Scribes on 'Barry,' 'Russian Doll' an more Emmy contenders reveal how they battle writer's block ("a live video stream of a tiger and her cubs"), what munchies they prefer ("a selection of turkey jerky") and which beverage is king ("La Croix, to me, is poison").
Filling the room Hader and fellow EP Alec Berg brought five other writers onto their staff, everyone from a stand-up comic to a veteran TV drama writer, to have a variety of approaches to the stories. For instance, stand-up Emily Heller "is good at sniffing out stuff that's trite," Hader says. "I tried to pitch something about viral videos and she just said, 'C'mon, Grandpa …' " Meanwhile, theater vet Jason Kim "really helps because he understands story so well."
A work in progress "I tend to, in our off-season, write down a ton of notes on what I want the new season to be," explains Hader. "I'll write them randomly in my phone or email them to myself. Before the room starts, I get an office for a month and pace the floor, putting everything up on a board to show Alec." Once they work out the basics, they throw their outlines to the room and the other writers "rip them apart but in a very good and healthy way."
Getting around the block A typical writing day on HBO's Barry is "an intense four or five hours," according to Hader. That doesn't leave much time for any writer's block, but if for some reason the ideas aren't coming, he'll get the writers "talking about a funny thing they saw or that happened to them — anything but the big 'Let's Talk About These Characters' Childhoods' conversation."
A matter of taste Thinking about lunch may be a good distraction for some writers, but not for Hader. "I eat the same thing every day. I just have kale salad with chicken. I have to play a Marine on the show, so that eating process is year-round for me." He's also been known to have assistants toss any Clif bars or sugary snacks that are lying around. "I'm a dickhead because if there's a lot of sugar around, I'll eat it all," he says. "So if you want to have snacks, you have to bring them."
Watering it down LaCroix may be the writers room drink of choice elsewhere, but not for Hader. "I can't drink it. It does something to my stomach." He hydrates instead with regular orders from a nearby Coffee Bean.
Filling the room Among the AMC show's six staff writers (including Gould), there are plenty of differences. Some are older and married with kids, others are young and single — half male, half female. Several prefer comedy, others tend toward the dramatic. One thing they all have in common, though, is what Gould sees as a mission to "work together and figure out how the hell to get out of the corner we continually paint ourselves into."
A work in progress He and fellow EP Vince Gilligan run their room in the same low-tech style they used on Breaking Bad. Electronic devices are kept to a minimum; instead, it's all about 3-by-5 cards, push pins and a corkboard. "There's something very old-world about our process," Gould says. "The advantage to writing on cards is even though it can be painstaking, it's a sign of committing to the process, and part of the struggle in a writers room is committing. The other advantage is, nobody can accidentally erase your idea like they can with a whiteboard or computer."
Getting around the block To distract writers' brains when the ideas aren't flowing, the room has plenty of toys, including Nanoblocks, magnets and markers. Gould has spent two years trying to teach himself to juggle. Oh, and there's a tiny teeter-totter, which he admits is "a little unnerving because the room has a lot of big windows and I keep wondering, 'What'll happen if we're kidding around and someone falls out of one?' "
A matter of taste "Somebody is always baking something. There's usually home-baked goods in our writers room. There's also usually a selection of turkey jerky and Goldfish crackers to choose from."
Watering it down Gould says his room "runs on coffee and tea all day," insisting that, against all odds, he's never seen a can of LaCroix there.
Filling the room One of the biggest challenges he faced, Goor says, was trying to have his crew of between 12 and 14 staff writers be "a diverse group in terms of professional backgrounds as well as ethnically." Perhaps most important of all, though, "when you're writing this many episodes in a room with a group of people, you need to make sure these are people you're willing to spend 60 hours a week with, every week of your life."
A work in progress The NBC show doesn't believe in having a room for its staff. Rather, it believes in having two rooms. "We have both going at any one time," says Goor. "There's the writing room and also the couch room, aka the story room. It's got four or five couches, and people sit around with an easel and a board pitching story ideas they break together. The writing room has one person at a computer running things. The computer is attached to 12 monitors. Everyone has their own monitor, and what we're doing there is rewriting a script."
Getting around the block Goor's staff has an unorthodox way of recharging. "There's this [online] game, GeoGuessr, that drops you in a location somewhere on Google Earth and you have to guess where you are. We'll have the couch room going against the writing room. Playing it helps with morale, but there are those who point out that letting them go home would help too."
