Real Writers Break In! Felischa’s Trek From Chicago to Hollywood to Showrunner
I can’t begin to tell you when I first met Felischa Marye. Yes, she joined my (since shuttered) Screenwriters Support Group back in 2015, but I remember being keenly aware of who she was when her sign up showed up in my inbox. Looking back, I know that, at that point, Felischa was not yet a working writer. So why was I aware of her so long before she became my client? The only thing I can point to is that Felischa is just one of those people you become aware of from the moment you meet her, be it in person, via an email introduction, or through social media. She is one of those people whose name you listen for when friends, writers and consultants you hold in high regard, tell you about her. Because she is one of those people whose rise you want to watch. Whose rise you know you SHOULD watch, because all you want to do is root for her. And it’s this ascend – through Film Independent’s Project Involve, to a pilot in development to HBO, to staffing on 13 Reasons Why and then ultimately selling her show Bigger to BET which she is now, in season 2, running – that I wanted to dive into in this latest installment of Real Writers Break In!
You had a successful career prior to screenwriting. What was it, and what made you decide to leave it?
I was a public relations/marketing executive. It was a solid career and I wasn’t bad at it, but it ultimately didn’t make “my soul sing,” so to speak. I never quite fit in the way other execs did in that industry. I felt like I was living a fake life, pretending as if that was the career I wanted, all the while, wanting to be in Hollywood.
Once you left your job you made the move to Hollywood. Was it a hard transition? What were some of your concerns?
Yes and no. Once I got to Los Angeles, I adapted fairly easily, but when I was in Chicago dreaming about moving to LA, I couldn’t imagine being able to afford quitting my job and focusing on the craft, which is something I felt I needed to do since writing with a demanding day job proved almost impossible. Film school ended up being the vehicle for me to make that transition. It gave me a reason to move, something to do once I got here, and student loans to survive on after quitting my job in Chicago. I was also concerned about my age since I had lived a whole life it seemed before starting film school. But I soon realized that with age comes wisdom, and that wisdom is helpful in storytelling since you have more perspective and experience than someone super young.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, what did you do to submerge yourself in the world of screenwriting? I would love to hear about any classes you took, organizations you joined, etc.
UCLA film school was my immersion into the world. I started off focusing on features, starting with writing a very personal character-driven drama feature. As I took producing and TV classes, I became aware of the change happening in television. It was 2011 and Breaking Bad as well as Mad Men were hot TV shows, shows that were different from what we were used to from basic cable channels – more cinematic, more character driven. Seeing that change happening while learning that TV is a team sport that moves faster than features, made me more interested in starting with TV. I focused my learning there, applied (and never got into) TV fellowships that help you get staffed. I did complete a more comprehensive fellowship program – Film Independent’s Project Involve, which led to some important introductions, mentorship and production of a short film.
Tell me about your time with Film Independent’s Project Involve. Why did you apply to the program, and what was the experience once you got in?
I have the theory that writers should apply to everything that makes sense. And making sense means that you’re applying for contests for fellowships that are highly-recognizable and respected in your particular area of interest (such as TV vs. film, contests that focus on your specific genre, or topic of interest, etc.). If you win or place in these contests or fellowships, you could create what they call “heat” around your name and brand, and reps can come looking for you. I applied because I wanted the program to serve as a credible, third-party source to validate me and my work. UCLA film school was one level of validation. Project Involve was another. Any respected program or contest that selects you over others is a way to say that others believe in your writing and that you’ve had solid training – both of which are important in this industry.
Project Involve was key in introducing you to an executive at HBO. How did it happen?
Project Involve had a luncheon with their fellows and HBO executives. At that lunch, I met a comedy exec at HBO. I brought up a spec script I wrote for an existing HBO show, and that started us talking. The next day, she asked Film Independent for a sample from me, since it wasn’t appropriate for me to offer a sample or ask for a meeting at the luncheon. And so glad she did!
Everyone would love to sell a pilot to HBO, but you actually did! Tell me what that experience was like.
That sample led to a general meeting, and that meeting led to me coming back to pitch an idea to the comedy team while in film school with no reps. I was nervous and completely freaked out, but I believed in the story… and luckily, so did they! It wasn’t greenlit, but it was a great first experience in development.
At which point in the development of your career did you land representation? And how?
