Wednesday, May 19, 2010

INTERVIEW: Ellen Sandler - Emmy-nominated, Co-Executive Producer CBS hit series Everybody Loves Raymond & author of The TV Writer’s Workbook

Welcome to “Up Close and Personal.” For every interview I will be introducing a literary personality discussing their views and insights, as well as upcoming literary events around the world.

Today’s interview is with Ellen Sandler. Ms. Sandler’s long and successful career took off in the early 80’s. She is best known for her work in television as Co-Executive Producer and writer on the Emmy-winning hit series Everybody Loves Raymond. In fact she has written for over 25 prime-time network television series, including Taxi, Coach and Kate & Allie. Her writing talent has been showcased by stars like three-time Golden Globe nominated Susan Saint James, and two-time Emmy award-winner, Jane Curtin, the iconic cast member of Saturday Night Live (SNL).

Ms. Sandler’s mastery of the medium can be measured by her success, but not only on screen. Yes, she has managed to stay on top of a ratings driven business that is defined by “the church of what’s happening now” for thirty years proving that her talent is not skin deep. But while meeting the demands of an “A-List” script writer and consultant, she still makes it a point to give back to her industry. She conducts television writing workshops in LA and NYC, and manages to find the time to speak at schools and universities throughout the country.

In the United States Ellen Sandler has created original pilots for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the Disney Channel. Her international client list for consulting projects includes ABC Australia, CBC Canada, Media Marketing in Dubai, and Singapore Media Corporation. She has also supervised production in Germany and Japan.

Her book, “The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts” is the culmination of a global career spanning three decades. It distills an insider’s view giving clarity to the proven methods. Ellen Sandler’s extraordinary experience provides the nuance that resonates with experienced writers. But her book is a must read for the aspiring novice in search of the building blocks critical to achieving long-term success in the industry.

Her guide offers an authoritative overview of both TV and film writing. It also drills down in several chapters to explore essential core elements. It provides sage advice to new talent, who are working to get traction in the business.

Lessons in the workbook include the art and science of dialogue. Ms Sandler explains the goal of almost every TV script writer, which is to hide exposition through the use of humor. She also discusses ways to punch up dialogue to make it shorter, crisper, and more effective.

Her book provides exercises to strengthen the skills of even the seasoned writer. In much the same way a talented singer practices the scales, a writer can apply techniques to sharpen his pen. Ms. Sandler breaks down TV scripts and gives instruction on how to plot the story so that it will earn notice, while making sure that it is in tune with the ethos of the show. For example, she asks the writer to consider what and who he needs in each scene. She makes the case for continuity reminding the writer that the show is about one central character, and that everything has to flow from that single viewpoint. Ellen Sandler has a gift for rendering artful concept into clear thought.

Ellen Sandler's former students have gone on to write for some of TV’s most popular shows including Sex in the City, Men in Trees, Malcolm in the Middle, Everybody Hates Chris, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Scrubs, CSI: Miami and 24. She is also credited with teaching the cinematographer, who worked as assistant to Titanic & Avatar Director, James Cameron.

E.I. Would you share some early self-reflection to give us a sense of who you were as a teenager? What were you like?

Ellen Sandler: I grew up Jewish in Sioux City, Iowa and I was definitely an outsider there, at least I felt like one. We had to drive 100 miles to Omaha (the “big town”) just to get bagels. I felt very different from everybody, including my own family. I was often described by friends as “rambunctious,” but I preferred thinking of myself as rebellious. Looking back I think I was adventurous, but not really rebellious. I think my parents thought I was rebellious because they found me difficult—I wasn’t enough like them. They were sensible and middle of the road; I wanted to go to New York and have a career in the theatre. They couldn’t imagine that as a real goal and so thought of me as out of control and rebellious.

E.I. Give us three “Good to Know” facts about your first job experience, the inspiration for your writing career.

Ellen Sandler: My first writing job was writing an episode of Taxi. If you’ve watched the re-runs you may have seen it—it’s the two-part vignette show when the garage goes out of business and they all get new jobs. I had some experience writing and directing plays, but not TV, and I really didn’t know the difference. But differences there are! And I had to learn them…fast! First of all, the characters’ speeches are a lot shorter in a TV script than in a play. Secondly, the story line, i.e. the story structure, is much more defined. Those are practical differences, but the biggest difference is emotional. When you write for the theatre, you can write whatever you want. You don’t make much money, if any, but you have a certain amount of freedom. When you write for TV you are being paid a lot of money and that means you don’t write what you want, you write what the people who are paying you want. You still have to find a way to bring your fresh and original ideas to the page, but you must do it inside of the box they give you. It’s a demand that requires discipline and a certain amount of ego reduction.