A matter of taste The lunch selection process has become so complex, it could be a show in itself. (Which it actually was, having been memorialized in an episode this past season.) At various times, it involved such items as a hopper containing ping-pong balls with every writer's initials, a Wheel of Fortune-style wheel with 15 different restaurant names on it and a deck of cards with the faces of the writers.
Watering it down While LaCroix definitely has its fans, "we've got a lot of Topo Chico people now too. It's a Mexican sparkling water, and I have to say, we may soon be a Topo Chico room."
Filling the room Given that this first-year Netflix series features two female leads (Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini), it's not surprising that of the eight writers (counting Feldman), six are women. "The show is being told from a female perspective, so it was important to me that there be an authenticity to the writing," explains Feldman. Since it's also a show about friendship, she hired one of her closest friends, Kelly Hutchinson, as a writer. "I wanted a warm and loving environment in the room. I've been a female in this business for so long, I knew we needed to have that."
A work in progress Feldman insists on having her team sit around a big table while breaking stories because "I remember working in rooms that had couches and comfortable chairs, and I would get too relaxed. So sitting upright and facing one another felt more immediate and more like, 'This is a job.' " Meanwhile, she doesn't have writers come into the office until 10:30 a.m. during the 16 weeks of preproduction because "it's important for people to have time to get done what they have to get done — doctor appointments, exercising, get kids to school. I want to make sure they live their lives."
Getting around the block A lot of writers take walks to recharge their brains when they get stuck. However, not a lot of them get to have the wild walk Feldman and her writers experienced because they worked at Raleigh Studios. "It's incredibly historic," she says of the Hollywood studio. "You can't help but look around and be inspired thinking, 'Oh yeah, Charlie Chaplin probably did this same lot walk when he was [suffering writer's block] here too.' "
A matter of taste Dead to Me's room established a rotating list of local restaurants so "we don't have 45-minute conversations every morning about where to order from," says Feldman. However, she quickly adds that "we're in an incredible location for restaurants, and I'm not going to lie. That factor had some influence when I was deciding whether to do the show there."
Watering it down "My favorite LaCroix flavor?" says Feldman. "It's controversial — tangerine."
Filling the room Since this is an American series produced in England and the writers room tradition doesn't really exist there, Fennell says she and each writer "collaborated more directly" than is the case with a U.S. show. Writers would stop in the production office to pitch her suggestions that fit into the BBC America show's overarching plot.
A work in progress Fennell wrote four of the season's eight episodes on her own and collaborated on two others, allowing her to "be doubly careful that everything felt like it came from one synergistic body." That's why once every outsider "wrote their own brilliant scripts, then got and did notes," she'd give everything a final pass "to make sure the thread is clear and clean."
Getting around the block Fennell relies on one particular technique to get her mind off whatever writing problem she can't solve. "We would mostly look at pictures of handsome men and beautiful women. We'd talk about people in the past we loved, like Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen. It must have come from the fact that our show is about obsession."
A matter of taste The good news for anyone writing in the office? There's a great Chinese restaurant nearby where they could get lunch. The bad news? "We'd get so full of delicious noodles, we couldn't work anymore," recalls Fennell. There was a healthier alternative — a fruit bowl in the middle of the table the team sat around. However, "I don't think people took anything from it in six months."
Watering it down LaCroix might have a European name, but Fennell says that "tragically, it's not made a splash" in England. So, it was "coffee for everyone, though the orders became increasingly diva-like … 'I'll have the half-oat milk, half-vanilla in a thimble.' "
Filling the room In hiring their staff of eight writers (plus two assistants), Ocko and Gavin were looking for one thing: "So much of our room needed to be people telling stories from their lives," explains Gavin. "That really ended up, in a weird way, contributing to the show. "
A work in progress As opposed to most shows, AMC's Lodge 49 didn't require writers to spend weeks nailing down precise story arcs before actually writing their scripts. In fact, says Gavin, "a lot of writers would be scared to death of what passes for an outline for us. We're about a few paragraphs and just knowing what needs to be there." Plus, not only did everyone get two weeks to work on a draft, but "there was plenty of time built in for rewrites," according to Ocko. "Everybody's draft got read by all the writers. We trusted one another enough so it wasn't too terrifying to share with the group."
