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Promotional poster for ONE OF US IS LYING

Host Geri Cole talks to Erica Saleh—writer & EP of ONE OF US IS LYING—about the process of developing the series for three different networks before finally finding its home on Peacock, how ’80s and ’90s nostalgia influenced the writers’ room, and the importance of having faith in your ability to finish a draft.

Erica Saleh is a TV writer and playwright whose past television credits include EVIL, INSTINCT, WISDOM OF THE CROWD, and CHANNEL ZERO. As a playwright she is a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre, and her work has been produced and developed by multiple theaters across the NYC area. She also serves on the WGA East’s Council, as well as the Guild’s Committee for Inclusion and Equity.

Erica developed, writes on, and executive produces the new young adult mystery series ONE OF US IS LYING. Based on Karen M. McManus’s New York Times best-selling novel, the show tells the story of what happens when five high schoolers walk into detention and only four make it out alive. Everyone is a suspect, and everyone has something to hide.

ONE OF US IS LYING premiered in October 2021 and is currently streaming on Peacock.

Seasons 7-10 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received a Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. The series was created and produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producer & Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: Hi, I’m Geri Cole. And you’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’re going to hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series, talking about their writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen, and so much more. Today, I’m happy to welcome Erica Saleh to the podcast. Erica developed, executive produces, and writes the new teen mystery series, One of Us is Lying, now streaming on Peacock.

In this episode, we talk about how the show was developed for three different networks before finding a home at Peacock, how 80s and 90s nostalgia influenced the writer’s room, and the importance of remembering to have faith in your ability to finish a draft. Hi, Erica. Welcome to the show. I would actually, first off, like to give a spoiler warning because I would like to get into it. And so folks, if you haven’t watched the whole series, pause and finish and come back before listening, because we might be spoiling some things. So let’s talk about how this project came together, how you ended up getting this material and adapting the book.

Erica Saleh: I feel like I just got really lucky. The book was published in 2017, and later that year it was sent to me by the producers. I should back up. The two producers, at a company called Five More Minutes Productions, had found the book before it was published, fell in love with it, got the rights. And then, shortly after that, an exec over at NBC also found the book, fell in love with it, and went and linked up with our producers.

Geri Cole: Wow. Okay.

Erica Saleh: So, it became an open writing assignment. It was sent to me, I believe, in December of 2017. And I read it and just so immediately fell in love with it. It was just such a fun, fast read. And I really was really shocked by the ending. And I totally fell in love with the characters, and it both felt like, oh I can so see how this becomes a TV show, and these characters are so exciting, that I want to get to do so much more with them than there is room in this book. So it felt like something I definitely wanted to pitch on. I pitched the producers, and then worked with them on a take, and brought that to UCP. And so, UCP hired me. And at the time it was set up at E! So I started writing the pilot, as if it was going to be a show for E!

Somewhere in the pilot process, we were moved over to USA. So, did a little rewrite for more of a USA audience. And then, when we got the green light to shoot the pilot, we were told, “And we have this new streaming service called Peacock and…” Or, it didn’t have a name at the time. They said, “We’re launching a new streaming service, and you’re actually going to be for that.”

So it felt like, every time, we were finding a better home. Every time it was, “Oh yeah, I can see how it’s going to fit here a little better.” And then, Peacock was so exciting because we were one of the first scripted things and really get to help create what this platform does, rather than be shaping it for something existing.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Because I feel like it’s a different show on E!, and it’s a different show on USA.

Erica Saleh: Absolutely. Absolutely. And luckily, our execs, both at UCP and at NBCU, stayed the same throughout. So the creative team and creative vision was really cohesive, but it’s certainly, we were thinking about different audiences. And probably goes without saying, at E!, leaning a little more into the soapiness of it. At USA, we became a little more interested in trying to flesh out the parents’ stories and have some more adult drama. And then, at Peacock, I think we got to find the perfect tone.