After I sold that HBO pilot, I was introduced to an agent by HBO. That agent introduced me to people in town and that ultimately led to me getting staffed on 13 Reasons Why. Once I was staffed, it was official and the agent pulled together my full team at UTA.
How does your life change once you have representation?
You don’t feel like you’re chasing things down as much. Opportunities come to you finally, although you do have to mine your own opportunities as well. It’s a team effort and you’re part of your own team, so you don’t want to leave everything up to reps. Continue to network, nurture and build relationships on your own as well.
Let’s backtrack for a second: Your first staffing opportunity came on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. How did you get the job?
UTA sent me to speak with Brian Yorkey, the creator. Although I’m a comedy writer, my sensibility in what I watch is quite dark, so I loved this story about a hard-to-discuss topic. I told him how I was bullied, then briefly became a bully, and how from either side, there is suffering. I think my views on high school, social issues affecting girls and women, along with me having a non-traditional upbringing, intrigued him and I ended up getting staffed.
What is it like being in a writer’s room for the first time? Are there any pitfalls that writers who haven’t staffed before should watch out for?
It’s absolutely terrifying. You don’t know what to expect. The stakes are so very high. And there’s not a lot of indication of how you’re doing because the train is moving so fast. The best thing to do is to be confident that you beat out many people for that spot. You deserve to be there, but stay humble. You have a lot to learn but you also have a lot to offer.
Tell me about Bigger. How did that show come to be?
I was meeting with Will Packer Productions and they were in conversation with BET about creating a new-school Living Single of sorts, to take place in Atlanta. I gave them my take. We developed a show for linear BET called Peachtree Place, but then were told that the show would be on BET’s new streaming service they were set to launch in 2019. I worked with Showrunner/EP Devon Shepard on developing season one using the same characters and world but with an edgier premise. And that’s how Bigger came to be.
In your first season, you worked with a seasoned showrunner. What was that experience like?
It was amazing. He was a kind, helpful and fantastic teacher. Many creators and showrunners bump heads, but when you find someone really trying to help your voice be the best it can be, it’s truly a blessing.
In season two, you were handed the reigns. What was it like, running your first show?
Also terrifying. Lol But every new thing in this business is. I had to tell myself, just like when I was a staff writer, that I belong here. I see that as a consistent message I’ll have to tell myself with every step up I take. The imposter syndrome is big with writers, and I am no different!
What are some of the important lessons you’ve learned along your journey?
To smell the roses along the way. And to recognize that this is an amazing career, a real dream come true, but as I mentioned, Professor Howard Suber’s advice was solid… you have to have more than this career in your life. It’s really your personal relationships and family that give you true joy and security. If nothing else, living through this pandemic has taught us all that.
Did your journey, thus far, present any specific challenges you had to overcome? If so, how did you handle them?
Writer’s block or getting stuck in writing is always a challenge, especially if you are a perfectionist. Sometimes, I expect every project to flow as easily as the one before. But the truth is that some ideas come to you freely and easily, and others take more mining. But either can lead to something amazing, so stick with it and write through it.
How does your life change (or doesn’t) once you become a showrunner?
You’re expected to have all the answers, and if you don’t, you should know how to get the answers. The ball also stops with you, and that pressure feels very different. But you are still the same person as you were before becoming a showrunner, so in many ways you feel the same, but with a bit more responsibility and, hopefully, respect.
What’s next for you?
Working on getting into the feature world, like I originally wanted to when I moved to LA. It’s great that now we have the opportunity in this industry to do both – more than we might have had 10 years ago. So I’m wanting to take advantage of this opportunity, because you never know in Hollywood when a thing is a thing, or when it’s just a passing moment. And if it is just a moment, I won’t let it pass me by!
Felischa Marye, a graduate of the MFA screenwriting program at UCLA, transitioned into the film industry after a successful career in public relations/integrated marketing in Chicago, where she was born and raised. While still in film school, she sold her first comedy pilot to HBO. She most recently created and produced a raunchy friends comedy series, set in Atlanta, called “Bigger,” for BET’s new streaming service, BET+, with Will Packer producing. Bigger Season 2 is currently in development. Felischa also wrote on two seasons of the hit Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.”
Felischa currently resides in Los Angeles, and is proud to have made LA her home, largely because of Chicago’s weather and its indiscriminate cruelty.