Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

A Conversation with “Shots Fired” Writer/Co-Producer Marissa Jo Cerar

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.

Screenwriter Marissa Jo Cerar

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.

 

The cast of “The Fosters,” Marissa’s first gig writing for television (ABC FAMILY/Andrew Eccles)

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.

Marissa co-wrote next week’s season finale of “Shots Fired”

 

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 dayhave 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.

 

Next up: Marissa joins “13 Reasons Why” in its second season as a writer/supervising producer

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

24 Comments

  1. I enjoyed the interview, Sean and Marissa Jo. First off, I’m so glad that Marissa Jo focuses on characterization and the emotional elements of screenwriting, and that she pushed you in that direction in your work, Sean. This is the first deeper glimpse I got of your book and your description of the main characters and their relationship has me hooked so much more than the zombie/prison break elements. Yay,

    As a movie viewer, I am bored to tears by essentially plotless, emotionally cliched, action films that rely solely on special effects (these are my husband’s favorites by the way. He’s ten). I don’t think novels can get away with it, but even with novels, I go for the ones with solid emotional underpinnings, believable and complex relationships, and rich arcs. For that reason, I’ve been watching more serials on television (including made-for-netflix) where those aspects of the story get more attention. Shots Fired is going to get some binge-watching soon.

    I hope Marissa-Jo represents the future of film and TV writing and producing! I can understand why you asked her to your site, Sean. Good luck to both of you on your projects.

    • Thanks for the lovely response, Diana! For a few years there, we had a very special writers group — a mix of television and feature scribes, some of whom specialized in comedy, some in genre fare (action, etc.), some who took a rigidly methodical approach to the craft, and others who operated more instinctually. But everyone brought something of value to the table, and several of us, like Marissa, really experienced their breakout successes at that time — and each of us shared in the success of the others. Eventually, other obligations made group participation more of a luxury; we were all in our early thirties when it started — I was the only one married at the time, and no one had kids — but careers and marriages and babies happened in the interim, as they do at that phase of life, and the particular alchemy that made the group so special just wasn’t there anymore (and I’m only speaking for myself when I say that, not Marissa or anyone else). I’ve been meaning to write a post on that group for the last year or so, but haven’t gotten around to it. Perhaps soon…

      I recall first bringing the pitch for EFRI to the group, and, as I detailed above, it really was Marissa who saw the potential for a very human story in what was a shamelessly high-concept supernatural conceit. I was pleasantly taken aback by how strongly she responded to it, and there’s no question that pushed me to develop that component with more focus and nuance than I likely would have been inclined to do. The spec screenplay that ultimately went to the marketplace in 2011 was very well-received, with nearly everyone citing the central relationship as their favorite aspect. When I decided to adapt the story to serve as my debut novel, the broader canvas of prose really offered an opportunity to plumb the psychological depths of those two characters even more deeply and intensely, and real-world events that occurred in the intervening years — like Ferguson — sadly only made the story more socioculturally relevant. But as I’ve developed (and now revised) the manuscript, I have in many respects kept Marissa in mind as my “ideal reader”: If she were to respond favorably to the novel’s emotional content, I’d know I got it right. We’ll find out soon enough…

      You know, I just watched Hell or High Water over the weekend (the script for which, like Conversion, also appeared on the 2012 Black List), which is just a supremely compelling bank-robbery thriller, and it reminded me of that old storytelling axiom: simple plots, complex characters. It’s not a story about set pieces, but rather people — ones who feel left behind. I related to Chris Pine’s criminal and Jeff Bridges’ cop in equal measure. These are the kinds of movies, funny enough, that have themselves been left behind as the industry has come to place a premium on effects and archetypes over stories and character. So it is a source of both pride and hope to me that Marissa has broken through and is becoming a force to be reckoned with in this business, because her prime directive is telling stories, not selling spectacle. When deserving talent and honest artists break through, it restores my faith in the institution of storytelling.

      I hope you will make time to check out Shots Fired — at ten episodes, it isn’t a big commitment, and it is a closed-ended narrative — and come on back to this post and let us both know how you enjoyed it! As I don’t need to tell you, writers never tire of hearing how folks respond to their work.

