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Niceole R. Levy 0:00
So in its most basic form and you get your first writing job, you're a staff writer. At present staff writers get a guild negotiated minimum salary, they do not get script.
Alex Ferrari 0:11
This episode is brought to you by Bulletproof Script Coverage, where screenwriters go to get their scripts read by Top Hollywood Professionals. Learn more at covermyscreenplay.com I'd like to welcome to the show, Niceole Levy. How you doin Niceole?
Niceole R. Levy 0:26
I'm great. How are you doing?
Alex Ferrari 0:27
I'm doing great. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I'm excited to talk to you about your new book here. The writers room Survival Guide. I've had many showrunners on the show. Many TV writers on the show, I'm fascinated by the writers room because I've I've only worked in the background of a writers room meaning in the office seeing what the rooms do when I was starting out as an office PA, and, and seeing, you know, talking to some of the writers and supervising writers and what is it? What's it called when they the cleanup guy that comes in and kind of cleans up dialogue and he wasn't in the room like he was not even in the room. It was like outside, like doing more technical
Niceole R. Levy 1:07
Like a consult more like a consulting producer.
Alex Ferrari 1:10
Yeah, I think something like that. We're gonna talk about the hierarchies well, because there's way too many producers. I'm just gonna throw that out there. Way too many producers. I know there's a mystery behind that as well. But before we get started, how did you and why God's green earth did you want to get into this insanity? insanity that is the film industry?
Niceole R. Levy 1:31
Well, the why of it is really I grew up in the middle of nowhere in this little town in the Mojave desert called Ridgecrest. And it's like 110 115 degrees every day in the summer. And so literally, I spent summer vacation in front of the television, because nobody was going outside till the sun was going down. And just was in love with it was in love with movies and TV shows and all the things and my parents were older parents, so I got to watch stuff that none of my friends got to watch because my parents were exhausted by the time I came along. So it was sort of like Yeah, yeah, whatever it took, we don't care that that shows to grown up for her. And so I just loved it. And I originally thought my love of all of that meant I was going to be an actress, which now seems like an even crazier career choice, but at the time felt very reasonable, obviously. And my parents were horrified, of course, but I was very independent spirit. And so I moved to LA and I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. And it was really while I was there. And while I was performing all the time that I realized I was in love with storytelling, not necessarily with performing. And so that's when I made the transition into writing. And I managed to get some some decent day jobs and put myself through USC. And here I am.
Alex Ferrari 2:54
So what was so what was the when you when you when you got your first writing gig like someone was paying you to type? I'm assuming that to put pen to paper because you're not that old. But but to actually type. What was it like that first day walking into the room? Or did you start off as a, you know, a writer's assistant or something else, but just the first time you were ever in that room when you walked in for the first time? What was that? Like? Because I love I love letting other writers know, the feeling what, what the normal feelings are? And they're not crazy to feel?
Niceole R. Levy 3:30
Absolutely no, by the way, I do have writer friends who still write pen to paper and then type it up.
Alex Ferrari 3:35
So the aircraft still uses dos. So he has a machine that's DOS and then he has he has a floppy disk over to his assistant to translate it over to final draft. I'm not kidding you. So he did doo doo was written in that.
Niceole R. Levy 3:52
So to gauge their own journey. So I got my first writing job, really after about 10 years of actual effort training. Overnight overnight success. Yeah, um, I, because I had hefty student loans from USC, I could not afford to work as an assistant. It just was not realistic. I could not keep a roof over my head and somehow maintain those loans so that nobody came after me to pay them back. And so I did a whole bunch of day jobs. Some of them industry connected, some of them not. And, you know, wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and finally, after 10 years and two network writing programs, I got an opportunity. I did the CBS writers mentoring program, and I did NBCs writers on the verge and, you know, got a show runner meeting and it was with Ken Sam Zell, who was running iron side that year, and I got a phone call at lunch saying congrats. collations you just got an offer to join the writers room. And of course, it's literally just, you can't even believe it. Like you've worked so hard for it. And the fact that someone's actually said, Yes, I would like you to come to my writers room. It's a little like, is that real? Is it real?
Alex Ferrari 5:17
Oh, is this Oh, is this are you?
