interview: Tawnya Bhattacharya, NBC Writers on the Verge 2011

i met tawnya several years ago where she taught the writing class that i was taking. i was not a fan of the institution, but i loved tawnya and her class! then a year ago, i saw the list of people who were accepted into the nbc writers on the verge program, and saw that she was one of them. we’ve kept in touch since, and she’s been kind enough to share her experience with us.

What spec did you submit to get into the NBC Writers on the Verge (WOTV) Program? Why did you pick that show?

My writing partner, Ali Laventhol, and I submitted a NURSE JACKIE spec.

I fell in love with NURSE JACKIE early in the first season. I’m personally drawn to darker humor and well-drawn, complex characters with a bit of a serrated edge. Characters that others might dismiss as “unlikeable.” I think it’s okay for a character to have unlikeable qualities and flaws and to do things we deem as wrong or awful as long as we know why they are motivated to do what they do. If we know the psychology behind it or the core wound… we can get behind them. Nurse Jackie is flawed (she’s a rule-breaking, drug addicted liar who’s having an affair) but she happens to have a lot of very likeable and redeemable traits. She’s a fantastic nurse who goes above and beyond, often breaking rules and being vigilante to do what’s best for her patients. She also loves her family and has an awareness and guilt for the wrong she does.

During Season One of Nurse Jackie I was in the FOX Diversity program and wanted to write a spec next. NJ was only in its first season but I had a gut instinct that it would be picked up and started looking at the show closely then. Because I had other projects in the pipeline taking my time and focus, it wasn’t until Season 2 that I decided to buckle down and write a spec episode. Ali and I had not yet become full time partners, but the process went so smoothly and we were having fun so we decided to do the NJ spec together.

How many scripts did you write before you were accepted?

My first pilot got me into FOX Diversity and it didn’t take long for me to wise up and start going for writing for TV. Nurse Jackie was my second TV project and first spec. But I had written many features and taught screenwriting so it’s not one of those stories where my first thing got me somewhere. I had been at it for awhile. By the time we were accepted by NBC WOTV, I had completed 2 pilots and 1 spec. Two of which were with Ali.

What was your experience like in the NBC WOTV program? You also previously participated in the Fox Writer’s Initiative program. How did the two compare?

NBC WOTV was amazing for us. It’s a very intensive 12 weeks where you finish a brand new spec and original pilot in an insane amount of time. We broke our story, outlined and wrote a spec in 8 days and then we did the same with a pilot.  This is invaluable preparation for becoming a staff writer because it gives you the confidence to know you can deliver under pressure and quickly.

During NBC WOTV we were also assigned mentors and there were pitching classes, panels with showrunners, speed dating with execs and a “coming out” party — all valuable for honing your skills and making connections.

FOX Diversity was very different. First of all, the program is only 6 weeks long and the focus is rewriting the pilot that got you into the program. Secondly, unlike WOTV the program is held off the lot and was taught at Writers Boot Camp — where I had previously been an Instructor for almost 4 years. While that part of it was old hat, I knew what the deal was going in and wanted to be selected for other reasons: To have a talking point on my resume (getting into a competitive program and they option your script) and to take one baby step ahead of where I currently was in the TV world. Which was nowhere.

How did you get your agent? I’m supposed to have agent meetings soon. Any advice?

Thanks to the program and Karen and Jen’s hard work, we started getting meetings with agents and managers. Once we signed with our fabulous managers they vigorously pushed that agenda.

Advice…

1) Trust that it will happen and that all the chips will magically fall into exactly the right place when the time is right. Know that the right time is never going to be what you consider soon enough so just relax into it.

2) Know your story. By that I mean your personal story. This business is about relationships and getting people excited about you. You have to sell yourself. Let people know what it is you and only you can “bring to the party.” This is something you’ll have to turn around and do in every room when it comes time for staffing meetings: sell why you are the one who must work on their show.

Congratulations on getting hired on Fairly Legal! Can you talk about how you got that job? And what was more important in getting you that job, a spec or pilot?

Thank you! It takes a village. At least it did for us. After NBC WOTV Karen and Jen got our material to agents and managers and we started having meetings. Once we signed with our managers, they went to work on the agency front, getting us into all the major places in town. Our managers went to the meetings with us and then we’d talk about it.

