Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for THE ADAM PROJECT

Host Geri Cole speaks with Jonathan Tropper about The Adam Project’s eight-year journey to the screen, how to write a great action scene, the rules of writing time travel, and why you don’t tell Bob when to drink the Coke.

Jonathan Tropper is a screenwriter, novelist, and producer. He is the internationally-acclaimed author of six novels, the two most recent of which—This Is Where I Leave You and One Last Thing Before I Go—were both New York Times bestsellers. His screenwriting credits include THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (the 2014 film adaptation of his novel), the 2017 feature KODACHROME, showrunner of the sci-fi series SEE, co-creator and showrunner of the action series BANSHEE, and creator and showrunner of the martial arts drama series WARRIOR.

Most recently, he wrote the screenplay for the sci-fi adventure film THE ADAM PROJECT. The film follows time-traveling fighter pilot Adam Reed who, after accidentally crash-landing in the year 2022, must team up with his 12-year-old self on a mission to save the future.

The film was released in March and is now streaming on Netflix.

Seasons 7-11 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 OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers 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 talk with Jonathan Tropper, screenwriter of The Adam Project, now streaming on Netflix. In our interview, Jonathan talks about The Adam Project’s eight-year journey to screen. How to write a great action scene. Rules of writing time travel, and why you don’t tell Bob when to drink the Coke.

Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m very excited to talk with you about this project. When Jason and I were talking about it, I was like, “Yes, I already watched it, loved it. Let’s have him on.” And the reason I loved it is because, to me, it felt like the films that I grew up watching and loving, which were family, action, adventure films. Original family, action-adventure films. Not based off comic books or [inaudible 00:01:08] or anything like that. So this is very exciting for me. I feel like those films don’t get made a ton anymore. So how did this film get made?

Jonathan Tropper: Well, that was really, I think, the struggle in getting this made. And I had a lot of talks over the years with it. Because I’ve been on this for eight years. So what happened was there had been a script written about 10 years ago by a team of three writers and it was T.S. Nowlin and then Flackett and Levin. It was this team of three, I’ve never met them. I don’t know what the arrangement was, but they had this draft that Paramount had bought, and I guess it was sitting there and Paramount had bought it for Tom Cruise. At the time, David Yates wanted to direct it. He and Tom were talking about it and they brought me the script, and asked me if I could take a different approach to it.

When I read the script, the thing that was on the page was that feeling of Amblin and The Last Starfighter and all that. I just didn’t want to tell the story that was in that script. So, I essentially kept the premise of a pilot from the future flying back and joining forces with his 12-year-old self. But I kind of threw out the story and came up with a new story and made it about their dead father, so wrote that. Then over time, right around then was when the Mission Impossible franchise really started to take off into the stratosphere. I think it was number four.

And then Tom Cruise got very busy doing that. David Yates got very busy doing the prequels of the Harry Potter movies. And it just was sitting there at Skydance and nothing was happening, and I kept approaching them and saying, “Guys, this is a really great movie. We should try to make this without Tom Cruise. We should do it differently.” And what we were hearing a lot from the studio, it was Paramount at the time, was “Family films right now are the Marvel movies, and we don’t really make those kind of movies anymore.”

And so it kind of died and then a little while later, and I don’t have the exact chronology of this, but a little while later, the remake of Jumanji came out. And that was a huge hit. And then all of a sudden, the studio’s like, “Well, what kind of family films do we have?” So we spoke again and I got hired to do a whole new set of drafts that were going to make it much more for a quad family-friendly, because the original version was a bit darker.

So I did a whole bunch of drafts and we went through that again. Then I guess, they just didn’t get the traction they wanted. They didn’t get the movie star they wanted. Whatever happened, it died again. And then I wanted to take another shot at it. Just a few years ago, I had stayed very friendly with the guys at Skydance. And I saw that they were making a movie with Ryan Reynolds and I said, “Guys, give me one more shot. I’ve always wanted to work with Ryan Reynolds. Let me rewrite the movie in his voice.”

And so they got me hired by Paramount to write the movie again, and this time I wrote it really aiming at a Ryan Reynolds movie, and they gave the script to Ryan. At the time, I didn’t know this. He was making Free Guy with Shawn Levy, who I’ve done two other movies with. And so those guys both read it together and decided it’s their next movie. And suddenly, we had a go movie, but it was a combination of audacity and total randomness that it worked out. But yeah, it took a movie star and a very powerful director to say, “We want to do this” to get it done.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Jonathan Tropper: And eight years. Yeah.

