And he knows all about it!
After graduating at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and winning awards as a TV reporter, he moved to Los Angeles and kept working on his craft till he landed a position as a writer on Showtime's HOUSE OF LIES, whose cast is led by Academy Award nominated and Golden Globe winning actor Don Cheadle.
If you are not impressed yet (which you should) keep reading....
Tell us something about yourself: which are the three experiences that brought you where you are right now professionally?
I was born in Chicago the son of a classically-trained musician and a military aircraft mechanic. Both of their influences have helped me to be a screenwriter. Naturally, one needs a deep well of creativity. But the tight budgetary concerns and time restrictions of making television require an understanding of all aspects of production and writing to it in some regards. It’s a bit like composing an opera and fixing a car at the same time.
I’m lucky that I discovered an interest in writing at an early age because I had no idea it would take nearly two decades to “break-in” to the industry. I started writing short fiction and shooting videos in high school for fun. One day, I saw filmmaker John Singleton thank University of Southern California’s Filmic Writing Program in the closing credits of his feature directorial debut, “Boyz N the Hood.” I thought, “people can go to school and study how to make movies?” It blew my mind. This was before the resource was widely known, in the dark ages known as B.I. (Before Internet). The discovery of film school alone was a pivotal shift for me. Suddenly this notion of writing for the screen went from a pipe dream to a tangible goal, in my head at least. It gave me a focus. And I poured every ounce of my energy toward bringing my grades up enough to get into one of these prestigious programs. I got accepted to USC, but ultimately decided to go to New York University instead. Studying and living in New York City set my brain on fire. Being surrounded by so many artists was inspiring. It also demystified the process of pursuing writing as a career.
The second biggest thing I did to help my career was, oddly, walking away from it. It gave me the space to decide if it was what I really wanted and the life experience I needed to follow-through once I did. After years of trying to break through as a writer in New York, I moved back home to Georgia. I wasn’t giving up exactly, but I needed a chance to regroup, save money, and come up with a different approach because what I was doing in my early twenties wasn’t working. That change of scenery allowed me an opportunity to do something I probably wouldn’t have been able to do anywhere else -- work as a television news reporter. The very station that allowed me to edit videos in high school, and run studio cameras during the summers I was in college, also gave me a shot at being a reporter. Turns out news directors are looking for the same thing Hollywood producers are - a good story. Within three years, I catapulted to a Top 50 U.S. market and picked up a few journalism awards along the way. I also cut my teeth as a writer by having to produce content every day on a tight deadline. I met, and learned from, so many interesting people in those years and discovered a lot about myself in that time too. I was having so much fun at times, I almost lost sight of what I originally set out to do.
Which leads me to the third best thing I did for myself: moved to Los Angeles. Most creative decisions about what U.S.-made movies or TV shows are made here. All the networks, studios, production companies and talent agencies operate within a 12-mile radius of each other. And a majority of the people that work there live in Los Angeles as well. Yes, you can write from anywhere. And you can make an indie film, get into a festival and garner attention that way. But eventually, you’ll be asked to take a meeting. And most likely, that meeting will be in Los Angeles. I decided to cut the middle-men out of the equation and come right to the source. Turns out, I love living here. You can't beat the sunny, warm weather year round.
The show you worked on, “House of Lies”, will be broadcast in Italy starting from its first season on the Sky platform. “Pitch” it to the Italian viewers: what will we love about it?
HOUSE OF LIES is subversive American satire at its best, a Dionysian romp through the world of management consulting. Think THE HANGOVER of office comedies. It’s vulgar, it’s dirty, it’s searingly honest. Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell star as Marty Kaan and Jeannie Van Der Hooven, two of many people hired by powerful corporations to fix internal problems. Often the “fix” involves laying off an entire portion of said company’s work force or booting a troublesome CEO out with a huge payday. Show creator Matthew Carnahan, like many people, was angry with the reckless greed of corporations and banks that led to the global financial crisis of 2008. This was, in many ways, his creative response to the recession we’re still trying to climb out of. The heroes of HOUSE OF LIES reflect the most cynical parts of ourselves. The clients they rip off are even worse, so it makes it easier for us to root for them.
All my readers are big fans of US TV series and (like myself) they are dying to know what happens in the writers’ room. What was your team’s creative process and the process for writing your own episodes? (we are also interested in the lunch arrangement!)
First of all, nothing ever gets done in a writers’ room until everyone has coffee and we’ve figured out what we’re doing for lunch. Seriously, a whole hour could go by before any work gets done. Every show is different. With HOUSE OF LIES, there were five writers on staff. We’d meet around 10am - 5pm, Monday through Friday. Comfortably seated around a conference table surrounded on all sides by white boards. We sit around, joke, pitch, share personal stories that sometimes pertain to what we’re discussing, sometimes not. It’s a very intimate and emotionally/mentally draining experience by the end of the day. Especially for the writers’ assistant who is transcribing our discussion for 8 hours like a court reporter. Later, he distributes those notes for us to look back to reference what was discussed.
