Neely: I just couldn’t resist throwing one last bit of character development into the mix. I rewatched “Network” the other night and it was more depressingly funny and prescient than I remembered. I love that you found a way to serialize the topic – and maybe, just maybe, someone will let you do it.
Going back a bit to you. Where did you go to school and what did you major in (that is such a 70’s question, like what’s your sign?) Did you take any writing in college?
Brett: I went to a little weirdo school in Portland, Oregon called Reed College…
Neely: I know Reed very well.
Brett: Oh yeah? It’s a unique place.
Neely: It’s a hotbed of liberalism.
Brett: (laughing) Indeed. Very much so. But it’s funny. You go outside the Portland city limits and the rest of it looks like the Outback. But it’s a lovely lovely city and I adore it. It’s bleeding heart liberal in the city and then outside the city… wow… just conservative folk. The school is still one of the few colleges that requires an extensive year-long thesis.
I had taken all the creative writing courses you could take. I helped the key writing professor, who had some Hollywood screenwriting ambitions himself, put together and create a screenwriting course. Because of that, I ended up petitioning them to let me do an original creative screenplay thesis. And they let me do that. I was the first person in the history of the college that they let do a creative thesis like that. From there it was the jump forward out to Hollywoodland.
Neely: Were you an English major?
Brett: I was a lit major. I don’t know if I’d do that again, but it was lovely while I was there.
Neely: Well what brought you out to LA?
Brett: There was just no way around it. If you want to play this game you have to be here. I suppose you can do it from afar, from different cities, but even New York is so much more limited than here. It was one of those “all roads leading to Rome.”
Neely: What was your first job out here?
Brett: My first job out here, I think, was serving coffee at a lovely little Santa Monica place. Without knowing it, I ended up working at this coffee joint that was the first street of commerce down from the Palisades. So I saw all these huge heavy hitters. Spielberg would come in there and the heads of studios and people like that… it was pretty interesting for a 22 year old to see.
Neely: What was your first job in the industry?
Brett: The first dime I made was optioning a script – setting a script up.
Neely: So you didn’t work as a PA or in some kind of menial position?
Brett: No. Never. Nothing like that.
Neely: So you went from working at the coffee shop to having a script optioned?
Brett: Yeah. That’s exactly it.
Neely: Alrighty then. So how did you get an agent? Or let’s go backwards a bit further. How did you get somebody to read that script?
Brett: I haven’t thought about this forever. It was while I was working at that coffee shop, I saw some dude sitting at a table reading a script and I was having a bad day. I had nothing going on so I went up to him and said, “Hey there. Whatcha reading there?” He showed me the script and I said, “What are you? An agent?” I was being really brash. And he responded, “No. I work at [this or that].” “Well,” I added, “I’m a writer. You should read something of mine.” And I just threw a script at him. It was so incredibly obnoxious. And then 3 weeks later I got a phone call from this guy. “Hey I really dug this script. It’s cool. What’s going on with it?” He worked at… I want to say Trilogy Entertainment… I think he’s the guy who turned me on to the managers that I still have today, 12, 13, 14 years later.
Neely: What did that guy do for a living that he loved this script and sent it on to someone?
Brett: I think he was an executive at Trilogy Entertainment. It was just a random…
Neely: (incredulous) And he read your script?! (laughing)
Brett: Yeah, yeah, I know. I was the obnoxious coffee guy that threw a script at him. I was stunned when I got that phone call three weeks later… “Hey this is Ryan. You gave me that script?” It took me a second to remember. “Oh, wow! You didn’t throw it away?” He introduced me to my manager and then it was the long road to getting decent agents and moving forward. You hear about it from time to time that you meet people who have walked directly into the Biz somehow and get a CAA agent right off the bat. And yeah, when I was 22, I would have loved to have had that experience. But it was nothing like that. It was years and years of putting in my time and continuing to write more scripts and more scripts and more scripts and just never stopping. I put in my time.
Neely: But it seems a bit disingenuous because it sounds like at age 22 you had a manager. You had somebody who was in a position of importance actually read your script and set you on that pathway.
Brett: Well, yeah, that’s true. But that was a loooong pathway.
Neely: No doubt that it was; but it’s also a more fortuitous route than most people find.
Brett: Every morsel of good fortune I’ve had, believe me, I’m incredibly thankful for. Anybody who thinks they’ve gotten anything in this business without a healthy dose of luck is kidding themselves.
Neely: Did you have any mentors?