      SPC

      • We haven’t been to a movie theater since Avatar (yeah, like 8 years ago). It’s one disadvantage of living out in the woods – everything is a long long way away. AND we just got high-speed about a month ago, which enabled us to get Netflix. We’re binge-watching all these great shows and Shots Fired is a definite. I’ll be back with a report. 🙂

        I was part of a writers’ group for 5 years, and I can surely relate to your praise regarding what a wonderful resource it is for ideas, feedback, and support. I’m so glad you had that experience and recognize its value. It was the most important thing I did in advancing my craft, and I frequently urge other writers to do the same. Plus it’s great fun and the relationships can last a lifetime.

        • Yes, for those who may not be aware, Diana recently published an excellent post on her own blog about the many benefits of writers’ critique groups. I encourage one and all to give it a read.

          The trick to getting better at this discipline is to surround yourself, whenever possible, with writers who are at very least at your same level, if not higher (which forces you to rise to their level). As I mentioned in the previous comment, our eight-member group was comprised of writers of different genres, sensibilities, and experience, but I think it’s fair to say that we were all on even footing with respect to talent (which is congenital) and skill (which is developed). Consciously and unconsciously, we absorbed one another’s tools and techniques, and everyone walked away from the experience not only with better material (which benefitted from the scrutiny of the collective think tank), but as better overall writers. I’m feeling very nostalgic for the group as I type this.

          • One of the things that I didn’t mention in the post is what you talked about in terms of consciously and unconsciously absorbing each other’s tools and techniques. This happened with my group too, and eventually, the feedback started dwindling as we had learned everything we could learn from each other. It’s why I eventually left. So, these groups eventually do run their courses, especially if there’s no new blood (particularly highly-talented or skilled blood). It is sad and I miss my group a great deal too as I seek the next level of mentoring, which is also harder to find as our skill increases. I hope you stay in contact with your band of creatives and occasionally get together to talk shop!

          • Indeed — for all sorts of reasons (which I do plan to write about more extensively), these types of formal associations do run their course eventually. That’s okay. Most relationships, business and personal, are of a particular time and place in our lives; few are meant or built to go the distance. You take from them what you need when you need it, and hopefully give something commensurate in return, and then your paths diverge.

            That said, I do indeed keep in touch with many of my former writers group colleagues, including author/screenwriter Adam Aresty, whom I mentioned in my John Carpenter post. It’s profoundly gratifying to me to follow the careers — the successes — of these artists whom I so admire. And to have been privy to early drafts of screenplays that eventually became movies (like, in Adam’s case, the killer-bee creature feature Stung, now streaming on Netflix) is a special privilege.

      • And thanks for the marvelous review <3 <3 <3

        • My pleasure — you earned it! There’s so much about Catling’s Bane I want to discuss with you, Diana, but not in this public forum for fear of spoilers (because there are some great surprises in both the plot and the world-building aspect that I absolutely don’t want to divulge). I’m so curious about the development of the project, and how you went about creating that very rich fantastical realm and its particular magical rules. I wish we lived down the block from one another to discuss it over drinks, but perhaps I’ll send you an e-mail when I’ve had a chance to finish the entire four-part series. But if Book I is any indication, it is a truly remarkable achievement that, like Shots Fired, deserves a big audience, so I’m more than happy to spread the good word!

          • Well, I’m grinning ear to ear. I’m so glad you’re going to keep reading and, of course, I love to talk about writing and ideas and creativity and inspiration and characters, etc. Down the block would be awesome, but virtual will have to do. Thanks again, and keep writing so I can do the same for you sometime soon!

          • One of the great things about the writers group was being exposed, week in and week out, to the imaginations and particular worldviews of my contemporaries — experiencing the thrill of seeing the world through their eyes — and the same is true of the colleagues I’ve befriended here in the blogosphere, like yourself for instance! Art, unlike politics, is a celebration of our differences; it teaches us that although we all process the world around us through the unique prism of our own personalities and experiences, we share the same emotional palette in common. Your experiences aren’t my experiences, nor your worldview mine, but through our fictions we can bridge the gulfs that separate us. That’s what I meant when I said in the intro above that it takes courage to put your heart on the page, and as Jean-Luc Picard once observed in my favorite Star Trek film, courage can be an emotion, too.

