interview: Brian Stampnitsky, Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship 2010-2011

brian stampnitsky

i wanted to do some interviews with other writers who have gone through the writing programs. i’m starting with fellow nick fellow brian stampnitsky. i actually met brian before the fellowship in a tv writing class at io west, and just by coincidence, we both made it as finalists, and then made it in as fellows.

What spec did you submit to get into the Nick Writing Fellowship? What made you pick that show?

I submitted a Big Bang Theory.  Since I wanted my spec portfolio to show as much diversity as possible and I hadn’t written any multi-cam scripts, I started looking at those shows.  Big Bang jumped out because it focused on a group of nerds (something I felt I could relate to – for no particular reason!), but the science-speak and Sheldon’s voice made me a little apprehensive.  Writing a sitcom spec is all about mimicking the show’s specific voice and sensibility, so Big Bang felt like a worthwhile challenge/learning experience.  It wound up being my favorite spec.

Did you submit to the other writing programs?

In previous years, I submitted to WB, NBC, and Nickelodeon – just because you’re not accepted the first time doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again!

What has the Nick Fellowship been like for you so far?

It’s been pretty great.   The animation studio is an incredibly friendly environment, everyone is happy to share their knowledge/experiences, and being paid to write all day is just a priceless opportunity.  It’s hard at times to wrap my mind around the time and resources Nickelodeon is investing in us, and occasionally I remind myself of where I am and what lies ahead.  When all of next year’s submissions were put into piles measuring something like five feet high, I struggled to hold back giggles of happiness, thinking about how the three of us emerged from the same odds the previous year.

I think some people think you have to be a minority to get into these
writing programs, and either don’t apply or don’t think they’ll get in because they’re white.  Can you talk about what made you apply and what you thought your chances were of getting in?

Well, anyone who does all of the hard work of writing a spec and then doesn’t apply because of the odds are shooting themselves in the foot.  Filling out the application is the easy part – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  The odds are stacked against you no matter what, but I believe good writing is hard to ignore.

I can only speak about Nickelodeon’s definition of what constitutes “diversity.”  Karen (the director of the Nick Fellowship) considers diversity to be uniqueness of character.  Since the primary piece of writing in the application is your spec, which demonstrates your ability to mimic someone else’s sensibility, I treated the essay and questions as a chance to speak in my own voice and reveal what from my past shaped the person I am today.  When you submit a spec, resume, and you slap your signature on a few forms, the essays are the only opportunity to let the real you take center stage.

What kind of hours did you put into writing, before and during the Nick Fellowship?

I’ve never counted the hours, and like a lot of writers, I’m always battling procrastination (the blank page can be a scary fanged beast), but once the story starts percolating, I get increasingly excited.  Before the fellowship, I’d spend weekends in “the writing hole” and work a little bit on weeknights (even if it was just thirty minutes).   Bah, this is a pretty direct question and I’m not answering it directly.  Let’s try again…

The amount of time I put into the outline is… a lot.  Hours and hours and days and days of writing and revising and daydreaming.  In the fellowship we’re on a rigid schedule, but we also have full days, full weeks, to write.  When I get to the script, I don’t think about the hours, rather I just set goals for myself like, “Today I’m gonna write the entire second act” and then I push myself until that goal is met.  If it takes all day, then it takes all day.

Are there any idiosyncrasies to your writing process?

Once I get a sense of the scenes I need to tell the story, I put it up in order on a dry erase board, with each story line in a different color.  Seeing it on one surface gives me a sense of the rhythm and how the scenes lead into one another… and even which scenes can be merged or cut.

When I’m working on the script, I read back the new pages in the voices of the characters.  Yes, I do this out loud, by myself, with hand gestures, because I am crazy.  I perform every part – poorly – and it gives me the best sense of whether or not I’m capturing the characters.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Never begin your script until you have an airtight outline.  The large majority of your creative time should be spent writing that outline.  If you have a great outline, you will have a great script.

Seek out notes from people who will give you honest, critical, and helpful feedback, and learn to take those notes.

Read “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield.

We’re about 8 months into the Nick Fellowship. How have you grown as a writer?

Karen has held us to a great system of developing and writing a spec, and it’s made me a more disciplined and, I hope, stronger writer.  I’ve learned the value of having multiple solutions to a problem (from the premise to story points to jokes).  Overall, everything has been fine-tuned and strengthened.  And, y’know, if I can get all metaphory on you – the fire burns brighter.  Oh yeah, I said it.  The fire burns brighter!

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thanks to brian for taking the time to answer these questions! i’ll have more interviews coming up, hopefully from kevin the other nick fellow, and a few writers that have gone through the warner brothers and nbc programs!

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  1. Thanks for putting this up! I’m one of the youngin’s out there hoping to write for television and it’s always nice to see somebody make some headway and manage to be nice and revealing about it.

  2. Nice interview. I look forward to reading the rest.

    Outlining is so important. I used to be the writer who felt outlining was a waste of time.
    Why outline when I could be using that same creative energy on my first draft?

    Well I eventually matured as a writer and now I won’t do anything without outlining, screenplays, teleplays, comedies, dramas, it’s all the same I outline before I spec.

    The outline is your blueprint, without it your spec is like a house of cards (it will soon fall)

    To the “special” writers who don’t need to outline– kudos to you.
    But I will continue outlining
    it’s outline or die for me! Lol

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