Writers Breaking In: From TEEN WOLF to iZOMBIE
When you reach out to your community in search of writers for interviews (as was the case when I shared my enthusiasm about my new BREAKING IN initiative with my own little community), you never know whom you will meet. And scarier yet, what sort of interview subject they will be. But from the moment we met (on the phone, that is) Talia Gonzalez and Bisanne Masoud, who together make up a writing team, were candid, honest, insightful and funny, as they walked me through the journey that took them from NY-based actresses and playwrights to working television writers on some of television’s most fun and imaginative shows, including iZOMBIE and TEEN WOLF. The interview below includes some of the highlights they shared with me.
LEE: I understand that you two met while you were in New York. What made you think that your partnership would be a good one and therefore gave it a chance?
TALIA: We were friends for many years before we started writing. And I think that as friends we shared the same sensibility and sense of humor, and found that our conversations gravitated to certain themes about relationships and that made us interested in writing a play together. But as far as the partnership as a whole, it wasn’t really this very strategic choice, it grew organically as we continued to write together, and decided that we wanted to write professionally in a television writing capacity.
BISANNE: As we started writing the play together, we didn’t think: “Oh, we’ll naturally write a TV spec together next”. But then once we were working on it for a while and actually wanted to produce it. Producing a play is a lot of work as far as the logistics go, , so once the writing was done we found that we also were on the same page business wise. I don’t recall us having any disagreements about cost. Once you start writing professionally there are a lot of business decisions to make and money-based decisions to make and we are usually on the same page. So we’re in sync on the creative side and on the business side.
LEE: Why did you decided to turn from playwriting to television?
TALIA: It’s really hard to be a professional playwright and have consistent work. And television has had a renaissance and we wanted to be a part of that. It felt like all the great writing was on television. And there’s something exciting about being a part of that.
BISANNE: Yes. When we wrote the play, it was almost like a television comedy on stage. So the format that we were already gravitating towards was a TV format, even if we didn’t know it at the time. So, for the next thing, we though Talia let’s try speccing something, and we chose NURSE JACKIE. It took us a long time to write that first spec. We watched a ton of NURSE JACKIE and took a ton of notes and then banged out that first spec.
LEE: When did you decide to move to LA? And what preempted that move?
TALIA: That was always the goal. And we were hoping that there would be a real reason to move. Like a job. So we started submitting specs to the television writing programs and we were semi-finalists for the Nickelodeon program and so we get this call from a 310 number. And we’re like, who’s calling us from LA? It gave us the encouragement to think that if we’ve made it to that round and we don’t really know anyone then maybe we should be there. Being in New York you really do feel like it’s all happening across the country. So as soon as we gained the confidence by entering the contests and the writing programs we made the leap.
BISANNE: We were lucky to have a network of people already out here. I moved out here first and then Talia followed 6 months later. We knew a few working writers. And because of this I felt like when I moved here I had a life that was already waiting for me. A separate life from New York that just kind of started the moment I moved here. One of the hardest parts about moving out here is probably if you don’t know a single person, especially a single person in the business, that’s very difficult. I didn’t know anyone who could give us a job. Everyone I knew, if they were working, they were working as a staff writer. But just being in that world made me feel like I was in the right place to be.
LEE: Bisanne, you got a job as a writer’s assistant. What was that job like and what were you able to learn on the job?