Brett: Certainly when I started working in television, without a doubt it was Jim Parriott. Jim, who was running the room, or more technically he might have been co-showrunner on “Sons of Anarchy,” was a great guy and a fantastic boss. I didn’t fully realize why at the time; it took me having to work on a couple of other shows that were a little more broken in their productions to see exactly why Jim was so good at what he did. With Jim we never worked past 6:00; we were never ever jammed up and never had to come in on weekends. We were always several scripts ahead of what we were shooting. He’s just an ace at keeping the engine running, keeping the train on the tracks.
I finally realized why later. More than any of his other skills, the best thing he has going for him is that he knows exactly what not to waste time on, which in television production is the most important thing. You find yourself spending far too much time on everything from breaking too deep on a story, to interfacing with the studio or the network, to writing it in the outline … He just knew where the time-sucks were; he knew where those quagmires were and he just stepped right over them. In other jobs I’ve had without him, I could see those pitfalls coming a mile away, and each time (snap of the fingers)… oops we’re two weeks behind… oh! We’re a month behind now. I’ve stayed in contact with Jim and, like I said earlier, I’ve worked for him three times now, just cause I know what it’s going to be like. I know how that room’s going to be; I know what the temperament will be. That goes a long way.
Neely: Has there been one particular show that you worked on that you absolutely loved that got cancelled after you started working on it?
Brett: Hmm. Well, the one you mentioned earlier, the one with Jim, “Defying Gravity,” which he created. It was sadly short-lived. It was just fun! It was fun to go to work; it was fun to show up. There was a great group of people and it was one of those rare experiences where “Cool. Time to work.” Sadly, we didn’t really get a chance to open it up.
Neely: How do you view the writing process overall? What is terrifying about it for you? What is gratifying? How do you write under pressure?
Brett: Under pressure, especially under time pressure, I write very well. It triggers something in me. It would be fair to say that I like an intense deadline because I just go into overdrive. When you get yourself into that zone and catch a jag and you just go. There’s not that much that scares or terrifies me, other than not getting to do it. I’m one of those people who doesn’t know what to do with myself without writing. Me and free time are not that good for each other. (laughs)
Neely: Is there anything terrifying for you about it? Is it the free time? Is it not knowing what to do with that?
Brett: Yeah. That would be fair to say. But that’s part of it when you sign up. It’s a strange job for an adult to have. It’s a weird gypsy lifestyle that we lead, going form gig to gig. You never know exactly what’s going to happen next. You just gotta take part of it on a wing and a prayer.
Neely: I know you’ve also written a feature called “The Washington Objective.” I haven’t had a chance to read it, so please tell me what it’s about.
Brett: “Washington Objective” is a White House political thriller. It’s subject matter that’s endlessly fascinating to me. I’ve written a half dozen different movies or TV pilots centering around presidents or ex-presidents. The themes of money and power are very interesting to me. In “Washington Objective” there’s a coup that happens in America but nobody is even aware of it. It’s centered around a group of people who suddenly become aware of the truth. I’m just finishing up a rewrite for the producer and director.
Neely: Has it been optioned?
Brett: Yeah. It’s been through three different companies, I think. Chuck Roven’s company had it for a while and then we got it back. Now Essential Entertainment has it and the director (it’s his company) just had his first movie come out at Sundance. His notes were relatively small, so I’m finishing up the rewrite and we’ll be off to the races.
Neely: Do you have a studio attached yet?
Brett: Nope. They’re a fully funded finance company, so I don’t know exactly what the intentions are. It’s pretty cool. It’s the only thing I’ve ever written that when I gave it to my manager for the first time, I got a call at one in the morning from him because he was so jazzed about it. But again, like everything, it hasn’t been easy; it’s been a long bumpy road. I hope we’re getting there this time.
Neely: Closing in on it, perhaps.
Brett: (laughs) Yeah. That would be nice.
Neely: That would be very nice.
So you wrote this on spec?
Brett: It was written on spec. It has a pretty dynamic opening scene, opening hook, that sets up the whole movie. I got this scene in my head, so I just wrote out the scene, or sequence of scenes which is a 6 or 7 page sequence. Once I wrote that, I knew what I was doing; it was one of those things where I just had to write it out. I think I wrote the whole thing in 19 days. From that opening sequence, I knew exactly where I needed to go... and Boom, I fell right into it.
Neely: I’m sensing a theme here with your writing.
Brett: Yeah? What?
Neely: Well, when you talked about “Hard News,” you said that it came in a dream and you actually had the first scene in your head and you just started writing. You knew who those characters were, especially after coming up with that one line that unlocked it. In other words, it was something that just flowed out of your pen.
