What: The most powerful individual in New York City is not Michael Bloomberg; it’s Andrea Delaney, Dean of Admissions at Dayton Prep.
Who: The pressure and competition to get into the city’s top prep schools is more than fierce, and Andrea Delaney holds the keys to the most elite school of all. In the morning, Andrea arrives at her lair in the school:
Andrea steps into the fray. Instantly, her assistant Teresa (20’s) falls into step behind her. Teresa is pretty, with pale skin and a headset pushing back her dark brown hair.
Andrea: What’ve we got?
They walk quickly past rows of desks. Teresa hands her a file.
Teresa: The mayor called. Twice. The governor’s on hold, he sounds pissed.
Teresa: Some hedge fund guy keeps calling. He left four voicemails at 5:15.
Andrea: “Some guy?” We aren’t taking names, now? 5:15 – at night?
Teresa: (looking at her notes) This morning.
Andrea: Well, money never sleeps.
They wind through labyrinthine hallways. Coworkers stay out of the way.
Teresa: Here’s his file. It just doesn’t add up. We can’t tell where the money’s coming from.
Andrea: Keep looking, then, Jesus.
Teresa: Oh, and you’re in the Observer. Page 13.
Teresa slaps down an article that reads “The New New York Power Players.” Andrea is the cover photo, looking stern.
Andrea: They couldn’t find one of me smiling?
Teresa: You’re kidding, right?
And Andrea deserves to be considered a power player because the pressure of her job is enormous. Hijacked into an unscheduled meeting with David Hinson, billionaire hedge fund manager who tries all manner of financial incentives to gain admission for his son Bradley. But evaluation by the school psychologist and research into Bradley’s violent past has set Andrea’s course. No matter how much money Hinson offers to donate, Andrea’s decision is final; something that, of course, infuriates Hinson and doesn’t sit too well with the Headmaster who must deal with a rapidly diminishing endowment. Andrea, with her extraordinarily high, unyielding standards, is on thin ice. Still, she is satisfied with her decisions, especially the admission of Madison Tenenbaum into next year’s class.
Brian Tenenbaum, her boy friend of one year and Madison’s father, informed her earlier in the day that he had a surprise in store for her. But Andrea’s idea of a surprise, perhaps a ring, and Brian’s idea of surprise are in two entirely different ball parks. When Brian arrives unannounced at the school, enormous bouquet in hand, Andrea is embarrassed, an embarrassment that quickly turns to anger when Brian genially informs Andrea that they are breaking up – now that he feels assured that his daughter Madison has gained acceptance to Dayton. With only 24 hours left before announcements are sent to the admitted students, Andrea, a woman scorned, goes on a mission to replace Madison – a mission that ultimately helps a brilliant child without prospects, makes Brian pick up the tab, and doesn’t end up punishing Madison.
And the drama continues, because the divorced Andrea must also find balance in raising her 14 year old son, Noah, a preternaturally mature young man who is constantly pushing beyond the boundaries of propriety at home and at the Dayton Prep School, where he attends. Arrested when his attempt to recreate the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” to impress a girl at her co-op goes horribly awry, Andrea realizes that she needs to be more present in his life.
Andrea makes breakfast. Noah enters, surprised.
Noah: Whoa, Mom… you don’t cook.
Andrea: Now I remember why. Can eggs go bad?
Andrea holds a pan of eggs out for Noah to inspect. He takes a whiff and recoils.
Noah: You mean like, ethically? Because in terms of smell, I think you’ve proved that they can.
Andrea puts the pan in the sink. Just then, totally burnt toast pops out of the toaster with a ding. Pathetic.
Noah: It’s the thought that counts.
Noah opens a drawer and pulls out two Power Bars.
Andrea: I want to do better, okay? I should have been there last night. I need to know what you’re up to.
Noah: I’m fourteen. In New York, that’s like… thirty-four.
Andrea: You’re a high school freshman, Noah. You don’t know how the washing machine works. So for the next few years, we’re going to need to compromise. You’ll get more freedom when you stop screwing up.
Noah: I accept your offer. On the condition that you not cook breakfast again. Ever.
No Meaner Place: Although I was attracted to the writing and the character development of this piece, I must admit that the whole issue of private school admission resonated for me. I can remember the whole process and how much my mental well being depended on it. I don’t suppose I need to specify that it was not me applying to school, but my son; and though it was a millennium ago, I remember it as though it were yesterday. What, I wonder, would I have done had he not gained admission to The Bishop’s School? And the anxiety did not end with his admission, for soon after he decided that homework was meaningless and he stopped doing it. It had never occurred to me that after being admitted, he might be asked to leave. Like med school and law school, however, once in, they do try to resolve any difficulties (with the exception of drugs, cheating and physical abuse – and even here some schools are quite flexible, depending on the net worth of the parent) in order to retain the student. Chun and Weiss have captured the anxiety and cut throat ruthlessness that surrounds such trials. They have created a very complex protagonist in Andrea Delaney – at once beautiful, charming and compassionate but also hard, egocentric, judgmental and arrogant. I just loved the whole sanctimoniousness of the premise.
