We’re posting weekly transcripts of David Plotz’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This is the transcript for Episode 13, featuring screenwriter Craig Turk. To learn more about Working, click here.
You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.
David Plotz: What is your name and what do you do?
Craig Turk: My name is Craig Turk, and I am a screenwriter.
Plotz: Where do you screenwrite?
Turk: I am primarily a television writer. I am currently an executive producer on a television show called The Good Wife, and I am also developing some shows of my own.
Plotz: Let’s focus on your Good Wife job. When does your day start?
Turk: Interestingly, on all the television shows I’ve worked on, the morning is always exactly the same and the most important part of the day is the decision about where to eat lunch. It might be a function of the fact that you spend a lot of your day sitting around a big table staring at the same faces all the time, and so the only really exciting decision that you get to make that you know will stick is, where do we eat? But there is a battle that most people would be hard-pressed to believe is real, about where we eat lunch. And so on a normal day at The Good Wife, for example, the PA—the production assistant—will give us a choice of, you know, two places that they will go out and take our lunch from. And, you know, it’s a lunch where you’re given multiple choices, where the show pays, and where someone literally brings it and puts it right on your lap.
And people are so unbelievable aggrieved at, like, 10:06, about the limitation of their choices. And, you know, on a hot day who would dare offer sushi, which doesn’t travel well? We’ve had Mexican too much! Indian makes a writers office smell. And by the time it’s sorted they actually will have brought us our breakfast. And so, there’s a lot of food stuff going on, I’d say, for the first chunk of our day.
And I’ve worked on shows where people will say, well, look—the production assistant is a young person who’s breaking in and they’re generally very happy to do whatever you’d like them to do. And they’re incredibly smart kids who are doing something that’s well beneath their talents, but, you know, it’s the sort of ritualistic hazing that most businesses—or a lot of businesses, anyway—have. But, you know—you can send them anywhere, and some writers do. And people sometimes will say, “Listen, there’s like, a taco place in Long Beach.” It’s like maybe a 45-minute or an hour drive, and a lot of people will say, “That’s fine. They like it! They love doing this.” I mean, obviously they do not love doing it.
Plotz: OK, so, you’ve decided what’s going to be lunch, you’re having breakfast, and it’s now noon so it’s time for lunch. What then happens? How many people are in the room and what are you doing?
Turk: Can I tell you—this is also a sad admission, and by now people have probably turned off this podcast thinking they were going to hear about what it’s like to write a TV show—but by noon—so, maybe we order lunch by 10:30. By noon you would think people were going to starve to death. We have this really beautiful writers room on the Culver Studios lot, and we look out on the building that was used for—you know, the façade of Tara in Gone With the Wind. I mean, the bay windows and leather couches—it really couldn’t be any nicer.
And people are in there and they’re starting to look out the window to see if the PA’s car has come back on the lot. And, like, by noon they’re furious. People are absolutely, like, this is insane. It’s as if they have never eaten. And it says something about my job, but I don’t know what.
Anyway! To the more important stuff. So we have seven or eight writers on The Good Wife, which is about average for a network drama. You know, sometimes cable shows have slightly smaller staffs and comedies sometimes will have larger staffs. I mean, like, a big successful comedy show might have 25 writers divided up into multiple rooms punching up various scripts. But on a drama we have a core of, you know, seven people who are all in the same room.
At the beginning of the year before production starts, we will get together and it feels very leisurely, and it feels like what I think most people would imagine and hope that a television writers room would be like, where you sort of sit around and you think about, OK, what do we want this next season to look like? What are the ideas that we’re interested in exploring in this season?
And so we talk big picture stuff, “blue sky-ing,” we call it. And so we’ll “blue sky” for a while about, what could the season be about? What are interesting ideas? What are opportunities that we haven’t taken advantage of? And that sort of mellows into a discussion of, well, where are our characters headed? And so we’ll try to break out arcs for each of the characters. We’ll take our six or seven main characters and talk about, OK, here’s where we left them at the end of last season. Here’s where we’d like to get them to, and here’s sort of what that evolution looks like.
And we’ll literally have, you know, big white boards and use a different color ink for every character, and just, you know, talk about—for instance on The Good Wife, what do we think is going to happen to Alicia Florrick over the course of the season? What would be interesting for her? And then we’ll sort of go down the list with the other characters, and then you sort of start to find interesting opportunities for things that are happening to one character that impact another character. And it’s not a very clean evolutionary process, but over a number of days or weeks you start to really find some interesting stuff.