  2. I’m curious, Sean: was this a live/voice interview that was later transcribed? Or was it all done in writing?

    It was well worthwhile getting to see a real person inside of what can seem little more than a “machine.” Like Diana, the interview has me interested in these shows with which I’d been unfamiliar until now. And I likewise tend toward shows and movies that have interesting emotional components over those that are just plot driven. If I don’t care about the characters, no amount of action or things blowing up will save it for me. (I recently saw the new King Kong film; and while it was “action-packed,” had a notable case and featured unusual creatures galore, I actually found it boring because I didn’t care a lick about any of the characters or what drove them.)

    Thanks for a fascinating inside scoop! And wishing continued success to you, Marissa Jo!

    • Erik: The interview was conducted via e-mail. I sent Marissa a series of questions, then gave her the latitude to answer as many as she wanted, in whatever order she preferred, in as much or little detail as she cared to offer. In editorial, I massaged some of the transitions to make the whole thing feel conversational. This was a great experience for me — bless Marissa for being my guinea pig! — because I’d never done an interview here on the blog, and was really excited to try something a little different than the usual analytical and anecdotal pieces.

      To your second point: We see these names that scroll by on our screens when we watch our favorite shows, but we don’t ever get a sense of who they are or what they contribute, so I thought this would be a nice opportunity to spotlight one of those off-screen folks who appear only as a fleeting credit! It’s certainly been a thrill for me every week to see Co-producer: Marissa Jo Cerar and know that “I knew her when”! When you watch Shots Fired, now you’ll have a more personal sense of who at least one of the behind-the-scenes creative personnel was!

      I haven’t seen the new King Kong, but there’s no question that one’s emotional response to a movie is in direct correlation with how deeply we empathize with the characters, and how many of them undergo a transformational arc. The best movies — even and especially the blockbusters — give us unique characters that experience profound personal change. As my mentor David Freeman so astutely observed, everyone loves Star Wars: A New Hope because no fewer than five characters (Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan, and C-3PO) experience (in whole or part) a transformational arc, whereas in The Phantom Menace only one character arc’ed — and it was the character everyone hated anyway: Jar Jar Binks.

      If you don’t give us characters we empathize with, and if you don’t push them through hard-fought emotional journeys, no amount of slick set pieces and clever turns of plot are going to compensate for that. Case in point: 24: Legacy had all the tropes and dramatic urgency of the original series, but Eric Carter was no Jack Bauer, and just yesterday FOX stopped the clock on the fledgling spin-off.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, pal! You will be seeing Marissa’s name on-screen a lot in the months and years ahead, and I trust you’ll now be as invested in her success and taken with her talent as I am. Her career is one to watch.

      Sean

      • Interesting side note: I always stay through the credits in movies, as others are heading for the door. It’s my way of acknowledging the accomplishment that film meant for each of those hundreds and hundreds of people whose names hurry up the screen.

        I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Marissa’s continued accomplishments as well.

        • I’ve always done the same, even before post-credits scenes became commonplace. Even after I finish watching a DVD I’ve seen a million times, like Raiders, I’ll still let the credits play to the end, if for no other reason than to listen to (and appreciate) the film score! It’s funny: You look at the end-credit roll on a film like Jaws, and it runs for barely over a minute; now credits can last for close to ten, often with three columns of names running side by side!

  3. I’ve been looking at this one. Now I know I need to grab it.

    • You won’t be disappointed, Jacqui! The season finale airs next Wednesday, but you can catch up on the previous nine episodes online and On Demand. I don’t know about you, but in this era of “postnarrative” TV shows that just go on and on and on (like Game of Thrones and House of Cards), it’s become a rare pleasure these days to find a finite series with a conclusive resolution. On that note, I can’t wait to see how Shots Fired ends next week!

  4. Excellent interview, Sean and Marissa. It’s an interesting Venn diagram, concerning the overlap between screenplays and novels.

    Like Marissa, having stories with heart is hugely important to me. If the tale doesn’t have an emotional hook, it won’t keep my interest usually, no matter how well it’s plotted.

    Good for both of you that you were able to find mentors. That’s something that I think a lot of novelists lack, but I can totally understand the time issues. I can find the time for beta swaps. I don’t have enough left over time to mentor anyone, myself (not that I think it would be appropriate for me to do so at this stage in my career). Screenplay writing seems to be more conducive to mentoring than novel-writing, so that’s an advantage I think that form has over novelists early on in their careers.