Geri Cole: Nice. So what was your adaptation process like? Did you work with Karen McManus at all? Was she involved, or was it basically in the writer’s room?

Erica Saleh: Yeah. For the pilot, I had a call with her and got to just pick her brain and hear… she, of course, has so much knowledge about these characters that didn’t make it into the book. She’s since written… She’s published another book in the world, and it has another one coming out. So she just had so much in her brain that I got to benefit from. But she was also a really wonderful collaborator, in that she really understood that there were necessary differences between creating a story for page and for screen and did really let me run with it.

So, there were some great early conversations, and then I just went off and wrote the pilot. And then, once it was written, she read it and gave notes, and she’s a consulting producer on the series as a whole, but she was really lovely, in that it was very, very willing and ready and happy to help and also generous in letting us do new things, try new things, make some changes. There was one, and I’m not sure if I should even admit this, but there was one change I was going to make that she was, “You absolutely cannot make that change.”

Geri Cole: Oh what? Now you have to tell us.

Erica Saleh: I pitched, early on, I love dogs so much. And I was, “What if Nate had a dog instead of a bearded lizard?” And she was, “You have no idea how much people love this lizard.” And I was, “Okay, I guess we’ll do the lizard.” And he’s the star of the show. She was so right. I’m ashamed that I, even for a second, thought we should have a dog. So she was really great at… she’s so connected to her fans. And she gave us this amazing spreadsheet of, I guess you can get the information; on Kindle, people can highlight passages. And so, she had all of these most highlighted passages, and she had gotten all this fan mail. So she gave the writer’s room this great spreadsheet of just, “Here are moments that I know the readers love.” And we obviously couldn’t get them all in, but it was fun to try to find homes for a lot of them. And then, fun to see on Twitter, people absolutely freaking out about those moments. And she knows her readers, and that was great.

Geri Cole: That’s incredible. First of all, I didn’t know that you could do them on Kindle, know most highlighted moments. So really, these are precious moments that people are connecting with and then trying to work that into… so let’s talk about your writer’s room because there were some new twists and turns. So what was that like? And I’m also very interested in talking through how you structured things because structuring a murder mystery is fun, but you know-

Erica Saleh: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Yeah, so let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the writing room.

Erica Saleh: Sure, sure. I would say, starting with the changes from the book, there were some that I knew, right from the get-go, we were going to make. There were a couple that are seeded into the pilot. Cooper’s relationship with his girlfriend is different. And I knew it was going to help his character and, in a way, make him more mysterious, if you’re not hiding the fact that he’s gay. And so you, I think, are really leaning into, okay, what else is going on with this kid? And I think we really wanted to invest in him and him and Keely and him and Chris and just wanted to get that all out, very quickly. So that was one we knew, right off the bat. And then, changing the ending was something we knew we wanted to do, right off the bat, as well.

That was all pre-writer’s room. And then, I think when we got into the writer’s room, we had this great mix of writers who had experience in YA and had experience in mystery, and then, had some people who had no experience in either of those things but were just amazing character people. We had a couple playwrights in the room. It was just such a great mix of talent. And we brought in Darío Madrona, who created Elite for Netflix, who’s, just in terms of building a mystery, his mind is amazing. His mind for structure and teasing out a mystery is really phenomenal. So we had this powerhouse of writers, and I think, as we looked at changes from the book, we certainly didn’t go into the writer’s room thinking, what do we want to change from the book?

But I think we knew there were some things we were going to have to do. TV works at such a faster pace, so we knew right away that we were going to need more twists; we were going to need more suspects; we were going to need more red herrings. And I think, structurally, the book is told from the point of view of the four murder suspects, of the kids that were in the room with Simon. And they’re all unreliable narrators, and you’re unfolding this mystery through the little bits that they’re willing to tell you. And we knew A, we weren’t going to be able to use that device on screen, and we needed to find different ways to make them unreliable narrators. So we hit on the flashback device to do that, to hear them saying one thing and seeing another.