Getting around the block Gavin believes in the notion that "being able to not think for a few minutes is a good thing … that's when work happens elsewhere in the brain." That's why he proudly explains that "we're a ping-pong show. Playing was our big [distraction]."
A matter of taste Until he created Lodge 49, author Gavin had never worked in TV. One thing stands out about this new profession. "Every day I'm in the office, I know someone else is paying for my lunch," he boasts. "That is a joy to me. If I get used to this, I'll have to leave."
Watering it down Ocko admits to trying to get rid of LaCroix because "it depresses me. It's representative of being stuck at work and trying to be healthy. I hate it!" His solution? Another brand of sparkling water: Waterloo.
Filling the room Because Sutter's follow-up to Sons of Anarchy features a diverse cast, he wanted to make sure the writers room reflected that. Hence, his six-person staff is made up almost entirely of people of color. "To me, there's nothing that makes more creative sense," he explains.
A work in progress Since FX's Mayans is a serialized drama, Sutter prefers to have his staff report daily to the show's Santa Clarita production office. It helps "writers really own their episodes" by staying close to where all the action is. He doesn't usually give his team a specific length of time to pull a script together, but he does look over every draft before sending it to the network for approval. "When I do my draft, it can be a significant rewrite because a lot of times I can't find the episode till I'm inside it," he explains.
Getting around the block In the past, Sutter would use video games as a way to recharge. Those days are gone because "I have so many other built-in distractions now" when it comes to getting unstuck, such as production questions at the office or his daughter at home.
A matter of taste Series co-creator Elgin James is "super vegan," according to Sutter, so the Mayans kitchen tended much more toward "fruits and nuts and not Twizzlers. Which is fine because I do think sugar serves writing comedy far better than writing drama."
Watering it down There will be cans of LaCroix in the room, but they won't be Sutter's. "LaCroix, to me, is poison," he says. "It's like drinking hand soap. I just do coffee. For me, it's mostly just about being caffeinated."
Filling the room Because this story is about a makeshift family of outcasts involved in New York's late-'80s ballroom culture, Canals was happy to follow Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy's advice and confine his writing staff to just seven people (including himself and fellow EPs Murphy and Brad Falchuk). The story "is so intimate and private — a family drama, really — so I wanted to emulate that same sense of familiarity in the writers room," he says. "That's tougher to do when you have 12 or 13 bodies in there."
A work in progress That familial feeling extends to the writing process. "What's wonderful here is that unlike in other rooms where not all writers have a say, once a script is written by someone, it comes back into the room and we read it as a room," Canals explains. "We give each other notes. It's a real group effort, because every writer has different strengths."
Getting around the block Music isn't just a key part of FX's Pose. It's also the key to recharging the writers when "we're losing focus and not quite hitting the mark," according to Canals. That meant watching performance videos of classic divas like Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan and performing for one another. "We're a singing group here," says Canals. "Our taste is all over the map."
A matter of taste Some staffs devote hours every week to figuring out their lunch orders. At Pose, though, "there's no debate over lunch. We get an email in the morning from our production assistant that says, 'Here are your options. What do you want?' " As for snacks, the choices are similarly limited. There's Fritos, Doritos and plain peanuts — with the occasional cake to celebrate a birthday.
Watering it down The writers on the trans drama were all about the LaCroix pamplemousse, which confuses Canals. "Why is there so much of it? That and lime? I don't get it. I am doing Perrier or simple, regular spring water."
Filling the room This Netflix series had twice as many episodes (eight) as it eventually did staff writers (four, not counting Headland, co-creator Amy Poehler and co-creator/star Natasha Lyonne, who also worked on episodes), presenting what Headland says was "an immense amount of work." Still, while she would have appreciated a larger staff for her first time running a room, "it turned out great, because every person was the right voice at the right time."
A work in progress Because the staff was so small, a lot of the initial writing could be done off-site as well as in an actual room. Lyonne was still shooting her other Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black, as scripts were coming in. "Because she and I wore so many hats, there really wasn't a standard 'the script goes to this person or that person,' " explains Headland. "Our process was more like, when somebody finished a script, whoever had their hands free would go through it."
Getting around the block When Headland or her writers struggle to break a story or write a scene, it helps to fall down the rabbit hole that is the internet. Or, more appropriately, the tiger hole. "One of our writers, Allison Silverman, would find this live video stream of a tiger and her cubs at the zoo," says Headland. "They're really cute, and that was kind of invigorating."