Geri Cole: Yeah. One is like eight years. Wow, that is incredible. And also I feel like really encouraging, even if it feels like it’s been buried and like not going to happen, you never know.

Jonathan Tropper: Well, I Have to tell you I’ve I’ve had only three movies made, I work mostly in TV. Of the three movies I’ve had made the shortest time it took was five years.

Geri Cole: Wow, You just got to stick with it, keep the faith at time. But then also you already, I feel like sort of answering another question that I had.It’s funny that it was initially written for Tom cruise. Would’ve been a very different film, but writing it for Ryan Reynolds in his voice, because I feel like watching this film, I was reminded of like, “Oh right. Some people are movie stars.” I’m a true believer in the incredible value of actors. I was going to say, ask you if his casting informed your writing, and it sounds like it really did.

Jonathan Tropper: A hundred percent and then he’s also a writer, so he then takes it and puts his stuff into it. It became a real collaboration between Sean Levy, Ryan Reynolds, and myself, where he really takes every scene and looks his way into it, his way out of it, the language he wants to use. So he puts a lot of himself into every scene as well. And Shawn has a lot of ideas also about the things he wants in the script. So it just became a very easy collaboration at that point.

Geri Cole: That’s wonderful. Also, did it feel like iterative? Was this through production that you were sort of tweaking things.

Jonathan Tropper: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Okay, wow.

Jonathan Tropper: It was the year leading up to production and then they made the film during COVID. I was producing my television show during COVID and so my show wouldn’t allow me to go from my COVID bubble to their COVID bubble. It would’ve been a sweet setup because we were in Toronto and they were in Vancouver and I could have been bouncing back and forth, but instead I stayed in Toronto.

Shawn And I’ve worked together so many times, so either they would FaceTime me with ideas or thoughts or Shawn would just call me and say, “We’re going to shoot this scene in two days. But mark had this concern and Ryan has this concern.” And then I would do rewrites and then they would take him. I think on the day, Shawn and Ryan would sort of work their magic on the scene. It went on through production and a little bit into post production as well during the edits. But yeah, it went through the whole time.

Geri Cole: That’s amazing and I feel like also a credit to like collaboration where it feels like everyone has the same goal, which is we want to make this the best project that we can.

Jonathan Tropper: Yeah, I’ve been really lucky that I’ve never worked with people who aren’t like that, but I know there are certain filmmakers who once they’ve got the script, they want the writer to sort of vanish and they want to do their own thing. I’m lucky, like I said, I’ve made two other movies with Shawn. He and I really, we sort of trust each other and we have a friendship. I never felt worried that they were going to sort of punt me from the project.

And Ryan who does like to write is also very respectful of writers. So you get a lot of great input from him, but if you then push back on something, he’s very fast to say, “Oh, I like that better” or “Oh, I get it.” So there’s really sort of a frictionless collaboration.

Geri Cole: Wow, that’s incredible. So also time travel feels like one of the trickiest things to write about, but I feel that the science and everything, I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m believing this.” How much research did you do? And how did you decide how you wanted to handle time travel?

Yeah. So it went through a few different variations. I remember when I first got the job, they flew me out to L.A., I was working in Pennsylvania. I forgot if I was in Charlotte or Pennsylvania, I was doing a TV show and I went out there to of pitched the story. I had really focused on the emotional heart of the story.

I had the time travel and really broad strokes, but I hadn’t really thought about it too deeply. Because to me the whole thing was about these two characters who are the same person sort of searching for their father, to understand their father. So I hadn’t really been that concerned with the minutiae of time travel when I was developing the story. It was really just the emotional arc of these two people who are the same person at different agents trying to come to terms with the death of their father.

And that’s sort of what I sold and that’s what everyone got excited about. And I flew to California and the night before the meeting, I was sitting in my hotel room and I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to articulate all of the time travel stuff properly. It was one of those things like, when cops are tracking serial killers, where I ended up getting tape and pens from the lobby and making a huge diagram on the wall at my hotel to try to figure out how the time loops worked because the initial drafts had a lot more time travel gags in them.

And then gradually as it went from a Tom cruise, action movie to more of a family friendly movie, we wanted to really minimize the amount of sort of mind bending time travel stuff and make it much more about the characters and the emotions.

So I greatly reduced the amount of people who were time traveling, the amount of different trips that were taken through time. Initially I had a climax where there were like three or four different versions of certain characters all coming and going from the same time period. Shawn and Ryan sort of wisely said to me, “Get rid of all of that. Let’s just focus on our two characters and their father.”

