James and Sharla Oliver wrote tonight's episode of UNDER THE DOME, which airs at 10/9c on CBS -- and they were kind enough to answer five questions about their experience as writers and assistants. This interview is extra special for me since they met at a networking event they both read about on this blog and are now married!
1. How did you get the chance to write the episode? (What positions did you have first, etc.)
James: I moved to LA after college and spent several years bouncing around between various assistant jobs. One day, a friend of ours from our writing group sent me an email that a friend-of-a-friend of his was looking to replace himself as the assistant to Neal Baer, who has an overall deal at CBS Studios. I sent our friend my resume, and he passed it along (Thanks yet again Jeremy!). One week later I had my interview with Neal for the job (and thoroughly embarrassed myself in front of Brian K. Vaughan by confessing to dressing up as the main character from Y: The Last Man for Halloween). That was mid-way through production on the first season of Under the Dome (UTD). After a couple years of working for Neal on both Under the Dome and his development with the studio, we were heading into the third season of UTD, and Neal offered us a chance to write a freelance episode. He knew that Sharla and I wrote as a team, so even though she worked on another show, he let her come into the room so we could work on the episode together.
Sharla: And while James has been assisting Neal over on Under the Dome, I have been working as the writers’ assistant on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Before that, I was the writers’ PA on Spartacus, which is where I met all three of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s showrunners. So when their show was picked up to series, I was lucky enough to be asked to join them as their PA, and from there I moved up to writers’ assistant. Being in the room every day has really been the best learning environment I could ask for as a new writer. I know the experience helped me immensely while we were working on our own episode.
James & Sharla: We were excited when Amanda asked if she could interview us because the two of us actually met at a networking event after we both saw a post about it on our favorite aspiring TV writer blog [Editor's note: Yay!!]. A couple years later we got engaged and suddenly everyone started asking us if we wrote as a team. We’d been writing separately up until that point, but giving each other lots of notes and using each other to bounce ideas around, so it wasn’t a hard transition to writing together. Since then we’ve written a bunch of pilots as a team, but this was our first opportunity to write an episode of a show on the air.
2. What was the process of breaking the story?
James: I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in the room for a lot of this season, so I was caught up on where the writers were taking the story this year. When we were breaking the couple episodes before ours, Sharla was on her hiatus from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so the timing worked out nicely that she was able to come shadow in the room with me to get up to speed. I was still doing my regular assistant job on top of this, so it was good to know that if I got pulled out for a couple hours to take care of something, Sharla could fill me in later that day. It was our first time getting a taste of what it would be like to go to work together every day, and it was a lot of fun.
Since UTD is a very serialized show, a lot of the story is broken in the room on white boards. We decided early on that Sharla would be in charge of writing on the board for our episode, because her handwriting is lovely, legible, and a pleasure to look upon, but my handwriting looks like it was written by an over-caffeinated third-grader. The writers all sit around the room in comfy chairs bouncing ideas back and forth. Stories are broken by character, and then woven together in more detail before we head off to outline. Going into our episode, we knew where all the characters were going to be in the episode ahead of ours, and what had to be set up for the following episodes. On top of that we knew what sets we had to play with that were already established on the show, which of the actors were available when, and that we needed a fun way to involve Julia’s Prius as part of an integration deal the show has with Toyota. Once we had a clearer idea of what pieces we could use, we brainstormed various fun ways to fit them all together and brought those ideas to the room.
James & Sharla: Some elements of the story changed a lot while we were breaking the outline, but from outline to script nothing major had to change based on notes, which was a relief. We were able to focus on revisions and cutting for time, rather than creating a lot of new material at the last minute.
For the actual writing of the draft, we rearranged our kitchen table in the middle of our living room, pulled our desk chairs up to either side, and slid an ottoman underneath where both of us could reach it. We divided up the scenes from the outline and wrote our first passes separately, then traded things back and forth.
