Inside the Writers’ Room with Serial Eyes
Berlin-based Serial Eyes is an eight month postgraduate programme for television writers and producers, which prepares the next generation of European TV writer-producers to bring high-end, serialized storytelling to the television screen. Twelve participants from across Europe learn to develop, write and produce serial productions independently and as part of a team. The writers’ room experience is at the core of the training.
There are two UK-based writer/producers participating on the current scheme – Anne-Marie Angelo (above left) and Emily Rhodes (above right) – both of whom applied after finding out about Serial Eyes through WFTV. We thought we’d catch up with them whilst they’re back in London for a study trip to gain an insight into what it’s been like getting the writers’ room experience, being the butt of Brexit jokes, and their plans for the future…
“We’re chatting, we’re getting to know each other but we are actually writing things together as well, and that’s been really fun because you learn so much about cultural nuances.”
A quick intro to Anne-Marie and Emily
Anne-Marie is originally from the US but has been living in the UK for a number of years. She has a background as a university lecturer with a PhD in history, but has also worked in comedy in the US on The Colbert Report (Comedy Central), and has appeared as an expert historian on British TV.
Emily is from the UK and has worked in the film industry for nine years: first as an AD, and then as an Assistant to various directors/producers. Prior to Serial Eyes, she was working as an Executive Assistant to Jez Butterworth on his new TV Series, Britannia.
WFTV: Why did you decide to apply to Serial Eyes?
AM: I found out about Serial Eyes through the WFTV newsletter and I was really excited because I had been living in the UK at that point for about three years and was looking for ways to get into the industry. Because my main experience was in the US, I was sort of in the process of figuring out my way into the industry here and in Europe. I was really interested in television because I think so much exciting writing is going on right now in TV. So when I found out about this course and it was all of those things I was really excited to apply and super excited to be accepted.
E: I was in post-production on a film called Denial, I was doing that part-time because I wanted to try working on my own projects. But I felt that I needed to have some sort of training or a course to focus me in on learning and honing the craft, and to gain the confidence to express my own ideas. It’s so inspirational working for all these incredible people in the industry as an assistant, but it does make you feel like there’s still a slight gap between them and between where you are. And you know you want to get to that point, but it’s working out a way to get there.
I also really wanted to move to Berlin. I was thinking about it but needed a reason to go. So when I saw a WFTV Facebook post about Serial Eyes I was like, ‘this could be incredible’. Go to Berlin and learn the craft. My fingers were so crossed, I almost couldn’t believe my luck when I got a place.
“We’ve met producers, executives, lecturers, tutors, and other writers from all over Europe. It’s been really inspirational, to understand that it really is a global industry.”
WFTV: How are you both finding the programme so far?
AM: It’s been brilliant, it really has. I feel like a sponge, we’ve soaked in so many different opportunities that we’ve had and that’s been the great joy of this programme for me. We’ve met producers, executives, lecturers, tutors, and other writers from all over Europe. It’s been really inspirational, to understand that it really is a global industry, especially in TV right now. I feel like I can’t get enough of it, and I don’t want it to end in two months!
E: It’s very encouraging to be in a room where you have all these industry professionals coming in. And, for me personally, wearing a different hat or sitting in a different seat. You know, I’m very used to being someone’s assistant, so I understand the film and TV industry and how it works from an assistant’s point of view. But to actually be given the opportunity to express ideas and talk to industry professionals as an aspiring writer rather than someone getting the coffee has been fantastic.
WFTV: What has it been like developing relationships with the other participants on the course and sharing different perspectives?
E: I think we are a really good group because everyone has something different to offer. Everyone has had different experiences in the industry or comes from a different point of view so it’s really nice to just be able to say what you think or write what you feel and get other people’s feedback. It’s a really good space to be in. And I love the European focus. Coming from more of a film background, I was very used to how we work in the UK and we’d get a lot of Americans coming over. But in terms of branching out into the European market, that was something quite new to me.
