Writers Breaking In: From Tree Planting to iZombie Brain Eating
Bob Dearden has a path-to-writing unlike any other I’ve ever met. In fact, his cuts – literally – straight through the forest, takes a hard left, and ends up in the writer’s room for iZombie. So when my friend Bisanne Masoud, whom I interviewed along with her writing partner, Talia Gonzales, for the WRITERS BREAKING IN interview series, I jumped at the opportunity. Below is the interview that resulted.
Lee: Up until your early 30’s you were in Canada, working in forestry. Which begs the question… How does one go from forestry to screenwriting? What prompted this very significant and non-linear pivot?
Bob: I don’t know how all of the other treeplanters/screenwriters did it, but in my case, it was something that had been in the back of my mind, and on the back burner, since my early twenties. I got to a point where it started feeling pretty now-or-never, so I went with now, and signed up for an online extension screenwriting workshop at UCLA. From there, I applied to a handful of graduate programs, and elected to attend the only one that (wisely) accepted me, the University of Texas at Austin. A few other dominoes had to fall after that to get me started on actually having a career, but that was the transition.
The forestry work I did was a seasonal job that I’d started as a summer gig when I was in school, and I’d never really intended for it to turn into a career. It lasted longer than I thought it would, and it was a great job for that time in my life, but I got to a point where I was finally motivated to take the leap and move on. I lucked out with what happened next and led to the career I have now, otherwise I’d probably be back in the woods of British Columbia. And that would’ve been fine, but my feeling was that I didn’t want to end up doing forestry work for the rest of my life just because I never took a shot at doing anything else. The only “anything else” that ever appealed to me was working in film/TV, so that’s the direction I headed.
Lee: Once you decided you wanted to write, you decided to go for an MFA. Why the decision to go back to school? How did you select which school to go to?
Bob: It seemed like the only viable path to me. I never loved school, and have mixed feelings about the world of higher education, but I needed some sort of foundation, both in terms of the craft of screenwriting, and how to navigate the film/TV industry. I also wanted to work in the States, so moving to LA and trying to work my way up from some assistant job without the foundation of my graduate degree just wasn’t an option, due to the lack of available Visas for that type of work.
To that end, I only looked at schools in the US. I applied to NYU, Columbia, USC, UCLA, and UT-Austin. I got wait-listed at a couple of the NY/LA schools, but only UT welcomed me with open arms from the get-go, so the choice was made. And I’m glad I ended up where I did, not only because of how my career eventually got jump-started in Austin, but also because it was exponentially more affordable to study and live there than at any of the other options. Not to mention the fact that it was just a great place to live for a couple of years. There are a lot of bars there.
Lee: What were the benefits of and the takeaways from being a part of an MFA program?
Bob: First and foremost, the structure of the program forced me to be productive – to be writing every day, and to (theoretically) carry that discipline forward. Our classes were small workshops, which meant we were exposed to a lot of feedback, from the professors and our fellow students. So it was pretty immersive, which was important because I didn’t have much of a foundation in screenwriting at that point. It also provided contacts and connections – or at least a framework from within which I could pursue them – that eventually led to pretty much all of the Hollywood jobs I’ve had since.
Lee: Ultimately you chose to set your sights on TV writing. Why TV rather than features?
Bob: Well, if I’d been offered a job in features before the one(s) I was offered in TV, I’m sure that’s where I’d be working. But it’s also my preference, so that worked out nicely for me. The bulk of the stuff I watch now, and that I get excited to watch, is on television. I’m more invested in that type of continuous storytelling, and more prone to think of my stories in those terms. There are also significantly more jobs for young or less experienced writers in television these days, which hypothetically bodes well for my future career stability.
Lee: Your first break came when you interned for Rob Thomas in 2012-2013. How did this internship come about? Why did you want to intern for him?