    I dislike the post-narrative style (I seem to be the only fantasy writer who has an aversion to Game of Thrones, although I have other issues with that show as well). As an point of curiosity, did either of you catch the BBC Musketeer series? That one seems like it actually came to a definite end, which garnered my respect. Otherwise, it’s too much like soap operas, which I could never see the point of.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking interview. 🙂

    • Thanks, Cathleen!

      One of the great advantages of coming to prose after having been formally trained in screenwriting is that a screenwriter brings such a strong command of structure: act design, scene design, value change (all of which are examined in great detail in Robert McKee’s Story, which I strongly recommend if you haven’t already read it). Given the size and scope of even a short novel, it’s easy for writers — particularly neophytes — to get lost in the narrative, and that’s where a screenwriter’s sense of purpose can really serve him well as a compass in the sprawling world of the fiction: It’s always about staying on point and moving the story forward.

      That said, screenwriting is also a restrictively compressed form of storytelling, and the broader canvas of prose lets us “off the leash,” as it were. In screenwriting, for instance, dialogue scenes (or any scenes, really) aren’t allowed to go on for more than two pages (which only translates to two minutes of screen time), so you’re really forced to get into a scene, do what needs to be done, and get the hell out. Exposition can also be problematic, because it tends to get conveyed verbally, which makes for awkward dialogue. And the reductive nature of the medium doesn’t allow for any manner of artistic digression that doesn’t propel the plot forward at all times — no ruminations or flashbacks or philosophical asides. Novels ease the burden of all that, because you can use narration to impart exposition and backstory and commentary in a way that a screenplay — and, by extension, a movie — simply will not permit.

      So, in some respects, though I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to come to novel writing, I’m probably a far better structuralist than I would have been if not for my many years as a screenwriter. And understanding act structure and scene design and value change the way I do allows me the luxury of a rigidly plotted story that I don’t have to worry about, and can instead turn my complete attention to the unique challenges novelistic writing presents: viewpoint and description and what have you.

      Because screenplays are just a blueprint — and filmmaking a collaborative art form — the discipline probably does lend itself to mentoring more readily than the literary arts. I was lucky to be mentored by a successful television writer, with credits on Buffy and Law & Order, who spent years evaluating my material, encouraging my progress, and teaching me how to use the tools and principles of the pros. That was my real education.

      I haven’t seen The Musketeers, no. In his book Present Shock, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff says this about postnarrative television: “Individual episodes of The X Files (1993), Babylon Five (1994), Battlestar Galactica (2004), Mad Men (2007), or Breaking Bad (2008) may not be capable of conveying a neatly arced storyline, but the slowly moving ‘meta narrative’ creates sustained tension — with little expectation of final resolution.”

      With all due respect to Rushkoff’s genius (which I have long extolled), I might argue that last point with him. I think there is an expectation of final resolution, and when fans don’t get it — because shows like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos were never designed in the first place to supply it — that’s when you see the kind of backlash that befell Lost and its creator Damon Lindelof. (And X-Files and BSG, too.) Because as exciting as storytelling that is liberated from the predictable three-act pattern can be, we are hardwired to expect resolutions — eventually — and when they’re not provided, all of our anxieties about the Digital Age are realized. But that’s a subject I could talk all day about…

      Thanks for reading the interview, Cathleen, and leaving such a thoughtful comment. It’s always a pleasure to get your input!

      Sean

      • Very interesting and thoughtful reply. I’ll try to deal with points in order, although there will be some skipping about…

        I believe structure is hugely important in stories, and I LOVE the three-act framework. I don’t write to it like you do (my outline consists of a 1,000 word synopsis that I’ve gotten writer feedback on), but I do revise to it. I look for where acts shift, pinch points, etc. and make sure they’re in the general place they’re meant to be. (Unlike Blake Snyder, I don’t have to shift to the second act on page 25.)

        I think we’re hardwired to expect not only resolutions, but the entire three-act framework as well. Even in the digital age, I believe that rhythm speaks to our inner expectation of what a story should be.

        Although what do I know? I’m a Gen-Xer who doesn’t idolize the past. The Eighties were good in some ways, but MTV sure screwed up album-oriented rock (my favorite was Rush, rather than The Who). We saw an unfortunate demographic shift–the beginning of the shrinking of the middle class. It was the last era that had to accept MAD, although that may be returning. And I much prefer movies on DVD to VHS. If nothing else, storing them takes way less space.