AM: One of the coolest things for me has been that we focus a lot on the writers’ room experience. We’re chatting, we’re getting to know each other but we are actually writing things together as well, and that’s been really fun because you learn so much about cultural nuances – like different forms of comedy, or structure. We have an Italian classmate who’s very into character and very passionate about how you can think about character. And it’s partly from coming through an Italian industry that – as I understand it – has a classical drama approach to what they do, and that’s not something that we would have been exposed to necessarily. So you get a broader intellectual perspective on how to think about writing.
WFTV: And I imagine that then helps you to think more about the international audience when you’re developing projects?
E: I think that’s one of the most interesting things. It feels like a whole new world has opened up in terms of scope for new writers. Because for film, if you’re a writer it’s very much about authorship and you have to have lots of credits behind you. But TV in Europe, it just seems so keen to take fresh ideas, new voices and bold creative thinking. It’s exciting to be part of that world, rather than have it feel unreachable. It feels very tangible if you put the work in and get out there.
“A specific reason why I want to write for television is to do with the collaborative aspect of television writing. I am an extrovert and also a writer, and so I feel like I can combine those things through TV.”
WFTV: How has it been being the UK-based participants in the year of Brexit?!
E: Oh my gosh, so many Brexit jokes! The thing about Serial Eyes is that they do focus a lot on co-productions and a lot of European producers that come in and speak to us have said that they’re very keen to find gateways into the UK because there’s such a strong voice already, in terms of the TV market here. So for the whole of Europe’s sake and for our sake, I hope that we can carry on and continue building these co-productions because for me that’s what’s really exciting. The idea of working with all of our coursemates in different collaborations between countries, that’s the kind of content I’d like to be making.
AM: Yeah, It’s amazing that through this course we’ve now got connections all over Europe.
WFTV: Serial Eyes puts a lot of emphasis on the writers’ room approach. Can you tell us a bit more about how that’s been?
AM: It’s been great. A specific reason why I want to write for television is to do with the collaborative aspect of television writing. I am an extrovert and also a writer, and so I feel like I can combine those things through TV. And for me, one of the coolest things about Serial Eyes has been how invested we are in one another’s projects. At this point we could probably pitch everyone else’s project in addition to our own, because we’ve practiced our pitches together so much!
We also got to run a writers’ room for our own show, where we chose three other people on the course. It was so cool that these people I have known for six months really cared about these crazy characters and this story that – up until this course – had been in my head.
E: As a new writer it’s so nice to be able to say your idea out loud and there’s immediately 11 opinions coming back. Serial Eyes is the brainchild of Frank Spotnitz, a showrunner who worked his way up in the American showrunner system, so he really wanted to import the idea of the writers’ room into Europe. The British screenwriter Ellis Freeman, who worked with us – said he wished that there were more writers’ rooms in London just because, you know – you can sit by yourself as a writer and try and figure out a problem for ages but if you have three other people there that all know the project as well as you then you just get quicker answers, and you also get different answers. Other people bring in new elements to the project that you might not have thought of initially.
WFTV: The Serial Eyes programme is for writer/producers; how do you develop both skillsets as part of this programme?
E: I think the idea of being a writer/producer in this course comes from the terminology of being a show runner, which isn’t a term that’s widely used in Europe. It’s this idea of growing a new generation of writers that can also think like producers, so that you can market yourself and market your projects, and just be more aware of how the industry works and how to best get your ideas across.
AM: I think it’s about having a long-range perspective on your career as well, because that’s one of the things that Frank (Spotnitz) emphasised with us very early on in the course; that if you think of yourself as a writer and producer then really the sky’s the limit for what you can create. Because you ideally maintain creative involvement in that project no matter what happens.
“It is a big commitment but I kind of felt like I owed it to myself. Instead of just saying I wanted to go and make stuff and write stuff, I needed to actually give myself the opportunity to do it.”
