Neely: Elisa loved you. I think she would have done anything to get you on that show.
Peter: I love Elisa. I think she’s a really smart executive and easy to work with.
Neely: What are some of the high points from your various experiences?
Peter: The first time you write a script and you see it getting made is incredible. We didn’t go on set that often for “The Practice,” but one of my first scripts involved a kidnapped little girl who’s rescued from a trailer in the woods in the dead of winter in Massachusetts. I wrote that and then a couple of weeks later I was standing out in Echo Park, I think it was Echo Park or in one of the parks in any case. They had some East Coast looking trees and a whole bunch of fake snow and a hundred people standing around shooting the scene; I just thought it was the most incredible thing. I couldn’t believe it. I had just dreamed that up a week before and they were shooting it. The first time you experience something like that it’s always amazing.
Another thing I like is the ability to write without being totally alone. “The Practice” was a very solitary writing staff; we did our own thing. Even on “House,” we don’t have much of a room but we do work together a lot more. I always like meetings. It’s just fun to be around your friends, pitching jokes and working together.
Neely: That’s sort of answering the next question that I have which is what are the best, or even most enjoyable, aspects of working in a writers’ room?
Peter: Classically you could imagine the two poles of TV writing as being, on the one hand a 1990s sitcom in which everyone came up with the story ideas and the beats of every episode, together in a room. Then you’d get sent off to write it for a couple of weeks and you came back in and everyone sat in a room and looked over every line together and repitched jokes for it. That’s the classical sitcom model. And the polar opposite of that is “Law and Order,” because (a) it wasn’t about jokes; and (b) the storylines weren’t really connected to each other. So on “Law and Order” each individual writer would come up with a story idea and pitch it to the showrunner. You would only work with the showrunner and there was literally no writers’ room; you only had to check in once in a while to make sure the other writers weren’t working on the same story ideas as you. So all TV shows fall somewhere within those two poles.
Neely: You’ve never worked on “Law and Order” have you?
Peter: Never worked on “Law and Order,” but David Shore and a whole bunch of my friends did. “House” is actually closer to the “Law and Order” model because only 15% of script is about a recurring storyline like what’s going on between House and Cuddy, for example. The other 85% of the script is the “A” story, the medical mystery, and that’s what you do on your own; you work with David Shore on that, but you never work on it in a room with other people.
Neely: And what are some of the worst aspects?
Peter: Again, I’ve never really experienced it. We had no writers’ room on “The Practice” and very little of one on “House.” But based on what other people tell me, the worst aspect on sitcoms is that you might be there til 2 in the morning punching up jokes for the next day’s shoot. That would be a nightmare. TV drama writing is good for people with families; you have normal hours and can make your own schedule. The only other downside of being in a writers’ room would be if you don’t like the people you work with; then it’s like, “hell is other people.”
Neely: Do you see yourself as more TV or features?
Peter: I definitely see myself more TV. I love TV, it’s more of a writer’s medium. There’s something really romantic about writing a movie and getting it put on screen and going to a theater and seeing it with your friends, but there are just fewer and fewer movies and it’s too hard to make a living that way.
Neely: And once you turn in that feature script, it’s not yours anymore.
What direction do you want to take your career?
Peter: I don’t know. I’ll be an E.P. on “House” next year. I really like working for network dramas. I like doing 22 episodes a year, working year-round. But on the other hand, I’m watching “Breaking Bad” right now and it makes me think, “Wow! You can really do some incredible stuff on cable.”
Neely: Shifting gears a bit… (and this is a set up because I already know some of the answers). Where did you go to college?
Peter: I went to Harvard.
Neely: To college?
Peter: Yeah. Undergrad.
Neely: Are you from here?
Peter: New York City. I grew up in Manhattan.
Neely: What did you major in? What did you plan on doing?
Peter: History and Literature, France and America. And I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. The only things that ever interested me were books and movies and journalism and politics. And then I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do and it just seemed like a good thing to do if you were a history and lit major and you wanted to make a living.
Neely: Harvard again, right?
Peter: I went to Harvard Law, right. Then I continued in a series of bad choices when, after law school, I became a management/business consultant. Luckily I was so incompetent at my job that I was forced to quit and moved out here and became an assistant.
Neely: You were forced to quit? That seems a bit disingenuous. So you quit, or the writing was on the wall, but what made you move out here?
Peter: Well, I was heavily encouraged to leave the business world. When I was working as a management consultant and would tell my friends that I was completely over my head and couldn’t understand anything, they’d always say, “Oh, I’m sure it’s just because you’re not interested in that.” And then I actually showed them this performance evaluation of mine (Neely starts laughing) that said, and I think this is the exact quote: “Peter cannot understand simple concepts or express himself clearly in English in meetings.”
Neely: How awful. That’s like something on a 2nd grader’s report card.
