Aaron Fullerton – Writer: Chasing Life / Graceland/ No Tomorrow/ Good Behavior
When did you realize you wanted to work in television?
Television was always a huge presence in my life, from Sesame Street as a baby, to staying up late for In Living Color, to figuring out how to arrange my homework around airings of Alias and 24. But for some stupid reason, I was convinced I wanted to write movies. When I applied to the USC Screenwriting program, it focused much more on film and most of my classes spoke to cinematic history and structure. But my junior year, I noticed that TV was starting to get really interesting (Lost and Desperate Housewives had just debuted, Sopranos was just ending) and I took a class called “Writing the One-Hour Spec.” I wrote a Veronica Mars and loved the process. I ended up taking every TV class USC offered (except for the half-hour pilot) and realized that television was so much more interesting to me than film. I loved being able to push stories forward while building worlds out. You have so much more space to layer your characters and surprise your audience and, in terms of building understanding and empathy, I think television does than better than almost any other medium.
What advice do you have for college students who are looking to pursue the television industry?
The first would be: READ A LOT OF SCRIPTS. If you want to become a TV writer or producer or an executive, you need to be familiar with how good material is crafted and how poor material is improved. I would say, pick your five favorite shows and get one-two scripts from those shows and start reading. And not just the pilots — you can learn a lot, too, from late-season episodes. The second piece of advice: WORK AT AN AGENCY. This only applies to people who have the wherewithal to handle the high-intensity environment that an agency can be. To be blunt: it’s not for everyone. But if you think you can manage the stress of a TV lit desk at an agency, it’s like going to grad school. You learn every in and out of the business while reading scripts from writers at every level. The third piece of advice: WRITE. GET NOTES. WRITE MORE. A pet peeve of mine is when someone considers themselves “done” because they’ve finished a draft of a script. My mentor’s favorite question was, “What else you got?” So, whenever I went to him with a script, I always had another script ready to hand him after that. And when he gave me notes, I took them. And they made my writing better. It’s fine to seek validation from readers of your work sometimes, but you should also be ready to rewrite your script if someone gives you good notes that indicate a lot of work. Last piece of advice: LISTEN TO SCRIPT NOTES. John August and Craig Mazin’s podcast is an invaluable tool for aspiring writers. And for professional writers! I still listen to it every week because their thoughts on structure, character, and scene writing keep my toolkit sharp. And it’s free!
What was your first job in the industry? What did you learn from it?
My very first job in the industry was as a production office PA on a CBS pilot called Secret Public Journal based on Mike Birbiglia’s stand-up. (It did not go to series, but you should check out every other single thing Mike Birbiglia has ever done because he’s a national treasure.) If I wrote down what I learned from it, we’d be here all day. But here’s what that means: I learned that the best attitude to have is one of curiosity and humility. I quickly understood just how little I knew and, after a couple days, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions anymore. Why are we printing these script pages on yellow paper? Why does everyone have different call times? What’s a gaffer? Why are you screaming at me? You know, helpful questions to ask that taught me more about the process.
Something you wish someone had told you about the industry?
Hollywood seems so healthy but if you go to any set, there’s junk food all over the place. Seriously, you’re never more than ten feet from a donut. More importantly, though, I wish someone had told me how slowly some things move (the development process, getting notes) and how quickly other things move (production, staffing). I still get off-guard by the fact that I can go in and pitch something and it won’t be until two months later that they decide to hire me. And then other times, I’ll meet on Tuesday afternoon and be expected to start on Wednesday morning.
What is your writing process like?
The question I’m always asking myself is: what detail do I add to this story to create the most interesting conflict? If I start with setting, then I wonder what characters would have the most dramatic conflict in that setting. And which two or three characters would be most in conflict with each other? And so on and so forth. Asking those questions leads me down a path that usually signals to me: here’s what your story is supposed to be and here are the most surprising directions for it to go. I’m also a very visual writer. I like to *see* my stories in front of me, so I tend to write all my scenes on color-coded post-its and arrange them on a wall or surface. That helps me understand the structure of what I’m writing.
What is your favorite thing that you’ve ever written? (From Chasing Life, Graceland, or No Tomorrow)
I wrote a pilot for a studio a couple years ago and I’m really proud of how it turned out. It’s based on a true story about American interventions in Cuba and it dealt with a lot of themes and topics I was excited to explore. It’s probably the most “me” thing I’ve ever written. That being said, few things will be as special as getting to write the wedding episode of Chasing Life. As a cancer survivor myself, I was always able to deeply relate to the characters on the show. April and Leo, especially, meant a lot to me and I was always so moved by the way the audience invested in their relationship. Plus, when I wrote the episode, I had gotten married only six months prior, so I had a lot of recent experience from which to pull.
What shows made you fall in love with television? What shows are you currently loving?
I would burst into the house after school and turn on Where In The World is Carmen San Diego? I still love that show and I hope I get a chance to resurrect it someday. Alias and Lost made me fall in love with serialized storytelling and The Wire made me fall in love with the ability of television, with the amazing scope and power it could have. And Mad Men made me fall in love with the idea that maybe the Great American Novel can be a TV show instead. Shows that I currently love include… hold on, let me take a deep breath… OK, here we go: The Americans, The Leftovers, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Atlanta, American Crime, Legion, Game of Thrones, The Crown, Search Party, Big Little Lies, Orange is the New Black, Transparent, The Good Fight, Fleabag, The O.A., Chef’s Table, Halt and Catch Fire, and, of course, Survivor.