WFTV: An important part of the course is pitching your projects. How confident were you with that side of things when you first started, and how much has that changed?
AM: In the first week of the course we presented three pitches to Frank Spotnitz and two of his colleagues. I was really nervous. I had pitched one on one, like at WFTV Writers’ Group events, so I was comfortable with that. But then pitching to Frank, these industry stars, and 12 of my peers was intimidating. Thankfully it was a really supportive environment.
I think as a woman in particular the way that I took feedback that first week… I could only hear the criticism. And Emily was really great. We became good friends in that first week. She reminded me all of the positive things that they had said about my project.
E: That’s so funny, the things that you filter out and the things that you take to heart.
AM: Yeah, I thought, there’s a glitch, I’m not meant to be here. I had a classic case of impostor syndrome. And then in January we had this session where we pitched externally for the first time to 15 producers, broadcasters and film school leaders. And it went well for me. I have a background in university lecturing and have performed improv comedy, so I had a helpful skill set for pitching but I just needed to have the confidence, which is what I had gained between September and January on this course.
E: We get a big pitching opportunity in May, which feels like something to work towards. We’re basically pitching one a week, depending on who we have in to work with us, because everyone always wants to know our ideas. So it’s good practice, and I guess the other thing is that – and you have to get used to this in the industry – everyone has an opinion. It’s a real process to learn what works and what doesn’t for yourself, before you listen to notes or feedback from anyone else. That’s something that we have to learn, and be prepared to take on because you do get notes from everyone!
WFTV:What’s it been like being on a full time, intensive course like this? It’s a big commitment.
AM: I did have to shift some things around professionally, but I realised an opportunity like this doesn’t come along but once really. It’s been worth it.
E: It is a big commitment but I kind of felt like I owed it to myself. Instead of just saying I wanted to go and create my own work, I needed to actually give myself the opportunity to do it. Hopefully it will stand me in good stead for whatever’s next, but regardless I knew that I had to change something to start building a foundation for the next stage of where I’m going to go in the industry, to stop working and concentrate on making my own content.
WFTV: If you had to boil it down, what has been the most important thing that you’ve learnt during the programme so far?
AM: For me it’s how to conceive of a TV series that can last. That’s the goal, I think, for everybody’s series. So what elements do you need in a TV concept and in a pitch to show a prospective producer or agent that you have an idea that is sellable and that can carry on.
E: Also just the on-going confidence builder, I think. Just believing in your own ideas, and what you have to do first before you can go out there into the big wide world of TV and film and talk to other people about them.
Another nice thing about doing Serial Eyes is that just by being there and being on the course, producers and agents are already really excited to meet you. So it does really feel like a lovely opening to steer you towards your next project or piece of writing.
AM: A bigger philosophical thing I’ve learned is that you really do know deep down what you want to say, and it’s kind of a process of finding that voice that already exists. I do feel like our voices have really come out this year and we’ve known – even if we’re working on articulating it – that we do have things that we want to say.
WFTV: Where do you both hope to see yourselves in five years’ time, career wise? What’s the game plan?
E: I would hope to have worked in multiple writers’ rooms in Europe, gaining credits as a writer. I would like to write and direct an online short-form series – and see my current writing project, Halfway House made. I would hope to have a UK agent by then, which means I can work here as well – and in five years, it would be great to be running my own show!
AM: I would love to see my show, Flappers, made in some way, and be involved in that. And then in the long run – longer than five years but on the path – I would love to lead a team of writers on a show. I really enjoy working with writers.
Serial Eyes is currently accepting applications for the September 2017 intake.
Find out more and apply. The deadline is Saturday 1 April.
Anne Marie and Emily will pitch the projects they have been developing on the course in May, at the climax of the Serial Eyes programme, and those projects will then be available as pilot scripts. Thank you to Anne-Marie and Emily for sharing their experiences and to Federica Loddo, Serial Eyes Programme Coordinator who helped to arrange this interview.