I can only surmise that the network executive who passed on this project had probably just had a child rejected from Harvard Westlake and found the whole premise to painful too revisit.
Life Lessons for Writers: Rejection is hard to take but there’s usually another option if you look for it..
Neely: Having gone through the “private school wars” myself (and the wounds are still fresh after many many years), this had particular resonance. I loved the fact that you guys found the humor and overwrought drama that is inherent in this all important struggle. Okay, so are you both victims of elite East Coast private school educations?
Tze: We both are survivors of East Coast private schools. I went to Milton Academy outside of Boston and Mike went to Penn Charter in Philly. When it came to discussing the world of the pilot, we both were able to draw on our experience. At our respective private schools we were a little bit more like the Noah character. I wasn’t one of the rich kids; I was a financial aid kid.
Mike: I went to a Quaker school. Keep in mind that Philadelphia and Boston are definitely not New York. But in terms of the glamour factor, Tze’s school had a little bit more of that because it was a boarding school, it was a bit more posh. I went to a more “salt of the earth” Quaker school where most of the people worked and there was no excess. Tze and I met at Columbia University.
Neely: How did you come up with this idea?
Tze: Mike had a friend who had that exact job.
Mike: My friend’s mother, who raised him on her own in New York, was the head of admissions at the city’s most elite pre-school and kindergarten. Jockeying to get into this school was, without exaggeration, the most competitive sport in New York City. That was our jumping off point. A driven woman in this kooky world of academic and financial excess.
Tze: What really struck us was how early this process started and how much pressure was on the parents to get their kids into this school. They think it’s the most important decision they’ll ever make because if their kid doesn’t get into this school, then he won’t get into a great middle school, and if he doesn’t get into a great middle school then he won’t get into a great high school, and then there goes college. There’s so much pressure around this process and their kid is only just learning to read.
Mike: It’s a pretty unfair to do that to the poor kid.
Tze: We wrote this before “Gossip Girl” but we didn’t want to create a world that was just wish fulfillment; we wanted it to mirror the melting pot of New York, to be a way of looking at grade and class. My high school was always interesting because we had a program called “A Better Chance” that brought in kids from places like the Bronx and Harlem. Then during Spring break these kids would go back to their lives in the projects and the rich kids would charter a private jet and go to Aspen for the weekend. It was interesting to me to see that division in what was, for the most part during the school year, a meritocracy.
Neely: You’re saying that private schools are a meritocracy?
Tze: I think academically it is, once you're in. It's the admissions process that can be nepotistic.
Mike: We wanted to look at a private school through the eyes of somebody who wanted it to be a meritocracy. I think that’s one of the things we found so likable about our character – she’s in this crazy world where, in the end, she wants the best possible kids to have these spots, have these opportunities. What’s so interesting is that New York City is a meritocracy. People have this impression about New York and Hollywood that getting ahead is all about who you know. It’s just not true and we wanted to remind people that most people actually earn their place - it’s not always about who they know. That was our main character’s theory as well.
Neely: I love the fact that you came up with this before “Gossip Girl” which is based on a series of books. I really thought your idea was quite original and I liked the way that you tapped into the relative normalcy of the kids, versus the over-the-top hedge fund-wealthy lifestyle of the parents. Where was this headed?
Tze: We definitely wanted the kids to be part of the show, but really focus more on the adults.
Mike and I talked about wanting to have villains both within and outside the school. Within the school would be Andrea’s nemesis, Art, the headmaster who wants to run the school like a corporation.
Neely: Was she his foe or his conscience?
Tze: Keep in mind that they had both been at the school for a few years and in her opinion he had lost his way. On some level she does function as his conscience, but in terms of their current day-to-day interaction, it was going to be a lot of butting heads. He wanted big donors to keep the school solvent and she wanted to let in students in a very meritocratic way, getting the best and the brightest, not the brightest and the wealthiest.
Mike: And we liked her rival Bobby – the guy who has her job at the other school. She’s on the Upper East Side and he’s on the Upper West Side – divided by Central Park and never the twain will meet. He’s more of a snake – he’s gunning for the kids that she’s trying to bring in. He’s got a mole in her organization feeding him information so that he can get a jump on her.
