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Interview: Lauren Gussis

By Natalia Lusinski · June 29, 2011

“We do not have to be taught to go grocery shopping or make coffee. But if everything you do is the most important thing you do each day, people will want to help you,” Lauren Gussis (Dexter, E-Ring) says about how a good attitude goes a long way once you show people you are there to do your job – no matter if you are a production assistant (PA) or writer.

Though she found being an assistant incredibly helpful, on shows such as Birds of Prey, The O.C., and North Shore, Gussis’ writing is what got her staffed: “Writers [I worked with] read my Scrubs spec. They said, ‘You are funny. But you write with too much heart. You need to write a drama spec.’” So she did.

Speaking of heart, Gussis even married another writer, screenwriter Michael Ellis (An Invisible Sign, The Wedding Planner). On what that’s like and how their writing sensibilities vary, Gussis says, “He thinks it’s funny when someone slips on a banana peel, and I think it’s funny when someone dies.”

TSL:  In regard to jobs, what did you do when you first came out to L.A.?

LG:  I knew I wanted to be a TV or film writer. I spent a year-and-a-half working at a lit agency (previously Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann). Working there, I got a comprehensive education in the television business and liked the immediate gratification of it, working with other people. You have a built-in support system. Plus, most deal memos I saw were for TV. That was incredibly helpful, because now as a writer, I am not blind going into negotiations. I can better manage my representation situation.

TSL:  So you’d recommend someone new to town to go work at an agency?

LG:  Yes, the first couple of years — get to know the business and make contacts. Then you hope they like you enough to help you get a writers’ assistant (WA) job or one as a showrunner’s/executive producer’s assistant.

TSL:  How did you retire from the agency life then?

LG:  I got a WA job on a comedy pilot and made every rookie mistake there is to make. They did not want me back for the series.

TSL:  What kind of mistakes…?

LG:  Things like pitching as an assistant before earning anyone’s respect. So I went back to the agency as a floater. I was in touch with the writers (clients), sending out resumes left and right. Then one helped me get a WA interview; they wanted to hire a female. I did not want to do one-hour – but it was the only real lead I had.

That weekend, there was a panel at the WGA. One of the writers, Melissa Rosenberg, was from Birds of Prey, the show I would be interviewing with. Afterwards, I met her for a split second. Later, she (ended up) being the person I interviewed with. I got hired. And I kept my mouth shut.

I learned from my last mistake. I did not want to speak until I made sure I had something very smart to say – and waited until someone asked what my opinion was. And then they kept asking…

TSL:  In the meantime, you kept writing specs?

LG:  Yes. Half-hour ones. But I kept getting assistant jobs on one-hour shows.

TSL:  How long did you work on Birds of Prey?

LG:  All (13) episodes. It was packed with people who went on to do amazing things – like Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. They were really fun, like big brothers to me.

TSL:  And they are the ones who encouraged you to write your first drama spec?

LG:  Yes. I wrote a Six Feet Under. Two writers loved it, but Melissa said to do a page-one rewrite. I cried for two days, then did it. I don’t begrudge her for that. You need to find people who will be honest with you and not blow smoke. Melissa continued to keep me under her wing. She helped me with my Six Feet Under spec, taught me to pitch, and became a mentor.

TSL:  She was on The O.C. when you worked there as a writers’ assistant, right?

LG:  Yes. That was an incredible thing to be a part of, the first season, when it became a phenomenon. Then I got a job on North Shore. It was packed with some of the best writers in town. And I had been learning to pitch on two different shows now. But I could not get an agent, which was incredibly frustrating – I couldn't get an agent without a job.

Afterwards, I went to work for two executive producers of that show, Chris Brancato and Bert Salke, on a pilot.

TSL:  And then you got called into your boss’s office…?

LG:  He said, “You need to find your replacement yesterday.” Ken Biller (North Shore) had gotten a showrunner job on E-Ring and had found a position for me. It was a plot-driven show, and they needed at least one character writer. Biller is like my godfather.

TSL:  What about being rewritten? We know that that is part of writing… As an official staff writer now, how did that go?

