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ORDER UP! THE FABULOUS LAUREN IUNGERICH

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

I have to admit I’ve been quite neglectful in terms of nurturing this part of my website. The interview with Lauren inspired me to keep my eye on the ball — which is to help aspiring TV writers (and feature folks too)… get unstuck, or take that next successful step forward on their defined road to success, and/or most importantly, inspire them to keep at it. “It” being the writing, of course.

The first time I met Lauren she was one half of a writing team. I like to think I knew in those first moments of our pitch meeting that she was going to be a force of nature. She had that “it” factor that people talk about when it pertains to actors. Writers have it too. It’s an indescribable feature that all creative beings have as a part of their packed arsenal — beyond the written word. She was articulate, funny, and always seemed to have ideas that spoke to the present zeitgeist.

When we met again a few years later, she was sans writing partner… flying solo… She brought me an idea I thought was genius, but the studio didn’t see the vision. I knew then that she was going to soar… maybe not with me in the passenger seat as a producer, but with me on the sidelines, cheering her on. And that’s just what happened. Not much later, she put MTV on the non-reality map with her hit series AWKWARD. She created, wrote, and executive produced the pilot and went on to direct multiple episodes (eleven in the first three seasons, to be exact). More than just a great idea with a “hook” that every network craves, it was her delicious dialogue that caught on like wild-fire. Her style is reminiscent of the quirky creator of WB’s Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino. Like a brilliant ode to teens everywhere, she spoke intimately to a new generation of high schoolers. And the show exploded.

AWKWARD was nominated and won a People’s Choice Award in 2013 (nominated in 2014 and 2015 as well). It was also nominated for a Teen Choice Award for break out star for male and female — Beau Mirchoff won for male break out star.

Critics praised the show’s realism and writing and showed up on critic’s top ten lists. The New York Times called it, “The best comedy of 2011.” The show was also praised by The Huffington Post, New York Post, and Entertainment Weekly.

You know you've arrived when your show is parodied.

You know you’ve arrived when your show is parodied.

After Season three, Lauren felt it was time to cut ties and move on and away from her first creation. And moving on she did… she was immediately swept off her feet.

First at NBC…

You had me at the first letter.

You had me at the first letter.

Then at ABC…

Really? A Unicorn? Dreams really do come true.

Really? A Unicorn? Huh. Dreams really do come true.

This next part is important to note — let it really sink in: This never happens. I don’t know many writers (and I know quite a few) that were woo’d like this — Let alone left their pitches with gifts in hand! The pursuing usually comes in the form of deals that have penalties attached if the network doesn’t make the pilot script. Rarely does it come in the form of cupcakes and unicorns. Definitely not unicorns.

So, without further ado, here’s my interview with the lovely Lauren Iungerich:

1. Do you miss having a writing partner? What was the best and worst part about it?

Hmmm. I don’t miss having a writing partner. I just sometimes miss my writing partner’s presence. Does that make sense? It was an amazing situation for me to have a partner — especially someone as talented and smart as Brad (Follmer) — during a time that I was endeavoring to really own being a writer and to pursue being a working writer. Brad and I worked together for nine years starting in our early twenties and it was amazing to break story and brainstorm together. In the beginning of our partnership we each were the other’s driving force and support system. And we had someone to be accountable to, which is a great thing to have when you’re starting out. It’s hard to impose deadlines on your own (something I struggle with now that I’m solo) and we also had a period of time where we were working on stories that we both contributed to. That said, one of the hardest parts of being in a team is running an idea by someone. You can’t just chase it. Now that I’m on my own, I’m my own committee.

We had a very organic split. We were both really finding our individual voices and coming to realize that the projects we were individually interested in were not the same. I wanted to write very female driven personal stories and he was interested in bigger ideas. Since those ideas were no longer the same, we decided to chase what inspired us. In other words, we stopped working together as a team before either of us could resent each other or one of us had to veto an idea that the other was passionate about.

And so, the break-up was as organic as our union was in its inception. Brad taught me a lot and enabled me to be the writer I am today. He remains one of the dearest people to me in my life even though we don’t talk five times a day like we used to.

2. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I draw inspiration from things I experienced. From stories, movies, and shows that resonate with me. Music. I tend to be inspired by sense memory. Exploring feelings that I’ve had. Writing in many senses is like living a second life. I work out my own personal demons as well as re-live times of my life (like first love) that were exciting times.

3. If there were one thing you could tell your “just starting out” writer-self… what would it be?

Outline. The idea that you can find a story “in the writing” is a lie all writers tell themselves because we’re all too impatient. You can find a scene in the writing but unless you know what you’re writing to and about — you will find you stop writing because you don’t know where you’re going.

4. How do you tune out all the opinions when working on a project? Is it hard to stay true to your gut instincts?

The voices definitely get to me. But I think my own inner critic is the loudest. Every time I sit down to write it’s as hard as the last time I sat down. I always feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and that I’m a fraud. That the last good thing I wrote, is in fact, the last good thing I will ever write. But I play this trick with my head and I do this thing where I “turn my brain off” and by that I mean I turn off my inner critic and I just get started writing whatever is talking to me. And then something clicks and I stop over-thinking and I start creating and it’s fun. It’s always challenging to get that process going. But that’s why outlining is key. It’s the tool to give you the time to think and tune out voices and just find a story without committing to the “writing” just yet. Ironically, my outlines are basically first drafts in word documents. But for whatever reason, they enable me to channel the work easier and enable me to not worry about what everyone is thinking. Truth is, I learned years ago that writing what I thought people wanted was a fool’s errand. In doing so, no one wins because there’s no pulse to the material. It wasn’t created from passion and thus usually inspires an uninspired read. I listen to my gut these days. I have to be the first fan of my ideas because without my own passion the work won’t have a heartbeat.

5. Do you feel it’s an exciting time in television? How has it changed from when you first started?

It’s both an exciting time and time fraught with fear. The way in which people are watching TV is changing and evolving from when I started (when it was all about traditional ratings). Now there are new systems to access the success of a show — like DVR recordings and downloads. And new platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. There are a lot of new opportunities for creators and with that change and evolution, the executive/corporate ranks are nervous about the competition. Thus, I feel the studios/networks seem to be more involved. There are far too many cooks in the kitchen when making a pilot/series today. Everyone wants to make something great, but if you’re always taking into consideration all the voices and opinions of all the executives involved, you can take something original and make it look and feel generic. What was once something to someone becomes nothing to no one.

I’m also overwhelmed by the proliferation of content based on pre-existing properties. It seems to be today’s answer to ensuring you have an audience. There was a lot of innovative TV in our past. It’s not like anyone has reinvented the form. Good stories are good stories and there have always been groundbreaking shows like, Breaking Bad that seemingly come out of nowhere and surprise the masses. That said, those shows are not driven from a formula. And in years past there were fewer layers to the process. In my experience, the break out shows are ones that fly under the radar and are flukes. And the reason they rise to the top is because they were led by a pure vision. Someone wasn’t paying enough attention to them to screw them up. When I set out to make AWKWARD, no one anticipated it to become the hit it became and the awesome execs that I worked with at the time had a shared philosophy to support the creatives. There was very little group thought. In retrospect, I now know what a fluke it was that I was given the free rein I had to make the show I wanted to make.

6. What was the biggest lesson you learned on running AWKWARD?

The biggest lesson was the hardest lesson. I learned that my heart and head and opinion didn’t matter once my show became a success. Once a show is successful, it no longer belongs to the creator. It becomes a business. It becomes something in and of itself. Success is a wonderful thing and also can be a double-edge sword.

7. What’s one nugget you can pass along to an aspiring TV writer that might be reading this? One tangible thing that will provide a step forward in their process.

Trust your inner fan. Write something that you would love to watch vs. what you think other people want to see.

8. What has been your biggest misstep?

Not asserting my power. Being led by fear.

9. What’s been your best chess move?

Leaving AWKWARD. Being led by fearlessness.

10. Do you find it difficult to pick and choose your network and studio battles?

Sometimes.

11. It makes my heart soar to see you and other women piercing through the mostly male-dominated field. Playing the dual role of female writer/director, what’s some advice you can give specifically to the women?

Be a woman. Don’t hide your tears. Don’t hide your heart. Don’t give a fuck if people think you’re crazy because your estrogen gets the best of you at times. Being a woman is the best asset you have. Never try to be a man in business. Leave that shit to the men.

