Alec Berg on Silicon Valley
Alec Berg: why fact is funnier than fiction, the advantages of HBO's 10-episode seasons, and writing the way a musician would play.
By Donna Marie Miller.
Screenwriter and producer of HBO’s current smash hit series Silicon Valley Alec Berg, who formerly worked on television sitcoms Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, unabashedly admits to using other people’s real-life stories. In fact, he has built a lucrative career writing TV scripts about the real things real people say and do. And since 2013, Alec, co-creator Mike Judge and a team of writers have scripted true stories to fit Silicon Valley’s fast-paced and funny comedy series about an incubator start up company, Pied Piper.
“We get credit for a lot of things that happen on Silicon Valley that are not things that we made up. There’s a joke in the pilot about how Peter Gregory drives this very narrow car. People would say that it is hilarious that we made up the car. We didn’t make up the car; it’s a real car. It’s a funny real thing. Those real things are always the most interesting, the funniest, and trying to think of what’s going to be funny is never as funny as funny things that have actually happened.”
Silicon Valley’s tall tales focus on a geeky computer genius, Richard Hendricks, played by Thomas Middleditch, who accidentally designs game-changing software known as a compression algorithm. The fantasy data compression tool makes texts, files, music and movies smaller and easier to transmit across the Internet. Hendricks leads a band of unkempt sidekicks, coder Bertram Gilfoyle, played by Martin Starr, programmer Dinesh Chugtai, portrayed by Kumail Nanjiani, and business development expert Jared Dunn played by Zach Woods. The four men live and work together in disagreeable harmony inside the home office of a cocky pot-smoking con man and philanderer Erlich Bachman, played by T.J. Miller. The sitcom’s storylines blur between leisure, video game play, and indulgence in food, alcohol and drugs.
The writers of Silicon Valley rely upon the tech community of Palo Alto, interviewing experts who help to provide content. “For Silicon Valley, it’s all just about research, meeting with a ton of different people. We’ve met dozens and dozens of different people – venture capitalists, lawyers, founders, coders.”
Initially, the writers faced some difficulty getting local tech people to talk openly about their covert and somewhat controversial activities. “People were very suspicious because there was a really not very done well reality show set in Silicon Valley a few years ago, and that’s what people kind of think of when you say you’re going to do a TV show about Silicon Valley. But since the first season aired and people kind of know what they’re dealing with, it has become massively easier to get insiders interested in sharing their stories.”
And maintaining accuracy has fostered a level of trust. “They know we’re not going to tell these fake salacious stories and we’re not there to undermine or take shots at anybody. I think we’re poking loving fun at that business. And it’s a nice thing to have story-wise where if you get stuck, you can always just ask, ‘What would really happen if?’ and talk to some people who actually lived things like this and steal their lives.”
Art Imitates Life
One such example of art imitating life occurs in season one, episode five, “Signaling Risk,” when Bachman hires a graphic artist to paint a logo for Pied Piper. The finished mural painted on the outside of Bachman’s garage and home office featured the likeness of one company programmer sporting an enormous genitalia while simulating intercourse with the Statue of Liberty. Writers framed the episode after David Choe, a street artist who painted murals inside Facebook’s offices in exchange for stock.
“It’s actually a famous tech story. Choe spent a few days painting murals in the Facebook offices and he ended up making — I don’t know what it was in the end — a few hundred million dollars. Because Facebook didn’t have any cash to give him, they just gave him stock options.”
The fictional mural artist in Silicon Valley, identified as Chuy Ramirez, wants Pied Piper stock options as payment in exchange for his contracted artwork, but instead receives a cash-only 10K deal. “That’s a prime example of where we get our stories. We’ll take a few tech stories and we’ll kind of twist them and expand them and build them into stories for our show.”
Coping with Loss
The show suffered a great loss during season one, when actor Christopher Evan Welch, died at age 48 following a three-year battle with lung cancer. Afterwards, the writers had to figure out how to address the loss of his popular character Peter Gregory, Pied Piper’s eccentric investor.
“He was a great guy, he had a wife, kids and it was awful. He couldn’t have been more lovely. Also, we lost a brilliant character and an actor that we could have written about for years.”
Silicon Valley’s writers had to rewrite the series without Welch.
“As a writer, that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – to go through those scripts and to delete that character from the script. It was so heartbreaking. There were a couple of scripts that we had already read with the actors at the table and so we heard a sort of table read version of what Welch was going to do with those scenes, and they were great, and I was really looking forward to shooting them and having them as part of the show.”
