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Interview with Karen Struck and Amanda Johns – Writers on Monday Mornings

Interview with Karen Struck and Amanda Johns - Writers on Monday Mornings

For the last couple of months I have been enjoying the new series Monday Mornings created by David E. Kelley.  It’s a hospital drama that focuses on the surgeons and the meeting each week (sometimes it seems more than weekly) where the doctors are confronted with challenges and issues that have come up on certain cases.  Those meeting are not pretty and are led by Alfred Molina as the chief of staff.  The show took a couple of weeks to settle in and lately it has hit a very interesting groove.  There are several very strong female characters including Sarayu Rao as Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Sydney Napur.

Season 1 wraps up tonight on TNT and two of the writers, Karen Truck and Amanda Johns talked about writing the show with one of the biggest names in the business David E. Kelley.

Women and Hollywood: How did you get involved with writing this show?

Amanda Johns: I’ve worked with David for a number of years, most recently as a writer on Harry’s Law.  Fortunately, he invited me onto Monday Mornings with him as well.

Karen Struck:  Mine was the Hollywood dream route.  I had never written on a series.  A friend gave David a spec script that I had written that had a similar theme and tone: medical mistakes and how physicians deal with accountability.  He took a big chance on me.  Other than a few TV films and a medical background, I didn’t have a track record.  First experience on a series and I get to work with David, Sanjay Gupta and Bill D’Elia.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

W&H: It does not seem like a typical writers’ room with multiple writers penning episodes.  How does this show work?

Amanda: We only have four writers: David, Sanjay, myself and Karen.  That allowed for a lot of opportunity, even though we only had ten episodes.  We each pitch potential storylines, and if David approves them, we move forward.  Sanjay and David wrote independently, but Karen and I were in the same offices, so we basically ran a mini-room with the two of us, bouncing our outlines and drafts off of each other.  Once a draft was completed (usually about half an episode), we’d submit it to David, and from there he’s the master weaver: combining different storylines into what would ultimately become an episode.  It’s collaborative, but not in a typical way.

W&H: What is the biggest challenge for you in writing the show?

Amanda: For me, it’s having to take a crash course in medicine with every new patient!  However, it’s a fun challenge and I’ve certainly learned a lot this season.

Karen:  Balancing.  First, balancing medical accuracy with the need to create a dramatic story.  Coming from the medical field, it was difficult to deviate from reality when it was necessary.  And secondly, creating judgment lapses or mistakes for the doctors and ensuring that they remain competent and credible.  It’s a fine line.

W&H: We’ve had lots of medical shows on TV.  What makes Monday Mornings different?

Amanda: I think Monday Mornings is set apart in that it actually takes a hard look at the world of medicine.  In most medical dramas, the doctors are god-like figures who are nearly always right.  When they lose a patient, it’s because they were against all odds.  In our show, that’s not always the case.  Sometimes patients are lost because mistakes are made.  Our doctors are human, and the show exposes vulnerabilities in the medical profession.

Karen:  Doctors have a responsibility to hold themselves and their peers accountable.  Other medical dramas have touched on this, but it hasn’t been their primary focus.  The Monday morning meetings (Mortality and Morbidity meetings) give viewers a peek behind the curtain into the learning process for the medical staff, which isn’t always comfortable or flattering.  

W&H: I have to say that I love the character of Sydney Napur played by Sarayu Rao.  Talk about writing her if you can.

Amanda: First of all, Sarayu Rao was an absolute find, so hats off to casting.  She is wonderful to work with and brings so much life to the character, which David also did an amazing job of clearly laying out on the page.  Because of that, she is one of the more fun characters to write for because she’s dimensional.  She’s a young, single doctor, who more importantly happens to be ambitious, headstrong, smart, and a bit of a know-it all.  She’s says what she’s thinking without guarding her words, which makes her a great character to use when you want to stand on a soapbox, or just run into a scene with guns blazing. 

Karen:  Her character does a quite a bit of grandstanding.  And while Hooten (Alfred Molina) calls the characters out for their individual shortcomings or misjudgments, Sydney calls the whole medical profession out for theirs. She’s a perfectionist.  And she’s contrary.  And then, of course, Sarayu’s a fantastic actress who pulls that off and is still funny and likeable. 

W&H: It must be very exciting working with such a veteran like David E. Kelley.  What have you learned from him?

Amanda: I’ve come up under David, so it’s hard to say what I haven’t learned from him.  He’s truly amazing to watch – he has a way of making things work that you wouldn’t think possible.  He uses humor to offset the drama and convey character moments that are important but could easily have slowed down the pace of the show.  He mixes in social commentary and allows his writers to fight for causes, which makes him fun to work for.  And he always keeps the audience in mind: is this enough of a pay off for the viewers?  What will be their take-away?

Karen:  So, so many things.  When a light moment is needed.  Real estate – how much to give one storyline and not overdue it.  Pacing.  David’s shows attract an intelligent audience so the pace needs to be swift.  And economy of words.  He casts extremely talented actors and then trusts them to convey the emotions in the story. Beyond all that, he’s just a great person. 

W&H: Talk about where the show is going and your hopes for season 2.

Amanda: The show has not yet been picked up, but if we do return, we’ll be ecstatic.  All of the characters are so much fun to write for, it’s hard to put them down over hiatus.  In wrapping season one, David went over a few ideas for season two, and I know all four of us would be coming back in with an arsenal of stories to tell.

W&H: Can you offer any advice to women writers interested in TV?

Amanda: Television is a collaborative medium — you have to work well with others, so being a team player is important.  At the same time, have an opinion, and don’t be afraid to voice it.  As Sheryl Sandberg said, “Sit at the table.”  Go big, and tell stories that you care about.  In the writers’ room, don’t just be a critic; help find fixes and ways to make the story work.

Karen: All writers have to push boulders up steep hills to get on a series.  But the boulder women have to push weighs more, as evidenced by the numbers.  The level of determination and persistence is multiplied.  Network.  Stay active in the Writer’s Guild where you can meet other women and hear how they did it.  

The season finale airs tonight at 10pm on TNT.

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