interview: Meghan Pleticha, writers’ assistant Silicon Valley

I met Meghan at a mixer, and then we ended up in the same writers group for a couple years!  Alex already did a great interview with her on his blog, so definitely check that out. I had some questions about her time on Married and Silicon Valley. She’s also making a web series, and I had some questions about that process since I’ve been thinking about making one for a while now. I just donated to her Kickstarter at www.weremakingapodcast.com. There’s only a couple days left, so check it out. One of the perks involves a nude bodysuit. You can follow her on Twitter @MeghanPleticha.

How different were the writers’ rooms in Married and Silicon Valley? Were your responsibilities different?

I worked as both the Writers Assistant and Script Coordinator on both shows, so my responsibilities were the same, although Silicon Valley has more of everything – more clearances, more room notes, more serialized stories to track, etc. It’s all good, though. I’ve learned a lot in both rooms, and pretty much feel like a lucky asshole all the time.

Do you know how the writing staff of either show was put together? What made one writer get hired over another?

Literally no idea. If you find out please let me know so I can get staffed.

Has your writing process changed at all since you’ve become a writers’ assistant / script coordinator?

Not especially. My outlines have gotten more detailed (who knows though if that’s from seeing room outlines or just wanting to put off writing as long as possible), but the basic process is still the same. I’ve definitely benefited from watching writers far more experienced than myself work through story and jokes, and I’ve learned more how to write regardless of whether I’m in the right head space – work gets busy, write when you can!

How much should a staff writer contribute in the room? Is it better to err on the side of being too quiet or too talkative?

That’s a tricky question because a) I’m not a showrunner or a staff writer and b) “how much” can be pretty subjective. So that said, I will use my POWERS OF IMAGINATION to guess it’s not about being too talkative/quiet as much as it is about every time you speak, you have something worth sharing that helps the room. My untested theory is to focus on helping the show and the rest will work itself out.

Any advice for anyone writing a spec for Silicon Valley?

Be really funny and talented.

It’s the same as any spec – study the show, do your best, move on. There’s no “secret” to writing a brilliant spec besides trying to write something really good and hoping you don’t fail. But I haven’t gotten into any fellowships, so what do I know? Why are you asking me questions? Shouldn’t people be asking YOU this, Mr. Fellowship-getter?

Silicon Valley writes all the scripts for the whole season, then shoots, right? That’s unlike network sitcoms. Was it like that for Married, too?

Married did the same thing, with a period of writing scripts and then a production period. Theoretically you’ve written everything before you start shooting, but in practice there ends up being a lot of rewrites as things evolve during production, and by the time you get to the last script, things aren’t as far in advance as you’d like (I say, as if I have any authority or real skin in the game). The other thing both shows do is block shooting (or crossboarding) – where you’re shooting more than one episode over the same two or three week period. The nice part is that means all the scripts for that block have to be done before day one of shooting… the bad part is of course, all the scripts for that block have to be done before day one of shooting.

So you’re about to make a web series. What made you want to make one? How did you settle on your idea?

It felt like a natural next step in what I’ve been working on creatively. I used to think of writing as the end of the creative process (I’m an idiot), but watching production happen, I learned a lot about how shooting the script is another complete creative process. I always thought I just “didn’t like” production, but then I started thinking about it like I do about writing. It’s kind of like, how much writing sucks? That’s how much production sucks. But it sucks because you’re trying to create something good and that’s hard. Once I wrapped my head around that, making something – a sketch, a short film, a web series – felt more interesting and practical in terms of developing my skills.
Also, there’s now an expectation for aspiring writers to have made something. Web series are getting to be the new spec pilot for aspiring writers. I figured for once I should try to be ahead of the curve (I’m probably already too late). It’s a huge challenge, because people like to say you can shoot on your cell phone, but the quality of work expected is higher than that – and finding a good sound person/actor/DP to help you out on your little video is hard to do. That said, the rumors are true – you learn a lot, and my writing has benefited from it. If you haven’t yet, you should probably make something.
I settled on my idea the same way I settle on most of my ideas: I write down ideas (even the dumb ones) until I get a few I like. (With each one, there’s usually a self-congratulatory feeling of, “Oooh, that’s good.”) The thing I immediately liked about my premise (two best friends make a podcast together) is it feels produceable. I also listen to a lot of podcasts so I felt comfortable making jokes about them. At the time, I was also looking for ideas that a friend and I could write and film together, so making the show about best friends was a good fit. I ended up writing the series solo (no drama, just practicalities), but the friend dynamic remained super helpful, especially since my costar is a good friend of mine.

What was it like writing the scripts for your web series knowing you were going to have to shoot it? Was the process different than writing specs or pilots?

It has been so long since I’ve written something that was actually going to get shot, that it really invigorated the process and made me excited to tackle any issues. Having worked in production, I was also more aware of my descriptions and making set pieces and props as clear as possible.
Compared to specs and pilots, it was a very similar process. I started with brainstorming ideas, then picked my favorite plots, then put everything in an outline, reworked that until it felt good, and went to draft. Because I’m comfortable with a three act format, I ended up breaking the season one arc as if it was a three act pilot. So if you watch them, you should see approximate act breaks between episodes 3 and 4, and between episodes 7 and 8. Actually, since my rewrites, I don’t know if that’s true any more. So I guess I used my pilot writing process as a crutch and then let that fall away as my true genius/ineptitude emerged.

The biggest difference from spec and pilot writing was probably trying to focus each episode on a clear, episode-specific premise. I got some good advice from friends who had already made web series, and one of the big ones was that each episode should work as a standalone sketch – you want to get the jokes out there with as little context as possible. This is because people watching your show on the internet are not necessarily going to watch in order – and if they like what they see, they’re more likely to share the most recent episode out of context. My personal challenge (which we’ll see if I rose to), was to make individual episodes that were funny, but also had a season arc to reward repeat viewers.