In doing that, we greatly reduced the need to really articulate all the different time travel conundrums we were dealing with. And it became a fairly straightforward when you just have to always pick your poison, are you going to be a multiverse time travel story or are you going to be a single universe time travel story. And once you do that, you have to decide how cause and effect works.

So the two things we just sort of came up with were, one was the concept of reconciliation that changing things in the past will change the future, but not necessarily in the instant that you do it. And then the other was a concept that we articulate a bit in the movie, which we show more than we talk about, which is the set of echoes, which is that even though you’ve changed the timeline and something that once happened now has never happened in somewhere inside you and inside the cosmos, there’s still the echo of that previous timeline.

Which is why at the end of the movie, when Ryan meets Zoe again, there’s some feeling of déjà vu or connection or “I know this person” or his younger self has this moment where he just realizes “I need to hug my mother.” And so, we wanted that concept in there because that’s a great emotional concept.

Geri Cole: Yeah. When he says, “I found you”, and they both sort of like, pause. like, Ugh, heartbreaking. It feels complicated, but I feel like you’ve just explained it very well [crosstalk 00:11:19]

Jonathan Tropper: If you’re a sci-fi time travel fanatic, this is not the movie for you. Go see Luther right. It’s a family movie and we really didn’t want it to be a huge exploration of time travel.

Geri Cole: But that I feel like is a thing that I really loved about it because it was sci-fi time travel movie, but at the core. I feel like the movie was this emotional relationship, which I do want to talk a little bit about more because I feel like that is, and this is now just me getting into my personal opinion, but it is one of those things where I feel like sometimes people get lost in making the big films. It’s like, why do I care? Where’s the emotion? And so that’s one of the things I really loved about it. It’s like this father, some relationship, the relationship with this older and younger self. So can we talk a little bit about how you developed that arc?

Jonathan Tropper: Yeah, first of all, with regards to the movie, you’re dealing with two producers in Shawn and Ryan and a writer in me, who are much more concerned with the emotional impact of films than the intellectual impact of films. And it always starts with that emotional arc.

And so for me, the notion was it was really interesting to study, a 12 year old boy who’s lost his father is going to be immersed in a certain constant of grief that is going to completely color the way he views his father. Right? If a father you love has passed away, suffering from that loss you’re going to greatly idealize that father.

If you extrapolate that pain across 30 years and maturity and events in your life, that idealization can actually become inverted and you can start blaming your father. You can start throwing your resentments into a basket, that’s all about your father, because it’s easier to get angry and move on than to deal with grief. So the notion was to take the same person at two very different stages of life and make them both sort of unreliable narrators about their father.

You have a 12 year old boy who thinks his dad was the greatest thing ever. And you have a 40 something year old man who had the same dad and thinks he was awful. And what you gradually realize is, it’s neither of those. He was a father, he was trying his best. He sometimes screwed up, but he loved his kid. For me, the most important moment was Ryan’s character has traveled back in time and gone on a tremendous epic journey. Pretty much just to hear his father tell him he loves him, which is something he needed to hear.

That’s sort of how we sort of built the macro arc of the story. And then on the micro level, it was more about these two people who are the same person, having a totally different emotional perception of their father, which was the fun of, it was like, “Hey, you both have the same experience and yet you’re seeing it completely differently.”

Geri Cole: Yeah, that moment also and his father knew, he just needs to hear it. Like he just needs a hug and needs to hear it. Really I’m a crier. I also want to talk a little bit about the sort of like pacing and structure of the film because my assumption was that you maybe had to kill a lot of darlings, because I was like, you could have done so many more bits. I would’ve watched a movie with just the older, younger Adam doing time travel. So I’m curious, how much you had to cut out in order to stay focused on that emotional journey?

Jonathan Tropper: Really not that much, there’s some stuff we shot that didn’t make it in. Actually Netflix just released two deleted scenes, which were on the internet the other day. There were some emotional beats that either I felt or the producers or the director felt we’d already kind of hit that note and we don’t need a scene to extrapolate it.

There’s a beautiful scene in the bar where Ryan tells his mom, “It’s okay to let him know you’re struggling. It’s important that he knows that.” And so there’s a deleted scene, which Netflix actually just released on the internet, where she actually does say that to her 12 year old son. She does tell him that she’s struggling and tells him he should cut her some slack and I think it’s a beautifully acted and it’s a moving scene, but I think Shawn’s decision was we don’t need it. The lesson’s going to come.

