Emily Silver- Writer: Bones / The Flash Creator: Finding Carter
What advice do you have for college students who are looking to pursue the television industry?
Not to burst any bubbles, but this business is brutal. Especially for the early stages of someone’s career. I started as an assistant, and while it’s not the only path to being a writer, it’s the one I would recommend for young people just starting out. The first show I was on after college was called “Brothers and Sisters”, and I was the lowly office PA. Basically that meant working absurd hours, delivering scripts to actors and executives all across town, at any time of day or night. I remember crying on the phone to my grandmother at 4:30 in the morning (7:30 on the east coast where she was) about how I went to a top university, what the hell was I doing driving a freaking script out to Sally Fields’ house in Malibu at the butt crack of dawn? Wasn’t I better than that?
No. I wasn’t.
That’s the most important lesson I can impart on young people striving to be writers. It’s an unfortunately bloody world out there. There are dozens of people waiting to replace you the minute you suck at your job, and in Hollywood, sucking at your job means not anticipating that today your boss wanted a caramel macchiato, and not his or her standard latte. It means not buying the right food for the writer’s room kitchen. It means being late with lunch. Or not having enough of a variety of lunch choices. If you think I’m talking a lot about food here, that’s because it’s pretty much the most important thing in a writer’s room, and not just because writers are grazers, and always looking to munch (procrastination comes in so many different forms), but because getting them the “right” food, suggests that you listen to them, you respect them, you anticipate them. I know. It’s stupid.
But it’s the game. And if you want to be more than a disposable pawn, you should learn how to anticipate like it’s nobody’s business, because part of paying your dues is accepting that right or wrong, a lot of your function is to be the punching bag. There is no room for egos from assistants. I learned that the hard way, getting fired from my first writers’ PA job. But I’ll tell you, I never stocked a kitchen with as much gusto and pep as I did when I moved onto my next job – and that’s where I got my first promotion, from writer’s PA to writer’s assistant.
It took me six or seven years in LA to get staffed as a writer on a show. Believe it or not, I was on the younger side, it often takes more years than that, and the sucky part is, you can’t control when you’re going to get promoted. Mostly. Here’s what’s in your control: writing and networking. I would spend free time at work writing a spec or a pilot, and then all day Sunday writing. I babysat for everyone, because being important to someone’s children means being important to them (and also because the pay as an assistant is crap). I happen to love kids so that was great for me, and all of my mentors are people I babysat for. Two such mentors (writing parters Sherri Cooper and Jennifer Levin) gave me my first staff job. Yes, I had to prove that I was capable as a writer, but I had proven to them that I’d work as hard as I could at any (literally) task they assigned me. I had to earn their faitnh in me.
So I guess my advice is: get ready to work hard at thankless jobs that make you wonder why you majored in film and media studies in the first place, BUT if you dedicate yourself to it, write as much of your own stuff as you can, absorb room etiquette and the way writer’s break a story and then actually write it, you’ll learn so much that you’ll be the most prepared staff writer a showrunner could ask for, and then, the sky’s the limit.
First job in the industry? What you learned from it?
Office PA on “Brother’s and Sisters.” The guy who created the show, Robbie Baitz, told me one of the most valuable things that I still think about to this day. I once mentioned to him that I was considering going back to school for an MFA, or whatever one does at graduate school. He said to me: “being an assistant is your graduate school.” And he was right on. I learned more via osmosis and observation then I can imagine ever learning in a school setting. Being a writer on a staff isn’t about book learning, or writing conventions. Being a writer means learning the proper behavior in a room, knowing when to blend in and when to stand out, and knowing what is expected of you. You can only learn that practically. If I were in graduate school instead of working my way up as an assistant, I may have never learned from Greg Berlanti that you know a scene is a scene if you can write it 10 different ways (and that there should always be three things happening in the scene: action, text, and subtext). I would never have learned that you know a scene is working if the math adds up (thanks Sherri and Jennifer for teaching me what “math” consisted of). I would never have learned that the best kind of writing should play like Inside Baseball (thanks Marc Guggenheim for teaching me to twist phrases and idioms!). Robbie’s advice was invaluable.
