Did you ever consider writing a cable show?
I’m super interested in cable shows and the cable world. I think I have a lot of good cable ideas, and I’m anxious to go over there. At the moment, I’m working with 20th Century Fox, and I’m really focused on network. There’s something attractive about the fact that network drama is down at the moment -- it feels like there’s an opportunity there. They can’t be down forever. Something is eventually going to bring the see-saw back to their side. So it’s fun to chase that, even though it’s hard, and I haven’t been successful. That’s entertaining.
What’s fascinating is that network drama might be down, but that’s where the viewers are. We talk so much about “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” but proportionally those viewing audiences are so much smaller than the ones tuning in every week to network shows.
It’s true, but quickly changing. “The Walking Dead” is the largest show on television, bar none. Bigger than, you know, “Mad About You” [laughs], bigger than “Mad Men,” “Modern Family,” bigger than “The Voice.” It’s just a monster, and I don’t know that you could have picked a less likely candidate for that: a zombie show on cable. But it’s huge.
Conversely, network audiences, especially network drama audiences, are all drifting close to cable-like numbers. I think what’s happening is channels are just becoming channels. Nobody has a real advantage, so the audience gets broken and fractured into pretty equal-size proportions. The [network] platform is still bigger, and you still have some bigger crossover opportunities in network than you do on cable, but the idea that it’s just by itself automatically bigger [is disappearing]. NBC’s audiences on many nights are smaller than cable networks. They’ll do less than TNT. I think that is changing, and there’s no reason it has to stay that way just because it was for the last 40 years.
In terms of writing for network versus cable, do you find yourself limited by the standards of what you can show?
It depends on the subject matter. My new thinking is you shouldn’t take a show to network that would be better on cable. You wanna do a show set in the world of porn, that should not be on a network. But something like “Lost,” there’s no reason it would’ve been better on cable. The standards and practices really don’t get in the way. So the limit is totally about subject matter.
We’re here at a festival that’s all about writing. What’s your process like?
It’s always evolving, based on whether or not I’m doing well. But I try to write, actually write with a timer going, for six hours a day. So I’ll write for half-hour chunks during which I don’t answer the phone, don’t answer email, nothing. During those 30 minutes, I’m only writing. And if I can do that for six hours a day -- which I can’t always do, sometimes to write for six hours takes 10 or 11.
I change places all the time, because I blame the places when I’m not doing well. “Well, this office is poisoned. I need to go to a coffee shop. This coffee shop is poisoned. I need to go to the library.” I’ll switch it up as often as is necessary, which is weird, because when I’m writing a TV show, I had a real office, and it was like, “This place is poisoned, and I can’t go anywhere. I just have to figure it out.” Then you realize all those things are just psychosomatic anyways, and it becomes about sitting down and making yourself do it.
Do you find yourself thinking about balancing creativity and saleability as you’re generating ideas?
In TV, if you’re successful, you’re coming up with a job for yourself for many years, so even if it’s a good idea, if it’s not one that I would want to be a part of for years, then I try to leave it alone and stay away from it. It’s just not worth pursuing. I try to find something that I would watch, even if it wouldn’t be my favorite show on television. I mean, nothing I’ve generated would I like to watch more than “Breaking Bad.” It’s just, can you see yourself doing this over and over and over again.
Speaking of “Breaking Bad,” what else are you into right now?
Love “Breaking Bad,” still love “Mad Men.” Those are my big dramas at the moment. The flip side: almost all the comedies I watch are on network. I still love “Parks and Rec,” and the last season of “30 Rock” seems like it’s gonna go out in amazing form.
Are there all-time favorites that still drive you or inform your work?
“The Sopranos.” That made [popular] television as novels -- slow, serialized storytelling where I’m watching characters evolve. On the network side, things like “ER” when I was younger. I remember being like, Thursday night, 9 o’clock, I gotta be there. And the thing is, I couldn’t care less about the cases. But were Anthony Edwards and Sherry Stringfield gonna get together? This was a really important question for me! I needed to know.
That’s what’s stayed with me: I’m always way more interested in what will happen to the characters over time. Which is why something like “Law & Order” I can completely appreciate but could never get into it because the characters barely exist. It’s about a mystery every week, and I just couldn’t get into trying to solve those on a weekly basis.
Have you ever wanted to expand into writing outside of TV or film?
I started in short stories and had some of those published. I was working on a collection. An agent had contacted me and I was super excited. He said, “You’re this many short stories short of a collection, or you could write a novella-length thing to go on the end of the collection.” And that was going to be “The Beaver,” and then “The Beaver” blossomed into a novel, and then I was buried in hundreds of pages of stuff and didn’t know where anything was going. The discipline of “What if I had to tell this story in 110 pages?” suddenly became appealing. That’s how it became a screenplay, and that got me back into the world of film and television.
Iused to blog all the time. I used to write for fun until it became my job, and now I love my job, but I will sit at night and think about the prospect of writing an email and it’s like “I don’t wanna make the effort to type anymore today.”