Thursday, May 7, 2009

3Questions: Mike Daniels - Writer/Executive Story Editor for One Tree Hill

As part of this blog, I will be featuring an interview series, called 3Questions, with various people who have met success in the film industry. Some of them will be writers, directors, producers, or managers and agents, or assistants and studio execs, and even those in marketing. My first interview is below.

HBAD: So, tell us about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, what does that position involve?

MD: My name is Mike Daniels and I'm an Executive Story Editor for One Tree Hill, which basically means I'm a third year writer. Your first year as a television writer you're a Staff Writer, the second year you're a Story Editor, then an Executive Story Editor, Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Co-Executive Producer, Executive Producer. All of these titles mean "writer" in television (although usually they come with a few more producing duties as you climb the ladder).

On a show that's serialized like ours, you might have six to ten writers who basically come up with episode ideas as a group. We literally get together in a room (referred to as "the writers room") and pitch concepts. Those concepts get approved by committee and we start breaking actual storylines from them. Once we've hashed out an outline for an entire episode, one of the writers takes the outline and goes off to write it. Meanwhile, the rest of the writers forge on with ideas for the next episode. After you've finished writing your episode it goes to the network, the studio, and your fellow writers for notes. You do a handful of rewrites, submit a production draft, and then most shows will have you on set while your episode is shot, in case they need last minute changes.

Our show is a little different because we write in Los Angeles and shoot in North Carolina, so we don't spend as much time on set as writers on some other shows. As a television writer you're salaried - but you also get a script fee for every episode you write. When your episode repeats you get residuals. In my opinion, it's the best job in the world. I basically hang out with really creative people all day and brainstorm stories. And we have a cabinet filled with goodies. Seriously, there's a grocery list. Anything you want. You see very few thin television writers in Hollywood.

HBAD: How did you get your start?

MD: I grew up with stage actors as parents, so I've always been surrounded by scripts and stories. I remember writing at a really early age, but the actual decision to commit myself to it was tough. I felt like I should be a lawyer or doctor or something. I don't remember the day I actually made the decision, but somehow or other I got up the nerve to move from Michigan to Los Angeles a few days after graduating college. I had been writing feature scripts and submitting them to competitions. I was placing pretty well and thought I might have a shot. In any case, I had no clue how out of my depth I was. Maybe that was for the best. If I had known how stacked against me the odds were it would have been a much harder decision. I didn't have a single contact in Los Angeles. I was also broke. I basically had enough money to move and get an apartment. Eight years later I got my first writing job.

It was a long road. I spent years as a waiter, years as an office temp, and then years in an actual corporate job at a studio. Interestingly, I started writing television instead of features because I was so busy paying the bills that I just didn't have the time to crank out features. I was working in an office during the day and waiting tables at night. Television specs seemed handable - almost like writing could pick a show you loved, characters you knew, and just work on writing a great story for them. It just so happened this was happening at a time when movies were terrible and television was fantastic: Sopranos, The Shield, Rescue Me, Six Feet Under... I kind of fell in love with the idea of sticking with characters season after season and fleshing them out. So I stuck with tv and focused on writing samples that would get the attention of an agent.

Getting an agent is tough. Nobody will read anything unless you're referred to them by somebody they trust. So if you don't have any contacts you basically have to live in Los Angeles until you've made them. I had a great boss who eventually sent a feature script of mine to a producer friend. The producer sent the script to a big agent. The big agent had me meet with a junior agent. The junior agent couldn't sign me at the time but kept track of me. A year later the agency was bought by a huge agency and the junior agent needed to pick up a client. Luckily I had new scripts to show him that he really responded to. (A quick aside - keep writing. If you have one good script the first question you'll get asked is "what else do you have." Seriously, people want to see a body of work. So keep writing. And then write more.)

Anyway, I signed, was sent out on meetings with networks, studios, and producers - about six months later I got my first job. That's the tricky thing about tv writing - shows are run by a creator, produced by a studio, and sold to a network - so getting hired means all three of those entities have to agree on you. Unfortunately, all three of those people also have writers they know better than you who they'd like to get staffed. So it's tough.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to break in?

You hear a lot of people talk about how they're going to "give L.A. a shot" or "take a few years and see what happens." It feels a bit like they want to get famous or work in entertainment but they're not willing to bet their lives on it. In my experience, those people don't make it. Growing up I was surrounded by stage actors. These were adults with families who had devoted their lives to an art form they couldn't live without. Most of them didn't have much money and would never have any sort of commercial success. They taught acting to make ends meet or jumped regional theater to regional theater. It wasn't an easy life for them, but you could tell they didn't really have a choice. This was their passion. I think you should ask yourself if you feel that way about writing or directing or producing or doing whatever it is you want to do. Because Los Angeles isn't easy and you need that kind of long term devotion.

While there are always stories of overnight success, I'd say the average amount of time it takes for somebody to break into this field is maybe seven years. And in a way, I feel like the town rewards persistence. If people see you getting knocked down and pulling yourself up again and again, somebody is eventually going to give you a shot. It's a numbers game... but the numbers aren't in your favor. So if you're really serious, commit yourself to moving to Los Angeles for the long term. There's also a lot of disappointment and heartbreak involved with this business. There are countless times when I thought something was going to break my way and it just didn't. You're back at square one. There's also a good chance you could get your dream job and then never work again. It happens all the time. The only way to keep your head on straight is to have a life outside of what it is you're trying to do.

Again, so many people aren't interested in real relationships or getting involved or settling down because they're "focusing on their career." I think that hurts you. It makes you desperate to succeed because there's nothing in your life to fall back on. So make friends. Date. Adopt a dog. Exercise. Go to museums. Take classes. Hike. Go to the beach. Volunteer. Have a life. That way, at the end of the day, if you haven't just sold your first script to Warner Brothers, you can at least go to bed knowing you took care of yourself and you have a community to support you. Lastly, I'd say find a job that puts you CLOSE to what it is you want to do. If you can scrounge a job as a production assistant or writer's assistant, it's better to be in the mix than working at a Kinkos. But if you can't find a job in the industry right off the bat, just keep your sights on it. Don't settle into a job where you never meet anybody that can help.

This question - "how do I break in" - is the most common question in the business. And there's not an answer that's going to satisfy you. At least, I've never heard one. The old adage, "it's who you know" is true. This business is all about somebody setting you up to hit a homerun. That doesn't mean you need an Uncle Spielberg, but it does mean if you're without an "in" you're going to need to join this community long enough to make contacts. And don't be the guy who just moved here who goes up to everybody at the party and pitches their movie. Nobody will help you. Be the guy at the party who says "I just moved here, nice to meet you, what do you do for fun around here." Make a friend. Maybe someday that friend will be in a position to help you out. And if she isn't, you'll still have a friend.


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