An Alpha Female
In season two, then, writers introduced actress Suzanne Cryer, who portrayed Laurie Bream, the idiosyncratic managing partner and numbers cruncher for Raviga Capital, Pied Piper’s newest investor. Bream’s robotic-like movements and failure to make eye contact portray her as a woman who behaves unflatteringly like the stereotypical version of a corporate man.
An associate partner, Monica, played by Amanda Crew, also grounds the show with beauty and brains while portraying the smartest female tech in California.
10 Episode Seasons
HBO has a policy of running only 10 episodes per season.
“We do the same number of episodes as Game of Thrones. They do 10 because their production is so sprawling and so massive; I think they’re killing themselves to do 10 episodes of that show a year.”
“HBO also need to have a certain number of shows on the air, so that when you buy a subscription to HBO, you’re not subscribing to one show or two shows, or three shows. You’re buying a subscription to the 12 or 15 or however many different shows they have on the air. These shorter order shows serve them because it just means that they have time to air more shows in a year. It helps the value of their subscription packets.”
Formerly, networks had to create 88 or 100 episodes before they could sell them in syndication in order to recoup their money. “Now, you know what? If you make 10 really good episodes or eight or six episodes of something, you can sell it. Look at True Detective. That was a phenomenon. That was a very short order and because it was short, HBO got better people to work on it. Oscar winning actors were willing to work on it because it’s not that big of a commitment.”
“People who used to say ‘I’m not going to get locked into shooting a television series for nine months a year for the next seven years.’ Now, the caliber of performers that you get who are willing to do these say ‘Oh sure, I’ll shoot a TV show for two and a half or three months every year and for the other nine months of the year I can off and shoot features and do whatever I want to do. I think you’re getting people who used to live in features where they could spend time to really craft something and get it right and now those people are coming to work in television.”
Short seasons means that Berg and his team can write the entire season before shooting begins. “So, if we come up with something in episode eight or nine, that affects or plays off of something from an earlier episode, we can actually go back and we can say ‘Oh shoot. We should have set this moment in episode nine up in episode two.’ There’s plenty of time to address that. It means that we really handcraft every episode to get it right.”
This is in sharp contrast to times when he did not have such luxury, writing multiple episodes for Seinfeld simultaneously while production crews shot two or more others. “Those earlier episodes were already locked and shot, sometimes edited, and sometimes aired already, depending upon how crazy your schedule was.”
Not Writing to Rule
“We don’t have a diagram on the wall that represents what the shape of each show should be. We certainly don’t conform things to any kind of rule of how they should look or how they should feel. That’s part of the joy of the show; we’re just finding it out every week.”
That said, by coincidence, several episodes last season ended with cliffhangers. “Somebody said ‘Boy, you’re sure doing a lot of cliffhangers as endings this season,’ and we hadn’t really thought about it. Somebody pointed it out and I said ‘Oh, are we?’ I hadn’t really thought about it. It’s certainly not by design. One of the unique things about Mike Judge is that he was a musician for years. So, a lot of the way he writes is very similar to the way a musician would play; he plays a lot of stuff by ear.”
Berg compares Judge’s writing style to music.
“It’s a little bit like jazz; it’s free-form. You know it when you hear it. You play certain notes and they don’t sound right, so you change them until they sound right. Then you go ‘OK, that sounds right.’ That’s kind of like how the show has always worked.”
Berg organizes all of the discussions on a white board, while the team decides structure and ideas for the season. Afterwards, he types the key words into a document and projects them onto a screen. Using the key words projected, individually selected writers create scripts for each episode.
“Having more than four people in a room tends to kind of water things down and you write jokes that 10 people think are funny with different comedy beats rather than what two or three people think are funny. It starts to feel ‘sitcomy’ and ‘jokey.’ Whereas you can do more nuance and more sophisticated stuff in smaller groups. I think if you’re doing stand up in front of 20 people you can do much more interesting stuff than you can if you’re doing stand up in front of 500 or 1,000 people. The sound of 20 people not laughing at a not sophisticated joke is lots less deafening than the sound of a thousand people not laughing at the same joke. It tends to affect the writing process the same way.”
HBO executives don’t mess with the writers’ scripts. “It takes a certain amount of courage as an executive to read a script and not feel like you have to give notes on every page. They’re just smart. If there are big problems, they have a lot of suggestions and if things are working they pretty much leave them alone. They are smart enough to know the difference.”
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our interview with Blake Ross about his Viral Spec Script for Silicon Valley?
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