I’m very lucky to have caught Maria Maggenti before she returned to work in Los Angeles. She’s one of the hardest working, smartest TV and screenwriters I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and the interview she gave me is generous and insightful, not to mention helpful for writers of all genres. Her answers got me to consider the many joys and sorrows of writing, and I hope it does the same for you.
June 1st, 2015
Garrett McConnell: Ms. Maggenti, thank you for spending time with us for the 11th edition of Mason’s Road: “Joy”. You’ve had many successes as a script writer –“The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love”, “Puccini for Beginners”, “The Love Letter” (and countless other film credits), as well as your writing for top television shows such as “Without a Trace”, “90210” and “Finding Carter” to name a few. Many writers consider making the leap into script writing. What would you say is the most challenging element for writers who wish to move genres?
Maria Maggenti: I think the greatest misconception that beginning T.V. and screenwriters have is that somehow dialogue is the most important thing in the material. But dialogue comes last usually in the development of the narrative. That isn’t to say one can’t be inspired by the voice of a character, her distinctive use of spoken word let’s say, but it is story structure that drives TV and film writing. You have to have momentum. You have to have a point to a scene. All drama makes these demands. Of course, playwriting is the first of the “genre” in that respect. So, story is king (or queen, depending on your outlook) in script writing.
In literature the focus is of course, on story but also on the nature of language itself. It isn’t necessarily about action although that’s important. It’s about how to wrest emotion and meaning from the combination of words themselves. Script writing is about what you SEE and if you can’t SEE it, it won’t work. In literature, you can describe something to me; you can tell me what a character is thinking. In a script, if I can’t see what a character is thinking through action then I can’t know.
These are some of the distinctions between different forms of writing. But they all have one thing in common: the writer despairs, the writer is frustrated, the writer is frightened, the writer gets boosts of energy and confidence only to hit a wall and think failure is her fate. Writing takes practice, daily, all the time, everywhere and script writing demands close study of films and television in addition to the study all writers engage in and that is the study of the human condition.
GM: This issue of Mason’ Road reflects on “Joy” but like any true New Yorker, I want to ask you about the seeming opposite side of the spectrum. We’ve all experienced being disheartened with our own process of writing, and at times lose our way. What words of wisdom can you give?
MM: I think “losing one’s way” is part and parcel of the writing experience. It’s also one of the great places of revelation and although anxiety producing needs to be embraced for its potential. Knowing where you’re going from page one can set a writer up for failure simply because it can be inhibiting.
You start out saying, “My story ends like this!” But along the way the characters guide you into a different place, take you on a different journey. You want to be open to that process. You can’t force a narrative to do something it doesn’t want to do. To push against what a story is telling you — i.e., character A wants to leave character B but you keep trying to keep them together — means you are aren’t honoring the truth of what you’re trying to say. Writing is about discovery.
GM: Your undergraduate degree was earned in “Classics” and “Philosophy”. Then, you went on to get your MFA for film at NYU. How did you go from “Classics” and “Philosophy” to become a successful writer and director? And who or what would you say has been the most influential upon your writing?
MM: I have always been a writer. From a very young age I was writing stories, play acting, telling other people what to say and reinventing real emotional scenarios to suit my imagination. I studied philosophy and classics because I think I tried to drown out the more dreamy aspects of my thinking. I thought that by engaging in demanding intellectual work I might stave off the urge to just make things up and live in fairyland. However, the study of philosophy (my concentration was 19th century German philosophers, a misogynistic but lively group of thinkers) has really served me well. Philosophy is all about taking a kind of dispassionate view of the human experience and asking a bunch of questions about why we do what we do. That’s great when you’re exploring theme and tone and meaning. And as time goes on and you become better at the craft of writing, the meaning, tone and theme of a narrative start to emerge unconsciously. They’re woven into the narrative itself.
I became a director because of my desire to NOT say things. I wanted visuals to express what I couldn’t say on the page.
The Classics– Latin and Greek have perhaps been less useful – ha, ha, understatement. (Sic) But I love language so it gives me deep pleasure to read words and understand their etymology.
My influences, if you can call them that, are books and my women friends who are mostly writers themselves. I get a lot from conversation. I get a lot from years of psychoanalysis and the intellectual dialogues that developed out of that process. I get a lot from my past romantic entanglements, which have both inspired and taught me a lot. I was lucky to have lived abroad when I was young and being a minority was a critical experience to my understanding of the world.
My younger sister, my mother, and me were an unusual family formation in West Africa in the 1970s. Not only was it that my mother was the head of the household but, speaking to the issue of being a minority, we were White in a Black African society. Super wow excellent interesting and important. It’s something that still informs the way I look at the world.
GM: I assume that writing an original piece and writing a script that you’re hired to write is a different process. Can you explain some of the differences?
