As an artist/writer/media guy, I am and always¬†have been fascinated by the creative process. One of my greatest passions is that of storytelling. Storytelling can take many forms, from writing to video editing, from graphic arts to collaborative worship design.¬†Inspiration for that passion can be drawn from many places, and I’m always on the lookout for things that can make me better at my craft.
Like many of the readers of this blog, I’ve been a fan of film and television for as long as I can remember. Those of us communicating the gospel in worship can gain much through an exploration of the processes used in Hollywood.
In addition to my work at Midnight Oil, I do graphic and motion design work for a number of “secular” clients. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to know and work with several Hollywood writers and producers. I’ve learned so many things from listening to and watching my writer friends that apply directly to what I do at Midnight Oil, The Ohio River Valley District of the UMC, Simplifilm, and (from time to time) Ginghamsburg UMC.
After reflecting on some of the things I’ve learned, I began to envision a series of posts exploring creative collaboration and the creative process as known by Hollywood creatives. Several emails and conversations later, this series was born.
Over the next two months, I’ll be interviewing some of the entertainment industry’s most successful and up and coming television and feature film writers.¬†If you design worship as a team, want to learn how to become a better storytelling, are fascinated by the creative process, or are just a fan of television and film, this series is for you.
First up is an interview with my friend Carol Barbee.
Carol is one of the most beloved writers/producers in Hollywood. I know quite a few people who have had the pleasure of working with her, and every single one of them has gone on and on about how great she is.
Carol has worked in front of the camera as an actor and behind the scenes as a writer/producer/showrunner. Her credits as a writer/producer include shows such as¬†Providence, Judging Amy, Jericho, Swingtown, Three Rivers, Hawaii Five-0, and the new Fox drama¬†Touch.¬†I’ve had the honor of knowing Carol since about 2007, and I have great respect for her and her work.
When I asked Carol if she’d answer a few questions about what it’s like to be a writer/producer, she responded within moments with a resounding “YES!” I hope her responses will help you see your creative process from a new perspective.
1.) Carol, you have experience in front of and behind the camera. How did your time as an actor affect your role as a writer?
Having been an actor helps me as a writer in so many ways. ¬†First of all, I’m not afraid of actors. ¬†Don’t laugh‚ÄĒa lot of writers have never spoken to an actor and consider them a foreign and frightening life form. ¬†Having been an actor, I think I understand¬†what actors can say and also what they need in terms of motivation and drive for the character. ¬†I also act out my scripts as I write them, and therefore supply endless entertainment to my assistant.
2.) When we first met, you were working as “showrunner” on Jericho. I’ve seen that title next to your name on several of the shows you’ve worked on. What exactly does a showrunner do? Does running a show mean being more or less involved in writing episodes, or is it about the same as being a writer/producer?
The showrunner is the person held responsible for all aspects of the show. ¬†All departments answer to the showrunner, and she/he is the one who communicates with the studio and network on behalf of the show. Writers run television, so the showrunner is usually also the head writer.
3.) It takes a lot of work to get a script into its final state. How many drafts does it take on average to get to the script you shoot? Does the script change much once shooting has begun?
The number of drafts depends on how easily the story came together and how well the writer wrote it. ¬†The script has to be approved by the showrunner, then the studio, then the network. ¬†Each of those steps can mean one, two, or even three drafts. ¬†Once the script is approved by the network, it goes through rewrites for production‚ÄĒmeaning we need to be able to shoot it, and we need to be able to pay for shooting it. Often, scenes and sequences are simplified or cut in that draft in order to make the script shootable within our time constraints and on our budget.
The goal is to have the script vetted and ready when you start to shoot and not to make changes. ¬†That’s not always possible. ¬†Sometimes we get notes from the network late in the process, sometimes actors give notes while we’re shooting because they’ve been working so much they haven’t had time to read the script. Sometimes you can’t tell the scene is problematic until you get it on its feet. ¬†Sometimes you lose an actor due to illness or a scheduling conflict. ¬†Sometimes a location falls through, or it rains like crazy and you have to suddenly stage the scene indoors. ¬†You just have to roll with it. ¬†But everyone does their best work when the scripts are ready ahead of time and everyone has had time to thoughtfully discuss their notes before shooting.
4.) I’ve had the good fortune to get to know many of the writers on Jericho and have talked a lot to them about the process of writing an episode. How do you resolve creative disagreements when breaking an episode? As a showrunner is your role in that process different than others on the writing staff?
Ultimately, the showrunner has to make the call. ¬†I listen to the pitches on both sides and then make a decision. ¬†You’re going to make someone unhappy, but you try to hear the idea that’s most right for the show.
5.) Creative people can have strong personalities with large egos. Is it hard to get a room full of writers to work together as one, and do egos ever get in the way? If so, how to you get past that to create something great?
You get all sorts of personalities in a writers’ room‚ÄĒsome huge egos and some people who can’t quite articulate their ideas but can realize them beautifully on paper. ¬†Some people are quiet in the room, and you have to be able to draw them out and keep them from getting shouted down so you can hear their ideas. ¬†A big part of my job is to assess what people are good at and make sure we get the benefits of that. ¬†
6.) I’m assuming a staff that gets along and has mutual respect and trust can create better together. Creating synergy amongst a writing staff must take significant time and effort. Do you ever do anything to intentional to foster trust and build relationships within your writing staff? If so, what are some of the things that you do?
It’s been my experience that if everyone on the staff feels they have equal access to success, conflicts never get out of hand. Bad things happen when writers are vying for the attention or approval of the showrunner because they don’t feel it’s a level playing field. There will always be people you are more comfortable with than others, or people you’d rather hang out with than others‚ÄĒbut that can’t influence how you assess peoples’ abilities. ¬†True North is the show. ¬†That’s it.¬†
Thanks again Carol. Here’s to hoping that Touch is a wild success!
Read part 2 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Jonathan E. Steinberg here.
Read part 3 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Matthhew Federman and Stephen Scaia here.
Read part 4 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Jeffrey Berman here.
Read part 5 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Trey Callaway here.
Read part 6 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Eric Champnella here.
Read part 7 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Dan Shotz here.
Read part 8 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Robbie Thompson here.