'Once Upon a Time' Showrunners Reveal How to Staff a TV Writers Room (Guest Column)

10:00 AM PST 05/15/2014 by Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis
Illustration by: Koren Shadmi

Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis say selecting who works on a show is like packing a VW bus for a trip to Vegas, which is why they always ask: Is this person gonna stink up the car?

This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Staffing up a TV show is joyous and terrible all at the same time. Joyous because it means your show has been ordered to series. Celebration time! Your baby is going out into the world. Terrifying because, well, your baby is going out into the world.

So how do we staff our shows? It's a difficult process because there are so many amazingly talented writers out there. It really comes down to the meeting for us. Because the truth is, when we get to that stage, it means we've read your material. Loved it. Heard fabulous things about you. But now? Now it's time to see if you can make it … on the road trip.

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Because in many ways that's what a writers room is: A road trip in a giant car with a big table, whiteboards and lots of snacks. With one big difference (other than the whiteboard and table) … when driving from L.A. to, we dunno, Las Vegas, you know you'll be in the car four or five hours, give or take. But with a show? It could be four or five years (or hopefully at least four or five months). So when we look across at the people we meet, we wonder -- is this person gonna eat lots of Doritos and stink up the car (metaphorically, who doesn't love Doritos?) -- or will they be the sane voice of reason that tells us, "Yes, it's a long trip, but we can get there by taking this route that you never thought of, and wouldn't it be fun because we can see the world's largest potato that looks like Abe Lincoln along the way?" This is what's critical because, to us, writing a show is about the journey, not the destination. We want to be surrounded by folks who will make that journey -- both onscreen and in the writers room -- the most enjoyable one possible.

So how do we know who to squeeze into our VW bus of a creation? It's all about chemistry. On a road trip you need all types -- the practical, the fun-loving, the "adult," etc. A writers room is no different. The last thing we want is a homogenous room where everyone has the same skill set and life experience. And that's what we try to find out in the meeting. Yes, you're a good writer, but what's your worldview? What part of you do you bring to the table? We want different voices. Different ideas. And we also want to feel like we want to spend time with the person. It's an almost impossible task to ask of writers to deliver everything about themselves in a meeting. And that's why we try to keep the pressure off. Let the person talk. We just want to know as best we can who you are. Mistakes we see all the time are folks coming in thinking they have to be "something" -- whatever their vision of us or our show is, we just want them to be themselves. We have enough trouble dealing with who we are in therapy to want to be surrounded by more "us-es" in the room. So don't fake it. If you're trying to be something you're not, sooner or later, in the writers room, like on a car trip, we'll all see who you really are. It's about fit, and you can't fake that forever.

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From our own days staffing on other shows, we remember how nerve-racking it is. You're always afraid of saying the wrong thing and blowing the meeting. Which brings us to the one bad meeting story we'd like to share. The worst faux pas we ever experienced was when a writer came in to meet on a show of ours and was talking about the pilots out there and we asked what he thought of all the scripts. As he answered, he went on and on about how most were dreadful … but there was one script that was a cut above, that really shined through the muck. We smiled, waiting for our pat on the back. When he mentioned the script was for another show that he was dying to work on -- you know, not the show he was in the room meeting on -- we just stared, incredulous.

Piece of advice: If you don't like our show, you might not want to rub it in our faces in the meeting. We're insecure enough without needing our fears confirmed.

So what did we do when this happened? We stopped the meeting to point out the writer's faux pas (he was actually our former assistant from years ago who had moved on to start a writing career, so we felt as mentors we owed it to him). We gently said that this wasn't about our ego but about common sense. If you don't have something nice to say, shut it.

And then we hired him. But only because he didn't smell like Doritos.

Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis are showrunners on ABC's Once Upon a Time.

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