Bob: I’d seen Rob give presentations at a couple of Austin Film Festival events when I was at UT, and I was a fan of Party Down. He talked about maintaining his Hollywood career while living in Texas, and about a few pilots he was working on. At the same time, I was trying to figure out how to fulfill the internship requirement of my MFA program. Most students did so in Los Angeles, during our fifth (and final) summer semester, but I wasn’t going to be able to afford living in LA while working for free, so I was hoping to find an internship in Austin. The options I’d been entertaining up to that point would’ve been fine for the course, but I didn’t think they’d be all that interesting or beneficial for me personally. I thought to myself, I said, “Self – Rob’s a successful showrunner and TV writer and he’s right here; maybe he could use an intern.” Then I decided that was a dumb idea, but I emailed the Austin Film Festival anyway, laid out the situation and asked if they might put me in touch with Rob.
The email was forwarded directly to Rob (by a future classmate of mine – Maya Perez – who was working at the Festival but whom I had not yet met), and to my surprise, he loved the idea. I started interning for him at the start of my second year at UT, and he hasn’t been able to get rid of me since.
Lee: Over time, your internship turned into a PA gig, which then turned into various assistant jobs. What shows and movies did you work on, and what is the assistant experience like?
Bob: The first PA job I had was on the Veronica Mars movie with Rob. I worked on a show called Chasing Life after that, but then it was back to Rob on post-production for the movie, which rolled into iZOMBIE pilot prep, which rolled into the show itself when it got picked up. I was lucky in that I had a pre-existing relationship with the big boss man before I was hired as an assistant on these various projects. You get a bit of a pass when you screw up if everyone knows you’re the boss’ guy. At least that’s how it felt to me; maybe all the other assistants thought I was an asshole. Hard to say.
My general take on being an assistant is that you’re alternately grateful to be there with your foot in the door and pretty anxious/impatient for the door to open wider. You work absurdly long hours in some cases, and in pretty much all cases with very little pay. So it’s got its moments, but overall, you hope being an assistant is just a quick stepping stone you have to endure before you get to the good part of working in Hollywood.
Lee: How did you end up on iZombie?
Bob: I was the assistant to the Executive Producers (including Rob) on the pilot, so when the show got picked up, they hired me as the writers’ room assistant. It was sort of the next logical link in the chain of my employment under Rob’s mentorship. And the next link after that was the opportunity to write a freelance script for the seventh episode that first season.
Right around the time we had finished discussing that episode and I was sent off to write the script, my student Visa extension ran out, so I had to move back to Canada. However, we shoot iZOMBIE in Vancouver, so I was hired as an assistant in the production office up there, and that’s where I completed writing my script. I finished out the season in Vancouver, and then during our S1-S2 hiatus, I was able to apply for and was granted another Visa, which allowed me to return and accept a full-time staff-writing job for Season 2.
Lee: What are some of the challenges of being a Canadian writer trying to work in US TV? Are there any challenges with that? How do you solve them?
Bob: The biggest challenge, besides trying not to punch people in the face when they make fun of my accent, is with being legally allowed to work here. The Visa application process is time-consuming and expensive, and there are no guarantees you’ll be approved (at least not at my level). You just have to do what you can and hope for the best. But otherwise, there aren’t too many challenges. I grew up watching mostly US TV and movies, so it’s not like there’s a huge cultural adjustment required. Except for the aforementioned not-punching-people thing.
Lee: Tell me more about your iZombie journey through the seasons, as you worked both in the room, and/or the production side.
Bob: I was an assistant on iZOMBIE when it was still in the pilot script stage, so I was privy to the development of the script with Rob and the show’s co-creator, Diane Ruggerio-Wright. When the CW decided to make the pilot, I got to go up to Vancouver with the EPs for prep and production. There were a lot of the customary assistant-type tasks associated with that, but Rob directed the pilot, so I also got to hang out on set and in video village for a lot of that shoot (in between running to craft services for Red Vines and diet soda pops on behalf of my bosses). That was new for me, and a pretty cool (and informative) experience at the time. I stayed on as the EPs’ assistant through post-production (where one of my jobs was printing off sample scripts from potential future members of the writing staff, AKA the people who were going to get the job I wanted), and then not long after, the show was picked up and I started working as the writers’ room assistant. When you factor in my work on the production side in Vancouver, I was on iZOMBIE for over a year, on a pretty continuous basis, in a variety of different roles – including the freelance gig writing my first episode of TV. It was a good year, all in all, but pretty up-and-down in a number of ways.