Tze: We presented this world tongue in cheek. We liked the idea that this guy Bobby was upping the stakes; that he was playing at corporate espionage, like a CIA hit.
Neely: This brings to mind the quote by Walter Sayre that was based on an observation by Woodrow Wilson when he was President of Princeton: “Academic politics is the most vicious form of politics because the stakes are so low.” In this case, the smaller the stakes, the bigger the drama. I’m sure that Andrea, Art and Bobby would all disagree about the stakes.
So, who did this go to and how far into the process did this one get?
Tze: When we wrote this script, we were pretty inexperienced on the business side of things and we were living in New York. I had just finished a short that had been in Sundance and Mike had created a TV show for Adult Swim. We had started working with a manager, Scott Halle, who’s still our manager, and we sent him the script not knowing that he was going to send it out immediately. He sent it to a couple of people for staffing and we got a phone interview with Darren Starr Productions right away. A week later we moved to LA and we were staffed on “Cashmere Mafia.” We used the script for general meetings but we never had a chance to formally send it to buyers in the marketplace because we were exclusive to Sony and weren’t really allowed to do anything else.
Mike: Apparently, when scripts are sent out as writing samples it becomes very difficult to get people to see them as separate development opportunities.
Neely: That’s another example of the lack of imagination in the development world. It would seem to me that what you should do is withdraw this as a sample, give it some time, rework it a bit and then send it out as a pilot. As a sample it’s great, but it’s also great as a potential series. Of course one of the problems is that “Gossip Girl” is out there and the worlds are similar. But “Getting in Good” is a completely different take and considerably more sophisticated.
What kind of notes or comments did you get. Although going by what you’ve just said, I suppose you didn’t get any notes or comments because people weren’t looking at this as a viable pilot.
Mike: I guess the main question we got was “Do you guys need any water?”
Tze: When we first sent this pilot to our manager, it was actually a half hour. He was really interested in this world and we did get some notes from him that made us turn it from a half hour to a one hour with a larger ensemble. That was an interesting process, really fun to have all these new characters that we hadn’t met – to see how this world changed with the addition of these new characters. We were much more focused on Andrea in the original.
Neely: How was this a comedy?
Mike: It’s a little hard to remember, but the half hour would have been jokier and would have focused more on Andrea. She would have been quippy, hard driving, more of a straight woman in a kooky world. Making it a one hour, we addressed the tone and made the story telling more intricate by weaving in additional B-storylines. We got to know the characters more than we did in the half hour. It was a painless transition because I don’t think it was as effective as a half hour.
Neely: Interestingly, if you could turn this back into a half hour and keep the character development, you’d really have something. When I was thinking of how you could repurpose this I was thinking in terms of a feature, but if you could repurpose back into a half hour comedy and not turn the characters into cartoons, I really think you might get some traction. Personally, I prefer it as a one hour but half hour was your original concept and if you can keep the character intact and make it a single camera, rather than a multi-cam “joke, joke, punch line,” you actually have something that could go out again. It would read fresh and be separate from “Gossip Girl” and the relatively lame teacher comedies that have been out there.
Mike: Seriously, we’ve never thought about that and that’s a pretty good idea.
Neely: You might have to shift focus a bit, but the development is already there and it was what I really liked about your writing – your ability to give depth to the characters. Andrea is so complex – she’s not all goodness and light. She’s also ruthless and self serving and cold. I loved that about her. You showed so many different sides to her character. Maybe you’d want to bring this back to your original influence – getting into Kindergarten and Pre School, which is one of the most absurd quests on the planet and already funny.
Mike: I wish you could email that to a few studio executives.
Neely: I’ve heard a little bit about where this came from and clearly Catcher in the Rye had to be something of an influence, but were there any other novels that influenced you? How about authors?
Mike: We always thought of this as showing all of the class drama that exists in New York. People forget that there’s this whole middle class in New York. If you just watched “Law and Order” and “Gossip Girl” you’d think that the city was only comprised of murderers and philandering billionaires. I’ve always loved Philip Roth. A lot of early Philip Roth, like Goodbye Columbus, gets at the micro-class system that exists. He was a Jewish kid from Newark, New Jersey but he wasn’t from the right Jewish neighborhood. Writers like Jay McInerney and books like Last of the Savages that get at the class divide, strivers trying to fit in to a world that may or may not need them.
Tze:. A lot of the elements of “Getting in Good” come from periodicals – The New York Times, New York Magazine – when we found interesting characters or stories, we shared them with each other.
Neely: As you said, you guys met at Columbia. How did that come about?