A matter of taste It's all about the cookies. Recalls Headland, "I'll never forget how at the beginning of the whole process, it was either Netflix or Universal that sent us this insane amount of gourmet cookies. It took us weeks to go through them, and I remember thinking how it was kind of decadent and amazing."
Watering it down "Someone was drinking Coke Zero all the time, which it turns out is really yummy. I kind of got addicted."
Filling the room Steinkellner populated her room for the Facebook Watch show with six other writers — three men and three women. "TV writers rooms are traditionally divided into 'couch rooms' and 'conference table rooms,' " she says. "And we are a proud couch room. It's so much comfier."
A work in progress Once a writer is assigned a particular episode outline or script, he or she goes off to a nearby space to work. The hard part is focusing while a raucous writers room is nearby. Explains Steinkellner, "Writers get intense fear of missing out. It drives me nuts when I'm in my office working on one of my scripts and I hear a burst of laughter come from the writers room. I always want to be in on the joke."
Getting around the block Steinkellner has a two-pronged approach to snap her staff out of any doldrums. First, she tries to keep room hours confined to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. so writers can live their lives. And then, there was Karoake Night. "I have to say, the week that followed that was particularly productive and inspired, so maybe there is a correlation between writing good television and singing Natalie Imbruglia at the top of your lungs!"
A matter of taste Lunches are routinely healthy, but the writers more than make up for that by afternoon with Oreos, Biscoff cookies and Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Mint Creams. They are also what Steinkellner considers "a big gum crowd. There's an oft-ransacked drawer in the kitchen that's full of gum and mints."
Watering it down Pamplemousse LaCroix is "our most popular drink by a mile," but Trader Joe's Green and White Tea eventually began "making an impressive push."
Filling the room After three years of running HBO's Veep, Mandel had his room down to a science in the show's final season. "We ended up with about 12 or 13 writers, but there was never a specific number or mix of people I was looking for," he says. "I don't subscribe to the notion that a writer is just good at one thing. I simply look for plain funny and smart writers."
A work in progress Mandel developed his writers-room philosophy based on what he learned from Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm: "We just use the room to talk about ideas and punch stuff up. We don't beat everything out in the room and then hand it off. I'm a big believer in the writer of each episode being responsible for it."
Getting around the block The way Mandel sees it, the best way for writers to solve problems they get stuck on is to do anything but think about the problem. "A lot of our writers definitely will take a walk to clear their heads," he says, "but usually the best way for me is to just do the opposite of what I'm doing. Switch things up. For instance, if you're standing, you sit. If you're sitting, stand."
A matter of taste Mandel observed "a general chocolate snobbery" going on in the writers room. People were regularly bringing in a variety of gourmet chocolates, including one writer who traveled frequently to England and would return with British sweets. "That was a biggie. People were experimenting with how dark the chocolate could get. They would annotate the bars with notes about what they liked about that particular type. There was a lot of flavor profiling."
Watering it down The beverage of choice is definitely LaCroix, but "all the flavors began to disgust us and we reverted to only the plain flavor."
Filling the room Since the first season of the Starz show, which explores Los Angeles' Latinx community through the eyes of two estranged sisters, had only six episodes, it made sense that creator Saracho's agent suggested she write them all. However, she ended up bringing six other Latinx peers (nearly all of whom are female and queer) on board. Says Saracho, "To have this opportunity as a showrunner and not employ Latinx writers would have been wrong."
A work in progress The most helpful thing about the process in season one wasn't that Saracho knew how she wanted every episode to end before the writers even started their scripts. It was that before work began, she brought in "my lady to spiritually clean" the writers room. "She saw what spirits were there, and in the last room, she saw an old African shaman. He requested white African liqueur, a cigar and bananas. We kept an offering the whole time."
Getting around the block Saracho likes teaming up writers and then switching their partners. Each group is responsible for breaking a particular episode or character arc, and the goal for each team is "to get as many pitches as possible up on the whiteboard."
A matter of taste Battles over lunch orders are "kind of an annoyance," but snacking became almost high art. Several times a week, there were cookies and sweet breads from a Mexican bakery. And no matter what's being served, the room is never without a bottle of Tajin seasoning because "it's our main thing. You can put it on anything."
Watering it down The real highlight when it comes to beverages? Recalls Saracho, "Sometimes we'd have Mescal Friday. We'd have Palomas — Squirt and tequila."
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.