Writers Breaking In: Richard Lowe & The Coveted Freelance
Every new writer seeking to break into television writing hears, sooner or later, about the freelance, that one episode in a seasonal television order assigned to a writer not currently on the show’s writing staff, and for which said writer is credited, earning not only a handsome script fee, but also points towards becoming a WGA member, as well as the opportunity to impress a working showrunner. In today’s industry, however, most freelances are awarded to eager young scribes already in the room: The room PA, writer’s assistant, showrunner’s assistant or coordinator, eager to step up and prove their worth. Or else, they are given to a friend of the showrunner’s, or a writer who was once in the room but since retired. Most people will tell you that that’s how it happens every time. But… does it? Richard Lowe, who landed the coveted freelance without ever being in the room not once but twice, told me otherwise.
Lee: When did you get started writing?
Richard: The easy answer is that I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but I think the better answer is seven years ago. That’s when I really shifted into a different gear with my writing. When I think about writers, I feel like there’s a turning point where they really start to dedicate themselves to the craft. Which means writing every day, thinking about story all the time, reading scripts before bed, watching film and TV not for entertainment but to learn, etc. For me, that was seven years ago. And the impetus for that shift was when my old college roommate sold a feature script. I was like, “Man, that’s awesome!” And then I felt that little tinge of envy, which made me realize I still wanted to be a professional writer. And that meant having to work as hard as he did.
Lee: Initially, you wrote feature screenplays. What made you turn to television?
Richard: Growing up, I had always been intrigued by television, but never felt passionate about it like I had features. However, around the same time I decided to dedicate myself to writing, TV’s “Golden Age” really took off and I started to see more and more stories on TV that resonated with me. So, I tried writing specs of existing shows and writing original pilots that mimicked my favorite TV comedies and fell in love with serialized form. (P.S. I haven’t stopped writing features.)
Lee: In 2013, you were a semi-finalist in the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. What was that experience like, and what validation did that provide?
Richard: The Austin Film Festival is the best experience in the world for a writer. I highly recommend going, regardless of whether you place in their screenplay competition. There’s just nothing like the camaraderie of spending a weekend with other writers and talking about writing, not to mention seeing some of your idols tell their stories and give away their advice. It’s such a generous festival and, as beginning writers, we need that generosity. Writing is such a struggle and often very lonely; I feel like writers tend to create a little writing bubble for themselves that’s just themselves, their ideas, and an Apple laptop, but the Austin Film Festival really breaks that isolation. The festival brings all us lonely, frustrated souls together for a weekend of encouragement and support. As for validation, there’s nothing quite like getting a call from Matt Dy telling you you’ve advanced in the best screenwriting competition out there.
Lee: Tell me about GROWING UP DICTATOR. What was that script about, and why do you think it attracted the attention it did?
Richard: GROWING UP DICTATOR is a sitcom I wrote about North Korea. It’s a satire, parody, and family comedy all rolled into one and centers on a present day Kim Jong-un (the current dictator of North Korea) recalling his childhood, when all he wanted to do was be a normal kid but his father (the infamous Kim Jong-il) forced him to learn how to be the next dictator. And I think people are attracted to it for the same reason I had to write it: it’s an absolutely absurd and bonkers idea, but also strangely resonant and universal. So the idea gets people to read it and once they do, I think the script is written in a way that makes it emotional and human and funny. So there’s an unexpected connection with this family of dictators, which surprises them. And when they ask me about the script, I explain to them that I wrote the character of Kim Jong-un from an extremely personal angle, as I come from a family of business people who wanted me to take over the family business but didn’t. So it’s really a giant mix of things and I feel very fortunate that I was able to combine all of that into a script.
Lee: GROWING UP DICTATOR landed you your agents at CAA. What was that first meeting with the reps like?
Richard: In a word: intimidating. There’s nothing quite like valeting your beat up Honda Civic at CAA because you have a meeting there as a potential client. It was surreal and scary sitting in the beautiful marble and glass lobby, but once I met my reps in person, it all went away. They were personable and comforting and once we started talking, it felt like a normal conversation you’d have with people you meet at a mixer. (Or, say, the Austin Film Festival. Have I told you how much I like that festival yet?)
Lee: What was the process of landing your first freelance for DR. KEN? Why do you think you were chosen for that freelance? Is the freelance something that you were consciously gunning for?
Richard: I had met with the showrunner of DR. KEN during staffing season but didn’t get the job of a staff writer for various reasons. When the freelance opportunity came up, I seemed to have impressed him enough that he wanted to bring me back in and see how I’d do. I’d like to think that landing the freelance was a combination of my script and how I did in my meetings, but the honest answer is I have no idea. And a freelance assignment wasn’t something I was gunning for. I didn’t even know freelance assignments existed and it was a complete surprise.
Lee: Once you get the freelance, what happens?
Richard: It seems that every freelance process is different, but on DR. KEN, the showrunner had me pitch a few ideas. Ultimately, they already had a story area they were playing with that fit into the serialized story they were telling, so I was given that area to build an outline from. From there, it was notes, script, notes, rewrite, table read, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, production, catch up on sleep. It was a whirlwind experience and something I’m thankful for nearly every day.