Something you wish someone had told you about working in television?
Seeing how the sausage is made is not as much fun as eating the sausage pre-made, even though it might be a more satisfying meal.
What is your writing process like?
Depends what stage of writing I’m in. When I’m breaking story, generally the first thing I do is figure out who my characters are. Sometimes I do that even before I know what the story is, because good characters dictate good story. After I write bios for my main characters, not only do I now know how they’d react to something, but I know the things that would set them off best. I know what their greatest weakness is, and what their greatest strength is. I know what they are most afraid of. I know if they’d talk in long run on sentences or in short sassy bursts.
Then I dive into story. How can I make sure that the strengths and weaknesses I just discovered about my characters are used in the story I want to tell? How can I activate each character in a way that moves my story forward while informing the audience about that character? Generally breaking story is the hardest part for me to do solo, and the reason why being a TV writer is great: because in a writers room you can talk things out. When writing pilots, I try to find a couple of writer friends to run through story with, to question all the aspects of it and essentially brainstorm the best version. Normally I do this with friends whose writing I like, and who I trust to give me their honest opinions.
Once I’ve nailed down the beats in an outline, I start writing. For me, writing consists of a coffee shop, an iced vanilla latte with an extra shot, Bear McCreary’s Violence and Variations (from his Battlestar soundtrack), and the hours of 11 to 4:30. I know that’s when I get the best material, so instead of forcing myself to write lines outside of those hours, when my brain is at best fuzzy, I try to schedule my writing to always fit in those hours. That being said, sometimes you gotta write fuzzy.
How did you come up with the idea for “Finding Carter”? What was your creative process like?
I was working on a different project and started to do research on adoption and discovered that a lot of people, men in particular, have a tendency to be nervous that they won’t be able to love an adopted child. So I thought, what if your child comes back to you, but isn’t the child you lost? Does that feel like adoption? Is it just as scary or worse? The story sort of morphed from there. I wanted to do it from Carter’s POV, but knew that the rest of the family’s POV was just as important. How did they change after they lost Carter (née Lyndon)? Most of the Wilson family started to define themselves by their loss: David wrote a best selling book about it, Elizabeth became a cop, Taylor felt less than, and Grant felt like the replacement child. So when Carter came back into their lives, everything they defined themselves by was flipped upside down. The Wilson family as individuals needed to redefine themselves, where as Carter, the one person being told she’s not who she thought she was, needed to maintain her own sense of self to keep moving forward.
What was your favorite thing you’ve written that’s made it into an episode of “Bones?”
I’m very proud of my season 10 episodes because they were stories that I felt were important to tell both for myself and the viewers, but actually, my favorite thing I ever wrote for Bones is in episode 1101, the Loyalty in the Lie. It’s a montage of moments that Brennan is remembering when she thinks Booth is dead. To me, it was like writing a Booth and Brennan love letter to all the fan girls and boys out there, myself included.
What show made you fall in love with television? What show are you currently loving?
I can categorically say I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I was 12 or 13 when the show first aired, and I felt like it was talking directly to me. Adolescence is hell, at least it was for ill-fitting glasses, retainer wearing, frizzy-haired me. I loved the strength of Buffy’s character, but I also loved that she made mistakes. Episodes like “Earshot,” “Surprise” and “Innocence” felt so real to me, and impacted my teenage years so directly, it made me want to grow up and write something Buffy-like. Something that made a difference to young adults, that made them understand they’re not alone. Buffy made me want to say something with my work.
Shows I’m currently loving (outside of my weakness for “Dance Moms”), are “Arrow”, which I think is spectacularly written and arced out, and “Game of Thrones.” To me, the best new show of the last year has been “UnReal.” I love the post-feminist take that show has. I love love love the mistakes the characters make, and how their lives aren’t perfect and may at points even be super sucky. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and the show pulls no punches.