Robbie Thompson is a tremendously nice guy and a very talented writer. He holds a special place in my history because he was the first Hollywood writer to hire me as a designer. You can check out that show here. Robbie created it, and I designed the logo and some of the interface material.
Robbie has been a working as a writer since 1999. Interestingly enough, he began his work on the cartoon series The New Woody Woodpecker Show. He has since gone on to Jericho, Ark (which he created), and The Cape. He is currently writing for Supernatural.
1. Robbie, thanks a million for being part of this series! When we first got to know each other, you were working as a writers’ assistant on Jericho. What does a writers’ assistant do? Is a writers’ assistant a full participant in the story breaking process?
As a writers’ assistant, it was my job to be in the room with the writers while they break the stories for each episode, writing down everyone’s pitches. At the end of the day, I would edit the notes down, correcting all my horrible typos, but also focusing the document to reflect which pitches have “landed” and are now firm story points to build around.
It’s all an effort to help the writers stay on the same page as they continue breaking the story, and it’s also a document to send out to writers who are either on set, in post production, or away for the day so that they can keep in tune with what the room is currently focusing on.
Ultimately, you are there to provide the showrunner and the writers whatever they need to help them keep breaking stories, and that can range from typing up notes in the room or on a studio network call, to doing research to help iron out story details, to making sure the room is stocked with water, coffee, and red vines.
I was very green and was fortunate to work with showrunners who were patient and kind to me as I learned how writers’ rooms worked. Being a writers’ assistant was my “grad school.” I got to see how different writers approach pitching ideas, whether they related to a single idea or to the series as a whole. I learned how story is broken from the ground up and saw how shows are run and maintained. I had a particularly great time on Jericho working for Carol Barbee. She runs an incredibly tight ship, and created a room where “Best Idea Wins,” which allowed me to learn how to pitch. I’m forever in her debt for giving me such a huge break.
2. When a new episode of television is being written, what does the process look like? What are the steps involved? Does it star twith the whole writing team, or is an individual tasked with laying down the initial outline?
Each show has its own process. I’ve been on shows where we started breaking new episodes with everyone in the room, all the writers pitching until a set of ideas/episodes starts to land. And then it’s all hands on deck, focusing on each idea until that particular story is broken or proves to be unbreakable. On other shows the writers bring in a story that they’ve worked out on their own, and then the showrunner and a smaller group will work on ironing out all the story details for that episode.
No matter what the process is, in the end, it usually boils down to getting a bunch of eyes on the same story, whittling it down to its bare essentials until the story works and the individual writer has enough of it worked out so they can take the story and run with it, making it their own as they create an outline and eventually a script.
3. You once shared with me that you involved an actor in your scripting process. I believe he contributed some thoughts on character back story. How rare is that? Are actors involved at some level in the process of creating story?
Actors are storytellers, and I love to include them in the process as much as time and schedule will allow. Oftentimes on a show, the actor has been portraying their role for far longer than I’ve been writing it, so they have a unique insight into their character and the story they’ve been playing and living in for so long.
I remember chatting with Lennie James on Jericho, and his take on the character he was playing, as well as the story we were telling for that character, was invaluable. Again, best idea wins.
4. When reading scripts, one often encounters “beats.” Can you describe for my readers what a beat is, the importance of a beat, and how you decide where they go? Are beats always named in scripts?
When you see “beat” in a run of dialogue, it’s often to indicate a pause, or to set up the gravity of what’s been said or is about to said. When you see “beat” in the action line, it’s often to indicate that everyone in the scene is going to pause to reflect on what’s been said, or an event that’s just happened in the scene.
I usually use “beat” to help with the rhythm of the dialogue, or to help a moment land for the reader. It’s ultimately up to the writer when and if they want to use a “beat” to help underscore a moment, and it can be a helpful tool to indicate importance or a pause to the reader or actor.
5. How do you determine when to let an idea you’re passionate about go vs. fighting for it when working with a writing team?
One of the best pieces of advice I got when I started was to “listen to the room.” Listen to where the story is going, listen to what the other writers are pitching, listen to how people are excited about a certain story point, or are not excited about a story point.
If you have your finger on the pulse of where the story is going, you’ll get a clear sense of whether or not the idea you are passionate about works or is worth fighting for. If you feel the idea you have is worth fighting for, then it’s your job to sell that idea to the group. That said this process also leads me to another great piece of advice I was given, “Don’t break it unless you can fix it.” Make sure you track your pitch all the way out to ensure that it’s there to support the story being broken, not just there to create a cool moment or story beat.
6. In series television how far ahead is the season planned out? I assume you break up front, and then do the weekly work in a different way. What do those big picture discussions look like, and are assignments handed out based on that plan, or in some other way?
Well, again, every show is different. But typically, each new season the writers will spend a week or two having “blue sky” discussions about what the season story should be, how that story fits into the larger series story, and then what benchmarks need to be met in order to pay the season story off while setting up the next arc for the series.
For example most first season shows get an order of 13 episodes, with the hope of a “back 9” order of more episodes, should the ratings do well. So, the writers typically try to get a sense of what those first 13 episodes will look like in terms of the larger story, building in a mid-season climax or twist that will help launch the story through those back 9 episodes. The back 9 is usually a bit loose in terms of the initial discussions, with the exception of having a good sense of what the season finale should be.
Assignments aren’t handed out based on that plan. Sometimes assignments are handed out based on the show’s batting order, and other times certain episodes are a better fit for a particular writer. More often than not though, the showrunner will write the mythology-heavy episodes since they have the best understanding of where the show is going and what needs to be set up next.
Thanks Robbie! You’re the best, and I hope our paths cross again soon!
Read part 1 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Carol Barbee here.
Read part 2 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Jonathan E. Steinberg here.
Read part 3 of the Hollywood Writers’ Series with Matthew 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.