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Interview: Roger Wolfson

By Natalia Lusinski · June 1, 2011

“To me, you can't really be a great writer unless you've had great life experiences,” says TV writer Roger Wolfson (Saving Grace, The Closer, Law & Order: SVU). And his “great life experiences” include stints – several years – working outside of Hollywood, including:for the U.S. Senate (alongside Ted Kennedy and Joseph Lieberman, for example); running a multi-national consulting firm; as a VP of one of the largest news organizations in the country; and practicing civil rights law (he is a member of the bars of several states, such as NY and DC).

And then he moved to Hollywood.

When Wolfson first tried his hand at writing, a writer friend told him that his West Wing spec script “was wonderful, intense, and interesting – but not a West Wing script because it broke too many West Wing ‘rules,’” Wolfson says. So he threw it out. “I started over from scratch (and) never looked back. I had no attitude about my writing, other than a belief in my abilities. I was willing and eager and hungry to learn. I read every episode of the West Wing and diagrammed them like I would a mathematical equation… I brought with me an attorney's work ethic and a political staffer's speed.”

TSL:  That’s a very good lesson for new writers out here, I think.

RW:  Becoming a great writer is not distinct, in my eyes, from becoming a great person. You have to put yourself through the same process of introspection and development that you put your scripts through. It's a great exercise. If it's taking inordinately long to get launched, then that probably means you have work to do on yourself. No amount of writing will fix a broken character. And no broken character is going to eke out a great script. 

TSL:  How do you think your past has influenced and helped your writing career today?

RW:  It has helped in every imaginable way. To me, you can't really be a great writer unless you've had great life experiences. At its best, writing is encapsulated wisdom. In fact, it's a TV-writing secret that audiences are actually showing up to watch your show because they want to learn something. 

TSL:  You said your work experiences have helped give you a big-picture view of the world–

RW:  I think I'd be lost without it. It has helped me understand the mechanisms of social exchange and the exercise of power. I bring that perspective to all my work, and I think it's that perspective that helps give my work value. […] In Washington, the cause is all that matters. In politics and in journalism, people really care about the end product — more than they do about how they interact with each other. People fight and argue and are accustomed to dust-ups. If politics is a team sport, it's definitely rugby — injuries are part of the game.

TSL:  And in Hollywood?

RW:  Particularly on TV shows, writers spend so many days in an isolated and intense chamber called the Writers’ Room that you can go a little crazy. In politics, you have antagonists to fight up against. The other party. The public. You can get angry and show it. In the writers’ room, there is only you and your other writers. So a premium is paid to getting along with each other. Really expressing and venting different points of view is not something that can be done; a lot has to be held in check.

TSL:  And why did you decide to make the switch to writing?

RW:  Politics is inventive. Not creative. At the end of the day, I knew that I needed something pure and creative in order to become a fully developed and actualized person. I did not want to die with the song still in me. And death in politics is actually very real; my beloved boss and mentor for four years, Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash along with his wife, his daughter, and three members of his staff.[…] After Paul died, I made the decision to move to Los Angeles and write.

TSL:  Wow. I am so sorry. That is very sad and poignant. (Beat.) Once in L.A., how did you make the transition to writer?

RW:  I have a few people to thank for that. Aaron Sorkin, for creating The West Wing and giving people with a political background an "in" in this industry. Lawrence O'Donnell, a friend of mine from Capitol Hill, for creating a TV show about a senator, starring Josh Brolin.

TSL:  And Lawrence suggested you write a West Wing spec?

RW:  [Yes] and that this would help me get a job on his show. Then my friends, Deborah Cahn and Mark Goffman, West Wing writers, both took a look at my spec and really helped me make it great.

My friends, Andy Hill and Larry Lyttle, helped get an agent to read the script. And then my friend, John Requa, helped get a second agent to read it as the same time.