Lee: Following the DR. KEN freelance, you were named to the STAFFING SURVEY. For those not familiar… what is the staffing survey, and how do you get on it?
Richard: STAFFING SURVEY is a list of the best pilots read during staffing season as voted on by showrunners, executives, and assistants. It’s similar to THE BLACK LIST for features. I’m honestly not sure how I got on it, but it’s compiled by a TV executive.
Lee: In 2016, you added Circle of Confusion to your representation team. Why did you decide to bring on a manager, and what made you decide that they were the right manager for you?
Richard: Following the DR. KEN freelance and the STAFFING SURVEY mention, I wanted to capitalize on whatever momentum I had in order to get to the next step of my career. I figured finding additional reps who could connect me with people would be beneficial. Also, for much of my writing life, I’ve been writing for myself but realized I wanted some additional guidance from a professional standpoint.
Lee: Also in 2016, you returned to the Austin Film Fest as a finalist. Is the experience as thrilling the second time around?
Richard: It’s always thrilling to get a shout out from the Austin Film Festival. And the second time you go, you kind of feel like the cool high school senior showing up after summer break, being able to tell all the freshman where the best places are to make out under the bleachers or pull pranks on the substitutes. (I never did either of those in high school, by the way.) But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little bit of swagger in your step when you go a second time. Also, some friends and I ran into Ted Cruz at a taco truck and he made me pitch him my North Korea script. He hasn’t contacted me yet with financing to produce it, so I’m not sure I impressed him. But that was definitely the highlight of the festival.
Lee: And then came your second freelance for a Disney XD show. How did this freelance come about?
Richard: It came from my agents. They sent me out on the meeting and landed me the job.
Lee: How is writing your second freelance different from writing your first one?
Richard: For one, the showrunners had a different process. Everything I did on the Disney XD show was remote, which made it both satisfying and challenging in different ways. I loved being able to work through the story alone, but it was also harder to get a sense of the show without a constant discussion of the characters and previous episodes. However, the producer’s assistant on the show was awesome and answered any questions I had about that stuff. If you ever land a freelance, my first piece of advice would be to befriend the assistant.
Lee: What is expected of the writer awarded the freelance once you’ve been given your episode?
Richard: For DR. KEN, I think it was deliver the script on time and as close to the outline as the showrunner gave me. However, during the rewrite process, I really saw the script take on the voice of the show as the writing staff added their magic to it. For my Disney XD show, I came up with several pitches, then took the pitch the showrunners selected to outline, then to script. From there, the showrunners took my script into the room for rewrites and I currently am waiting for production to start.
Lee: You are active in writers groups. Why do you think writers groups are important for writers, and what are some of their benefits?
Richard: Writers groups are beneficial for both emotional and practical reasons. Emotionally, it makes the writing life seem less lonely, just like the Austin Film Festival does. (Okay seriously I’ll stop with all the praise now.) When you have a place you can go on a weekly or monthly basis and everyone is like, “My writing is going terribly and my draft sucks” and you’re like, “Me, too!” it’s a real bonding moment. It makes your frustrations seem less specific to you and helps you gain some perspective on what it takes to be a writer. Breaking into this industry is difficult and having people next to you feeling the same way makes the process a lot more bearable. Practically, having deadlines is extremely useful, as are getting frequent notes on your work. (Shout out to my writers group. You know who you are.)
Lee: Many people say that the only two ways to break into television staffing these days are through the fellowships or going the assistant route. Clearly, you are doing it a whole other way. What advice do you have for other writers trying to break into television writing?
Richard: Don’t stop writing is the short answer. Literally never give up. In the seven years I’ve really dedicated myself, I’ve seen writers come and go. But I’m still here and I’m just now getting work. At some point, it’s a game of attrition. Also, don’t compare yourself to anyone else because everyone gets in a different way. Comparing yourself to your friends or to so-and-so just breeds frustration and disappointment and makes you feel like giving up. If you had asked me a year ago how I thought I’d break in, it never would’ve been like this. So if you want it, go for it. You can do it. I believe in you.
RICHARD LOWE | writer
Richard Lowe is a comedy writer who most recently wrote for Disney XD and DR. KEN for ABC. His original pilot, GROWING UP DICTATOR (a comedic look at the childhood of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un), was a finalist at the 2016 Austin Film Festival and made the 2016 Staffing Survey, a list of the year’s best TV staffing samples. His satirical pilot EDUCATION, SECONDARY was a semifinalist at the 2013 Austin Film Festival. He has also written for the NBC Diversity Scene Showcase and ABC Talent Showcase. He studied improv and sketch with Upright Citizens Brigade, performed stand-up at the Hollywood Improv and shoots sketch comedy videos on his YouTube channel Aisle Five Comedy. Prior to becoming a writer, he was an editor and assistant editor, most recently working on the Emmy-winning drama THE GOOD WIFE and its spinoff, THE GOOD FIGHT.
Feel free to contact him on Twitter @richardonthego. He would love to hear from you.