BISANNE: I got that job about 6 months after I moved here. A friend of mine, Hollie (who we both know) was working, but still trolling Craigslist out of compulsion, so one night she sends me this Craigslist posting saying: You should apply for this. It was someone looking for a writer’s assistant, It didn’t say who it was but it said: I’m working on a pilot for FOX and I need a writer’s assistant to take notes while I talk and transcribe things. So I replied with my resume, and got a response. Later he told me he had it up for an hour and then pulled it because he got so many responses. His name is Davey Holmes, at the time he was an EP on SHAMELESS and, as SHAMELESS was on hiatus he was also developing a pilot for FOX. They ended up shooting the pilot but it didn’t get the pick up. When I got there he was re-breaking the pilot. So I saw every step of putting the pilot together. And so I was learning it all from the ground up. He was working with John Wells and everyone was so nice. It was just a great work environment. Everyone was super welcoming and helpful and all the assistants there were just on their game and so they just helped me out. He let me look at casting. And I went to all the meetings and he let me sit in editing. He really brought me on to show me the whole process. I got to go to set. I worked for him after that for almost 2 years, on SHAMELESS stuff and a few other pilots. So, it was just a thorough education on TV production and TV writing. He worked with David Goyer, he worked with Shawn Ryan on a pilot so I got to meet them and go to meetings with them and see how they break story. I think it was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me, getting that job. I was sad to leave but I left because we got staffed on TEEN WOLF. He was super duper happy for me but also kind of like, oh man, I gotta find a new assistant…
LEE: You two have been named to a bunch of contests and fellowships, quarter-finalist, semi-finalists – why are these contests important for writers trying to break in?
TALIA: First I think it gives writers a deadline. If you have trouble finishing things at least you have something that you are writing for. And then obviously, when you get the results, if you place in a contest then you know where you stack against the competition. Now not every contest is the same. You have to do your research in terms of which are the best ones for making professional connections and getting exposure.
BISANNE: That’s true. It gives you a deadline. And we’re also lucky, in that we’re a team, so we could split the fees. Looking back I think perhaps we got a little over zealous because we entered so many of these, because it does give you a sense of purpose. But even though it is a little bit difficult financially, it’s important for writers who aren’t working yet to do them because psychologically it puts you in a space where you don’t just feel like you’re spinning your wheels. Submitting to these contests keeps the ball rolling in a way that helps you build momentum so that you feel that you are actually doing something and progressing.
TALIA: The Austin Film Festival is a really great contest to enter because if you place, not only are you invited to go, but you get access to special panels and mixers. For us, when we were in New York, it was a place where we could go and meet other writers, develop relationships, find people willing to swap scripts, give notes, etc. And so there are nice perks that certain contests have. But, like Bisanne said, for writers who are just starting out it’s one of the only ways to feel like you are writing for a purpose and there is some sort of momentum moving forward.
BISANNE: When we went to Austin as Second-Rounders we got to sit at some of the round tables. There are a lot of writers we met there that we still talk to. I remember looking at the Austin schedule and we were picking out what panels we would go to and it was like Christmas. It was so fun. We even saw Rob Thomas, who’s now our boss, give a panel there about VERONICA MARS. And I remember thinking, oh, this guy seems really cool, I’d love to work for him one day.
LEE: So, now that you know a whole bunch of people, let’s retrace the steps. What would you say was your big break as far as really starting to penetrate the industry as writers?
TALIA: We had a friend whose wife was a television writer; we didn’t know her but she very kindly said that we could go to coffee with her. We talked about the business and that sort of thing and at the end of it, she asked how she could help us. And we said: Well, it’d be great if you could read something. And she did. From there she offered to send it over to her agency, UTA.
BISANNE: So she passed our stuff over to UTA, to this junior agent. We had to bug him a bit and then he read us and was like, yeah, I liked it, but I can’t really do much with it, I have to get another agent on board. And then we got a message from him that said: do you guys watch TEEN WOLF? And he told us he was going to send our sample over there. We really didn’t think anything was going to happen with that because our sample was a period piece, 1967, New York City, heroin trade. And I actually remember, I was home in Boston, and I got an email that said you have a meeting at TEEN WOLF. That was probably our big break. Getting TEEN WOLF. We had gone in for the two meetings, and got the call that we were staffed. From there we got officially brought onto UTA. And so then we got official representation and then the managers. We’d been speaking with them before and they’d agreed to have a courtesy meeting with us but had made it clear, we’re happy to meet you but we’re not really looking to bring on baby writers at this time. So we kept emailing them that we’ve got a meeting at TEEN WOLF and they’re like, whaaaat?
