Emmy-nommed writers tell wide-ranging stories Panelists discuss woes, rewards


At a professional zenith with an Emmy nomination for her work on "Grey's Anatomy," writer-showrunner Krista Vernoff recalls well some less satisfying periods in her career.

"I spent three years working on a show writing about three witches doing magic in a San Francisco mysteriously bereft of homosexuals," Vernoff said.

She was recounting her work on the WB Network series "Charmed" for a packed house at the WGA West Theater on Thursday night during "Sublime Primetime," a panel discussion with Emmy-nominated writers sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

"We would literally sit in the room trying to figure out how to get people naked in the show," Vernoff said. "This was Spelling (Entertainment), so ? Aaron Spelling, God bless him ? there was not a lot of support in the room for putting the gays back in San Francisco. It was starting to feel like I was selling my soul, so I did leave that show."

The last statement was met with loud applause from the audience of more than 550 people.

Comedian and chat-show vet Dennis Miller moderated the panel discussion among select Emmy-nominated writers, an annual event staged by the WGA West that's always long on honesty and notably short of ego. The evening began with a clips reel of Emmy-nominated shows and brief remarks from WGAW president Patric Verrone and The Hollywood Reporter publisher Tony Uphoff.

"Everybody thought it was going to be six episodes and out," quipped Carlton Cuse, nominated with fellow panelist Damon Lindelof for an episode of "Lost." "Then the ratings came in for the pilot, and it was like, 'Oh shit, we have to keep doing this.' "

With the hit series now heading into a third season, Cuse noted regular discussions about "how long 'Lost' should go on." He acknowledged apprehension over stretching story lines too far and failing to "answer questions" about mysterious plot points quickly enough.

"We have an inviolable trust with the audience," he stressed.

Ian Maxtone-Graham, who has taken home six statuettes during his 11 years with "The Simpsons," recalled the time he got to direct literary icon John Updike in a voice-over cameo.

"I spent about five minutes trying to convince him that Homer Simpson is like Rabbit Angstrom," Maxtone-Graham said. After a beat, he added, "He met me halfway on that."

Several panelists mentioned family and friends as significant sounding boards for their creative endeavors.

Doug Ellin, a former stand-up comedian and feature writer who said episodic work has turned his life into seven-day work weeks, first realized how successful his HBO series "Entourage" had become when "my relatives asked me if (the show's) Vince was going to do 'Aquaman.' "

Cliff Schoenberg noted that family members were anxious to watch his "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" but added that "nobody has Showtime."

Lindelof acknowledged that 75-hour work weeks on "Lost" can be "grueling," but he added that it's always exciting as well.

Although the show's Hawaii production locale is exotic, Lindelof shuffles back and forth to Los Angeles regularly. That's good, he said, because spending too much time on such a remote shoot means "you become like Kurtz gone up the river (in 'Apocalypse Now')."

Like some other panelists, Lindelof suggested that coping with a hectic work life can sometimes be all about attitude. "At the risk of sounding like my shrink, you wake up every morning and get to decide whether to be happy or complain," he said with a shrug.

As for advice to wannabe writers, most agreed that reading a lot of TV scripts is necessary to gain a knowledge of the craft. But Lindelof confessed to finding the most value in reading examples of poor writing, after he discovered that studying top-notch scripts was filling him with intimidation and dread.

"I started reading bad writing, and it made me feel great!" Lindelof enthused.

Cuse urged the younger generation to take full advantage of community-oriented Web sites and to make and post videos while honing writing and other filmmaking skills.

"People's view of scripted entertainment is changing rapidly," he said.

And Vernoff encouraged young writers to be prolific in their spec writing.

"It's really important for people to realize that their second script is going to be better than the first, and the third is going to be better than that," she observed.

Vernoff assured a member of the audience that her being the only female on the panel did not indicate any sort of gender gap among TV writers.

Miller also addressed the questioner.

"Life is not a Virginia Slims commercial," the moderator cracked.
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