I was a fan of Hannibal on NBC, so when I met Kai and learned she was a writer on the show, I was pretty excited. Then she told me how she ended up getting staffed, and I wanted to share.
Can you talk a bit about your background? Did you study writing in school? Did you work as an assistant? Did you enter writing contests?
I was born in Taiwan and raised in a very small town (Salisbury) in Maryland. I went to Carnegie Mellon for college and while I did study writing, it was for fiction. I always knew I wanted to be a screenwriter so I purposely chose something that wasn’t film/television writing so I could have a different experience. After college, I came out to LA and got a job as an agency assistant. It made my life a living hell but the experience was invaluable. After spending two years in feature development, I moved to TV and worked as showrunner’s assistant and Writers’ Assistant on various shows before finally making the jump. Prior to my getting my first staffing gig, I tried writing contests twice but never got very far. So I just decided to focus on pilots instead of specs and forgo the writing contest route.
When we met, I asked how you got the job on Hannibal. You said you went in to interview for an assistant job, but got hired as a writer, which is amazing. Can you talk about how that all went down?
It was insane and to this day, I still can’t believe it happened that way. Basically, I was (and still am) Bryan Fuller’s biggest fan – Wonderfalls is my favorite show and I adored Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies. So I was super excited to meet him and he (along with Jesse Alexander) couldn’t have been nicer. We chatted about the Jurassic Park ride and the show Awake amongst other things. It was a very relaxed and fun meeting. By the end, Bryan and Jesse asked me if I had written any scripts and if I did, they would love to read it. I left the meeting (it was on a Thursday) and they mentioned they would make a decision on Friday. I sent them my script and didn’t hear anything at all. On Monday night, I got an email from my agent saying I had an NBC meeting on Wednesday. I was like….what? Then I got a call from an agent (not mine) congratulating me on getting the staff writer job, which made me even more confused. Then I got an email from Bryan’s office explaining what is happening and that’s when I learned that after my meeting with them, Bryan and Jesse called over to NBC to try and staff me. Needless to say, my head was spinning and things were moving very fast. After my meeting with NBC on Wednesday, I joined the room on Thursday.
Did you have an agent or manager? Did you have to show a writing sample? If so, what?
I had both an agent and manager at the time but since this was an assistant position, I didn’t need them to do anything. So after my interview, I went home and sent Bryan and Jesse my pilot called Memory Bank, which is a super crazy dramedy. In retrospect, I should’ve thought twice about sending a one-hour comedy for a show like Hannibal but the backstory to Memory Bank was that I had written it like a year ago and I had always called it “a love letter to Bryan Fuller.” With Memory Bank, I was basically paying homage to Wonderfalls and my dream was always to get the script to Bryan Fuller one day. Miraculously, the chance came so I sent him the script.
What’s the writers room like? Hannibal is a dark show. Does it ever get too morbid?
First season we started out with 6 writers and midway through, we added another writer to make it 7. Season 2, we have 10. Surprisingly, things never got too morbid. Everyone has a great sense of humor and we’re able to joke about even the most gruesome aspects of the show. Maybe we’re all weirdos?
The way we break story is that we try and figure where the characters are in relation to each other and what we want to say about those relationships. That will then inform the plot. Bryan is amazing with characters so even in devising a case, it has to reflect what the characters are going through and their arc.
You got to write your episode with the showrunner, Bryan Fuller. What was that like? How awesome was it to see your episode air?
I wrote the outline and the first draft and then Bryan did his magic and added his genius. He made everything better and it was amazing to see him at work. It was definitely very cool to see my first produced credit but to have my name next to Bryan’s, that was pretty amazing. My younger, Wonderfalls-watching self would’ve been very proud of me.
How much do the writers interact with the cast and crew? Do you ever get to go on set and look at the props of dead bodies?
Unfortunately, the lower level writers don’t go on set. We shoot in Toronto so the upper level writers will go sometimes but mostly, everyone is in LA writing. Bryan, however, is very tight with the cast/crew as he goes when production starts for a few week and then intermittently throughout the season. The show really is Bryan’s vision so he’s very involved with every decision.
Hannibal was an existing property. Did you have to read all the books? Are you guys trying to stick to a certain reality established by the films and novels, or are you guys creating a new mythology?
It wasn’t a requirement but I read Red Dragon when I started. This season I read Hannibal Rising. I think we’re trying to create our own mythology that’s inspired by the source material. We’ll take creative liberties, which first season has already done, like changing the sex of characters and taking an event you know that happens and put it in another context. It’s fun for us to refer to canon and then come up with a new way to surprise readers of the books.
When do you have time to work on your own stuff? What’s your writing process like?
I write after I get off work. I’ll head to a coffee shop to work for a few hours or I’ll get up super early to write before I go into work. It’s difficult and exhausting but that’s the only time I have plus weekends. I love writing at coffee shops so I do most of my writing there. Home is too claustrophobic.
As for my writing process, I’ll outline by hand in my notebook. It’s messy and I can’t read my handwriting half the time so I have to finish it very quickly before I forget. The important part for me is to churn out a vomit draft quickly so I have something to react to and that’s when the real writing starts. Most of the time, 90% of the script changes from first to second draft and a few times, it’s a page one rewrite. But I really need that first draft, however crappy it is, to see what I need to change. After I clean it up and do an internal round of notes, I send it to a few close friends for notes. I do have a writers’ group but all of us have been so busy, we haven’t had time to meet up. We started the group when only one person was staffed and now three of us are staffed and one is selling pilots. The “busy” excuse is pretty valid.
Any tips for someone writing a spec of Hannibal?
Start with characters. It’s not a plot-driven show so focus on characters and the dialogue. If you can come up with a creepy yet elegant death tableau, that’ll help too.
Any general advice for writers trying to break in and get that agent or first job?
Write and write more. Cliché but true. We are the only generative force in Hollywood so as long as you keep generating, you are maximizing your chances. And once you have three or more pieces of incredible material, go and network. It’s paramount if you want to work in TV. Eventually you’ll meet people who know people who’ll pass on your script to an agent or manager.
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Awesome! Thanks to Kai for taking the time to share. You can follow her on twitter at @chinoischai. And check out the new season of Hannibal, starting 2/28!
All of the scripts from Season 1 are available here!