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: