So Much To Say
The amazing thing about Hollywood, and life, is that nothing is ever as it seems. Such was my lunch with Scott Silveri, creator of the television series Speechless. Scott started in the writer’s room of Mad About You, then onto Friends where he added the titles Story Editor, Co-producer and eventually Executive Producer to his accomplishments. Since then he has created Joey, Perfect Couples, Go On and now Speechless on ABC. I went into our meeting ready to sit with an accomplished showrunner, dare I say a kingmaker in this town. I left with the realization, no matter what level of success you achieve, there are no kings, and there will always be struggle. #artistic #truth
A mentorship lunch with Scott was part of the prize for my film Best Friend winning the Best Film award in the 2017 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge (EDFC). We met on the Fox Studios lot where he and his writers were busy breaking stories for season two of Speechless. He wasn’t shy to jump right in and ask, how can he help, what can he do to help me?
I’m a director, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. However, along that road, I’ve had to do everything from be a production assistant to executive producer. I’ve honed my producing and accounting skills, learned how to write scripts, develop characters, frame shots, ingest footage, and have even spent a few thousand hours in an edit bay… But I want to direct. Scott laughed; because he related and said it was typical of what we creatives struggle with.
Scott loves to write, it’s where his passion is, and he’s damn good at it. Being a great writer means he has earned the trust of producers and executives that green light productions. So now he gets to run shows, develop them and make sure they stay honest to their nature. But what he really loves is the writing, yet once production ramps up on Speechless he will find himself, taking meetings, sitting in edit sessions, dealing with casting and the myriad of other production tasks that the person at the top of the creative chain is responsible for. So he is essentially so good at his job, the powers-that-be have elevated him from being able to do what he loves most.
Expectations. To succeed in the entertainment business you’ve got to pay dues. Scott didn’t start off as a showrunner; he worked his way there while honing his writing skills. “A lot of people try to get lucky in this business. Don’t expect the silver-bullet idea to dictate a whole new career for yourself. People can’t write a pilot, and then all of a sudden expect to be a showrunner in charge of an entire production. That’s unrealistic.” Which I immediately understood, Hollywood is a big business with a lot of money to be responsible for, and no executive is going to give the keys to an unknown. Scott continued, “You can sell that idea, and other people can take it over, but you’ve got to work your way up (to be in charge)”.
In terms of story Scott, has spent the majority of his career writing a variety of fun characters, but none have been so close to home as Speechless. This is the first show he’s written that has a personal component. Growing up with a brother who has Cerebral Palsy was key to pitching the show. “Once you’ve worked your way up the production ladder, you’ve still got to prove yourself. You’ve have to show the executives what makes you uniquely suited, or destined to tell the story.” Being able to convince others of that reason, shows there is a potential goldmine full of stories to pull from rather than, it just being a ‘fun idea’ for a show. Friends, Curb, Seinfeld, Louie, make it obvious that revered shows are pulled from unique comedy goldmines, and not some simple “fun ideas”.
All born from the first cliché I ever learned about story telling: Write what you know. Twenty years into a successful career Scott is just now getting to write what he knows best, his family and himself. He assured me that having concrete, emotional ties to any story provides authenticity and ultimately powers the entire story and production process. He encouraged me to, “Try to find things that don’t exist. Try to find stories that no one else can tell but you”.
We finished eating and continued our conversation while touring the Fox lot. It’s not a very big lot, but it holds a lot of history. Besides the murals of Empire Strikes Back, Die Hard, and Young Frankenstein, you can’t miss the Simpsons writer’s building marked by a giant Homer Simpson hand elevating his beloved donut toward the heavens. Scott said, that legendary room has some of the funniest people on the planet working in it. I asked what it takes to break into that room, and he said, “I’ll put it to you this way, my college roommate is the ‘the new guy’ and he been working there for eighteen years!”
We talked about the production details of Speechless. They film interiors on the lot and have a few days on location for every show. Though they’re not in production right now, the sets are patiently waiting on standby. When it comes to writing the show, though they need to have a handful of scripts to shoot when production starts, Scott says it’s not good to have the whole season written ahead of time. You never know how character or a story arc will develop, and it’s good to have flexibility in case something needs to change down the road.
With the Speechless writers back in the office, they start writing the season with big picture conversations: What was good and bad from the last season? What do you want the characters do next, where should they be by the end of this season? They then break each idea individually and come up with each episode. Drama could be different, but this is what he has learned at the helm of several successful sitcoms.
