Novel Idea: Noah Hawley

The danger of breaking into the industry by joining a writing team, Bones writer Noah Hawley cautions, is that executives stop seeing you as a creator. Instead, Hawley built a career writing novels, then the Hollywood execs came to him.

Noah Hawley never climbed the corporate latter. Starting out as a fiction book writer, Hawley made the leap to writing screenplays, then television episodes, then pilots. Fourteen years after publishing his first book, Hawley has written and produced for three seasons of Bones, penned the script for the 2006 Jerry O’Connell film Lies and Alibis, created two short-lived television series, The Unusuals and My Generation, and written four novels.

Splitting his time between writing and showrunning in LA and his permanent home in Austin, Tex., Hawley has a unique position as both a Hollywood insider and outsider, which may be part of the reason why he’s so damn accessible. Openly discussing the fabulous (and not so fabulous) sides of American entertainment on his Twitter feed, Hawley offers a refreshingly no-BS perspective on the army of failures and rejections that frequently lie just behind every creative success. To make it, Hawley says, you’ve got to produce something fresh, always have another project on deck, and fiercely protect your integrity.

Get In Media: The conventional wisdom is that you start at the bottom by interning, then work your way up the corporate ladder in Hollywood, but you didn’t do that. Did you feel like coming into the scene as an established writer put you at an advantage or disadvantage?
Noah Hawley: Well, the thing about Hollywood is it’s a town where the prevailing mentality is one of desperation, and everyone comes there to get into the same industry. I had a screenwriter friend who had been working for a few years and was relatively successful. [He] went down to the newsstand in West Hollywood, and the guy selling him magazines was a guy he went to Harvard with who was trying to break into the biz … Those stories are everywhere … it’s really important to always try to do multiple things at the same time, so that your need for any one thing is reduced. If all you do is write television, then if you can’t get a job in television, you’re screwed, but if you write novels and write for television, and you can’t get a job, you just work on the next book. I found that you want to try to avoid being owned as much as possible.

GIM: When you started writing screenplays for your own books, that’s a very logical leap to have the author do the screenplay. It’s a bigger leap to create a television show. How did you learn how to write and pitch a television show?
NH: A lot of it you learn by doing … Television isn’t like fiction. You can’t write it in the abstract. It has to be produce-able … In my first episode of Bones that I wrote, they had to race to the scene of the crime, and I put them in a helicopter, and my boss laughed and crossed it out and put them in a car because we can’t afford a helicopter. A lot of those realities go into writing these scripts, and there’s a difference between writing a show for commercial television and writing a show for HBO or Showtime. When you write a show for network or cable, you have four or five Act Outs which means you go to commercial four or five times. In network television, that means something really exciting has to happen four or five times an episode, which is a totally artificial way to tell a story. [It’s like] if suddenly you find a second body or you walk in on someone having sex … it’s so disruptive of the flow of telling stories, which is why sometimes when you watch a show on HBO after you’ve watched a lot of network television, you feel a little lost … you’re not getting those constant exaggerations of drama.

All that stuff, you learn as you go, and part of the reason that I don’t live in LA year round is I think it’s best to remain slightly in the dark about the process … There’s such an air of recycling in Hollywood that if you’re around it all the time, you go, “How can I do cops?” or “How can I do doctors?” when the real issue is “How can I make something that hasn’t been made before that is still commercial?” It’s that sweet spot. How do you create Lost or how do you do Breaking Bad? … when you see them, you think “Why didn’t I think of that? That’s such a brilliant idea for a television show or a movie,” and you need some distance from what everyone else is doing to be able to do that.

GIM: A novelist has control over what their product is, but a lot of that is lost in television. How do you deal with that?
NH: It’s about acceptance, as most things in life are. You have to accept that television and film, it’s a collaborative process. You have to accept when you write a movie that you will be replaced by another writer at a certain moment, and that writing a movie is not about your vision for the film. It’s about a director’s vision. It’s about the studio’s vision, and you have to service what they need, and you’ll have a great career. There’s a tongue-in-cheek book by Thomas Lennon and his writing partner called How to Write Movies for Fun and Profit where he basically says you can’t get all artisty about it. It’s a job, and you’ll have the best career possible when you figure out what they’re asking you to do, and you do it.

