Neely: When you choose a career in the arts, you are also choosing a path with lots of rejection. Other than travel, how else do you handle that rejection?
Janet: (smiling) I also feel bad and I sit in that particular pain and say, “Okay, that doesn’t feel good.” And I wait for the initial sting to go through me, actually feeling what that pain feels like physically. I take mental notes on it, as it’s interesting, and usually ends up in a piece of writing I do. Then I get on with things. In the past, a lot of times I would get mad and say “I’ll show you.” There’s a great deal of fuel in the “I’ll show you” thing.
There were some times when people would misjudge who I was and it would make me very angry because you know how prejudiced people can be. They’ll look at you and they’ll think you’re one thing and you’re not.
Neely: Absolutely. Been fighting that forever.
Janet: When they’d completely miss it, that used to create an anger in me. I would use that as fuel. Now I can see people are so caught up in their own stuff, whether it’s ambition or fear (ambition being rooted in fear) that I step back and watch and wait and have a good laugh when they finally look up from what it is they are stuck in and actually see more of me.
Neely: I understand that you’re teaching at Loyola Marymount right now. What’s the name of the course?
Janet: “Creating a Television Pilot.” I’m working with eight unbelievably talented graduate students. It’s the first time I’ve taught an entire course.
Neely: Your son is majoring in film there. He could actually end up in your class.
Janet: Uh, no! We decided that wouldn’t happen. But it is what got me to LMU. My son had been accepted elsewhere, but when we visited LMU there was this fresh air in their program. They have a really strong group, with some extraordinary professors, and now under Steve Ujlaki, the new dean, they are building an entire new facility, and injecting some extraordinary talent.
But what really attracted my son, and me as well, was their ethics. Imagine that, ethics in this century and in this business! Their perspective is that film and television are collaborative arts and LMU not only emphasizes this, but fosters it. Other film schools over the years have encouraged competition amongst the students, which again, can be used as fuel. But there is a darker side to that. It has the potential to create ill-will and early feelings of rejection. I’m not sure one needs that in a place where you’re paying money to learn! I’m also told that some film schools have the legal rights to the work you do there. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, I find that curious and frankly unethical.
The other extraordinary thing they’re doing over there is they’re dealing with the realities of the television and film industry as it changes, which as we well know it’s doing daily. They have a symposium every year (last year I was the keynote speaker) bringing together their law students and business school students with their film and television majors, so that they can all meet and create early relationships to carry them through after graduation.
And at the risk of sounding like a pamphlet, Steve Ujlaki has set up this small business incubation program, which is astounding. It gives graduating seniors and grad students their own office and support for a year after they graduate in order to start their own independent production companies. They have their eye on the realities of this business and are very forward thinking. This attracted my son, and it attracted me to want to help in this process.
Neely: Are you enjoying teaching screenwriting?
Janet: (laughs) I’m not sure yet! I’ve always been nervous about reading peoples’ scripts. I’m a very slow reader and I get depressed when I read bad work. But so far I have been enormously impressed by these students.
What I do find funny and interesting is the reaction from some of my colleagues, particularly other writers when I tell them I’m teaching a class. They become sad and think I’ve “left the business.” I find this strange and frankly appalling.
Neely: I actually think that it’s coming from envy. I know that when I was teaching, one of the reactions I got was “How did you get that job?!”
Janet: I feel like the best time to help new people is when your career is robust. You have some power and clout and can help them along the way. But it makes me wonder how many talented people are not giving back at a time when it’s needed most.
Neely: Yes, but time is a factor in this business.
Janet: Yes, you’re absolutely right. It is a tricky juggling act. That’s why when my kids were young and I was working, that was a full enough plate for me.
Neely: Tell me something more about your own likes and dislikes. If you had your choice of any show that’s on right now, with the exception of “Mad Men,” where would you like to work?
Janet: Ew. I’m going to give you a bad answer.
It’s “Mad Men.” There is no other show I’d rather work on right now that’s on the air. And I’m not being political. If you were in that room you’d say the same thing. You’d say, “Look at these incredible people!”
Is there a good comedy out there I should be seeing? Because I completely miss half hour comedy. I love “30 Rock.” The number of jokes per square inch on that show is amazing. And my other favorite, where I wished they’d done more episodes was “Flight of the Conchords.” I would have loved to work on that.
Neely: It was very funny! And I understand “Portlandia” has a lot of that sensibility. It’s a send-up of Portland and very today in its earthy, foodie, organic-ness.
Janet: I’ll check it out. I have family in Portland so I get it.
Neely: So what else are you watching on TV?
Neely: No! You don’t get to say “Mad Men.”
Janet: No, I’m laughing because of my white trash roots. I consider myself erudite white trash because my dad was an intellectual.
