Hollie Overton and Lifetime’s The Client List
TV writer Hollie Overton discusses breaking in, contests, and how to work “in the room”
by Brianne Hogan
Hollie Overton, story editor on Lifetime’s The Client List, always loved television, but like many eventual TV writers, never really thought about writing for it. Even though she secretly wrote stories, journaled and worked on the school newspaper back in her hometown of Kingsville, Texas, Overton was convinced she was going to be an actress.
So, like most aspiring actresses, she headed to New York City, enrolling at the American Academy of Dramatic Art and attending Humber College. But when she found herself spending more time waitressing and bartending than acting, her mother suggested that she give Los Angeles a try. With her mom’s help (a.k.a. a new car and six months of rent paid for), Overton made the ultimate cross-country trip and headed to Hollywood.
But once she was settled into her new West Coast digs, Overton faced the common conundrum that affects all out-of-work actors, especially those with Type A-tendencies: “I started taking acting classes and auditioning. I loved doing it but felt frustrated by my lack of control,” Overton says. “So I began writing.” She started out with short scripts first, and then moved onto features.
She won a small writing contest where she met Stephen Susco (The Grudge, High School), who became her mentor. “[Stephen] not only encouraged me to write and produce my own short film, but mentioned TV writing might be a good fit,” Overton remembers.
Understanding that television writing was a different animal than what she was used to, Overton took an Intro to TV Writing class at UCLA Extension, instructed by Bruce Miller (Medium, ER, Eureka). The class was essentially a writer’s room where the students learned how to break stories and write outlines for their scripts. Overton was instantly hooked. “I realized this was a job that would not only satisfy my creative needs, but something that I could really excel at,” says Overton. “It was also a job where I was in the driver’s seat. Acting required a stage or a set, but I could write anywhere. There was no guarantee I’d get paid, but no one could ever stop me from writing. [The class] fueled a fire in me to try and break into TV.”
With a solid spec (Friday Night Lights) under her belt from Miller’s class at UCLA, Overton managed to break into TV sooner than expected when she was accepted into the Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop in 2009.
“I never in a million years expected to get into the WB Writers’ Workshop and it changed my life,” says Overton. “It was one of the hardest and best experiences of my professional life. Chris Mack and Chase Bartel put their heart and soul into helping each writer to prepare for the rigors of writing professionally. They run the program like a real writer’s room, and it can be challenging when you’re new to the process. But it’s the best experience next to a staff gig.” And after completing the workshop, Overton got one of those “staff gigs” when she was hired on the last season of Cold Case.
Of script contests and workshops, Overton is supportive of them—with the right amount of caution (“I think with any contest you have to make sure it’s reputable and not just some way for those running it to get rich.”). Besides getting accepted into the WB Writers’ Workshop, she also placed first for Scriptapalooza’s annual TV writing contest in 2010 after her run ended on Cold Case.
“I had heard good things about [the contest] and after Cold Case ended I was looking for new representation. I had written a drama pilot called Bad Habits, but it received mixed feedback from the few connections I had. I really believed in this script and decided to enter it in Scriptapalooza hoping it would get some traction and land me a new manager or agent. That didn’t happen but the cash prize was nice and it gave me validation that it was a great script (and it’s a script that still gets me meetings),” says Overton.
As for her current representation, Overton landed her manager, Adesuwa McCalla at Metamorphic Entertainment, through a referral from a friend. She signed with WME after working on The Client List for a few months. It was McCalla who was crucial in landing Overton the staff-writing gig on The Client List. This season Overton’s been promoted to story editor. Creative Screenwriting spoke with Overton and we found her story very helpful to aspiring TV and screenwriters.
BRIANNE HOGAN: How important is having representation for aspiring TV writers?
HOLLIE OVERTON: You really can’t get a job in TV, unless maybe you have family connections without representation. But I think you have to be ready. Lots of people write one script and want an agent. I know it’s been said a million times, but it bears repeating—your first script is generally not your best. So keep writing and make sure you have several scripts polished and ready to go. If you’ve made connections with someone, and they read something that isn’t ready, that’s a bridge you’ve burned.
HOGAN: How did you land your current gig on The Client List?
OVERTON: My manager, Adesuwa McCalla, was crucial in making that happen. The minute I signed with her, she got me tons of general meetings and was just so passionate about my writing and getting people excited about me. When she heard The Client List was staffing, she got the showrunner my material and made it clear why I was right for the job: I was from Texas, grew up with a single mom, etc. I had a lot of life experience that made me a good fit for the show. I met with Lifetime who agreed, and then I was lucky enough to get a meeting with Jordan Budde, the creator of the show. I went to that meeting well-prepared and passionate about what he had created. It was just a lot of things coming together. I feel lucky to have spent the last two seasons on the show.
HOGAN: What prepared you for writing in a writer’s room? What were some of the challenges you faced?
OVERTON: I don’t know that anything can prepare you for the writer’s room. It can be a very intimidating place. I think showing up and listening, and learning and being really targeted about what you say is important. If you only have one or two pitches a day, that’s fine. Make sure they’re great.
I think being good in the room takes time. Initially, you’re worried about sounding stupid or pitching bad ideas. That fades as you get more comfortable. It’s important to take risks and speak up so you can show your value. Some days you’ll be on a roll and everything you pitch will be golden and other times, nothing you say will stick.
I think it’s also important to seek out a mentor. Find an upper level writer and seek out their advice. There are so many generous, talented writers who remember what it’s like starting out. I’ve worked with a bunch of writers who were encouraging and supportive and really made me feel valued.
