What it Takes to Be a Successful TV and Film Writer, According to This 20-Year Veteran

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Photo Source: Courtesy YouTube; IMDB

Jeff Lowell can proudly call himself accomplished, having written, produced and directed features and television for over 20 years. But success didn’t happen overnight. Born in New York and raised in Arizona, Lowell left college to pursue a writing career in L.A.

After grasping the basics on the craft from books, he paid his dues by working as an assistant to more accomplished writers, eventually hired to write for “The George Carlin Show.” Several other opportunities followed, such as the “The Drew Carey Show,” “Cybil,” “Sports Night,” and “Spin City” to name a few. On the feature side, Lowell wrote “John Tucker Must Die” and “Hotel For Dogs,” and wrote and directed “Over Her Dead Body.”

When asked to advise aspiring writers, Lowell drew from years of experience to offer a better understanding of TV vs. film, what it takes to be a successful writer, and much more.

How is writing for TV different than film?
There are two types of TV shows: single-camera (no laugh track, shot like a little movie, think “Modern Family”) and multi-camera (laugh track, think “Big Bang Theory”). All dramas are single-camera.

In television, the writer (showrunner) is in charge. There is a director but the showrunner can override. In single-camera, a showrunner or other producer is often present in case there’s a need for lines or questions need to be answered. In multi-camera, we rehearse and rewrite for days before shooting. A writer will watch the actors perform the script, then rewrite what isn’t working (with a team of writers).

In film, the writer is rarely on the set. Film is a director’s medium; once the script goes into production, writers are used only on occasion. Sometimes a benevolent director will let the writer hang out but that would be the exception. Only one voice talks to the actors, and that is the director.

How often do you interact with actors?
In features, directors help the actors. In TV, directors rehearse without writers but the filming happens with a writer on set to help the actors understand intent and motivation.

Do you think a writer should have acting skills?
It doesn’t hurt. More than anything, it helps me understand how to talk to actors. To be honest, it gives me sympathy for what actors go through: exposed, with a camera one foot from their face, having to react naturally to whoever or whatever they’re working with. It’s tough work. A writer who gets that and helps the actor will always achieve better results.

Do you find that writing for an actor you know or series you’re familiar with is easier than approaching a project with an unknown cast?
Absolutely. The more I know about an actor, the more I can learn their personality to work it into the character. During casting, we try to get actors closest to what we think the character should be. Once a show is in production, the character then turns a little bit more into who the actor is. This is more true for television. In features, there’s really no time to change the character on the fly.

How often do you rewrite?
TV? Tons, and that’s the luxury. Taking a week to make [30 minutes] of material really lets the writer dig in and fix things. In film, there are rewrites but the job becomes tougher as everything is shot out of order. Sometimes I want to change something but the change is difficult when I’ve already shot other scenes that lock in what I’m doing.

Are you present during editing or looping as a writer?
In television, 100 percent of the time. In features, only with a very secure and generous director.

What do writers wish actors knew about their jobs?
The actor/writer relationship can too easily devolve into an “us vs. them” mentality. Some actors think writers want robots who repeat their words verbatim; some writers think actors don’t respect the written word.

It certainly doesn’t have to be that way; respectful collaboration brings out the best work from both sides.

If something isn’t sitting right with an actor, if they have a different idea, just present it in a “what do you think about/do you mind if I tried” kind of way. And if a writer (or director) says “let’s try it once as written and then we can try your way as well,” don’t look at it as a trap. A secure writer/director will go with the best version, not his or her version.

Has your approach changed over the years?
I guess the biggest difference is that at this point, I’ve seen everything that can go wrong. When something goes astray, I now calmly draw on my experience to fix it. I think I’ve also learned how much actors bring to their roles.

In the beginning, a lot of writers believe the word is king. They want everything to be exactly as pictured but as time goes on, a writer learns to appreciate actor feedback and, hopefully, have the confidence to go with a different take on things if the different take on things is better.

Can you describe a day in a life of a writer on a TV? Film?
Writing movies is a solitary life. Once I land a gig after an endless series of meetings and revisions based on my last meetings, I spend my days writing in solitude. Every few weeks or months, I send in my work, get more notes, and write by myself again. When they decide to make the movie, I wait and pray. Again, it’s rare for a screenwriter to be heavily involved while a film is in production but sometimes there are changes to be made while filming, in which case, the writer—either on set or at home—will be rewriting. It’s a big change. I go from making my own hours and hazy deadlines to “the actors are on set and we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars waiting for your changes.”

Television is incredibly collaborative. I work with a team of writers. I don't have to do everything myself. I’m also working with the actors and the director. The writer needs to be much more social and better at dealing with people, not just words on a page.

There’s no luxury of writer’s block or time for procrastination. The production takes place over a matter of days and then it’s on to the next episode. It is another reason why television is a writer’s medium. It’s an animal that devours pages, that needs good writers to keep pumping out great material.

What are you working on now?
I just finished up a year’s worth of work for Illumination, the animation company that makes “Despicable Me,” etc. In TV, I’m developing original shows and consulting on a Netflix series, “The Ranch.”

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and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.