Niceole R. Levy 5:22
Well, and the funny thing was, because I was at lunch, my phone was in my purse, because Ken had said it would take a couple of days for him to decide. And so when I went to take my purse, my phone out after lunch, there were like, 17, missed calls. And I was like, Well, this is either really good or real, that was really good. Um, and so you know, that first day, basically what happens when you finally get a job as a staff writer, you will get a start email from showrunners assistant, or the writer's assistant. And it's like, Hey, welcome to x show. This is where our office is going to be that since that, what time we start the first day, if you have any requests for special things, let me know and like, special, you know, special things like you know, do you need an ergonomic keyboard, or whatever.
Alex Ferrari 6:16
I can't eat green m&ms. start becoming a diva right off the bat,
Niceole R. Levy 6:22
That's probably not a great ask when you're a staff writer, like I was afraid to actually put my Clif bars on the food menu in the writers room, and one of my EPS came in and wrote them on it was like, well, you stop buying your own Clif Bars. But that's so yeah, it's a learning curve.
Alex Ferrari 6:45
But let me ask your question, though. So you said 10 years of the hustle of struggling to try to get noticed. There's so many people listening right now, who are writers who are in that boat right now? Who are just writing and writing and knocking on doors and nothing is happening for them? How did you get through a decade? Because generally, I always tell people have a 10 year plan. And if it doesn't, if it hasn't panned out after 10 years, you might want to rethink situations, unless it's something that's still burning inside you. Because I forgot who was oh, it's Taylor shared. Sheridan was saying he was I've never seen anyone. Anyone pop after 10 or 15 years of putting their heads against the wall. Because it doesn't happen. He goes after maybe seven or eight years, but after like 15 years, if it's not, if it hasn't happened by then the business will tell you he said, the business will tell you, in his opinion, because he finally he busted his ass as an actor for so long, before he finally started to write. And he's he's doing okay, now. He's, he's on right now. Because after 15 years, you really need to reevaluate what you're doing. It might be another aspect of the business, but it might not be what you want to do. So I have to ask that question to you like, how did you keep going? After all this time?
Niceole R. Levy 8:10
Yeah, no, it's a really valid question. And one of the things I tell the writers that I mentor now is, you have to know what you're willing to sacrifice. And where your lines in the sand. And only you know that right? Only, you know, what's the final straw for when it comes to doing this, you know, I have lots of friends who have succeeded in this business while being married and having families, I did not feel that I had the space for that. So it is only now that I am established that I am taking time to try to like, go on dates and do all those things. Because I was so this was everything in my life. And I just didn't have time for anything other than keeping a roof over my head, my friends. And that's like that was that was my life. Um, you know, I got to about year nine. And I guess your eighth it was your eighth. And I did get worried. I did start to think like, what if this is never gonna happen? Because I kept getting almost right, like, Oh, I got a call. I got a play produced. And then nothing. I got I was in the finals of the Disney fellowship, but I didn't make the last cut. Alright, so it was like that, that almost thing right? Where you just it's so painful. And I, I the only other thing I'm great at in the world is making desserts. And so I started a baking business and that was my father. And I was working it diligently in in what little free time I had while also writing and doing all those things. And I thought, you know, I could do this I could make I could make a life from this. But what I knew to be true was I was going to write the rest of my life See whether I ever got paid for it or not. There are 1000s of pages of material on my old hard drives that no one's ever going to pay me for. That I had to write. I mean, I used to when I couldn't think of a new spec script to write I wrote fanfic, like pages and pages like 1000s of pages of fanfic write on those hard drives. I did it because I had to write. So I wasn't going to stop writing. And so I was like, Okay, you can hang in and keep trying to get someone to pay you for it. But you have this other thing that you know, you could do if you had to. And literally, my what I always say is, the universe was like, Oh, she means that we got to get her off this baking thing, because it's taking up too much of her time. So I was at the kitchen all day baking to go to a food show, because I was going to start trying to get business to do like wedding favors. I came home from the kitchen. And there was an email from the CBS writers mentoring program that I had applied to for what was going to be the last time saying, congratulations, you're a semifinalist. Please call us to schedule your personal
Alex Ferrari 11:17
I can't believe after vehicle because I look very similar to you. i man i so many close calls over the course of when I was starting out. I mean, from the earliest part of my career when I was meeting some of the biggest movie stars in the world. I wrote a book about our almost $20 million movie theater mafia and I was flown out to LA and I met the biggest movie stars in the world. I'm at the Chateau Marmont, I'm at the IV having dinner with like, billion dollar producers. I had all of that happened to me early in my life was 25 26 of it. So that was the beginning of many close calls. I was always I was almost on Project Green. Like, I was almost on the on the show on the lot the Spielberg show. And I was I was almost sort of so many close calls, oh, the money's about to drop for this movie. It's almost gonna drop the money's there. So there's so many close calls. And at a certain point, you just have to go like, when is this going to happen for me? And then you have to figure out what are you willing to keep doing? And, and I found my happiness. And I was looking at I was in post. So post was my fallback. So I was always in the business. Oh, I was I was always told always had food on the table, and I was at a roof over my head. And my student loans were extremely low. Thank God only like 18 grand 20 grand or so.
