“I Use The Pain Of My Past And The Joy Of My Present To Write” Says ‘State Of Affairs’ & ‘The Blacklist’ Writer Michael Perri
Michael Perri grew up in Chicago’s foster care system. After college, Perri began his career in cryptology, eventually becoming a clandestine cyber-intelligence operative and consultant, working undercover in the intelligence community. His clients included the NSA, US Joint Strike Fighter Program, Lockheed Martin, and Halliburton. Following the untimely death of his adoptive parents, Perri decided to pursue his passion for storytelling and move to LA to write. Since that time, he has earned coveted spots in NBC’s Writers on the Verge and The National Hispanic Media Coalition TV writing programs.
Perri has been staffed on Starz’ Teresa, NBC’s Blindspot, State of Affairs and The Blacklist. He shared his insights on being a TV writer for Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
Why did you choose to write for TV above other writing formats?
I grew up in the foster care system of Chicago until I was ten years old. TV was not only my babysitter, but it was my escape; a refuge for me to have consistency in a volatile world filled with everything but consistency. Every week, I got to “connect,” seeing the same kick-ass people in the same kick-ass worlds do kick-ass things and it brought me absolute joy.
Michael Knight from Knight Rider, Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties and my personal favorite, Sam from Quantum Leap. Every week, he helped the less fortunate find their way, while also hoping the next leap would be the leap home. I wanted to leap to a home too, and these characters on TV filled my mind with infinite wonder and imagination.
It shielded me from the harsh environment and protected me like a newborn pup. TV and I were meant to be together. And, although it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done career-wise (and I used to live undercover for my career) TV is the most fulfilling.
How do the TV writers’ rooms you’ve worked in function?
I’ve been on three network shows and on a cable mini-room. They all function DIFFERENTLY. So, flexibility and adaptability are key. You need to show up and be ready for ANYTHING. That’s because you hop aboard a big old school bus and the driver of the rather large wobbly vehicle (the showrunner) has the GPS set to their preferences as to how to break story and derive an episodic template for their show each week.
On some of the procedurals I worked on, we were all together in one giant room, breaking story based on two factors – the underlying serialized elements of the show and the story of each episode. The showrunner knew that by episode 6, a certain turn would happen and by episodes 13 and perhaps 22, there would also be character/plot twists and reveals we would need to target and hit.
Then, based on the show’s engine, our job would be to come up with the crazy case or villain of the week. If the case or villain tied in with something going on with the main character’s personal plights, it’s a thematic bonus. I’ve also worked in a room where it’s “independent study.” There is no formal room – you break story independently and are “called up” to pitch to the brain trust of the EPs and showrunners.
So, you pitch ideas and if they like an idea, you’re off breaking your story. Or they could come to your office and say, “hey… you’re going to write episode 10 and it’s going to be this…” And then you work to break the story and go. You have to be flexible and speak the same language as the Showrunner(s) as well. On one show, they kept calling some characters “muffins” – which was showrunner speak for needing someone to save in the climax of the episode.
How does the TV episode outlining process work?
On my most recent show The Blacklist we used a giant LED Touch Screen called “Bluescape.” The writers’ assistant places cards for each act (Acts 1- 6) on the board and we look at the overall structure and story of the episode – key plot points or character turns we are aiming to achieve. Usually, we know the tops and bottoms of each act (because of the predefined engine of the show) and we try to fill in the middle… this is due to what holds more weight… and the A story usually does… most of my shows are crime procedurals, so the characters have to follow clues, persons of interests and investigate… as these characters do this, we also have to have them talk about the case but also about their relationships and such… we try to figure out what pushes each characters buttons as the case heightens.
Then, we figure out a personal story (B story) we might explore (someone being stalked, someone wanting to adopt a child, etc.) Once we get that all on the note cards, we move those note cards to a prose-based document (aka the outline). Then it’s usually my job as the writer of the episode to make sure the outline makes sense. This means that it grabs the reader’s attention and it’s suspenseful and clear. Specificity is key. It allows the network or studio to see the whole episode in a short amount of real estate. Above all, the outline is a sales document… It proves you can give the network/studio and the audience what they signed up to watch each week. From there, you’ll get notes and have to be willing to give and take.
How rigid are procedural stories compared to other TV dramas?
There’s a certain “formula” or template for procedural dramas. More serialized dramas rely on unlocking secrets and exploring conflicts between the characters — whereas every week, on a procedural, there is an engine that everyone expects. On The Blacklist, we strive to unveil the craziest, wildest, over the top (albeit believable) villain that Raymond Reddington knows about. He gives us the case and there’s a way the FBI needs to investigate and how Red plays with the FBI and the villain… and each season, there’s also a big character reveal on Red himself… who he is and why he is working with the FBI. Some shows though never get into character’s backstories. But… above all, the “engine” or “formula” is there to give the show its look, feel and drive.