But we also knew that we wanted, the heart of the book, I think, is this friendship between these four very unlikely people. And we knew we wanted to get them together earlier in the show than happens in the book because that’s just the fun of the show; that’s when you’re off and running. And I think once they’re all together in that way, it’s hard to make them the prime suspects for too long. We definitely want to them do feel suspicious throughout the show, but we kind of knew, the audience is going to know, pretty quickly, it’s most likely not one of them.

Geri Cole: Yeah. And there’s so much fun with murder club where it’s, “I want to be-”

Erica Saleh: Yes. Yes, exactly. Exactly. So yeah, I think it was just this very natural thing of, well, we clearly need more suspects, and we want people who read the book to have this other layer of fun, to have the fan service and to be with these characters that they love so much, but to be on their toes and still have these jaw-drop moments and these things that they didn’t see coming.

Geri Cole: Man. Yeah. One of the things also that really resonated with me, about this series, is that they’re all presented as these archetypes in this very John Hughes kind of way, which as a child of John Hughes, I really appreciated. But then, they very quickly proved themselves to be the opposite of those things. And I thought that all the four main characters, it’s an ensemble, and they all had lovely arcs, growth throughout this season. Can we talk about how you guys mapped that out?

Erica Saleh: Yeah. Yeah. I think the project of the season and, knock on wood, the project of the series, is really about showing these kids who start the show, I think, really playing the parts that other people have prescribed for them, whether that’s their parents, or whether that’s social media or their friend groups or what they’ve seen on TV or in movies. And I do think, to an extent, we all do that. We are all sort of performing these versions of ourselves. And often, we’re performing the versions of ourselves that we think the world wants to see. And one of the things that really excited me about this project, beyond these great characters and this great mystery, was really taking seriously being a teenager and how tragedy and trauma change people. So, I think this is a show about four kids who are kind of coasting along, living these performative versions of themselves, and this thing happens and shakes them loose of that and sort of forces them to be more honest and forces them to grow up faster than they want to and shows their secrets to the world.

And so, these masks they’re wearing just aren’t available to them anymore. And I think we had a lot of fun, clearly referencing movies from the eighties that we, as the writers, loved; movies that we think that teenagers today are connecting with, and really presenting those characters. But I think the first season, you start to see them step out of that. And I think what’s really fun about it is, some of them know what they’ve been hiding. Cooper knows the version of himself, or part of the version of himself, that he’s not letting the world see. By the end of the season, he’s out to his dad, he’s out to his friends, and it’ll be another step to see, oh, how do I actually live with this freedom? And how do I actually live with the world knowing this about me? It’s definitely not, “And here I am.” It’s an ongoing process.

But then someone like Addy, I think actually, she realizes, in the course of the show, that she wasn’t happy being the version of herself that she was pretending to be. But I don’t think she knows what’s under it. She doesn’t have some secret, hidden identity ready to go. So there’s this moment in episode four, where her mom is saying, “The world wants to see you as this pretty, innocent, nice girl. Just let them.” And she says, “What if I want to be seen as more than that?” And her mom asks, “Like what?” And she doesn’t have an answer. So she knows what she doesn’t want to be, but I think we end the season with her kind of ready to, or hopefully ready, to start to figure out who she does want to be.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Which I think is something that most women connect with.

Erica Saleh: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And I think that people in general, but especially teenagers, often feel like they’re performing something. And I think Addy’s story is cool, to say, “You can step out of that, and you can start the journey without knowing where you’re going.”

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And the other, though… I feel like it was breaking my heart, sort of, in the middle of the season, where it was, these kids witnessed their friend die, and no one’s… she’s clearly having a… someone reach out to her. Where are her counselors? Because you sort of see her struggling with, not only coming undone from this version of herself, that she’d been performing, but also this very real, traumatic thing that happened to all of them, which, some of them are handling better than others. And then, the other thing with Cooper I really enjoyed was, because I feel like you got to see him realize that there’s this version of himself that he’s been performing, that has been serving him very well; that it’s, this other thing, that feels very dangerous, is the better thing, where it seems like my life is perfect right now. But actually, this other thing, that feels like the wrong thing, it feels better, is a really beautiful thing. Yeah.

