When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘one word at a time.’.” – Stephen King

 

EXT. STUDIO LOT – MORNING

Skye steps back into the morning sun. She spots the show's Executive Producer/Showrunner GARY FISHER, 45, walking toward the soundstage. She bites her lip, considers whether she should approach. Skye isn't retiring. She makes a beeline—

SKYE: Mr. Fisher...

He's flipping through a print-out of the overnights. Distracted. Skye falls into step with him. It takes him a moment to toss her a look; can't quite place her.

SKYE:  Skye. Yarrow. Production assistant?

FISHER: Right. Skye. You're new.

SKYE: Well, I've been here about five weeks now...

Fisher's still looking at the anemic overnights...

FISHER: Uh-huh. So how's it working out for you?

SKYE: Fine, good. Do you have a minute?

He forces himself to focus on her, remembering...

FISHER: You're the one who interviewed for the researcher job...

SKYE: But I got P.A. instead. Happens, I understand that. (fast) It's just I've got my M.A. in Information Sciences but I also did some interdisciplinary work in Psychopathology which I thought made me a pretty unique candidate for the kind of... (beat) But that's not what I want to... (takes a sobering breath) One of my jobs on the show is dealing with the fan mail.

FISHER: I know. Our fans send some pretty creepy stuff. If you'd rather not—

SKYE: It's not that. Although some of the stuff is... (moment) No, it's... I've been surfing the websites. On my own time, of course. Not the official ones, but the ones the fans put up. And—

FISHER: Yeah. Pretty amazing some of them, huh? Our fans are obsessed. Po-ssessed. If only there were a few million more of them...

SKYE: Their numbers are definitely growing -- and most of the website are amazing... and cool and fun. But it's... the other ones...

FISHER: -- Your lips to God's ear –

SKYE: ...the ones you find if you follow certain links... the ones that make it hard for you to get into...

Fisher immediately stiffens. This isn't something you talk  about...

FISHER: Any show -- Gilmore Girls – has it's share of extremely passionate fans...

SKYE: But a show like this—

FISHER: If you're not comfortable working here...

SKYE: (fast) It's not that. Not that at all. It's just... (doesn't know how to say it) There's a level of... of connection to this show... by some people. Don't you find it all a little... (beat) ...scary?

FISHER: (defensive, on his way to pissed) Some of our fans like to pretend they're Archie Sweet followers. Big deal. It's like Trekkies dressing up like... like Data...

SKYE: Some of it's centered around the Archie Sweet character, but there's this entire other... (searches for the word) ...sub-culture... that's developing around the show. And it's not just about Archie Sweet. (beat) It's something else.

Fisher starts looking at her like maybe she's the one who's a little meshugah. Or, worse, a potential problem-maker.

SKYE: I mean, I know -- it's just a TV show. And they're just people who watch. But... (beat) I thought, if you wanted me to, I could dig into it a little more. It's what I'm actually really good at. You know -- I could find out something about who's creating these sights, who's visiting them...

Fisher just continues to stare. Skye reads his look.

SKYE: Right. You're right. Never mind. Craziness. I don't want you to think I'm...

She shifts gears -- fast. Takes a breath—

SKYE: Forget I mentioned it. Really. Forget it. (beat) Green revisions! Julie wanted me to tell you the green revisions are gonna be distributed by eleven this morning.

 

A Continued Conversation with the Writer

Neely: Last week we discussed the journey of “Cult” and “fandom.” I’d now like to focus more on you.

Your first listed credit was the relaunch of “Twilight Zone” in the 80s. It put you into some pretty heady company, including fellow story editor George R. R. Martin (“Game of Thrones”). How did you land that gig?

Rockne: It was my very first job. At the time I was writing “spec” everything – spec TV shows like “Magnum P.I.,” which was a popular cop/PI show at the time; spec episodes of things that were on at the time and feature scripts. I was doing the stuff that writers always do.