Niceole R. Levy 12:38
Can you know, that was barely a semester of loans for me.
Alex Ferrari 12:45
I went to full sail, not USC, I still feel it. My time at Full Sail was fun, but fairly worthless. And I'd love to hear if you thought your time at USC was worth the money. I'm sure it was a fantastic education. Was it worth the money was worth the ROI the return on investment? I'd ask you that question before we continue.
Niceole R. Levy 13:05
Okay. Um, I would say this, I, I did not go to film school. Contrary to what most people assume I was an English major, an undergrad and I did the creative writing program in the English Department. And then I did what used to be at USC and they they gave the program to another university, it was called the master Professional Writing Program. So you did everything right. You did technical writing, you did poetry, you did playwriting, you did the whole gamut. And why I say it was worth it is that I actually paid my bills with my degrees until I became a TV. All the jobs I got after that were jobs I got because of my degrees. I wasn't like, who I have this fancy film and TV degree, but I'm working in an office typing. It was like, I was an assistant editor at a magazine I did your writing.
Alex Ferrari 13:58
So you are you are being paid as a writer, but just not the kind of way that you want it. So that's that's that I feel in many ways. It's almost more frustrating than if you were working as a barista at Starbucks. And I wanted to write because this is my personal because I from my experience, being an editor, working with directors, helping other filmmakers fulfill their dreams, and fixing mistakes that they made in post production. Being so close to it was almost like it's so it was so angry about that so many times, I became very bitter. Maybe it was very angry, bitter filmmaker for many, many years. So I can imagine it's like I'm working on writing, but just not doing the kind of work that I want to do. So was that frustrating for you? Or did you look at it completely differently?
Niceole R. Levy 14:51
I looked at it differently, I think mostly because I felt really lucky to be with the people I was with and they were all really supportive like I have been very fortunate to not have a bunch of people in my life who were like, Yeah, sure, you're gonna make it as a TV writer, like, I was working at the magazine when I became a finalist in the Disney fellowship. And everybody was like rooting for me and in it. And so I think I just felt like I had, it brought good people into my life. So it felt worthwhile to do. Certainly, there were day jobs that I wish I could have quit five minutes after I started. Oh, yeah. But those were mostly the non writing jobs, honestly, like it was. And it was jobs where I mean, I tell the story famously that like the last day job I had, my boss yelled at me for caring too much about how I did my job. Which is what made me go home and apply to the CVS program for the last time. I was like, I mean, I can't do this job. So I hate this job. So I gotta do something. So I applied.
Alex Ferrari 15:58
But that's, that's fascinating. Now, is there something that you wish someone would have told you at the beginning of your career that you that you wish, if you could go back and just say, Listen, this, you really need to figure no of this? What is that one thing that you wish someone would have told you at the beginning?
Niceole R. Levy 16:19
I wish someone would have told me at the beginning that, um, that I could spend more time on my life than I did. I feel like I just, I felt so like I cuz I didn't have contacts. And I didn't have anyone supporting me. And it was sort of like, it's all me. And I just was so all in that there's so many things I missed out on that, I think, would have been fun experiences and would have been great. Now, would I go back now and change them? No, because it might change something about my life. Now. Thank you get the facts, right. But had I had someone said to me that, and been able to get through to me and said, I know how important this is to you. But you can go to the concert with your friends, you don't have to stay home and write every single day, like, cool, with
Alex Ferrari 17:13
A little bit of a little bit of, but little bit of balance. But for us in this business, we have to be obsessive. This is not just a job. It's an obsession, it is a calling. It is that thing that drives us when you wake up in the mornings, the first thing you think about when you go to bed at night is the first thing. And the last thing you think about it is and I tell people all the time that there's there's an insanity to what we do. And it's an insanity, we there is no logical conversation to be said like, I'm good to go right for television, that's generally not a conversation you have with your parents or with your friends. I remember when I told my friends in high school, I'm like, I'm gonna go be a filmmaker. They're like, what? Like it's not. And that was in the 90s when it really wasn't a thing. Now everybody's proud of the Creator. And we all got cameras. I was an absolute ruin. It is not there hasn't you have to have a sense of insanity to believe that you can even achieve this kind of dream? But that is Do you agree?
