“Being Part Of A Room Is As Important As The Writing Itself” TV Writer Matthew Tinker Talks ‘Big Little Lies’
Matt Tinker has certainly earned his stripes to become a working TV writer. In his early career days, Tinker was as an assistant to the veteran TV producer David E. Kelley known for top rating TV shows including LA Law, Boston Legal, and Goliath. Matthew Tinker ground his TV writing teeth through his experience in TV writers’ rooms as a writers’ assistant and later as a story editor. He now boasts producing and writing credits on HBO’s Big Little Lies and the upcoming The Undoing. He sat down with Creative Screenwriting Magazine to discuss his career and how TV writers can make it.
“I think persistence is the main key for anyone in this business because you just never know when that luck is going to strike,” said Matt Tinker. “When that lucky moment does arrive and your path does cross with somebody, it’s vital that you’re ready to go and have that sample or that pitch ready to help you stand out because you never know when that moment is going to come. It’s all about being prepared and being ready for that moment.”
For nearly a decade, Tinker worked on his writing style at night, after working as a PA during the day. “I watched a lot of TV and I read a lot of TV scripts. I’ve worked with David E. Kelley now for several years, and his number one rule is writing what you know. You don’t have to be a doctor to write a medical drama, but you better go talk to some doctors. You better do the groundwork before you try to write and sort of live in that world. You need to know everything about that world before you can write it.”
Kelley was a fancy east coast lawyer which inspired him to start writing legal dramas like The Practice and Ally McBeal when he moved to Los Angeles. Tinker found his voice writing TV scripts similar to the shows he grew up watching.
“Kelley inspired me to go out and find my own world. In the business, we put a lot of emphasis on the proper structure, proper formatting. I don’t think that’s entirely correct, because I think voice is such a unique thing.”
The TV writer clarified, “I’ve read scripts that are formatted in ways that I’ve never seen before, but the voice and the dialogue are so unique. It’s like if you’re at a party, and all of a sudden, you’re sitting with a group of people and one person begins to speak up, you hear more of them than others. You generate your focus towards that one person. So to me, voice is not quantifiable.”
Craft and Voice
People use the words “craft” and “voice” interchangeably, but Tinker sees a distinction. “To help others understand your voice, you need structure. I think you have to be able to put your own spin on a package, which others are going to be able to quickly digest and understand. You can be the funniest writer in the world or you can have an incredible concept in your head for an amazing drama, but unless you have that discipline in that craft to package it appropriately, you’re never going to be able to get that voice out of your head and onto the page.”
As such, Tinker believes many TV writers are also too concerned with creating a personal writing brand than perfecting the craft. In one example, he spoke about HBO’s new series, Chernobyl. Described as “one of the most surprising shows to come out this year,” the writer also said, “if you look at Craig Mazin’s IMDB page, you’d be surprised to see Chernobyl after a history of films like Scary Movie 3, The Hangover Part II, and Identity Thief.” Sequential deas and completed screenplays are not necessarily logical, so your next script may not obviously look like a natural progression from the last.
“To brand oneself is a bit of a wrong move. I think others are going to inevitably brand your writing. And certainly, that can be taken as a compliment to pointing out your strengths and what they bring to life. But as a writer, I think it’s a bit dangerous to say, ‘Well, okay, he’s a comedy guy so he can’t do drama.’”
In the early stages of your screenwriting career, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to have some sort of brand to land the first few jobs. “It certainly helps you get your foot in the door, but if you already have three drama samples, why not write a 30-page comedy? I don’t think it would hurt and now you have that sample as well.”
David E. Kelley’s Assistant
As Tinker worked for different writers, he had different responsibilities as a Writer’s Assistant. He said a lot of people compare the writers” room to the first day of high school, where you’re feeling out the room and the vibes from each individual person. “There are certain people you’re going to click with and certain people you’re not. There are certain people you’re going to have to learn to work with.”
“Also, you’re there to help tell other people’s voices. You’re there to help them organize their thoughts. That’s not to say you don’t have something to contribute, but there’s really a system in a TV writers’ room, depending on the room. There’s a real place for you to show what you know, but I had just as much pride getting lunch as I did putting note cards on a board. You’re learning how to learn. Being a part of the room as just as important as the writing itself.”
For the most part, Tinker’s rise in the industry is typical. He gave examples of friends who took assistant jobs and others who went into the field from the business side for HBO and Netflix. “I don’t think either one was more successful than the other. But I will say I know the people who went into a room first tabbed out faster than others.”
