interview: Nick Keetch, Sundance Episodic Story Lab
I met Nick through my writing group friends, and we met in person at the Austin Film Fest. I was really happy for him when he got accepted into the Sundance Episodic Story Lab, and I finally got around to interviewing him about it. Follow him on Twitter at @ndotkeetch.
A belated congrats on getting accepted into the inaugural Sundance Episodic Story Lab! What was it like? How was the program structured?
Thanks. The program was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. We spent six days in Robert Redford’s absurd mountain paradise in Utah, I met and worked with some of the best writers and producers in Hollywood and I got a rad poncho, because it rained a lot and, having lived in LA for five years, was ill equipped for extreme weather. I also made some awesome friends in the other lab participants, showrunners, producing mentors and incredible Sundance program staff.
The program was broken down into two sections — the first few days were spent working with the showrunners on the pilot script that got me into the lab. The process varied for each of the lab participants. Some people were closer to a finished product than others. For me it meant an eventual page one rewrite (which was done after the program finished). I was partnered with Chic Eglee, Michelle Ashford and Warren Leight, all of whom gave me excellent, clear, and most importantly, consistent notes on how to improve the script. While it sounds a little demoralizing to win the writing lottery and get into the program, only to find out that there’s very serious work that needs to be done on your script, I think the process I went through at the lab, led to me writing a better script and made me a better writer.
After the first three days, the showrunners left the resort and the producers arrived. We worked with them on pitching, taking meetings and working with the executive side of the business.
What was the day to day? Did you each have individual mentors or were there group sessions? Did you get notes on a specific script? Did you have to pitch new things? How much interaction was there between you and the other writers?
Every day began at 8am. We had breakfast with the Sundance crew and whichever showrunners or producers decided to join us. It was a very casual, comfortable environment, where we were encouraged to treat everyone like our peers.
We worked individually with different showrunners on our scripts and had group sessions which varied from roundtable discussions of the practicalities of the industry to in-depth analysis of specific pilots. I was partnered with Chic Eglee, Warren Leight and Michelle Ashford, who are all lovely and incredible smart. They all brought very different backgrounds and experience to the ways they approached developing my pilot, and they have continued to help me in in numerous ways.
We had to pitch to both the showrunners and the producers. My pilot had been broken down and beaten to death by the time pitching came around, so the first attempt was pretty terrible. I stopped in the middle and said, “fuck it,” which is apparently not a successful way to sell a concept. The showrunners gave me some notes, I took the basic premise that I knew was strong, paired everything down, and am told I killed the producers pitch. Pitching was the most difficult stage of the program for me, but I also learned more from failing than would have if things had gone well the first time around. So, you know, that thing the Michael Caine says to Bruce Wayne about bats attacking you or something.
The interaction with the showrunners and the producers was pretty much constant. Sundance want you to develop a relationship with these people. It’s awkward for everyone at first, but we settled in pretty quickly.
What were the takeaways from the program? Has that experience changed how you write?
I hope the program made me a better writer. The showrunners who worked with me on my script weren’t shy about explaining where my writing could be improved, and I’ve worked hard to incorporate their advice into my work.
I feel like I was reasonably well versed in how the industry side of things works, but it was fascinating to hear about the trials of being a showrunner and listening to real anecdotes about the good and bad side of producing a show.
I think the program made very clear that the hard work never stops. You never stop doubting yourself. You can always be a better writer. There is no top of the mountain. Stop now. Why, bother? You’re never going to be Noah Hawley.
Have the people at Sundance helped set you up with meetings or anything after the program?
Yeah. Sundance have been great about helping me out with meetings, calling execs, vouching for me, and a year later they continue to support me.
Before Sundance, you had a pilot optioned. How’d that happen? What was that like?
I’d written a few horrible pilots, none of which I was happy sending out. I threw them in a trash fire and cursed their existence, thought about quitting, because why do something that’s this dumb and hard for no money. Eventually I wrote something I liked, but I had no contacts. A friend of mine worked in corporate journalism in Papua New Guinea (true story) with a woman who’d recently moved here to work as a producer. She was the first person of any official standing to read my script and she optioned it. A friend of a friend was an agent, so I asked her to help with the contract, she read my script and signed me. I’m still with her and she is awesome. It was strange and lucky, I got no money and the option expired without anything happening, but I did get a rep, so it was all worth it.
You have both an agent and manager. How do you like having both? What’s your relationship like with each?
It’s great. They’re great. I’m not making them any money and they still do a bunch of work for me. I love them dearly. Please, please, never leave me.
What’s your decision making process on what project to write next? Is it just based on what interests you the most? Or what strategically would be a good piece in your portfolio? Do you pitch loglines to your reps first and get them to sign off?
My conceptual process is a constant struggle. There are four hundred thousand scripted shows on t.v. and another twelve hundred billion are sold every year. It’s very difficult to come up with something that’s new and original and fits your voice and how you think of yourself as a writer. Most production companies have full teams whose sole job is to develop new ideas, so I’m trying to convince myself to take more time at the conceptual stage. That’s tough when you want to be constantly producing more work that can be used to pitch you as a staff writer, but standing out is hard, and a well-executed, original idea is the golden Hollywood ticket everyone wants/needs. That said, generally I panic and write the dumbest thing I can think of and then hate myself for several months until hopefully it becomes something I like. It’s not a good system.
Before Sundance, you posted some scripts on the Blacklist site. What was your experience? Did anything come out of it? Would you recommend it?
The Blacklist was good to me. I put a pilot up, paid for reads, got some good reviews and ended up being submitted for a Fox program (which unfortunately kind of dissolved with the regime change at the studio/network), and was put in their staffing season recommendation book. Nothing specifically concrete came of it, but all these thing hopefully add up in the minds of people making the decisions.
Besides drama pilots, what else do you want to write? Features? Novels? Comic books? Any interest in directing?
I write pilots and I’ve written spec episodes of various t.v. shows. In my mind it’s hard enough to be good at one thing without trying to conquer any other medium. I’d like to write a novel or a feature and I’ve given serious thought to trying to put together a graphic novel of one of my pilots, but I think it’s smarter to focus on doing one thing at a time. There are extremely talented people working in each of those mediums and I think it’d be an insult to them, and probably a horrible car crash of wasted time and energy to try and do anything without fully committing.
How do you approach networking? What’s your strategy there? Gimme some tips, because I don’t think I’m good at it.
I don’t really network. I have friends who write and produce and sometimes I meet their friends who write or produce and we become friends. Otherwise I try to be good in meetings, and routinely conduct small blood sacrifices in the hopes that Beelzebub will black magic someone into considering me for a job.
Thanks to Nick for taking the time to share his experience!
Sundance Institute is now accepting project submissions for its 2016 Episodic Story Lab through Wednesday, February 10 at 11:59 p.m. PT. Apply online at applications3.sundance.org.