There was a show that was on in the early 1980s, called “Darkroom.” It was on ABC for a brief period of time. It was an anthology, kind of like a “Twilight Zone” [slash] “Night Gallery” kind of anthology. But instead of “Night Gallery” where Rod Serling would stand in front of paintings in order to introduce the episodes, the host, actor James Coburn, was in a darkroom where he’d have photographs that would develop in front of him and that would be the introduction of the episodes. It was essentially a “Twilight Zone” kind of show and I wrote a couple of short half hour spec scripts for it and managed to get them in to the producers of the show even though I had never sold anything. They liked them but the show was canceled “moments later” so there was nothing they could do with them.

As I like to tell aspiring writers everywhere, the great thing about spec material is that it doesn’t dissolve. You may not sell it immediately, but it doesn’t go away. Put it up on a shelf because you never know when you can use it again. So that’s what I did with these little half hour scripts, scripts that you couldn’t do much with; I put them aside.

Then in 1984, CBS announced they were redoing “Twilight Zone” at the same time that NBC announced that they had made a deal with Steven Spielberg to do a show called “Amazing Stories.” So, I dusted off my two half hour scripts and sent them off to both shows and both shows liked them. One in particular, called “Wordplay,” became my first sale. “Amazing Stories” had to keep moving my material up the food chain to get it to Spielberg, so while that was going on (it was quite a long process), the “Twilight Zone” people brought me in and made me an offer to come on staff. Again, having never sold anything and then being offered a staff writer position and being offered it on the remake of “The Twilight Zone” was a dream come true for me. I leapt on to that. I did end up writing an “Amazing Stories” episode for Steven the next year. But that’s how I got my first writing job. The first year on staff we had an amazing group of people including Harlan Ellison.

Neely: Wait! Harlan Ellison was on staff. I saw he was listed as a writer on the show but figured he just wrote an occasional freelance and that was it.

Rockne: No. First year Harlan was very much in all the time. It was a really fun, creative environment. It’s hard to nail him into a staff situation but on this he was very much there and a very important influence on the show. Alan Brennert, same thing – really important member of the staff. Alan has an encyclopedic knowledge of genre short stories, so he brought us tons of short stories that we adapted – really exotic material. Jim Crocker was there, and Phil DeGuere, who ran the show, they were all fantastic. For me it was a dream situation. And then later that season and into the next season George (Martin) came in to freelance and then he came on staff. And we had a bunch of other really terrific people.

Neely: Your significant features credit was pretty early on with “Alien Nation.” How much of that ended up being you and how much ended up being James Cameron, the other credited writer?

Rockne: That was an interesting situation and a fabulous opportunity to hang with Jim. I’d written it on spec and sold it for a lot of money and everybody was really excited about it. The producer was Gale Anne Hurd, who was married to Jim at the time. There was an opportunity to get Jim to do a pass at the script and it was very hard for all of us to say no.

Everyone was very happy with the script; there wasn’t anything big to be done. It was just that we had an opportunity to have Jim do a pass at it and he did. He did one pass and then I came back on and did everything after that. For me it was terrific. It was my first feature script and I, like everyone else, was very protective of the script. But then again, how do you deny the opportunity to have Jim Cameron do some work on your material? It all worked fine.

Neely: Have you continued writing features?

Rockne: I did. I kind of danced in both worlds – film and television - for quite a while and then I realized that I needed to focus on one or the other. So that’s when I turned to focus on television, where your material gets produced more often and it’s much more your own as opposed to features where you’re a cog in the big feature writing machine. But I continued doing both into the early nineties when I wrote for Ron Howard and also wrote a film that I directed. After that I focused on TV.

Neely: What was the film that you directed?

Rockne: A film called “Fear” that starred Ally Sheedy and Pruitt Taylor-Vince. It was a spec script that I had written specifically for me to direct; I had designed it that way. It could be done on a reasonable budget; it had a relatively small cast and a very flashy premise. We did it for a “mini-major” studio called Vestron.

