The following interview for our Spring 2021 BackstageFest, a virtual celebration of the year's best and buzziest TV, was compiled in part by Backstage readers just like you! Follow us on Twitter (@Backstage) and Instagram (@backstagecast) to stay in the loop on upcoming interviews and to submit your questions.
The showrunner of the show does it all. From casting to writing to producing, and everything in between, the showrunner is the head creative authority. For BackstageFest, awards editor Jack Smart spoke with five showrunners— Lucia Aniello of “Hacks,” Christina Lee of “Made for Love,” Alena Smith of “Dickinson,” Sierra Teller Ornelas of “Rutherford Falls,” and Austin Winsberg of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”—to talk about what it takes to manage your own show.
One of the challenges of the job for Lee is that the writing process is never fully over.
“One of the things I learned is when to pivot and when to rewrite, and when to change things that I had cemented in my brain. That was so much seeing what the actors were doing and that inspired me to change the characters a bit. When your scripts are done, there’s a misconception that they are done. We are constantly rewriting as we learn what is working and not working on set. We develop the characters really from the actors.”
Ornelas’ best advice to get into a writing room is to write what you know.
“Write a sample that is about your life. When you read it, you assume that’s who the person is. Make sure your sample is what you do well. If you’re a story person, it should have a bunch of twists and turns; if you’re a jokes person, it should have a bunch of jokes in the first 10 pages. We read hundreds of scripts, and they all start to blend in, so trying to find that distinct sample and focusing on that is helpful.”
Aniello encourages aspiring writers to sell themselves to get the job they want.
“I want to hire you for what your skills are. Tell me what you think you’re good at or why your life experience is applicable to the story. Unfortunately, you are selling yourself and your experience and your strengths. I don’t mind when people tell me why I should be hiring them. I’m excited because I’m like, ‘Great, now I know why I should be hiring you,’ instead of making me think about why you should be right for the room. So I’m like, go for it, sell it. I’m buying.”
For Winsberg, the shows that are the most rewarding are the ones that mean something to him.
“I spent a lot of time working on and selling projects because I thought they were things that would sell or get made versus the thing that was important to me and I actually wanted to write. A lot of people fall into the trap of what would sell. The thing that made it on air is a thing that’s about my father dying of a neurological disease that’s a musical. That versus projects over the years that just sounded like a good high concept idea. Try to find the things that mean something to you and are specific to you.”
Being a writer and showrunner is hard. Smith encourages young writers to lean into that.
“Writing is so hard and I think people think that when you become successful at it, that means it has become easy. So people think that if it’s hard for them that means they’re not doing it right or they haven’t cracked something yet. If it’s hard, that means you’re writing. The only thing that makes somebody get somewhere with it is that they can tolerate how hard it is.”
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