Niceole R. Levy 18:12
Yes, absolutely. Because I mean, look, I had, you know, black southern parents, they were like, don't you want to just get a teaching credential, though, by school, like just go to school, like you don't have to become a lawyer, but just go to school in case you need to become a lawyer like, they were classics in that regard. And, and I remember, when I got my job on Iron side, the first thing I did was call my mom and tell her and she just broke down crying on the phone. She was like, I'm so proud of you, and so proud of you. And I called my big brother. And he was like, wow, he was like, I guess you were right. I guess it worked out. Because it took that for everybody to like, exhale. Because you know, they were always having conversations behind my back about like, be able to take care of herself like Chelsea African buy a house like all those things.
Alex Ferrari 19:08
My parents deal. My parents didn't know what I did. My father had like little to no understanding of what I did as a director 20 years in 20 years, and he's just like, I know that you make money. I know someone pays you I know you have a roof over the edge of a family. So you're obviously doing something. So I took him to the set one day. And he saw me on a commercial set. He's like, he went back and told the whole family. Everyone just listens to him. He just tells everybody what to do. And they go around and they do what he says. Because that's what his job is because he could they just couldn't grasp it. And then I told him on a podcast. He's like, why? Because I interview people. Like it's like I barely grasp what you're doing as a filmmaker now you're podcaster and the only time it made sense to him is when I interviewed Billy Crystal all the time. The only time I called them up and I said hey, just have to do with crystal because you when you watch he goes, Yeah. And I had Billy Crystal send you a little message and here it is. And Billy was so sweet. And he actually gave him like a shout out to my dad and my dad's like, the craziest. It's a he goes out talks to famous people. So now I'm back. I'm a filmmaker.
Niceole R. Levy 20:20
Know when I, I got iron sights, so Blair Underwood was our lead, my mother just adored and is, by the way, one of the loveliest human beings in this business. And he was so sweet. Like, every time I'd go to set to observe, he'd be like, How long till 109? And I'd like we had a countdown and my first day, he's like, 109, it's fine. Oh, that's so lovely. And so we took a picture, and my mom printed it out and put it in a frame on a table in our house.
Alex Ferrari 20:50
Like, it was like, it was Obama, it was like Obama or the president.
Niceole R. Levy 20:53
And it was next to the photo. It was hilarious. I was just like, Well, Mom, I was like, you realize people are gonna think that's my boyfriend or something. She was like, that's fine. They can think that I was like, I don't think this is unwinnable like them. But to your you know, to your point, there is that level of like, you, it takes so much the cost is so high, right? Because you are constantly creating things that you believe in, that you pour your soul into that someone else is going to be like, like, it's, it's, it's debilitating in a way emotionally, so you have to be a little bit crazy to want to do it. But then right, when you get that call of like, you get to come work in this room, and you get to go for that first day. Which to get back to one of your first questions. It's like, you walk in, and you're a little bit like waiting for someone to be like, just kidding. security, security, get out of here. But like, you show up, and they take you to an office and your names on it. And you're just like, oh my god, this is real. This is real. Also, you're terrified, because oh my god, I gotta work. Everybody's like, how do I prove I deserve to be here? I mean, I feel like that's the right attitude to have. I've certainly encountered people who were like, now they're all gonna see how brilliant I am. And I'm like, I'm not gonna do well.
Alex Ferrari 22:24
Let's see how this works out for you. Let's see. really
Niceole R. Levy 22:26
Yeah, it's go in and prove that they made the right choice.