E.I. What is it about the art form of writing that enchants you, and gives you the enduring passion to continue in such a demanding profession?

Ellen Sandler: When I am at the computer and it’s going well, I’m excited to discover what’s about to appear on the page. I feel like I’m in the right place; I’m where I belong—it’s a kind of high. When the work is soggy or dead and I don’t know what to do next, I want to find that happy place again. I believe it’s there, and if I can get some words down I’ll find it again – I guess that’s the drive, I really want to make it work. I think that’s the drive to write when I’m not getting paid.

When I am writing on assignment, the money is an incredibly motivating carrot. There is nothing quite like getting paid for something you’ve written. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good—in fact, I often like the things I’ve written without pay for the theatre better than much of what I’ve done under a lucrative TV contract. But still, completing a job, fulfilling an assignment, contributing something that somebody else wanted enough to pay for it – that’s a pretty good feeling. And, let’s be very honest, the money comes in handy! TV scripts bought my house, put my kids through college, and this year’s residuals are paying for my daughter’s wedding right now.

E.I. Now, let’s talk about how does someone get to become writing staff on a TV series or show?

Ellen Sandler: Every writer finds his or her own path to the writer’s room – there is truly no “standard way.” However, the one element that everyone who writes on staff of a TV show has in common is that they have written something that someone unrelated to them thinks is great. What I mean by that is it’s been produced or published somewhere– like plays, comedy sketches, magazine articles or short stories. Or they may have won a respected writing contest or been accepted into an intern program as a result of an outstanding spec script—they’ve gotten some kind of recognition somewhere as to their ability to write.

In my case, I had plays produced in little theatres off off Broadway. One in particular was produced by a small theatre company in Los Angeles as part of a short play festival. It was a one act romantic comedy. Jim Brooks, (at the time, he was Executive Producer of Taxi), came to see it and that’s when he hired me to write the episode of Taxi that started my TV career. I tell the whole story how it happened in the form of a mini screenplay which serves as the introduction to my book, The TV Writer’s Workbook.

E.I. So few shows are chosen from many seemingly promising pilots. So many seem to have been potential, but what really makes a winner?

Ellen Sandler: In my opinion, the most important aspect of a series, either comedy or drama, is the emotional relationships between the ensemble of regular characters. For a series to work those characters must genuinely need something from each other and they must be continually affected by each other’s actions. The more impact a supporting character has on the central character’s life the stronger the show will be.

The best shows always have a strong interconnectedness among the significant characters. Everybody Loves Raymond had it; so did The Sopranos, The Wire, Frasier, Seinfeld and Friends; so do 30 Rock, The Good Wife, Damages and Modern Family. Every hit show has it. And conversely, most of the shows that fail are weakest in this area. They may have some funny colorful supporting characters but they are not connected strongly enough to each other to build a “family” and a world we, the audience, want to be a part of week after week.

E.I. On a show that has an ongoing storyline spanning the entire season, do writers work from a story arc outline? What about a show that has a stand-alone episode format?

Ellen Sandler: Every show on television works from outlines. You cannot proceed to script until your outline is approved by the showrunner, as well as by the studio and network executives. Whether the entire season has an overall arc is determined by the style of the show and the working style of the showrunner.

With the cancellation of Ugly Betty, Lost, Heroes and 24, serialized shows seem to be a dying breed with the networks. The current trend is to use an over arching story theme that is serialized as a “B” story in each episode, while the main story (the “A” story) of the episode is a traditional stand alone one that is self contained. A perfect example of this format is The Good Wife. Each week something new happens in the continuing story of her husband’s legal troubles and the effect on her family, but the main body of the show is the legal case she works on. That case is completed within the episode and the next week there’s an entirely new case.

E.I. Ms. Sandler, please tell your readers about your book, “The TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts.” What topics for the aspiring television writer are unique to your book?

Ellen Sandler: Most people know a good script when they see it; the real mystery is how the writer did it. In The TV Writer’s Workbook I show you how. I analyze the actual writing process from beginning to end and lead you step by step through it.

I have a favorite exercise that uses the 7 Deadly Sins to tap into your passions and find stories that are personally meaningful to you. I give a detailed breakdown of story structure and specific tactics for turning your ideas into great stories—it’s all based on my own work experience. I have a whole chapter on a practical approach to researching a show before you write it. It’s exactly the procedure I use to prepare myself for any show or project I’m hired to write. There’s a section on how to take a meeting and examples of how NOT to write a inquiry letter. And, of course, there are a lot of anecdotes about my personal highs and lows on the various shows I have written.