Peter: But it was true. I just sucked. I don’t know what the hell was wrong but I just could not understand business at all. Luckily, again, I was so bad that it shot me out to Hollywood.
It just seemed like the only thing I could do… I just loved movies and television. So the constant failure in all other aspects of my life was able to force me to get to Hollywood.
Neely: You never practiced law, did you?
Peter: I never practiced law but I worked in a law firm for a couple of summers.
Neely: Did you take the bar?
Peter: I am a member of the New York State Bar, although I think I’m inactive at this point.
Neely: (laughing) I think you have to take continuing education credits.
Peter: Yeah… I’m not doing that.
Neely: Who did you work for when you first came out here?
Peter: I worked for Castle Rock as an assistant and low level development executive for three years. Movie development is really fun because you take your friends out to lunch, you meet smart writers, you talk about scripts, and you don’t actually have to write anything. But I just realized that I did want to write and I was scared to do so. I had written a “Law and Order” spec script when I was in law school; so I rewrote that and I wrote a “Sopranos” spec (the first season had just ended). Luckily at this point in time, it was about 1997, there were 8 or 10 TV shows that had legal aspects to them on the air. So it got me an agent immediately and then they stuck me on “The Practice,” which was perfect.
Neely: And I made that deal.
Peter: Thank you very much. It was great.
Neely: Have you hooked up with the Harvard mafia out here?
Peter: I think the Harvard Mafia was a bigger deal in 90s and 2000s in sitcoms because it was the graduates of the “Harvard Lampoon” running every show in town. I don’t think there is that much of a Harvard mafia anymore, though.
Neely: But there are a lot of Harvard lawyers out here that are writing. Redlich is one of them.
Peter: I think he went to NYU law school.
Neely: I thought he went to Harvard, but maybe that was just for undergrad.
Peter: Paul Attanasio, who came up with the idea for “House,” went to Harvard Law School. He’s one of the great movie writers – he wrote “Donnie Brasco” and “Quiz Show.” It was his idea to do a medical mystery. Then he brought it to David Shore and David came up with the idea of having a character like House. Paul is still an executive producer on “House.”
I’m sure that TV producers don’t care where you went to college when they’re deciding whether to hire you. They look at your scripts and see whether you can not be crazy in a room. They’re smart enough to not just try to hire ivy leaguers. I mean, it just doesn’t determine whether you’re a good writer at all.
Neely: What about the brotherhood of lawyer/writers? I swear, I hardly know any lawyers in this town that don’t want to be writers! There are so many lawyer/writers.
Peter: The fact I went to law school definitely started my career because it got me my job on “The Practice.” I have no idea whether I would have been hired on a show as a writer if I hadn’t been an attorney.
Neely: Of course it depends on the material, but it makes it a lot easier.
Peter: Yeah, that year they were really really looking for lawyers. But since then, I’ve never looked for a writing job that my legal career would help me with.
Neely: What the legal career does help is that they really teach you how to write in law school. It may be the wrong kind of writing, but they really teach you how to structure a story.
Peter: I sort of disagree. I guess that’s possible; a lot of people tell you that. Or even outside of the whole Hollywood context, a lot of people say that law school teaches you how to think.
But I feel that I got dumber and dumber after college. I wasn’t as smart in law school as I was in college; and then I was dumber as a businessman than I was in law school.
I tend to think that the reason there are so many lawyers who are also TV writers is very simple. When you major in English, when you spend all your time thinking about how much you like books and stories, you graduate and don’t know what to do with your life, so you go to law school. And then you find out, “Boy this sucks, being a lawyer. “ So then you start writing for TV.
Neely: (laughing) That’s an interesting perspective because, I swear, I hardly know any lawyers in this town that don’t want to be writers.
Peter: That makes sense.
Neely: What are you reading right now?
Peter: I’m reading my friend Meghan O’Rourke’s incredibly moving memoir about the death of her mother called The Long Goodbye. It’s not the sort of book I would ever have picked up on my own, but she’s a friend of mine, and I can’t put it down. It’s great; incredibly moving. It reads like a really powerful television show in the sense that there are all these raw emotional scenes. I’m also reading Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder which is about the political murders committed by Stalin and Hitler between ’33 and ’45 in Poland, Byelorussia, Ukraine and the Baltic States. It’s also a crazily gripping book that reads like a thriller, or more specifically like torture porn; you just can’t believe the evil that people can perpetrate on each other.
Neely: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Peter: Richard Price is one of my favorite writers. I read Clockers and Ladies’ Man when I was in law school and it made me think “God, I really should be not working as a lawyer, I should be trying to write.” Actually: Richard Price anecdote. I wrote a movie for Paramount which was like a gritty crime thriller, so I named one of the main characters “Richie Price” as an homage. And then one day I got a call that they were firing me off the project because they wanted to go to “a writer like Richard Price” – that’s what they said – for a polish before they sent it to directors. He didn’t take the job, but I was still fired. And I wondered if I’d put that in their minds via my brilliant homage slash self-defeating subliminal advertising for my replacement.
