The King’s God

Black and white picture of Ron Osborn and film crew on set.

Weekly Newsletter
Issue #282

The King’s God

Screenwriter Ron Osborn has been a mentor within the filmmaking department of the RRFC program for 10 years! With over 40 years of experience, he has amassed an impressive collection of credits for film and television including Meet Joe Black, The West Wing, Duckman, and Moonlighting–garnering 8 Emmy and 2 Writers Guild nominations. I sat down with Osborn to discuss art, life, the future of television, his creative philosophies, and the program.

How did you originally get into screenwriting?

Very simple question with a complicated answer. I was an art major up through two years of community college. I wanted to be an illustrator, so I transferred to the Art Center/College of Design in Los Angeles, from Santa Cruz originally. My first semester, I had an assignment where I had to use an 8-millimeter camera, and it was my damascene moment. I just thought, “Where has this thing been all my life?” I continued on my illustration track but was taking all the film classes I could take—at the time there weren’t many at the school. Midway through I changed my major to graphics, which had all the film classes. Then a number of like-minded students and myself lobbied to have an actual film major.

By the time I graduated, it was the first semester one could graduate with a film degree, and I was the first film graduate. Ironically, the one thing that they didn’t really teach was [screenwriting]. I discovered I wanted to be a writer late in my stay there, when The Boys Club of America asked us to make a fundraising film for them, and I got [tasked with] writing it, which I had never really done before. That was my second damascene moment where I realized that the core of the message in any narrative is found within a piece’s writing. That the idea is king! I haven’t changed my opinion since. I have directed as well—I’m a member of the DGA—but I don’t get near the creative satisfaction I do from writing.

Did you maintain a relationship with your alma mater?

I was asked back in 1985 to teach, which I did for 36 years. I just recently stopped. I taught introduction and advanced screenwriting.

How did you launch your professional career after finishing school?

That was a very anxious and fraught period. I knew nothing about the business. I had no contacts. As the school didn’t have much of a film department at that time, there was no networking with any graduates who came before us. There was no internet. I just started writing. There were two books [that really inspired me]: The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri and Screenplay by Syd Field. I was in Syd’s first class, from which he developed the book, and he and I became friends. We even wrote a screenplay together. But to support myself at the time, I was a temp typist, and I gave plasma three times a month and had food stamps. I got an agent about three years out and she suggested I write comedy because it was easier for her to sell a sitcom writer than it was to sell an unknown feature writer.

So, I took a [class on television writing], taught by Gary Belkin, who has a hugely impressive list of half-hour comedies going back to the 60s or so. In the class he took me and another student aside, named Jeff Reno, and said ‘you guys should be partners.’ He felt we had the strongest sense of narrative and comedy. He said that, ‘All things being equal, producers will hire a team over an individual.’ We decided to try it, we wrote a spec script for the best-written show at that time, M*A*S*H. That basically started us off, we were asked to pitch at various half-hour shows, and it earned us an interview at Mork and Mindy, an extremely popular show at the time. We thought we were interviewing for a freelance script assignment, but when we left my agent called and said, ‘hey, they want you on staff.’

TV has become so rich and so varied. The writer in television is far more important than the writer in features.

Can you speak briefly on the process of finding an agent?

Not Briefly. There’s a lot more opportunity to find an agent now. There’s a veracious appetite for content, because of all the platforms that are out there now. All the streaming and cable and basic cable. The agents are looking. One way, more than ever, are the various competitions to enter. Not all of them are created equal. But you can get noticed. The Nicholl Fellowship is probably the most prestigious. Even if you make the quarterfinals in that, an agent will probably read your script. If you make the finals or place; then yes! It can be a way to get attention.

Going back to Mork and Mindy: what was it like to work with a presence as huge as Robin Williams on your first real gig?

Obviously, I had a lot of exposure to him, but as a staff writer I didn’t interact with him that much. I got to watch him work. He was very impressive. He was incredibly talented and incredibly shy. It was a defense mechanism. He wasn’t just a comic mind, he was profound, extremely well-educated, a great sense of history, he drew from everything. But let me make one caveat here, contrary to the hype, he didn’t adlib scripts. That was put out there by his management. There was a myth that the producers were so impressed by his improvisation skills that they’d put in the script, ‘Mork does his own thing.’ That never happened. You can’t write and prep and rehearse a show not knowing what you’re going to do. A director not knowing what they’re going to block. The other actors not knowing what was going to be said. What would happen, is that you’d begin the week of filming with a Monday morning table read and no matter how funny Robin thought the script was—by Wednesday when we’d go down to watch the rehearsal, the crew got tired of laughing at the jokes, so he’d ask for new jokes. We’d stay until 2 am Wednesday night rewriting the script to fix issues we saw in the script, often to trim down, but also to give Robin new jokes. On Thursday, we’d go down and watch that rehearsal, and rewrite all the jokes we thought were so funny at 1:00 am the night before. On Friday, we’d have the performance before a live audience.

