TSC 2017 – Panel Report: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Writers On Collaboration and Leaving Your Ego at the Door

By April 28, 2017Main

The Toronto Screenwriting Conference (TSC) is a two-day weekend event that brings together screen-based industry professionals, offering lots of opportunities for development and networking. This year’s conference was held from April 22 and 23.

The conference is, to say the least, an extremely well oiled machine, thanks mostly to the skills and dedication of organizers Kim Robinson and Kent Robinson who do an amazing job at curating the conference. Credit also goes to TSC’s Advisory committee and of course the conferences founder, Glenn Cockburn. Glenn is also the founder of Meridian Artist Inc. – an agency representing an impressive roster of talented writers, directors and producers.

Also, since the conference takes place in Canada, it goes without saying that the staff and volunteers (who work their butts off) are kind, polite and extremely helpful! Wondering if the conference is worth the long trek up north? TheScriptLab is here to make your mind, starting with some stats from this year’s conference.

First off, a breakdown of the attendees. All told, this year’s conference consisted of 57% Screenwriters, 14% Producers/Directors, 7% Agents and Broadcast Development Executives, and 16% Independent Media Professionals

As far as experience goes, 40% of delegates have 11 or more years in the business, whereas 21% have at least to 6 to 10. Of the remaining 40 percent, three quarters fall between 1 and 5 years. In other words, if you’re still in the early stages of your screenwriting career, the ability to rub shoulders with more experienced industry folk is unmatched. 

As part of our ongoing coverage of TSC 2017, we’ll be taking a closer look at a handful of this year’s standout panels, starting with a live Master Class featuring writing duo Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers. For those who don’t know, they’re the creators of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire (think Mad Men set around the birth of the modern computer). In addition to being funny, forthright, and just generally full of useful information, the duo also made sure to refer to each other as Cantwell and Roger. This proved an incredibly helpful technique, considering that both share the same first name.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

On Writing Specs:

  • The guys believe that some of the best “movies” of the last decade are  actually television shows, which is why they chose to aim their spec towards the TV market.
  • They hated and rebelled against the idea of writing what they “knew” until they decided to think about it a little bit differently. Instead of “writing what you know”, write from your own Point of view. Your unique aperture, so to speak.
  • What do you know about love, for example? Take what’s unique to your own experience and find a way to layer that over whatever story you choose to write. Space opera, horror, etc!
  • This is the sort of thinking led them to take inspiration from Chris Cantwell’s dad, who worked in computers. Of course, over time, this idea continued to gestate, growing and changing into what would eventually become Halt and Catch Fire.

On Research:

  • While Google is great and all, the key was reading books written by the people who were actually there (Halt takes place in the 80s). Of course, talking to these people was a great help, as well.
  • As a general rule, if you want to write about submarines, don’t use Wikipedia. Instead, talk to someone who is claustrophobic.  

On notes:

  • Upon receiving their first round of notes, they saw it as a to-do list and tried to incorporate all of them.
  • This made their pilot worse.
  • Their general sense is that Network doesn’t really expect you to take every single note to heart. Instead, try to focus on trends and common threads throughout. Remember, you are the steward of your own material, and the studio is interested in your POV.
  • They also believe it’s a necessity that writers are willing to defend their work and not simply bend to every request without some healthy back and forth. Nobody knows your script like you do, after all.
  • Sometimes you might even have to say, “we like it our way”; but before saying that, you must actually make sure you’ve taken the time to consider the concerns that other people have. Of course, this won’t always work, but your voice is an important one. 
  • They emphatically stated, and I’m paraphrasing, that only a fool chooses not to listen to the concerns of others. You must be open to hearing those notes and acting on them if they are genuinely better. Take your ego out of the equation.
  • Remember that others have expertise, too (the crew on Halt consisted of both Emmy and Oscar winners).

On People:

  • They guys firmly believe that good people attract good people.
  • Try hard to be a “good person” – someone others want to work with and be around.
  • The guys also freely admit that it’s important to own up to things they don’t know.
  • Equally essential is the ability to empower your collaborators to produce work that they are proud of – “the show belongs to all of us”.
  • You are going to mess up, so it’s important to surround yourself with great writers. Good chemistry is key, because you’ll be spending a lot of time together.

On talking too much:

  • Don’t.
  • The way writers talk ought to be motivated from the work not from the ego. The guys admit this is hard to do.
  • Sometimes you have to let a good idea go. It comes with the collaborative territory.
  • Sometimes, it’s as simple asking yourself “would I be happy with that?” If the answer is “probably not” then it’s time to address it.
  • You are not your ideas, they can reject your pitches, but they are not rejecting you. Pitches have no owners. We pull them from the air for a moment, hold them, breath life into them and then let them go again, when they are no longer useful.
  • Remember you are not an expert on cinematography, production design etc. You can have an opinion, but if you need to express it to the Director don’t do it in front of the crew.
  • “We are the experts of our show – we made it up”. That’s their trump card – but they use it carefully!
  • Pick your battles and be respectful, do your best to understand the jobs of others.
  • Your job on set as a writer is to be the guardian of the work
  • This is just a job for many – and that’s fine. While many may become very invested in the show, many will not have the same level of investment as you, the creator, inevitably will.
  • In general, be blessed with great collaborators. Surround yourself with them, at all cost.

On Learning From Others:

  • Learn everything you can
  • One of the Chris’ had no production experience so he spent most of his Saturdays learning.
  • They stress that you must take opportunities to learn– people want to help –again that’s why you must be receptive to other peoples notes and talents
  • “Whatever you learn, steal it shamelessly and pay that wisdom forward”

On The Writers Room Experience:

  • When either of us automatically responds an idea with “yes”, we’re pretty sure it’s a good idea
  • They admit that they’ve been wrong about stuff. That’s part of the point of bringing other writers on board in the first place.
  • For them, the writers room process is paramount – they see it as the nuclear reactor that powers the show.
  • They’ve set things up so that the best idea is allowed to win – everyone is equal.
  • They want writer’s to pitch wide open and bomb away, it’s a safe space.
  • Work-life balance is important – both guys talked about the fact that during the first season they spent a lot of time away from their respective wives.  It’s unavoidable sometimes, but try not to make a trend out of neglecting your personal life.
  • That last bit made these final words particularly funny: ‘… if you’re looking for a writing partner find the right person. Treat it like a marriage. This sometimes means admitting that you’re an asshole while other times it means kissing on the mouth.’

And that’s about it for the panel. As densely packed as it was entertaining and informative for anyone with so much as a passing interest in what it’s like to run a prestige drama in the era of peak TV. Don’t forget to catch up on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire before it returns for its fourth and final season later this year. 

That’s it for now! Keep your eyes on The Script Lab for more from this year’s Toronto Screenwriting Conference, including a discussion of the female gaze and an inside look at The Beaverton, Canada’s best in satirical news.