“A Table in the Trenches” Showrunners Carly Mensch & Liz Flahive GLOW
For the last decade, Carly Mensch (pictured left above) and Liz Flahive (pictured right above) have been writing hit, female-driven stories like Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Orange is the New Black, Homeland and GLOW on Netflix. While some may classify the writing duo as hive-minded, they still write as individual partners working towards a complementary goal.
“We don’t sit down at the computer with one person standing over the other,” joked Flahive. “We outline together. We break stories together. We write our scenes on our own and then hand them to the other person. So there’s a clear back-and-forth, but we are at a point when our husbands can’t tell who wrote what scene,” quipped Mensch.
When asked about strategizing a career path in TV writing, Mensch said “I think in TV it would be a lie to think you can create the career you want, but I think both of us have had luck, but also a company of mentors. We both had advocates and people who helped us along the way. Looking back, it feels like a path of design, but I think we just went after TV shows that matched our tastes and voices within.”
The World of GLOW
Their latest project, GLOW, takes a look at the personal and professional lives of a group of female wrestlers in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Created by Flahive and Mensch, the Netflix series stars Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, and an eccentric cast of physical and emotional performers.
Mensch said, “We pitched it at a time when we were expecting Hillary Clinton to be our first female President, and this story would have been in the context of this huge, empowering upswing in the culture. Clearly, that didn’t happen, but the show did play a different role in the conversation. It’s a story about struggle. It’s a story about women trying to figure out their place in the world and their power structure.”
“They have men in charge of them and there are questions about their lives. A lot of the surprise for us has arisen from diving back into the 80s about conversations of women in the workplace, women’s bodies, and how relevant those conversations still are. Sometimes when you’re making a historic piece, it turns out to be an eerie reflection of the present,” concluded Mensch.
The duo’s approach was to create a period piece with a modern brain behind it. By investing in the iconic time period, the story became richer. It was meant to create a true feeling of the time period rather than a wink or nudge at the 80s like some sort of spoof.
“We definitely think of it as a period piece, but also a place where we can tell relevant stories as female writers living in 2019,” asserted Flahive. “We were weirdly attracted to the period and we were writing about wrestling as much as we were about women, which was an art form in 1985, much like today. It’s more of a comic book, cartoon-style that we understand more than modern wrestling,” Mensch added.
Character Comes First
“We never just put something in the show that’s not deliberate or thought-through. We’re not the type of writers who like style for style’s sake or throw in silly costumes. We’re people who start with character, emotional truth and grounded stories and we build out from there,” mused Mensch.
Early in the process of the TV pilot, the writers did discuss how much wrestling to actually involve in the show. Plotwise, the main characters – Ruth Wilder (Brie) and Debbie Eagan (Gilpin) – both started as would-be actresses, but decided to wrestle to make money. They viewed the sport as an acting gig, but found out there was much more to the job.
The TV writers heavily researched 80s wrestling and decided the ring should play on the narrative in terms of both plot and story. Much like fights in a martial arts series or dancing in a dance series, the action needed to push the story forward. “We wanted the ring to be a meaningful thing, rather than something sprinkled on top.”
Filling the TV Writers’ Room
Once Mensch & Flahive decided on the pilot for GLOW, it was time to shape up the writer’s room. Consisting of about seven people, the room is mostly women, sitting around a big table, discussing the goals of the season. The first month consists of character arcs, plot points, the culture of the 80s, and what it was like in that moment and time.
“We’re not those writers who are going to say ‘men can’t write women,’ but [if men wrote the show] I think the perspective would be different. Our show is based on a show from the 80s that was created by men. Obviously, they had different intentions that were clearly exploitative and exaggerated.”
In terms of what makes a GLOW episode, the decision often comes down to taste. “Sometimes we come up with a story that is great for GLOW, but it can be painful when it doesn’t organically come from one of our characters and where they’re going. We have a slush of ideas that are GLOW that haven’t found their way into the story yet. This could be pop culture, something for the character’s growth, or something else that doesn’t quite fit into the balancing act for us.”
Just to fill out the team of wrestlers means creating about a dozen stories for every actress on the show, which doesn’t include the on-screen producers, husbands, boyfriends, and everyone else in the series. With so many rich characters, some minor plot lines fall between the cracks to focus on the overall storyline. “We have a responsibility to the group story that is happening. It’s the story of a team who came together to create this show.”
The Big Picture Barometer
The duo makes sure to occasionally step back and check the anchors of the story, even if that means losing a great side story. They call this the “story barometer.” Mensch & Flahive added, “We tend to capture surprising stories that are a little weird or that you haven’t’ seen before as long as they’re authentic. But we also don’t like to repeat ourselves. It’s not the easiest show to write, even for us.”
“We come in with a bunch of big ideas before we walk into the room, but I think there are a lot of things that are not romantic. Sometimes, one of us will tell the other, ‘I have a really stupid idea.’ Those tend to be the ones that are killer and they make it into the season. Others are, ‘If we don’t do this, we haven’t done it right.’ That show-within-a-show was one example of honing the power of our own TV show.”
“We want to do many, many different kinds of things. Obviously, we’re very tuned into female stories and female characters, so there’s not a limit, but there is a value. We both are attracted to grounded, real stories with comic voices. If there’s a story with no humor, it wouldn’t excite us.”
Finding A Voice
Today, everyone is looking for a screenwriter with a voice. According to the duo, a voice is something that shines through when you’re reading a script. If you can hear a voice in your head, that writer has successfully included their point-of-view, style, or other intangible quality.
You get engulfed into the story so much you essentially forget it has been written.
“To have your own voice but also get inside the mind of the character’s voice is the balancing act,” said Flahive. Additional characteristics of a successful TV writer include collaborative skills, social skills, communication skills, flexibility, support work ethic, and just “people you want to sit around a table with for eight hours a day.”
“People don’t talk about how special TV is. The process is so different than writing a film. There are successful film writers that never meet each other. TV is made at a table in the trenches with people hashing it out for hours, days, weeks, and months. The vibe of that room requires openness and ease while fighting for what you believe in. Not knowing how to be in that group can sink your TV writing career.”
For now, the duo continues to be inspired by writing long-form stories. “We have other ambitions, but the satisfying thing about TV is that we feel we have a ton of creative freedom, lots of control, an appropriate budget, support from the network, and not a lot of creative interference, which is a dream scenario.”
“We’re lucky to work with female producers so we’re not having to translate our experiences. That’s huge. It’s a very exciting time to be in TV. I can’t think of a time when I enjoyed watching TV so much. There are exciting conversations going on and it feels like cultural aspects are being explored, there’s lots of room, and there’s vitality so subjects or plot can get bigger and smaller at the same time.”
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