Brett: Yes. That’s exactly how it worked for me. I don’t know. Everybody’s different, I suppose. In fact, I think most people I know like to extensively outline. I loathe and hate outlining; I always feel trapped by it. For me, generally, I’ll either get a character in my head or I’ll get a moment for a character or sometimes even a particular line of dialogue that I think defines the character. I’ll write that out and find it from there. Obviously I know the world I’m writing and the general direction I want to go, but it’s usually that one thing. It happens time and time again. I wrote this big giant spy movie about aging spies that has a “Midnight Run” vibe to it. I had this idea for a scene and I wrote that scene for the end of the second act. I had no idea what happened before it or what would happen after it, but I wrote this scene out – a big heavy character scene between the two leads. Writing the dialogue, I knew exactly who the characters were and went back and started at the beginning and moved forward, caught up and then went beyond. Since I wrote that, writing it out of sequence, every original thing I’ve written, I’ve written out of sequence. It’s something I never thought I’d do – jump around on the page. I don’t write fluidly from start to finish.
Neely: Is that deliberate because you’ve found success that way? Or is it just now the way that you do it?
Brett: Part of it is exactly that. When I wrote the spy movie and did it that way, I found it completely worked for me. I never thought I would do it like that, and I’ve never deliberately tried to write it like that, but I also haven’t stopped myself. I think to myself that I know what this scene in the opening of the third act is going to look like, so instead of continuing along chronologically, I’ll go ahead and write that scene; I’ll catch up to it later on. It’s worked for me since then. I sort of changed my method a little bit about a year or two ago.
Neely: In the long run, do you see yourself as a features writer or a television writer?
Brett: Ideally, both. There are a lot of great models out there now, guys like JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon and Sorkin who bounce back and forth between the two. I’ve certainly put a lot of effort into my feature scripts – a couple of different ones are in various stages with different producers or directors attached. They’re all my children; you want to see them all go to nice colleges. But the best storytelling available to writers out there is in television. The best chances and best opportunities are being taken there; that’s something I’ll absolutely pursue.
Neely: What are you reading right now?
Brett: I’m reading the Scott Berg biography on Lindbergh and I’m reading a book I tried once to read in college, but it was so incredibly dense that I gave up after 40 pages. I’m older now and I’ve decided to take a crack at it again; it’s Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. I was thinking I’d have an easier time of it now, but I was probably smarter in college. It’s incredibly dense, rich writing.
Neely: It’s not anywhere close to… I take it you’ve read Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
Neely: Okay. Even if you get through it, Foucault’s Pendulum will be a big disappointment to you. I’m not sure it’s worth all the effort you’re putting into it.
Brett: Oh no! Don’t tell me that! I’m almost halfway through.
Neely: (laughing) Sorry about that.
Brett: I don’t claim to understand what it’s about.
Neely: It’s the Knights Templar, right? What’s the name of that popular Dan Brown book?
Brett: The DaVinci Code.
Neely: It’s an intellectual DaVinci Code. It is a marvelous history and depiction of the Templar Knights but in terms of depth, it’s nowhere near his visionary The Name of the Rose.
Brett: I agree with that, for sure. I immediately enjoyed The Name of the Rose. This one feels a little bit too much like work, but every now and again there’s a sequence of something that I read that I really like, so I keep reading.
Neely: Well the history that unfolds within the novel is definitely interesting. Well… obviously (laughing) I’m very opinionated (and judgmental), but I do remember being disappointed with Foucault’s Pendulum. But then, to be fair, I read Foucault’s Pendulum very shortly after The Name of the Rose, so that must have colored my thinking.
Brett: I’m always reading something; I always have a healthy stack of books waiting. It was up, it was due, it’s time had been called, so I had to crack it.
Neely: I had that same experience with Lord Jim and ultimately, even though twice I could not get past page 183, when I finally did crack it, it was extremely satisfying.
Brett: I’ve had that problem with Nostromo. (both laugh)
Neely: Getting back to a question we touched on earlier, who are some of your literary influences?
Brett: Starting with contemporary authors, I adore Richard Russo and Richard Ford, they’re big influences on my work. There’s an incredible humanistic quality to them; I think they’re modern day Updikes. Those are my favorites for sure. I also love the “Spencer” series by Robert B. Parker. Salmon Rushdie is a giant for me. I got to meet him in Portland.