As a staff, we “break” the season and each episode as a group. That essentially means we’re discussing the major story and character turns. We debate and discuss. Once we land on something that everyone thinks works, one of us will go up and write it on the white board. It helps to have it up to see when we’re going through story to make sure we’re paying off everything we’re setting up. Once we’ve figured out what’s going where, then the executive producers will assign themselves and other writers episodes. Then we’ll go away to our offices (or write from home) to crank out outlines and scripts. We give each other notes before sending to the network for their notes. And it’s constant revisions all the way up to production where material is often tweaked in on-set rehearsals. It’s all a very organic and fun creative process.
As for lunch, we usually order from restaurants nearby and have a working lunch, where we eat around the table together and continue discussing the show. (No siestas in the states sadly.) Our favorites included Bloom, PublicSchool, and East Borough
Panic. Then panic some more. Then, with no more time left to panic, I write something that turns out half-bad. Then I go back in and make it better. I tend to prefer writing in the morning after coffee or late at night when there are fewer distractions. When time permits, I prefer to write longhand on a legal pad first. It's more comforting to me than seeing a cursor blinking back at me when I'm trying to brainstorm.
Even if the experience of House of Lies has finished, I’m sure you have exciting new projects you are working on. Where do you get your inspiration? Real life, your journalist’s background, books, films, tv…your own creative mind…
Everything is fodder for story. Anyone who is, or lives with, a writer can attest to that. It could be an observation in a public space, or a line of prose in an essay I’ve read, that sparks an idea. I keep an idea bank actually, a file with every crazy idea I’ve come up with for a movie, TV show, or just an interesting character. When it comes to deciding a project to write, I often have some commercial considerations to make. Mostly it’s about making sure I write a sample that showcases the best of what I like to do. I enjoy sparse, conversational dialogue that reveals more in what’s not said than what is. I’m also very filmic in the way I imagine stories in my head. So I tend to tell as much of the story in moving images as I can, and let what’s said support or play against what you see.
Probably my favorite show of all time is THE TWILIGHT ZONE. I thought creator Rod Serling was so ahead of his time addressing social issues as science fiction parables. The theme song alone was enough to draw me in. But the anthology format gave way to an entirely new experience with each episode, while providing tonally something uniquely its own thing, both relevant and entertaining. The writing was so sharp and usually gave way to a surprising twist at the end. Now that I’ve worked a bit in television I have so much more respect for the show. How they were able to produce such a high volume of inspired work without the modern convenience of say email or digital streaming dailies is mind-boggling.
As an experienced TV writer, how much do your think platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu are changing the game?
The arrival of digital content aggregators-turned-studios, like Netflix, is as disruptive to TV as cable was to the big U.S. broadcasters in the 1980s. Maybe even more so, because consumers in the digital age are, in a way, becoming their own programmers -- picking and choosing what they want to watch, when they want to watch it. It’s an exciting time for creators because never before have there been so many platforms from which to launch. And now that the audience is more segmented, the demands for how far-reaching a show needs to be has narrowed a bit, allowing for even more unique characters and formats that may not have been made twenty or thirty years ago.
My mother worked a lot when I was a kid. She taught school, private voice and piano lessons, and played organ for church. She had little time to spend in the kitchen. So when she did, it was a treat. One of my favorite things she ever made was a GRAHAM-CRACKER CRUST STRAWBERRY CHEESECAKE. She probably made it once a year, around Christmas time. And if I ever need a pick-me-up, this does the trick:
Ingredients: For crust 20 whole graham cracker (10 ounces total), 3/4 cup unsalted butter, 1/2 cup packed golden brown sugar. For filling 4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, 1 3/4 cups sugar, 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, pinch of salt, 3 tablespoons all purpose flour, 5 large eggs. For topping 2 cups sour cream, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 2 16-ounce baskets strawberries, 1 18-ounce jar raspberry jelly.
Make crust: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Wrap foil around outside of 10-inch-diameter springform pan with 3-inch-high sides. Combine broken graham crackers, chilled and diced butter and sugar in processor. Blend until crumbs begin to stick together. Press crumbs onto bottom and 2 3/4 inches up sides of springform pan. Bake crust 10 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool while preparing filling. Maintain oven temperature.
Make filling: Beat room temperature cream cheese, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and salt in large bowl until very smooth. Beat in flour. Add eggs and beat just until blended. Pour batter into crust. Bake cheesecake until outer 2-inch edge of cake is puffed and slightly cracked, center is just set and top is brown in spots, about 55 minutes. Transfer cake to rack. Cool 10 minutes. Maintain oven temperature.
Make topping: Whisk sour cream, sugar and vanilla in medium bowl to blend. Spoon topping over cake, spreading to edge of pan. Bake until topping is just set, about 5 minutes. Remove from oven. Run knife between crust and pan. Chill overnight. Release pan sides from cheesecake. Arrange whole berries, points facing up, atop cheesecake; cover completely. Stir jelly in heavy small saucepan over medium-low heat until melted. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Brush enough jelly over berries to glaze generously, allowing some to drip between berries.