The not-for-profit Power Up organization pulled together some pretty stellar female show runners and hosted a weekend on breaking into television writing at the WGA for 42 lucky attendees. The panelists included Lost's Executive Producer and out lesbian Elizabeth Sarnoff, Everybody Loves Raymond co-exec producer Ellen Sandler, SNL and Seinfeld writer and recent out-lesbian Carol Leifer, 10 Things I Hate about You scribe Lauren Iungerich (she was so fucking hysterical I immediately wanted a bobblehead of her for my dashboard with some of her killer one-liners programmed for easy access!), Claudia Lonow from The Cashmere Mafia and Accidently on Purpose, and another television lesbian icon Jan Oxenberg from Cold Case, Chicago Hope and Once and Again.
The women sat in a very casual environment where attendees could interact with them and they sang like canaries about all things writing for television. Talk about drama! Each woman was more hysterical than the last, and they not only told vivid stories of the writers rooms and network writing, but of breaking in and their personal lives (divorce! lesbian affairs! cancer! cancellation!).
Some of the highlights included the obvious question to Sarnoff, "Can you tell us what's going to happen on Lost this season?" to which she responded, "If someone would tell us!". She went on to tell us that it's next to impossible to remember what goes on with the show from season to season because so many ideas are pitched in the writers room that it's hard to remember which ones actually made the show. "We've even shot flashbacks that haven't been put in! So between that and the endless ideas tossed out, we have to constantly be reminded of what's happened. Fortunately, we have a gay man that keeps track of all this," she said referring to their Script Coordinator who - due to the large scope of his job - has recently been promoted to producer.
Sarnoff noted the one job she has on Lost which she never had before was writing fake sides. "Like I don't have better things to do, I'm up writing scenes with characters in fake situations that we can use for casting." She said this show has so many leaked stories, it's hard to stay on top. One way fans find out what's going to happen is from the sides - or script pages - that are sent out to audition guest characters. So these are fictionalized to hide upcoming plot points.
The job Sarnoff misses most is working on production for Deadwood. As a story editor on that show, she got to be involved on a daily basis in production. "Show creator David Milch doesn't even like to give the actors the scripts in advance, so everything was very raw on set," she said, "And sometimes we'd just write scenes for actors we liked at the last minute. There was one extra that Milch did this for so many times, he became a regular."
Traditionally, writing for television has been a man's world. Out of 8-12 writers on every show, generally, there are only one or two women. Even today, almost all of these women are the only female in a writers room. "We had one other on Lost," says Sarnoff, "But she rolled out pretty quick."
The writers room is where all the juicy stuff happens on tv shows. Depending on how the show runner likes to do things, all the writers are put in a room for 8 hours a day breaking down the season, the episodes then punching up each individual script. Carol Leifer talked about Larry David as a Show Runner, "He didn't want to hire anyone on Seinfeld that had ever written for a sit com." Leifer had been a popular comic with stand up shows on Showtime and the like when Seinfeld not only recruited Leifer to the show, but also based the character of Elaine on her. During her days working the comedy clubs, Leifer had dated Seinfeld as well as Paul Reiser, before meeting the girl of her dreams at a Project Angel Food fundraiser 13 years ago. She's now been with her partner ever since, with kids and 7 dogs. Leifer also just penned a collection of funny essays, "When You Lie About Your Age, The Terrorists Win."
"When I worked on Seinfeld, Larry always wanted to know about the most mundane things that happened in our lives and most of the time, those ended up in the show, " Leifer commented.
Due to the nature of their jobs, all the women were hugely entertaining and very funny, and the attendees got to interact with the women freely during the talks, and again afterwards over coffee and danish.
All of them also had very interesting breaking-into-the biz stories. Ellen Sandler had written a one act play that went up during a festival in Los Angeles and since it starred a then-relatively-unknown actress Rhea Perlman, her husband Danny DeVito and everyone from the hit show Taxi attended. Show creator James Brooks went up to Sandler immediately and from that alone, asked her to pen two episodes of Taxi.
Sarnoff had a similar path when a 2-person character play she penned got in the hands of David Milch who was on NYPD Blue. Oxenberg came from the world of independent film making and got her first break on a show called Relativity after making a few (lesbian) shorts followed by a feature that garnered critical acclaim at Sundance. Claudia Lonow hit big after washing-up as an actress. Whilst waiting tables at the improv, Lonow sold a series loosely based on her life to Showtime called, Rude Awakenings. It was about a trash-talking, alcoholic, sex addict and her experiences in AA.
All the women were both honest and hysterical and the entire weekend was very inspirational. Considering how hard it is to break into the business, much less be working in a man's world, these women were all incredibly charming and extremely encouraging.
For more information on Power Up and their upcoming educational panels (they have one on producing too!), check out www.powerupfilms.org.
Here's some photos from the weekend:
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