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Interview With Larry Brody
Interviewed by Jenna Glatzer

Larry is a TV writer/producer.  He is currently producing the new animated series SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED for Fox Kids Network, and he has has written over 500 hours of network television.  He also hosts an excellent website for TV writers.  (See below for further bio and link.)

How did you get into this crazy business?

All my life, I wanted to be a writer. Books had been magic for me, opening up worlds far
more exciting than the one in which I lived, and since I felt that reading had in many ways
saved me from an environment that was, to be blunt, crippling, I wanted to write and return
the favor, so I could save others who were in a similar position. 

As a student at Northwestern University, I majored in English and took as many composition courses as I could find, writing short stories, poetry, essays, you-name-it, being forced to turn out one completed work every week. An inveterate science fiction fan, I started writing in the genre, and by the time I graduated I was selling stories to The Magazine of Fantasy &
Science Fiction and various men's magazines with some regularity. 

During this period, I acquired my first agent, in the time-honored way: My fiancee's father was
an optometrist, and the agent was a patient. Sitting there with his pupils dilated while my future father-in-law told him what a great writer I was, the poor guy had no choice but to agree to
talk to me and read what I had. He did, however, have a choice about whether or not to like what he saw, and, fortunately, he liked it a lot. 

(A word to the wise: What he liked the most was the quantity. I think I gave him a dozen stories, proof that I was serious about being a writer, and that he'd be able to make some real money on his ten percent.) 

This being the late 'Sixties, I was desperate to maintain my student deferment from the draft
and stay out of a war I despised (not to mention a workaday world I didn't understand), so after my undergrad days were done I went off to Law School. After the first year, though, I dropped out, unable to understand how people could think that the way to redress all the ills done to others was simply by giving them money. (One of the terrible things about getting older is that--guess what?--I get it now!) Looking around for another way of stalling, I opted for grad school at the University of Iowa, known for its Writers Workshop, which was run by my idol Kurt Vonnegut. 

Naturally, I got there just after Vonnegut left, which didn't exactly leave me overjoyed. The
good news during that school year was that I sold my first novel. The bad news was that the
Workshoppers totally disapproved. We were supposed to write "art," satisfying ourselves and
then putting the work in a drawer, but I was actually trying to entertain other people! 

Armed with confidence from my book sale, and determined to find a way to write and actually feed the family I hoped to have, I risked life and limb by leaving grad school after a year too. Only this time I went to Hollywood. 

It seemed like a good idea. My agent, who understood that I didn't see much of a future in
writing for two cents a word, had a friend in the TV Department at the William Morris Agency. Not knowing anything about what screenplays looked like, but being a hardcore television watcher from 'way back, I got a book out of the school library and used the format it described to write a TV movie. I sent this to my agent's friend, Sylvia Hirsch, and when she said that based on that I had as good a chance as anyone of getting work in television, that's it, my then wife and I were off and running. 

What we didn't know, of course, was that even though I had as good a chance as anyone,
that chance was about a hundred to one. Still, my wife went to work teaching school, and I went to work trying to finish my novel and take the meetings that I came to understand are a
Hollywood way of life. I never finished the book (which didn't make me very popular with the
editor who'd given me the advance), but boy did I learn about meetings. 

Because, see, here's the key thing: In television and movies, in those days, you didn't sit down and write and then sell what you'd written. That was a virtual impossibility. Instead, you wrote a "sample" script, one that showed your skills and strengths, and your agent sent it around to various producers. If they liked it, they would meet with you, hear your ideas for other scripts,
and, if you were lucky, hire you to write one of them, with payment guaranteed in advance by the Writers Guild rules. 

For several months, my writing and my meetings went nowhere, but, fortunately, I was too young to despair. Instead, I would go out by the apartment house pool and get drunk with the rest of the unemployed wannabes, mostly actors who had never had a gig. One, however, had. His name was Sammy Jackson, and he had been the star of the TV series, No Time For Sergeants. Since its cancellation, he'd spent most of his time in a booze and sex stupor, consoling himself with the groupies who were always pounding on his door. By a strange mischance, the day came when Sammy was actually sober, and realized that I was writer. Immediately, he pounced...on me. 

Sammy, it turned out, had a plan. He knew a number of producers, and he was sure that if he
could go to them with the right project, he'd become a big star again. My part in this was to
come up with the project, write it up, and then trust him to get it to the right guy. I'd end up
creating a TV series, and we'd both be rich and successful. 

Well, I admit it, I bought right into this one, and worked my tail off on a 20 page short story
that could be the basis for a new Sammy Jackson show. And Sammy straightened out, called some of his friends, and showed them my work. For the first time in a very long while, Sammy had hope, and it paid off--for me. 

What happened was that one of the producers Sammy showed the story to liked it and wanted to see what else I'd written. My new agent, Sylvia, sent him my TV movie script, and the producer not only optioned both properties, but hired me to co-write his next movie, a rock and roll epic for MGM, which was supposed to star Jim Morrison! My writing partner on this project was the director of the film, an old-time B movie mayven named Arthur Dreifuss, and Arthur showed me how to really write a script. 

