“I Want To Be Moved By Your Writing.” TV writer Latoya Morgan On ‘Shameless,’ ‘Parenthood,’ ‘Into the Badlands,’ & ‘Turn: Washington’s Spies’
Creative Screenwriting Magazine spoke with powerhouse TV writer Latoya Morgan about her TV writing career which has culminated to her current overall deal with AMC network. She shares her thoughts on how screenwriters should experience their lives to the fullest in order to have stories to write.
“I think a successful television writer is someone who is always watching what’s on television, just so they can know the landscape and what’s out there. They need to know where they can fill in a gap,” said screenwriter Latoya Morgan.
Inspired by character-driven shows like The X-Files, The Twilight Zone, The Cosby Show, Melrose Place, and anything on Turner Classic, Morgan considers herself as a 70s aficionado who enjoys dissecting and discussing film and television.
“Writers should always be writing—for themselves and for their TV show. And, a successful screenwriter needs to be living a good life—hanging out with friends, going to plays, going to movies, absorbing art—because it helps replenish the creative well.”
Known for her work on hot TV shows like Shameless, Parenthood, Complications, Turn: Washington’s Spies, and Into the Badlands, Morgan has had a motivating career, hopping around various iconic shows. At this point, she has also just received a coveted overall deal at AMC.
An overall deal comes from the old Hollywood model. Essentially, it means that all of the material Morgan works on, or approaches, must go through AMC. In comparison, there are also first look deals, where a writer has a studio or network deal, but if that studio passes, the writer can move on and shop it around. The former allows the studio ot acquire creative assets while latter is the right of first refusal.
“I think what helped me, in my particular journey, was developing a relationship with a lot of the executives at AMC and fostering relationships with my TV showrunners,” said Morgan. “They could see my work ethic and what kind of material I was cranking out.”
From the network’s perspective, they likely realized Morgan’s talent and how much time they spent nurturing this talent as both a writer and producer. Therefore, an overall deal is meant to keep Morgan within the family at AMC.
Jumping Between Genres In Television
“I never wanted to be pigeonholed into one category. As a kid, I liked multiple types of stories across different genres. Because of that, those are the kinds of stories I wrote—sometimes sci-fi, sometimes horror, sometimes drama,” she asserted. “I never put myself in a box and when I signed with an agent, I made sure to tell my agent to push me for a variety of projects.”
Morgan writes comic books, plays, films, and television scripts. If you look at her portfolio, both Parenthood and Shameless are familycentric, but they couldn’t be any more different from one another. Then, there’s genre work for AMC, such as the sci-fi Kung Fu series, Into the Badlands, and the historical fiction adaptation, Turn: Washington’s Spies.
Despite the seemingly different genres, Morgan knows that her work and her focus always come back to family. This is her core brand. “I see family play out a bunch in the different stories that I write,” she said. “Shameless and Parenthood” are two wildly different shows about family, but at their core, it’s about those familial relationships.”
“Across themes and genres, the opportunity to tell stories about character is what excites me about being a working film and TV writer today.” Again, Morgan advises to refill the well by living your life. She also has shorthand with her mother, conversations with her younger brother, and various friendships to draw from in her writing.
In addition, she fuels her creative spirit by spending a great deal of time talking to people and asking questions they aren’t normally asked. In one example, she mentions speaking with a social worker and asking that person detailed questions about their life. From the other person’s perspective, they’re not usually asked follow-up questions about their daily routines or work life, so they’re flattered to share. These stories may wind up in Morgan’s writing in some form.
“People are really willing to tell stories. I like to take them out for coffee and have them chat,” added Morgan. “I ask them questions and it’s been really helpful. I like the phone too, but the eye-to-eye contact helps you draw out some stories and they’re not worried about looking at their watch. If you carve out the time, it can be very fruitful.”
For her science fiction and historical fiction pieces, however, Morgan’s approach to research had to change. As a self-proclaimed “Super Nerd,” she approached the projects by reading historical novels, fictional books, and historical pieces on various wars. For Turn, she was exciting to dissect a story she knew little about. Her fascination with stories with little coverage, or an unusual approach to time-honored material further excites Morgan.
Turn: Washington’s Spies is based on the period drama by Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, which helped create the bible of the series. Then, all of the writers were invited to go out and read other books about the period to fill in any gaps for the series, such as spy equipment, women’s roles, or other interesting facts they could pitch in the writers’ room.