There were two filmings, a 2 pm and a 7 pm. The 2 pm filming got the audience you could get at 2 pm: the old and the infirmed and the recently paroled. They weren’t a laugh-ready crowd. So, Robin would ask for new jokes. Between the two fillings, we’d provide more jokes. And Robin never forgot a joke, so during the 7 pm filming – when we always got a much better audience – he’d mix and match everything we had written. On take 1 he might do a Monday joke, on take 2 he might do a Wednesday joke, and so on. This happened every week. The audience must have been sitting there thinking, ‘Why would you need writers for this guy?’ He would, though, occasionally adlib a joke that made it into the script.

The myth of Robin adlibbing all his lines speaks to a larger dismissal of the writer within the hierarchy of production. You guys don’t receive much acclaim or fame or money when compared to directors or actors. Do you have any opinions on this you’d like to discuss?

I sure as f#@k have an opinion about this. It has been a constant over the years. The best thing one can do is join The Writers Guild. You have to report these things, you have to watch out for them. Don’t write things for big-name producers on spec. We’ve been asked to do free polishes on drafts when it’s contractual how many drafts and polishes we do. It is very frustrating. There’s an old joke, that writers on set are the whores that have stayed for breakfast. It’s how we’re viewed by execs and some directors in features, like, ‘What are you doing here.’ Now in television, it used to be that a show was run by producers who’d hire staffs of writers, but now showrunners are coming up through writing. Today, virtually all showrunners come up through writing—which is a good thing.

Black and white image of people on a set.
Black and white image of people on a set.

The influx of streaming services and more channels is leading to greater demand for content, do you see this as a net gain for writers?

You are touching on a central conundrum. Yes, it is a net gain. There’s more product than ever. It used to be, with a network show, you’d get hired for a season of 22 episodes. Now with streaming it is usually only eight or ten. While the number of shows and films has gone way up, the pay has not [risen] consistent with it. On the other hand, it’s important to get in the club. The produced club. And once you’re in, a lot of doors open up—you now have the cred to be able to pitch your ideas to producers and studios because you have been deemed as a professional. That hasn’t changed, but all in all, it is an infinitely better time to be a writer right now than it has been in 40-some years.

This influx of streaming, as well as, more cutting-edge cable television, has led to some really profound evolutions in small-screen storytelling. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Barry, I May Destroy You. Hyper literary content like this, couldn’t have existed 40 years ago.

There’s a wealth of very good television on right now. There is so much to choose from. Though, many nights, I’ll be flipping through Netflix, and nothing will appeal to me. On the other hand, when you land on something binge-worthy, it’s like Christmas morning.

One thing about HBO, which was the first pay-cable network to do original programming, is that they really pushed the boundaries of what television could be. They began to win all the Emmys, and I mean, it was not even close. It forced the other networks to not be so bound by standards and practices, to take on more adult themes, to be edgier. That has upped everyone’s game. I think streaming is the most liberating platform to work in, creatively. But this boundary push is still going on, and has created a wonderful time creatively to work within the industry, doing things that are challenging, intelligent, and thematic.

Furthermore, before streaming, networks preferred shows that weren’t serialized. They preferred franchises that you could drop into at any point and still be enjoyed. Part of the reason for this was the after-market, in terms of syndication. This allowed the purchaser, the syndicating buyer, to show them in whatever order they wanted. The first basic cable show to push against that model to an extreme was Breaking Bad. That whole series was a cliffhanger that built off the episodes that came before each new one every week.

I love when I work with someone who has a different perspective or traffics in a world I know nothing about. That’s the reason I taught for so many years. I love learning. When you help solve other people’s problems, you keep certain narrative muscles sharp. You can be dropped into other people’s worlds and points of view and that is fascinating to me.

Do you prefer the process of writing for television or film?

TV. TV has become so rich and so varied. The writer in television is far more important than the writer in features. Features are developed over the course of a year, two years, twenty years. The film I did with George Lucas, was first written in 1974, we came on in 1988, the final version was finally filmed in 1994. In that process, writers come and go. In television, when you have showrunners coming up through the ranks of writing, there’s nothing more exhilarating than to write the show, get it on the air, and on a weekly basis – as opposed to having to wait years – turn out content. It becomes a family, sometimes dysfunctional, the writers and actors and vibe of a crew that all fall into a rhythm.