I wrote a novel, myself, and had moved to New York to write it. Then I moved back to Portland to edit it. A buddy of mine from college ended up staying in Portland and working at Powell’s Bookstore, which is the biggest independent bookstore in the country. Powell’s is every author’s first or last stop on their book tour. And during this particular 10 months when I was there, all of these great writers, a lot of my favorite writers, just happened to have books coming out and stopped there. Everybody from Jeffrey Eugenides to Zadie Smith to Dave Eggers and Rushdie. The capacity crowd for Rushdie was so large that they had to move it to an alternative location across the street – to a church. So Salman Rushdie was in the pulpit of a church reading from Satanic Verses. It was pretty crazy. It was a great year for authors on book tours.
Neely: What are you watching?
Brett: I’m anxiously waiting for “Breaking Bad” to start up again. I think it’s pretty much the best show on television. I’m also watching one that’s airing right now, “The Killing.”
Neely: I love that show.
Brett: I think it’s incredible.
Neely: I just finished watching my personal favorite - “Justified.”
Brett: “Justified” is a spectacular show; one of my best friends is one of the writers. He’s a terrific writer and he’s been there since the beginning.
Neely: And once again, what we’ve just mentioned are three cable shows.
Brett: I could go on. I’ve been a huge fan of “Dexter” since it started; it may be the best use of voice-over in the history of television. I love that voice-over.
Neely: Any favorites from the past?
Brett: “Wise Guy.” The greatest show ever. I love “Wise Guy” – my man Vinnie Terranova, secret OCD agent. It was so visionary at the time – 1987 – and it feels like a gritty cable show. I was telling one of the writers’ assistants on “Covert Affairs,” a spy show that I worked on, about the show. He was a younger guy and had never heard of it. He was a huge fan of “The Shield.” But I said, “Watch this show from 1987 and imagine that they were doing this on network television 15-20 years before “The Shield” came out.” It still holds up. So that’s my personal favorite, but also there’s “The Wire” and “Deadwood.”
“The Wire” may be the greatest show of all time. I ended up working with a couple of the writers from both “The Wire” and “Deadwood” on “Sons of Anarchy.” It was interesting picking their brains how the process worked on those shows. Chris Collins, who I worked with on “Sons of Anarchy,” did “The Wire.” I would talk to him about different aspects of the show and he’d say things like “We hated that storyline” or “We didn’t think that actress was that good.” And as a viewer, all I could say was, “Are you kidding. It was incredible.” But he was on the inside of it and when you have that perspective, all you can see are the mistakes or the paths not taken. It was an interesting insight.
I also admire “Battlestar Galactica” and “Buffy.” Their secret, beyond their high concept hooks? They're deeply character-driven dramas.
Neely: What did you watch as a kid?
Brett: The first show that ever grabbed me was “St. Elsewhere.” It was an early favorite of mine; that’s my biggest memory.
Neely: Are you staffed this season?
Brett: It’s kind of interesting. The pilot I liked the most didn’t get picked up – “Reconstruction” (by Josh Brand, the same guy who created “St. Elsewhere”). It was heartbreaking because it was a spectacular pilot.
I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and then a possible opportunity for me to develop came up, so we’ll see. That put a wrinkle in everything because if I ended up staffing on a show, there’s no way in the world that a first year show would let me continue this development. It’s potentially too big to pass up, so I opted to pursue development.
Neely: How about any new material to take out and sell?
Brett: I have a couple of different projects. One is another spec script that I wrote and there’s a pitch that’s gone out to a different producer.
Neely: I’ll certainly look forward to reading more from you and seeing one of your originals make it to air.
Brett: Thank you very much. That would be nice. It’s hallowed ground and if you’re lucky enough to get there… It’s too bad that you sometimes hear stories about really harried productions where people are pulling their hair out. It’s just that… you’ve made it to the Promised Land here, man, there’s got to be a way that it can be a little more fun, a little less gut-wrenching. But that’s the trick – figuring out how to get it going smoothly and enjoy it.
Neely: Well you have chosen a gut-wrenching profession.
Brett: Maybe there’s still time to apply to law school. (Neely laughs loudly)
Neely: Read some of the other articles I’ve written about lawyers who now write. They couldn’t wait to get away from the law! (still laughing)
Brett: One of the women I met on “The Defenders,” Jackie Hoyt (and it was no secret around town that it was a bear of a production), was a lawyer (as is Carol Mendelsohn who was one of the Executive Producers). Jackie was a terrific writer and we quickly became best friends. She decided she didn’t want to be a lawyer; she wanted something more. So then she ends up writing on a show about the profession she didn’t want to do in the first place!
Neely: Well, in the immortal words of the late Gilda Radner, “it’s always something.” Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about your work.