Television is something different because they need writers. Writers are the only people who can create and run a television show because it’s all about story … they want you to have a vision because they don’t have one … There’s this weird moment. You write a pilot, and you get notes from [the network and studio], and you’re trying to do rewrites in order for the pilot to get picked up … then, the minute that they call and pick up the show, they expect you to become the boss, to become the showrunner, to take control, to have a vision, to realize your vision even though they’re giving you notes. They now expect you to be the boss, and it’s a weird moment because you’ve gone from being subservient to suddenly being, not their boss but a boss … now is the moment that you have to make the show that you want to make, but you have to make them feel like it’s their show as well. It’s always that ownership dance where you can never alienate the corporations that you’re doing it for. You always have to make them feel excited about the show and to feel like they’re participating, and their ideas are being incorporated into the show, and that’s the challenge of it. Writing a television show is not complicated, but dealing with all of the things that go around it, that’s where you earn your money.

GIM: Has there been a point where you compromised and then regretted it?
NH: Yeah … . To nit pick, there’s one episode of The Unusuals that always makes me crazy to look at because I had a case that was really fun, and that led to a solve of the mystery that really made sense, and then the network called, and they said, “We feel it needs one more twist”… they were adamant, and I let them bully me, and so, there’s a moment where they think they’ve solved the crime, and there’s that one extra twist, and it makes no sense, and that makes me crazy that I let them push me to that point.

You know the general rule with network TV is that if you have 22 episodes, and you can make 12 of them great, and you can make four of them good, and you can make four of them bad, and you can make two of them really bad, you’re winning because there’s just too much, too many scripts and too much time. You start shooting a new script every eight days. Television is the best you can do in the time allotted. With HBO and Showtime, they tend to write those scripts before they roll the camera, so it’s a lot easier to make each one great, but with a network, you’re just running.

GIM: When you watch TV now, can you pick out what a network has thrown in?
NH: I’d heard a lot in the 18 months that they had been promising us that Terra Nova was going to be great, and then I sat down to watch the pilot, and there were 12 executive producers, and I knew that it couldn’t possibly. Because when you have Peter Chernin, and you have Spielberg, and you have the studio and the network, and you have 10 other executive producers, there’s no way that there’s an organic story being told that’s one person’s vision … .

I see network notes all over television. I see when there’s music in 40 minutes out of a 42-minute show, I know that’s because the network is saying, “We don’t now what to feel here. We need more music,”  which, actually, music is more effective when there’s less of it, but you have to know how to use it … The great thing with cable is that you don’t necessarily know what’s coming, and that’s really satisfying. You watch Breaking Bad, and you’re like “How can they possibly maintain this tension for 10 more episodes?” and they do … it’s almost like every time they think of what to do next, they go, “Well, we have to throw that out and find something more interesting and unexpected,” and network television is about familiarity. They want it to be unexpected, but familiar, which is a really narrow window.

GIM: That’s got to be really aggravating for those creating television.
NH: … There’s only one rule in network television, and that’s clarity. They will sacrifice anything for clarity. They’ll sacrifice a joke, they’ll sacrifice drama, so that’s why when you watch a network television show, you see people explaining to each other what they already know like three times. It’d be like two detectives, and one is saying, “We found the body here, and the forensics were here.” I had many conversations with Jeremy Renner on The Unusuals that was like, “Why am I telling her this? She already knows this,” and I was like “Because the audience needs to be reminded constantly what’s going on,” which is not dramatic.

David Mamet has a great memo that he gave to the writers on The Unit that talks about information versus drama and how information is the enemy of drama … That’s your challenge as the showrunner: How can I make it clear enough for them without making it a ton of exposition? That’s the creative challenge, and it has to be where you thrive. It can’t be the thing that makes you crazy because you have to do it.