It was important Scott stressed to do your homework with whatever story your telling. As he was developing Speechless, he took the time to reach out to different organizations within the disability community and ask for their feedback on story concepts. He said, “There were some story points we were considering for the J.J. character”, Micah, the actor who plays JJ, though in a wheel chair, sometimes exercises using a walker, “We thought having JJ occasionally use a walker might be an interesting thing to explore”. The organizations advised him to not to go that direction, because it could be misinterpreted that disabilities can be overcome. “When you ask for feedback from trusted sources, you’ve got to have the humility to listen to what they say and take their opinions seriously”. So that’s not a storyline you’ll be seeing anytime soon.
I shared that one of the compliments I’ve received on all my EDFC films is that I just put actors with disabilities into any role; and that the stories aren’t necessarily about their disability. I’ve never felt compelled to derive plot points around something that obvious. After all a person with CP, Down Syndrome, an amputee, blind or deaf person just lives their lives day to day, to them it’s not unique. He said, “If you tell a good story, conversations of disability and inclusion, will blend in and that’s what it’s all about,”
I wanted to pepper Scott with questions about some of the “opportunities” that are often marketed to filmmakers who are trying to up their careers in this industry. What can we do, where can we go to get out of the low paying or self-financed “indie” world and elevate to more studio-oriented productions? To the question of writer’s festivals, and screenplay competitions that promise introductions, he said he’s never been involved in one or discovered a story or writer in that way. “I’d be more inclined to watch something, than read something”, he said. If something is posted on Funny-or-Die, or goes viral on Facebook or YouTube then that can attract his attention. The things he’s drawn to are things that his friends share with him, he’s not scouring writing competitions to add someone to his team.
It’s always good to have something ready to go, script(s) written for when the moment comes. Spend enough time in this town and you always hear the question, “what are you doing next?” The worst possible answer to that questions is, “I don’t know”, you’ve got to have a what’s next ready to go.
As for trying to catch someone’s eye with your writing, one suggestion he gave was the practice of writing spec scripts for existing shows. So many people are trying to tell their own idea or story, but if you can write for characters well that already exist, you prove that you have the ability to fit into a writer’s room. Having the skill to fit into the larger system of television is a key asset. It’s all teamwork and you need to be able to go with the flow as some of the players rotate in and out of the production.
This took the discussion to directing for television. It’s a strange job because you come onto a show and are essentially the boss for a week. Episodic TV directors are not hired to be an “auteur” – they need to be able to adapt to stories that are not uniquely their own. Scott said, “Always be prepared, have a vision. But, don’t hold your ideas sacred. If it comes down to your shot or my joke, I’m going with my joke.” TV is a writer’s medium more so than film. There’s less opportunity for people to jump in and change things because the overall production pace is so fast. “Mostly the director’s job is staging, keeping the energy of the scene right and coordinating the blocking and camera moves. Speed is important too, get what you want from a scene and move on.”
Scott, and the producers pick directors for each episode but, over the years, every now and then, a dud can slip through. If that happens there are safeguards, “The cinematographer, cast, and a writer-on-set are all there to protect the show if they see something going in the wrong direction.” This doesn’t mean directing is an easy job, or that anyone can do it. “There is a tremendous value when a good director shows up and knows character, movement and how to bring a scene together. I’ve had directors ask me, what should we do with this scene? And my response is, that’s your job, that’s what you’ve been hired for.”
Scott closed the conversation talking about the great equalizer, even beyond his control of being showrunner. That’s the network and studio. Every step of the way the studio and network exec’s are getting updates. Story ideas, script drafts, table reads, production choices, up until the final edit. The result is, even though Scott is the man with the plan, and big picture vision for Speechless, even he can be overridden.
“You have to be absolutely certain about what you want to do, and 100% willing to change it. This isn’t just for TV either, it’s in movies. There are financial considerations. Even the most green studio executive can give a note, but you have to give them the benefit of the doubt, because they have perspective. They’re removed, where you’ve been in the trenches for weeks or months, so their opinion counts.”
It’s good that every step of the way there are touchstones to keep the creative grounded, otherwise, if we were balloons we’d just float away. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginning filmmaker, or as I learned, a successful showrunner, nothing beats, preparation, accountability and in the end being humble enough to compromise.
Much thanks to Scott for his gracious time, Eric for scheduling the meeting, Nic Novicki and the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge for creating a platform to bring all these things together.