Okay, last part of the interview — I want to end on a fun note. Word association. Give me the first thing that comes to mind — FIRST THING — when I say the following:

Showrunner: TIRED

Self-contained: BOX

Theme: STATEMENT

Pitch: EXHAUSTING

And finally,

Writer: SELF-LOATHING

And there we have it. TV gospel according to Lauren.

Order served.

WHEN IT COMES TO MEETINGS, IT’S ALL ABOUT COMMON SENSE. MOSTLY.

The Scenario:

You’ve just snagged those coveted meetings all over town with network/studio executives and/or producers/showrunners. Whether it’s a meet and greet, pitching an idea, or you’re meeting for a staffing gig, it’s never stress-free. As writers, it’s hard to be objective about who we are… so I looked to my former colleagues who had some tips to lessen the odds of rejection, fear, and overall anxiety about the process.

And we definitely don’t want that… do “we”?

hmm

Let these be helpful tools on how to put your best foot forward. I might sound snarky/sarcastic at times, but it’s all in fun. Really.

LEAVE THE “I DON’T WANT TO BE HERE” WRITER HAT AT HOME.

Some of you are thinking, “What? Who doesn’t want a job?” and you’d be correct. But some writers feel (and they might be justified at times) that the job is beneath them. But ya know what? I’m not going to get the violin out and sympathize. What’s that you’re thinking? You’re an Ivy league grad whose a phenom writer and has just been asked to join a show on a channel that no one’s heard of? Oh, are you insulted? Too bad. Or is it your agent who wants you to do them a solid and meet because they have ulterior motives? Suck it up. Don’t bring that attitude in the room. Hopefully you’ll be smart enough to show respect and constraint. Trust me, they’ll smell your attitude just as you take those first struts through the door. The community is tight. You won’t want to get a reputation for being difficult before you’ve even started. Do you?

BEING UNPREPARED.

UH OH. Did you not do your homework? Did you forget to watch the shows of the network/studio/production pod you’re meeting with? Did you have a meeting with a showrunner and not do a google/IMDB/Wiki/Deadline-Nikki Finke or any other source search — or talk to people about who they are? Did you fall asleep or forget to watch or read their pilot/show? Did you not think of ways to give props to them as well as stories you’ve been thinking about that might fit their show? Did you not ask your manager or agent nicely to get you back story on them?

Oops. That (most likely) just cost you the job. Sorry.

WARDROBE DISORDER.

An aspiring TV writer recently asked me what she should wear to her meet and greet.

It’s all about wearing what represents you best. Put on something that reflects your personality, makes you feel confident and bold. This is entertainment. You don’t have to wear a suit…

Speaking of suits, when I landed my first job at ABC a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far way, I was thrilled to have to buy a “wardrobe.” I’d been waitressing and doing theater for so long, I didn’t know what the proper attire was in the real world. So, I went with buying my very first suit. It was white. The “NEVER WEAR WHITE AFTER LABOR DAY” white. Sure, that rule doesn’t really exist these days, but back then, it was a solid commandment in fashion. Snowy color blazer and slacks. Call me a rebel. I wanted to stand out, have a presence, be noticed. Honestly, I didn’t feel that it was “me,” but at the time it was my definition of what it meant to be a grown-up.

My first day, I walked into my boss’ office and he took one look at me and asked, “Why are you so over-dressed?” I giggled, tried to be funny, but at the end of the day, lesson learned. I knew I was in an environment hovering in a place that lived somewhere in between conservative & liberal. Don’t worry, I got much use out of that suit… I broke it up and wore the blazer with jeans and the slacks with a casual (yet attractive) shirt that reflected me. Much better. Bottom line? Know your industry and then wrap your personality and comfort level around it so that it allows you to feel in control and good about yourself.

More than wardrobe, I was told too much cologne or perfume can be very off-putting. A little goes a looooong way. Food for thought.

TOO GOOD FOR TV?