Alex Ferrari 22:32
It's interesting, because you feel like at any moment, security's got to come in. It's like security police. It's scored in a call and our Clif bars out of the building. Yeah, out of the building, just get her out. And by the way, that imposter syndrome is rampant throughout our industry, from the biggest to the smallest person in the business. And I've had the pleasure of talking to some really, you know, legendary people, and they still like, oh, yeah, I still get pneumonia. You're, you're this person. You've created this show, are you? Why would you be nervous? Like if you felt like saying, I'm like, You made like $20 million a week, what's wrong with you, like, you've made it you have arrived already. But in their mind, it's a completely different perspective. So it's really always interesting. It's all perspective, a lot of time with these with creatives. But at the end of the day, a writer, no matter if you want an Oscar, and Emmy, made the best show the world when you sit down in front of a blank screen with a blinking cursor, we all go through the same process.
Niceole R. Levy 23:33
Absolutely. I posted on Twitter about the fact that, you know, I just wrapped another room. So I wrote my 19th episode of television, and literally had the same thought every time of like, Oh, what if I can't do it this time? And it's like, there's 1818 pieces of evidence that you couldn't do it. But that one time, but I just have you seen the Paul Newman Joanne Woodward documentary, but yeah, it's, it's amazing. And the big takeaway from it is Paul Newman literally suffered from imposter syndrome his entire career. And I was like, if Paul forget, Newman could never get past imposter syndrome. There is no hope we all just surrender. It is a permanent condition. Because Wow, Paul
Alex Ferrari 24:18
Newman, Paul Newman, Paul Newman. Oh, man.
Niceole R. Levy 24:23
So impostor syndrome, just it's real. We all have it. It's not gonna go.
Alex Ferrari 24:28
Wow, that's crazy. That's I mean, I mean, to a certain extent, I think yeah, I mean, even then, Sal will like walk on set or Meryl Streep or walk on set. They might have a little bit of it. But at a certain point, you just like, I been down this road a few times. I, I think I'm good. I think maybe there'll be a challenge about what the circumstances are. But they have to have some sort of confidence in the ability to like, like you like, I can write an episode of television. Like I've done it enough. When I was not getting paid. And when I was getting paid, that I have the skill sets to do so like I could walk on a set and go, I could probably direct this scene without a shot list and just roll with it. Because I've been on set enough to feel comfortable in my skill set that I built. Does it mean that if Meryl Streep walks into the scene that I'm directing, I'm not going to crap my pants, probably from because I have had the opportunity to work with like Oscar winners sometimes and you just sit there like, work with Tarantino? Like, who am I? Who am I? Yeah, it's crazy. It's just the mental mental games we are displayed with ourselves.
Niceole R. Levy 25:39
Oh, I know, my first episode of television, which was on Iron side, Robert Forster guest starred for us.
Alex Ferrari 25:45
I've worked. That's what was talking about.
Niceole R. Levy 25:47
And I literally, I walked up and I was talking to him, and I was like, Oh, it's so good to have you here, Mr. forester. And he was like, You can call me Robert. And I was like, I don't think I can. I'm gonna call you Mr. Forrest.
Alex Ferrari 26:00
I'm telling you, I directed Robert inish. In a film that I was doing. And my god, he was just the level of professionalism, the gravitas of his his weight of just walking in the room was remarkable. And he was so humble. So so so humble, because I've absolute, as they say, a match. He was wonderful, just wonderful to work. And when you when you work with that level of professionalism, you go, Oh, this is what it's supposed to be like, yeah, not what I've been doing. Oh, this is this is at that level, okay. And I'm assuming as a writer, too, when you work with certain writers, or if you're in a room with a certain showrunner, you go, Oh, this is what it's like to work at this level. Because there's many different rooms, many different shots, many very different skill sets within those we can show runners and how they run a room and so on. But when you get to work with high caliber, even with another person in the room with you, another writer and other staff writer, go, oh, that's what I Okay, I gotta get my game up.
Niceole R. Levy 27:06
No, it is absolutely that. Look, I and I talked about this in the book that like every room you're in, is an opportunity to learn how to do your job better, and to learn what you never want to do when you're the boss, right? Because every room has some foibles. Like, I've never been in a perfect room. But I've been in really good rooms. And I've been like, Oh, this is how you get a story break to move faster. Oh, this is how you get clarity for everybody. Oh, this is how you help a writer who needs help without humiliating them. Oh, that's right. And so you learn all those things, right? Watching. Now, when you're in the not so good rooms. That's where you learn how, oh, I never want to treat people like this, oh, I never want to read 10 pages of a script and throw it out. Because it's dehumanizing to the entire staff. Like it's, you see those things? And you're like, nope, nope, not gonna operate that way. I hope because there are plenty of people who absorb those things, and then take them with them. And then they run toxic. So the goal is to watch the good people do it.
