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 wgaeast.org 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.