Plotz: Who’s the person who ultimately gets the decision about what happens to everybody? That’s the first part of my question, and the second part is, is this decision about what’s going to happen made at the beginning of every year? Or is there kind of a ten-year plan for shows?
Turk: On to your first question first, shows will have a show runner—which is an executive producer—some shows have multiple executive producers. So, for instance, I was a show runner on Private Practice and so that would have been my decision. On The Good Wife I am an executive producer, but the guy who created the show is still there. It really winds up being his decision of where he thinks the show wants to go.
But then we will sort of check that with the studio and make sure the studio is on board, and check it with the network and make sure the network’s on board, and to some extent—depending on the shows and how involved various actors are—you’ll talk to the actors about it. Sometimes for ideas, sometimes to make sure that they’re on board if you’re doing something, you know, sort of radical with their characters. On Private Practice a couple of years ago we did a season that revolved around the rape of a character, and we needed to have her on board because it was a difficult thing to play and a lot came out of it.
Do shows have plans? Yes, shows often will be sold with, “Here’s what the first season looks like, and here’s what the second seasons looks like, and here’s what season five looks like.” Because ideally when you sell a television show, they want to know they’re going to get a hundred episodes out of it and get to syndication. So, you want an idea that sort of, you know, that’s potentially that rich. I don’t think in the history of television it has ever gone that smoothly, and I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of the year we sketched out—so, we’ll do, what’s the season about? Then we’ll do arcs for characters, and then we’ll break it down to episodes. And we’ll have ideas for cases that we want to do, things we read in the newspaper, things that, you know, we saw on Colbert, anything that sort of strikes you as something that would be interesting and rich to—as a takeoff point. You know, people sometimes I think believe that you can just read it in a newspaper or you see it on television and it makes a good television story, but it doesn’t. It’s always a jumping off point, because we’ll have to take that story and twist it two or three times to make it work.
But anyway, we’ll do big picture, character arcs, specific episodes. And after, like, a month of sitting around and doing this we will feel extremely pleased with ourselves, and we’ll feel like, you know what? That’s 22 episodes. That’s a television season. I’ve never worked on a show where we’ve made it past episode 7 or 9 without using every bit of story that we have broken before. It’s just, you know, we call it “pulling left.” These television stories eat story so incredibly fast that you can’t really stay ahead of the curve.
Plotz: What happens when you have used up all of the ideas for the season and you’re seven episodes in? Also, if you have 22 episodes, when are they all getting written? They’re not all getting written in advance?
Turk: Well, we’ll start our season as writers about two months before production starts. And so we’ll—
Plotz: Sorry—when in the year is that?
Turk: Typically writers offices for network shows—it’s now a little different because cable kind of runs all year around and there are summer series—but for a traditional network show, the writers offices will open sometime in May and the production will normally start sometime in July. And so we try to get a running start at it. So, we’ll have ideas for, you know, what we believe is 22 but what in reality is 7 episodes, and we’ll start getting some scripts done. So, by the time production starts, you know, in a perfect world you’d be five or six scripts into your season.
Plotz: And then how quickly does it catch up? Does it ever catch up to you?
Turk: It does catch up, because we shoot television shows at a really rapid pace, and so it takes anywhere from, you know, seven to nine days to shoot an episode of network television. And it does not stop. We don’t shoot on weekends typically, but you shoot every day of the week for 12 hours a day and the schedule doesn’t stop. There are no days off between episodes. It’s extraordinarily expensive to go dark, you know, to shut down production, and so once the season starts, it starts. And so you need those script pages to be shot, but you can’t write them. I think sometimes people think, you know, on the day of they write them and they run them down to the set. It’s extraordinarily hard to do because, you know, the people who work on a television show and who do the physical production of it need to prep, right? You need—unless you’re shooting on your stages which you own—you need to find the locations and get permissions, and go and set up, and people need lighting plans, and props have to be produced, and, you know, wardrobes need to be done, and hair needs to be done. And you need to know who’s in the scene because you need to know who’s in the scene because you need to cast it, and then the deals with those actors need to be done.
