In the writers’ room with WGC awards’ TV drama nominees

Michael MacLennan, Simon Barry, Leila Basen, Heather Conkie and Esta Spalding talk writers' room must-haves, how they write drama, and potential TV crossover episodes.

Ahead of the Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Awards, happening Apr. 22, Playback asked the nominees in the TV drama category about their writers’ room must-haves (chocolate, a lot of wall space and natural light topped most lists) and how they write drama.

Nominated in the category are Michael MacLennan (Bomb Girls – Jumping Tracks), Simon Barry (Continuum – End Times); Leila Basen (Heartland – Life is a Highway), Heather Conkie (Heartland – Breaking Down and Building Up), Martin Gero (The L.A. Complex – Down in L.A.) and Esta Spalding (Saving Hope – Bea, Again).

On Friday, we featured the TV comedy nominees – check it out here.

PB: I read a 2010 memo from David Mamet to the writers on The Unit. He said the writers should ask themselves, for every scene – 1) Who wants what? 2) What happens if he/she doesn’t get it? 3) And why now? He also said, considering that the writing is for a visual medium, “If you pretend the characters can’t speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.” Do you agree? Disagree? How do you write drama? (Mamet also said, “Don’t write a crock of shit.”).

MacLennan

Michael MacLennan: There is something useful in Mr. Mamet’s simple set of questions, as a way to unlock a problematic scene. A great scene, however, does much more than address these questions. There is something numinous and inspiring to the actors, director and crew who interpret those words, and so one should also look to achieves lift-off by instilling that inspiration.

One might possibly argue that a feature film could be understood and appreciated with the sound off, but for me, television shares qualities with both cinema and theatre. This is to say that dialogue is crucial, and is often the core accomplishment of a scene/story/series.  In short, I don’t agree.

As for how I write drama, I’d probably answer this differently every day.  Here’s one way of looking at it: by deeply understanding the characters, pushing them to their extremes through plot, and working to ensure that their choices are the most surprising, honest and original that I can conceive. I then aim to connect this “drama” into something that has structural and thematic integrity.

Simon Barry: I think checklists like this can be helpful, but they also oversimplify the process of writing drama. I like characters to drive the drama and this usually stems from their goals but it can also come from obstacles they face either personal or plot driven. It works best when these goals and obstacles are married to the themes and mythology of the series. I love that Mamet said don’t write a crock of shit, but I’ve always believed the writer is the last person to recognize they’ve written a crock of shit, so how is that helpful?

Leila Basen: I’ve been a screenwriter for quite a while so I’ve internalized questions like, who wants what, etc. Dramatic writing for television is so rule bound that I like to push all that stuff into the background and start with an image, a line or a joke and worry about the shape of the scene later. So I guess you could say that my process for writing drama is to throw away the process. That combined with the ability to sit in one place for many hours.

Barry

As for Mamet’s recommendation not to write a crock of shit – I would add, don’t write shit no matter how cynical you may feel about the project, your contract or your credit. Doing good work all the time is a writer’s best revenge.

Heather Conkie: I probably don’t fit into David Mamet’s mould. I try not to write with a formula in my mind. I’ve been to some writing seminars that boil it down to those essentials, but I really think my best scripts are written when I don’t think too hard. Yes every scene has to drive the story forward but it’s not always about what they want, why they want it and why now? I guess I try to immerse myself in the characters and what they would do in a situation. It’s only later when (and if) I chose to analyze the script, that it might fall into his categories. And I really try not to write “a crock of shit” but sometimes shit happens.

Esta Spalding: Having written poetry for many years, I try to think of every scene as a stanza full of imagery wrought with tension. And I keep in mind that what happens in the ellipsis between scenes – like what happens between stanzas – is where the real surprise and drama occurs.

Conkie

PB: What’s a must-have for you in the writers’ room?

MM: A team of writers who range in life experiences, skills and temperament. A huge dry-erase marker board and pens to go with ‘em. Big post-it notes. Chocolate at 2:00. And 4:00. And 6:00.

SB: Enough wall space to be able to look at every episode in card form. Good chairs. To mix up the lunch plan – Some days in. Some days out. A separate office to break off into so groups don’t overhear each other. Someone who makes everyone laugh. Someone who keeps the work on track. Windows and lots of natural light. Power bars (the electrical kind, not the snack).

LB: Natural light and a window that opens. A chair that is comfortable. People who are tolerable. And a steady stream of club soda.  (used to be Diet Coke but I’m off that now.)

HC: A must have for me in the writer’s room is that I have good writers and that they all have a great sense of humour.

Spalding

ES: Rich, dark chocolate, and – if possible – a group of passionate writers.

PB: If you could do a Canadian TV cross-over episode with your show and another, what would it be and what would happen?

MM: Bomb Girls meets Lost Girls.  Lost Bomb Girls! I can’t wait to see those special powers.

SB: I would cross over with Orphan Black because Clones and Time Travelers is simply nerd-tastic.

LB: Here’s an obvious fit – Heartland meets Orphan Black. Barrel racer Kit Bailey (played by Tatiana Maslany) returns to Heartland determined to rekindle her romance with her ex-boyfriend Ty. But horses never lie and when Kit’s horse Daisy doesn’t recognize her, Amy realizes that something isn’t right. With Ty’s help, Amy discovers the incredible truth – Kit Bailey isn’t Kit Bailey at all; she’s actually Sarah Manning – a street-wise chameleon. And Ty has to come to terms with the fact that he once kissed a clone.

HC: If Sex and the City were still on the air I would love to have those girls visit Heartland and rough it at Lou’s Dude Ranch.  

Basen

ES: What would happen if Charlie, the comatose ghost, in Saving Hope was allowed to walk the corridors of the police station for Rookie Blue? The two sets are actually in the same building, so why not?  It would be a seriously fun episode to write!