How much individual flair can you infuse into your TV scripts?
Most of the shows I’ve been working on allow you to “experiment,” but you can’t stray too far from the formula. I did recently pitch a twisted “Rashamon” version of an episode (which yes, has been done before a million times) – but, in the end, they never went for it… but they did let me pitch out a version… That’s the fun – you can pitch ideas filled with “flair” and see what lands, but in the end, you need to give the audience what they expect each week to a certain point.
Describe your unique background and how it informs your TV writing?
Growing up with 4 different name changes (I was born Emmanuel Pedro) and in foster care made me strive for a few things in life: family, connection and legitimacy. So, I think I am drawn to characters with unique identities… characters that want to redeem their past, characters who long to be a part of something (a family – foster – real or even a work family).
After college, I studied Computer Science and Cryptology. After doing work for the government and civilian outfits, I was recruited, undercover, to thwart threats against our country—but it lacked the connection I so long desired. I felt disconnected even more lost. I went back to what made me happy… TV… and TV writing.
Along the way, I got married, had a family of my own and now I use the pain of my past and the joy of my present (and future) as a family man with my own my children to help me tap into real emotions. Writing needs to come from a real place. I love writing from a truthful perspective because it’s relatable. I used to be ashamed of my past in foster care and undercover and now I embrace it. I embrace the authentic feelings we humans have and I try to bring that to the page — from the pain of loss (which I have had a lot of in my life) to the joys of parenthood or to struggling to make your relationships work. It’s all there, ripened for me to slam down onto the page.
How much research do you do for each episode?
It depends on the show, but I am an article junkie. I am always scouring Wired or The Atlantic for ideas. And then when one hits, I can be online (for like… ever) downloading articles or making cold calls to professionals for help. I love it, but there is a certain point when you need to get to the writing part and not procrastinate 😉
What inspires you to be a storyteller?
Using the lens of a “fake world” to tell a true story. Like, in Mad Men, I loved how what was going on in the 1960s could also be a reflection of what is happening today. I am a theme guy – so if I can use the world and character to convey a certain POV and have that POV tested and explored on screen. It gives me the “happies“ as I call it.
Do you have a personal favorite show you’ve written on?
They are all my very close little friends and children. I’ve learned so much from them all. The Blacklist taught me how to break story based on the crazy villains of the week and how to breathe life into a larger than life main character. My cable mini-room taught me how to build a wonderful serialized plot all from a character as opposed to a plotty network engine.
State of Affairs helped me understand how characters relationships with one another can drive the story in a whole new direction. Again, it’s always a learning experience and I embrace it wholeheartedly.
What skills does it take to become a successful TV writer in today’s landscape?
Persistence. Positivity. Patience. Writing is rewriting. Don’t be afraid to try and retry and try again. Get feedback from a trusted source and find champions who “get you” and what you do. It’s a cliché, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve been here 12 years and have been writing professionally for 5 years… so, it took 7 years to break in thanks to getting into The National Hispanic Media Coalition’s Program and NBC’s Writers on the Verge.
Do you have a personal philosophy on life?
Two things: First: “Everything is a thing.” When I first moved here, a friend said, “Here in LA… everything is a thing… getting coffee is a thing, parking is a thing, finding an apartment is a thing, driving is a thing…”
There are always these little speed bumps on the road to your wants, desires, and dreams. Don’t sweat the small stuff… which leads me to …
Second: Persistence…. Persistence pays off. I am only working, enjoying my family, writing because I persisted… be persistent — not annoyingly persistent, but graciously persistent. Be present in the moment. Learn from your mistakes. Move on and keep going. You’ll surprise yourself.
What makes a good TV great?
Wow. It’s a combo of everything. Acting, writing, directing… but I think it comes down to great storytelling – with thematic elements that tie everything together. Again, I love theme – I call it “story glue.” Some shows have no points of view. That’s why I enjoyed The Crown and absolutely loved Downton Abbey. Every episode of Downton had a thematic POV… I loved it. One episode was about a yearly cricket match. The downstairs “help” and the upstairs aristocrats join forces for a series of competitive games. Everyone needed to fill out team rosters and there was a big question asked — literally and thematically — “What team are you on?” The episode was so fun and characters relationships were tested as a result. Ha… maybe I should move to Britain and write for British TV because quite honestly I’m getting way too addicted to it.
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