What Happens Before Your TV Show Airs

On Sunday March 12th the third season of American Crime premiered on ABC.

It’s my first season as a writer on the show and I’m very excited. Though I’ve seen the first episode twice and the director’s cut of episode 6 (the one I wrote), I hadn’t seen the other installments of the series for the year. See the trailer for the season here.

Several things happen in the days before a series you’re working on airs. There’s a publicity push, for sure – you can see new articles about the series in the major entertainment publications. Journalists and fans are asking a ton of questions. In the spirit of the ramp up to American Crime’s premiere, I figured I’d answer some of the queries I’ve gotten from clients and friends about the show.  In no particular order, here are some answers.

What’s John Ridley like? 
John is really funny, generous and laid back. He chooses his staff carefully, and then, he trusts the writers he’s chosen. He told us more than once, after he was clear about what the story beats are for the season and had assigned the scripts, that he wanted each writer to do his or her version of the material. Since many of us are playwrights, he urged us to “Playwright it up.”

How does the writers’ room work?
John had us read a few books and articles before we met the first time. Then we came in and discussed the themes of that material: immigration, workers rights, human trafficking. Within days he showed us his Excel spreadsheet of characters (he already knew who they were going to be) and what happens to them in each episode. We spent time as a group deepening our understanding of the situations we tackle (we did research, interviewed guest speakers and brainstormed). He allowed us to accompany him when he went to pitch the season to the network brass. Then he assigned us specific episodes. After that, we each developed stories based on the moments he wanted. We pitched those stories back to the room and he (or our Executive Producer Julie Hebert) signed off on our take. After that we were off to write outlines.

Do you write your episode alone? 
Yes and no. John had given us the spine: the people, the situations. It’s the writer’s job, on a TV show, to flesh it out. We each determine setting, time of day and the details of how a scene unfolds. First we put it together in a narrative outline – basically the short story version of the episode. Outlines for American Crime are between 5 and 8 pages. That gets approved by John and then the network and studio. After that, we go off and turn that outline into a script – with dialogue, action and nuance. We turn in our drafts – of 40 – 45 pages. Again, John will give notes, make changes and eventually ABC Studios and the network executives will chime in with questions, comments, suggestions and praise.

How do you collaborate with the other writers? 
Because American Crime is highly serialized, we need to rely on what the previous writer has done in his or her script. We’ve talked about all the beats and the entire arc of the season in the writers’ room, but sometimes – when the writing starts – things happen sooner than anticipated – or get pushed later. It’s important, then, to keep in touch with the writer who wrote the script before yours – so that you’re up to date on what’s happened in the story so far. My most common conversation, in the writing phase, is along the lines of: “Where did you leave things with Character X?” “Did you write that moment we talked about in the writers’ room – or can I use that in my episode?” Ultimately, everybody is available to help everybody else. I asked other writers to read my drafts and make comments and I was asked the same from other people on the team. It’s wonderful to collaborate with a group that has so much talent and mutual respect.

Do you get to meet the actors? 
Yes. We get to produce our episodes on American Crime and because of that we meet and work with all the actors who are in our installment of the show. Since not every actor in our cast is in every episode, I met a little over half the cast during the filming of my script. Not every TV show allows the writers to produce their stuff.

Are you on set for your episode? 
Yes. Producing your script means being involved in the process from pre-production up until editing. For our show, that takes about 3 weeks. Writers accompany the director the whole time. We participate in production meetings with designers, location scouts, casting of guest actors, rehearsals (if we have them), and shooting. After two seasons of shooting the show in Texas, this was the first season American Crime shot in Los Angeles. Our locations were all over, and that made production quite an adventure – driving around L.A. City and County.

How do you work with the episode’s director? 
On most TV shows, the director of each episode is a different person. That means that the director, though he or she is calling the shots in a visual, performance, and artistic sense, is new to the team. As writers, we’ve been there since the beginning. We know John’s vision for the episode and the season and that’s more than the director will know. (Often production teams, directors, actors and crew aren’t told anything about what happens in the episodes after the episode in progress. This helps everyone stay in the moment – not playing the ending of the season or making any reference to the next episode. Because of this, the writer on set is THE touchstone of the creator’s vision and the only one with an awareness of where the characters are in the arc that’s been devised.) Bottom line, the writer doesn’t – as a rule – communicate with the production team directly, but is on hand as an adviser and guide for the director in interpreting the story as it is on the page.

Those are the common questions. If you have others, send them to me.

Having moved through the process of working on American Crime, I’m eager to see two things as the series unfolds this season: how the episodes come together and how an audience responds to the journey ahead.

Hope you’ll be there with us.

By | 2017-12-01T18:09:12+00:00 March 21st, 2017|Creative Survival, Uncategorized|0 Comments

About the Author:

Steve Harper
STEVE HARPER is a writer, producer and actor. He was on the writing staff of the Emmy Award winning ABC show American Crime (created by John Ridley) and spent two seasons writing for the USA Network show Covert Affairs. Steve's original web series SEND ME, about time traveling black people (writer, actor and Executive Producer) was nominated for a 2016 Emmy. As a playwright he has written more than 20 works that have been produced across the country. Through yourcreativelife.com, Steve has been working with artists of all kinds since 2008, helping them achieve clarity and focus in their creative careers. His specialty is working with artists as they write dramatic scripts. Steve has run workshops in New York, L.A. and in between. Through live events, online seminars, and his channels on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, he’s helped thousands of writers and artists. Steve taught for The Harvardwood Writers Group, Young Playwrights and The Creative Gym. He’s been an instructor at the UCLA Extension School and a guest artist at Interlochen School for the Arts, Drexel University’s summer program in L.A. and USC’s Annenberg School. A graduate of Yale, The A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard and the playwriting program at Juilliard, he was certified by the Creativity Coaching Association in 2013.