MM: The difference between a writing assignment and original work is simply that you are at the mercy of executive demands in the first case and at the mercy of your own executive demands in the second. I have to please a wide range of people when writing for a studio or a network. But I have to please myself when I’m writing on my own, something that’s just as tough. The ugly side of a studio screenwriting assignment is that you’re getting notes from people who aren’t writers themselves and who, no matter how many times they give notes, never seem to understand how the writer’s process works. That’s irritating and frustrating and makes you homicidal. In TV it’s different because on every show there’s someone called the Showrunner and that person is usually the creator of the show. Shonda Rhimes, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan; they are the most famous right now. That person is responsible for the identifiable voice of the show and does what’s called “a pass” on every script. So when you write your episode it’s still revised (or re-written) by the showrunner. That doesn’t hurt because that’s a writer- to -writer experience and TV is by nature collaborative.
GM: What has been your favorite project to work on and why?
MM: My most favorite project, which is finally going into production this year after FIVE years, is a film adaptation of a novel called “Before I Fall”. I loved that book and I loved writing the script. I loved the creative process with my producers. I loved everything about that experience. It was also wonderful because I really put my SELF into it, heart and soul, as they say. The script was on the Black List the year I wrote it, which is a great honor for screenwriters and made me feel wonderful. (The Black List is “Best Of” list compiled once a year by executives and producers who vote for the best-written, yet still unproduced screenplay. It has been a launching pad for many scripts over the years.)
GM: You recently completed a re-write for the original script of “Dirty Dancing”. What is the process of the rewrite and how does it differ from other dramatic writings you have created?
MM: As any working writer will tell you, writing is rewriting. Everything is revision. It ends when the final product is onscreen or on television. And even then most writers look at the work and still find something they wish they could change.
GM: Could you share with our readers a little bit about your process as a screenwriter? For instance, how do you find the voice for each character; do you ever read your dialogue out loud?
MM: I can say that sometimes a character comes fully formed into my head and I know who she is and how she talks and what she’d do from the moment I sit down. Other times, it’s a scenario that comes to me, a “what if”? For example, from one of my scripts: What if a person gets locked out of her apartment and has to climb the fire escape and is seen by a passerby who stops and wants to know what’s going on? How would she answer? What would happen?
Working on a T.V. show, the characters are already there usually, they come from the creator. My job, and the job of the other writers on the show, is to not only give those characters something to do each week but to examine what motivates each character, come up with a story line for the character and sometimes come up with dialogue although dialogue polishes usually belong to the creator. Our job on staff is to bring the creator’s vision of the show to fruition.
In my own work, I often start with an outline so that I get the story elements in place. There might be snippets of dialogue here and there but mostly I’m obsessed with “what happens and when”. This comes after I’ve spent many hours thinking about WHOM my characters are and how they’d react to different circumstances. This is the same for T.V. and film. Once a script is done or I’m in the process of it and am finally out of outline and into the actual pages, I do read my dialogue out loud to see if it sounds right. I also know now after so many years how to cut things. It’s almost always too long the first time around and you have to go through with a knife to kill anything that’s taking up time and slowing down the story.
To me, T.V. and film are the same insofar as they are both about actors. Nothing I write matters if an actor can’t bring it to life. This is where a novel or short story, any other form of prose, differs. My writing doesn’t exist until an actor makes it exist. That is one of the great joys and heartbreaks of a screenwriter/T.V. writer’s life. The joys: You hear your words out loud! The actors bring an interpretation to the material that you hadn’t even thought of! Everything is alive! The Heartbreak: The film won’t get made, the pilot won’t get shot, the draft was rejected, you have to rewrite the whole thing, everyone hates it and no one wants to say anything you wrote.
GM: You’ve been in the business for twenty-five years! That’s an amazing accomplishment. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
MM: I guess I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve lasted this long in an industry that is famous for failure. I continue to work and I continue to create and I can support myself. I never wanted more than freedom and self-expression, these are the values that have guided my life. The price I’ve paid is a lack of financial stability, and the fact that every writer, like every actor, is only as good as the last thing she did which means you are always starting over. That gets really tiring! I’m also in a business that is so utterly sexist it’s almost stupid to have to mention it — the feminist in me is always ready to speak up when I witness an injustice and that means I take risks that many fellow writers wouldn’t take. Like all jobs that require being with more than one person, politics and getting along with people is part and parcel of the working world.
A writer’s life is a hard one. It never stops being hard. But it’s also one of the most gratifying and exciting and amazing ways to engage with the world. My advice is more of a rank cliché, sadly, so forgive me for it but this is what it comes down to: only the strong survive. This has been really fun. Thanks for thinking of me.
Maria Maggenti is an LA based television and screenwriter. She started her career as a writer/director in New York with two independent feature films, “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love” and “Puccini For Beginners.” She has since worked as a writer on three network television shows, “Without A Trace,” “90210: The Reboot,” and “Finding Carter.” She’s sold four pilots, written two produced feature films – Dreamworks’ The Love Letter and Fox’s Monte Carlo – and has been an adjunct professor at NYU Graduate Film School and a directing mentor at Maisha Film Lab in Kampala, Uganda. In the 2013 season, her ABC pilot “Murder In Manhattan” was picked up and shot in New York City. Her screenplay “Before I Fall” was on the 2011 Blacklist. Maggenti received her MFA in filmmaking from the NYU Graduate Film Institute and received her undergraduate degree in Philosophy & Classics from Smith College. She was born in Washington, D.C. and spent her adolescence in Europe and Lagos, Nigeria.