LEE: So, a TEEN WOLF interview. How do you prepare for that?
TALIA: We watched every episode of that show. We came on in Season 5, so 4 solid seasons. One of the seasons had 20 episodes, the rest had 22. It was an insane amount of television to watch in 4 days. What’s interesting is that the co-EP we met with first had said that we were so impressive because we’d watched every episode. Beyond that, to prepare for meetings you want to do some research as far as the show and the showrunner and know as much about the history of the show that you are interviewing for as you possibly can. Beyond that, it’s to know your story and know what makes you interesting individually and together as a team. You have to be able to tell who you are and sell yourself and make it feel organic and that it’s just come off the top of your head and hasn’t been rehearsed. And to really bring your personality because I think, especially for staffing purposes, when you’re working as a TV writer, you spend an enormous amount of time sitting around a table with the same people. And so once you have proven yourself as a competent writer, then you have to show them that you are a really interesting, fun, funny person to be around.
BISANNE: I think that, being drama writers, we don’t have to have a full-on routine. If you are a comedy writer that is often what you have to do in an interview. Part of it is keeping it fresh and spontaneous, even when it isn’t to you. And not so much with TEEN WOLF but with iZOMBIE they always asked what you watch and were very excited that we watched some of the same things that Rob (Thomas) and Diane (Ruggiero), the EPs, also liked. And I think that connection was important to them, that we liked the same stuff, and so would fit in well with their room.
LEE: Now, as a writing team, do you always write together? Or are you also requested to write separately on the show?
TALIA: We always write together.
LEE: We talked about how iZOMBIE and TEEN WOLF are different. Was it an adjustment going from one room to the other?
TALIA: For me, iZOMBIE is a better fit for my writing sensibility. But TEEN WOLF taught me to think in a very visual way. With the leap to iZOMBIE, I felt like, yeah, this is my show. This is the kind of thing that I can write and write well.
BISANNE: iZOMBIE has a little bit of everything, it is genre but it’s also got the soap aspects, the procedural aspects and the crime of the week, and it’s funny. The humor is a really big part of it. The first few weeks in a room with 10 or 12 people is a much livelier discussion. It’s also harder. The first few weeks of iZOMBIE were tougher for me because it was really hard just to get a word in. People weren’t rude, and really tried to remember who said what to give credit where credit is due, but when there are twelve people in a room and everyone is trying to talk and you’re maybe not that confident in your idea to begin with, you have to really fight to get in there. To me, that was the hardest thing, trying to figure out the room and how to contribute to it productively. This year felt so much better. I tried really hard, we both tried to bring make our presence in the room as good as our work on the script.
TALIA: It’s not something you can prepare for. You know, you spend time writing, often times by yourself, and then your work gets you this job. And now the job is very different from what it was before. And you’ve got to build your confidence by spending time in different rooms, you start to think in different ways and you just get better. But it’s hard. There’s no class that can teach you how to be great in a room until you do it.
LEE: In your opinion, what makes a good performer in the room?
BISANNE: I think the main thing is being dialed in. We’re lucky on iZOMBIE, because we have really reasonable hours. We don’t pull these 10-hour days, 12-hour days. At that point, there is just a law of diminishing returns. And Rob (Thomas) and Diane totally understand that. You really have to be dialed in, and 5, 6, 7, 8 hours is a long time to be super dialed in. Really listening, is super important. And it’s hard too because you can listen to what’s being said but there are also people dynamics so you have to be aware of what’s not being said, too. You have to know when is a good time to chime in and when is not. And also recognize when there is a fight that you should stay out of. But being dialed in is the first step. Because if you’re not dialed in, you definitely won’t think of anything interesting to contribute. Which can be hard if you’re tired, or stressed out. And if you’re not tracking, that’s another thing too. You know, sometimes one thing changes and then it changes eight other things and now if you pitch on something which is not there anymore because of one tiny change that happened fifteen minutes ago when you spaced, then you look like you haven’t been paying attention… Everyone makes that mistake, but if you do that repeatedly it’s kind of a bad sign. I also found that once I started asking myself questions, in the middle of the room, then it got better. I challenged myself really to think. Just listening and knowing what everyone was talking about wasn’t quite enough. I realized I don’t generate enough ideas unless I actively ask myself how to solve problems.
