By Rick Coates
While past guests of the National Writers Series (NWS) have been
authors, Janet Leahy and Lisa Albert write for television. The two
currently write for the AMC hit series Mad Men, one of the most
critically acclaimed shows on television today. Leahy and Albert will
kick off the NWS 2011 season when they join New York Times Best
Selling Author Doug Stanton--who, along with his wife Anne (Express
investigative reporter) and attorney Grant Parsons founded the NWS--on
stage at the City Opera House, in Traverse City, this Thursday,
Leahy and Albert will give the audience a behind-the-scenes look at
the process of writing for TV, which differs greatly from other styles
of writing, including films. They will discuss not only Mad Men,
which has won three consecutive Golden Globes and back-to-back Emmys
for Outstanding Drama Series, but their work on several other hit
shows including The Cosby Show, Boston Legal, Roseanne, Murphy
Brown, Gilmore Girls, Cheers, Newhart, and Grace Under Fire.
Janet Leahy took time to last week to share some insights on her talk
this week. Here is a sneak peak of what attendees can expect to hear:
Northern Express: First, start by telling us how you ended up
connecting with the National Writers Series.
Janet Leahy: I was introduced to Doug through my good friend Anne
Gillis-Cooper who teaches acting in the summertime at Interlochen
Center for the Arts. Anne is very well respected in the acting
community and has worked with many great actors over the years. So
when Doug was out in California visiting, Anne suggested that I meet
him for dinner. Well being somewhat of the ignorant person I am, I was
not familiar with him and he told me about his book In Harms Way,
and when he returned to Michigan he sent me a copy. After I read it I
realized that I had just met the best writer ever and didnt even know
it at that time. We struck up a friendship. So last year Doug asked me
to come and bring a friend. Since Lisa has been on Mad Men for the
past four years and we have worked on several other shows together, I
thought she was the perfect fit. Lisa and I have known each other for
about 25 years. This will be my first time to Northern Michigan and I
am looking forward to it. I have heard so much about the area from
Anne and Doug.
NE: Ok, but how did Doug convince you to come in the middle of winter?
JL: He promised to take me ice fishing so that was the clincher. I
have been invited to come to Interlochen in the past but it has always
coincided with the start of a show I was working on. The closest I
have been to the area was when Anne put me on Skype to talk to her
class and answer questions.
NE: Give us an overview on your presentation for Thursday:
JL: Basically we are going to give you a walk-through of an entire
season, not the content but what we do when we first walk into the
writers room. That cauldron is a sacred vessel that few get to
experience and we will give a look inside that room. We will take the
audience right up to the final days as we finish the final scripts.
This process is a very long journey when we all meet and start tossing
in all of our ideas. Sometime we connect with each other, other times
we dont. So this will be the start of the discussion on Thursday
night giving the overview of the process.
NE: What differs television writing from, say, film or other media?
JL: Television writing is a team sport. You rely heavily on each
other, sometimes you dont want to but you need to work as a team. We
will touch on this concept because team writing is very different from
writing a book or for film where your ideas alone go onto the page.
NE: So you will touch upon how ideas are developed?
JL: Absolutely, this is a very fascinating concept because there are
several writers involved. How you go from an idea or ideas to a script
and the actual scene or shot in a team setting is interesting and
challenging, so we will discuss that. We will talk abut where ideas
come from and whose ideas belong to whom. We will discuss the process
of taking something from your own life and turning that into a
particular story for that show.
NE: It must be challenging writing for certain actors and certainly
everyone will be interested in knowing how that process works:
JL: Yes we will definitely walk through the process of writing for
specific actors. Some of the shows I have worked on in the past ,the
actors have had a strength in comedy and others did not. So you dont
want to write comedy into the script of an actor that does not have
that strength. Getting to know the strength and weaknesses of all the
actors plays a major role in the writing process.
NE: Speaking of actors--and you have worked with many greats--it must
have been challenging with Bill Cosby who, as a comedian, is accustom
to writing his own material. Take us through the process of writing
for the hit show Cosby.
JL: The Cosby Show was very unique. Bill is this enormous talent
with this tremendous improvisational skill and incredible story
telling background. Watching him work was breathtaking. Generally
speaking, this is how we did the show: we shot it in front of a live
audience. We would shoot the same show twice in one day and what Cosby
would do is follow the script as written the first time. We would
break clear the audience and then shoot a second time in front of a
different audience. This second time was his baby. We already had a
show in the can. This second shooting was his time to play. So he
would start doing some improv and fortunately the actors, in
particular Phylicia Rash?d and Malcolm-Jamal Warner were excellent at
playing off this. In many ways this second shooting was like a jazz
song and Bill is a big jazz enthusiast. So it takes major talent to go
off script and be able to bring it all back and they were able to pull
it off. So we would pull the final show from taking the best of both.
NE: What are some of the challenges that may not be so obvious?
JL: Well one thing is, writing for broadcast and cable differ greatly.
Sometimes studios or networks put restrictions on the creative process
and we will get into that. Sometimes the actors themselves have
schedule restrictions that impact the show scripts. For example, when
I was running Boston Legal, we only had Candice Bergen three times a
week so you had to figure out how to use her time wisely. So all of
these matrixes are in the middle of this whole process of creating a
NE: When you see the credits there seems to be a hierarchy of writers.
JL: When you first start out, you are a staff writer and you get no
screen credit, so no one will see your name on television. This is the
first job you get in the industry. The next level is story editor,
then it goes to executive story editor, then you are promoted to
co-producer and then producer then supervising producer then
co-executive producer and then executive producer is running the show.
Then you get something like consulting producer which is somebody who
is talented enough or has years of experience that they are allowed to
work part time. This is generally how it works. it differs from show
to show. We will explain in greater detail the differences on
NE: How did you get into writing for television?
JL: I went to the UCLA Film School and I won an award from the
Hollywood, Radio & TV Society that sort of catapulted me into the big
job of secretary, the title in those days, now they are called writers
assistants, for the Newhart show. I fell in love with the process
and started writing scripts and my second one sold. I never saw myself
as a writer or going into writing as my high school English teachers
can verify. So I will be somewhat of an inspiration for those who
dont consider themselves writers, but want to write for television.
Janet Leahy and Lisa Albert will appear on the City Opera House stage,
in Traverse City, on Thursday, Feb. 3. The event starts at 7 p.m. For
additional information on the NWS, visit www.nationalwritersseries.org
or call the City Opera House box office at 231-941-8082. Leahy, Albert
and Stanton will join Rick Coates on the Omelette & Finster Show (97.5
am or 98.9 fm) on Thursday, Feb. 3, at 8:30 am and on the Ron Jolly
Show (580 am or 103.5 fm) on Thursday, Feb. 3, at 9:15 a.m.