Sammy, however, was left out in the cold, because once the producer started concentrating on the movie, he lost all interest in the original two properties, and never pursued them. Sammy's drinking resumed, and so did his incredible sex life, but I was too busy to stay awed. I had a deal! 

It took about three months to finish the script. Everyone loved it, of course--they always said
they loved it in those days--but before production could begin it was time for the studio to have a little "look-see" with Mr. Morrison. The meeting took twenty minutes, and when it was over the movie, The Rise And Fall Of A Rock And Roll Star (oy!) was canceled. Now there were probably a whole mess of reasons why a meeting with a guy like Jim Morrison might
cancel a movie, but the reason this one was cancelled was simple: Morrison had a beard and
was adamant about not shaving it. And at this time, never in the history of motion pictures had
there been a romantic hero with a full, flowing face, neck, and chestful of hair! 

Was I upset? Absolutely. Was I devastated? No. I was too busy being devastated over the fact that I was never going to finish my novel, because now that I was in Hollywood I just wasn't interested in "real writing" anymore! Besides, the fact that the film was never made seemed at the time almost a blessing. This way, I as a talent could be judged only by the script, which Sylvia immediately shipped out to every producer in TV. And, because I had written a genuine, commissioned motion picture script, every one of those producers wanted me to write at least one episode for his TV series. All I had to do was smile and work hard, and I was all set! 

Sort of. There were, of course, complications. But for now we're only talking about the beginning of my career, and that, my friends, was that.

What is your proudest moment as a TV writer?

Being made Producer of POLICE STORY, which at the time was far and away the best series on television. The work I did on that series was the high point of my career. (Unfortunately it was 20 years ago. What does that tell you about my career?)

You say that no one in power wants anything new. Why is this?

They didn't get in power by being creative or understanding the audience. They got in power by having a talent for getting into power. Trying something new is a risk, and they can't take risks and continue to move up the ladder.

Why did you decide to start producing?

To protect my writing from the studios and networks...and it worked.  Unfortunately, there's no one around to protect it from me.

What major differences should a writer be aware of between screenwriting and TV writing?

Contrary to popular belief, there are no differences. You write your heart out in both venues. Energy and passion are what make a script work in each medium. Oh, and knowing how to structure a story and edit yourself help. Those are the Big Four ingredients.

How important is it to read "guru" books, attend seminars, go to film school, etc? 

Not important at all. Talent is talent. You need that plus opportunity plus experience (which you only get by having talent and opportunity). All the classes in the world can't get you any of that. Unless, of course, you go to USC Film School and get into its Old Buddy network. The success rate with a USC degree is very high because they definitely take care of their own. Hmm, maybe it's not too late for me to enroll.

You read a lot of scripts. A real lot. What does a writer have to do to get you to stand up and shout "Hire this one, now!"?

He or she has to have written something which is so good that no matter where I pick it up I can read 3 or 4 pages that are riveting and professional and make me say either, "I wish I'd written this," or "Hey, that's just how I would've written it."

I've got this fantastic idea. I plan on selling it for a gazillion dollars and retiring onto a private island with several Chippendales dancers. It's possible, right?

This, believe it or not, is the toughest question so far. The quick answer is, "Sorry, pal, you can't sell your idea." Period. End of quotes. The more thoughtful answer is, "Sorry, pal, but I don't think you can sell your idea." The very best answer I can come up with is, "It's a tough thing to do, my friend, very tough..." 

There are two reasons for this situation: The good reason, and the real reason. They both have to do with what we can call the System, the procedure used for getting shows, whether they be comedy series, drama series, or Movies of the Week, onto the public airwaves. The System is based on the fact that every network, every syndication house, every studio, and every production company that has more than one employee has what's called a Development Department. This department is supposed to be hard at work finding properties that the public is dying to see, and putting them into production. In fact, the Development Departments of all these places do work very hard at finding properties, but they do it in the traditional showbiz way, which is to say they only talk to known writers, producers, and creators. 

By "known," I mean people who are already part of the System, who have credits for scripts they've written and produced. When someone like this gets an idea, he or she calls either his agent, who sets up a meeting with a company, studio, or network, or he (or she) calls someone he already has worked with at a company, studio, or network and sets up his own meeting. This is the infamous "pitch meeting," where the creator tells the highest ranking member of the Development Department to whom he has access all about his great show. Probably, he leaves a couple of pages behind to keep the idea fresh in the Development Executive's mind, and then off he goes. If the Development Executive likes the idea, it gets pushed up the ladder until it finally reaches a Network or Syndy Vice President, who either turns thumbs down or authorizes a script. 

If the creator is a producer, he or she then hires a known writer to work out the idea. If the creator is a writer, he or she does it himself. About ten thousand ideas are heard every year. About 250 of them actually make it to script. Of those 250, about 35 go on to get shot as pilots. Of those 35 pilots, about twenty or so are bought as new shows every year. Since nowhere in this process is there room for someone who is not part of the Hollywood Establishment (or community, as it prefers to be called), none of those new shows will come from any outsiders, or wannabes. 

And that's the good reason! The real reason is even more political. Like all other businesses, the television biz has a rigidly delineated pecking order, even among the creative elements (i.e., the writers, producers, and creators). At the top of the pecking order are men and women who already have shows on the air. These people have as part of their current deals guarantees of future "buys." These guarantees commit the networks and syndicators to purchasing a given amount of what the biz calls "product" from those who are already their suppliers. Usually, this amount is greater than the actual amount of product that will be needed in any one season. So the networks are already overcommitted.
They certainly can't go out and buy anything from someone on the outside! 

Every once in awhile, of course, someone from outside of the System sells something. Statistically, it's an accident, but I prefer to think of it as a miracle, which means to me that it's the best of all possible accidents. One way this has happened is for an outsider to get to an insider. If you know someone who knows someone who's related to someone who's related to someone else who's producing a series that's currently on the air, then write down your idea and get it passed up the line. Try to get a meeting, so you exist as a real human with a face and personality, a human Mr. or Ms High Mucky Muck might want to work with or, more likely, use in some way. If your idea is as good as you think it is, your insider friend just may be able to sell it. You probably won't get any credit or very much money, but you'll have some satisfaction, and a foot in the door. 

Another way outsiders have triumphed has been by scraping up enough money to make their own
pilots, and then beating on doors until they've been seen. This works best with syndication houses, because you can bring your wares to NATPE, a kind of convention of syndicators and those who buy from them, set up a booth like you would at any trade show, and let everyone who's anyone see your stuff. A few years back, I sold a series this way. 

One final caution: Before you do any of this, be very certain that your idea is truly a good one. That means you have to keep in mind the Hollywood definition of "good," as told to me by a network Vice President years ago: "A good idea? Why that's one I think my boss will like!" How do you find out what the boss'll like? Hey, if I knew, would I have time for this? (But if you figure it out, e-mail immediately and LET ME KNOW!)

So much of this business is "who you know." What can an unknown writer in Iowa do to get to Hollywood insiders? Is the Internet becoming a viable "meeting place?"

I can't speak for the Net as a whole, only for myself and what I do. If you come to my page and hang out at the Message Board or send me a script, guess what? You now have a legitimate contact. I don't buy material, but I hire writers and I recommend them to other people who hire them. By the way, I started out as an unknown writer in Iowa. I found an agent who believed in me and sent me on zillions of meetings until I got an assignment. But as important as that was, the most important thing was yet to come: I made good on that assignment, and the same guy hired me again and recommended me to others. He still hires me once in awhile, and I hire anyone he recommends.

Let's say you get a script with a fluorescent orange cover, spiral bound, with 9 point Jester font. Would you even bother scanning it?

I read everything, but if I get one of those bullshit showy scripts I automatically start out hating the writer. It ain't the cover, it's what inside, my friends.

Does an aspiring TV writer need an agent?

No one needs an agent, but everyone has to have one. It's a misconception to think that agents open doors for you. They don't. At most, they can lead you to a door, but after that you're on your own. You're the one who has to keep pounding. (But most of us would never even know where the door was without an agent, so what the hell.)

Okay, I've copywritten my script, registered it with the WGA, sent it to myself, my Aunt Tillie, and locked it into a secure vault. Now, if I see one of my best one-liners on next year's Friends, they've obviously stolen my script and I can sue, right?

Depends. You have to prove not only that you actually wrote the joke before the other guy did, but also that he had access to your script. And, of course, in your example since it's only one joke you wouldn't win very much money. Probably you would just succeed in making such a pest of yourself that your career would be over before it began. This is a getalong guy type business. (I don't hire people who want to argue with me...I hire people who will treat me with respect and write what I tell them to write. That's what their value is to me. Harsh sounding? But it's true.)

Tell us about your current projects and future plans.

My future plan is to retire (again) but this time make it stick by not running out of money. Right now I'm supervising all the writing on SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED, an animated series for FoxKids, and developing a primetime animation project for FoxFamily that they'll kill me if I talk about.

Larry Brody has been profiled in such national magazines as People, TV Guide, Esquire, Starlog, and Electronic Media. As a producer, he has been responsible for literally thousands of hours of network television and first run syndication programming. As a writer, he has authored hundreds of television episodes and Movies of the Week, as well as half a dozen feature films.

Brody has written the motion pictures Fantastic Voyage II, Bad Company, and Iron Game, and served as writer, creator, and/or producer on such prime time television series as Star Trek: Voyager, Walker Texas Ranger, Diagnosis Murder; Star Trek: The Next Generation, Baretta, The Streets of San Francisco, Police Story, Medical Story, The Fall Guy, Cannon, Ironside, Hawaii Five-0, Here Come the Brides, Partners in Crime, Barnaby Jones, Mike Hammer and many others.

He has either won or been nominated for every major television award, and is the winner of the Humanitas Certificate and the Population Institute Award for his work on the historic series Medical Story, and the Women in TV & Film Award as writer of the NBC television movie, Farrell for the People. Police Story, which Brody produced, won multiple Emmy Awards, including Best Dramatic Series.

Click here for Larry's website:  TVWriter.com

 

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