TALIA: A lot of people would say that, as staff writers, we’re generally there to listen and maybe to pitch a couple of ideas per day as long as they are really stellar. But our experience has been quite the opposite. The showrunners expect you to talk. So telling low-level writers, or people just coming into the business, don’t worry, you’ll be mostly quiet, is setting people up for a rude awakening.
BISANNE: We heard that a lot before going in for our first room. Maybe that used to be the case, maybe staff writers weren’t expected to contribute that much but I kind of wish they would stop telling staff writers that. If you sit there and don’t say anything someone’s really going to be thinking ‘why are you here?’ We have you here to contribute good ideas, so, talk.
LEE: Can you walk me through the process of breaking an episode?
TALIA: If it’s an episode that isn’t the first one in the season then you sort of go through the previous episode and you write where all of the previous stories ended off. Once we determine the things we want to pick up from last episode that are important, we start to put them on the whiteboards. And then you just pitch ideas on what else could happen from there. You make sure that you have worked in all of your main characters and that nobody is left off—
BISANNE: We have so many characters on iZOMBIE that often it’s trying to figure out which storyline can be punted. Or if you don’t have someone for all 13 or all 19 episodes then it’s like, OK, we don’t have such-and-such for this week so how can we logically punt them so it doesn’t look like we just left them out.
TALIA: Once we’ve determined the storylines, and the things that we need to service, then we have the procedural element in which Liv eats a brain and then gets visions of how this person dies and so she teams up with a homicide detective. So we try to come up with brains that are going to help service the other storylines. And so we spend a bit of time really figuring out, OK, this is going to be the brain of the week and to me this is the really fun part, you just come up with different attributes that she might have. So if she ate a frat boy’s brain one week, what type of attitude does she have? Who are the possible victims that might inhabit this frat guy’s world. And kind of solve it from there.
BISANNE: Once we have all the sort of serialized stories up in very loose beats, we’ll break the A story, the crime for the week. What’s the brain? Who are some red herrings? Who really did it? Who died? And set up that whole world. Then we make cards for everything, cards for every separate beat of both stories. Once we’ve got all the cards, then we divide the board up into 6 acts and put the cards up in order. Those might get moved around but we’ll do that in a day or so. And then we begin what we call the massage, where we start from the top and go through the episode and Rob (Thomas) talks about what he wants each scene to look like, who’s in the scene, and what are the main bullet points that need to get covered in that scene. A lot of the challenge of iZOMBIE is making exposition fun because since it’s a detective show and it’s got a lot of mythology there often are a lot of things to remind the audience of and you don’t want to seem clunky. We really do have scenes sometimes when there are 8 bits of information that have to get out and you have to find a way to put those together in a way that doesn’t seem clunky.
TALIA: You’ll know at the beginning of breaking an episode which writer’s been assigned to that one. . So it’s their chance to take all of these detailed notes down to help them with the next phase, which is the outline. And then the outline is really just a prose summary from every scene of what is going to happen. And it’s usually between 25-30 pages.
BISANNE: You do a story area once you’ve broken everything and gotten everything up on the board, which is 2-3 pages and which goes to the studio and then to network and then you get notes. And then you go off and do the giant outline and get notes from studio and the network. Once the outline comes back and is ok’d you start the script – we get two weeks for our first draft and then notes from Rob (Thomas) and Diane (Ruggiero). And then you get a week to do your script rewrite. Rob and Diane run a tight ship. It’s pretty orderly, the process.