We ultimately went with CAA. Several factors went into our decision. We had already been there for a meeting a few months before regarding a feature we wrote that an agent liked for their client. At the Austin Film Festival, there was a TV Agent on a panel we were quite impressed by. She was smart and no-nonsense. After the panel, we introduced ourselves and told her we’d just started WOTV and asked a question about what she looked for in “new” writers. Later when calls were made on our behalf, she remembered us from Austin. But what actually sealed the deal on getting a meeting with her was that our mentor, a Sr. VP of Drama Development at NBC WOTV, who has since been promoted, put in a call for us. He rocks. Seriously, he’s on of the coolest cats on the planet and we are very lucky to have him in our corner.

Getting the job on FAIRLY LEGAL was the same (it took a village) and it went something like this:

At the NBC WOTV “coming out” party we were introduced to an Exec at UCP. The Jr. Exec who introduced us was Karen’s former assistant at NBC WOTV who was promoted during our time there. She liked our work. And had talked us up to the Exec beforehand. (God love her!)

Our managers got us a general meeting with that Exec.

Our managers and agents really pushed for us and made a lot of calls on our behalf.

Karen (NBC WOTV) put in a word. Sent our materials.

The UCP Exec passed along our material to Steve Stark Productions.

Jen Grisanti put in a word for us to Steve Stark.

We got the meeting on FL.

We got the job.

Whew!

What’s it like to be in the writers’ room and actually work on a show?

Surreal. I remember Day 1 in the writer’s room — a room I’d imagined and dreamt about and prayed to be in — and there I was, sitting at the table in my seat, and I thought, “Am I really here? Is this happening?”

Truthfully, there was a lot of excitement mixed with a heap of anxiety at first. I think that’s a whole ‘nother interview, to be honest. But it’s great. You’re finally doing what it is you’ve been striving to do. And you learn so much — about more than just writing, which is fantastic. On our show, we’re extremely lucky to be working with incredibly talented people of all levels. Our Showrunner and Executive Producers and Co-Ep’s are not only gifted, but kind human beings. You hear so many horror stories, but we’ve been fortunate to have a positive experience on our first TV show. Ali and I are both grateful to be working with the kind of people in the industry we aspire to be like. And once again, I just have to say our Showrunner is THE BEST!

You recently got to write an episode of the show. What was that whole process like? When will it air?

We had already had many days of everyone pitching case ideas in the room. We picked those cases we liked best and attached those to Episode #’s. We got assigned episode #209. But because of the storyline and characters involved in it, we were moved up to #205 and then to #204. Timing wise, this put us on the fast track. While most of the writers had weeks upon weeks to work on their A story beats and break and re-break their story in and out of the room, we didn’t. This was just because of being pushed up. Knowing the basics of our story, Ali and I wrote up a ONE SHEET to go to the Network/Studio for approval. Once the case/storyline got the green light, we broke the A story in the room. Ali and I then went off to outline the A Story beats. We broke the B story in the room the next morning, feathered those beats into the outline and handed it in. We got a total of two days to do it. We knew we were up for it because of our “boot camp” at NBC WOTV. Even though we had 4 days to outline our MAD MEN spec, we had meetings that week and ended up only having two days to do it. After handing in the outline, the Showrunner does his pass for consistency. It then goes to the Network/Studio. Then you get notes. Then you’re off on script. We had two weeks to write. We rewrote off of great notes from a Co-Ep and our Showrunner. The Showrunner does his pass, the script goes to Studio (Studio Draft), you get notes and rewrite some more, then there’s the Network Draft and Production Draft where there’s more of the same. We are at the Production Draft stage right now and our episode goes into production after Thanksgiving. Hopefully we will be in Vancouver for the shoot!

What’s your writing process like? Any idiosyncrasies? Has it changed at all now that you’re on a show?

I need lots of sparkling water and chocolate. I like to write in silence usually but sometimes while writing certain scenes I’ll play a specific song that feels tonally right over and over and over again.

