interview: Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop 2009

I haven’t had the fortune of actually meeting Nora and Lilla, but Brian is friends with them and asked on my behalf if they’d be interested in doing an interview. They were gracious enough to agree! After they finished the WB Writers’ Workshop in 2009, they’ve worked on FRINGE, HUMAN TARGET, and are currently on HAVEN.

My brother and I are almost complete opposites, so I’m always fascinated by siblings with similar interests. What’s it like for you sisters to work as a writing team? Can you talk about how that happened, and what that process is like?

NZ: Lilla and I have always been close growing up, but in a lot of ways we had different interests.  I had always been an avid reader, would spend hours with my nose in a book, and had always been into movies and television.  I ended up going to USC’s film school, majoring in Filmic Writing, which is an intensive, 4-year undergrad program.  It was the 90’s when television experienced what people call a new “golden age” – and suddenly it seemed like all the best writing was being done in television.  I always loved the idea of working in TV, but I’d never taken a TV class at USC.  When I was there it was almost impossible to get into a TV writing class as an undergrad. Television also seemed like it was even harder to break into.  If you wanted to be in features, you just had to sell a script – so that was the path I initially tried for.  I got an agent somewhat quickly after film school and continued to write feature screenplays.  Over time I was becoming a better writer, and I had been getting some traction, but the progress was frustrating.

LZ: While Nora was at film school, I was a drama geek – I got my theater degree at Northwestern.  So, looking back, we were both passionate about film and television, we were just approaching it from different angles – Nora from writing, me from acting and producing.  And it all kind of came together when I had an idea for a book I wanted to write –

NZ: We ended up writing a book together and got it published – with a deal to write a second book as well.  My feature reps at the time suggested we pitch the books as a television series, and Lilla and I quickly figured out we sort of enjoyed working together on television projects.  We wrote specs, pitched around, did the whole thing.  But the Warner Brothers Workshop was truly our career break.

What spec did you submit to get into the WB Writers’ Workshop? What made you pick that show?

NZ: We decided to write a DEXTER spec, mostly because I felt like it was a good hybrid.  By that I mean it’s a murder mystery, an emotional character-driven show, and it had the potential for a “cool” factor.  The idea we had for our Dexter spec was a little risky and strange, but it turned out to be why people responded to it.

LZ: The funny thing was, DEXTER was a show that Nora had gotten into, but I didn’t know the show at all.  So of course I got the DVDs and start watching.  I was in.  When we wrote that spec, we really studied the show – we called it “going to DEXTER school.”  We follow the same process for every script we write now – whether it’s a spec or something we write for our staff jobs.  We break down episodes, really listen to the voices, etc.  The most difficult thing is figuring out how to write a spec for a show that has long plot arcs.

NZ: The best thing to do is to plant your flag and go for it – pick a point in the series and write the spec as if it came from there.  Don’t worry about future plots and episodes.

How many scripts did you write before you were accepted? Did you submit to the other writing programs?

LZ: The first time we applied to the workshop, we wrote a CSI spec and it got into the “almost made it” group.  We were invited to a one-night seminar and got to meet Chris Mack (the head of the workshop), who encouraged us to apply again.

NZ: Chris Mack stressed in the seminar that one thing the workshop always responds to strong emotional stories.  We took that to heart when we were writing our Dexter.

LZ: We also submitted our Dexter to ABC/Disney and got a good advance response, but withdrew our application when we got into the WB workshop.  WB picks their class in the fall, and ABC/Disney doesn’t make a decision until December.

What was the WB program like?

NZ: The WB workshop is different than ABC/Disney in that their goal is to get you staffed at the end of the workshop, so you’re not paid a salary or stipend.  The class meets once a week at WBTV.  You really get a comprehensive look at the TV business.  You hear from writers, showrunners, directors, actors, and all are very helpful and very candid. I’m kind of a junkie for stuff like that.  There was rarely a speaker in film school that I missed, so I felt like it was a wonderful way to start the workshop.