So there were a handful of scenes like that were deleted after being shot. There’s another one where the dad, Lewis, actually says to Ryan, what I just said before, which is, “That kid thinks I’m a hero. You think I’m a villain. And the truth is I’m just this guy” So, there was that scene, which came out.

Other than that, though, there were no big moves that I can remember that we took out. There was a much bigger third act where there was a huge fundraising ball going on at the headquarters. When they show up to get into the sub basement, so it’s not deserted like it was. We changed all that and what’s funny is we changed all that before anyone had ever heard of COVID. It turned out to save our necks because, if we had to shoot a scene with 300 extras during COVID we wouldn’t have been able to do it.

And this movie turned out to be the perfect movie to make during COVID, because there’s never more than four or five people on screen except in the one or two university scenes. But that used to be a much more involved third act with a lot of twists and turns and a big crowd and the different Adams working their way through the crowd and bumping into the different historians.

There was a lot of that stuff going on. I think the movie’s much better for me having been told to get rid of it all. You have that moment when the director tells you, “We really don’t think this is going to be necessary”, where you have no idea how hard I worked on that, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the movie.

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Jonathan Tropper: There might have been little quirky sort of bigger me, little me moments that came out, but not very many.

Geri Cole: Okay Wow, actually also I feel like you just perfectly led me to my next question, which is the art of writing and action sequence. How do you start? How do you make sure it’s going to translate well on screen? What tips and/or tricks do you have to writing a good action sequence?

Jonathan Tropper: So I actually consider myself a bit of an expert on this because I’ve done, three action television shows for multiple seasons and I’m also huge fan of action movies. So I write highly detailed action sequences, but what you come to understand very quickly is those details are really important for transmitting that information to the director and to the stunt coordinators. But that doesn’t mean that’s what they’re going to shoot.

So what’s important is, I imagine an action sequence, every punch, every kick, every movement. And I write it out, knowing that the director’s going to say, “Visually I’d much rather do X, Y, and Z.” And then the fight coordinator’s going to say, “Well, here are 10 better things than what you just wrote”, but the story of the action sequence is going to have been communicated. You can’t communicate the character intention and the story intention of an action scene, unless you write it in great detail.

And at that point, most of the details will become expendable to the experts. I did 20 years of martial arts and I write fights very carefully and I write action sequences very carefully. But fight coordinators and stunt coordinators, and directors, who’ve been shooting this for decades, know way better than me what’s going to work better on screen. What’s a better idea. How it’s going to go, but what I’ve given them is a character map and a story map of what that scene has to accomplish.

So then what’ll happen is, like I wrote when the planes chasing him through the forest, I initially wrote that it was actually a chase through town and not through the forest. And then Shawn was doing scouting and said, I really want to do this in the forest.

And then someone on his team, I guess, showed him these guys who do these hoverboard surfing. And so he sort of then brought that idea to me and said, now rewrite it in a far where these guys drop out of the ship, chasing them. Then I rewrote that. So it becomes the real collaboration between the stunt teams, the production design, the directors vision and what you initially wrote.

But the story of the chase and the Adams talking in the car and Zoe meeting young Adam and all that stuff remained from my first draft, because that was the intention of the scene. It was young Adam meeting his future wife during a car chase, but everything else about it was honed by people who are much more experienced at that kind of action than I am. So again, it’s a collaboration. That’s the fun of movies and TV is you have all these heads of different departments who each have their lane coming in and merging their lanes together to get the best product.

Geri Cole: And also, it sounds though, like adding as much detail tells you can is helpful because you still want to make sure that you’re conveying, “Don’t just write TBD.”

Jonathan Tropper: If I hadn’t written it that way, they might have conceived a really cool sequence where young Adam and Zoe couldn’t possibly even make eye contact and then the scene doesn’t work the way you intended it because she’s not meeting him in the car. So you have to write the scene total detail so that the story points remain even as they pull apart the action.

Geri Cole: Wow, so let’s talk a little bit about your career in television because you do have several shows. Actually I want to start though at, you were a businessman and then a novels and then a screenwriter. Your career has been to so many different places. Can we talk a little bit about what has pulled you through those career changes?

Jonathan Tropper: Well, businessman was a really strong word. I always wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be a novelist and I didn’t believe I would be successful. I didn’t know any novelists personally. I just didn’t know the route to becoming a successful novelist.

I got out of college and I started working in advertising and writing on the side. And then, because I wanted to take the writing more seriously. I just went to work at a family owned business where I would have more time to write basically.

And I always felt like an imposter in the company and it wasn’t my thing. The way my first novel sold was such a group of happy accidents where essentially in a very misinformed way, I decided that I needed to write something, obviously commercial to attract an agent.

