Curtis Gwinn- Writer/Producer: Narcos, Filthy Preppy Teen$, The Walking Dead, The Leftovers, Adult Swim.
When did you realize you wanted to work in television?
In truth, I wasn’t always sure about TV. I loved it, but when i was a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, books and movies were where it was at. Like a lot of genre nerds my age, I was obsessed with Tolkien, Stephen King, John Carpenter, Spielberg, Lucas, Wes Craven, Clive Barker, etc.. etc… I wanted to BE those guys. My original goal as a kid was to be some sort of uber-hybrid novelist/film-director (which Barker kind of was for a hot minute there).
But life laughs at big plans. I ended up getting into music and pursuing rock and roll stardom (yes, really). When that didn’t pan out, i moved to NYC and got into comedy at the UCB theater. I spent over a decade writing/performing/teaching there and parlayed that into my very first TV gigs.
Now, TV/streaming is so sophisticated and novelistic, i couldn’t imagine a more fulfilling and exciting medium.
Regardless of the format, I always knew I wanted to write some-thing. When I was 3 or so, i told my mother that i had a typewriter in her belly while she was pregnant and that i was writing stories in there. Weird kid. But clearly prescient!
What advice do you have for college students who are looking to pursue the television industry?
What did they say in Glengarry Glen Ross? “ABC?” Always Be Closing? Well, I’d swap out out closing with creating. Don’t wait for anyone to approve you, pick you, anoint you or celebrate you. Nine times out of ten it won’t happen. Every break I’ve ever had came from me writing something. Shooting something. Interning somewhere. Collaborating with people whose work I liked. Never, not once, did I get something for nothing.
This business can instill a lot of insecurity in you. Make you question your worth as an artist. It can become a terrible echo-chamber of self doubt. That’s paralyzing! But if you’re creating, staying in action and motion like a shark, you can keep those goblin-thoughts at bay. There will be no time for neurosis!
Like Kirshna says to Arjuna in the Mahabharata, “Act as you must act. I myself am never without action.” And that’s coming from a omnipotent deity. Don’t argue with it.
What is something you wish someone told you about the industry?
I think I was told all the cliches, and 99% of them were true. But damn it, I didn’t listen to any of them and I fucked up anyway. And so will you! But that’s OK. One thing I didn’t realize was how many opportunities I’d get and how many creative lives I’d lead during one career. I guess I wish at certain down-beat crossroads, God had stepped out of heaven and said, “Don’t worry. Even if you screw this up, you’ll be all right. There’s always tomorrow. It’s not as life and death as you think.”
But then, of course, there would have been no stakes. And where’s the fun in that?
What was your first job in the industry? What did you learn from it?
Oddly enough it was as a contributing writer (with my then comedy partner John Gemberling, now of Broad City fame) on Comedy Central’s The Man Show. It was a bizarre marriage. John and I were doing very subversive, weird, meta-sketch in NYC and all of a sudden we were asked to start writing really mainstream, jokey, “guy” sketches. We were pretty ill suited for it really.
I’ll always be thankful for the gig though. A fella named Tom Gianis took a chance on two weird, lunatics and got us our first paychecks. I remember standing in my rat trap, shit-hole New York apartment and getting a call that we’d been asked to write material. I was euphoric. It was my first “silent fist-pump of excitement while talking calmly on the phone with a professional” moment of victory. You never get another first.
Of course, in typical Gwinn fashion, my ego ran away with itself and I thought, “this is it! It’s all the big time from here on out!” I think I even told the manager at the restaurant I worked at that I was done being a professional waiter because I was a professional writer now.
The gig lasted two and a half weeks and I was paid two thousand dollars (which i had to split with john!). I was back waiting tables before the month was out.
What is your writing/ producing process like?
My process is awful. I wish I was like some of the big time writer/producers I know who can be so disciplined, keeping office hours and diligently writing every single day no matter what. That’s not me. I write at odd hours. Mostly at night. Mostly under total pressure. Fear of failure and missing deadlines drives me like a sadistic jockey.
I’d like it to be different, but at some point you just have to make peace with it. I don’t think there’s any one specific way to get at the work. You just have to find your own, weird way. Do you need to be wearing fishnet stockings and a Phish T-shirt to get the best work out of yourself? Do it. You gotta run through the house naked screaming bloody murder to crank out a solid first draft, then by all means, do.
The only caveat to all of that is, if you’re working in a writer’s room with a team? You might have to hide the Phish t-shirt, because you will be mocked.
What’s your favorite thing that you’ve written that has made it into an episode (from either The Leftovers, The Walking Dead, etc)?
Ah, that’s a tricky question. I don’t want to take glory away from anyone else by claiming awesome moments from any shows. I’m proud that on every show I’ve worked on, I’ve made major contributions not only to my own episodes, but to the series as a whole. I had impact, and I’m proud of it.
If you want, you can ask my old bosses Lindelof, Gimple, Kirkman, Eric Newman, Kurt Sutter, Paul Scheer, etc… etc…
What projects have you been working on lately?
I just came off a consulting producer gig for Netflix’s original series, Narcos. Great, great fun. Got to go to Colombia, write a script and help shape the episodes for season 2.
Right now, I’m working on my own original project with FX as well as developing another series with a studio. Can’t get into the details on those quite yet, but they’re both very exciting for me. My first original one hour drama projects.
What show made you fall in love with television? what shows are you currently loving?
I mean, the honest answer is something goofy from when i was a kid, like the original Voltron or Inspector Gadget. The Animaniacs, too! But as an adult, it was The Sopranos. Nothing before or since has blown me away so completely. Though, “Deadwood” is right up there with it! Honorable mentions to, Louis, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Six feet Under.
These days? Well, I like this little underground indie series, Game of Thrones. Not many people know that one, tho. Oh, and the original French version of, The Returned. Oh, and Fargo! Oh and Narcos! And The Leftovers! And The Americans! And Mr. Robot! And Stranger Things! And And And And And….
It’s a great time to love TV.