Jim Rash may be best known to many of you as Community‘s weird and wonderful Dean Pelton, or to the movie fans in the audience as the Academy Award-winning co-author of the screenplay for The Descendants and the writer of this summer’s coming-of-age dramedy The Way Way Back. But he’s recently added a third gig, as host of the Sundance Channel’s The Writers’ Room, in which Rash pays visits to the writers of some of the best shows on television, and finds out what makes their staffs click, how they handled key plot points, and how actors react to the work that they’re given. The premiere–the show airs at 10pm on Mondays–took Rash to the staff of Breaking Bad, and tonight, he checks in with the Parks and Recreation, where creator Michael Schur explains how the recession shaped the show.
I spoke with Rash about the difference between comedy and drama writers, whether the comparison of television to novels holds water, and what it means to break an episode of television. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You’re spending time with both comedy and drama writers. Did you see any differences in the dynamics between those two kinds of writers rooms? In the episodes I’ve seen so far, the Breaking Bad writers seem to listen to each other carefully, while the comedy writers all seem to be competing with each other to be funniest.
You’re right. At least certainly in those two, would be interesting dynamics to sort of point out. I did find that they all, overall, were a very familiar feeling family across the board whether it was comedy or drama. And even with New Girl, where it did share that Parks and Recreation fervor of making sure you laughed, which I think is paramout to breaking stories and making sure they work. You ahve Liz Merriwether, who is a very young creator, I don’t know if she’s one of the younger showrunners, so there’s this wonderful neurosis to her and the process of creating the show, and these other writers are both supporters and guides for her in support of that energy. In Game of Thrones, I was just sitting down with David [Benioff] and D.B. [Weiss], and myself, and they do a substantial amount of the writing [themselves]. So it was all different, all interesting tonal shifts within each group.
You used the word family. Do you think writers’ rooms have to be exceptionally close to function well?
Yeah, I think sometimes. When you see the faces from Vince Gilligan, looking at these people who made these really twisted things happen from their brains, that sort of tapping into that darker side, while obviously it is gritty and complicated and can be upsetting, some of the things that were happening on the show, at the core, all of the things explain these characters’ motives and things in their lives whether, they’re positive or negative. Your realize that writers in general are breaking that sort of puzzle of these people no matter what their characters are doing, from making meth, to Liz being very open about embarrassing things that happened to her. You realize that writers are really into tapping into human behavior across the board. That’s the chase.
Did you hear stories about writers who didn’t work out or didn’t fit into these dynamics? I imagine the hiring process is quite intense, and if someone doesn’t work out, that it could be painful.
Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. My own experience of seeing through Community writers, we had some writers that have been on since not the beginning, but close to, and then we’ve had new writers. Lots of things happen. Some of the writers are on loan from the studios because they have deals, and they’re writing on this show for a year. They might have left because they created their own show, because they’re developing and staff writing. Sometimes those shifts are just a natural function rather than a “This isn’t working out”-type scenario. One of the really interesting things and one of the things that makes writers’ rooms so specific is the idea that this collective was put together by a creator, that she or he had this vision, as with Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad, and to find a staff that could understand his vision and see these characters through and hone them and evolve. That is a big part of the process of creating the writers’ room.
There’s a tendency to compare television to novels, but a common thread between all of the episodes is that the writers haven’t necessarily known where they were going. And obviously collaborative writing defines the television experience in a way that’s totally different from the solitary pursuit of novel writing. Do you think there’s any real truth to that comparison? Or is it just something viewers have seized on to try to win television more respect?
In little pieces, to answer that question, I would say as far of books, Dexter and Game of Thrones are two shows we’ve talked to that are born from books. Dexter, while the pilot shares moments with the novel that created the character of Dexter, they completely abandoned the book from that moment on. Game of Thrones is taking dense novels and trying to shrink it all down to a slightly manageable series in the sense that there are so many characters and so many locations. So in a way those two are born from that.
But I think the bigger picture of how people want to describe them as more like novels. Yes, there are ongoing stories, and shows like The Wire and Lost are creating giant maps and overall arcs to a completion. But I think what’s interesting about TV now is embracing complicated characters, we could question their morals, and creating this grittier understanding of them, allowing us as an audience to embrace people with values we could question. If anything, TV has embraced that. That’s how I would describe that right now. I just think getting to really great characters is the key to any great story. The complexity of them. And telling their journey and understanding the way they are who they are. I think those are the things that make for any great TV or movie. Every plot thing can happen, but at the core it’s who it’s happening to.
One thing I’m curious about that hasn’t come out in the episodes as much is process. Are there accepted best practices for sorting through and picking out ideas, and for teaching new writers to work in the characters’ voices? Or do techniques vary from room to room?
It’s very room to room in terms of what their specific process is in terms of how they might break a story. From my experience, which has been a small stint in the writers’ room at Community, it started with pitching ideas for the episode, everyone latching on to one, and then as a collective writing out the overall arc of that episode and hopefully not running into any issues, or if you do, problem solving. Someone is creating this very loose document, an outline or treatment. That writer will then take that home with them or to their office, and write a first draft, and then get notes from them, and then go off and do the rewrite. There are writers’ rooms that will write episodes all together, who will break into little groups and write certain scenes. Everyone’s process can be a little bit malleable. Everyone tries to get into a groove or find what works for their room.
Are there show bibles or guides that showrunners give new writers when they’re joining the room? I imagine getting people up to speed and comfortable with characters’ voice is a huge task.
I’ve heard of Bibles. I’ve also heard of Bibles a lot when it comes to animation shows in particular. I’m sure they probably exist in some of these other TV shows. But I do think that the most important part is that the creator has created this, she or he has created this Bible, if you will, or map, or whatever you want to call it–vision is probably the easiest–of exactly what the show is, and making sure it’s true to the voices. You’re coming on board to understand that. That’s one of the interesting things, the fact that you have 8 to 9 to 11 people who all understand this show implicitly, and this character’s voice.
The New Girl writers talked about the importance of editing to the show coming together, and obviously Breaking Bad has quite daring cinematography. The focus of your show is on writing, but how do these other disciplines affect the shows you’re visiting? Have, for example, directors become more influential, or able to contribute more because of technology?
One of the strengths of obivously being a TV writer is you might have more influence. You have Vince Gilligan, more like showrunners. That bleeds into the look, that bleeds into the directors who are chosen to direct episodes, they’re there to fulfill the vision created by Vince. It’s a little bit more hands on as opposed to film, where you’re sometimes turning your piece over to a director and he or she is going to shepard the choices that are made from then on. The director in TV and the writer and the creator are working very much hand in hand. While the director is putting his or her mark on it and creating the shots and the choices being made, there is a look to those TV shows that has been established from the pilot and that is something you have to stay consistent with. This is the look, this is the feel, whether it’s osmeone’s point of view from the way it’s shot, whether it’s hand-held. I think it is collaborative.