LG:  It is really hard. When I was a staff writer, the showrunner told me I did a great job (on my script), but he was going to do a polish. He rewrote a lot of it. I am paraphrasing here. He said he was not going to apologize, but would be happy to discuss any changes he had made. He said that when I am a showrunner someday, I would understand and that I would be able to rewrite other writers without apologizing.

Remember that you are there to service your showrunner’s vision and that of the show, to support your team.

TSL:  Very well said.

LG:  I think most of us would write for free — it’s fun. I think we don’t get paid to write, but to get rewritten… the compensation for the emotional trauma. You learn a lot from it. It took me a while to get out of my own way of that. If I had learned earlier why it was better, I would have gotten better more quickly.

TSL:  And after E-Ring, you went right to Dexter?

LG:  I read Dexter and had never seen anything like it. Plus, I felt like I totally understood Deb, and we were very much alike. I called my agent and said he had to get me this job. I went into the meeting and talked about the uniqueness of the show, my enthusiasm about Dexter being an anti-hero, who was an addict of sorts, and my love for Deb. I presented a very strong perspective about her, talked about my personal connection to the character, what I thought her arc should be, etc. I think that, in particular, is what got me the job. Then I worked my way up through the ranks. (And) Melissa Rosenberg ended up on the show.

TSL:  What words of wisdom would you give to new writers on the craft of writing?

LG:  I had written several specs, but one really good one. I got really lucky. Agents hated it. Writers loved it. Meet other writers who support (you). Cultivate those relationships – where they want to help you, feel you are indispensible, want to teach you what they do. You will get your first job from other writers, not an agent. Once you have a job, an agent will sign you no matter what your spec is.

TSL:  And as we know, you also have a great relationship with a writer outside of the writers’ room, being married to screenwriter Michael Ellis.

LG:  It’s very helpful being married to another writer. But since he writes film and I write TV, it feels very non-competitive.

On the one hand, storytelling is storytelling. (But) our sensibilities are extremely different. We have learned this is my project, this is your project. He has learned to be darker. We help each other get out of our comfort zones. Plus, since he is a screenwriting professor, I am really lucky — his notes are really, really good, always.

He also understands nights when I am shivering in bed over a story. He does not say, “Get over it.” He can support me better than someone who is not a writer.

But when we are both having a bad day, it’s not a great situation. One night, we were eating dinner and both had our heads on the kitchen table. “How was your day?” “Ugh.” “How was your day?” “I know.” Luckily, this only happened once.

TSL:  I love the story of how you two got together, if you would not mind telling it…?

LG:  I met Mike when I went to an AFI event for Women in Film. He was the only guy on the panel. He was really inappropriate, dirty, cursing, and so funny. My roommate said, “You have to marry that guy.” I didn't think (so); at the time, he was too old for me — and I was an assistant and he was already successful… and he had his shirt tucked into his pants.

But I did think I should meet him and see if I could pick his brain about writing… He thought I was hitting on him, but I wasn't; I hadn't yet met anyone who was a professional writer, which I really wanted to be.

We emailed back and forth for three weeks, then 9/11 happened. It seemed shallow to get together and talk about writing.

TSL:  So you didn’t. But then you re-met…

LG:  Four years later, we got set up on a blind date by a writer on E-Ring. I knew from the very first email exchange with Mike that that was it. We then had the best phone call ever, the best first date ever…

TSL:  And I have to ask — what’s your favorite thing about working on Dexter?

LG:  So many things. I think it’s really an exceptional group of people, the writers’ room and cast. I am really grateful to be a part of that. There is some kind of magic that makes us stronger together than we would be apart.

TSL:  And advice you would give someone who wants to be a TV writer…?

LG:  Find out what makes you great… and make sure you exploit that. Not everybody will be good at everything. If you are a character writer, be a character writer. If (a show) is looking for a procedural person, do not pretend to be. And make yourself someone people want to be around ten hours a day. […] So be positive and enthusiastic. It’s equally as important as what is on the page.