And so the first novel I wrote, it’s called Plan B. It’s not a very good novel, but what I did was I had this misguided notion that if I write a novel that sort of hits a certain number of elements of successful novels I’ve read and sort of pop culture and fun and digestible that I’d get an agent.

The irony was it sort of worked because I wrote this novel and it’s a simple, small novel. But the way I got the agent, which is I think an important story for people trying to get found is, I sent out 40 query letters to like 40 agencies. You always had to send it with a self-address stamped envelope in those days.

This was just when they were starting to accept queries by email. But for the most part, you would send out a query letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope, so they could send you back a rejection letter. And you started to hate the site of your own handwriting in the mailbox.

But anyway, one of the agents I sent it to was an agent at an agency in New York called Writer’s House, which is a big agency. And the agent I sent it to who was a senior agent there, read it and wasn’t impressed and put it on her desk on a pile of the other query that I guess she was going to have an assistant or somebody send rejections to.

And meanwhile, a young agent at that agency walked to ask her a question. She was busy and while he was waiting for her to get off the phone, started going through her pile and he found mine and something about it, interested him. And so he asked her if he could have it, and then he called me and he signed me and he got me published. The novel didn’t really sell well, but it didn’t matter, because at that point I had an agent and I was published by a major publisher and I was in.

It’s like the accident of him just walking into her office at that time, flipping through her pile, finding it. I’d like to believe I would’ve found another way, but it happened just as an accident. And then a book that I wrote with all the wrong intentions still managed to get published. But then it took me from that first book to my second book about four years just because I’m like, “Okay, now I have a publisher and I have an agent now I have to really get good at this.”

So I spent quite a few years just reading a lot of novels and working on the craft. And so my first novel was published in 2000. My second novel was published in 2004 and that one is significantly better than the first one. So then I just became a novelist. For 10 years I wrote books, but the studios kept optioning my books in bigger and bigger deals, which never made sense to me because they weren’t making the movies.

But the books kept getting optioned and I wanted to understand why the movies weren’t getting made. So I started asking to see the scripts and I was looking at the scripts and I said, “This doesn’t seem that hard.” Which was another misguided notion, but I said, “Let me give this a wack.” And so I wrote a spec script for one of my novels that had been at Warner of brothers for five years and he had made.

That spec script didn’t get made, but it started to get me meetings to write other scripts. And then I got hired by 20th Century Fox to write a script and got into the screenwriting business. But again, under the misguided notion that if I write it, I’ll get the movies made. So a lot of wrong ideas somehow still got me onto the right path. And then I just ended up by accident in TV.

Geri Cole: Wow. I feel like, I guess misguided, but the intention and the hustle honestly, of trying to be like, “What’s the next thing I got to…”

Jonathan Tropper: It was a lot of hustle and misunderstanding of what was required, but somehow it still got me through the door.

Geri Cole: That’s, I think probably a really helpful thing to hear for most writers. It’s like sometimes it can still work out. So let’s talk about TV. I feel like you go back and forth between film and TV. What do you feel is the pits and peaks of each medium?

Jonathan Tropper: Well, what I love about TV is that the writer is in charge. You know, I’ve created two television shows and I’ve run a third that I didn’t create. And in all those cases, like the directors work for me. I’m in charge and I can really steer the vision from page to screen, to editing, et cetera.

In movies, you hand it over to an all powerful director and if you’re lucky, and I’ve been lucky, that director still wants to collaborate with you, but that director’s the one who’s going to shape the movie. He’s going to be the one who makes the decision of what goes in, what comes out, what needs to change. Who’s going to act in it. So you lose a lot of control on the feature side, but you get to write a fully contained 100 minute story. And if you’re my age, I’m 52, having grown up on movies, there’s still a magic to me of the feature. And honestly, there’s still a magic to me for movie theaters, which is a whole other conversation.

But writing a movie to me still has a certain magic to it. And even though TV has become so cinematic and has actually become in many ways a much better place to tell stories. That short form of a hundred minute movie, to me, there’s a real pleasure in writing something so complete. It has a beginning of middle than an end. You write it and you go and hopefully get it made.

Versus TV, which is an open ended, we’re doing 10 episodes and we hope to have season two and three and figuring out how much story you’re going to tell across those 10 episodes, which is a great luxury. But it starts to feel a little more like a job, because you’re doing it for so long and you’re overseeing other writers and directors and actors. So there’s a lot more collaboration and there’s a lot more interaction with people, but it’s a longer term commitment. Whereas, a feature, you write it, you do the best you can. And I shouldn’t say that, because like I said, this one took eight years, but just writing the short form is its own joy.