Alex Ferrari 28:09
Well, let me ask you this session, since you brought it up that you've been in, I'm assuming a toxic room or two in your day? How do you as a writer survive that kind of room? Because it is, you know, I've been with? I mean, there's, I've met a few toxic people in this business. I know, surprising. But oh, by the way, some egos too. But um, so I know what it's like to work with toxic people when you don't have power? Yes. When you when you have power. If you're the director or the showrunner, or a staff writer who has some gravitas to them, it's different. And you still dealing with toxic people, you have a little bit more armor, you have a little bit more skill set on how to deal with it. But when you're starting out, and you have no power. And you have to deal with toxic people above you. What, what suggestions do you have for young writers to survive a toxic room? Not just for one episode, but for a season?
Niceole R. Levy 29:06
Right! Absolutely. So one of the first things I'm like, Just be honest with yourself that like, Oh, this is not a great situation. I think sometimes we especially I will say writers who come from underrepresented communities historically, tend to like, I can make it better your staff, right, or you're not going to make it better. It's it is the environment that it is right. So just accept that this is a situation out of your control. Um, and then, you know, one of the big tricks, it depends on if the toxicity is at a to a point. And then the rest of the people in the room are good people just trying to survive too. That's going to be your lifeline, right? Because usually, hopefully, there's someone in that room whose job is to look out for the lower level writers anyway, or who just is that kind of person and so they're going to like check in on you. Make sure you're okay. Make it fine. In a way to say to you, oh, I know this is batshit crazy. If you need to talk about something, you can come to me it's okay. Right? Even if they don't use those exact words, right? If you are in a place where and and thankfully, I have never experienced this, but I've heard about these rooms from friends of mine where it's just a constant, one upsmanship everybody out for themselves, because the showrunner sort of pitting them against each other. It's a little Hunger Games Room, right? That the best advice I have is look to the community that you have built as a writer, right? Look to the people who've mentored you, or to other writers, you know, at your level, and just go to them and you don't have to name names, you can just be like, I got this thing happened in the room today. And I don't know how to deal with it. And get advice. You can do it real time, I once was in a situation where somebody was in my office, saying a lot of things that made me very uncomfortable, because of I was a staff writer, and they were complaining about people above me and I have no power in this situation, right. And so I literally because I was already at my computer anyway, typed one of my friends who was an upper level writer and was like this happening right now. What do I do? And she was like, you go, Uh huh, uh huh. Really, wow, don't agree to anything, and find a way to get out of that office when you can. And so I was like, Oh, I gotta go to the bathroom, and like, got up and left the office. And it's like, I wouldn't have thought of that. Because I was panicking. Right. But I went to a writer who had been in a similar situation, or knew people who had been in it. And that's how we help each other. We need, you know, sort of brainstorm solutions to terrible situations. Because sometimes you don't know sometimes you literally walk in the door and all you've heard or good things about somebody and then you get there in your life.
Alex Ferrari 31:50
This is not this is not what was advertised this was definitely not it's almost kind of like prison yard ish. Whereas in that you're like, out in the yard, and you gotta I gotta find a friend. I gotta find a friend or group of people that I can connect with, to protect ourselves from this onslaught, even if it's quiet, and nobody needs to know that we're a team are helping each other because, because if that comes out, then that becomes a whole thing. So these are politics that no one talks about. These are things that generally other than your book, people generally don't talk about the politics of, of a room, how to handle toxic environments. And I'm not sure how much different these toxic environments are now versus five to eight years ago, where, you know, people were getting away with murder literally saying whatever they wanted to say do whatever they wanted. And because they were the powerhouses, they could get away with it. Where nowadays I'm not sure in your in the rooms now is it? I'm assuming that that that toxicity is kind of less it's not accepted as much as it used to be the the crazy showrunner. yelling and screaming and throwing things and being abusive to the writers like they show in movies is not as accepted as it used to be just like it isn't accepted to be a yeller on set anymore. Like, you know, James Cameron is legendary for what he's how he, you know, everybody, everyone has a James Cameron story. Everyone's got a I got to I got 20 of them myself. They're fantastic stories. I love. I've heard that he's less he's, he's calm himself with age. But he's still James Cameron. Right, and he will hit the teeth will come out if you rub them the wrong way. But it's not like it used to be where there was just like, you know, I had friends of mine who worked on Titanic, he which he would literally just fire departments, departments, because they know what you screwed up on the plate, no alternative gon get me 20. And you'd be like, That's not as accepted anymore. So what's your advice for that?