“I didn’t know our future president George Washington was a spy and he created this team who helped us win the war. I was fascinated by that and when I sat down to speak with the showrunner, we talked about the time period, and once he hired me, I did a bunch of research in the moment.” Thanks to Morgan’s preparedness and fascination with story, she was hired for the job..
“Research doesn’t get enough credit for how rich it can make stories,” she affirms.“Whether it’s a comedy, drama or sci-fi, I just want to be moved when I read something.”
Knowing When to Fail
If Morgan could go back in time, she would tell herself to “relax.” Coming on to Shameless, she often felt terrified or overwhelmed by the responsibility for writing such an iconic TV show. “First of all, it was the most amazing opportunity to work with John Wells (The Company Men, The West Wing), who was one of my television idols.”
“It was great to be in that room with talented writers who were very welcoming to me. In the beginning, when you go out, you want every pitch to land. Sometimes, they’re just not going to land, so be easy with yourself. Know that part of your job is going in to fail. You’re throwing out ideas and half of them won’t work and that’s okay,” mused the screenwriter. A failed pitch oftens means that the idea isn’t right for the show.
“I’ve always been drawn to darker stories and Hugh Howey’s novel Wool was an opportunity to tell one set in the dystopian future with great elemental science fiction. At the heart of the story, I have a wonderful female protagonist who drives the action. She comes from the wrong side of the tracks, or the bottom of the silo,” said the screenwriter. “I like the story of this girl and her rise to power in this society.”
In some ways, Wool has also been influenced by the current politics of the world. “If anything, today’s social landscape makes you want to tell stories that matter—stories that have an emotional underlying theme that really resonates.” Morgan enjoys stories that are specific in detail, but also universal in scope, citing examples such as BlacKkKlansman and Pixar’s film, Coco. Small intimate stories with a big impact on audiences.
“Coco was very specific about the day of the dead and I had a better understanding of what it meant and how it could also resonate with me—someone outside of that culture. Stories that pull on your heart strings, make you think, and make you excited to reach out and touch the person on the other side of the aisle. That’s what I take about the darkness of society now. It makes me want to reach out.”
Writing Stories That Matter
Every now and then, movies about “strong powerful women” are created as ’cause’ films, but they often need something more to be universally accepted and to really make a difference. “First and foremost, give female characters things to do,” said Morgan. “That sounds simple, but I’ve seen lots of shows and movies where females are essentially the drapes in the background. They’re window-dressing.”
Morgan finds females as window-dressings offensive. “I want their characters in a scene to be there for purpose. Giving women roles that are nuance where they show their vulnerabilities and be three-dimensional so they’re not just talking about their relationships… I think that’s how you create strong characters that resonate.”
On shows like Into the Badlands and Shameless, there are various female characters that might be described as “Alpha Women.” For Morgan, this is just one aspect of a wide variety of women. “It’s not black and white. It’s not meek and alpha. It should encompass all of those characteristics—that’s what I mean by three-dimensional.”
Specifically, Morgan discussed The Widow from Into the Badlands. “She’s a strong fighter. She’s the leader of an army, but she’s also a woman. She also has this traumaticpast where she was a cog, or a slave. She broke free of that and rose to power. You have to make sure you’re hitting all those points when creating a character so all those nuances will shine.”
This also means creating a variety of characters from all different types of backgrounds that are inclusive and diverse. More stories about more different types of people are improving storytelling. Morgan concluded, “It takes some work, but I’m always up for that challenge.”
[woocommerce_products_carousel_all_in_one template="compact.css" all_items="88" show_only="id" products="" ordering="random" categories="115" tags="" show_title="false" show_description="false" allow_shortcodes="false" show_price="false" show_category="false" show_tags="false" show_add_to_cart_button="false" show_more_button="false" show_more_items_button="false" show_featured_image="true" image_source="thumbnail" image_height="100" image_width="100" items_to_show_mobiles="3" items_to_show_tablets="6" items_to_show="6" slide_by="1" margin="0" loop="true" stop_on_hover="true" auto_play="true" auto_play_timeout="1200" auto_play_speed="1600" nav="false" nav_speed="800" dots="false" dots_speed="800" lazy_load="false" mouse_drag="true" mouse_wheel="true" touch_drag="true" easing="linear" auto_height="true"]