Five or ten years ago, no one outside the TV industry knew what the term “show runner” meant. Now, we can name several iconic ones who have changed TV history: Tina Fey (30 Rock), David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire), and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) among them. But the writers behind the show runners, the ones sitting in windowless rooms pounding out the shows we know and love, they’re still largely anonymous. Which is a problem that a new reality show, premiering on Monday, July 29, on the Sundance Channel, called [i]The Writers’ Room,[/i] is hoping to correct.
On The Writers’ Room, Jim Rash, who won a screenwriting Oscar for The Descendants, cowrote this summer’s most charming comedy The Way, Way Back, and plays the dean on Community, interviews writers from some of today’s most popular shows—including New Girl, Parks and Recreation, and Game of Thrones–about how they work together.
Fans of Breaking Bad, which enters its last half season in August, will be thrilled to discover that Gilligan, star Bryan Cranston, and key writers reveal how they made tough decisions about killing off major characters (and hopefully provide insight into the amazing death scene that caps season 4. FYI, this hyperlink is a spoiler). “I was surprised just by inside info,” Rash says. “In the Breaking Bad episode, they talk about all the [logistical character] traps they’d have to figure out. They’d have to go online and try to find a chemical that would blow up an RV in the right way. They had to problem solve constantly.”
We spoke to Rash about his writing methods, how he works together with his cowriter Nat Faxon, and how to fit writing in when you’re also filming a network TV show.
[Nat and I] met at The Groundlings Theater, and our training is in improv. So we bounce off each other—we use the same room to write together. The office is better to talk out loud and move around a room to beat out a story. Usually I’m at the keyboard as we navigate stuff. When Nat was on [the now-cancelled Fox sitcom] Ben and Kate and I was on Community, that is when I’d do a little solo work, sitting at Community on my laptop, and I’d congregate back with Nat, and then we’d take another pass together.
Some people like to purge out a draft and just let it go and then go back and fix it, but I’m a writer-rewriter. I can’t move on until I feel like it’s presentable. Not that it’s perfect, but something happens. If this was our last day, and we left this script behind, I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone read it.
[Nat and I] have an office at the Santa Monica airport. I actually hate it. Creatively it sucks everything out of me. I’ll go there some, but for the most part I need noise, I need activity, just life happening around me. I find a couple coffee shops that are slightly old school, still surviving and we’ll sort of plant ourselves down. We were writing our own material at Groundlings–you write with all the fellow cast members. Nat and I found an ease of doing that. We had similarities in what made us laugh, and where we like to go with stories. We’re very much opposites for people who meet us. They’re curious how we became friends, because we’re very different. Nat’s just naturally very funny. I deal more with structure from beginning to end, but I think we both have a strength of dialogue.
Often, if there’s a moment when we hit a wall, I’ll run an errand. The idea is that you’ll go to the bank or the dry cleaners, and you do some sort of remedial task that allows your brain to do something else. When you stop thinking about something, the idea comes to you. It seems to work. Another way I get unstuck is talking to other people at the office. It’s a group, some friends and fellow writers, there are other people there who are procrastinating. You chat with them, or pitch a story, or pitch a problem.
[Photos Courtesy of Sundance | Mark Peterson]