A web series exercise was introduced to get us thinking in terms of horizontal storytelling and writer’s room. After being split into two teams, we had to come up with the first season of a web series, 8-12 episodes of about 5 minutes each, with everything from great cliffhangers to finding an audience. Much of the DIY process was already known to most of us who already work as professionals in the film, tv and media business. We were a collection of screenwriters, directors, producers, animators, and interns/aspiring. What most of us didn’t really know much about was how to work in a writer’s room. Now granted that this particular exercise was very democratic and purposely did not include a showrunner, it was, to say the least, an interesting journey.
1st Week: We came up with a concept based on an initial exercise we did on creating characters. Needless to say, my acting background came in handy, and there I was portraying Mark, who would later become our protagonist. Everyone thought that Mark was a great conflicted character to base a show around, so we didn’t give it a second thought. The first week was tough. We were a bunch of strangers thrown in a room together to come up with an entire series. We had literally met two days before. We weren’t all on the same page, since there was no story bible to follow. We would have to create it together and get to know each other in the process.
2nd Week: The “Waiting Area” became a show about a guy, Mark, stuck at an airport. Frankfurt Airport that is. It’s a show about 15 minutes of fame, about our self-obsessed society, about insecurities, about perception vs reality. How people perceive us vs who we really are. In the end it’s really just a show about a guy who is stuck. It’s a comedy. Comedy always sells. By now we had sought out our roles within the group. Make no mistake, everyone seeks out a role within a group setting, even if unintentionally. Mine ended up being exactly what I secretly try to avoid: leadership. There is a reason you need someone to organize the troops and lead them into battle. To avoid being in a perpetual state of preparation and forfeiting the battle because nobody could agree on when to actually go.
Two weeks into it, a completely different horizontal line for our first season was sought out in a group exercise with both teams. We decided to take on the new horizontal storyline as if had been from our non-existing showrunner. The beauty of having this new approach to what we were already developing, was that nobody in our team had created it, so nobody was attached to it. Not being attached to work but having a common purpose can do wonders for democracy. So we worked diligently for the following two weeks and wrote 9 Episodes for our first season and came up with a second and third season as well.
4th Week: We then pitched the “Waiting Area” to a room of about 20 people and got some great feedback. Here is the first sketch of our opening sequence for your entertainment. (© 2013 TWA Team – Animation by Jude Akwetey – firstname.lastname@example.org)
What I learned about working in a non-hierarchical Writers’ Room:
1) Everyone will seek out a role within the group. Like it or not. We had semi-leaders, outrageous idea givers, problem pointers, one-liners and even the non-speaker.
2) If we couldn’t settle on an idea, usually to resolve some turning point, we would vote. Literally. The idea with the most show of hands always won. If it turned out to be a bad idea, later in the process, we’d have to sweep it under the rug, go back to step 1 and choose a new one. It was like playing a never-ending match of “Mensch ärgere Dich nicht!” aka Ludo / Trouble.
3) Agreeing on characters, especially what they sound like, takes time. A lot of time. Sometimes time you don’t have.
4) Organization is key. Human beings need some form of it to function. Maybe that is why anarchy is a lost utopia.
5) In the real world where time is money, this model of working may be great for creating, but would not sustain itself very long. No wonder there are no TV shows produced in this manner.
I’m now looking forward to the Writers’ Room with a showrunner experience. That’s coming up. In the meantime, we’ll be analyzing American, British and German series, meeting their writers/producers and writing a spec script for a show currently being developed in the USA.
Next on “The Boring Life of a Writer”… stay tuned.
ps: if you want to know more “Inside the Writers’ Room” by L. Meyers is a great read.