LZ: After the initial lectures, the workshop goes into script-writing mode, and you’re split into smaller groups.  You write a spec episode of a WB show.  They try to emulate the experience of writing a script on a real writing staff — complete with notes, story overhauls and deadlines.  One of the best things that happened to us was to have our script blown up.  We got over our panic and came back 3 days later with an almost entirely new draft.  (This happens on real TV staffs all the time.)  It showed we knew how to bounce back, roll with the punches.

Can you talk about what happened after the WB program?

LZ: We landed at our current agency, Rothman-Brecher, rather quickly.  The nice thing about coming out of the workshop is that they handle so much of staffing that we felt like we had a safety net.  Also, by the time we were done with the program, we had meetings with so many WB execs, we felt comfortable going into a room and talking about writing – what we watched, what we liked, and who we were.

NZ: Staffing itself is a whirlwind.  That year WB had a lot of drama pickups that were up our alley, so we went on a lot of meetings.  Going on showrunner meetings is actually more fun than stressful – and having a partner with you helps.  We’re comfortable with each other and have the sister rapport, and it seems to put people at ease.  Often times the showrunner you’re meeting with are waiting for a pickup or having just heard their pilot has to be overhauled.  You have to be the fun part of their day.  They want to know that you’re a person they’d like to spend hours with in a writers room.

LZ: After all the meetings, the waiting, and stress, we ended up with two offers on the same day.  We ended up going to FRINGE.

Everyone seems to say it’s important for writers to have a pilot script or some kind of original material these days. What are your thoughts on that? Is that more important than having a good spec?

NZ: It’s hugely important to have original material, but it helps greatly to have a spec.  It seems cyclical – one year all people want are originals, sometimes they want specs.  I hear lately that short stories are a good sample to have.

LZ: If I was a showrunner, I would want to see both spec and original material.  It’s important that a writer know how to capture the voice and tone of the show they’re on.  The only way you can tell this is from a spec, it’s not a skill that everybody picks up right away – and one that is critical once you land on a show.

NZ: It’s difficult to tell how adaptable a writer is if you’re just reading one piece of original material.

LZ: Also, I think it’s important to have several strong samples in different genres.  If you can have a procedural, a genre piece, a soapy-drama piece, a dark comedy… The more you give your agent to work with, the wider they can cast their net.

What was it like when you first joined the writers’ room? How different were the rooms for each of the shows you’ve been on?

NZ: Every show we have been on has been run in a different way, so the rooms themselves were very different.  You have to adapt, especially if you’re a staff writer.  On our season of FRINGE, the writer’s room was sort of an as-needed thing.  HUMAN TARGET was a very large staff – we were in the room from the moment we got to the office until the moment we broke for the day.  HAVEN is a cable show, the staff is smaller, but we still split into even smaller rooms – sometimes just 2 or 3 people working on one story.  That can be great for a lower-level writer.  You really get to contribute.

LZ: The most important thing is you need to find out what the best way is to serve the producers.  I don’t think it’s a bad idea to talk to your showrunners about what they expect and want from their staff writers.  Sometimes the answer is just to listen and learn.  Sometimes the showrunner wants you to participate just as much as a Co-EP.  Sometimes they say they want your opinions, but don’t really mean it.  Every situation is different.

What’s your writing process like? Any idiosyncrasies?

LZ: Outlines, outlines, outlines.  We are a team – so we need to be on the same page, to know what the story is before we each go off and work on our scenes.  We end up writing really long outlines (I think our last one was 18 pages for an episode), but that works for us.  We’d love to spend all day together at a computer while writing a script, but we have never had the time to do so.  So we split up the work, and trade off.

NZ: When it comes to using cards/whiteboard/computer, it usually depends on what we have on hand!  I don’t have a whiteboard at home, so often I end up doing index cards.  And do I listen to music?  Yes, but I find that if I’m really in the zone I won’t pay attention to it.  If I’m at work, sometimes there’s something comforting about having headphones on – it’s a signal that you’re focused.

LZ: Headphones mean “don’t bother me.”  But if I listen to music, it’s usually without lyrics.  I need to kind of talk out dialogue, try to hear it in my head.

What makes a script stand out to you, both good and bad?

