Seasoned showrunner and screenwriter John Strauss brings over 30 years of experience in film and television to SFTV. He has been an executive producer/showrunner on over ten different television series, most recently for the Golden Globe-winning, Mozart in the Jungle. Strauss currently serves as executive producer for the Peabody Award-winning best drama series, David Makes Man, with Academy Award-winner Tarell McCraney. Recently, we asked him to give us the inside scoop on the show, working in a virtual writer’s room, and the important advice he gives to every class he teaches.
What drew you to David Makes Man? What makes it stand apart from most series out there right now?
Tarell Alvin McCraney. He’s one of the most incredible people I’ve ever had the honor to work with, on top of being an absolute genius. He’s just so generous and kind.
I was a huge fan of Moonlight [McCraney co-wrote the Academy Award-winning adapted screenplay based on his own play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue] and the show has a lot in common with the film in its tone, message, and theme. I read the pilot script and it was just like nothing I’ve ever read before. It was a combination of magical realism with a storyline that delved into themes of abuse, survival, and ambition, yet remained hopeful. It’s a show that shines a light on what a Black male goes through growing up and not a lot of shows have accurately portrayed that.
While David Makes Man is about a very specific character and a very specific slice of the world, I think the show itself carries with it strong universal themes. That’s why I connected with the material from the beginning, but the originality of Tarell’s series and style of storytelling is really what drew me to it.
What advice do you have for first-timers collaborating in a writer’s room?
What I say to all of my students is that movie and television writing are collaborative mediums. If you don’t have the wiring to be open to other people’s opinions, to take notes, and get comfortable rewriting endlessly, then you shouldn’t pursue it. You should be a playwright or a novelist. Both are great options, but if you want to work in television and film as a writer, collaboration is key.
You also have to keep in mind that the notes you receive are not always from other writers. Understand that you’re working in a hierarchy and that you have to listen to the people who are paying you. It’s a delicate balance of being an artist and being a politician. I spend more time rewriting than I do writing the first draft. I mean, it’s all about rewriting. Figuring out how to apply those notes in a way that you feel like you’re not going to compromise your vision is the key to success.
How has COVID-19 affected how you are working right now and what long term effects do you foresee for the industry?
It was a difficult transition at first. We went from being in person every day and having our rituals to then being confined to Zoom. Now we’ve gotten more used to it, though it is more exhausting. Honestly, any eight hour stint in a writer’s room is exhausting, no matter what form it takes, but after a full day of being on Zoom in a writer’s room, it’s twice as tiring because you’re having to focus on your computer screen all day.
Another thing that we rely very heavily on in a writer’s room are the boards we have to break down the story. On David Makes Man we have ten episodes per season, and by the time we’ve broken all ten episodes, we have ten whiteboards in the room filled with the storyline. Having the boards in person made it easy to walk around and move sections. The story is 360 degrees around us and it’s an efficient and effective tool. But now, that three-dimensional experience has been replaced by various software programs. And it works, it simulates the board and you can move cards around, but it is most certainly not my first choice. I much prefer physically being in a room with people.
Although I do think that Zoom, or an equivalent, will be a mainstay in the future for many writer’s rooms. On the positive side, it will potentially allow people who don’t live in LA or New York to be part of a writer’s room from wherever they may live. And the studios obviously like it because they don’t have to rent office space. So I think there’s going to be a big push to keep writers’ rooms virtual.
What’s the most important advice you give to your students?
Always be writing. There’s nothing more important for a writer than to just continue to generate new material. And that never changes. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and my representatives still ask–what’s next? Because employers will always ask, what have they done lately?
Always do the best job you can possibly do and do it with a great attitude, even if it’s the worst job in the world. This is so critical. I always promote from within, so if a production assistant who wants to be a writer comes to work every day and they are attentive and have a great attitude and aren’t resentful of the job they’re doing, I will absolutely look to promote them.
Strive to be of service to others, whatever that means for you. I volunteered in the Big Brothers program just out of college, and there are countless nonprofit organizations that you could work for even two hours a week. I strongly believe that being of service to others creates happiness and a fulfilled life. Anything to get you out of your head; and that’s particularly important for us writers, who spend so much yime in there!
Vote. I see a lot of apathy among younger people, but voting, no matter what your political affiliation, is a privilege that we all have and we must exercise that freedom every chance we get.
What TV shows should screenwriters study to improve their craft?
There are a bunch of shows that I think are brilliant. Here are a few in no particular order:
- The Wire
- Normal People
- Peaky Blinders
- Mr. Inbetween
- I May Destroy You