Interview with Under the Dome writer and producer, Peter Calloway
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?
Peter Calloway: I always liked to write. I used to write comics as a kid (that were self illustrated – oh the horror), and I wrote a few one act plays in high school. But it was always just something I did for fun occasionally. I went to college thinking I was going to be an Astronomer. (That’s not a typo.) My dad (who was a cameraman, then a D.P., then a line producer) bought me Final Draft for my 19th birthday. He said to me something along the lines of (I can’t quite remember) “No pressure. Do with this what you will. But I think you’d make a great writer and I wanted you to have the tools.” Honestly, I thought it was a lame present. The CD (remember those?) sat in the box for about 6 months, then one night in college, I sat down and started writing. It all sorta clicked (not to mention Astronomy was WAY more math than I wanted to do). I realized how excited good stories and ideas made me, so I decided to go for it. I switched majors, becoming a double major in Philosophy and European History. I haven’t ever studied film, or creative writing. In fact, I only ever took one English class after high school. I wanted to learn how to think well, and critically. How to take a problem and dissect it, turning it over in my head. Those skills have been invaluable to me, especially in the nuts-and-bolts part of TV 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?
Peter: Oh man, no one will EVER see that screenplay. It’s terrible. It’s a romantic comedy. I had absolutely NO business writing one. It was a clone of KNOTTING HILL. Except with bad dialogue and cringe worthy contrivances. Christ that’s embarrassing to admit.
Kevin: How did you land your first agent or manager? Do you have any tips or suggestions for aspiring screenwriters on getting representation?
Peter: I wrote a pilot not long after college that got some minimal attention. A young, newly promoted agent at Endeavor (who now is a partner at WME, actually) read it and “hip pocketed” me, which is a hollywood way of saying: “call me when you have a job and I don’t have to do any work.” Which is pretty much what happened. Fast forward 10 years, and I’m still with him.
Kevin: Your first TV writing credit came on an episode of the first season of BROTHERS & SISTERS. How did you get staffed on the show and what was the experience like of writing your first episode?
Peter: I owe my career to Marti Noxon. Not only is she a great writer, but she’s incredibly generous as well. I was an assistant on PRISON BREAK, and she offered to read my pilot (the same that got me hip pocketed). She gave me great notes, and asked if I had a TV spec she could read. I was just about finished up with a RESCUE ME script, which I gave to her. Unbeknownst to me, she was just about to go work on the pilot of B&S, and when the show got picked up, she called and offered me a job.
Kevin: Can you explain a little how the staffing process goes in terms of hiring new staff writers for a show? Other than a great writing sample, what types of things do showrunners look for?
Peter: If you get an interview on a show, that means the show runner has read your writing, and thinks you can write. So if you get past that stage, it’s really more like a first date. The reality of writing on a TV show (shows that have an active room, at least) is that you’ll spend more time with those people than you will with anyone else in your life. You’ll share secrets and desires that you wouldn’t normally share with other people. What show runners are trying to decide is if they want to spend that much time with you.
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?
Peter: I love the room. I really do. It’s frustrating at times, but assuming you have a good boss (which I’ve been blessed to have), then it really is fun. You sit and talk about the characters, or plot lines, or scene dynamics. Each day is something different. All of that being said, it is work, and not everyone is right for it. Some writers are better on their own, figuring it out at their own pace. It’s an environment where ideas are constantly challenged, so if someone doesn’t have the temperament to have most of their ideas shot down then it can be a miserable place to spend the day.
Kevin: As a former staff writer and co-producer on the CW’s HELLCATS, I have to ask: How much research did you actually do into the world of competitive cheerleading? And on a side note, how much does knowledge or expertise of a particular subject or occupation help a writer when trying to get staffed on a show?
Peter: Hah! Research. Well, I didn’t know much about that world going in, but it wasn’t really necessary for that show. At it’s core, it was a character drama, with soapy elements.
Kevin: When working on a TV series adapted from a novel, like Stephen King’s UNDER THE DOME, what sorts of unique challenges do you face?
Peter: Most of it has to do with the expectations of the audience. Those who have read it want it to be as they read it. And people are really unhappy when it isn’t. But they are two completely different mediums. Novels (especially ones not part of a larger series, like UTD) are closed ended. On TV, we can’t tie everything up, otherwise we’d have no story to tell in the next episode. So we have to leave the safe harbor of the book and wade out into the deep, murky, unexplored waters.