NZ: I used to be a script reader when I was in film school and afterward, so I have read my fair share of terrible writing.  I often think about something that I think Scott Frank said in an interview, and I’m probably misquoting here, but he said you could tell from the first page whether or not the writer is in control.  It may sound a bit strange, but it’s true.  A good writer grabs you somehow and says they are in control of this journey, and goddammit you’re going to pay attention.  A strong script has a clear voice, a mood, a tone, and a compelling story.  Now mixing those elements with the kind of thing you need in a production script?  That’s brilliant.

I have a few television scripts I hold onto that remind me how great TV writing can be.  “The Subway” episode of HOMICIDE is one.  I also love anything by Darin Morgan (X-FILES), because he breaks all the rules but always brings the story back to an emotional place that breaks your heart.  The ending monologue in his X-FILES episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is one of my favorite things ever.  When we got to FRINGE, the office they gave us was Darin’s old office.  For a TV nerd like myself, it was kind of an honor.

LZ: When you read a masterful script, you don’t feel like you are reading – you feel like you can visualize what is happening in your head.  You can sabotage yourself by being too poetic in your writing as well…  You are communicating something that is going to be ultimately SEEN.

Also, I think that through-lines – thematically, emotionally, story-wise – that thread through each scene are important.  When we finish the 10th draft of a script I always go through a mental checklist – how does each scene contribute thematically?  How does is move forward each and every character?  How does it push the A plot?  Whatever happened to that side-character?  You can tell when a script has been slapped together.  It meanders and you feel suddenly – lost.

Besides writing skill, what else do you need to be a successful writer?

NZ: I think the one skill you need is the ability to speak and pitch in the moment.  I’m more of a cerebral writer, so sometimes it’s hard to convey the thing that’s in my head to the room.  Everybody has issues with that, but some people are wonderful at pitching.  As a showrunner friend said to me once, we hate those people.  Room skills are hard to teach.  It just takes experience, working in different rooms, being on different shows.

LZ: You absolutely need to be a collaborative person.  If you aren’t into collaboration, I don’t care how great a writer you are – go write plays or screenplays – you will hate TV.  You also need to just get along well with people.  You are gonna be one of several people in a room, 10 hours a day for months at a time.  Chris Mack always said to us – that he would never want to hire anyone that he wouldn’t want along on a cross-country road trip.

NZ: Other than that, I’d say that it helps immensely to just know television and know movies.  All those years you spent in theaters or sitting in front of the television can actually serve you if you’re a TV writer.  If you work on a supernatural show like HAVEN, know the genre.  A fan of HAVEN probably likes the X-Files, Supernatural, Fringe, Lost, Eureka – it helps if you know those shows.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

NZ: Beyond the obvious “keep writing” advice, I’d say don’t just keep writing, get better at it.  Take notes when you get them.  Learn.  Don’t be afraid to take classes, and if you do, learn from your professor.  If somebody tells you your script didn’t wow them, it’s probably because it didn’t.  That doesn’t mean you’ll never be a good writer.  You just have to learn from every script so the next one will be better.

LZ: Push yourself creatively – get better at writing and challenge yourself in that department.  But go easy on yourself in terms of getting your career started because it takes forever.  Nora and I were writing TV for six years before we got our break.  If you’re good and keep at it, it will happen.  You might have to wait a decade or two, but it happens.  And most importantly, find other writers whose opinions you trust and LISTEN TO THEM.

NZ: Career-wise, I urge people to apply to WB and similar programs.  It can also help you if you land an assistant or PA gig on a show, but I think you can’t see that as your only path onto a writing staff.  There are lots of assistants out there who have had freelances but never got staffed.  You have to view yourself as a writer first.  Get an agent.  Put yourself out there.  You cannot just sit back and wait for that freelance.  It doesn’t always lead to a job.  The WB workshop always has a few assistants in its classes who took their careers into their own hands.  You have to give yourself as many opportunities as you can, because they won’t all pan out.

LZ: And don’t blow an opportunity.  When you finally have a decision-maker (agent, TV exec, showrunner) read your script, make sure it’s damn good.

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I’d like to thank Nora and Lilla for being so generous with their time and for sharing so much incredible information! Watch for their episodes on HAVEN, and you can follow them on twitter:

Nora @NoraZuckerman
Lilla @LillaZuck

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