[This is one of Tawnya Bhattacharya’s regular columns at Script Magazine, titled “Your TV Guide”. You can read them all here]
Every fellowship season, there’s that one writer, sometimes two, whose name you see everywhere. They’ve written a spec script that gets traction in multiple fellowships or contests and it seems as though the world is their oyster. We’re fortunate in that many of those writers come out of Script Anatomy classes and workshops, so we thought this month, as you’re rounding the final lap of fellowship deadlines, we’d ask them about their specs that went “all the way” in hopes that their stories will offer you insight and encouragement.
For this article, we spoke to Charmaine DeGraté, a writer on CW’s The 100 whose THE AMERICANS spec script got her traction in two fellowships and a contest, eventually earning her a spot in the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop; Jeane Wong, an NBC Writes on the Verge alumni whose first episode of ARROW aired Thursday April 5th, and whose winning iZOMBIE spec script was also a finalist for the Disney | ABC Writing Program; and Amy Lambert, alumni of this year’s NBC Writers on the Verge class who’s in the thick of her very first staffing season. Amy’s THE AMERICANS spec script was also a Semifinalist in Austin Film Festival’s Teleplay Contest. We also interviewed comedy writer Jeremy Hsu, whose FRESH OFF THE BOAT spec script got him into both NBC Writers on the Verge and the finals for the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, and also was a Semifinalist at Austin Film Festival. He now has a pilot in development in a competitive situation we can’t officially spill the beans on just yet.
What came to you first, the show you wanted to spec or your episode idea?
Jeane Wong: Show idea, great question!
Amy Lambert: The show I wanted to spec came first. Then I started thinking about what the characters were dealing with and how I could craft an episode around that.
Jeremy Hsu: Episode idea, because it was a story from my childhood. When they finally made a show about a Chinese family I just plugged and played.
Charmaine Degraté: The show, and the idea quickly followed.
What ultimately made you decide to go with the spec script you wrote?
AL: I had binged the first four seasons of The Americans and absolutely loved it. Even though it was going into its fifth season, it was the show I was the most passionate about and believed that passion would show up on the page.
JW: It [iZOMBIE] was one of my favorite shows on TV. Rob Thomas, especially Veronica Mars, is also why I want to be in TV.
JH: I didn’t watch a lot of network shows, and for Fresh I felt like I didn’t need to do a lot of research, since I came from a similar family.
CD: The show [The Americans] represents my creative sensibilities. It’s a superbly written show so I knew that it was an ambitious undertaking. I was eager to take that big swing.
What was the biggest risk you took in your spec script? What was the thing that, as you hit SUBMIT, you still felt unsure or nervous about?
AL: To complete a mission, Philip and Elizabeth have to disguise themselves and break into the FBI building to steal a body. They risk getting caught by their neighbor and FBI Agent Stan Beeman. I was nervous that it was a risky move and people might not buy it. [Editor’s Note: Amy also took a huge risk she’s not even mentioning here by speccing a show that was in its 5th Season. We usually advise our students look for shows in their 2nd or 3rd seasons. By Season 4, shows tend to become a little long in the tooth and dated to spec. People get into programs with later-season specs sometimes, but not often — the spec has to be REALLY GOOD. Which, of course, Amy’s was.]
JW: I wrote an iZOMBIE, so my biggest thing was that I know the show does a lot of archetypal/stereotypical brains Liv eats (I was lucky and had a contact at the network who gave me some advice on the show.). But I decided to choose a transgender teen brain, so the nuances were a bit harder to nail down, harder to do broad humor on, and even more challenging to still make funny in a tasteful way. It was slightly off template in that way. [Editor’s Note: writing a transgender character as a cisgender writer is an incredibly risky undertaking that requires extensive research and an appetite for humble pie. Jeane handled the process with humility and professionalism and took extra time to do research and get specific feedback. This showed in the final product and is an absolutely compulsory step for anyone writing a character outside their own gender identity.]
JH: I wasn’t sure if I had too many Zack Morris jokes or too little. [Editor’s Note: Since we read Jeremy’s spec, we’ll let you in on a secret — he wrote a Fresh Off the Boat Halloween episode, and most of the time, we’d recommend writers come up with other ideas besides holiday episodes, birthday episodes, etc. There’s usually less of an opportunity for an emotional arc, and lots of holiday/birthday episodes for readers to wade through. So his spec was very risky from the get-go… we’ll get to why it worked for him later.]
CD: The submission process fell during the show’s hiatus. I chose a historical drama that focuses on geopolitical moments from that era. I was concerned that their season premiere would address the events in my spec. Other than that, I wasn’t concerned about the quality of the script. It was in great shape. [Editor’s Note: don’t let Charmaine’s applaudable chill fool you — this is an extremely risky move. We usually strongly advise our students against setting an episode during a show’s hiatus. It’s a gamble that pays off for some, but not many, and drastically shortens the shelf life of your spec regardless. Charmaine’s risk paid off, because she knew the show and the characters very well and does her homework — we can testify to this from seeing all her hard work in class!]
How did this spec script exemplify your brand?
AL: I like to write dark, character-driven crime dramas. I think my spec showcased that I can write character as well as my ability to come up with an exciting mission. [Editor’s Note:The Americans was a fantastic spec choice for Amy. She’s got procedural sensibilities and would be great on a network crime show, of which NBC has scores to choose from, but her spec also showcased her ability to work with nuanced, complex characters with a more cable sensibility, which falls in line with a lot of the more character-driven dramas NBC is developing now.]
JW: Tonally it’s a mix of drama and comedy, which is something I like to do. So I gravitate towards dramas with some humor, usually grounded genre, and big world building. Throw in a crazy family and thematically, I’m set.
JH: I think it actually may have pigeonholed me a little because of course the Asian writer is gonna spec Fresh, right? If you agreed with this then you’re racist. [In case you can’t already tell, Jeremy is a highly dry and quick-witted writer whose talents and tastes usually lean in a more cable/streaming direction — think Catastrophe or You’re the Worst. Speccing Fresh, and showing he could work within a network sitcom format, was a smart choice for him because it showed he has amazing range.]
CD: There’s a lot of action and suspense in the show (which is captivating) but the real heart and life of the show lives in the silent, subtextual character moments. Also, it plays against convention at every turn. Each character is so fully [realized] that even if you didn’t like them, you understood their point of view.
What was the most fun part of your spec script to write and why?
AL: I had the most fun coming up with how Philip and Elizabeth could break into the FBI building, steal a body and then dispose of it without getting caught. On a character level, I enjoyed using the mission as a way to heighten the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth.
JW: The teenage voice. Everything is life and death at that age. I miss high school shows. I remember the WB and all those great 90s/00s teen dramas.
JH: Any jokes about 90s hip hop because remember Kriss Kross?
CD: The most fun part was living and breathing the characters. I also loved being transported back to that time period. So much fun.
What was the most difficult part of your spec script for you to write and why?
AL: The most difficult part was finding the logic holes and figuring out creative ways to solve them.
JW: Establishing the POV of a transgender teenager with sensitivity and some heart, I hope. I did a lot of research and spoke to a few people about it. I wanted to be careful with the subject matter, but also create humor that’s consistent with the show. It was a hard balance to strike. [Editor’s Note: Jeane is an incredibly diligent researcher, as we’ve seen time and time again in class, and after reading her spec, she definitely handled the subject matter with sensitivity and reverence.]
JH: The outline because… you know.
CD: Yes, Constructing the outline is always the most difficult part. The actual writing, I love!
If you were applying to programs all over again this year, what would you spec and why?
AL: I would spec The Handmaid’s Tale, because the story really resonates with me. It depicts a nightmarish society but it also feels like it could actually happen. With everything that is going on with the Time’s Up and #MeToo movement, I think it’s the perfect time to write about women fighting for control over their bodies and their lives.
JH: Hahaha I hate this question… probably The Mick because it’s the only network show I’m familiar with right now. What I’d WANT to spec would be VEEP, because it’s my favorite show, but the shelf-life of the spec wouldn’t be worth it.
JW: I love The Crown. I mean LOVE IT. So passion is a main reason. I also went abroad to England in high school… I’ve been an anglophile ever since, so I know way more than a regular person should know about the Royal family. I wouldn’t need to do much research.
CD: Peaky Blinders. It’s a fun read for the Program Readers. The characters are fantastic, wild and unpredictable. The world is primed with mystery, suspense and British gangsters. But if you look closely, it’s a simple story about a blended family trying to protect each other and make their way in a brutal world. I would also consider writing The Crown. I would have placed my episode just after Season 1 and would have dealt with Princess Margaret’s emotional fall out from being told by her sister, The Queen, that she can’t marry the love of her life. It feels like that’s a missing story in the series. I would have left the room with Margaret instead of staying with the queen. So much gold to still mine with that one.
These answers might seem like they’re all over the map, but what do these writers have in common? A personal connection with their material. Charmaine and Amy chose The Americans because they loved the show. Jeane chose iZOMBIE because its creator is the writer who inspired her to write for TV. Jeremy chose Fresh Off the Boat because he had a strong personal connection to the material and a story from his life that he could use in the script. While a Halloween episode is a risky move, for Jeremy, it paid off, because besides being a superb writer, his connection to the story he was telling was likely a lot more powerful than the competition. For Amy, her love for The Americans helped her write a spec so good that readers either forgot or didn’t care about the fact that it was a 5th-season show. And Charmaine connected so strongly to the characters she was writing that she was able to navigate them through a hiatus successfully.
We’ve seen writers try to strategize and analyze their way through fellowship season, like it’s Fantasy Sportsball of some sort. We’ve seen writers choose shows they think hypothetical execs who may never see their application packet would want them to spec, or what their manager wants them to spec — those scripts never gain the kind of traction that writers who wrote the spec they wanted to write get every year. While it’s always important to keep your brand in mind, because you’ll definitely have to articulate it when you get to a semifinalist/finalist level, don’t ignore your instincts. If you’re trying to choose between a show or storyline you think “makes sense” or “would impress the judges” and one that you feel most drawn to personally — go with your gut and honor your passions. Your skill set and unique interests are what combine on the page to showcase you as a writer — so don’t be afraid to be authentic in your choice of material.
We’re sure, as you’re all putting in that last lap of work on your specs for fellowship season, that there are still things you’re second-guessing. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from almost 8 years of coaching writers through this incredibly stressful process, it’s this: specs that don’t take risks don’t make a lasting impression. Obviously these risks have limits — killing off main characters and revealing secrets that alter the trajectory the show is actually on in real life are two limits that immediately come to mind — but in general, if there’s not at least one element in your spec that’s making you nervous… maybe that’s something to get a little nervous about in these last weeks before the deadline. Are there any choices you can make even bigger? Any limits you can push further towards the edge of? One of our favorite things to tell our students during fellowship season is “leave it all on the mat.” That way, maybe you’ll be able to hit SUBMIT and enjoy the rest of your summer instead of waiting anxiously for the semifinalist notifications to roll in.