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This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ah, staffing season. A season of hope and new opportunities. A season of panic attacks and caffeine abuse.
You’d think that spec pilot you’ve slaved over for months — years even — would be enough to land you on a TV writing staff. But no. In addition, you’re expected to dazzle complete strangers on the spot. Strangers, mind you, who generally have a massively intimidating amount of talent and experience. Such is the stuff nightmares are made of.
A showrunner may like a sample, but before hiring a writer, he or she wants to see firsthand what this person’s sense of humor is like and ensure he is not an ax murderer. At least not an ax murderer who would target the staff.
“Be yourself!” is the mantra everyone reiterates. But that’s always sounded like a platitude, generic advice I don’t quite know how to put into practice. You mean wear my Falkor T-shirt and sing tunes from Godspell? Discuss my bobblehead collection and ill-fated adventures as a communist? Who am I, anyway?
Well … I am a nerd. An unabashed flash-card writing, text highlighting, bookwormy nerd. And so, I study. If I’m meeting on a pilot, I read the script several times — familiarizing myself with the characters and plot, brainstorming about future stories. If it’s an existing show, I marathon all the episodes. Once I met on a show that had been on for five seasons and I only had a few days to prepare. I watched as many as I could, then drove to the meeting with my laptop on the passenger seat — playing episodes.
But being a nerd isn’t just about thinking — it’s about feeling and forging an emotional connection to material. One year, I got a meeting on a legal show — a genre with which I have little experience. However, the script was set in New York City, which is where I grew up, and the legal case dealt with issues of urban economic disparity — a topic that deeply interests me. Suddenly I had two arenas that were personal to me, things I knew I could speak about with passion. Even if a show is out of my wheelhouse, there is almost always some character, some moment, some theme that gets my mind and heart going.
Every meeting is different, of course, and sometimes I’ve had to throw out the script I tried to write in my head. But in the end, doing my homework has never hurt me.
And neither has my Falkor T-shirt.
Kalinda Vazquez is a supervising producer on Once Upon a Time.
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