I've known about today's interviewee for a while as she's just someone whose name you know if you like funny smart women and/or good TV. She was a writer and co-executive producer on Six Feet Under and was the showrunner, executive producer and writer of United States of Tara last season, which is how we got in touch, as I covered the show for the AV Club (if you read my recaps you'll know I felt very favorably towards the season.) She's now going to serve the same role for How to Make it in America and is also developing her own series.
What was your favorite episode of this season of USoT?
Episode 8, Explosive Diorama. Diablo Cody and I wrote it together, sitting on the set for Lynda's loft. It felt like the perfect collaborative writing experience. Writing alone is easy, writing with another person who is not your writing partner is harder because it's hard to really get into your unconscious. We worked with a writer's assistant who was taking dictation and we did some half-improvising, mainly focusing on trying to crack each other up.
So many new characters were introduced this season: who was your favorite?
I guess Shoshana, because of the absurdity of Tara finding a great new therapist who turns out to be herself.
Tell us about how you came to work on How to Make it in America and what you hope to bring to the show.
The creator, Ian Edelman, brought me on as a partner to work with him in much the same way I worked with Diablo on Tara last year. She is now working in the same capacity on How to Make it in America.
I believe I heard something about you working on your own TV project: what can you tell us about it so far?
I'm creating a series for HBO based on the Pamela des Barres book I'm With The Band, with Zooey Deschanel producing and playing the lead in it. It's going to be a half-hour comedy about the absurdity of being a chick in the middle of the sexual and cultural and political revolutions of the late sixties. The groupie thing will just be a facet. I guess in some ways it will be more focused on a little tribe of folks living in Laurel Canyon.
What do you do as a producer that's different from what you do as a writer?
As a writer I sit at my computer, try to connect to my unconscious, then channel the scene, the voices and the dialogue. I simply take dictation as if I were a court stenographer.
As an EP, I can be responsible, or co-responsible, for every aspect of the show, from coming up with the season arc, casting, wardrobe, music, picking directors, shooting, editing, every single thing. My favorite thing about producing is putting together the writers' room and creating a vibe that protects the process and thereby insures a product with integrity (meaning a TV show you HAVE to watch!)
How do you think Claire Fisher and Kate Gregson would get along?
I think they would crack each other up. And see themselves in each other. They have very similar voices. Kate's more into silly words but they both love language and hate people.
The series finale for SFU comes up often as an example of a "good finale": were you thinking of the long arc of finales when creating SFUs? What influenced that ending?
Each season creates itself in the writers' room. Alan Ball knew when it was time to end and he led the charge on what the last episode would be like. I think he had had a vision for it for a long time.
Of all the TV episodes you've written in your career, what are one or two that stand out for being most difficult for you?
They're never difficult on shows that I love. Working on Six Feet Under and United States of Tara, every episode I had the honor of writing was incredibly fun and challenging and exciting. Writing and producing your own episode is sort of like being in love, it fills up your mind just like a brand new crush does.
What has been hard has been working on other TV shows that do not employ the same process we used at Six Feet and Tara, meaning one writer=one episode. On Tara and Six Feet, episodes are written from the inside out, meaning, they start in the guts and heart of a writer. That writer takes the episode from outline to final post, shepherding it like a baby. Or I guess a baby sheep, I should say.
On most typical network shows, the studio and the network work from the outside in, and re-imagine and revise story and script repeatedly based on what their entire department responds to. I call it opinion salad. It generally makes take-it-or-leave-it TV. That DNA from the writer's heart into the episode is necessary to make it rise above the mediocre, to make television become art.
I know you read at least some of the online criticism of your show: but how much exactly? Do you have a limit?
I'll usually skim it all, I have a Google alert for whatever project I'm working on. Of course, I prefer to read the good stuff. Sometimes the tone of certain message boards (television without pity, for example) seems to feel like people who would rather be doing the TV writing. Other message boards, like Facebook, seem like just pure fandom. It's fun to put the title of your show into the twitter search to watch it trend when the show airs. See what bits of dialogue get repeated shout-outs.
You reach out to writers who have positive things to say about your shows: what about those who criticize?
I rarely reach out to writers at all, including those who have positive things to say, I just reached out to you because you're from Chicago and we have a few friends in common and I thought your writing on US of Tara was very perceptive and original.
As long as you said "reach out", I must respond to the use of that phrase. It is the most overused, jargony phrase I have ever heard and EVERY ONE says it all day long. I hear it about three or four times a day. You can play a drinking game and drink whenever anyone says "reach out" on any Real Housewives episode, and you will be drunk by the end. I'm pretty sure it just means "e-mailed", right? If you know the answer please reach out and let me know.
Maybe people are trying to lessen the computery idea of constantly emailing people, trying to soften it with the warmth of "reaching out". Who knows. It just drives me CRAZY. Can you tell me why people say it so much in 2010?
Because you "email" your boss and you "reach out" to people you don't talk to much if ever? Maybe "reaching out" is for when you're not sure you're going to hear back, like from a stranger or someone who you haven't spoken to in a while. I don't know. Now I'll notice it all the time.
How often do bloggers completely miss an episode in their writeup, IE completely misinterpret a theme or line?
Nobody really misses the big picture, but sometimes people seem to lean in a direction that surprises me. Misinterpretation is not a big problem. For me, with Tara, it was simply a lack of coverage. I really thought that with such a strong season, new people would come to the show via word of mouth. When we wrote it we believed we were writing water-cooler worthy TV. But it seems possible that people pick "their" shows and if you don't grab them season one, you never have another shot at them.
What are your favorite shows to watch right now?
All Real Housewives, The Hills, The City.
Do you foresee a followup to Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants and if so on what?
Nah. There's no money in books. I get to say the same things in TV that I would say in a book. I just put my ideas in the mouths of characters instead of on a page.
Who are some creative women whose work (or just general existence) you've been digging lately?
Great question! Nicole Holofcener, Jenji Kohan, Sarah Silverman, Jennie Ketcham, Lisa Carver, Aimee Bender, Michelle Tea, Lisa Cholodenko, Diablo Cody, Sheila Callaghan, Jessica Chaffin, Jamie Denbo, Tracy McMillan, Phoebe Gloeckner, Elissa Bassist, Michaela Watkins, Jessi Klein, stop me I could go on and on and on.
I just tried to break that list down into TV/movie/author/comedian, but so many of those women do more than one thing that I couldn't.
How does it feel to be the 258th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?