So, it’s a really complicated beast, and so you’d like to stay ahead of it. I and a couple of other people there are really schedule-oriented kinds of writers. So we like to stay a few weeks ahead, you know. Directors and the people who do the physical production get a prep period of seven or eight days before their episode. And so you like to get them the script seven or eight days before they shoot it, but to get that script done seven or eight days before means you’ve had to have had four to six weeks of working on the script before that.
Plotz: In the writers room, do you actually write sitting around with other people, or do people then go off to a corner or go home and write?
Turk: People go into their writing holes to write. Again, on comedies there’s a lot of, you know, put a script up on a projector, and people pitch on jokes and the script, and you’re kind of revising as you go. Dramas don’t really lend themselves to that because the plots are more complicated and they’re fairly dense, and so what will normally happen is, we’ll spend eight or 10 days breaking an episode of The Good Wife.
So, we know for instance, for an episode right now—we happen to be on episode 607, which is the seventh episode of the sixth season—and we know what’s come before, so we sort of know where we left our characters off in 606 because we were all in the room breaking that together. And we know what we want sort of the main plot to be, what we call the “A Plot,” which is often a case. And then there’s a “B,” “C,” and “D Plot,” which are the personal stories that wrap around and hopefully thread through the case.
So, we’ll spend, you know, as I said, eight to 10 days talking about that and breaking it sort of story by story. So, we’ll break - there’s also a big debate over, do you break the case first and then fill in the personal around it? Or do you break the personal first and then fill in the case around it? And there are varying schools of thought as to what works better, but in any event we will break all the stories and sort of blend them together.
And on The Good Wife we have a really specific way of doing it which is different than a lot of shows. We just do it on note cards on a big corkboard, different colored note cards for different stories on a corkboard. So, we spend a lot of our day, you know, sitting at a table yelling at each other about what works best and then rearranging these note cards, you know, on this corkboard until you get the, you know, maybe 42 to 52 beats or scenes that make up an episode. And once that’s done we’ll assign a writer to go off, and we’ll give them in a perfect world two weeks, in a realistic world one week as the season goes on and we start to get closer and closer to production deadlines.
Plotz: So the writer has all the beats, they have the 42 beats. They write that whole episode? It’s not, you don’t divide up the beats so that one person writes one part of it and one person writes another character?
Turk: No, we don’t. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about especially writing for television is, people will often say, “Do you - like, which character do you write? Do you write Alicia or do you write Peter?” And it doesn’t really - it doesn’t really work like that. There aren’t typically - in fact, almost never are there specialists who write one character or another. When you write a script, it’s ideally structured in a way that’s fairly complicated and fairly, you know, interesting, but it requires you to write the whole thing. Because scenes interrelate and, you know, you don’t know where a character’s coming from or going if you haven’t been sort of deep into the script. So, we will assign one writer to write a draft of this script using the break, using the sort of beat by beat outline that we have on the board, and we’ll give them a couple of weeks to do that.
And then we begin a revision process where that script is, you know, read by the show runner. The show runner will give notes, you know, change this, boost that, lose this. And then you revise, and then it’s a continual process of revision. That does happen right up until, you know, often the day of shooting.
Plotz: And the work of developing the beats, that is done all collectively with all the writers in a room?
Turk: It is, it is. You know, because it’s very dependent on what’s come before, and so oftentimes people who have written previous episodes will remind you of something that was in an earlier story that you may not have remembered or that you may not have focused on, or that you may not realize played as big or as well as it did. But so, the beats are generally agreed upon collectively and then writers have some discretion when they’re in a script to say, you know, I don’t really need that, or here’s an interesting opportunity to go in this direction. But you have some latitude. You can’t really stray too far because, you know, everyone’s sort of steering this ship collectively. But, you know, it’s—it actually leads to something that I did not realize and I don’t think a lot of people realized. One of the sort of biggest challenges, or at least obligations you have, is we will write anywhere from—you know, we’ll revise the script until it’s done and you get what’s called a “production draft.” And it’s on nice clean, white pages, and it has all the cast members and all the locations, and you think, this is great. This is a perfect blueprint for shooing an episode of television. But then as the episode goes on, something changes before it or you see the dailies, you know, you see the footage that was shot that day, and you realize a relationship is really working well and we should play more of that. Or, it’s not working well. Or, things just change, you know? A hurricane comes and knocks out some of the your sets and you have to reset it. And so you’ll do some revised pages, and then those turn a color - you know, the pages turn pink, and they turn blue, and they turn green. And so, for any particular script at the end you have this kind of multicolored, you know, beast that’s been revised three, or five, or 10 times.