        And we couldn’t really self-publish until this decade.

        Maybe it was my peer group, but I remember soap operas being big in the Eighties, and being personally flabbergasted over it. Now there’s a form that eschews resolution. I tried watching a couple episodes of Game of Thrones (first season and fourth), and it annoyed me in the same way. I look at it as sloppy storytelling. Series are fine, but they should RESOLVE–like LOTR, both of Zelazny’s Amber series, and even Harry Potter, although I’m not a huge fan of the latter.

        I totally get the frustration of too many derivative stories. If I have to hear about the damn Death Star one more time, I swear I’ll commit an act of violence against a DVD. Never caught an episode of the last two Star Trek series. Don’t get me started on superheroes. As far as I’m concerned, just say no.

        I haven’t watched any of the ‘meta narrative’ series you listed above, but there have been bright spots recently.The Hobbit was pretty good. And Moana. If you haven’t seen that, it’s a self-contained arc that surprised me–it was that solid. It’s at Redboxes currently. The Hunger Games. The Martian rocked. The Musketeers, which I mentioned earlier. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (although seriously, couldn’t they have found a better title? Good thing for them it was Rowling.)

        These are all new-ish tales (movie version of The Hobbit was essentially a related story), and they sold quite well. So I have hope. There have always been folks willing to settle for sloppy storytelling. That doesn’t mean this trend will continue indefinitely. I agree with Lisa Cron that humans are wired for story. I don’t think people are going to stop telling well-organized tales anytime soon. My concerns with the digital age have more to do with increased government surveillance than anything else.

        Kind of a long post to end up with I think this too will pass. Although you have to take into account that I’m invested in this form of storytelling, so I would want to think that. 🙂

        • Cathleen,

          Many thanks for the amazing reply! I’ve always intended this blog as a place for those interested in storytelling craft to engage and “go deep,” so I thank you for accommodating.

          I’m a structuralist myself. (Blake Snyder, by the way, was much less dogmatic about the “rules” of screenwriting than the industry-wide reputation of Save the Cat! would suggest, identifying the page counts for the various turning points more in an effort to demonstrate common patterns in popular storytelling than issue an inviolable screenwriting edict. It’s mostly been Snyder’s successors — and numbskull creative execs — that have treated his guidelines like a paint-by-numbers formula instead of the versatile form it was intended to be, a sin I’ve taken them to task for.) On the subject of the three-act monomyth, Douglas Rushkoff has this to say:

          “This way of organizing stories — Joseph Campbell’s ‘heroic journey’ — is now our way of understanding the world. This may have happened because the linear structure is essentially true to life, or we may have simply gotten so accustomed to it that it now informs the way we look at events and problems that emerge.”

          But he also says this about it:

          “It was a great thing and an abused thing, this kind of story arc. It’s the way that so many television commercials once worked: The girl gets the pimple, but by the end of the commercial, just when you think all is lost, she finds the Clearasil and the pimple magically is healed and she can go to the prom. We always had that cathartic release at the end of each one of these journeys. In our digital age … when we watch things at different times than other people, and years later, we binge-watch an entire series in a weekend, we don’t end up as tolerant of that arc. If a storyteller is putting us in too much anxiety, we change the channel.”

          In the same article, however, he adds this:

          “There’s still room for traditional stories. It’s just that we have to almost consciously reintegrate those stories and understand that they’re just one way of seeing the world. Right now, there aren’t really any of them because we’ve woken up from 2,000 years of it. We were fools. We don’t want to be fooled again in that way, so when the narrative gets broken, whether it’s by 9/11, or the Internet, or the collapse of the economy, we look back and say, ‘Those great narratives of the 20th century, most of them were lies.’ Yeah, Martin Luther King Jr. was cool and I guess Gandhi was cool, but most of these things, like Nazism and communism and capitalism, and all of the ‘isms,’ were all really manipulative stories. Advertisers abused the stories so much that we don’t want to surrender our trust to anyone. We don’t trust the storytellers anymore, except in very few circumstances. Even our movies are all about time travel and moving backward because we don’t want to just go down that single path. But I do think that as we get a little bit more comfortable, or maybe as we get uncomfortable in a purely digital world, we will start to ache again for these more prescriptive narratives and, hopefully, turn to trustworthy storytellers to do it.”

