Television writer, story editor and one-hour drama instructor Joel Thompson recently took some time to tell us about his amazing list of credits plus his upcoming Writers’ Studio course in February.
Writers’ Program: First off, your IMdB page has four major show titles splashed across the top banner (Battlestar Galactica, House M.D., Boomtown, and Falling Skies) all of which you’ve recently worked on. How did you get your start and what’s your secret to keeping such a steady and successful track record?
Joel Thompson: After receiving an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU and coming to LA, I didn’t immediately pursue an agent. Not that any of them would’ve had me. You see, my samples always seemed pretty good immediately after I wrote them. Yet they had the shelf life of unrefrigerated eggs, and after some time, smelled far worse. I knew the only path to become a better writer short of obvious ways like brain transplants and voodoo body swapping, neither of which I could afford, was to learn more about the business and to write more. Even if an agent had decided to rep me, their efforts seeking work would’ve been hampered by using my, at the time, half-assed scripts. It made no sense to burn time chasing down representation. Instead, I took jobs in production as well as development and script reading. I wrote by night, on weekends and routinely entered any writing contest out there. While I was routinely rejected, you could say, I eventually wrote whole-assed scripts that, unlike previous efforts, managed to still be pretty good after an hour; dare I say, even after a month. I managed to win a contest. Armed with that, an attaché case of drugs, and compromising photographs, I was able to enlist the boundless help of a wonderful agent. Okay I didn’t have the attaché case of drugs nor any compromising photographs, regrettably, but the rest is true. This agent sent me out on meetings, whereupon I landed my first professional TV writing job. This also relates to being in position to work steadily. Even when you are on a show, keep writing your own projects. It all revolves around your continued effort to write because whether paid or not, it is the only true power a writer has. There’s nothing but upside because it can keep you relevant in the market place and it will always better you as an artist.
Wp’: Was there ever a shift in belief or action on your part, when you felt like you went from just an aspiring writer to an actual writer – even if it was before an official “credit”?
JT: I think that shift was when I started to lose track of time while writing. Getting lost in the creative process to the degree that what felt like forty minutes was actually six hours for everyone else. This can sometimes cause problems in one’s social life.
Wp’: What is role of a story editor versus a staff writer?
JT: The story editor gets to talk slightly more in the room and cash a slightly bigger paycheck.
Wp’: For the aspiring writers out there, what is the importance of having a one-hour Spec in your portfolio?
JT: Producers and agents need to know if you have the ability to mesh your writing style with established characters of an existing show. Your task on any writing staff will be to meld your style and voice with that of the executive producer’s. A completely original pilot, while also just as important to have in a portfolio, does not demonstrate a writer’s ability to do this. A well-written spec better puts those areas of concern to rest.
Wp’: What can your students expect from your upcoming 4-day Writers Studio course?
JT: They should expect to laugh, to cry and to begin and end each day’s session with a group hug. Actually, there will be no hugging. We have a sign affixed to the wall stating such. We’re going to have fun not only talking about the shows we love, but also gaining an understanding about why they work so extremely well. Once the DNA code of great TV is cracked, we’ll use it to enhance the stories we’re poised to tell in our own spec scripts. We’re also going to get to know each other because the best stories oftentimes grow from true experiences and points of view. The atmosphere will mirror that of an actual professional TV writers’ room. This means a respectful and comfortable environment will be maintained so everyone can feel free to toss ideas around. There will be great ones and some that are not-so-great, but everyone will be on the same team. Often times, the highest quality ideas emerge from what was initially a not-so-great one.
Joel is teaching Creating the 1-Hour Drama Spec Script’s Story and Outline this winter, as part of the annual Writers Studio, February 9th. Enroll online or by calling (310) 825-9971.
Jeff Bonnett is the Program Assistant for Screenwriting (Onsite & Online). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 206-1542.