But as a writer, you have to read every one of these drafts because things change, and sometimes they change in fairly dramatic ways. And then, you know, there are things that have been written which disappear, and you know, as a writer you might think, no, that was in there. Sometimes there are things that you talked about in the room and they are on the cards, but they don’t wind up in a script. And then sometimes there are things that were in a script, but they’re no longer in there because they were revised out. And sometimes they are shot and then they are dropped in editing. So, it actually takes a lot of sort of focus and tracking to remember what exists. Like, there are whole subplots and characters and stories that exist only in the minds of the writers, you know, who were involved, that the audience never sees. And we have to sort of be sensitive to what, you know, to what the audience has seen, not to do what we’ve done creatively.
Plotz: So you’re a writer who’s also a producer on the show. You’re an executive producer on the show. Do you have to make sure—the scene this writer is planning for, it’s way too expensive for us to make this scene. Or, it’s the wrong scene, I don’t know? The problems that the writer might not see which would cost you money or just not fit.
Turk: Absolutely. In fact, it was my first and one of my most embarrassing moments in television is, when I was a baby writer—I’d never written before—the first sort of real episode of television I wrote was for Law & Order. And in the very first scene, and I had never worked on a staff, this was a spec script that I was writing, you know, just to sort of get my name out there and then it wound up being produced. But in any event, the first scene was a helicopter landing on the roof of a downtown building in New York. And I thought “This is so cool and dramatic!” And the CEO gets off, and the police are waiting. And so I write this script and I give it to the, you know, the executive producer of the show.
And he calls me back down to the studio, and I was excited and we had lunch, and the first thing he said to me is, “Craig, television shows have budgets. Does it strike you that we’re going to spend all of our money on this very first scene?” And I thought, “Oh, God, that’s right.” So you do have to be really conscious of what scenes cost? Are they filmable? Could you put actors in the position?
In any event—that’s the first scene from the first episode of television I wrote, and my name happened to appear over it, and the executive producer put the helicopter in! It was kind of a sweet gesture on his part. But yeah, we have to be extraordinarily budget-conscious, and on some shows like The Good Wife, we really like to spend a lot of money making sure that the quality is there, but sometimes the quality is in the actors that you get or sometimes the quality is in, you know, how nice your standing sets look.
Plotz: What makes someone like you a good TV writer? When you’re hiring somebody, what are the qualities that you look for?
Turk: Usually writers are pegged as good writers, great writers, someone who can really get it on the page, or writers who are what’s called “good in the room.” And that means that they are people who have a lot of ideas, who are really vocal about their ideas but are able to work well with other writers. Because it’s really an interesting process when you’re sitting around a table, you know, with this group of six or eight people, however many it is. I mean, you’re taking about 10, or 12, or sometimes 14 hours a day every day of the week for 10½ months a year. That takes a certain skill set, to not sort of tear each other’s faces off and to maintain respect for other people’s ideas, and to, you know, sort of understand that sometimes you’ve just got to talk about other stuff for a little bit and let off steam.
But the ability to sort of function well in a writer’s room and generate a lot of ideas is a really prized skill, and that’s something that I think people don’t often realize. People feel like it’s just about what you can put on the page, and it’s really not. Those are two separate skills. Ideally a writer has both. I personally feel like it’s more important to be able to write, because if someone, you know, is not great at structure, or is not great at dialogue or is not great at the writing part of it, it leaves a lot of work for the executive producers. And there are so many other parts of your job, that that can be challenging.
Plotz: When you’re making hiring decisions, how do you balance that with the need to not just have people who are like you, who you know you’re going to get along with?
Turk: You know, every show I’ve ever worked on, both when I was interviewing and then when I was doing the interviewing, will say, “We have a ‘no assholes’ policy.” Which is absurd, right, because who has an “assholes policy?” I guess there are some places that say, “Look, we just want these seven unbelievable writers and we don’t care if they get along,” but shows like that don’t work. I mean, there are sort of out there these shows where you’ve heard, like, wow, that is a horrible room. People say unbelievable things to each other, really demeaning, or really cruel, or really arrogant. And that’s a horrible way to spend your time because it’s a really intense process. But for the most part I think staffs work well when there’s diversity, because if you hire people who are just like you, you are going to get ideas that you would have had.
