Interview with Elementary writer and co-executive producer, Jason Tracey.
Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes): Can you tell us a little about your background? Where and what did you study and how did you first get into screenwriting? What inspired you to want to work in the entertainment industry?
Jason Tracey: I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and went to Duke University. I majored in Public Policy, but I never really considered a job in politics or government. The two best things that happened in college were meeting my wife in a film class, and taking a work-study job at the student run TV station. It was a DIY studio in the basement of the Student Union. No real adult supervision. We made weird little shorts and sports highlight shows. I eventually got a chance to run the place, and it started to eat my brain. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to do something in entertainment.
Writing came later. In my early 20’s I was working for Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiders) and I got to give notes to some writers his company was working with. Eventually I thought, “I would like to find out if I can do this myself.” The answer was no. I was too lazy. But I joined a writing group, and started working with a partner – Craig O’Neill (Burn Notice, CSI Cyber) – and that got me off my ass. We met on a short film about competitive eating that I was producing for fun, and Craig made me get serious about writing.
Kevin: Where is the first screenplay you ever wrote and what is it about? How many screenplays had you written before you earned your first paycheck as a professional screenwriter?
Jason: The first script Craig and I wrote was called Long Way Back, and it was an action movie set in the ‘50s. A washed up WWII hero-turned journalist uncovers some evil plot. There was an atomic bomb in it. And ex-Nazis. It was kind of a deranged Die Hard rip off. But we had fun with it, and even though it wasn’t good enough to sell, it was good enough to get us repped. Craig was working with a young agent at CAA that my wife knew, Andrew Miller. He said we should team up permanently, and he passed the script to a young manager, Adam Kolbrenner. And those guys are still my reps today. They told us to keep cranking out TV specs and movie specs and see what hit first. It was TV, after about a year and a half.
We probably wrote three movies and four TV specs. And there was a terrible play in there too. I think I’ve seen 5 plays in my life. Ours was absolutely atrocious. Looking back, breaking in happened pretty fast. But at the time I thought “God, this is taking forever.” I was an idiot.
Kevin: I saw that your first writing credit came on the writing staff for the short lived Don Johnson series JUST LEGAL. How did you get that job and what was the experience like?
Jason: It was a great experience. Craig and I loved that show. And Don never got around to hitting us with the cricket bat he claimed to have in his trailer. So we escaped without injury, and learned a lot – I’m still friends with a lot of the writers on that staff who took us under their wings.
Just Legal was a Bruckheimer show – not the one we were originally considered for that year. We had a good meeting on E-Ring – a Pentagon show written by Dave McKenna. At the end of that meeting we found out E-Ring really didn’t have the money to hire any more staff writers, but Craig asked Dave if we could take him out for a beer because we were big fans of his American History X script. I was sort of mortified that it was on overreach, but it worked. Dave went out with us, and told the Bruckheimer people we should be considered for all their other shows. So they sent us to Jonathan Shapiro, who had created Just Legal. And I had just learned the lesson that being brazen sometimes works, so in that meeting I pledged to kill anyone Jonathan wanted dead if he would give us our first job. Fortunately, I haven’t had to pay that debt yet.
Kevin: On BURN NOTICE, you worked your way up from writer and executive story editor, all the way to executive producer. Can you talk a little about your experience on that show and how you were able to progress, at least what appears to be, so quickly?
Jason: Burn Notice was an amazing experience. Our friend Alfredo Barrios Jr. helped get us the job. We worked with Alfredo on Just Legal and a Fox show called Justice. He was probably the only TV writer that Matt Nix (the showrunner and creator of Burn Notice) knew at the time, so we were brought in to write a backup script before the show was even picked up. It felt like a minor risk at the time – going to cable before cable became the cool place to be – but I loved that pilot, and I felt like it was a great match for us. The voice of that show was so clear from page one.
Craig and I clicked with Matt. He liked a lot of what we pitched. He started to lean on us a little, trust us a little, and the big thing was that writers on that show had to produce their own episodes. In Miami – 3,000 miles from home and studio. It’s a zillion degrees, and you’ve got 7 days to bring in these episodes that have tons of action – it was kind of TV producing boot camp. We were given enough leash and managed not to screw up too often, and FTVS – who produced the show – was fair about renegotiating. So Craig and I moved up the credit ladder pretty quickly, and even got to split so we could be paid independently for all the responsibilities we were taking on. I was there 6 years. I loved it.
Kevin: From staff writer to executive producer, you’ve been through basically the entire writing/producing ranks. Can you talk a little about the hierarchy on a TV show? Who is responsible for what?
Jason: I’ve never seen two shows that work exactly the same way. But generally speaking, the job is the job. Everybody from staff writer up to EPs who work under the showrunner need to pitch stories, pitch in the room, write outlines, writes scripts, backstop the director on set, give notes on cuts. Usually the only difference is that as you move up you’re looking over the shoulder of less experienced writers instead of the other way around. You start helping with re-writes, taking on more episodes. But every staff job I’ve had has been pretty similar in terms of responsibility. I know some shows keep younger writers in a smaller box, but I was lucky. I had bosses that were willing to roll the dice and trust new guys.