You also need to do your homework before you get into the room. Have pitches ready for the next day. Also, be sure to read the room notes from the previous day. Read every draft or pitch that is sent out because story points can change, and you don’t want to be pitching on a story that has evolved.
Also, some shows are more research-driven and sometimes that means staying to do research even after you’ve been in the room for eight hours. In the beginning, go above and beyond. Stay late. Show up early. Volunteer to write blogs, or web copy or whatever the rest of the room doesn’t want to write. There’s great value in being the person that goes above and beyond. It not only shows you’re a team player, but that you’re committed to the job.
HOGAN: You moved up from staff writer to now story editor. What does that entail?
OVERTON: As a staff writer, my job was to listen and learn. Of course pitching was important, but you’re not expected take charge because you’re learning. At story editor level, you’re expected to be a bit more involved. Some rooms can be very hierarchical, but I was lucky because on The Client List, our showrunners, Ed Decter and John Strauss, encouraged an open forum. Your level didn’t matter as much; a good idea was a good idea.
On some shows staff writers and story editors may not be involved in production, going to casting or production meetings or being on set. But we got to be totally involved in producing our episode. It’s great because you get to see the process from start to finish, and it really does inform your writing.
HOGAN: Give us a little insight inside the writer’s room. The Client List has an interesting premise—how do you come up with storylines? How do you break stories? How are scripts assigned?
OVERTON: Our show may have a unique premise, but we always started from a grounded place. A lot of stories are inspired by the writers’ own experiences. The news is also a great resource. When this second season began, the showrunners had their vision and we all came together and broke the season arc as a room. Once the basic direction was approved, our showrunners assigned individual episodes and each writer went off and broke their own episode by themselves. Then we’d return to the room and pitch it. Ninety percent of the time the story evolved as everyone weighed in on it but again, it was a very collaborative room. Then once that was done, you were sent off to write the script.
HOGAN: With the announcement of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s pregnancy, how is that going to play out on the show?
OVERTON: It’s a very exciting time for Jennifer and Brian. How this affects the show is currently being discussed. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.
HOGAN: What are your personal go-tos when writing a script? Can you describe your process?
OVERTON: I think when you’re writing your own stuff, you can procrastinate and let things marinate. Like most writers I check Facebook, take my dog for a walk, do yoga, etc. Eventually I force myself to sit down, dig in and get the work done. But when you’re writing on a show, there’s a quick turnaround. You have to deliver on a deadline and it has to be great.
I tend to work better at night, but if we were in the room a lot and I had a script due, I’d usually come home and do a marathon writing session late into the night. I just work better during vampire hours. But writing at the office has its benefits. You’re not alone in the process and you have all these smart experienced people to help you work through things.
HOGAN: Why do you think people are so fascinated with the TV industry, and why is it so hard for some people to break in?
OVERTON: I think people are fascinated with TV because the writing and storytelling is so good. It’s consistently better and more compelling than most movies these days (though I still love movies). TV takes more risks. And because writers want to tell good stories, TV is where everyone is going. It’s hard to break in because some people aren’t ready. They write one or two scripts and when nothing happens, they give up and say it was too hard. I think if you really want to be a writer, you don’t complain about the odds or how hard it is to break in, you just keep writing scripts. That’s all you can control. Eventually if you keep at it, you’ll write one someone loves. Some people get lucky early on, but for others it takes a lot of tries.
But you also have to take risks. Ignore the naysayers or the people who question the odds. People have actually told me they won’t enter the fellowships because there is too much competition. Can you imagine if Callie Khouri, or Shonda Rhimes or any working TV writer said, “You know what, the odds are too great, I’m not even going to try?”
HOGAN: What’s your advice for aspiring TV writers?
OVERTON: Watch TV. It seems obvious but you have to know what’s on. Network, cable and online. Know what you want to write. Comedy or drama, cop procedurals or multi-cams. Be educated about the business because your competition will be. Study the craft. Los Angeles offers some of the best writing classes for film and TV. I love UCLA Extension because they have great teachers who are working professionals. Learn from them but also learn from your peers in the class. Make friends in those classes. I took a pilot writing class and one of my friends from the class ended up introducing me to my current manager. You never know where someone will be in a few years time. They could be the person that helps you get a big break.
I also think being a great writer means having a life outside of writing. Having another career is great. Traveling or interesting hobbies are good too. Having a family. All these experiences help shape your views. I’ve had hundreds of different, weird (and sometimes incredibly soul-sucking jobs) but they make for great stories in the writers room. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
I also think if I had been more informed, I would have gotten a job as a writer’s assistant. You learn so much being in the room. You learn the language and the politics. You get to know the players in the business. It’s like getting a Masters degree in TV writing but they pay you.
HOGAN: What are you watching on TV right now?
OVERTON: I watch everything I can. Right now I’m obsessed with two shows. Rectify is a new original drama on Sundance. It is so smart and nuanced and just a very quiet portrait of what happens when a convicted murderer on death row is released and returns home after twenty years. It’s something a network drama could never do, letting small moments play out. I could go on and on about it because there’s so much I love but seriously, just watch it. There are only six episodes in the first season and I’ve already watched them twice.
My other addiction is Orphan Black on BBC. It couldn’t be more different from Rectify. It’s this crazy cocktail of sci-fi, cop procedural and character drama. Every episode has some sort of explosive moment that leaves you breathless. And I am convinced that lead actress Tatiana Maslany who plays (at current count) seven different characters is destined to become a star.
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