Tze: Mike and I had the same circle of friends. We met freshman year but I found him kind of annoying, though I was also an artsy-fartsy kid with a ponytail at the time, so who was I to judge... Anyway, we ended up not being friends until later.
Mike: I was an English major and Tze was a film major. I had always wanted to be some kind of a writer and I was pretty sure I wanted to write TV, but that kind of program doesn’t exist at Columbia. That was fine; I loved the education I got at Columbia. But Tze helped me cherry pick through the most interesting film theory classes; and then we ended up taking some screenwriting classes together senior year – am I remembering that correctly?
Tze: Yes. We ended up taking one or two depressing screenwriting classes together. Then we wrote a short film for my senior year. Mike and I co-wrote it, I directed it and he produced it. We went our own ways for a couple of years after graduation and then we got back together to start writing again.
Neely: So how did this writing partnership come about? How did you come back together?
Tze: We remained friends after school, trying to do things on our own. I think we were both getting a little frustrated with not having as much material to work with as we had hoped. One night we went out to dinner and Mike talked about some ideas that he had and what his goals were and I did the same. We remembered what a great working relationship we had had on that one short film and so we just started working together again. We wrote a feature and two pilots over the next year, year and a half.
Neely: How were you supporting yourselves over the period of time before you got staffed on “Cashmere Mafia?”
Tze: I was painting portraits for people and I knew how to make DVDs, I’d take the videography and then do these DVD creations.
Mike: Neely, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the beautiful poster for the film “Half Nelson” – the poster is a painting that Tze did of Ryan Gosling in front of the class of kids. Tze is a really really talented painter; he’s completely self-taught and does it as a hobby. So Tze was doing that and I was working in animation for company called Classic Media. I was a producer. The company owned all these classic entertainment brands and we were trying to come up with new ideas for them. I produced a show called “George of the Jungle” for Cartoon Network that was a lot of fun.
Neely: So remakes have now come to cartoons?! A cartoon remake of a cartoon?
Mike: We were reinventing a classic cartoon character. The only thing that was the same was a little bit of the concept and the name of the show. It was really good and lots of fun. I love animation, I really liked my job; but in the end, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. By this point, though, Tze and I had gotten very serious about our writing partnership and we felt it was time to start getting out there. We had no idea that on the day we sent the draft of “Getting in Good” to our manager that he would be submitting it for staffing season. It was just a fantastic thing that happened very quickly.
Neely: You have both done individual projects in the past, do you both have individual projects going right now?
Tze: I do some independent writing and directing also. I have a feature film called “Children of Invention” that premiered at Sundance in ‘09. I wrote and directed it and it had a theatrical release in 8 cities and will be available on Netflix, probably by August. I have another project that I wrote that I’ll be directing that has one of the producers from my first feature attached to it and we’re working on financing right now. It’ll probably be shot in Malaysia. I’m also writing a thriller that I hope will be ready in a month or so.
Mike: So Tze’s movie was coming together and it was time for staffing season again and I needed my own “Weiss” material instead of Chun and Weiss material. So I wrote a couple of scripts on my own, including a half hour pilot, and that pilot got me staffed on “Sherri” which was a sitcom created by Dave Flebotte – whose interview on your blog was fantastic, by the way. Currently, Chun and Weiss, the team, are not looking for staffing jobs on television shows; whereas Mike Weiss still is looking for work in TV.
Neely: How does your partnership work?
Tze: We both used to live in Brooklyn about a 20 minute walk from each other. I still live in Brooklyn and Mike now lives in LA, so we talk over G-chat and we email. We just went out with a big budget feature spec that we co-wrote and that I won’t be directing. When we come up with an idea, we try to figure out whether it’s a feature or a TV show; if it’s TV, is it hour or half hour. Basically we just talk over audio G-chat and are on the phone for a couple of hours. We create a document together while we’re talking, then hand things off, 5 pages at a time.
Mike: I want to be more specific here. We outline together, verbally as much as is possible, until the story is in good shape and then we’ll send an outline back and forth by email. I’ll have it for a few days, Tze will have it for a few days, and then we revise the outline. Then when we start to do the script we’ll divide it up by sequence or act or whatever makes the most sense. We end up both writing all of the characters, revising each other’s writing a thousand times until you don’t remember which was your funny line of dialogue or what was your good idea. It ends up being a thoroughly collaborative script in the end.
Neely: I congratulate you both. Tze you’ve got a feature coming together and Mike you’re still on “Sherri.”
Mike: Well at this point the return of “Sherri” is up to the television goddesses at Lifetime.
Neely: We’ll call them goddesses as long as they renew; if they don’t, then we’ll call them something else. Great luck to you both – your futures look very bright.