Kevin: How do a producer’s duties on a TV show, differ from a staff writer, other than obvious seniority in the writers’ room?
Peter: I really consider my job (and always have, regardless of my position) two fold: to tell the best story possible given the restrictions of production and the network, and to do it in such a way that my boss has to do less work. Said another way, show runners do the most work — they take the job home with them in a way the rest of us don’t. They are the guiding voice of the show. The buck stops with them, in success and in failure. In exchange for that, they get a lions share of the accolades (if it is successful) and they get paid well. But make no mistake, their job is extremely difficult. I try to do whatever I can do ease that burden and make it less stressful for them. I’ll talk to actors, deal with production issues, and be on set to make sure that a scene not only is played the right way, but that it cuts together in the editing room in a way that I think my boss will like. Unless I can’t think of one or it’s an emergency, I never bring a problem to my boss without a potential solution. So that answers the first part of your question. But now I’m going to rant for a bit (because I can!). I HATE the idea of seniority in the room. I think it’s total bullshit. A writers’ room should be a meritocracy. The best idea wins. If it doesn’t — if the best idea gets buried because it came from a staff writer, and the co-EP pitched something else — then the show is fucked. Story trumps all. Okay, end rant!
Kevin: In addition to writing and producing television, you’ve also done some comic book writing – for DC on Gotham City Sirens and 12 Gauge’s Gale Anne Hurd series, Anti. Did one lead to the other? With so many comic book titles being turned into films and television series does your background and experience in writing comic books help at all, in terms of both, your actual writing or being considered for other comic book driven writing assignments?
Peter: I’ve always loved comics (hence me drawing my own when I was younger), but the opportunity came for me after I was working on BROTHERS AND SISTERS. I had been going down to ComiCon for several years (as a fan), and a colleague introduced me to Mike Marts, an editor at DC, now at Marvel. He gave me a shot on an issue, and that morphed into a year-long run on Sirens. ANTI, actually, is based on a pilot I wrote. I met with Gale, who had read it, and we talked about turning it into a comic. Fast forward several years, and the comic is done, and we’re going out to pitch it this summer as a TV series. So yeah, it went from pilot to comic to TV pitch. Hollywood is the greatest, isn’t it?
Kevin: What shows are you currently watching?
Peter: GAME OF THRONES (obviously), FARGO, MAD MEN, SHERLOCK, RECTIFY, DOWNTON ABBEY, and am waiting desperately for the next season of WHALE WARS.
Kevin: What are your favorite screenwriting resources?
Peter: I’m a reader. I read at least an hour a night before bed — mostly sci-fi/fantasy, but the occasional mystery/thriller will find its way onto my nightstand. I actually try not to read or hear about other people’s processes for writing, because I believe everyone has to find their own, and listening to other people’s just makes me compare mine to theirs and makes me second guess mine. Of course, I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t contradict myself, so I will recommend Stephen King’s ON WRITING for anyone who is just starting out as a writer. It’s the best, most honest advice I think that exists out there.
Kevin: Lastly, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters or is there anything else you’d like to share?
Peter: I don’t want to speak to process (see above), but I will share something that I’ve learned about the philosophy of writing: writers are not artists. We are craftsmen. Like a carpenter or potter or cobbler, sometimes what we produce is art, but you have to master the craft first. And that means practice. There are no short cuts, no easy way to leap ahead. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s no secret either. Put in the hours. It’ll work. I promise.
Kevin: Which dome would you most like to visit and why: The Dome of the Rock, the Taj Mahal or St. Peter’s Basilica?
Peter: St. Peter’s. It’s oppressing in its magnificence. Say what you want about the Catholic Church, but they’ve sure mastered the art of showing off.
Kevin: What is the first thing you would do if you were trapped, UNDER THE DOME: Gather your family and lock all the doors, race to the supermarket and hoard supplies or buy and watch UNDER THE DOME: Season 1 on DVD… for research purposes, obviously?
Peter: Hah! Water. Water means everything in those situations. Whoever has the water, has the power. Just like we’re going to see in real life in the next 100 years.
Kevin: Which Amherst alum do you think would win a comedy open mic night: You, Fox Trot cartoonist Bill Amend or Boston Red Sox Executive VP and GM Ben Cherington?
Peter: Bill Amend by FAR – I love his cartoons. I’d be a distant second, and Ben Cherington a distant third. I mean, have you seen how unfunny the Red Sox are this year? (Just kidding Ben! I actually think you’re doing a great job, but I couldn’t resist the joke.)
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