Writers Room' shows TV's creative process

Actor and writer Jim Rash hosts the roundtable with writers of current TV hits.
Actor and writer Jim Rash hosts the roundtable with writers of current TV hits. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2013

The image of the writer funneling the muse's whisperings onto paper has tickled the imagination for decades. Books about the creation of books and biopics about great poets are a cultural mainstay.

So it's no surprise a TV show would be devised about the creative goings-on at some of today's most lauded series.

Hosted by Jim Rash - the Academy Award-winning cowriter of The Descendants - Sundance Channel's The Writers' Room, which premieres Monday, takes us to the heart of the creative process behind six current shows, including HBO's Game of Thrones, Showtime's Dexter, and FX's American Horror Story .

The season premiere features a roundtable discussion with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, series star Bryan Cranston, and more than a half a dozen of the show's writers.

Yep, TV shows are written by teams, not churned out by a single starving, absinthe-drinking, Gauloises-puffing (and beret-sporting), consumptive genius toiling in some godforsaken garret.

"We chose to focus the show on TV as opposed to films, because of the fascination of the idea of the [writers'] room," said Rash during a recent sit-down in Center City. "The idea of a collective taking a show creator's vision and becoming in the process really a writing family."

Collective writing was entirely new for Dexter co-executive producer and writer Sarah Colleton.

"I come from a feature film world, and at first I was baffled by the whole concept of the writers' room," she said in a phone chat. "But then I saw that when you have the right mix [of people] there's this alchemy where [everything] just jells."

Colleton, who appears on The Writers' Room with three fellow writer-producers and Dexter star Michael C. Hall, added, "I have enormous respect for the room."

 Rash, 43, said he jumped at the chance to host the Sundance series. He especially loved his homework assignment: "I watched all the shows," he said. "Luckily I had been keeping up with most of them, but I did do some binge-watching."

Rash, who is an experienced comic - he's one of the stars of NBC's Community - tried to bring a unique angle to each discussion.

"It was a blast to do the show," said Brett Baer, co-executive producer and cowriter on Fox's sitcom New Girl, which is featured on Rash's show. "Jim's had so much experience on the sketch-comedy circuit that he's amazingly funny and he does a great job of . . . keeping the dynamics interesting."

New Girl cocreator Dave Finkel chimed in during an interview via conference call: "Jim knows what is not boring about writing because writing is usually a boring thing to do - or to talk about."

Rash said each 22-minute episode of The Writers' Room is boiled down from a roundtable discussion that lasts a good 90 minutes. His job, he said, is to tease out the dynamic in the writers' room.

He discovered there's a world of difference in that dynamic between drama and comedy writing teams.

Baer said New Girl has 14 staff writers, twice the number on most dramas. "We break up into two or three rooms," he said. "One room breaks the story down, another room is doing fixes, while another group is pitching jokes and punching up the lines to make the show funnier."

Rash said most of the shows he discusses this season are quite dark. The episode on Game of Thrones explored "the effect of the story's darkness on people who hadn't read the books," said Rash. "In the first season, they didn't know that the main character [Eddard Stark, played by Sean Bean] would be killed off. I mean, [Bean] was on the posters!"

Considering that each writers' room is filled with opinionated, creative thinkers, one imagines it would be ruled by chaos.

"The thing I noticed the most is that everyone has their roles," said Rash. "There are the quiet ones who chime in with one comment which really brings it all home . . . and there are those who are more hyper. And they all rib each other."

What happens when creative disagreements arise? Any fisticuffs?

"No! No," said Colleton. "Never. . . . It really can be a lovefest."

Finkel and Baer also insist that order prevails on New Girl. "But we've heard stories," said Baer. "We know someone who held another writer by the feet off a balcony."

Added Finkel, "I heard of one story about a producer who waved a gun around the room to get the writers motivated."


The Writers' Room

Premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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