Life Lessons I Learned in the Writers' Room

Saturday, Aug 24, 2120| Tags: Hungry Ghosts, screenwriting, television, things I've learned, TV, Vietnamese-Australian

Tonight, after more effort than I could have ever imagined, a television series I wrote for, Hungry Ghosts, has its broadcast debut.

It wasn’t that long ago that my brother, Alan Nguyen, and I were in our first television writers’ room (this wasn’t the show that debuts tonight, this was a few years ago): every night, after coming home from a day of trying to calibrate caffeine versus coherence, and seeing which ideas would stick to the whiteboard–I’d then stay up until 3 or 4 am, trying to catch up: reading library books on screenwriting, character, structure, listening to John August podcasts, watching show-runners interviewed on Youtube. In my other life, I’m an economist–I felt so far behind in Writer Land. At 2 am, the morning before another day of brainstorm or breaking story, I’d be typing out the pilot to Breaking Bad in WriterDuet, or pages from David People’s 12 Monkeys screenplay, just to get the feel under my fingers.

All of those books and videos I went through–it still felt as if there was so little guidance on how to be useful in the maelstrom of the TV writers’ room. Not to be too dramatic, but I imagine it’s a little like the difference between reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War versus trying to handle the situation on a battlefield when a buddy in your platoon takes a bullet to the thigh.

Here’s the first post in a series of lessons I’ve learned in Writers’ Rooms–things I wish I could’ve found at 2 or 3 in the morning in a book or on Youtube. I’m still learning, so if you’ve got things to add, I’m all ears. All ears.

To be honest, these lessons aren’t exclusive to television writing. I’m an old man now, and I can tell you: powerful tools generalise. In my other life, I supervise PhD candidates and publish peer-reviewed studies all day long. Some of the lessons I’ve learned from the writers’ room translate so well to my academic career, and to my life more generally, that it almost feels like an unfair advantage.

I can’t take credit for this first lesson. I saw it from a screenwriting legend named Kel, and my brother, Alan, was the one who pointed out to me what a great move it was:

Ask, “Why are you the only person who can write this?”

I.

This wasn’t the show that’s debuting tonight, this was a prior show. A total gun came into our room, as Script Supervisor, after we’d already brainstormed and beat out multiple episodes.

You know that bit in Pulp Fiction where The Wolf comes in, and he just starts handling it?

CUT TO:

INT. PULP FICTION

THE WOLF

If I’m curt with you it’s because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast and I need you guys to act fast if you wanna get out of this.

CUT BACK:

If I'm curt with you, it's because time is a factor

Well, Kel coming into our room was a bit like that, in terms of how easily she was making problems disappear–but imagine that The Wolf wasn’t this curt Harvey Keitel character, but instead was a warm, gracious, funny woman who carries Vegemite toast to every morning meeting like it’s a cup of coffee.

And unlike The Wolf, she didn’t ask for coffee with “lots of sugar, lots of cream”. This is what she asked:

CUT TO:

INT. A DIFFERENT WRITERS' ROOM (YEARS AGO)

KEL

I want to go around this room and ask everybody, “When you watch TV, what is the one thing where you’re like--they never get that right.” Or “What do you know in your life, that you never see on TV?”

CUT BACK:

That was such a great question.

It’s so easy for me to get caught up in characters, stories, interweaving arcs, how to make the audience feel something, how to bring genuine insight (not just entertainment)–but what Kel was saying was: “What can you write that no-one has written before? Why are you here, Jeremy, as opposed to one of the millions of other talented writers out there?”

People say that “History Rhymes” and I don’t know what the truck that means, but here’s something that I’ve seen: sometimes the things that very high-functioning people say–sometimes these things rhyme really well with what other high-functioning people say, even when they’re talking about completely different disciplines.

II.

Comedy in the 70s

I was on a Zoom a couple of weeks ago with Rob, a wonderful Canadian comedian, who makes me laugh so much and has written a lot of TV comedy. He told me:

CUT TO:

INT. ZOOM CONFERENCE (A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO)

ROB

In, say, the ‘70s, how did you get staffed in a comedy Writers’ Room? If you had the best jokes, mayyyyyybe you could get in. But that’s not today. If they’re writing a cop show about a divorced female cop who is also a mother and if *you’re* a divorced ex-cop and also a mother--and if you’ve got great writing chops and comedy chops--well who the hell else is going to be in that Writers’ Room but you?