Kevin: What specific challenges do you face in keeping the legendary characters and stories of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, fresh and unique on ELEMENTARY?
Jason: I think the biggest challenge is coming up with mysteries worthy of the greatest detective in the history of literature. You sort of know going in that it’s impossible to deliver, but that’s the goal anyway.
But I think Rob Doherty (creator and showrunner of Elementary) did a very smart thing when he wrote the pilot. Setting the show in New York, making Holmes an addict, and casting the first female Watson – we’re not in any danger of treading the exact same ground as Conan Doyle or the many folks who’ve been lucky enough to adapt him. Unique stories seem to follow from Rob’s unique jumping off point.
Kevin: With many shows these days getting shorter ten to thirteen episode commitments, ELEMENTARY has been doing twenty-four per season. How big is the writing staff and what is it like breaking and writing a twenty-four episode season?
Jason: There are nine of us on staff. It’s a good group. Our hiatus is a bit shorter than most, but the 24 episode treadmill hasn’t ground us down too much. Having these iconic characters helps. Having the rights to the original stories helps. We can lean on a stand-alone mystery one week, and keep the A-story light to make room for more character stuff the next week. Or dip into serialized mythology. Having a show that’s a little bit of a transformer makes 24 doable. We mix it up.
Kevin: With such a high episode commitment, according to the WGA agreement, ELEMENTARY is required to hire a minimum of three freelance writers to write stories with option of going to teleplay, one of which must be exercised. I know it is common for Writers’ Assistants or script coordinators to get these opportunities, but that they’re also sometimes filled by outside writers. Where have you typically found freelance writers for your show?
Jason: We’ve hired assistants and our script coordinator so far. They’ve been terrific, and I think it really helps that they know the ins and outs of the show so well. I didn’t do it myself, but now I tell people that being a writer’s assistant in TV is a great way to break in.
Kevin: Can you explain a little how the staffing process goes in terms of hiring new staff writers for show? Other than a great writing sample, what types of things do showrunners look for?
Jason: Great hair. No, actually it’s all about the material. And a passion for the show or the genre helps too. But you can’t fake that.
I’ve seen what goes into hiring decisions on a couple shows, but I’ve never been the guy who had to pull the trigger. I’m surprised so many showrunners seem to prefer original material to specs. I don’t think I would if it was me. I don’t think I would care if someone can create their own characters, voices, and stories if they can’t demonstrate a great ability to mimic another show. Ultimately, that’s much more representative of what you do as a staff writer. But original pilots are definitely what’s en vogue now. And what do I know? Maybe that’s a better test.
Kevin: Writing television is very different than writing features, with a TV writer’s room being much more interactive and collaborative. Can you talk a little about your experience working in and running a writer’s room?
Jason: Working in a good room is one of the best parts of writing TV. It’s social, and usually there’s a fair amount of digressing and joking around. You try to stay on track, but the vibe in a room is important too, so I’m in favor of keeping it light. We started taking short breaks every 30 minutes or so on Burn Notice, and that worked great – a lot of the time somebody would come back in with an idea about how to plug a hole or improve an act break. I like mini rooms best. Three or four people. Put too many people around the table and the temptation is to start vetting everything – nitpicking as you go – instead of building it brick by brick and refining it all later. But opinions and personalities vary. Every room is different.
Kevin: What shows are you currently watching?
Jason: It’s the summer, and I have two little kids, so I’m not watching much. But this year I’ve really enjoyed Veep, Silicon Valley, and Game Of Thrones. And I’m rewatching The Wire because I’m always rewatching The Wire.
Kevin: What are your favorite screenwriting resources?
Jason: When I was getting started I read “Story” by Robert McKee, “Myth & The Movies” by Stuart Voytilla, the William Goldman books, and as many scripts as I could. There’s no better way to learn than reading the scripts from your favorite movies and shows.
Kevin: Lastly, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters or is there anything else you’d like to share?
Jason: There’s a lot of luck involved in anyone’s story about breaking in. That’s not advice, it’s just the truth. But it’s better to forget that entirely. Act like you’re responsible for making your own breaks, and your odds improve greatly.
Kevin: Who do you think it would be most fun to go on a pub crawl with: British classical pianist James Sherlock, former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes or the IBM supercomputer, Watson?
Jason: Larry Holmes and it’s not close.
Kevin: What thing would you most like to burn: The temperamental auto-correct feature on your cell phone, spam emails from Nigerian Princes or the NSA for (not so) secretly reading all of your text messages?
Jason: The NSA. After years of researching espionage and murder as part of my job, I shudder to think what lists I’m on.
Kevin: Favorite dessert: Deep fried Mars bar, cherpumple or lime popsicles?
Jason: Lime popsicles. Nobody’s an atheist in a foxhole or while eating a lime popsicle.