Thursday, May 30, 2013

Inside the Writers Room with 'The Mindy Project'

Photo credit: Kristina M/Twitter

"Big, relatable things that happen in our dating lives" - that's what the writers of The Mindy Project think about when they pitch stories for the show, which just finished its first season on Fox.

Last night's Writers Guild Foundation "Inside the Writers Room" event at the Landmark Theater kicked off with a screening of the episode "Frat Party," followed by some insight into the writing process from creator/star Mindy Kaling and the show's writing staff.

Once the writers room opens, all the season's stories are broken collaboratively. Everyone pitches ideas and one of the "leader types" put them on cards. Eventually the ideas are whittled down to the best, and then writers are sent off to write specific episodes. A writer wouldn't be solely responsible for any big story turns; those are all figured out ahead of time, as a group. Also, it's okay if a first draft of a script doesn't yet have all the jokes figured out. When asked about writers' block (something the writers say can't exist when you work under the pressures of a show), Mindy suggested writing the "straight version" of a script, which only includes the main story beats. You can later "adorn" the script with the funny "ornaments."

Tracey Wigfield, a 30 Rock alum who wrote "Frat Party," says that being in a room full of writers is itself an antidote to writer's block. You can throw out an idea that's not fully formed and someone else will add to it. As all the writers chime in, ideas grow and improve. Really though, one writer says that the key to getting scripts finished is "just sitting down and doing it."

Mindy says she avoids fights in the room by being decisive. When she wrote for The Office, her boss would instigate arguments between writers and then sit back to watch the melee, but Mindy doesn't work that way; she'll say yes or no to an idea quickly so that everyone can move on. If anything, the writers will fight over YouTube videos. If you're going to interrupt work to show everyone a video, it'd better be funny.

The one other thing Mindy can't stand: slow renditions of "Happy Birthday." At one point, someone even printed out a picture of a cake and Usain Bolt to remind everyone to be speedy with their greetings.

Mindy isn't the only performer in the room. Ike Barinholtz, who plays goofy nurse Morgan, is also a member of the writing staff. "When I hire writers, I like theatrical people," she says, perhaps because she grew up in a house where children were expected to be seen and not heard, since nobody has anything worthwhile to say until they're 18.

When he joined the writing staff, Ike was pleasantly surprised to learn that he wouldn't be boxed in by a specific concept or structure. After seeing the pilot, he thought perhaps every episode would be a satire of romantic comedy tropes, but Mindy wants the show to do more than that. "People like when I'm on dates," she admits, but also says that the show can't be an endless parade of fun male guest stars. She also wants to "unlock the work dynamic," and Tracey is hoping that next season will see some kooky female patients, perhaps played by actresses like Anne Hathaway or Reese Witherspoon.

But even though character-Mindy has gone out with Seth Rogen, Mark Duplass, Tommy Dewey, Bill Hader, Ed Helms, BJ Novak and Anders Holm all in just one season, the writers are most intrigued by her relationship with fellow doctor Danny Castellano (Chris Messina). He's "deeply neurotic, masculine and repressed," Mindy says, while the character of Mindy can be mean and shallow. Mindy and Danny are both very defiant, and will sometimes stake out opposite positions just to be contrary. Danny, who is often the embodiment of things Mindy hates, takes "big, principled stances." The writers say that they use a white board to write lists of "Danny rants," like "the word Hawaii."

The writers say they haven't stalled anything romantic for the sake of teasing the audience - it's all about doing things in a natural way. Mindy says her only real experience writing romance was writing Jim and Pam on The Office - a couple that is very different from Danny and Mindy. While Jim and Pam are innocent and sweet, Danny and Mindy are jaded and have slept around - and at the beginning of the series, they can barely stand each other. As such, it would take them a while to get together (if that even happens). Despite the sweet near-kiss of the season finale, Mindy says that a Mindy-Danny romance isn't a foregone conclusion. "As humans we like to remember the romantic moment," she says - but with romance, a little goes a long way. Although you'll vividly remember Jim-Pam moments on The Office, the romance in an entire episode might only be four seconds of Pam leaning her head on Jim's shoulder. "It's better for Danny to look at Mindy than to kiss Mindy," she explains. Mindy likens the dilemma to putting a bit of cinnamon in your coffee. When viewers rave about the romance, writers can feel compelled to give the fans more of what they want - but they end up writing an entire cup of cinnamon instead of coffee.

Besides, multiple dates and guest stars are fun. "Dating banter is awesome," Mindy says. "I don't see that in movies. I'm luckier than Katherine Heigl...it's like, the best."

When it comes to the "rules" of writing The Mindy Project, the writers make sure to focus on Mindy's life, and make sure they're "always residing inside the main character's head." Ike also says that making scenes work - both on the page and in improv - is all about listening to each other, saying funny things, making sure everyone is affected by what's said, and being true to the character. Mindy also thinks about (and envies) how Michael Scott was always an "energizer" on The Office. At the beginning of an episode, he'd walk into a room and make a demand or announcement that launched the plot into motion. But while The Office would feature conference room scenes where every "weirdo" would get a joke, The Mindy Project focuses more on mining comedy from its core characters. Of course, Morgan is a bit of a weirdo - and Jack Burditt says he's a great way to end scenes.

Matt Warburton, who wrote on Community before coming to The Mindy Project, says that he continues to apply a lesson he learned from Dan Harmon: when you give your character something great, it needs to have the seed of something challenging. So if Mindy finally achieves something she wants in her dating life, she should immediately face some kind of difficulty in terms of what it means. Another writer says that finding "joy in the characters" is important. There's a balance to be struck between wish fulfillment and real life.

When it comes to forging a career in the industry, Mindy says that there's no one specific path. Tracey Wigfield started out as a writer's assistant on 30 Rock and moved her way up, but Mindy didn't really know how to get those kinds of jobs, so she wrote a play called Matt & Ben that got her attention and eventually led to her writing job on The Office. Still, "it's hard," she says. "I didn't even get a meeting with Rob Carlock on Joey." She agrees with Tina Fey philosophy about finding ways around the obstacles in your career: when she couldn't get a show going at NBC - the network that had employed her for so long - she went to Fox. An independent spirit also contributed to Mindy's success; "No one's gonna believe in you except you and your mom," she says.

When asked about sexism in the TV industry, Mindy says she's been lucky, since her Office bosses were incredibly progressive and feminist. (Similarly, Tracy says that she's only worked for Mindy and Tina Fey, so she's probably not the right person to ask about these issues.) Mindy knows that sexist writers rooms are definitely out there - and tend to make shows that do very well - but the people who run them probably wouldn't hire her, anyway.

The best thing we can do to support women in comedy is to watch The Mindy Project and spread the word.  "Tell a million of your friends," Mindy says.

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For more info on Writers Guild Foundation events, check out the organization's website and Twitter.

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