Neely: Great term – erudite white trash. I may have to co-opt that.
Janet: Lately I’ve been watching old movies on TCM… like “The Sand Pebbles” and I just watched “The Thomas Crown Affair.” But mostly I watch television with my kids. We watch “California’s Gold” with Huell Howser. (Neely laughs uncontrollably) Because it’s my favorite comedy (Neely is still having a hard time).
Neely: Inadvertent comedy.
Janet: I watch it with Alex (my son) and we do send-ups of Huell as we go along. It’s very fun. And I will watch “Storage Wars” and “Pawn Stars” with David. Do you know “Pawn Stars”?
Neely: (barely keeping it together) I’ve heard of it (laughing hysterically). You’re right…
Janet: These are very popular shows.
Neely: …but Janet. I’m going to have to take the word erudite from the word trash as relates to you.
Janet: Oh no no no. You’ll put it right back when I finish. Ok, so “Pawn Stars” is about this big pawn shop in Las Vegas. Of course. Because that’s where everyone loses their money, and it’s got Rick and his Dad and Chumley and his son Big Hoss. And people come in and they’re always pawning things. And it sounds like it’s really sad, but usually the people are not destitute. They just want to get rid of stuff.
But what happens is that they’re always selling historical artifacts so you actually learn, believe it or not, an enormous amount about history. You learn about Louis XIV and Louis XVI, and then somebody brings in a sword from the Spanish American War. Rick or Big Hoss always says, “Well I need an expert before I can negotiate a price.” And they’ll bring in their “buddy” from a museum....
Neely: …like the Liberace Museum or the new Mob museum? Las Vegas is not known for its museums.
What’s hilarious about this is that you said, “Oh and I’m learning a lot about the Spanish American War.” Which means there are a lot of Spanish American War artifacts in Las Vegas.
Janet: Exactly! And the people who come in. What’s better character work than watching “Pawn Stars?”
Neely: What about books?
Janet: Recently I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. But generally I have a tendency to read small bits of books, rather than a whole book at a time, as I find I retain the information better. I’ve been looking at a book on Saints, and reading from Laird Hamilton’s book, as well as Bear Grill’s wilderness guide. I’ve been missing the outdoors lately.
And I’m into other stuff. I’m learning Mandarin through Rosetta Stone and doing the ground course for a pilot’s license on line. I’m a little afraid of it. It’s really interesting and challenging.
Neely: Grass does not grow under your feet!
Janet: No. I like to learn, but you already knew that.
Neely: Yes, I did.
Neely: Any other adventures? At the end of Part II, I made mention of a trip you were taking to London and Berlin recently.
Janet: Yes, I went with Chip Johannessen, someone you know.
Neely: I’m a big fan of his writing and I profiled him on the blog some time ago. ("Private Eyes")
Janet: We went to discuss the possibilities of co-productions between European countries and the U.S. These kinds of talks have been going on over the years, but with the production costs and economics being what they are now, it seems like an opportune time to take it seriously again. And honestly, it’s a terrific way to take what it is we do and expand on that.
Neely: Did you take away anything interesting?
Janet: I took away a great deal. I took away the knowledge that U.S. television is highly respected in other countries; that our work is being seen and enjoyed all over the globe; that many people have a great interest in learning how we do things here. And probably the most important ingredient has been that the people working in this industry are not only incredibly organized, diligent and creative, but have the capacity to work unbelievably long hours. We pay a price for this, of course, but it has created an industry that is well-respected globally.
Neely: How about writers in particular?
Janet: I learned that we are very much revered. The system over there respects writers in the fashion of an auteur. However, because of the economy of scale we have in production, our writers are paid at a much different rate. Now, this is to say we are more highly paid when we are working. But as everyone knows, it’s more feast or famine over here. And when we are on a hit show that is popular globally, it only seems fair that we should be compensated for this. When you get out into another part of the world and see what it is we do from a distance it is phenomenal. AND rather extraordinary how many people make a living (tens of thousands) off of what is at one point just a germ of an idea in a writer’s head. That to me is profound
Neely: What are you doing next?
Janet: First I’m going to finish this pilot. Then on to China!
Neely: Is this going to be a family vacation or a Janet vacation?
Neely: So the kids are all looking forward to this?
Janet: Yeah, I think so. It is a big deal to go to China.
Neely: I agree. It is a big deal. And hence the Mandarin. How’s your Mandarin going to be by then?
Janet: (speaking in a flowing Chinese that is, of course, totally incomprehensible to me but sounds genuine)
Neely: Great. Well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to translate.
Janet: It means, are you ready? Then let’s go!
Neely: Thanks for doing this with me because I got to immerse myself in one of my favorite people. Whatever you do, it will be interesting and whatever you write, I’ll want to read.