By Alana Saltz
TV Writer Jason Grote got his start writing for the stage. As a playwright, his work has been produced and developed at Lincoln Center, Sundance, New York Theater Workshop, and more. Through his talents and connections, Jason forged a career for himself in television writing. He has worked as a staff writer on the hit TV series “Hannibal”, “Mad Men”, and “Smash”.
We’re very lucky to have Jason teaching From Pitch to First Draft starting March 18th where he’ll school you on the essential components of a successful TV drama, help you develop a pitchable idea and turn that brilliant idea into a script.
Jason was kind enough to answer a few questions about how he broke into TV and what makes a well-written TV drama.
What inspired you to become a TV writer?
I think most playwrights aspire to TV because it’s a writer-driven medium and it’s possible to make a living. Also, in the past couple of decades, TV has become exponentially more diverse and interesting, and has by and large outpaced theater in this regard — almost all of our most exciting dramatists these days are showrunners. Despite my interest, I never really pursued TV seriously until my son was born and I lost my teaching job. After a harrowing year of unemployment, my first job was “Smash,” which came about because I’d known Theresa Rebeck for a long time.
You worked as a writer on the last season of “Mad Men.” Can you talk a little about how you got involved with the show and what your experience was like writing for a hit TV series? Feel free to share any juicy celebrity stories too.
My staffing was a ridiculous fluke. I’d been casually working with “Mad Men” producers Andre and Maria Jaquementton on a pilot I wrote. I was in Los Angeles for a week of general meetings, I met them in person, they said they liked my sample better than many of the upper-level submissions they were getting. I took a chance and asked if there was anything I could do to be considered for a staff job. The following day, I was called in to speak to Matthew Weiner, and the day after that I was told I couldn’t return to New York because we were starting Monday. My incredible wife spent the month orchestrating a cross-country move while caring for our toddler son, and now we’re here.
No juicy stories, except that the cast and crew are as phenomenal and hardworking as you’d hope. Watching Elizabeth Moss in particular was a delight — she would make a different choice every take and each one would work.
In addition to television writing, you’re also a playwright. How is writing for the screen different than writing for the stage?
There are positives and negatives to both. In TV, you’re really one voice in a room and your job is to serve the vision of the showrunner, so there’s not much of a feeling of authorship. But it’s nice going to work and creating something with other people every day. In theater, the initial creation of the script is more solitary, but then you’re in rehearsal, so that’s social too, but the constant travel to regional theaters can sometimes be taxing. There’s also more scarcity in theater, which can sometimes lead to a greater feeling of community but just as frequently leads to a scarcity mentality and everything that goes with that.
Artistically speaking, the stage is much more aural, because you have no camera to guide the eye of the viewer.
What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters who want to become working TV writers?
Learn how to work with others, and learn how to write well, and fast. There are sometimes politics in writers’ rooms, just like in any office, so be prepared for that. If you’re not good at politics, then you need to be personable and good at what you do.
Give us a little preview of your upcoming Writing Pad class on writing dramatic TV. What do you think makes a good TV drama?
Just write the sort of thing you like to watch, or read. I like conflicted protagonists who exist in complicated moral universes. Sometimes I enjoy formulaic shows, if they’re executed with compassion, imagination, and humor, but generally I like stories that feel like they were lived. Don’t be afraid to use as much of your life as you can, but also don’t be afraid of research. Executives and showrunners want to see the thing that “only you” can write, so think on what that is.
Can you tell us about your writing practice?
I’m somehow prolific, but I don’t know how. I don’t seem to have any discipline or routine, I just write to deadlines. At the end of it, I wind up with a number of scripts every year, but it’s almost like someone else wrote them.
Thanks, Jason! That was fascinating. We can’t wait for your From Pitch to First Draft: Writing The Television Drama Class!