When aspiring screenwriters write scripts during film school, it’s typically with an eye toward securing an agent or manager who can get them hired to write projects that are already being made. This was not the case for Evan Romansky, MFA ’16, who wrote the pilot for the hit Netflix series Ratched as one of his thesis projects. Romansky co-executive produced the project with Hollywood giant Ryan Murphy and conceived the series to establish the backstory of icy Nurse Mildred Ratched from Ken Kesey’s book and eponymous film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
On the day after the series premiere, Romansky talked to SFTV students and alums about being a first-timer in the writer’s room, how he preps for pitching projects to executives, and how LMU’s Writing for the Screen MFA program laid the groundwork for his burgeoning career in TV and film.
The history behind Ratched’s horror
I’d heard through my LMU coursework about the hunger for stories based on existing intellectual property, and for remakes with new twists on old stories. I started thinking about what I could do in that vein so that an agent or manager would take notice. And one night right before falling asleep, Nurse Ratched popped into my head. Her character was always my favorite from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and I loved that all we knew about her was that she was an Army nurse. It gave me the ability to create my own backstory for her and really showcase my voice, which is vitally important for any aspiring writer.
A lot of the horror in the show comes from the fact that much of what we’re depicting actually happened. In the writer’s room, we thoroughly researched the medical procedures of the time. Many ways that doctors tried to rehabilitate the patients then don’t seem defensible anymore. People think we made up hydrotherapy (dunking patients alternately into boiling-hot and freezing-cold water), but that’s exactly what they used to do. We always made sure to be authentic in what we were showing, especially in terms of how homosexuality was treated at the time. Back then, it was diagnosed as a mental illness which is pretty horrifying.
On being a newbie in the writer’s room—as a co-creator of the series
It was very intimidating, to be honest. I was surrounded by people who’ve got loads of experience, who’ve been doing this for 20 years, some of whom have millions in their bank accounts because of the projects they’ve done. I’ve got none of that, obviously. It took some time for me to get comfortable and to figure out where my voice was in that room. I wanted to respect the hierarchy and didn’t want to step on toes, but at the same time, as the show’s co-creator I was encouraged to speak up. Plus Ryan Murphy is an incredible showrunner and he made me feel comfortable and let me learn along the way. I was assigned to write the fourth episode, and I got great feedback on it. That’s when I started to feel a lot more confident.
Lessons learned at grad school
I’m grateful my LMU professors emphasized how critical internships are. I did an internship at a small company where it was just me, the assistant, and the president. I got to sit in on every meeting and learned a lot very quickly. I got a sense of what the industry was looking for and what it was missing. And the experience compelled me to write Ratched, even though I was never thinking it would actually get made—I wrote it to try to get an agent. But in fact, a week after I pitched Ratched and a few other projects at LMU’s annual First Pitch event for screenwriting graduates, I signed with the manager who helped me bring Ratched to life with Ryan Murphy and Netflix. He’s still my manager today.
LMU also prepared me to have more than one iron in the fire at any time. I learned how to shift focus from one project to another. I thought the next show I wrote after Ratched would sell for sure because I already had a foot in the door. But it didn’t, and my shock and disappointment were a good learning experience. You just have to keep working.
Advice for writer’s assistants and first-time writers in the writer’s room
Number one for a writer’s assistant: Be a fast typist. I’m not kidding. You’re recording everything that gets discussed and you need to distill it into legible notes that the team can understand and take action on.
First-time writers, number one is you should be respectful to the hierarchy of the room. But every writer’s room is different. Ours was just four people. I have a friend who works in a comedy-writing room and there are 18 people in there. It’s a very different process. Also, don’t have a criticism of the work without having a solution in mind. It’s easy to point out a problem but if you don’t have a fix for it, you’re not adding value to the conversation.
And you have to be humble to work in this business. As a writer, you might not get to write and produce your own work immediately. If you can’t write in a showrunner’s voice, you won’t last long. Your scripts and writing matter, but personality and being the right fit for a project matter too.
Finally, do the work. Make sure you hit your deadlines. Some of them are really hard to hit and you have to turn things around very quickly, and it might not be your best work, but you have to get your stuff in on time to prove that you’re reliable.
On what he does to stave off anxiety before pitching
I used to be way more nervous before pitches than I am now. It helps to have routines and things that lay the groundwork for preparing. Before big pitches I don’t watch the news or social media, I’m not looking at anything that can make me anxious or trip me up. I always bring a notebook that has some simple quick notes in it—I almost never use it, but having that notebook is like a security blanket. Music is a big thing for me too. On my way to a meeting, I’ll turn on some Sinatra as I drive. And often I’ll talk to myself in the car to verbalize my pitch. But I don’t over-rehearse. I want to talk to people, not at them. If you’re giving a presentation that sounds canned versus having a conversation, people will get turned off.