GIM: On a show like The Unusuals, you’re working multiple roles at the same time. Is it easier to work in a capacity where you are the writer, creator, and executive producer, or is it easier to compartmentalize what you do, given the time crunch?
NH: … For me, the show is written like a movie is written, three times. It’s written in the script stage. It’s written in the filmmaking, and it’s written in the editing room. If you have a vision for the show, you have to be the writer in all three stages. You have to run the writers’ room, so that you break the stories, so that when you get to the outline stage, you have the episode you want. You have to write or rewrite the scripts, then you have to sit down with the directors and explain exactly what you want from each moment in each scene, and then you put a writer on set, so that they make sure that you get that. Then you go into the editing room, and you know what, maybe on the script, it worked a certain way, but now in editing, once you’re seeing it, you’re like, “Well this scene isn’t really working” or “It needs to be moved later.” You can’t really compartmentalize those things because narratively, you’re not getting a coherent vision for the show … .

GIM: When you made the leap from writing novels to television, which skills transferred and which didn’t?
NH: … I’m an inside-out writer, and that comes from being a novelist. I think about story from a character point of view, and I think about character from an interior, stream-of-consciousness narrative mindset … When you write a novel, you’re dealing a lot with internal states and interior monologues, and that makes it clear what decisions the characters have to make. In screenwriting, there are a lot of outside-in writers … a lot of [those] who think, “Oh, I can make that happen, or I can do cool stuff on screen,” so you have a lot of characters who are servicing a plot versus a plot that’s servicing the characters. Going into pitching shows or writing shows, none of that interior work is on the page … .

GIM: What are the most important elements to creating a character?
NH: … You’re always pushed, I feel like in film and TV, to try to make your characters as appealing to as broad an audience as possible … I think the executive mindset is: we need to make these characters as general as possible, as everyman as possible, so that they appeal to the most people. I feel the opposite. I feel like we have to make these characters as specific as possible. [In] my third novel … these two brothers had this crazy mom who’s based on my mom, and I was amazed by how many readers came up to me and said, “She was just like my mother.” I was like, “How can this woman who got thrown out of a hotel for smoking with her oxygen machine, how is that your mom?”

… it’s about specificity … The last thing anyone wants to read is, “She was beautiful and whip smart.” Tell me that she was the girl who wore combat boots to her prom, and now I know a lot more about her than saying she was tough and beautiful … writing is about specificity … it’s the reason that when you watch something like The New Girl on Fox, whether you like that sitcom or not, she’s a very specific character, and her roommates are very specific people, as opposed to something that feels like a sitcom that was created by cash registers with a kind of generic, sassy girl. Specificity is the key.

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GH: What advice do you have for someone trying to break into TV writing?
NH: Unfortunately, you have to move to LA first, which I did. I was in San Francisco, and I managed to write a couple of TV pilots, but the minute that I wanted to get into the production side of it, I had to live in Los Angeles. There are two ways to get to the top in television, and one is from the bottom, and one is from the side. I came in from the side … if you start at the bottom, and you are a writer’s assistant, and then you’re a staff writer, and you climb the ladder, maybe you spend three years at one show and three years at another show, now you’re six years into your career. You’re a supervising producer or a co-executive producer, but you’ve spent your entire career writing in someone else’s voice, the networks and studios don’t really believe you have a voice. They’re like, “Well this guy’s just a journeyman. They’re a great cog in the wheel, but they’ll never be the captain of the ship.” There’s a weird prejudice. If you’re a movie writer or a book writer, and you come and pitch a TV show, they see you as a creator, whereas if you climb that ladder, they see you as a worker … if you want to create your own show … you can, even while you’re on staff. You should be writing pilots, you should be writing scripts, you should be showing people that you have your own voice, but it’s not always easy because the black hole, the pigeonhole could be hard to break free from. 

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