Geri Cole: It might be controversial thing to say. However, if I’m thinking for myself, I feel like only like films have changed me. I’ve watched films that have changed me, but I don’t know that I can say that about television.

Jonathan Tropper: I think that might be controversial. I think watching something in a single sitting that takes you through a range of emotions or revelations. I think that’s just how our brains are built. When you’re watching something on a weekly basis, there could be a deeply moving scene in a television show. The death of a favorite character or something, but the journey’s not complete until you’ve watched your five seasons and you’re doing a lot in between. You might be watching other shows in between, reading books, taking trips.

A movie is a totally concentrated experience. You sit there for those two hours and you watch that. So it’s an absorption level that’s very a different. I think it’s a much more concentrated, emotional intellectual absorption, than television, which used to be a diversion. It’s not a diversion, but television is something that has to kind of fit into your life because it’s episode, after episode, after episode. And, and even if you’re binging, you’re binging 10 episodes, there’s a little bit of overload. I think you’re probably right.

It’s also a generational thing. It could be that today’s 18 year olds will be moved by a great episode of television or by a short form, something they streamed. But for certainly anyone who grew up with movies, I think anyone over the age of 30, at this point, we’ve been wired to have the concentrated impact of a movie versus the episodic spread out nature of television. That’s actually a great observation. It’s something I never thought about until right now.

Geri Cole: Me neither, that’s why I was like, “I’m going to say it, but this feels true.” So I’d like to also talk to you about your writing process, like the actual getting down to it. Do you have any rituals that you [crosstalk 00:29:54]

Jonathan Tropper: I should like really make up an answer to this because it’s always so disappointing, but I don’t. When I was a novelist, my discipline was to treat it like a desk job and be at my desk before nine o’clock every day, take a break for lunch and work till five or six. Then I was fortunate in that, I sold a television show and I was still writing books and I was also writing a feature.

It never became an issue of how do I do this. It became an issue of, there isn’t enough time to do all this. So it was every spare minute writing and it’s no longer nine to five. It’s pretty much all day and all night. And you basically go after whatever’s hottest. The interesting thing about writing for production, which is something that happens more in TV than in film. And more in film than in books, is I’m sometimes writing something and I know there’s 200 people in Toronto or Pennsylvania waiting for it to start building things and to start casting things, so you can’t be late.

And once that pressure’s on you, it’s process doesn’t matter. It’s get it done. So whatever is needed, fastest, whatever you have to turn in first becomes the priority. Beyond that, one of the biggest disciplines that took me a long time to learn and is much more effective in screenwriting than it is in novel writing, is everybody gets stuck.

You get stuck on a sequence. You get stuck on a scene where you haven’t quite figured out how to move all the characters through it, or you haven’t quite figured out what the meat of that conversation is. You can either sit there for two, three days and struggle with it. That’s why it’s important to have an outline and say, “I’m not going to write this right now. I’m going to put this scene down. I’m going to write that scene” or “I’m going to write the final scene of the movie and then come back to this.” And the ability to, when you get stuck, to just not stay stuck, but move on.

What I’ve learned is if I write four more scenes and then come back to that scene, I’ll sometimes have a different perspective. But the biggest discipline I’ve learned is to not just kind of sit and stare at my screen for two hours because I’m stuck on a by particular moment. There’s some part of your brain that will still work on it if you go write a bunch of other scenes. But every writer, some scenes are so clear to them the minute they start writing them that they come out on the first shot, and other times you write something that you know is wrong, but the meat of it’s there and you’ll get back to it. Other times you just can’t find it.

I think the most important thing when you have a lot of work, when you can’t find something is to not try to find it, because you’re going to end up with something really crappy, but just put it down and write something else and come back to it. So that’s sort of one of the things that took me a long time to learn, but I cherish now.

Geri Cole: Wow. Yeah. And also the importance of having an outline so that you do sort of know where you’re trying, though I do feel like there are the two schools of writing. Where people who have an outline and very structured idea of what it is that they’re making. And then folks who just, I think in my head or I always refer to it as like the gardening versus the building a building. That feels like you’re over here, just sort of trying to find what the story is versus having a very clear outline and sort of filling in the picture.

Jonathan Tropper: But I think there’s a big hybrid that exists, as a novelist I never wrote outlines. I just wrote, them kind of free form. But I’d always get to a point where I’m like, “Okay, I’m 70 pages in and I know the next eight things that have to happen, but I have to stop a minute and really map them out. To make sure that the logic works.”

