Friday, May 15, 2009

Spotlight Interview: TV Script Writer/Screenwriter Jennifer Heath/Part 2

Jennifer Heath/TV Script Writer/Screenwriter

In 1992, as a staff writer for one of the all-time great TV sit-coms, “Roseanne,” Jennifer Heath was Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Comedy Series.

This was around two years after Heath and fellow 20-something Amy Sherman, whose father was a Catskills comedian, began collaborating on TV scripts after a chance meeting in an improvisational comedy class at the famous Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles.

“We were two short, Jewish, annoying women that no one wanted to deal with, so we dealt with each other," Sherman once told a magazine.

The duo, with no professional writing experience, shockingly landed fulltime-writing gigs on Roseanne soon after the temperamental star suddenly fired her entire staff.

“She needed female writers and we were cheap,” Sherman said in a recent print interview.

Since Roseanne, Heath has co-created two other TV comedy series, “Mr. Rhodes” and “Dave’s World,” sold screenplays to Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Universal and Miramax, and had a feature film, “Ella Enchanted,” hit theatres in 2004; Sherman (now Sherman-Palladino) went on to write scripts for “Veronica’s Closet” and create the wonderful TV series, the “Gilmore Girls.”

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The following is the second part of my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Heath:

Mike: What do you think you need to be a great writer for a TV show?

Heath: I think you have a good shot as long as you have an ear for dialogue. You have to know how people talk in real life—unless you’re writing some very stylized Mamet type of stuff. And, for comedy, you have to have an inherent sense of humor, and know what’s funny.

Mike: Is there a fine line between stalking people in the business and merely being aggressive?

Heath: Yes, it’s a very fine line. And you better find that line or you’ll turn people off.

Mike: Do you think you would’ve been read without an agent?

Heath: No. You must have an agent.

Mike: How does one find a reputable agent?

Heath: Call the Writers Guild, get a list of all the licensed literary agents, and send your script to all of them saying you’re a new writer and here’s a sample. You probably aren’t going to get read by the big ones.

Mike: What about agents stealing your ideas?

Heath: If you’re worried about that, you can register it with the Writers Guild. I think it’s about $20 to do that. But for someone who’s brand new and doesn’t have representation yet, I think registering your work is a must. If you have an agent and your agent is sending it out, then I don’t think you need to register it. My agent makes those meetings and he’s only going to reputable people, so I never get my work registered.

I’ve had some friends who got screwed on a movie, because they didn’t register their work. My friends submitted material to a company for a movie. And there were no computer records, no records of sending it.

Mike: What was Roseanne like?

Heath: She’s a very talented woman. She’s hysterical. She knew her job. And she was very likeable on the show.

Mike: What were the challenges working for that show?

Heath: The hours, the hours, the hours. We worked from 10 in the morning to 2, 3, 4 in the morning, seven days a week. Very, very hard hours. It was exhausting. After awhile, you simply get used to not getting any sleep. You just have to plough through it.

Mike: What movie genres are hot right now?

Heath: Comedies and horror movies. Comedies always make money and horror is cheap to make.

Mike: What advice could you offer to an aspiring writer?

Heath: I would say that if you want to write for this business, you have to first write two specs, submit them people, and get them read. Amy and I found a unique avenue for someone to see our stuff. For us, it came through traffic school. Sometimes it’s through a friend of a friend who’s in the business. Just keep writing material and push hard to get it read. That’s all you can do.

I’d also suggest that before you show your work to an agent, give it to some people you respect, people who will be honest with you. You don’t want to send something really bad to an agent. It’ll be harder to get them to read the next thing. You’ll have tainted your rep. And make sure to not have typos. I know this sounds crazy, but I can’t tell you how pissed off I am when I get a script that has a lot of typos. I won’t read it, as I won’t read one that has a lot of grammatical errors. If a writer doesn’t know the difference between "your" and "you’re," I will literally throw the script in the trash. I can’t stand it.

And when you send it to an agent or someone else of influence in the business, write a good cover letter that’s not funny or cute or pushy. And be patient. Things take a long time to read. I’ve given my own agent things to read and three months later he hasn’t read it. It’s not acceptable to send something to an agent and call a week later to ask if it’s been read.

Another thing you can do, if you don’t want to waste your time and postage and the cost of the printing the material, call an agency and ask if they will read unsolicited material.

For young or inexperienced writers, they need to get some sample scripts, see how they’re structured, how the first act works, how the second act works, where the middle of the movie is.

In fact, no matter what experience you have, you need to read, read, and read.

If you want to write thrillers, read Silence of the Lambs—that’s a beautifully written script, well plotted with terrific tension and pacing. If you want to write sit-coms, read the scripts from “Friends” and “Frazier.”

Look at what’s really successful, what’s really good, and try to duplicate it. (By the way, you have to pick up the screenplay for “The Sting,” written by David Ward. It is pure genius, with absolutely brilliant plotting.)

And read screenwriting books, such as Syd Field’s, which teaches you the basic rules and that something needs to happen in the first 10 minutes.

Because, until you are Quentin Tarantino and have the genius to write “Pulp Fiction,” which breaks all the rules by having this weird back-and-forth-in-time construction, stick to conventional storytelling.

It’s also always a good idea to have a screenwriting software program, so your formatting is correct.

And be persistent—but be honest with yourself.

It’s like I watch American Idol and I say to myself, “Do these people really think they could sing?” You have to be realistic. If you’re not a good writer, if you don’t think you have talent, don’t bother. It’s too hard a business if you’re not good.

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