What are a few projects you are particularly proud of?

Duckman, Meet Joe Black, and Moonlighting.

Out of the projects you showed me that you’re currently working on, you seem to have a penchant for the thriller genre, is there a reason for that?

A lot like Jordan Peele, I’m a horror geek. I’m very dark. I can’t tell you why, but it’s been that way since childhood. The things I write tend towards psychological thriller… that play on or against audience expectations. I love genre, especially horror. Genre storytelling, in many ways, is just the most stripped-down and atavistic. Good genre appeals to you on an emotional level. We go to a comedy to laugh, a tragedy to cry, but more than anything we go to the movies to be thrilled. Moved. To feel like we’ve had an emotional charge. The Greeks called it catharsis, that’s where we get the word, from Greek playwrights who understood the need to make an emotional connection with the audience. Genre to me is the best way to achieve that. But that said, everything comes down to theme. What is the big idea underneath? That’s what dictates the protagonist and the obstacle you put in front of that protagonist.

How long have you been a mentor with the program?

Close to ten years.

How did you originally get involved with it?

One of my former students from Art Center/College of Design got a job there and he was asked to set up a writing track, and he contacted me and asked if I would be one of the first mentors.

How many students do you think you’ve had over the years?

Oh gosh, maybe 20-25.

What benefits do you get from working with students in this capacity?

I love when I work with someone who has a different perspective or traffics in a world I know nothing about. That’s the reason I taught for so many years. I love learning. When you help solve other people’s problems, you keep certain narrative muscles sharp. You can be dropped into other people’s worlds and points of view and that is fascinating to me.

What is your process generally with your mentees?

I take them through, ‘what’s your big idea,’ we define the protagonist, and then we define the protagonist’s goal, and finally we define the obstacle to that goal. Define the need and create the obstacle. I have them expand those initial thoughts into three sentences that represent the acts and the beginning, middle, and end, then I have them expand those into three paragraphs. Then a treatment to fill in some of the details and have enough to write a draft. I just kind of take them through each step, keeping in mind the greater arc of the transformative journey of the protagonist—be it small or large. We basically build a house together. By the end they have a first draft, though some mentees have stayed with me and come back for a second pass.

What are some of the notable benefits to this program?

It’s one-on-one. That’s tough to beat. To have the dedicated attention of someone with experience in the world you want to be in. As a mentor, it’s more than just discussing the building blocks of narrative, you’re able to have the freedom to go off in any direction the student need, untethered from a strict curriculum. In a class you just don’t have the ability to devote this kind of time to one student. It’s unprecedented attention from a working professional.

What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter entering the program?

I have two pieces of advice. One is mine, one is the best advice I was ever given.

My piece of advice is to remember that no one wants to read your script. Write that on a Post-it, put it on your computer screen: “no one wants to read your script.” When you give someone your script, you’re basically giving them a two-hour homework assignment. On top of that, you’re giving them the added homework of taking notes and sitting down with you and discussing the project. Before you know it, you’re asking someone to give up a half a day of their life. Why? Why should I or anyone else do that? What is it about your script that’s worth a day of my life? Meaning you have to write to excite and compel the reader from word one. I really hit the importance of the first ten pages. That you need to grab the reader by the lapels, not let go, and you make a pact with them; put this script down at your own risk. And you renew that pact with them every ten pages. Just because you’ve written something all the way to fade out, doesn’t mean anyone, even the person you’re sleeping with, has to read it. No one wants to. It’s your job to make them want to.

My piece of advice is to remember that no one wants to read your script. Write that on a post-it, put it on your computer screen: “no one wants to read your script.”

The second piece of advice. The best I was ever given. It was given by Gary Belkin. He was talking about sitcom scripts, but it’s true of features, it’s true of everything. The traditional way to break into the television market was to find a show that spoke to you—either a drama that had the gravitas that felt right to you, or a comedy that had your particular sense of humor. Find a show that is a good fit for you, and you write the best version of that show you can. And if in all objectivity, after you finish that script, you can sit back and read it and say you did justice to that show – if it’s a drama, you’ve done a story that’s every bit as dramatic and serves the cast in the same way they do each week, if it’s a comedy you’ve written solid jokes and serve that cast as well – if you’ve done all that? You have failed. They’ve already got a staff doing that. What is new and different you bring to that mix? Where is your voice in that? What is new and different? Don’t sit down to write as good as what you see — sit down to write better than what you see.

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