LEE: It sounds like it.
TALIA: Once you get all the scenes up on the board, you realize what scenes can go. You only get so many days of production to make it all work. I think that’s one of the most interesting things: now that you are writing for it to be shot as opposed to you just writing things for people to read them. You start to realize what that all means. If you have three people in this scene then it’s going to take longer than if you only have two people in this scene. You have to be aware that the show has to come in at budget. And locations, guest stars, special effects, they all add to that.
LEE: I have one last question for you. What advice do you have for new writers who are trying to break in?
TALIA: Well the first thing is that it’s easier if you’re in LA.. I don’t think that our career would have gotten to a professional level if we hadn’t moved to Los Angeles. So that just feels like a no-brainer. But then once you get here, you really do have to immerse yourself and go to all of the mixers, contest parties, festivals. Because these are the people that you are going to be coming up with,. And, it’s your job to know what is being shot and written and who the major players are. It’s really hard to do that remotely.
BISANNE: You have to read Deadline, you really do have to know all that stuff. But once you’ve been in LA for a while it’s not healthy to only have friends who are in the business. It’s kind of a tough order, because it is almost a one-industry town so almost everyone here is involved in some way, but your friends don’t all have to be writers. But you have to be willing to really dive in in every aspect. And I think it’s really important too, to try and do something every day that really pushes you in the right direction. More than just sitting down to write. That’s obviously the most important thing but we have a huge excel spreadsheet of our contacts and anyone who is willing sit down and have coffee with us. It really is amazing how many people are willing to give you their time. And if they’re willing to give you 15 minutes of their time to have coffee then you should definitely take them up on it. We have a lot of good mentors here who were willing to do that for us. And it’s made a big difference. If you’re throwing so many things at the wall then something will eventually stick. If you are entering contests and you are writing everyday and you are going to mixers and you are talking to your friends and you are reading Deadline and you’re trying to see if anyone you know can set you up with someone you can have coffee with, eventually you’ll get somewhere. But you really have to be actively doing things.
TALIA: If we hadn’t gotten in touch with/introduced to UTA, then querying would have been next on our list of things to do. And, why not? Other than your time it costs you barely anything. And at least you feel like you are being proactive in some way. In addition, make sure you are living a full life and not just living for the day that your life will begin – a lot of writers feel like, once I catch the brass ring, once I get this first TV writing job, or whatever that is, then my life will begin and I’ll be happy. And settled. And I think that, as much as you can, you have to try to push past that idea. Because there will always be the next thing on your list that you want to achieve. I came to LA for my career and it took me a while to realize that you have to really embrace where you are and do things that are going to fill your soul so that you have something that inspires you to keep writing.
Talia Gonzalez and Bisanne Masoud have been writing as a team since meeting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where they both studied acting at the Atlantic Theater Company Acting School. One year they made a New Year’s resolution: to write a play by the time the year was done. Their first collaborative effort—FaceSpace—sold out several performances during its New York run in the 2009 Midtown Theatre Festival, and was nominated for two festival awards. It took the Gold Prize in the Hollywood Screenplay Contest, and was also a Finalist for the North American Actors Association (NAAA) Play Reading Festival in London.
After FaceSpace the team decided to focus on television and film writing. Since then they have completed six spec scripts, two original comedy pilots, an original drama pilot, two features, and a short. Talia and Bisanne are Humanitas New Voices Semifinalists, Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop Finalists, Nickelodeon Fellowship Semifinalists, Austin Film Festival Second Rounders, Final Draft Big Break Quarterfinalists, Tracking Board Launch Pad Semifinalists, and Slamdance Finalists. Talia and Bisanne were previously Staff Writers on MTV’s Teen Wolf, and are now Story Editors for the CW’s iZombie.