3. Did you get to go to set for the shooting of it? What was that like?
James & Sharla: We were able to go out to Wilmington, NC for a few days of prep and the first five days of production before we both had to come back to LA and our regular jobs. It was a great experience, and a lot of the credit for that goes to our director, Sam Hill, who did an amazing job and never treated us like we were "just the assistants." There were several scenes that sadly shot on the days we couldn’t be there, but we knew that everything would come out great, and it did. It was also really nice for James to meet our North Carolina crew in person, given that he’d been working with many of them for two years without ever meeting in person.
The two caveats we’d offer for anyone shooting in Wilmington are 1) be prepared for shooting to get interrupted repeatedly by low-flying airplanes and/or thunderstorms, and 2) find the most badass bug spray you can and use a lot of it. The woods out there are known for these tiny bugs called “chiggers” that will crawl up your pant legs, and by the time you realize you’ve been bit, it’s too late. Our show involves a fair amount of running around the woods, so our actors are painfully aware of how bad they can get. On day one of shooting, one of the first things Rachelle LeFevre said to us was, “Do you have bugspray?”
It’s a strange thing to be in video village with a headset on, and realize that the crew, and the director, and actors are all creating something we thought up while sitting in our apartment one morning. And it’s a bit of a rush when it comes time to shoot an emotional scene and the actor just nails it. There are also times when the actors will come to you with a question about a scene you didn’t expect, or a limitation in the location comes to light, but improvising a solution in the moment is part of the fun.
4. What's something you learned from the experience?
James & Sharla: It’s really helpful knowing that you have deadlines, and that lots of very professional people are waiting on the result of your labors. When procrastination isn’t an option, it’s much easier to be productive. You can’t always predict which parts of the episode are going to be the trickiest. The scene you’re sure will get noted by the network doesn’t get commented on, and the part you think is ready to shoot will change fourteen times before production. Given how much is out of our control, it’s a good idea to write with flexibility in mind, just in case a freak lightning storm leaves you in a position where either the scene changes or it doesn’t get shot that day.
James: It was also great to get a chance to be there for editing and the rest of post-production. I got to go to the final playback on a mixing stage, and there was the episode on a big movie screen, with titles, final visual effects, composed music, and sound effects booming from the speakers. Seeing that really drives home that this is an actual thing. Now we’re in the part where we wait until suddenly the number of people who’ve seen it jumps from a few dozen on the show and at CBS to strangers all over the world, and all you can do is cross your fingers and hope they like it. I follow a lot of the chatter about our show on the internet, so it’s weird anticipating angry tweets in Turkish about something we wrote.
5. What's something you've learned from more experienced writers on the show?
James & Sharla: All the other writers on staff were really supportive and welcoming. They were great about sharing from their experiences, both on UTD and on other shows. Sometimes it’s the small practical things that help, such as, "don’t set the scene in that location, because it’s actually a 40 minute drive in the opposite direction from the other locations and you’d lose half a day on the company move" or knowing which actors are going to work especially well together. The writers also have experience working with the studio/network, so they were a huge help in breaking an outline that CBS would be excited about. Our first draft of the script was also long, and since our episodes can’t be any longer than 43 minutes we needed to make cuts. We were able to trim dialogue and scenes on our own, but there were also cuts suggested by Neal or one of the other writers. Part of why we like writing as a team is there’s always someone to provide a fresh point of view on a scene, and we were happy to take advantage of a whole room full of smart people with great story instincts.
In one scene in particular, we had filled in some character backstory with some long pieces of dialogue. We cut it down based on notes, and there were pieces we were sad to lose, but when we were shooting the scene it still felt long. The final cut of the episode has that scene trimmed even shorter, and it works really well. It was a very good reminder that often less is more. We’ve been working on our own pilot in our free time, and after we got back from shooting we went through the outline and made cuts with this in mind. Hopefully the final product will be much more streamlined now.