Marissa Jo Cerar is a film and television writer who grew up in a family of eight adopted kids, five of whom her parents adopted from foster care—at once. That fateful decision has provided her with endless material, and life as the only brown girl in rural Illinois, population 1,600, was unique, to say the least, because she only saw people who looked like her on television and in the movies.
After placing on the Hit List and the Black List in 2012, a pair of annual surveys of studio and prodco execs that rank the most well-regarded unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, her script Conversion sold to KperiodMedia in January of 2016. She is a co-producer on the upcoming film Burden, currently in post-production.
Marissa Jo spent three years on the television show The Fosters (seasons 1–3). Last year she joined the writing and producing team of Shots Fired as a co-producer; the 10-hour limited series premiered at Sundance and currently airs on Fox, Wednesday nights at 8/7c. She now works as a Supervising Producer on season two of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, set for release in 2018.
I first met Marissa Jo in 2009 at an industry Christmas party in Century City (isn’t that how the plot of Die Hard got started?), and a few months later, along with six other working screenwriters, we formed a writers group that met twice monthly to trade notes and war stories over dinner. Speaking for myself, it was an invaluable association that made me a better writer as well as a sharper analyst, and was a great source of camaraderie and confidence—two short-supply resources in a vocation as solitary and enervating as this one.
An uncommonly emotive screenwriter, Marissa in many respects served as the emotional barometer of our workshops. For instance, when I first pitched Escape from Rikers Island in 2010, the group enthusiastically helped me brainstorm the high-concept potential of a “zombie outbreak”–meets–“prison break” genre mashup, but it was Marissa who responded from the get-go to the story’s emotional through-line—the volatile dynamic between the two leads, a white Gang Squad detective and black gangbanger forced by circumstance to team up—thereby encouraging me to make that the primary focal point of the narrative: It would be a story about two lower-class city kids who grew up to be men on opposing sides of the law, who share more in common than either would care to admit, and whose relationship would be examined in all of its messy, morally gray complexity; that zombies were exacerbating the tension between them became almost incidental.
Somehow, to my pleasant surprise, this action thriller about alpha males trying to escape a detention center overrun with cannibalistic monsters became, at heart, a funky sort of love story—one about the love between enemies. I don’t think I would have otherwise been inclined to reach so high—and dig so deep—with such a pulpy, commercial premise had Marissa not inspired me to do so. In a business that’s always looking for the hook, Marissa’s instincts are to find the heart.
That profound sensitivity, coupled with her one-of-a-kind formative experiences, have been a tremendous asset to the character-driven television dramas to which Marissa Jo has contributed, which have explored such thematically challenging subjects as multiethnic blended families and LGBT equality (The Fosters), race relations between the police and public (Shots Fired), and teen suicide (13 Reasons Why). She’s brings a unique point of view, a master’s command of her craft, and a fearlessness to her writing—because it takes courage to put your heart on the page, and risk having crushed the very thing you only wish to share. For those reasons, I’m delighted Marissa agreed to be the subject of my first interview here on the blog:
Well, first off, Marissa, thanks so much for doing this. I started this blog to explore and celebrate the virtues of storytelling craft, and I’m thrilled to have this occasion to talk to another writer about the discipline, the process, and the business.
When I started my writing journey I struggled to find authentic stories from pros/working writers about the process of getting that elusive “first gig,” and when I did manage to unearth an interview I rarely saw myself in those stories. I hope that I can provide some bits of guidance to anyone working their way through this business!
On that note, I majored in cinema studies in college, and in terms of familiarizing myself with the history of the art form, the experience was beneficial, but I certainly don’t feel like any of it adequately prepared me for either the business of screenwriting or the creative process itself—that is, the habits and methodologies an effective writer cultivates and consciously applies to produce professional-caliber material, time and again, on a deadline. That sort of thing only came later, after I moved to Hollywood, and studied under the tutelage of a couple of professional screenwriters, adopting their techniques and developing my own customized, codified approach, and also from my experiences “in the trenches,” which is to say taking pitch meetings all over town and working directly with producers and creative execs on various projects. How about you? Do you have a formal educational background in screenwriting, and how effectively did it prepare you for your career?