Working with Ali, I’d have to say every one of our projects has had its own life and they’ve all gone down a little differently. But generally, with TV, we develop everything together, outline together and then split up the script. Sometimes we’ll split it in half and sometimes we’ll do every other act. Then we put it all together and we read out loud several times, rewriting and tweaking along the way. And sometimes we’ve rewritten each other separately.  It just depends on the situation. With our latest feature we wrote the entire first draft together scene by scene over Skype. We’ve done rewrites together or taken off on our own for a pass. Since we were developing the project with a producer, there were a lot of notes and a lot of passes. Writing is rewriting so you find a way to love it. And it gets easier, I think.

If you didn’t get into the NBC program, what would your life be like right now? What would your strategy be to break in?

Ali and I are fully aware that everything we’ve accomplished this year — signing with agents and managers, getting our first staffing job — is due to the NBC WOTV program. We’re so grateful. Had we not gotten in to WOTV, we would have kept writing and continued to apply to all the TV writing programs. And we would have gotten ourselves out there. That’s important. We still try to do that. While in WOTV I was at a bar with my husband and friends, and I happened to be sitting next to a producer of a successful TV show. After a lovely chat, a few weeks later at our WOTV “Coming Out” party, I met his son, also a producer on the same show. That I had met his father and drank wine from their family vineyards that night was an instant conversation starter. That door is open and should we take a meeting with their production company down the road, the ice has already been broken and the beginning of a relationship established.

And if all else failed, I always joked that I would be willing to go door to door and sell raffle tickets to raise the money to shoot my own movie. But now they’ve got sites like Fundables to make life easier. If we hadn’t gotten into WOTV I think we would have been on Fundables raising money to shoot a web series — because it beats going door to door.

You’ve taught writing before, and do script consulting. What makes a script stand out to you, both good and bad?

I still teach. It’s one of my passions. I love working with writers and seeing them evolve their craft and their stories. After working for Writers Boot Camp for almost 4 years and teaching informally while in India, I started my own consulting business, Script Anatomy where here I do private consults, group seminars and classes. For writers who are interested, I have an upcoming 10-week feature class and 6-week pilot/spec class in the new year. Check my website for details.

Writing that stands out? Writers with an original voice will always catch my attention. I love writers who push boundaries with their characters. It all sort of comes as a package really. Writers who are doing many things well will grab you: high concept, great execution, structure, pacing, strong dialogue… but it’s a like a soup. You need all of the ingredients and you need to know how to put them together in a way that makes you feel something.

Any last advice for aspiring writers?

  1. Keep writing.
  2. Create a “Screenwriting Bucket List” for yourself. Know what you want to achieve and then come up with a strategy of how you can get there. Each day should be about taking at least 1-3 steps that feed your goals.
  3. Don’t write in a vacuum. Get feedback from your writer friends, that assistant you know, a producer… That’s how you are going to get better. So be open to notes!
  4. Live life so you have something to say.
  5. Make contacts, but more importantly, turn those contacts into friends.
  6. Apply to every reputable contest, workshop and fellowship that will help get you noticed.
  7. Whether it’s TV or features be ready to collaborate. Otherwise if you must own every word on the page, write a novel. (That one’s from Ali)

And lastly, always remember:

You are your own story. If you don’t like where your story is going, rewrite it.

– – –

thanks so much to tawnya for sharing so much wonderful information! it’s been so  inspiring to see her succeed and accomplish so much! you can find tawnya on her site at http://scriptanatomy.com, and on twitter at @ScriptAnatomy. i tend to be skeptical about writing teachers, but tawnya is the real deal! and stay tuned for her episode on fairly legal.

  1. Hekawi left a comment on November 23, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    What a lovely interview! I love it when good people with open hearts and interesting voices make good.

  2. casallina left a comment on November 26, 2011 at 12:04 am

    Awesome interview and great advice! Congrats to Tawnya!!

  3. Cinema Profound left a comment on November 29, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Kiyoung and Tawnya thanks for sharing this thoughtful and candid interview. It’s great to hear how folks get point point A to B. I love the path you’ve taken, Tawnya. Congratulations on realizing your dreams!

  4. Script Anatomy left a comment on December 2, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Thank you for reading! And thank you, Kiyong. It was my pleasure. Best of luck to all of you with your writing. ~ Tawnya

  5. Ali left a comment on June 5, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Great interview!! Thanks Kiyong & Tawnya!

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