CUT BACK TO:

Rob even sat us down (over Zoom), and actively ran through some exercises so that we started thinking from an outside perspective: “What makes me different from other writers?”. It’s like Rob was trying to tell me: everyone’s resume will be trying to say “I’m a good writer!”, but that’s not helpful, when everyone’s trying to say that. Worse, it’s ignoring some of the key selection criteria that people are asking for.

Rob asked questions like:

CUT TO:

INT. ZOOM CONFERENCE (A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO)

ROB

Really quickly, without editing or thinking too much, jot down five things that you’re passionate about that everyone you know disagrees with. Jot down five things that your parents could never understand about your life.

CUT BACK:

III.

Hungry Ghosts, Matchbox Pictures, SBS, NBC Universal, 2020.

Tonight, my partner and I are settling in on the couch with our dog (and a puppy who will run back and forth yelling at everyone to play with her) to watch this show debut, Hungry Ghosts. It’s an intergenerational story of Vietnamese-Australians, the sacrifices the older generation made versus the freedom the younger generation grew up expecting… plus ghosts.

When I first started talking to the producers, before we joined the writing team, one of the first things I asked was: “Hey, have you spoken to Hoa? Hoa is Vietnamese-Australian and she’s written so many successful plays and novels about ghosts. Ghosts are her muse!” (My brother looked at me like: “Dude, why are you recommending someone more qualified for this story than us?!”). But you can see what I mean: Hoa was like an ex-cop who was raising a kid. Also, she’s got mad writing chops (I grew up reading her novels). It wasn’t hard to work out that she was right for this.

In the end it worked out well: Hoa, my brother, and I all got to work together in that Writers Room with Tim and John.

IV.

Elon Musk (didn't write Zero To One, but all the pictures of Thiel looked boring).

I’m going to wrap it up in a sec, because you get my point. I’ll just make one other comment, about how this isn’t just about the Writers’ Room.

Peter Theil wrote a must-read book called Zero to One. (As you’d know: Peter Thiel is the billionaire who co-created PayPal with Elon Musk).

In the book, Thiel says that when he interviews someone for a job, the very first question he asks them is:

CUT TO:

INT. INTERVIEW ROOM

PETER THIEL

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

CUT BACK:

In my other life, I can put so much work into delivering a PhD workshop, or publishing an economics study–some go really well, and others require so much effort. But when I’ve thought about Kel’s question, which rhymes with Rob’s comedy exercises, which rhyme with Peter Thiel’s key interview question: obstacles just melt away, even in my job as an economist and academic.

V.

Inside Out

You want me to lose you? No? You could stop reading here, honestly. I think you get what I mean.

But if you’re still reading, I might go a bit abstract, because I think it’s worth trying to say this.

Here’s my final point: it’s not like there is only one “us”. If you’ve read Thinking, Fast and Slow you’ll be familiar with how we kind of have “two minds”: System 1 and System 2. There’s more than one “me” or “you”. I reckon it’s way more than two. I haven’t seen Inside Out, but I think that’s what I mean, or if I want to show my age, does anyone remember Herman’s Head?

When I take a moment to “chair the meeting” of the many aspects of myself, asking Kel’s question to each aspect of me: all of a sudden, I’m drawing on more of what I can bring, instead of compartmentalising the different areas of my interest and skillset, and denying some parts of me their chance to contribute.

I used to feel embarrassed and green being an economist in a writers’ room–then on the other side, I’d feel embarrassed feeling like a writer in a room of serious economists. But after asking Kel’s question to multiple aspects of myself, I’m now writing scripts for the PhD supervisor of last year’s Nobel Prize winner, and I’m pinching myself like it’s a dream. It’s all I ever wanted.

Kel and Rob and Peter Thiel’s questions helped me realise that those screenplays make so much sense for me to be writing, instead of the other projects I was working on that many people could be writing. In our first conversation, people from the new project even said to me: “You know, there aren’t that many working screenwriters who are also opinionated economists”.

Yep, if one day a producer decides they need a screenplay about an asian guy who has a million food intolerances that make him fall asleep at the most inconvenient times, oh man, just watch out.

VI.

If that last bit about multiple aspects of myself sounds like I’ve gone homeopathic, you can just ignore it. It’s really helped me, so I thought I’d try to share.

I’ll post some of the many other lessons I learned from the Writers Room soon. A little puppy has been waiting patiently by my laptop while I type. She’s now becoming insistent that I chase and tickle her.





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