So it’s the same thing with movies. I generally write a three act treatment, but I don’t necessarily write a full outline because I know as I write, I’m going to discover and things are going to change, but I will occasionally stop and just outline the next six scenes because I need to understand. There’s math you have to do, right. There’s logic, there’s how many days are passing? How can this person be here and there at the same time? So you have to do that.

For TV, we do very, very detailed outlines. And that’s because first of all, I’ve got other writers working for me and I need to make sure that if writer on episode six, if we don’t have a full draft of episode four yet, he has an outline to consult of episode four. So he knows what’s happening in episode four to write episode six. The outlines for television I find are absolutely necessary.

For movies, it’s more of a personal preference. I don’t like to have a full outline. I just like to have sort of a rough three act structure. But within it, I think there’s always points that you have to outline, sort of mini outlines to get you from point A to point B and make sure that it all tracks.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I feel like I often try to describe for myself and think of writing as math. You sort of need A plus B if you’re going to get to see it. So you like, and you can work backwards and sort of forwards in different ways.

Jonathan Tropper: I think in the writer’s room that sometimes the thing that ties us up the most in a TV writer’s room, is we’ve come up with two ideas for a character but based on what’s happening in the episode, he can’t be in both places. And how are we going to now twist the pretzel to get him both events without him being in two places at once? Those are the math challenges, that you can’t just go blindly write a Script or you’re going to discover that you’ve put a character, you’re breaking the laws of physics. You can’t do it.

Geri Cole: Which is like maybe they won’t notice, no. So you are the show owner for See, which is an Apple TV series and Warriors, which is a Bruce Lee inspired series and Banshee. So three different writing rooms. What do you look for in your collaborators, when you’re pulling other writers into a room?

Jonathan Tropper: It’s changed over time. But for the most part, because those three shows were very specifically action genre shows. What I tend to look for are two kinds of writers. One is writers who have a sort of appreciation for the genre. Because what happens in the room is there’s tons of referencing.

Movies from the seventies all the way to today. Not that you have to have seen everything, but that there’s an appreciation for the tone of these things. And beyond that, there’s an appreciation for saying, we’re going to find the characters within this. That it’s not just going to be, wall to wall action without caring about the characters. So it’s now there are a lot of writers like this who do appreciate the genre, but also understand that it only works if we care about out the people in it.

And then the second thing, I only figured out post Banshee, was even though these are all dramas, I try to get at least one comedy writer in the room. And I just find that you need comedy writers in the room because there’s a sharpness to what comedy has to do and in efficiency to what comedy has to do.

People who work on half hour comedy shows, if you watch shows like Modern Family or one of my favorites that disappeared way too fast was Happy Endings. But if you watch shows like that and you see the amount of jokes per capita or sharp lines per capita that they have to work in, there’s a level of efficiency and they know how to express a character in five words.

I’m going to give this guy three lines of dialogue and you’re going to know his whole life story. I think comedy writers are better at that than drama writers. And also they give you good lines, they’re sharp. So I always like there to be at least one comedy writer. Because we can take care of the action and we can take care of the drama, but we want somebody to help us be sharp, be witty and be really economical about expressing character through dialogue.

Geri Cole: Wow, I feel like that’s wonderful and sort of destroys, which I’ve always felt like a lie to me anyhow, that idea that it’s comedy and drama writers, never the two shall [inaudible 00:37:35]

Jonathan Tropper: I’m doing both. Like Adam Project is both in the same movie, but I certainly my three TV shows have all been one hour dramas, but I try really hard to infuse them with some level of wit and at the same time, the three movies I’ve made have been like dramedies. So I don’t really think there’s a difference. I think comedy writers tend to get comfortable in their world and drama writers get comfortable in their world. And I love having a room that has both.

Geri Cole: So another thing I want to talk to you about, which is something that I like to ask everyone who comes on the podcast, it’s about the idea of success. One, because I’m fascinated, I suppose, with the concept of success, because it feels like an elusive destination. It’s like a place you never arrive. So I’m curious to how you define us for yourself and how that’s evolved over time.

Jonathan Tropper: It’s a loaded question. First of all, I’m Jewish and a writer so I’m never going to be happy. To me success is just getting paid to do the thing you love to do at any level. No matter where you are, you’re always aiming for the next one. And I think that part of what drives any artist is just, “I want to be doing this on a larger stage. I want to be doing this kind of movie. I want to be doing that kind of show.”