E.I. How can other writers working in other venues learn from television writers, when it comes to dialogue? Would you say the dialog is the most important component when writing for television?

Ellen Sandler: The dialogue is important, sure, and if you have fresh, funny and surprising lines for the actors to say, it definitely raises your script above average. But TV shows are first and foremost about story. Without a good story even the most sparkling dialogue wilts quickly. Story is action: a character with a clear motive in pursuit of a tangible goal, who makes choices and suffers the consequences of those choices until he comes to some kind of a resolve; that’s story.

Jokes are dialogue, and in TV comedy we certainly need to have great jokes throughout, but even the shallowest silly sitcom needs to have a story to hang those jokes on. If the story line and the character motivations are not believable—meaning that they are emotionally real and compelling, the jokes will quickly fall flat and the sound you hear will not be laughter, but the click of the remote.

E.I. What advice would you give to a writer who is pitching a pilot idea to major network? What is the process?

Ellen Sandler: Totally depends on your level of experience. Established writers –ie.writers who have been working on existing shows—will have the opportunity to pitch a pilot idea to a network and get a deal to develop that idea into a script solely based on a pitch.

A young or new (to Hollywood) writer will most likely need to write their pilot on spec for agents, producers and network executives to read before deciding whether or not they are interested in hiring that writer or putting the show on the air.

It used to be impossible to get people in Hollywood to read a spec pilot, but now that’s what everybody wants to read. Variety recently reported that the networks are buying more and more spec pilots rather than incurring the enormously wasteful practice of developing hundreds of scripts which for one reason or another, they never put on the air. This is good news for those who are anxious to break in. When networks are buying, agents are looking.

The best advice I can give on how to create an original spec pilot comes in the form of a day long seminar that I teach every few months in Los Angeles and which I will soon be offering on-line for those writers who live outside of Southern California. Schedules for those seminars and other events will be found on my website

E.I. Few writers have been able to stay on top through the tumultuous times of mainstream television and film. You saw the evolution from Miami Vice to CSI Miami in TV, and from Indiana Jones to Avatar in film. How did you survive and thrive?

Ellen Sandler: Survive and thrive comes from doing the work. Everyday. Lots of writing. Lots of reading of other writers—those much better than you and those maybe not as good as you. You learn from both. Talent plays a part, but craft and discipline are more important. Talent wastes away without craft—you’ve got to learn and practice the skills of the medium. However, craft without discipline will not keep you in the game—you’ve got to write and re-write and re-write again, whether you feel like it or not, whether you are inspired or not. And you’ve got to do it on a regular basis.

E.I. How would you characterize the film & TV industry trends in the 80s… 90s… 00s? Where do you see the medium going in the 2010s?

Ellen Sandler: It’s prudent to be aware of what’s going on in the business, but I think that if you let current trends play too big a part in what you choose to write you will usually find yourself behind the curve. By the time your script is ready the trend is probably waning. And more importantly, you will short circuit the development of your original voice, which is the thing that makes people interested in you as a writer. If you write stories you’re passionate about, while at the same time you respect the general commercial requirements of the television medium; then it’s very possible that someone will like your writing and your voice enough to pay you to write something completely different in their voice.

E.I. Ms Sandler, you have enjoyed a long and successful career as a writer, consultant and educator. In what seems like a flawless path to self-actualization, were there any major mid-course corrections, missteps or judgments you made -- or didn’t make -- that had an impact on where you are today? What is one thing you would change if you can do it all over again?

Ellen Sandler: I have made many mistakes. I’ve been fired, I’ve split with partners, and I’ve been heartbroken when projects were canceled for ridiculous reasons. I’ve worked on good shows with bad people, I’ve worked on bad shows with terrific people, and I’ve learned from all of them. I consider my missteps and my disappointments as much a part of my “success” as the exciting, happy times. Yes, going to the Emmys in a limo (okay, it wasn’t a limo, it was a town car), was fun, but I’ve also had my scripts ripped to pieces by my boss and that was not fun, I assure you. I learned a lot more from that, though. A rewarding and long career is about all of it – learning, growing, evolving, rolling with the punches and facing another challenge every day. In that sense, I don’t think about what I would change if I could do it over, I think about what I can change to do it again.

To learn more about Ellen Sandler, please visit her website

Photo of Ellen Sandler by Christiane Covington

To purchase her book, please visit AMAZON, Barnes and Noble,
The Writers Store and The Drama Book Shop, Inc.

1 comment:

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