Every week there now seems to be news of another Hollywood project being delayed. Sometimes this is because you can’t make money in an empty theater, but just as often because of production stops in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of those industry hits are on hiatus for now, one crucial segment hasn’t: the writers. Like many of us, they have instead become familiar with the inner workings of Zoom conversations at work.
“I kind of feel for every aspiring TV writer currently home because of the pandemic,” said Sera Gamble, Netflix showrunner. you (formerly of supernatural and the wizards), during this year’s online-only edition of the ATX TV Festival. “They’re trying to write while doing a bunch of other things; well, congratulations, you’re in showrunner training now. I’ve had to sit down and rewrite a script many times in the past when it felt like a serious crisis, and sometimes it was a serious crisis But it feels like that time 10. I have to adjust expectations every morning: I wake up, wait a minute before I check my phone, check in with loved ones and then take the problems of the day as they come. .. [I tell my writers] “You can’t solve what you can’t solve, so what can we do for the next hour?”
For this late addition panel to this year’s ATX TV Festival, Gamble (almost) joined up with Dan Goor (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Rec†† Melinda Hsu Taylor (Nancy drew† Lost†† and Beth Schwartz (Sweet tooth, arrow) to take “Inside the Writers’ (Zoom) Room” streamers. For some, the change came abruptly. Hsu Taylor and her staff nearly finished writing and producing the final season of Nancy drew when they suddenly had to rebuild everything to be remotely user-friendly (she says she did a Zoom birthday for her son around that time because it helped her understand the basic logistics and experience). Other writers started wholesale business in a digital world, such as the staff of Brooklyn Nine-Nine† They had been five weeks into breaking the story at the time of this panel and hadn’t been together at all while working on the upcoming season eight.
Of course, nobody had a choice. As COVID-19 continues to increase in the United States — the country has passed the 2 million case mark in the past two weeks — all walks of life must adapt. And when face-to-face interactions pose potentially life-threatening risks in the near future, Zoom calls suddenly sound downright preferable.
“The moment we went home, there was a little relief,” Gamble said. “We kept social distancing in two separate rooms for weeks before going home so people could have six to three feet between them. At one point I asked a writer’s assistant to keep track of how many times ‘coronavirus’ was said — it was every two So if we went home at least we could work.”
Logistically, things were trickier for TV writers in this shared Zoom existence. Larger writers’ rooms that require 10 or more people may have trouble translating into a single Zoom chat, where not mixing things up and making reading the room more difficult. So, you and Brooklyn Nine-Nine now choose to have multiple, smaller Zoom calls focused on more precisely defined tasks, and only the showrunner jumps between calls. What magical writers often refer to — the creative spark, the interactions between the collaborators, where a lunch convo might solve a plot problem later that afternoon — also proved harder to recreate in these digital workspaces.
“It’s more efficient, but it’s weird and less fun,” Goor said. “There are fewer jokes around. We did every possible Zoom joke we could make that first week – changed all the backgrounds, mine were my mom’s watercolors. We made background videos of each other… so I guess that we’ve found new ways to waste time, come to think of it… But it’s nice to feel a response to a pitch, and it’s much harder to do that through Zoom. talking out of story ideas.”
In any case, Zoom has surprised writers early on with a few positive benefits. In writers’ rooms where some staffers have been on a show for much longer than others, Zoom can break down some unspoken hierarchical barriers and put everyone on an equal footing. “There’s something democratic about these squares that are always present and the same size,” Goor said. “For new people it might be easier to talk now. ‘Oh, and April, what do you have to say about this?'” Zoom also inherently leads to less interruption of the workday: fewer bathroom breaks, less space to lose to endless jokes and skipping longer lunch routines like the Brooklyn Nine-Nine staff has expanded Wheel of Fortune-style approach when selecting takeout.
But perhaps the biggest change? The pandemic has given everyone in the writer’s room a more holistic perspective on life – season four episode, which is no longer becoming anyone’s most important thing. Add it all up and many writers now have a much more traditional workday.
“Comedy hours are usually bad, and they’ve gotten so much better,” said Goor, who noted how he now usually works from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., lunches and resumes from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. “We ate routinely for the first few seasons” [in the writers’ room] and be there until 8pm or 10pm or 11pm for a table reading. We have adapted. It’s partly because it’s impossible to watch Zoom for that long, but partly so people can be with their families, be healthy and experience life.”
Focusing at home instead of when you’re physically in a room for a specific task can be a new challenge, but these TV writers continue to find approaches that work for individual groups. Hsu Taylor and the Nancy drew employees begin each session with a three-minute meditation to deliberately tell their minds that work time has begun. “I know some people check their email because I hear a click,” she said. “But I think most of this. ‘Okay, I’m doing this now.’ I tell my body and mind to be here for the next few hours.” And some of the previous tasks that would force writers to divide their attention don’t exist now, such as being on set for script adjustments during an episode you may have written.
“With production on hold,” Schwartz said, “you can really focus on the scripts instead of being everywhere.”
The finished product
Good or bad, our new reality has definitely already impacted what we’ll eventually see on screen. You, tells the story of a bookstore manager who is eerily obsessed with a young aspiring writer. In short, the show often has characters at least To kiss. But for the upcoming season three, that could be an aspect that needs to change, no questions asked.
“We can’t put people at risk — TV shows aren’t worth that,” Gamble said. “So we’ll change what we can and keep an eye on the lines we don’t want to cross. We won’t do the show and screw it up because there was a pandemic. We’ll be measured and try to keep the spirit of the show.” But it’s a conversation, scene by scene by scene.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also requires shifts in logistics. Where you can film and who you can film naturally fuels the scenes a writing staff can write. The writers noted productions in Canada and New Zealand, such as: Nancy drew and sweet tooth, will happen first because those countries have navigated COVID-19 better than the US. And with mandatory quarantine for travelers to those places, local actors can also play a role.
For Goor and the Brooklyn Nine-Nine team starts new logistical concerns with babies. No explicit spoilers, but two characters had one last season, and the team suddenly has to look at animatronics and perhaps less common on-screen babyhood (“There’s going to be a run on those custom fake babies,” Gamble joked).
“It’s hard because we’re doing work-life balance stories for these people. This is going in so many different directions and we still don’t know where [the pandemic] so it’s hard to write for it,” said Goor. ‘Is it safe to shoot outside? Originally we wanted everything to be a bottle episode so we can film on the stages, [and] it will be checked. But is it better to do all the outsides now? Because it seems like it is healthier and safer for people. How many extras can you have? Can you use children? And as there will be waves of productions, with movies and pilots starting as well, guest cast availability will be a lot more difficult. Five-episode guest star arcs are now more difficult.”
All of these decisions eventually spill over into the TV business as well. For writers, the option to join a writer’s room remotely may suddenly become more commonplace, democratizing careers for people outside of NYC and LA (and those cities’ sky-high rents). And not having to commute regularly or be in one physical space would mean that writers’ rooms can more easily welcome writers with physical disabilities, giving a large number of shows a broader perspective.
“I think there’s a reason we do that” [in-person writers’ rooms], and it’s not just about spending studio money on all that rent — it’s good for creativity and production,” says Gamble. “But it will be easier to say, ‘We should meet on Zoom in a few days. .’ And for the disabled community, if a cop called me and pitched someone in and explained why someone could rarely, if ever, be on set, well, I know that works now. If all this leads to a large group of great writers breaking through in the company, I’ll be interested.”
ATX TV Festival 2020 will continue to post its panels on YouTube throughout June (including a panel featuring the staff of The Mandalorian available this weekend). The full “In the Writers (Zoom) Room” discussion is available below.