“Inside The TV Writers’ Room & Beyond” Showrunner Steve Blackman on ‘The Umbrella Academy’ Season 2 (Part 2)
We continue our interview with showrunner Steve Blackman on creating The Umbrella Academy as he discusses how his TV writers’ room operates and how writers can further their writing careers.
Blackman runs his TV writers’ room with a focus on collaboration. “Every TV writer brings something to that room. There are different styles. Some writers throw a hundred different ideas against the wall and only one thing sticks. There are others who sit quietly and then have one point per day, but it’s brilliant.” The showrunner believes that TV writers need to extend their knowledge beyond the writing process.
“I really like to have writers contribute, not just in terms of their voice, but also what’s going into production, what’s going on in terms of showrunning, and how seasons are made. I think what happens is that TV writers are in sort of a vacuum and showrunners don’t explain [enough to writers] because you’re already answering to directors, networks, actors, and a lot of the decision making is made for these reasons rather than to serve the story.”
“I don’t think [those reasons] get shared enough with the writers. The system should mentor young writers so they understand why production works the way it does. It used to be that way, where writers would prep episodes, but that has gone away from most television shows due to cost savings, but that’s a disservice to writers.”
Blackman also encourages TV writers to speak up and ask for more responsibility. “TV writers shouldn’t be afraid to talk to the showrunner and say, ‘I want to be more involved,’ or even, ‘I want to understand why something works the way it does.’”
He encourages his writers to come to him and ask questions on budget and other aspects outside of storytelling. “Today, given the amount of content, writers are moving up the ladder much faster.”
When Blackman started in the business, it took years to climb to the level of showrunner. Now, a TV writer might make it to that position within three years. “Even understanding a simple budget can open a writer’s mind because everything is limited by how much you can spend and how much time you have with a camera. I encourage writers to ask those questions.”
“The other thing that generates invaluable knowledge is understanding how to talk to the studio network, how to respond to notes, and how to understand who they answer to, and why certain notes are given, because there’s always a note behind the note.”
Writer AND Producer
Despite the encouragement Blackman provides for writers to eventually become showrunners or producers, it’s still crucial to separate those two parts of the mind when writing.
“It sounds hypocritical, but I tell writers on the first draft not to be limited by anything production-wise, but to really unload their creative story on the page. That said, if our scripts are fifty-two-pages long, I’m not interested in reading your seventy-two-page script.”
The showrunner wants freedom in the first draft so it can be reined in a little more in the second draft. “Slowly trim the fat so it is something shootable. There’s no reason for writers to hand in unshootable scripts – it’s a nightmare. I’d rather them write it, take a swing, maybe a miss, but then I can explain why we can’t shoot in a location or why something is impossible.”
One unique example he mentioned was that writers love shooting scenes that take place on water, but “it takes far longer than shooting on land,” so writing that scene may “limit something else on production.” In addition to writing on water, using excessive CGI, and having large crowd pieces, there’s also an unexpected expense behind using the full ensemble of characters more often than necessary.
“With ensembles, where we have seven or eight lead characters, what people don’t understand is that to cover so many people in a scene is incredibly time-consuming. Most shows shoot two cameras per day. Shows with more money can get away with three, but shooting five pages with eight characters in a scene can take an entire day to shoot.”
“If you haven’t spent time on a set, I encourage you to do that. Ask the showrunner for permission because there’s an illusion of just how time-consuming it is to physically shoot these shows and do them well. Then, they can think more about page count and production complications. That’s the challenge and that’s what showrunners deal with every day.”
The Binge-Watching TV Model
Blackman assumes his audiences are going to watch three to four episodes of The Umbrella Academy in one sitting, so the team writes with this in mind. In addition, he wants to avoid things like, “Previously, on…”
“The idea now is to write shows that are continuous. They take place exactly where we left off in the previous episode, which is a binge-worthy device. If you’re going to sit and watch it, I want to give you the best binge-worthy experience without recaps.”
The screenwriter also sees the two seasons and two ten-hour movies, to some degree. “We write the shows to a binge market. I know our show was one of the most binged shows in Season 1, so [Season 2] is crafted like a movie, not standalone episodes.”
As such, the series is broken up in two ways. Every character in the ensemble has their own throughline, which has to be broken out amongst the flagpoles of the season. Then, of course, there’s the plot story, or driving engine of the show, which has to be presented in character crossovers. “All of that has to be cultivated and thought out because how those things intermesh is tricky. The season could feel lopsided if one character has a lot more story than the others.”
He said, “The graphic novel of The Umbrella Academy is all over the place in a great way, which makes it so fun, but it would be a nightmare to translate it that way. I’m forced by the medium I’m in to tell as much linear storytelling as I can for it to make sense for the viewers.”
With all of this in mind, however, the real problem is the actual reduction in filmed material, which has gotten worse with the new COVID landscape. “If we’re lucky enough to get a season 3, the script page count will have to go down.”
The reduction comes from things like checking temperatures of cast and crew on set, providing space on set, and other social distancing measures, which will inevitably mean less actual shooting time. “I’ve already lowered the page count of a very busy ensemble.”
“Every writer inevitably hands in episodes longer than we can do, so we have to self-edit and still keep that balance. It doesn’t sound like much, but cutting four or five pages out of a script is so hard to do when everything is interwoven.”
COVID-19 has impacted production schedules, but audiences are also demanding shorter episodes.
“That equates to looking ahead. Every showrunner wants the right page count, but it’s gone down from fifty-eight to fifty-five to maybe 40-minute episodes, which is the new norm,” said Steve.
That’s a shorter time count and shows are not pushing beyond that because that seems to be the top-level people want to consume in a sitting. People binge, but that seems to be the amount things are shifting too,” he said, before concluding, “Gone are the sixty-minute episodes of anything.”
The Tone Pass
“We want our TV writers to bring their interesting voices to the page, but at the end of the day, your job is to emulate the tone of the show. Sometimes you’ll get a great read, but it doesn’t have the tone of the show.”
Blackman always does the last pass of each script, which he refers to as the “Tone Pass.” The goal is to make it feel like the show. “It’s tough though. I’ve been that writer in the room who hands in what I thought was an amazing script and it is good, but the tone is wrong and it’s dramatically changed.”
“It’s easy to take that personally, but at the end of the day, it’s not personal. The show has to feel cohesive. The tone has to be the same throughout the season. The character voices have to match. All those things fit together. A great script from a young writer does all that.”
While this is the end goal, the showrunner actually hires novice writers because of their original works. “I want to know they can write an original voice. It used to be that everyone wrote a West Wing or ER spec script, but now myself and my friends who are showrunners only want to read original content.”
“I want to read what their voice is, who they are as a writer. I will read material other than a screenplay. I will read a short story, a novel, a play – I will read any sort of material that shows his or her unique voice. I just need to be drawn into their writing right from the start.”
Read the first of this interview here.
This article has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.
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