Write, write, write.
That’s the biggest piece of advice that American screenwriter Ellen Sandler, the author of “TV Writer’s Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts,” has for aspiring scriptwriters.
Sandler definitely practices what she preaches, as evident from her work on TV series such as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” for which she won an Emmy award for screenwriting. And her students have apparently taken her message to heart as well, having written for TV shows like “Scrubs,” “24,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Sex in the City.”
On Sunday and Monday Sandler will be in Israel imparting some of her wisdom to members of the local television industry. Sandler is scheduled to participate in the TV Writers Summit at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, sponsored by the Israel Film and Television Producers Association.
Sandler’s first foray into writing for a TV series was for the successful sitcom “Taxi,” which starred Danny DeVito, Tony Danza and Andy Kaufman. Sandler, originally a theater playwright and director (“Jewish Roots” with Fran Drescher, who is best known for her starring role in the television series “The Nanny”), says it took her some time to get used to the new type of writing required for TV. In fact, before long, she says, she learned it was a a different type of work altogether. The dialogue is much shorter, for example, and the structure of the episode more defined.
“When you are writing for theater, you can write whatever you want,” she said in a telephone interview with Haaretz ahead of her visit to Israel.
“Taxi” was a wonderful series, but it aired 30 years ago. You spoke about the difference between the way you write for TV and theater. Do you think that with all the new kinds of TV we see on cable today that distinction still exists?
“The process is completely different. In theater you have a very handmade product − like the difference between a couture dress and a thousand dresses being made. It’s a handmade art, and you as a writer have a lot of control and you are really free in theater. In television you are collaborating with executives, advertisers, stars − a lot of people who have other agendas besides material. And you also don’t have the rights to your material when you’re writing for a network. The studio owns the material and you’re writing for a boss and you’re writing as part of a team.
“[The scriptwriter’s role in television] hasn’t changed in terms of the writer’s position in the hierarchy and in the collaboration process. You’re working for a different set of needs. Technology certainly has changed, the distribution system has changed a lot, and that does affect some of the approach to the writing. ... Theater is very one-on-one. It’s for an old-fashioned crowd. ... It’s a lot more enriching for the writer. It’s a much more fulfilling experience for the writer.
“It’s an entirely different kind of demand, in TV, on you as a writer. The compensation is so much better in television and the scope of the audience that you reach is so much wider. So there are different benefits [among] the different mediums.”
Our system here in Israel, like in most European countries, is very different from that of Hollywood. How do you adapt what you know, which works for a totally different system, to other countries?
“Well, I can only profess what I know. ... I talk about principles and guidelines for writing and basic approaches and artistic development of the story for the writer, and I need them to adapt it to their own working process and to make use of the tools that I present. To use the tools and to apply them. And that is true of any writer I work with. Always I encourage them to adapt the tools that I present to their own style, their own needs and engage in an individual process.”
We in Israel are envious of American TV shows which have entire staffs and writing rooms; what you usually have here is one person writing a series. I understand that you’ve visited other parts of the world − have you found that other countries have similar processes to Israel?
“I think, yes, [a single series writer] is more common in other countries than in America. I think there are different advantages to each. I don’t think that being on a staff necessarily is as comfortable or as productive for some writers. I think some writers do a lot better individually, and it isn’t always a good fit. There are advantages to having a singular vision in your writing so it’s a question of adapting to the situation that you’re in. They each offer advantages and disadvantages.”
Who did you used to like writing for, and did you have favorite characters to write?
“Well, one of the things that I liked about writing for 'Everybody Loves Raymond' is that all of the characters were so strong as a unit and that they affected each other so much. Whatever one did it affected everybody. It made the show work really well and it made the stories really sing.”
Was there anything autobiographical in the sitcom that you brought from your own family life?
“Everything that I write is. I don’t know how to write without being autobiographical, but not necessarily the specifics of an individual story. The thrust of the story, the emotional content, always has an autobiographical content for me. I kind of identify with Marie in [the 'Thanksgiving' episode of ‘Raymond’]. I would really be letting my family down if didn’t make the big Thanksgiving feast that I go to a lot of trouble to do − if I changed the menu. Thanksgiving is very much like Passover, and if I didn’t do that my whole family would fall apart, in my mind. I have a lot invested in that story.”
So, is everyone still speaking to you? Because, you know, when your family sees what you’ve done they might never speak with you again.
“Yes, that’s the thing. I never use the exact details because I have to be cautious in case somebody recognizes me.”
I saw this documentary featuring the show’s creator and executive producer, Philip Rosenthal, who went to Russia to make “Everybody Loves Raymond” for Russian television. I also read that you yourself consulted on TV shows for Japan and Dubai. Did you have any culture shock, cultural misunderstandings or surprises?
“First of all, I think you have to understand with the documentary about Russia that much of that was exaggerated to make it into a good film. It’s funny, and Phil is a wonderful writer and creator, and he knows how to tell a really good story. So a lot of that is probably somewhat exaggerated for the benefit of entertainment value.
“When I was consulting in Dubai teaching a week-long workshop with people from many different Middle Eastern countries, I was shocked to find out the budgets and the time expectations, that they expect these shows to be written so quickly and with so little money that it’s impossible for them to be able to be competitive in a world market.
“Singapore was the same thing. ... On the other hand, in Australia I found that the circumstances were better for writers. They were more creative, they had freedom, and they were given time and sufficient money to make projects. Israel has done very well in the American market; we have several major hits that came from Israeli television.”
Yes, but one episode of “Homeland” basically has the budget of the entire series of “Hatufim,” the Israeli show it’s based on.
“Well, there is a tipping point in which the amount of money that goes into production may not be important in terms of the quality. ... There is a middle ground where you don’t need to have an enormous budget − in fact sometimes that gets in the way of imagination and quality of writing.
“You do have to have a certain amount of time. You have to really pay the writers and give them more than a day to write. I don’t know Israeli television but I’m really impressed at least with the concepts that I see in the shows that have been very successful: ‘Homeland’ and ‘In Treatment.’ The concepts are very strong and unique, much more so than most of what gets developed for commercial television [in the United States].”
Which pilot are you most proud of that you wrote and that was purchased? And which pilot are you most proud of that didn’t get purchased − that you really thought would make a great show?
“That’s the same pilot − the one I was most heartbroken about and the one that was most well realized. It was on the schedule for about one minute and was taken off before it ever aired. It was a great pilot; I loved it. It was probably my most autobiographical.
“It was about a woman who went back to work in the publishing industry as a writers’ agent after her last child goes through college and her husband leaves her on the same day. She’s left with nothing, she has to start over, and that’s the concept: a middle aged woman in a field where she’s competing with younger people. It was before the ‘Good Wife,’ two years before, but had a similar quality to it, though it was a half-hour comedy, not a drama.”
Which show would you really like to have written for?
“I’ve always loved the show 'Roseanne.' I loved the types of characters and I thought it was genuinely funny and genuinely heartfelt and had real content without being sentimental. I really admire that show. However, I don’t think I would have liked to work for it knowing some of the things I know now. The writers’ room was very, very tough. It was a hard show to work on. But the result I always admired greatly and I felt it was always overlooked by the Emmy awards, possibly as a backlash to Roseanne’s personality, but that’s just all the more reason why it’s an important show. It’s about a woman taking charge and running her life and making choices for her family. I thought it was a really good show.”