You haven’t started to shoot yet, but what have you learned so far? Would you do preproduction differently next time?

We’re pretty early in prep right now, so I don’t know what mistakes I’ve made yet (I’m sure I’ve made some) – but I do have some past production experience I’ve tried to keep in mind, and hopefully I learned some lessons there.
I directed a production of Taming of the Shrew in college, and what I took from that was if you get good, creative people whom you trust, you can let them do their jobs and things can turn out even better than you expected. On that production, I worked hard to communicate my vision and where I saw the tone of the play (I made my cast read an essay about BDSM among other things), and the cast and crew ran with it. They all came to me with on-tone ideas that blew my mind. It was fucking awesome.
Recently, a friend of mine directed a sketch I wrote, and it was the first time I saw my writing interpreted by someone else. That was a real lesson about what is and isn’t clear in my writing. Sometimes you think you’ve described something perfectly, but someone else who doesn’t think like you might be totally confused. Because of that experience, I’ve made it a point to have a tone/production meeting a month before we start shooting to work out all the unknowns. We’ll see if that’s a great or horrible idea!
I can already say that next time, I would bring on another producer earlier. When I first started to gather a crew together, I was a hot mess. I wasn’t even sure what web series production LOOKS like – Do I need a script supervisor? Can we get away with actors doing their own makeup? Do you schedule twelve hour shoot days or do you do them shorter since people aren’t getting paid? Where do I find a DP? And I was trying to map all this out while doing heavy rewrites on the script. And working a full time job. It felt like every time I turned around, things got messier. It got a lot better when I pulled on Eliza to help track all the production elements, but then there was a whole new problem where I kept having to tell her promises I’d made to people. “Oh yeah, I said he could direct. I also got us a 1st AD, do we need one? We’re going to have one. I know four guys with lights and I told them we would use them but we don’t have sound equipment.” etc.

How did you budget your web series? What do you actually need to spend money on?

Good editors are hard to find, because they’re usually working. If you do find one, there’s a good chance they’ll leave for a paid job before your project’s complete (this happened to two friends’ projects in the last two months). If you can pay them, it can help to lock them down. Your other option is to edit it yourself, which is going to take longer than you think.
Renting lighting equipment – you need more than you think, and someone who knows how to use it. Hopefully your baller DP is all over it.
Food. You should expect to provide breakfast and lunch for your cast and crew, and stay away from pizza. Because most people are helping out of the kindness of their hearts, you need to do your damnedest to wrap early. That’s not going to happen if everyone is slowly rolling over after eating five slices of deep dish. Lighter, energy-supportive food is more expensive, but you make up for it by not having to schedule another day of shooting.

I’ve shot short films over a weekend, but never shot a web series. What does your shooting schedule for this look like?

Everyone on my cast and crew has full time jobs outside of the project. So, our options are to shoot full days on the weekends or short nights during the week. For my series (which is ten episodes, three minutes each), we’ve asked the cast and crew to block off eight shooting days (four weekends), and we’re hoping to only need seven of those days. They’re full twelve hour days, but the plan is to wrap early and/or squeeze in more than expected so we can even cancel the seventh day of shooting. We’ll see if that happens.

How do you balance your writers’ assistant job with writing, and, you know, life. 

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
I think you just have to do your best, tell your friends and family you love them, and do what makes you happy. Trying to break in television writing is a fucking pain in my ass, but I truly believe it’s what I should do with my life and nothing makes me happier than creating something I’m proud of. On a good day, it feels like this is all part of a larger puzzle and so it’s easy to skip out on drinks with your friends to work on that outline or script. On a bad day, you remember that you could die tomorrow and you might be wasting your last day on earth locked inside your apartment, staring at a computer and eating stale chips. What does it mean to live your life to the fullest? Seriously, if you know please tell me.

I do have one time management thing that really works for me. Before I go to bed, I’ll make a list of goals for the next day (basically a to do list, but I call them goals because if you don’t do all your to do’s you’re a failure, but if you don’t meet all your goals, you’re normal). I include everything on it, including social events and chores around the house. Then I rank everything starting with the absolute most important thing I have to do the next day and then go down the line. When I’m ranking everything, I try to be honest and realistic about what part of my life needs attention, so some days finishing an outline is the absolute most important thing, sometimes it’s emailing a friend to get drinks… sometimes it’s showering. I do this before bed (instead of first thing in the morning) because I hate making decisions, so when I wake up all the decisions have been made for me. It also means I make a lot of the tough decisions before I actually have to face them. So let’s say I know I should reach out to a contact and ask to buy them a cup of coffee but I’m scared – putting it on the list the night before distances me enough from doing the actual thing where I can be honest with myself when I look at the next day of my life and say “Okay, I need to pay my car insurance, answer Kiyong’s email about the blog interview, and then the next most important thing is emailing that guy I met at a mixer.” When I wake up the next morning, after I’ve done the first two more important things, I can’t go past number three because I’ve said it’s more important than ANYTHING left on that list. I used to do this every day (it especially helps during times of unemployment), now I usually do it when I get overwhelmed and feel an impending sense of doom looming over me. So I don’t know if it creates a “balance,” but it at least makes me less scared of facing my life.

I LOVE lists. I make them all the time.

A big thanks to Meghan for taking the time to answer all my questions! I wish her lots of luck with her web series, www.weremakingapodcast.com, and can’t wait to see it when it’s done.
  1. emsaso left a comment on June 24, 2015 at 8:31 am

    Love this interview — especially since I just wrote a Silicon Valley spec for NBC and WB’s fellowships. And your blog, which I just discovered (!), is great. Thanks for sharing!

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