Coming back for the second season, with an approved Visa and a multi-year contract, felt like security – but I spent a lot of time worrying about how not to screw it up. It took me awhile to settle in and figure out my new place in our writers’ room, because even though I’d been on the show from the beginning, I was still a new, inexperienced writer in the room. And even though I’d sat in that room taking notes for the first half of Season 1, it’s still a tricky dynamic to figure out when you’re not familiar with all of the politics and protocols. Luckily, we had a few other new writers that season, so we were all in the same boat and could get together in our downtime to talk shit about everyone else in the safety of our first-year staff member cone of silence.
We haven’t had a crazy amount of turnover among our staff through Seasons 3 and 4, so by now most of us are settled into our roles and understand the lay of the land. With that, and with the experience gained in the interim, comes a better understanding of what the show should be (through the lens of our bosses’ perspective and tastes, of course), and more confidence in our ability to provide ideas and scripts toward that end.
Which is all to say that I started out with very little idea how to navigate the world of writing for TV, and over the years I have a little more than very little.
Lee: Before being brought in as a staff writer, you wrote the coveted freelance. What was that experience like?
Bob: I was, again, very lucky to have had a pre-existing working relationship with Rob, and more recently with Diane as well, before being assigned my first script. I’d co-written a webseries with Rob (I did most of the work)(that’s not true) and I’d been in the room every day for the first part of the season, so it was a welcoming and supportive environment. The process of breaking the episode in the room – from my perspective at least – seemed pretty similar to what I’d witnessed for each of the five episodes that preceded mine. I think I was probably given a little more slack than the staff writers, but that’s just a guess.
Either way, the part that was really unique to me as a freelancer versus the rest of the staff was that I had to move back to Canada in the middle of writing my first draft. I’m pretty sure none of the other writers had to do that. But that also meant I got to be present for, and part of, the entire production process – all of prep and all of the shooting days. Typically, our writers only get to visit Vancouver for a few days when their episode is in production. So that was one silver lining to the whole getting-kicked-out-of-America thing.
Lee: What is it like going from support staff to a full writer (albeit lower level) in the room?
Bob: The pay is better, I’ll tell you that for free. So are the hours. And you get your own office, where you can hang any posters you want.
What are some of the important lessons you learned along the journey?
Bob: I’ll pass along the advice Rob gave me when I was still interning for him, and he had no idea I’d never work for anyone else again. He said that everyone who is in a support staff position is only there because it’s a stepping stone to what they really want to do, and everyone above them already knows and understands that. So the best thing you can do in order to parlay that support job into something better is to do the support job to the best of your abilities. That’s the type of person that producers or showrunners will want to re-hire/promote/help progress in their career. Working hard and not being an asshole goes a long way, especially in Hollywood. Which seems kind of counter-intuitive when I say it that way, but in my experience, it holds true.
Lee: If there was one piece of advice you could share with other writers just starting out, what would it be?
Bob: Besides the above, I’d probably say make sure you really love the process of writing, the work itself. If you’re in it for some idea of a glamorous life among the rich and famous or whatever, you’re in for a rude awakening. It’s pretty cool to see your name in the credits and to get invited to drinks with the cast (not that our cast ever invites me out, which is pretty rude if we’re being honest)(except Buckley, that dude’s alright), but the novelty wears off pretty quick. The work can be a bit of a slog at times (especially when you have a murder mystery to conjure and solve every week), so you should probably really be into that sort of thing. And if you are, just keep doing it until you get it right (I guess…?).
Bob Dearden is a former forestry worker and decorated free-throw shooter hailing from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He received an MFA from The University of Texas at Austin in 2013, and currently works as a writer for The CW’s iZombie.