Who else? James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard; I’ve read more words by J.K. Rowling than any other writer I can think of, by which I mean I’ve read all her books. Ellroy would come in second place.
I should mention some literary novelists to make myself sound smarter but I can’t think of any right now. Oh, Richard Yates. Everyone should read him. Franzen, of course. Wells Towers’ Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned blew me away. If I had to hire a writing staff, I’d try to get him.
Neely: How about watching?
Peter: “Breaking Bad” on DVD; I’m way behind everyone else who watched it years ago. It’s absolutely as good as everyone says. I tend to watch a lot of comedies because I do sometimes feel that watching dramas feels like work.
Neely: You’re not the only writer I’ve profiled who’s said that.
Peter: (laughing) I’m sure.
I love the NBC comedies. I think that it’s amazing that they can still make “The Office” funny and moving eight years down the road. “30 Rock” is just second-by-second the most brilliantly funny show on TV; “Parks and Rec” is really good, too. I’m watching “The Good Wife” right now and really like it. And I tend to go through a lot of the famous cable shows on DVD. “The Shield” is one of my favorites of all time, and “The Wire.”
Neely: I haven’t met a writer yet who hasn’t put “The Wire” on that list.
Peter: I should also mention “Mad Men.” I think “Mad Men” is the best show on TV.
Neely: Any current or recent films to recommend?
Peter: Everyone I know who’s watched “Source Code” has really liked it, and I agree. It’s just a quality Hollywood movie. It’s a really tight, moving, thrilling Hollywood film that you would never expect would be as good as it is.
Neely: You know, I used to be so surprised when I would accidentally run into you, always at French films. This is a huge city and these are small theaters. Now I just expect that I’ll see you, and I do – like at this year’s opening of the City of Light City of Angels French film festival at the DGA. What is it with you and things French?
Peter: Well, I studied French literature in college, among other things.
Neely: So you speak French.
Peter: I speak French. I’ve always been really fascinated by language. Anything about books or language really fascinated me.
Neely: Do you know why?
Peter: I think it started when my parents rented a house in a small French village when I was 8 years old and I was completely miserable because I couldn’t speak the language at all and the other kids were mean to me. There was only one kid who was nice to me, and years later I realized why. His name was Mohammed. (both laugh).
I just remember thinking, “I’m going to learn this language so I don’t feel like everyone is talking about stuff I can’t understand around me.” (laughs) And I really do feel that French movies, after American and English movies, are the best national cinema. I dunno: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Rohmer, a lot of the French noirs from the fifties… “Rififi”…
Neely: I actually think French cinema is the best.
And, by the way, I will still be eternally grateful to you for having recommended “The Beat that My Heart Skipped.”
Peter: That is such a great movie.
Neely: I love Romain Duris, the lead. He was in a movie that was featured this year at COLCOA – “The Big Picture” (“L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie”) . I really liked it.
I know you’re going back for the final season of “House,” but do you have any plans for when the show ends?
Peter: Not necessarily the final season, but yeah, we just got picked up for Season 8. If there’s a Season 9, I’ll stay on; I love working on the show. And I’m also currently writing a movie with Russel Friend who I work with on “House;” he’s a great writer and a close friend, as is symbolized by his last name.
Neely: Well that was a little on the nose. But I remember having a conversation with him when he and Garrett Lerner were on “Boston Public” where they explained that the order they listed their names for script purposes was always Friend and Lerner because Lerner and Friend… well it was just too easy in too many ways.
Peter: Russel and I are doing a remake of “Excalibur” for Bryan Singer and Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures.
Neely: Ooo. Tentpole!
Peter: Well… we hope.
Neely: That’s very cool! How did you and Russel hook up on this?
Peter: Bryan’s producers had read “The Staked Plains” years ago and really liked it; and Bryan directed the “House” pilot, so he knew who I was.
And I love Bryan’s films: “X-Men,” one and two; “Usual Suspects;” “Superman Returns.” I really liked “Valkyrie.” Bryan and I are both sort of obsessed with the Holocaust, which is one reason we get along. I don’t have many other friends with whom I can talk about the “Night of the Long Knives” (note: a purge carried out by Hitler between June 30 and July 2 against another faction of brownshirts) .
He’s just a great, sort of neoclassical Hollywood director, so Russ and I really wanted to work with him. Anyway, I guess a few writers pitched on how to remake “Excalibur” and they liked our pitch for whatever reason. Maybe because we set it in space. That’s a joke.
Neely: I can’t wait to read more and I hope you’ll let me read “Excalibur.” Thanks for spending the time.
Peter: Great to see you, Neely.