So, you want people—I really think you want people of varying ages—there’s a whole sort of issue of ageism in Hollywood, but I think you want older writers and younger writers. You want people who, especially in drama, I think, who have lived a life before they’ve come to do it. You know, if you get someone who’s 24-years-old and straight out of college, they may be a fantastic writer but their life experience is not something that they’ve had a chance to sort of build up, so they’re not really bringing that to bear.
Plotz: You were a journalist in earlier life and you come out of politics. What’s the process of not being married to fact? How do you break yourself as a writer from being married to fact, and being able to play?
Turk: It depends on the kind of show you’re working on. So, for instance, Private Practice was a medical show and it was—you can’t—I don’t think you can responsibly break yourself from fact. There, because it’s—I mean, the thing that made the show sort of emotional and interesting is the fact that people are facing, you know, these diseases and life and death situations. And I felt like we had a responsibility to accurately portray both what diseases potentially can do and what the cures are. And that was a big debate, which was not can we bend it a little bit? Can they die sooner? Can we fix them better?
I mean, you know, one of the nice things is, a lot of people are willing to talk to you when you do television shows. And so it’s a joke we have in the writers room, which is called, “Get the Pope.” You know, if we’re looking for advice on something it’s, “Get the Pope on the phone!”
But we can get almost anyone on the phone. I mean, I’ve literally spoken to—like, cold-called Cabinet-level officials. And it’s, “Yeah, of course!” And they’re happy to get on the phone to you. I mean, in the past three or four months one of them just gave me his cell phone number and said, “Yeah, just call me anytime you need.” Which is crazy to us, right, because we’re sitting there getting at the PA for not bringing in the sushi in, and these people who are actually doing incredible things with their lives will talk to us.
But it’s helpful, for instance on The Good Wife, which is a law show, you have a little bit more room to sort of make things dramatic. But again, we do strive for realism. I think it makes the show better. Like, law shows for a long time would have a partner walk in and plop something down on, you know, an associate’s desk and say, “Supreme Court argument tomorrow, do it!” Which is obviously about as unrealistic as possible. And we try not to do that. We try not to fudge the timelines and we try to make things as realistic as possible, and sometimes it’s miserable. I mean, you really put yourself in a corner, but if you can write your way out of the corner I think it’s to the benefit of the show.
Plotz: These are procedurals. Your show is not exactly a procedural, but talk about that. It’s patterned. I mean, you say you have “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” you have a case, you have a stable set of characters and you’re not writing a new pilot every week. It’s very fixed. So, how do you not get into a rut with that?
Turk: It depends on where the show is going. So, for instance, The Good Wife started out I think as more of a procedural drama, right, which is the case-of-the-week comes in the door and personal stories kind of wrap around that. As the show has evolved and become, I think more complicated, we probably do cases less and focus more on our characters. So, it’s become, you know, slightly more serialized, you know? “Soap-y” is maybe the more pejorative term, and it’s changed in that regard. And the less you’re doing case-of-the-week and the more you’re sort of layering your characters, it’s not really hard to avoid a rut.
There are certain things—I mean, you only have the characters you have—you can introduce guest stars and you can bring people in, but people have a good TV intuition. Like, you know, when someone comes on screen they either look like someone you recognize, and they’re a star, and you think, “Oh, that guy’s going to figure big.” Or, they don’t and you don’t pay attention to them. And so, it’s tricky as a writer because you feel like, well, if, you know, some very handsome actor from another series who you know has just been cancelled, you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be a love interest.” So, it’s tricky to sort of lull people into believing something’s going to happen and then surprise them, because you always want your show to be to some extent unexpected. And people can only sleep with the number of people that they have, and people can only have the number of affairs that they, you know, that they can have. And there only are the vices that there are, so people drink or they take drugs. So, it can be a challenge to keep it fresh, especially with just the sheer volume of stuff that’s on TV, but that’s what makes it fun. That’s one of those corners that you’ve got write yourself out of.
Plotz: How do you keep it fresh? I mean, mentally how do you do that? Like, what’s the process that you go through to make sure that it doesn’t feel like something you’ve done 20 times before?
Turk: That goes back to the idea of people who are “good in a room,” people who have life experience. It’s, you know, writers get a hiatus, like, you know, teachers get a summer break. And some times you feel like, well, it’s just relief, right? I’m not sitting across from those people. So I had four or six weeks off and it was just—I didn’t have to work. But it’s not really that, it’s generally people will go off and do something. They’ll do something interesting or they’ll read something interesting, and they’ll bring it back into the room, and that’s always what it is.