Vestron had fantastic success with their first film, “Dirty Dancing,” but pretty much everything after that wasn’t quite as successful. So right while we were in the midst of production on “Fear,” the company decided to get out of the business (Neely laughs sympathetically). So we finished the film, but then instead of getting it released domestically, it became an asset of a company that was for sale. It played in Europe, and at the London Film Festival, and some other places internationally but it never got a domestic theatrical release. It ended up being sold to Showtime; so it premiered in the U.S. as a Showtime original. It got very good reviews and got nominated for a CableAce award, which I think was rare for a thriller. The film is still very well regarded. It’s like this secret project when people find it, they seem to like it. But not a lot of people are aware of it.

Neely: How long have you been making your living as a writer?

Rockne: Since 1984.

Neely: What were you doing before that?

Rockne: Before that I was mostly just doing support stuff. I’d worked in the mail room at Warner Brothers for a while. I was a production assistant on a couple of shows and I was working as a writer’s assistant at MGM at the time that I sold my first script to “Twilight Zone.”

Neely: Did you always know that you wanted to do this?

Rockne: Pretty much. I always loved film and grew up in the industry. My mom was a dancer during the Busby Berkley era and my dad was a lighting guy, a gaffer. I used to visit sets with my dad all the time.

I never had any contact with the writer/producer side of it, but working in film and television was a family thing. I always had an aptitude for writing so it was a natural place to gravitate.

Neely: How did you get started?

Rockne: I’ve been writing scripts since I was 10 years old. As I said, my first job in the industry was working in the mail room at Warner Brothers. I was 18 and I did that instead of going to college. I was more interested in getting through the studio gate.

Neely: I love that your mother was a Busby Berkley dancer; I’ve seen all of those films. You must have loved seeing her movies.

Rockne: It was a lot of fun, especially to try and pick her out. Are you familiar with the movie “Girl Crazy” with Mickey Rooney and…

Neely: …Judy Garland. Of course (this is one of my geek areas of expertise).

Rockne: It opens in a night club and Mickey Rooney is pulled on stage to sing something, to do a musical number. It concludes with this tall apache dancer coming up to him and knocking him around the stage – and that’s my mom.

Neely: I’m going to have to TiVo it to see it again.

Rockne: Just watch the first 10 minutes or so and you’ll see her smacking Mickey Rooney around.

Neely: What about mentors along the way for you?

Rockne: There have been a number of people that I’ve worked with who have been very very influential. Certainly the writer/producer I was working with just before I got the gig on “Twilight Zone” – Jerry Ludwig – was an important influence. Phil DeGuere, who hired me onto “Twilight Zone” was very important in my life. I’ve got a producer/partner/friend who produced “Alien Nation” along with Gale and also produced “Fear,” the film I directed – a fellow by the name of Richard Kobritz who continues to be a really good friend and a terrific mentor.

Neely: Anyone whose negative influence pushed you forward in spite of their reaction?

Rockne: That’s an interesting question. Honestly, no, not at all. I’ve been incredibly blessed.

Neely: What advice might you have for a writer just starting out?

Rockne: If you really want to do this, then you just have to keep writing.

One of the things I find that people do is that they’ll write the same script over and over again. I’ve got a couple of writers that I’ve mentored and I just try to get them to understand that they do need to refine and improve their scripts.  But it’s also important to write lots of material, not just keep re-writing one piece. Yes, studios and producers want to see good writing, but they’re also interested in the core premise of a script. And the more scripts a beginning writer writes, the more chances one has of drawing a buyer’s attention. Even though writers want to be sure to render their scripts well, they shouldn’t keep rewriting one script. There comes a point where polishing it over and over again is not going to make a huge difference because people will either want the premise or not. Move on to something else.

My biggest piece of advice is to just keep writing. If you want to do it, you’ve got to do it. Generate material and then be prepared to generate another piece of material. And like I’ve said, that first piece of material, those early pieces, they don’t dissolve, they’ll still be there. The more material you have, the better you’ll get and the more opportunities you’ll create for yourself. Don’t put all your eggs in one or two baskets.