Erica Saleh: Yeah. I love that. And I think there’s a real question, knocking on wood, that we get to keep exploring this, but is there a version of his life where the star athlete and the out kid get to-

Geri Cole: Be the same person?

Erica Saleh: Live the same life? Yeah.

Geri Cole: Man. Well, I do want to follow up on that a little bit more, but I also want to talk about, there were lots of references, or I thought, I was picking up on, to John Hughes; also to Bayview High. I was, “Wait a second.” So many different… did you guys? It sounds like you were in the writer’s room, just sort of, “Can we put this here? Can we put this here?”

Erica Saleh: Yes. We definitely all talked about our favorite teen movies a lot. I think the most obvious references are all to The Breakfast Club, but I think our film language also references Hitchcock a lot, which is not teen cinema. But I think we were trying to be very aware of the influences and the references and what we’re growing out of, in the same way that these kids are defined by all of the TV they’ve watched, all of the movies they’ve watched. Of course, so are we, as TV writers and filmmakers.

Geri Cole: Almost even a meta thing of “We’re all teens.”

Erica Saleh: Yes, yes. I think we are.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I’d to talk a little bit about your career. And then I’m going to come back because I do have a theory about the show that I want to test with you.

Erica Saleh: Yes.

Geri Cole: But you started as a playwright.

Erica Saleh: Yes.

Geri Cole: And you said, also, there were some playwrights in the room. Can we talk a little bit about that, switching over to screenwriting, if it was something you always knew you wanted to do, and/or if you just sort of found yourself there, and the differences between the two?

Erica Saleh: Yeah. I don’t know that I always knew. Truly, I feel like I always knew I wanted to write. And it took me a while, a while, in college. I went from thinking I wanted to be someone who wrote fiction to realizing I loved theater and realizing that getting to work with actors and create something in space, was more exciting to me. So really, really fell in love with theater and was all about playwriting. Did grad school for playwriting. Moved to New York and was in some… there are a couple, there are quite a few actually, really wonderful playwright groups for young writers, that I did. And that community was everything to me, and I was having so much fun. And I also wasn’t getting… I had a lot of short plays produced.

I had a lot of full length plays that had hundreds of readings and never a full production. And I think, at some point, it started getting a little frustrating. I wanted to reach a larger audience, and I love TV. I’ve always loved watching TV. And so, it did at some point, occur to me, oh right, this is another way to tell these stories. And I think I was at the beginning, but not the very beginning, when I started seeing some other playwrights dip into TV. And I think I was on the earlier side of what now just seems like every New York playwright I know is also writing-

Geri Cole: A TV writer?

Erica Saleh: For TV. I really hope to get to a point where I’m doing both more actively. I haven’t really had the time to devote to developing a play, in quite a while, but I’m still writing plays that are just waiting. But yeah, I think it’s a really fun transition. It’s such a incredibly lucky thing to get to make a living writing, which is not something I was experiencing, writing plays. It’s such a amazing thing to have something that the world gets to see. And yeah, I think doing both is so much fun. Sorry, that was a long-winded answer, that didn’t really answer the question.

Geri Cole: That was a perfect answer. I was wondering, do you feel like there are some stories that will come to you, and you’re, “This needs to be for the theater; this I see on a stage,” versus…

Erica Saleh: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that there’s a question of scope. I think that something so wonderful about theater is that, I think, you can tell these really contained intimate stories. And I think, as a playwright, I really tend toward smaller casts and people being stuck in a room together, all the things that make theater theater. I think one of the biggest differences between TV and theater is how long a scene gets to be. I love, in theater, that part of the challenge is writing 10, 20 page scenes, really just letting people sit in the reality of being in a room together. And I feel like in TV, if you get away with a two or three page scene, you’ve really done something.