You can’t—you’re not going to sit there and sort of generate it out of past TV experience because then it is going to feel stale, but, you know, people go off and travel, and they break up or they get married, or they have kids, or things happen. And it’s this ability to sort of take an interesting little detail from your life or from someone’s life that you know and spin that into something bigger, that’s really kind of the prized skill for a writer. That’s really what people call being “good in a room,” because it is hard. You come back and you think, “Oh, God, like, either he’s going to become a drug addict this season or he’s going to cheat on his wife.” And you don’t want to fall into that hole, but sometimes someone has, you know, gone off and done something interesting or heard something interesting and it sparks a discussion.
And that’s why I do think it’s important that you’re not always talking just about your show. Sometimes we’ll talk for 20 minutes, or 40 minutes, or an hour about something totally different, that’s bugging us, or that’s in the news, or that we’ve read. And those discussions sometimes will spawn a really interesting idea that we realize, “Oh, God, now—we’ve stumbled onto it.”
Plotz: Do you ever deal with the actors?
Turk: Yes. I mean, on Private Practice I spent a lot of time with the actors, because I moved our writing offices onto the lot where the show was shooting, right next to our main stage. And so the traffic in and out of the office of actors was pretty heavy, so that was a lot of my day. On The Good Wife, it’s in New York and so it’s just much less frequent. Sometimes there’s a phone call, you know, from actors who have a question about something, but it’s also—we’re in season six and we have a super professional group of actors, and there’s just—the issues have fallen away. In the first season or two of a show there’s a lot of work with the actors, trying to help them understand what your vision is and them trying to tell you what their vision is. Ideally that mellows.
Plotz: If the actor wants something and the writer wants something, who trumps?
Turk: Theoretically the show runner. Actors have a tremendous amount of power and a powerful actor sometimes has more sort of juice than a show runner does with a studio or with the network. Ideally you resolve these problems, you know? The show runner and the actors are really on the same page, and you may fight but you get to a point where it’s acceptable to both.
But I’ve certainly seen situations where an actor will say, “I will not do that,” and the show runner will say, “No, you are going to do that.” And then it goes to the studio, or sometimes it goes to the network. That does not look good for the show. It’s 50-50 who has the most power, but it’s not always the show runner.
Plotz: Are writers and actors different species or different tribes of the same species?
Turk: I think different tribes of the same species, in the sense that, you’re both interested in doing something creative. You both live a lot of your life in the world of make believe. I think you just come at it in different ways. I think writers and actors don’t always understand each other all that well. I think sometimes writers don’t understand how hard it is to be an actor and how vulnerable you are, and I think actors sometimes don’t understand how writers are like that. Because, you know, to an actor, writers are in a hole somewhere and they write something, and they send it to the set. And they’re never out their performing, no one’s looking at them, there’s no expectation, they sort of do their work behind the scenes. But that’s not what it feels like when you’re a writer, I mean, especially when you’re a young writer and you’re on set, and they’re rehearsing the scene that you’re in and somebody goes, “Oh! This is terrible!” It is like a hot knife into your heart. I mean, there are a hundred people who are looking at you and you’ve let them down.
Certainly, you have as a young writer less power than the actors, and you feel incredibly exposed. I don’t think most actors mean to do that. Sometimes they do, but most of them don’t mean to do that, but that’s different. Whereas, it’s the same thing if you’re a young actor and you’re sitting on set in your chair, and you’ve got, you know, your soda next to you and you’re excited watching someone do that. And you look down at your phone while an actor is doing a scene, sometimes they’ll think, like, that’s incredibly disrespectful.
Actors will say, make all of your writers take an acting class just so that they know what it’s like to be out there. And I tried, like, for instance on Private Practice, to bring all of the actors in the writers room to let them know what that’s like, and to let them know what the process is like. So, I would say, different tribes but tribes that do not have a fantastic understanding of what each other does.
Plotz: What are the most frustrating things that you deal with day-to-day, besides, like, not getting a lunch that you want?