I think studying the medium is essential, but I don’t know if the path I took (film school) is for everyone. I earned my BA at Columbia College Chicago. I majored in film with a focus on screenwriting. My college experience was important because Columbia’s “Semester in L.A.” screenwriting program allowed me to settle in, find mentors, and get acquainted with the city and the industry. I learned how to write coverage and break down scripts. I met my first screenwriting mentor; I was part of a small community of screenwriters, all new to the game, people I could confide in and vent my frustrations and small victories. Basically, film school was an important step in my journey, but I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone. The real education in the industry comes when you’re in it, when you’re working, or interning—that’s the only real way to understand the so-called rules of this business.
No two writers have precisely the same creative process. Speaking for myself, I’ll start with a very general notion that excites me in a purely visceral or emotional way—there’s no intellectualizing at that embryonic stage. From that point, I develop a logline, then I figure out the fifteen major “beats,” per Save the Cat!, and from there I flesh out the story on forty index cards, identifying the major turns of plot and mapping the character arcs. When all that legwork is done—and, for me, it’s the hardest phase—only then do I allow myself the reward of “going to pages.” And it really is a reward, because it’s like I’ve given myself this amazing playset and all these brand-new action figures, and now I can finally take them out of the packaging. Tell me a little bit about your process: where you get your ideas for your original screenplays, how you develop them—that sort of thing.
For me it all starts with character. This is probably why TV has been a good fit for me, despite the fact that I started writing features. I start with a character I want to hang out with for a few months to a year. If it’s not character, it’s an issue I want to explore or a world I want to investigate, unearth, or celebrate. I then move into a pretty heavy research phase, if need be. For example, my Black List script Conversion started with “issues”: homophobia, religion, and reparative therapy. I wanted to explore the practice and use my experience growing up in a very rural, very religious small town as the setting with fictional characters at the center. I did months of research and just poured my heart into an intimate character drama I’d actually want to see, rather than writing what would “sell” or what was my “brand.” A few years later I sold it. I became very interested in televangelism when I transitioned to TV, and decided to write a pilot about the fall of a fictional megachurch in the 1970s. That particular project, Electric Church, started with a world I wanted to explore, and the character came second.
Your first big break in the industry, I think it’s fair to say (correct me if I’m mistaken), came when you were hired to work for the then–ABC Family (now Freeform) dramatic series The Fosters. How did that opportunity come about? The reason I ask is because I imagine a lot of aspiring screenwriters don’t necessarily know or understand what it takes to make the leap to “working professional”—the years-long perseverance and, to some extent, the role luck plays (being in the right place when the stars finally align) in establishing a career. What were the circumstances under which that hard-earned opportunity presented itself?
The Fosters was my first legit gig. Prior to that I’d optioned a couple features, but nothing was produced. I’d been in L.A. pursuing this career for years. I wrote a dozen specs, entered contests (placing in a handful, but never winning), applied for fellowships (I was chosen as a Film Independent Project: Involve screenwriting fellow in 2009), but I wasn’t making a living writing. I knew it’d happen eventually. Quitting was never an option for me, but it was a long and hard fight. Before I joined the staff of The Fosters, my script Conversion got the attention of some interesting heavyweights in the industry, and I signed with an agency (I had only managers at the time). I then wrote my first pilot in the fall of 2012. Conversion landed on the Black List in December of 2012, and I joined The Fosters in January of 2013. It seems like it happened fast, but it was following many years of rejection and a multitude of “day jobs” (I interned in development, worked various assistant gigs, and I did freelance script consulting and coverage for one of my screenwriting heroes, Michael Hauge).
Up until The Fosters, you were mostly writing spec screenplays and teleplays—in other words, developing projects that you alone conceived and executed, and taking however much time you needed to do that. What was it like working on a TV series, where you presumably found yourself for the first time in your career serving someone else’s vision, and having to churn out material on tight deadlines? Was there a certain degree of “culture shock” that came along with that? Was it an easy adjustment?
The biggest difference is lifestyle. Feature writers are alone in a room. TV writers must communicate with other humans—all day long. It’s been a few years now, but generating story verbally, verses on the page, is the greatest shift. You have to be comfortable pitching, failing, and you must be prepared to embarrass yourself. I was in a very safe room that allowed me to pitch the blend of my very first episode of TV, and it was a safe environment to work and learn. [“Blend” is industry jargon meaning to blend the beats/scenes into the pre-outline.—Ed.]
Now you’re working on Shots Fired for FOX. Tell me a little bit about the show and your role on it. How does the experience differ from The Fosters? Did The Fosters prepare you in any way for this?