The other most important thing that I tell young writers, which is encouraging and discouraging at the same time depending on how you look at it, is that you have to either like the process of writing or at least find your own comfort level in writing. You can sit there and say you want to be a famous writer some day, that you want to be JJ Abrams, that you just wish you could get to where JJ Abrams is today.

I’m sure that JJ Abrams sits in a super nice house and has a super nice office and has assistants who help him with formatting and that kind of BS, but when he sits down to write a script, it’s exactly the same process for him as it is for you or me or anybody else. He’s facing the page and he has to be creative and he has to come up with something that works and is exotic and different enough that it gets people’s attention. And yeah, JJ Abrams has bought himself some leeway; he can stumble a few times, not that I think he’s capable of that, but he could stumble and people would still be interested in him because of what he’s done in the past. However, if he continued to stumble it wouldn’t work for him. You can apply this to any screenwriter.

My point is, you have to do the exact same thing that JJ Abrams does or that I do or that David Koepp does or just pick your screenwriter. The process is exactly the same for all of us. You sit down and you face the computer screen and you have to invent something that’s new and fresh and all the puzzle pieces fit together. That doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out and writing scripts at Starbucks just for yourself or you’re JJ Abrams. The mission is the same for everybody so you’ve got to really enjoy or find a comfort zone with that process because you’re going to be doing that even if you sell 20 scripts. That’s what you’re going to be doing every day.

Neely: One thing that really resonates and is the kind of mistake that I see an awful lot of young inexperienced writers make: remember that you don’t live and die on one spec, whether a spec episode or a spec pilot or a spec feature. You have to keep writing and show variety. Most showrunners aren’t necessary just looking for someone who has a spec like the show they’re staffing; they’re looking for somebody who, in the trenches, can write all sorts of different things.

Rockne: Very much so. When I was on “Twilight Zone,” my very first job, I happened to have these two half hour scripts that were just exactly “Twilight Zone” type material and I suspect that none of the other writers who submitted for the show had half hours. Nevertheless, the very first thing the producers asked my agent after we submitted my half hours, was “Does he have something else we can read?” I had a spec feature, an imaginative genre-esque piece of material, to hand into them showing that I could write something besides those half hours they’d seen. And ultimately, I think that’s what got them to hire me as a staff writer right away. If I’d only had the two half hour scripts, I think they would have bought one and it would have been a longer process to get me staffed. It behooved me to have other material to submit. I completely agree with your point. You have to have material.

Neely: Do you have any literary or film influences – books and/or films that had an impact on your life or career?

Rockne: One of the reasons that “Twilight Zone” was such a kick for me as my very first job was because the original “Twilight Zone” was a huge influence on me; also, the writer Richard Matheson, who wrote for that show. His novels have always been hugely important to me because he took horror and exotic concepts and put them in very calm,  ordinary, everyday locations as opposed to having them take place in a gothic house of horrors. His stories took place in regular suburban neighborhoods.

Neely: What are you reading now?

Rockne: I’m reading a lot of spec scripts by writers because I’m staffing a show. The last book I read was probably Stephen King – his latest anthology, Darkness. I’m a big King fan.

Neely: Watching? Big screen and small screen.

Rockne: I’m really enjoying “Falling Skies” right now; I think it’s incredibly well done. I’m also watching the new “Torchwood.” And I’m just waiting for the fall. I think there are some potentially really interesting shows coming out. I’m anxious to see “Alcatraz;” the pilot was very well done and it’s really really intriguing. I enjoyed the finale of “Friday Night Lights” – I thought it was fabulous.

Neely: I know you are on a deadline and you just said that you’re staffing a show. Can you tell me about it?

Rockne: It’s a show called “Defiance” and it will be on Syfy next summer. I can’t tell you much about it other than to say it’s something we’re all very excited about. It’s potentially a very big show. It takes place in the future and that’s what I’m in the middle of.

Neely: That sounds fantastic. I’m looking forward to it.

Thanks so much for taking the time out of your schedule to talk to me.

Quote

"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."

- Salvador Dali

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