          So, it really comes down to a question of honesty — practicing honest storytelling. And that goes to what Marissa said in her closing statement: “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.” That’s what I’ve done with Escape from Rikers Island: I’ve created an intentionally closed-ended hero’s journey, modeled after the Greek underworld odysseys and drawn from my experiences growing up on the streets of New York City, one that comes to a conclusive resolution without any real possibility (and certainly no intimation) of a sequel. That was the honest approach for that story, and it is certainly my attempt to “consciously reintegrate” a more traditional monomythic narrative.

          Now, postnarrativity is just another way of seeing the world — it isn’t a more or less valid storytelling approach than the hero’s journey — and there have been some really excellent, culturally defining works in that form, from Pulp Fiction to Lost to This Is Us. That said, I think postnarrativity can also be subject to abuse, whereby you have storytellers that use the form to conceal the fact that they haven’t done the hard work of creating a story arc. There are some writers, like David Chase (The Sopranos), who understood (either intuitively or otherwise) that the form doesn’t actually allow for an arc — it’s beside the point — so he never promised or delivered on one, but I think there are others, like Chris Carter (The X-Files), Damon Lindelof (Lost), and George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire) — with due respect to and admiration for all of them — that have promised a more traditional sense of closure to their epics, only to find they’ve been unable to deliver upon them; they didn’t seem to understand that the stories they were telling were only designed to grow more open, not closed, as they went along. So, it’s tricky.

          Nostalgia for the pre–Digital Age past is unquestionably driving the trend in Hollywood to revisit eighties IPs, but you’re right: The eighties weren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I’ve said this before, but Gen X fetishizes the eighties the way Boomers do the fifties: We view it as a “lost utopia” in which all was right in the world. (Much as Happy Days served to retrospectively propagandize the fifties, shows like The Goldbergs, with its pathologically warped fixation on all-things eighties — the characters live in a 1980s time capsule! — fulfill the same culturally injurious function today.) But you and I recall that while we were all having the time of our lives in those halcyon, Valley Girl days, Saint Reagan set in motion the very conditions that have created the culture of economic disparity and class warfare that have made us a less prosperous, less tolerant nation today. There was a dark side to the eighties — a Wall Street for every The Secret of My Success. We ought to consider that every time we fork over our hard-earned cash in the vain hope that the next Star Wars movie might supply us with our compulsory nostalgia fix.

          I love stories like The Hunger Games and The Martian, because not only are they original, closed-ended narratives not based on preexisting properties, but they’re telling stories relevant to their times: Hunger Games is a fairly trenchant sociopolitical invective of our reality-show culture (which has only gotten worse since we elected a reality-show host to the highest office in the land), and The Martian is an outer-space disaster epic that invokes teamwork and intellect — not violence — to solve problems. They are, to be sure, the kinds of movies that would never get made in Hollywood today were they not bestselling books first, so, to echo your sentiment, let’s be grateful for a thriving publishing industry — legacy (Hunger Games) and self-pub (Martian) — which gave an outlet for those stories to find an audience that aches for something that isn’t about Spider-Man or the Skywalkers.

          And I’ve learned, through readers/commenters who have found this blog, that there are a lot of people like myself out there who are fed up with the endless recapitulation of yesteryear’s fantasies served up by cynical corporations and creatively bankrupt filmmakers. There are people who support authors and filmmakers who pursue original storytelling (like the kind Andy Weir and Marissa Jo Cerar provide), and there are people like us, who are using the digital platforms to put new stories out in the world and contribute to a healthy, diverse culture. That’s all we can do, after all — support and create. Sounds like a good deal to me!

          Thanks, as always, Cathleen, for a vibrant conversation! I’m much obliged to you…

          Sean

          P.S. I am a huge Rush fan, and have written about the band’s influence on my work here. I trust you’ve listened to their most recent studio album, Clockwork Angels, which is both a love letter to album-oriented rock and an example of hero’s journey storytelling — so much so that there’s a novelization available by sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson!

