Sarah Watson Interview

Spring 2011

I first met Sarah Watson at Comic-Con and she graciously agreed to sit down with me so I could ask her about her about her experiences as a writer in television.

Sarah’s credits run the gamut from PARENTHOOD, THE UNUSUALS to MIDDLEMAN (her IMDB page is here).  I spoke with her at length over coffee on a blustery day in Santa Monica.  She was very generous with her time and we talked about a number of interesting topics related to television, writing and her most recent work as a Supervising Producer on PARENTHOOD.

Sarah’s had the opportunity to write for a number of shows in very different genres.  She started out as an assistant then moved on to write pulpy TV sci-fi movies. More importantly, she made the most out of her early opportunities and embraced the work, regardless of what it was.   She secured an agent and then staffed a number of diverse shows.  I asked her about switching genres as a writer as I’d been told it’s a risk and she pointed out that, “people pigeon-hole themselves because it’s safe.” Sarah acknowledges that there’s a prevailing idea not to write across genres but she ignores it. “Write what you love,” she says.  Great advice!

Sarah’s diverse experience has put her in a number of writers’ rooms so I asked her about differences between her experiences.  She told me that every showrunner’s different and she’s been fortunate to work in both large and small rooms, each one with their own dynamic.  The lesson to new writers?  “Be flexible, learn everything.  There’s no set way that this is done which is so different than other careers where there are generally understood ways to get in and move up.” I learned from her that some shows have writers focused solely on writing. On others, there’s a production aspect as well but it’s always different.

Sarah went on to explain that the way stories are broken is also different on each show. On PARENTHOOD, there’s a large ensemble cast.  Instead of using colored cards to break out A and B plot like many shows might use, they use colors to track the various characters and family units through the scenes in the episode.  With so many characters, it can be hard to keep track of them all.  The colored cards keep things on track and apparently, the method works very well.  There’s always more material than can fit in the show and they are diligent to make sure each character has their story. The color coding is an easy way to see how the stories are weighted.

We then moved into an area of discussion on the mind of every new writer; the spec script and writing sample. It’s a topic of great debate and the question is: What makes for a good sample these days?  I asked Sarah her opinion.   Her intel is that original pilots seem to be popular now.   I asked her about ‘Premise’ versus ‘Slice of Life Pilots’ and she notes, “Write what showcases your writing.  There are so many rules but they change.  Listen to the advice but go with your gut.”  She went on to add that there are always exceptions.  Her older Gilmore Girls script got her meetings and she knows of people who were hired from short-stories as well!

Sarah has a background in genre writing which is a domain generally dominated by the boys.  I recall at Comic-Con, Sarah was on a panel of genre writers and wondered out loud where the women writers are!?  We discussed this at some length and the conclusions were unclear.  We determined that there are either fewer women interested in genre writing or there are fewer opportunities but the jury’s still out on that one.

I then asked Sarah if there was anything she knew now that she wished she’d known when she started out.  Her answer: “It (Hollywood) wasn’t an evil place.  You don’t have to put up with bad people, bad shows and bad behavior.”  She thought she’d “have to have a tough skin and put up with crappy people.   It’s not like that at all.  People like that are the exception not the rule.”

Her advice to writers is specific and thoughtful: “Keep writing and reading… don’t just read books about writing but read the scripts. Learn the pacing of television.”

Thank you Sarah!

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