But the fact that you’re in the guild and you do get paid and you do get, if it’s residuals or whatever, that you’re a professional writer. That’s success because of the amount of people I hear from on a daily basis through socials or through emails or through friends, who want to be doing this. And who are perfectly successful in their world, but feel this is what they would want to be doing, but they can’t quite get in or they can’t quite make it.

To success is being a professional writer, being able to call yourself a professional writer and to pursue projects with a fair expectation that you’ll get some and that you will get to work. So that’s the success and everything after that is just kind of gravy. And then you got to just be careful, because it’s easy to become a malcontent and say, “Well, I’m doing this, but I really want to be doing that.”

I’ve had a number of experiences where I’ve gotten to sort of pause for a second and go like, “Wow, I’m actually really fortunate”, because I talk to and I meet so many people who are just unable to get into that spot. So whether you’re just getting your first job in a writer’s room or whether writing a show or whether you’re writing a movie or making an Indie or making a short you’re working in the thing you love working in and that success.

Geri Cole: Absolutely, and also I feel like you just perfectly teed up my next question, which was you serve as a mentor for The Writers Guild Made a New York writing Fellowship. Can you talk with me about your experience and your relationship with mentorship if you had a mentor or in sort of how?

Jonathan Tropper: I actually did not have a mentor. I did meet one or two people as I was starting out who gave me some good guidance when I was a novelist and I wanted to be a screenwriter. At the time, very great screenwriter, Scott Frank, was working on adapting one of my books and I spoke to him about it and he gave me some really great career advice.

One or two other times where I was lucky enough to meet people who pointed me in the right direction or who gave me something to really hold onto. But in that Writer Guild Program, the person I ended up mentoring, in my opinion didn’t need a mentor, just needed an opportunity. He’s, I think, a really great writer and I’m still in touch with him. And I actually helped him develop his pitch and took it out with him a number of times.

Took it HBO, to Apple, to all these places. He’s since connected with other producers also and it’s been a great sense of frustration to me that we haven’t been able to sell his show, but now he’s written another one which he’s trying to sell. He’s now I got great representation and his path will get him there. I just tried to get him there quicker because I really felt he didn’t need a lot of actual technical guidance.

He just needed some support, but I thought the experience was great and reading those scripts and also something about reading scripts from aspiring writers makes you a better writer because there’s a freshness to it and you hear these younger voices and it just gets you excited again. But I had a great experience with him and I’m still very much in touch with him and given time I would do it again for sure.

Geri Cole: But also it makes me think of when you were talking about how when you were getting started, it’s like, “I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know what it looked like”, which I feel like was also sort of my experience and how much it really does help to just like, what does a writer’s life look like? Like what does that mean? What do I do? Those sort of details.

Jonathan Tropper: Along the way, even if you don’t have a steady mentor. You learn something from everybody you work with. I just remember at that key moment, talking to Scott Frank, and him sort of demystifying the screenwriting process for me and acting like it’s ridiculous that, a novelist like me would think he can’t screenplay. Getting that level of encouragement and then there’s more technical stuff.

I was lucky enough early in my career to work for a while with Steven Spielberg and it was a script that never got made in the end, but I had six months of rewriting it for him and working with him. And I just remember this is very specific, but I was a novelist who had just recently started writing and screenplays.

And I was overwriting them because novelists write a lot more. I was describing things in way too much detail. We were working on this movie that at the time he was thinking if we made the movie that he would do it with Robert Downey Jr., and I wrote this scene for the character and I wrote just in the stage direction that he takes a sip of his Coke before answering. And I remember Steven said to me really gently as he was going through the pages with me, “Let’s not tell Bob when to drink the Coke.”

He said it really softly and gently, but this light bulb went off in my head, where I suddenly understood the part of writing novels that doesn’t belong in scrips. And it was an amazing move for me and literally every script I’ve ever worked on, every once in a while I’ll write something and then I’ll hear that in my head. “Let’s not tell Bob when to drink the Coke.” And it’s something that just stayed with me and those little things, you get a good note from somebody or a good piece of perspective from somebody and it stays do for the rest of your career.

Geri Cole: Well, thank you for that, because I feel like I’m going to take that now and have that little mantra for myself.

Jonathan Tropper: It’s a good one, right? Let’s not tell one of the greatest actors of our generation, how to use this prop.

Geri Cole: Yes, thank you so much. Thank you for making this film, it’s fantastic. Thank you again for joining us this morning.

That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers 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 @WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and write us. Thank you for listening and write on.


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