Geri Cole: Oh man. And so, you were also a writer on Michael Rauch’s Instinct, which, if folks don’t know, is a police drama, but where the main character is gay. And so, I was wondering if there were lessons from that writer’s room, because also, there are a lot of queer story lines in One of Us is Lying, and if that helped you adapt?

Erica Saleh: I would say, certainly, there are lessons from every writer’s room I’ve been in. And Instinct was so much fun. And actually, a writer in that room, has turned into a great collaborator and great friend and was the writer’s assistant on Season One of this show and wrote an episode. And I think you just pull people and talent from every room you’ve been in. But I think, in terms of telling inclusive stories, it just feels like, for a young adult TV show, I wanted to put forward the world that I see. And I think that having multiple queer characters, gay characters, characters that are exploring their sexuality, just feels true to what being a teenager is.

Geri Cole: Feels like the truth.

Erica Saleh: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

Geri Cole: Yeah. So actually, talking a little bit about things that you learned from other writer’s room, let’s talk a little bit about your process. Are there skills and/or practices that you’ve developed over the years, that you feel have served you? Or you’re, “Meh, this is a good…”

Erica Saleh: Yeah, I think so many things. I think one thing, that I’ve been learning over the years, and that I’m starting to get more comfortable with, is just remembering that every time you sit down to a new outline or a new script or to breaking an episode, every time it feels, at least to me, like, how are we going to pull this off? Do I remember how to put words on a page? And, of course, the answer is yes. But I really do have that kind of, what’s going on? Every single time. And I think I’m finally learning to just live with that and be, oh, there’s that anxiety, that’s not a real thing. So that’s been on a personal level. I think just the longer I do it, the more faith I have that I can do it.

And then, that allows you to just have more and more fun, if you’re not worried about being able to get the script done on time and knowing that you’re going to pull it off; I think it gives you the room to breathe and have some fun. On the script level, I had a show runner, Josh Friedman, who told us… it was for a show that didn’t end up going. But he told us, as we were writing scripts, “Our job is to write the best version of every scene possible,” which sounds sort of like… yeah, of course I want to do the best version. But as you’re writing, sometimes you’re, okay, I need to get this scene so that I can get over here. And the reminder to stop in every single scene and think about, what is the funniest or strangest or most visually striking version of that? Every single one. “There’s never a scene that’s just to get us to the next beat,” is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

And then, I think also just, in the process, remembering how important every single step is; taking the time, in the room, to explore tons of options. And maybe you’ve hit on the right one, but just then saying, “Okay, we’ve got this on the board. What if we did this instead? Let’s just really make sure. Let’s get all the ideas out there, so that you can feel really confident that you love the idea you have.” And, probably, little bits of all those other ideas or going to make their way into that scene, in some way. And I think, just treating every step as very important.

The blue sky step, so important. Then, as you’re breaking, for me, in this room and every room I’ve been in, when I’m going off to write an outline, I really want us to have broken that episode, so that I know exactly what my job is, when I go off to outline. So really doing the work, in the break, of knowing what the story is. And then, in the outline, really doing the work of seeing what every scene is, so that when you get to script, that should be the fun, easy part.

Geri Cole: Man, this is all so much good advice, but I especially love the first thing that you said, because it’s so true, where it’s, just having faith that when you sit down to the empty page, where it’s, it will happen.

Erica Saleh: Yeah, yeah-

Geri Cole: You will get something… yeah.

Erica Saleh: It wasn’t a fluke that you were able to write yesterday or last year. You’re still essentially the same person.