  5. Though my writing aspirations are on a (MUCH) smaller scale, I so enjoy reading about others’ experiences of writing, and what brought them to the altar of “I have to tell you this!” Anyone can put their fingers to a keyboard, but not everyone can develop something that others care deeply for on those keys. Coincidentally, I just began watching The Fosters this weekend on Netflix because I’m halfway through 13 Reasons Why, which is wonderful and demanding–I needed a break from that. I had no idea I’d be reading your interview with Marissa Jo the next day!

    • Thanks for reading and leaving such a thoughtful comment, Wendy!

      I mentioned in my response to Diana above that writers are comprised of two essential components: talent, which is congenital, and skill, which is cultivated.

      Talent is the X-factor: the predisposition to see the world narratively, and the drive to share those visions and stories with others. One is born with that drive or isn’t.

      Skill is the ability to translate those visions in your head into an emotionally engaging narrative experience; it’s having the discipline to crank out words, using all the technique in your command, to realize the full potential of your talent. It’s what separates the hobbyists from the pros.

      As you might imagine, there are many people who have the innate talent to tell stories, yet never develop the discipline to do it professionally. That stands to reason. But what I’ve also seen here in Hollywood is the inverse: writers who’ve committed to learning the discipline, who’ve mastered the (conceptual) tools of the trade, but don’t have talent — they don’t have that X-factor that allows all of that applied technique to transcend logic and become beauty (to borrow the phrasing of David Freeman). So they’re writing is always technically proficient, but it never moves you — it never touches your heart. There’s quite a bit of that here in Hollywood (and I don’t think it gets discussed enough).

      Marissa is an inherently sensitive person — someone very emotionally in touch with the world around her — and has an artist’s compulsion to express that. But I’d also say her unique life experiences — being the only mixed-race kid in a family full of adopted children in a rural, religious Midwestern town — have given her something truly profound to say about the world. She has a point of view, and she writes from that singular perspective.

      I mention that because I know your son has had his share of hardships, and we don’t wish hardship on anyone. But I also know, from having read your blog posts, that he’s a deeply sensitive and compassionate boy himself. Those are good qualities, and adversity has a way of making such characteristics great qualities. I’m not suggesting he’ll grow up to be a writer or artist, necessarily (though who knows?!), but the world needs more empathetic souls of all stripes, and empathy is the compensation we get in return for adversity. The battle-scarred are the best, most interesting people, anyway; they’re the ones with something to say.

      To your last point: That is so weird you were just watching The Fosters and 13 Reasons Why this past weekend! Now when you see Marissa’s name under “Written by,” you’ll have a better sense of who that is! As I said to Susan below, you’ll be seeing Marissa’s name a lot over the coming years, so get used to it! When you watch something she’s written, at least you’ll know for certain you’re in the hands of someone who practices honest storytelling.

      Thanks, as always, Wendy!

      SPC

  6. Great interview, Sean. I found several of her experiences to be very insightful. I do agree that not every screenwriter can make the transition to novels & vice versa.
    Personally, I enjoy the pacing of television over movies but that is just personal preference.

    • So glad you enjoyed the interview and went to the trouble to comment, Susan! Thank you!

      Marissa’s story is truly an inspiring one — girl from Small Town, USA makes good — and I’m not exaggerating when I say that she’s one of the most deserving writers I’ve ever known to have actually found success; and when kind, sensitive, talented, driven people get their due, that is something to celebrate, especially here in Hollywood, an industry that is anything but a meritocracy (as I don’t need to tell you). Bet your bottom dollar that Marissa’s going to have her own series one day soon; her name is one you’re going to be seeing a lot of in the coming years. I wager she’s going to be one of our culture’s great artistic voices (based on both her produced credits and the vast amount of as-yet-unproduced material I’ve been privy to), so I’m glad I got her to agree to an interview on my blog before everyone wants a piece of her!

      There’s no question that in recent years television has been a far more hospitable bastion of creativity than the movies, for the reasons Marissa and I discussed in the third-to-last exchange above. Movies feel increasingly irrelevant to me every year. But I also think the conventional definitions of what constitutes “feature films” and “television” are eroding: The MTV Movie Awards, for instance, no longer distinguishes between the two forms, and how much longer before institutionalized award shows like the Oscars and Emmys follow suit? Filmed storytelling as we’ve understood it for the last century is undergoing a seismic metamorphosis; artists will be quicker to adapt to this than corporations (studios and networks) will.

      Thanks for stopping by, Susan! Always nice to have your input!

      Sean

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