real expert on this subject, but that is what I'd tell a student if I was having coffee with them.
But, the work has to be good. Because the bottom line is that people want to make money. People want to read a great script. Even though everyone's first instinct out here is to say 'no,' every exec, every assistant, reads 15 scripts a night. They want desperately for one of them to be great—to make a lot of money. If you focus on the work, things can happen.
In addition to writing strong screenplays, you clearly have a talent for pitching them. You pitched your TV show Happy Endings to ABC with tremendous success, and I know that you pitched your feature film script Sensei to Charlize Theron, which she agreed to produce and star in. Many screenwriting
students struggle with pitching. Could you give them any advice about that?
Please tell the students: no one likes pitching. That should make them feel better right off the bat. There are some actual performing comedians who go in to pitch and crush, and are absolutely hilarious because they do improv or stand-up. But otherwise, an exec is aware that they're hearing something from a writer. They're not expecting the writer to put on a hilarious unbelievable performance. So writers should take that pressure off themselves.
I tend to think if the idea is strong, the pitch will work. You should pitch it to yourself; tell the idea as short and quick as you can. If it's a comedy, you gotta get some laughs, obviously, but if it's a drama go in and pitch it to execs as if they're watching a movie or you're telling them a story. Just tell the story, and edit it with all the biggest plot elements, which will keep them into it. Try to keep it to 10 to 12 minutes.
You've written an upcoming Adam Sandler film I Hate You, Dad and also created your own TV series. For you as a writer, what is the biggest difference between film and TV?
The role of the TV writer and the film writer are polar opposites. In TV, the writer is the boss. In movies, the writer is more of an employee, not involved with casting or picking a director. In TV, even as a staff writer, you're on set the entire time for the episode you wrote, giving notes to the director, pitching to the actors. You're involved with casting, wardrobe—everything.
I had come off 15 years of painting, which is a very solitary endeavor. From that, I went to writing features, which also means being alone in a room. And suddenly I'm on this
TV show together with 12 other people in the writer's room—not to mention the entire crew and the executive producers, editors and actors. So it was a big adjustment. Writing with other people, for me, is so much better. You put 12 people
into a room—especially for a comedy—trying to come up with the funniest thing for someone to say or funniest thing to happen or the funniest story. You're just bound to get a better product with 12 people than with just one mind. Time is also an issue. No one person could come up with 22 episodes of
a television series.
How do you choose writers?
I read writing samples. Traditionally, people only want to read specs [episode scripts] for existing shows—for say 30 Rock. But I like to read original pilots, because I can see how a new writer will be funny on their own, and how they would structure a story completely on their own. Sometimes it's harder to tell with a spec, because writers may rely on the preexisting structure of a show. You read their samples, and then you meet them, and then you decide. For features, the only thing that matters is what's on the page. If someone comes up with a great feature, it doesn't matter who they are, how they behave, or anything. With TV, it's different, because people spend a lot of time together in a room pitching, so it actually matters what you're like. You can be an amazing writer, but if you're an asshole that no one wants to work with, it's not going to work. A TV writing room is really an office environment.
Your sitcom Happy Endings is visionary in its courage to break TV stereotypes. Alone, you created and pitched original characters to the network, your most original character being of course Max Blum, an openly gay man who is into sports, guns and video games. You've been quoted as saying you didn't do it on purpose and that you did not have an agenda. However, Max has had an impact on popular culture, and gives hope to gay teenagers struggling with things like suicidal feelings or being bullied. I think a character like Max could save lives. You're actually making the world a much better place.
That's incredibly sweet of you to say. That thought would never have entered my head, but if there's any truth to that, it would make me feel very good. That's more important than the show doing well and or any of the other stuff. If it's actually helping 15-year-old kids feel better about themselves, that's more than I assumed I would ever do with my life. And the thing I would tell all those kids is this: Try if you can just to make it to college and get out of whatever town you're in, move to New York or L.A., because no one here gives a shit if you're gay or straight.
I just want to end by saying that your groundbreaking TV show is already having a positive impact on society, and that you have inspired a new generation of screenwriters with your talent and your courage. ∞