I don’t think this exists in this environment anymore now with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones… I could go on with an endless list of fantastic TV. In my opinion, there’s far better TV than there are movies these days, but we do know that elitists still exist. If you’re one of those feature snobs, then either leave the ‘tude at home and put on your wonderful actor hat or don’t involve yourself with the medium. Don’t come in saying, “I don’t love or watch TV” when you’re going in to pitch a TV project! Within this rule of thumb, exists another, which is, either you’re in or you’re out. There’s a perception that exists (or used to) amongst some feature people that they can swoop in, create something, and swoop out. This is partly the agent or managers fault for not explaining the entire process that is TV. Executives get sucked into the “aura” encircling (fill in feature person of the month here). The person comes in and woos the room, and then tries to nab a swanky created by credit along with a directing and/or writing deal pertaining to just the pilot and then in their best Arnold voice say, “Hasta la vista, baby.” But the reason the executives were “woo’d” in the first place is because they thought they had the feature person for the life of the series. For the long haul. Networks need to see consistency in their shows. One vision. You don’t get to swoop in and out like Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year.”

DO YOU KNOW TRUE CONSTRAINT?

One of my favorite urban legends is about a comedy writer who went to network and pitched his idea to a comedy executive. Mid way through the pitch, he stopped. The executive said, “Why did you stop?” and the writer said, “I just wanted to make sure I was doing okay.” The executive replied, “Yes, you’re doing great!” and the writer could NOT constrain himself and came back with, “You might want to tell that to your face.”

Oh, how I loooove that story. It makes me laugh. On the one hand, good for the writer for calling out the executive on being so serious. If you didn’t know this, comedy executives have a reputation for being unhumorous in a room. Ironic right? You’re pitching comedy and the executives come back at you with stone cold facades. I don’t know, maybe I would be too if I was hearing 100 pitches a week that were “supposed” to be funny. It’s probably better to be like Harry Connick on AMERICAN IDOL and have the rule of not standing and clapping for anyone. Either everyone gets that treatment or no one does.

My opinion? I’d play by the rule of “better safe than sorry.” Who knows, maybe the executive in above urban legend had a stoic look on their face, but had every intention of buying it. Unfortunately, the writer will never know. He/She just humiliated the crap out of that executive and they’re pissed. He/She most likely ended the meeting and immediately scratched the writer right off their list of people they want to work with down the road. Well, never say never, but who wants to take that chance?! The lesson here is don’t confuse a poker face with a lack of enjoyment.

DO YOU KNOW WHO YOUR AUDIENCE IS?

Well then, I’m assuming you’re not going to that production company, studio, network et al and pitching them an idea that said company already has done or is JUST LIKE THE SHOWS THEY HAVE ON THE AIR. No, I’m not yelling at you, but the executive that gave me this one… was. Seller beware!

ARE YOU WISH-Y OR WASH-Y?

Do you walk into a room and have several ways your pitch could go? “It could be this…” or “It could be that…” Are your characters or setting interchangeable? You need to have a vision and stick with it. Don’t worry, it will evolve (or yes sometimes devolve). It’s called development for a reason. Everyone is going to have ideas. Have a strong vision and then pick and choose what’s important to you. Speaking of picking and choosing. That applies to battles of opinions that you’ll have along the way.

And lastly, the one I’m told is truly the worst thing you could do…

BAD MOUTHING AND/OR GOSSIPING.

Bad mouthing a former employer is a red, hot flag. Every writer will run into a show with a writer’s room or showrunner that’s wearing a bit of crazy. Things go down. When faced with the uncomfortable question of what your last experience was like or how was working with (insert name here), your first instinct will be to be honest. Truthful. Stop. How you handle the situation is very tricky. How you choose to handle the situation is totally up to you, but from experience and talking to both sides of the table (both execs and writers) it seems everyone agrees that you want to be careful. I do wish we could live in a world where honesty rules. Where people had tough enough skin and an open enough mind to listen to all sides and then decide what’s right for them. Bottom line? Trust is perceptional (not a word, but go with it).

Okay, those are my full two cents for today, writers! Honestly and without any sarcasm, common sense, logic, and instinct go a long way. Of course, there’s always that X factor in play, but this is about being pro-active with what you’re in control of, which is… YOU!

Were there questions or areas I didn’t cover that you’re still curious about? Contact me @ rebecca@rebecca-stay.com

Was this helpful? I hope so. I’d love for you to let me know via twitter: @stayrebecca

Until next time…

R.