Turk: That’s nothing more frustrating than a lunch I don’t want! There are a lot of specific frustrations depending on what show you’re on. So sometimes there are actors, you know, who either—this doesn’t happen to be a problem on the current show that I have, but I’ve certainly worked on shows where actors come unprepared, or actors really fight the material because they want something different. Sometimes you have the same thing with writers, writers who—
Plotz: I’m interrupting you. What does it mean for an actor to come unprepared?
Turk: It can mean actors who don’t know their lines, which is pretty rare but it does happen. Again, not on my current show but on other shows that I’ve worked on, there are actors, you know, who come to set drunk or high. Or there are actors who just fight the material, who don’t want to be there, and that can really be challenging. Because the physical production of a show has just got to click along. It’s expensive, and it’s hard, and it’s time-consuming, and you can’t really set it down.
I mean, I remember when I became a show runner, one of the first things I had to do was go talk an actor out of their trailer. And nothing prepares you for that, you know? This is a person who’s incredibly highly paid and incredibly famous, and they don’t want to do their job. And it’s like, there’s no other job in the world—or maybe there is, but I am not familiar with it—where people would just say, “I’m not doing it.” And you’ve got to go in there and, you know, flatter them and coax them, and figure out what’s wrong.
You know, the same thing, writers who are not giving it their all. You know, sometimes people are either distracted or uninterested. Or, writers room problems. Writers rooms problems can be devastating. I’ve certainly worked in a room with people with, you know, one writer hates another writer, absolutely hates them, doesn’t respect them, thinks they have it out for them and they’re trying to embarrass them. Or had a fling that didn’t work out. I mean, imagine a really, really uncomfortable thing where two people decide, oh, this intensity, we’re going to have a relationship, and then the relationship doesn’t work out and they’re still forced to spend 10 or 12 hours a day sitting next to each other with all of these other people who are looking at them, most of whom know about the affair. It’s disastrous.
Plotz: How do you enforce the code of secrecy that I’m sure you need to ensure that people aren’t leaking plot points and things like that? Because you guys had a great secret this year which no one knew about, which dropped and—how do you make sure that it doesn’t get out?
Turk: That was an interesting one—you’re referring to The Good Wife and one of the characters, Will Gardner, you know, being shot to death in court—and that was a real achievement. I think everyone was concerned about it. Generally the people who know about what’s going on are the writers. Writers almost never leak, in my experience. It’s so self-defeating, right? I mean, we work so hard on this stuff, there would be no reason for us to put it out there. I think actors feel the same way.
And the crews are really professional, and so we don’t generally have those kinds of problems. And also, it’s rare that you have such a major event that anyone would really consider it newsworthy. I mean, definitely things escape out, you know, into the blogosphere where there are really hardcore fans, and they will say, “Oh, I heard so-and-so is doing this.” And they’ll watch for really small things, like, you know, someone who’s sort of a tangential character on our show but is auditioning for another pilot.
And they’ll say, “Oh, well, that means they’re not going to be on The Good Wife, which means the relationship they’re in currently has to end,” or, you know, something like that. But by and large we don’t have those problems. It was different with the death of this character because he’s a major, major character in the show. It was a huge moment. Nobody wanted to promote it. We wanted it to happen, like, unfortunately things happen in real life, and so that was quite a thing.
I mean, watermarking scripts so that there are no scripts floating around, and if something got out, you know, we’d be able to track it to where it came from. Limiting the distribution. Talking to the people who are involved in the production of the show, including guest actors or background actors who are there for, you know, half an hour for one scene to walk behind someone on their way to court. And just trying to impress upon them, “Look, this is something really big and really interesting that we’re trying to do. It’s for the good of the show. We’re proud to have you as part of the show. Please, please keep our secret.” And miraculously for, like, three months everybody did.
Plotz: How do you deal with people who are in your industry but don’t watch your show? What’s the response to them?
Turk: I never take it personally because I don’t watch most other people’s shows. I have very dear friends with very successful shows, and they’re either just not my thing or I don’t have time. So, I never take it personally. Some people do, some people feel like, you know, it’s terrible. But I think, you know, for people who work in the industry, the expectation is that you’ve seen everything at least once and you have kind of a general idea of what’s going on. I mean, most people even if they didn’t watch The Good Wife knew, you know, that this character had died, and that’s perfectly fine.
I think you have somewhat of an obligation as a member of this particular tribe to have a general sense of what’s out there, but as for specific knowledge, I mean, it’s too big a time suck, you know, for people to go too, too deep.