Screenwriter and playwright Aurorae Khoo joined SFTV’s faculty a year ago and splits her time between teaching and writing for film and TV. Among her credits are Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, ABC’s Young & Hungry, and CBS’s Unforgettable, along with several projects in China, including an upcoming feature animated film The Marshmallow & Cloud Mom Movie. Khoo shared some insights about her career path and how she’s working remotely.
What inspired you to become a TV and film writer?
I was looking for a “gut” class to fill my schedule during my freshman year at Brown University. So I took playwriting and I ended up putting all my time into it. I studied with legendary teachers and had amazing classmates. My instructors taught the importance of craft, collaboration, and following your bliss. I got to experiment with all different types of forms, staging my work, improved my dramaturgical ability. By the end, I had accidentally created a portfolio.
Through the writing I did at Brown, I won the National Young Playwrights Festival and got my work produced at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. Then I was lucky enough to win a full-ride scholarship for the master’s program in dramatic writing at New York University, which surrounded me with even more great playwrights. I was planning to live in my garret in Brooklyn and continue writing eccentric plays, but one of my professors at NYU was a “super agent” at a major film and TV agency in Los Angeles. She offered me a job working as her assistant, and I packed everything up and moved and started that job five days after graduating. I got my first industry job as a Writers Guild of America Trainee (a program that no longer exists, sadly), and that experience led me to an opportunity to write a freelance episode of a hit show. Really, I fell into it all.
You’ve written for a number of projects based in China. How did you break into international work? How is the business different there?
All the writers I know get work through relationships and word of mouth. A friend of a friend referred me because I’m ethnically Chinese, was an East Asian Studies major as an undergrad, have lived and traveled throughout Asia, and speak conversational Mandarin. The pace of work is much faster in China compared to the U.S. They’ll break 30 one-hour episodes in two to three months, which leaves little time for discussion or debate. You need to have a lot of energy (physical and emotional) to work there, and to be aware of cultural differences in communication and storytelling. I love the pace of life there and working on my Chinese language skills. It really helps that I’m Chinese and was already familiar with the country’s history, film, opera, art, politics, and some of the literary canon. I never realized my East Asian studies degree would pay off in such a way. Combined with my WGA credits, it really became a confluence of a unique skill set.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected how you’re working?
I just finished working on the fifth season of the family show Chesapeake Shores. Using Zoom and Writers Room Pro to storyboard was surprisingly easy and efficient; it makes me wonder if these tools will be used more often for writers’ rooms after the pandemic passes. But our episode order was shortened so it made us writers lose weeks of immediate work. That was disappointing. I was looking forward to being on set in Vancouver and doing a lot of rewriting there.
Also, I work as a team and my writing partner and I are now doing Zoom meetings and pitches. I find Zoom pitches much harder to do than in-person ones. It’s harder to read the room and to see people’s expressions.
What’s the most important piece of advice you give students about working in the industry?
This pandemic should teach students to be agile. If you can’t find someone to produce your work, put up a Zoom reading of it with great actors, and invite agents and managers to watch it. Make that web series. Write that blog. Just keep creating. Write what your heart tells you to write, not what you think the market wants. If you’re tired of writing television, write plays, or features, or novels, or short stories. Anything you create, and create well, will help you eventually.
Any favorite stories to share from past shows or writers’ rooms?
Writing for Edie Falco on the show Nurse Jackie was wonderful. She has such respect for text. Our table reads were like being at a Broadway show—the actors were consistently perfection.