But nothing would have come of any of it if I hadn't written a solid script. And to do that, I read every episode of the West Wing and diagrammed them like I would a mathematical equation. I studied them. I figured out what they were made of and when I wrote my script, I made sure it came close to matching the level of intrigue, humor, and personal revelation that makes the West Wing so special. I brought with me an attorney's work ethic and a political staffer's speed. But I also brought something else: a sense of humility about this.

TSL:  And how long did all of the above take you?

RW:  It all happened very fast. I arrived in L.A. in January of ‘03, wrote my first spec by March, got repped in April, wrote my second spec in May, and was staffed by June.  

TSL:  But do you think writers should give themselves a certain number of years to "make it"?

RW:  I think writers should give themselves their entire lives if that's what it takes.

TSL:  Did you always want to be a TV writer?

RW:  Specifically a TV writer? Nah. I wanted to be a psychiatrist when I was a boy. Then an actor. Then a lawyer. It wasn't until I was an adult that I wanted to be a poet, then a novelist, then a screenwriter – and then, finally, a TV writer. In fact, if when I had moved to L.A. I had been encouraged to do features, I might have ended up a feature writer.

But yes, down deep I have always been a writer, I have always written, and I always will.  

TSL:  You’ve been in various writers’ rooms now. Do you think one being a writers' assistant, script coordinator, or working as an assistant is worth it these days – or is good writing good writing, no matter what your day job is?

RW:  I think both. Entry-level jobs are great in this industry; they really teach you the ropes and build your sophistication and skills. They can lead to the inside track to a job; that happens a lot. But great writing is great writing. People succeed both ways. If I were in my twenties in this town, I'd get an entry-level job. If you show up in your mid-thirties, though, I think you probably need to learn how to write on your own and show off your stuff on paper.

TSL:  As you may know, those entry-level jobs are often hard to come by. So if one works a job without industry contacts, do you think it's important they network with industry folk in their downtime?

RW:  Sure, but it depends on what that means, to network. I don't think going to a club or a hot spot works.  I think going to a writers’ cafe, or a gym, or a book club, or doing something substantial and becoming part of the life of someone in the industry is more effective and constructive. 

TSL:  So how did you meet industry people when you moved here?

RW:  I offered to help them. I offered my services to read scripts and to make their lives easier; to work out with them, to take them sailing, to add something to their lives so that I wasn't just showing up asking. But when it came to asking, I didn't shy away from it. You have to be brave in this industry or any industry. You have to ask without apology. Just with appreciation. And be happy with whatever you get. 

TSL:  How do you balance work and your personal life? For instance, if there is a late-night rewrite but you have a personal commitment, what do you do?

RW:  I do the rewrite. I have friends who are more successful than I am who would do the personal commitment. And I may be mistaken in my choice. But to me, my work is divine. I'm on assignment from a higher power. I've said yes to it already. So I'm not just willing to work long hours. I'm excited to. Again, at times, this has not served me. There is something great to be said about pacing yourself and balancing your life.  

TSL:  Outside of work, should one write every day?

RW:  I do, but it also makes sense to take breaks. Plus, I view internet-surfing, good conversation, religious study, meditation, reading books and studying politics to be part of my "practice" as a writer. Just as important as writing. 

TSL:  And I have to ask — is it true you live on a boat? A few months ago, I was sailing with some friends and I believe our boat waved to your boat.

RW:  I do, yes. For eleven years, I have lived on a '42 Sailing Catamaran named Kinship II.

TSL:  Love it. I think you are aware that I am writing a memoir about couch-surfing in L.A., living with a different friend each week – everywhere from studios in Silverlake to seminaries in Santa Monica. We are friends now, right? Does your boat have a couch?

RW:  It has guest rooms. Let's discuss.  

TSL:  Any final advice you would give someone who wants to be a TV writer?

RW:  Read TV scripts. Endlessly. Production drafts, shot pilots, specs. Read, read, read. Then write a spec of a show you love. Then another one. Then an original. Make them spectacularly good. You only need two or three scripts to get staffed in this town. But they have to be as good as anything you've ever read. Hold to that standard and you will do fine. Compromise with your work and, well, good luck.