Geri Cole: Yes. But all that is really fantastic. Really fantastic advice. A question that I like to ask everyone a lot, on the podcast, is about success, the idea of success, because I feel like, in creative professions, it’s such an elusive feeling. But then, occasionally, oh wait, am I in it? Is it happening? So I’m curious about what your feelings around success are. And especially because this feels like a success, feels like you’re in success. This show’s amazing.

Erica Saleh: Thank you.

Geri Cole: What do you think of success?

Erica Saleh: I remember, very early in my TV writing career, being in LA. And I was staying on the east side, and I had a three o’clock meeting in Santa Monica, and I was driving back to the east side at five o’clock. And I remember thinking to myself, I want to get to the point in my career where I can say, “No” to a rush hour meeting in Santa Monica. That’s when I’m going to have made it. So I’m still waiting to get there. But that, I think, is going to be a clear sign of success.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Erica Saleh: In a more serious way, I think getting to make stories you care about, with people that you love creatively and love collaborating with, is, to me, the biggest thing one can hope for. And that has happened on this show. We have such a amazing creative team, and all of our writers, our whole crew, our actors, they’re people you want to show up to work with every day. So that feels like great luck and great success.

And then, I think for this project, I do feel like, yeah, it feels great. I feel like there is success to this project. Do I, as a person, feel like I have hit success? Who knows? But I do think it’s been fun watching the show and watching people respond to the show and seeing people like it and just thinking about all the little fights along the way, or all the little things that you wanted slightly different and then watching them being, oh, it’s great. It doesn’t matter. It matters while you’re making it, but just letting those feelings of, is this exactly the way I pictured it? fall away. And I hope that I can carry that forward to be, there’s not a right answer. There’s not a way to make this scene great. That’s part of the process, is watching it evolve. And the audience isn’t going to know the tiny little thing that you were thinking could be slightly different. It doesn’t matter. The success is people seeing it and liking it and hopefully taking something from it.

Geri Cole: Yeah. That’s amazing. Yeah. I also always try and often remember, it’s going to be what it ends up being. And everyone doesn’t know all the thousand different versions of it. But there’s so much beauty in that because there’s such a collaborative process, that it’s, I actually maybe don’t know what this looks like, in the end. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Erica Saleh: Yes. I love that.

Geri Cole: So, okay. We’re running a little bit out of time, so I do want to ask you about my theory, which I actually don’t know… you probably can’t answer. And then, I was thinking about it this morning. I was, is this actually? Probably, absolutely not. But if you feel like you can’t answer, just blink twice. [crosstalk 00:28:40] Simon’s not dead. This is my theory. Simon is not dead. I feel like he faked his own death.

Erica Saleh: I would say, how do I know? I won’t know until the writer’s room decides what we want to do in Season Two and Season Three. I’d say, Simon’s definitely dead in Season One.

Geri Cole: Is he? The whole time, I was, “Simon’s not dead.” This is clearly Simon, who I also hated. One part, during the series, I was feeling, I think, some sympathy for him. And then, another part, I was, I’m glad they killed him. But then by the end, I was, he’s not. He can’t be dead. There’s no way.

Erica Saleh: I will say there are definitely people on Twitter that you can lean into that theory with. You’re certainly not alone in that theory.

Geri Cole: Because I was, there’s no way he let himself get played like this [crosstalk 00:29:30] But then, I was, there’s also no way that… his mother’s the mayor, and they wouldn’t have buried an empty casket. And so it’s… yeah, it’s a very…

Erica Saleh: It’s a key thing.

Geri Cole: Ah. Yeah, I was, “Do you know?” No. Don’t know yet.

Erica Saleh: Don’t know.

Geri Cole: Maybe he’s not.

Erica Saleh: Yeah. We’ll see. We’ll see, I suppose.

Geri Cole: Well, thank you so much. I’m so excited. I can’t wait to see more.

Erica Saleh: Thank you so much. This was so, so fun.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writer’s Guild of America East and is hosted by me, Geri Cole. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stockboy Creative. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America, East, online at And you can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at wgaeeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.

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