Now I’m on season two of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why as a Supervising Producer. Last year I worked on Shots Fired, a 10-hour limited series about two racially charged shootings in a fictional North Carolina town. It airs Wednesday nights 8/7. We only have two episodes left! The finale, that I co-wrote, airs May 24th. The series has a definitive end. The mystery is solved in the finale, and yet that doesn’t rule out the possibility of the story continuing one day. The Fosters absolutely prepared me for Shots Fired. I started as a staff writer, day one of season one’s writing room, and I stayed on the show for three years. From the moment we started, I was responsible for covering set on my episodes, which is a wonderful opportunity to truly understand production. I was on location for nearly a month shooting Shots Fired, whereas I was shooting locally on The Fosters. Writing a serialized family drama means generating a lot of story. Writing a limited series, where each hour was truly treated like a movie, is a different animal. Day one, we knew how and when the series would end.
Let’s talk features for a minute. Nowadays, we’ve got studios sinking all their resources into branded tentpoles (which employ only screenwriting’s top one percent), with indies, on the other end of the spectrum, fighting for scraps, while midbugeted, conceptually original popular entertainments—which used to be the great incubator of new franchises, like Back to the Future and Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon were in their day—have been pretty much rendered nonexistent, which has left the spec marketplace decimated and made it hard for new voices and stories to break through. The whole industry needs systemic restructuring, as far as I’m concerned. Are you as pessimistic about the state of the Biz as I am, or do you take a different view?
I am not as pessimistic… but if I didn’t work full time in television (and if I didn’t have a toddler keeping my hope alive), I might be. I am frustrated by the amount of work it takes to even consider getting an open writing assignment (like an adaptation). The amount of free work one must do to even get in the door is kind of insane. Things happen in TV. Movies require an incredible amount of patience, and writers garner much more respect in TV—don’t even get me started on that subject.
True—that could be an entire conversation unto itself! You know that I’ve somewhat recently stepped away from screenwriting—I often refer to myself as a “recovering screenwriter”—in favor of pursuing a career as a novelist. Even though both require a command of basic storytelling craft, I don’t think all screenwriters would necessarily make for good novelists (the latter requires a facility for wordsmithing screenwriters simply aren’t required to cultivate), nor all novelists competent screenwriters (since screenwriting is such an economical—even minimalist—form of storytelling that leaves no room for the kind of narrative digression authors enjoy). But I know from having read a healthy sampling of your work that your creative inclinations put an emphasis on characterization and atmospherics that would probably make you ideally suited for novelistic writing. Is that something you either have considered or would consider, or is that a challenge that doesn’t interest you?
I often fantasize about writing a novel. One of the first scripts I wrote, Human Resources, placed in Slamdance—and got me in the door to meet my managers—but it is so intensely personal, character-driven, and small that it isn’t the type of script one would sell. I truly believe I’ll take on the challenge of writing Human Resources “the novel” some point in my life, but right now time doesn’t allow it. I’ve been working nonstop in TV—and all my “free” time belongs to my baby.
Let me close with this: Is there any advice or wisdom you would pass along to anyone who aspires to be a screenwriter? It’s a corny question, but if it were ever worth putting to anyone, it would be you: You hail from a small Midwestern town, and, as far as I know, had no connections in the movie industry when you moved yourself out to L.A. With only talent and hustle, you’ve defied the odds and established a prospering career in features and television. We all optimistically envision for ourselves, as young artists/students, what you’ve actually attained, but I can certainly say I sure as hell had no idea just how hard a climb that mountain would be until I was halfway to the summit. What would you say to fledgling writers, Marissa, to prepare them for the practical hardships of forging a career without discouraging them from trying?
Don’t forget who you are or where you came from—and use that in your work; use your life to get you the gig. Do not pretend to be someone you’re not. Join (or create) a writers group so you’re surrounded by people going through the same ups and downs. One day you will feel like you’ve made it, but the next day you could honestly wake up and find out that a producer backed out, a studio went bankrupt, that you’ve been rewritten or taken off a project. You have to really love writing so much that you’re willing to go through all the chaos and/or struggle for years before you get your first paycheck… and when you do start working you have to be willing to adapt—to notes you may not understand, to personalities you find less than kind, and to changes in the industry that affect your particular genre or medium. Finally, I can’t stress enough how important personality and professionalism are. Of course you have to be willing to work hard, but it’s just as important to be kind along the way.
Heartfelt thanks to my friend Marissa Jo Cerar for sharing her insights and experiences. Shots Fired currently airs Wednesday nights on FOX, and you can catch up any time online or On Demand. Follow Marissa Jo on Twitter: @marissathejo