The Script From the Actor’s POV: A Conversation with Kirk Baltz

Kirk Baltz

I convinced actor, teacher, human being extraordinaire, Kirk Baltz, to do a Q&A with me. He’s my first “musings” and I find that fitting. He’s thoughtful and insightful. All of the “fuls.” He’s also in one of my favorite films, “Reservoir Dogs”.

I gave Kirk five or so questions to ponder and he came back with lovely food for thought.

ME:

As an acting coach and teacher, I imagine you’re constantly talking about a character’s

desires, motives, and obstacles… trying to get at the core and heart of a character. What do

you, as an actor, look for in a piece of material?

KIRK:

For me, it always comes down to “need” based work. What does the character “need” that

is missing from his life. What is their super objective, meaning “what is it they’re looking

to attain?” What lengths will he go to get it? What’s at stake? When I first started out as an

actor, I would play it safe and stick with questions of “How is this character similar to me?

How do I relate to him?” I quickly began to see how limiting this was in the work. It made

me complacent. As I gained more confidence as an actor I began to ask myself, “How is this

character different from me and how can I shift my own perspective of the world in order to

operate within the character that the writer has created?

ME:

What defines a well-written character to you?

KIRK:

Truth. A person engaged in a life struggle where the stakes are high. The story is there or

it’s not. When it’s there the subtleties move things forward. I had a session with an actress

earlier this week. Her character is in a spaceship because her character doesn’t want to be on

Earth. (If only life was that simple at times) She’s divorced. This isn’t made a big deal of in

the script but it’s just enough information for the actor to make some clear internal choices to

help tell this aspect of the writer’s story.

ME:

As a consultant and former executive, I find the hardest note to give a writer pertains to

dialogue. In some ways, it’s something I believe must come naturally. What kind of dialogue

do you find compelling?

KIRK:

Yes, there’s being natural, but then there’s being real. There’s nothing worse than reading

material where the writer clearly didn’t do their homework. If they don’t know enough about

the subject, then that lack of knowledge seeps into the characters who then come across as

lackluster. It becomes crystal clear that the characters the writer has created, don’t know

what they’re talking about. If the writer telling the story knows what they’re talking about at

a core level, the dialogue will feel organic and live in the bones of the characters. The writer

must also use more than just words to convey an idea, thought, or belief. The characters

strength can also come from a gesture or look.

ME:

If you could share one piece of advice with a writer about the art of crafting a voice, what

would it be?

KIRK:

Write what you know. Autobiographical work can fuel your imagination. We must first know

fully who we are and be able to tell that story before we can tell another’s story. I’m getting

ready to speak as a panelist for an upcoming symposium. There are 4-5 others on the panel

with me. Everyone’s bios go on and on about all of their/our training and all the work we’ve

done. But the one bio that stood out the most (to me) was the participant who is currently

writing a memoir based on her life growing up in logging camps in the British Columbia

rain forests. I’ve never heard that story and that intrigues me. In other words, it’s all about

storytelling.

ME:

Do you have strong opinions about how a writer uses stage direction in the action lines?

KIRK:

I was initially trained in Meisner based work. Sanford Meisner encouraged actors to cross out

all direction and descriptive writing so we would focus on the text; he wanted us to look at

how we could make the dialogue our own. The amazing part of this exercise is that if we’re

specific and grounded in the story and the circumstances given, all the actions we crossed

out arise organically on their own.

ME:

What are your thoughts on the use of parenthetical for guiding an actor’s emotions?

KIRK:

Bullshit. They get in the actor’s way. This happens when we look to play a result rather

than experience the journey. Actions that are needed, yes. But when it comes to emotional

description it can all become too pushed and contrived.

ME:

From an actor’s perspective, does an over-abundance of information and exposition effect

how you look at material?

KIRK:

Yeah, it bores me. The trick is to keep the expository writing stimulating and engaging. A

smart writer trusts that his audience has a brain and can sort out the information. It’s always

more compelling when a story is defined and told by what the characters are doing than what

they’re saying. Like our lady above lost in space. We all identify in one way or another with

looking to be found. Less is always more as long as there is clarity and commonality.

Clarity and commonality, indeed.

Thanks Kirk!

For more info on Kirk, visit his website, http://www.actorsintensive.com/