“If you go into a writers’ room as a writers’ assistant, I think that gives you a pretty clear idea or perspective on what it’s going to take to be in this business for a prolonged period of time. So if I had to choose between the two, I would say, being a writer’s assistant would be tough.”
Tinker started working with Kelley on the Robin Williams series, The Crazy Ones. As a researcher and assistant, the assistant learned a great deal from Kelley. “It was a compatible system for me. When I saw how David worked, I knew I could help him organize his thoughts and whatever he needed.”
After The Crazy Ones, the writer went to work on Goliath on Amazon. At this point, the role started to expand more and more. Soon, he was pitching ideas, creating storylines, providing notes on scripts, and commenting. By the time he got to Big Little Lies, he was problem-solving and doing whatever needed to be done.
At this point, Kelley gives Tinker notes and scripts on legal pads, where the assistant provides feedback. Over the past six years, the younger writer has learned a great deal through osmosis, just by being around Kelley. That said, Tinker said Kelley is still a “one man machine” and the “fastest writer he’s ever seen.”
Writing Multiple TV Shows
Kelley works on several shows at one time. “He’s such a prolific writer and he is so gracious. Working with him instilled me to deal with the day to day set issues and help actors get through certain problems they had with scripts.”
“I have a great deal of respect for producers and vice versa. When you sit down to write your spec script, you shouldn’t even touch that Producer cap. You should write the most authentic and powerful script you can and not worry about budgets, or schedules, or anything non-creative. So it’s important to have a healthy respect for both worlds. Otherwise, as a writer, you’re going to play it safe.”
Across the board, Tinker looks at character and then looks for relatability within the character in his writing. On Big Little Lies, the writers’ room would often look back to the book to see more of the strong female characters. “He wrote such rich material to pull from. We were constantly listening and that door was always open. As a producer, we wanted to tell a gripping story, but it should be rooted in real material.”
The writers had to expand upon an adaptation, which the first season was based upon. That said, the characters felt so real, it wasn’t necessarily a stretch to expand upon the idea past the Season 1 finale. Tinker felt the same for Mr. Mercedes, as Stephen King’s work also feels very real in terms of character.
“In the Stephen King universe, you can put these real characters in the fantastical situation. So the character of Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), he is straight with his daughter, even if he was going after a serial killer, which is a horrific experience that I’ve never had an experience with. But, I was able to relate to Hodges.”
Dangers of Routine
Whenever the writer feels stuck, he looks for a change of pace. “If I was going to work, you know what happens on your way to work on Tuesday because your brain is in cruise control. I think routine can be a bit dangerous to a TV writer. As much as it can be helpful, we all need routines to get these words down to a page on a deadline. But we also need to break routine in order to find the material or the inspiration necessary to create something new.”
In addition to a change of pace, Tinker reads as much as he can, but he also bounces ideas off his wife, who is also a writer. Together, the couple will spitball ideas and “go down the rabbit hole” to see what character or stories might emerge, such as their pending series Black Box. “If you have your ears open or a willingness to break routine, ideas will find you, if you’re willing to listen.”
Once you gain some traction, it’s easier to get your hands on an adaptation, but it’s difficult in the beginning to find IP as a young, inexperienced writer. “It’s nearly impossible to get your hands on a book or bestseller before someone else does unless you’re best friends with the author. IP right now is very popular. It’s sort of like real estate in New York and Los Angeles, so they’re only top people playing that game. For me, at least, it wasn’t a game I was able to play.”
“We sort of live in a world where everyone just sees the best of other people, whether that’s on Deadline, or Instagram, or when they’re showing their vacation, and we forget what goes into those moments. We have a tendency to think success happens overnight. I don’t beat myself up about it. I have a mentor who taught me to get it onto the page and stop worrying about being perfect.”
“It is so easy to second guess yourself, but if I need to write five pages today, then I write five pages. I think that’s why David still writes longhand. The majority of us are using a keyboard and it’s so easy to hit that delete key or open a new file or another script. So what scares me at times is the second guessing of the profession.”
Overall, Tinker is happy with this time period as a TV writer. “It’s a great time to be a writer. There are so many places for content and the industry is changing so quickly that writers and agents and networks are trying to figure out, What the hell is going on? It’s an exciting problem. There are so many great shows. Currently, the next hurdle is to make things a bit more but in terms of all these streaming platforms. But when the dust settles, I’m looking forward to building platforms to share content.”
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