Niceole R. Levy 34:00
I would say I definitely think it is known as accepted anymore. There are still people working in this business who don't treat the people who work for them. Great. And I think it's, you know, I talked about in the book. Again, it's one of those things, right? I grew up in a military family. I used to work in law enforcement. It takes a lot to shock me in terms of commentary, those kind of things. So my skin for that kind of stuff might be very thick compared to somebody else. So the way I look at it is my job is not to constantly be on people and be like she say that can't say that. Can't say that. But if I'm in the room, and I see someone say something that doesn't bother me, but clearly make someone else sort of cringe. My job is to intercede there and just be like Guys, guys, we're going to end up in an HR meeting. Let's move on, like, try to steer the conversation away. Or to to say like later if I'm worried about putting that right around the spot, go in later and be like, Guys, let's not joke about that kind of stuff. Okay, I saw a couple people feel a little uncomfortable, like, let's not do that. And so as you as you become a more upper level writer, that's how you can help in those situations in a way that you can't when you're a lower level, right, right, because you don't have, you're always afraid you're gonna get fired. People are afraid to report because studio HR still works with the studio. And people are not sure how much they trust it. But you can be the person who can tell that it's causing a problem and try to do it because you have a lower risk. If I as a co EP is off the showrunner and get fired, I'm still getting paid. Right? They okay, my contract out, the staff writer can't do that. And so you have to be willing to take the hit to to help protect those people. As you rise up the ladder. When you are lower level writer that what I say is, if you're in an environment, that's a little tough, or you're just in a great environment, but you have a tough day, right? Sometimes even really good rooms, like an episode falls apart, and the showrunners pissed that you gotta read, break it and all of that. If you're the kind I am, I'm the room mom, I always have it. I'm a natural born room, mom. And because I bake, right? I bring cookies into the I do all kinds of stuff, like, do what is in your nature to try to make that room a better place. If you're the person who loves to organize things be like, hey, once we survived the shitty rewrites, should we all go have happy hour at blahdy? Blah, and plan? Be the first like, do what you can to keep the morale up? And that's fine to do at a lower level, nobody's going to be like, you know, who the hell do you think you are. And you're not trying to boss around people who are above you, you're just being a nice person. And, and if your room is having a really difficult day, especially if it's a good room that's having a bad day, don't be afraid to be the person who says something ridiculous. Like, I've been in a room where the break was just completely stalled. Everybody was starting to snap at each other. And I was like, what if we just drove a truck through the building. And everyone was like, what hours I mean, I'm just saying, The I get in the building, let's start tracking it. And it got everybody talking it, let some of the air out of the room and like, people could breathe again, you know, so you can find little ways like that to help. But if look, if it's a full, toxic situation. And I do hope we have fewer of those rooms now. But it does still happen. You just got to get through it, you do not no job is forever. No job is forever. Alright, so if you don't want to report, if it doesn't feel like the kind of thing that you want to go to studio HR about, and just tell your reps, I'm going to tough it out, I'm gonna get through the season. And then I need to go. Right, I want to do this job.
Alex Ferrari 37:51
Right. And it's, it's a thing that you just have to look, we all, especially at the beginning, we all have to go through crap. This business is called paying your dues. And it's a little bit different than it used to be. You know, I had my first boss and I was bipolar and didn't take his meds. And he would yell at me, I was working at a commercial house and I was the default guy. And I would get yelled at. And then the next morning he would walk in and sweetest human being in the world. So it's like a couple minutes literally a bipolar, like, did he take his meds or not today kind of scenario. And the verbal abuse that I got was, what was it I was making 20 Some $1,000 A year it was in the ballroom, and I was in Florida where there was not a whole lot of stuff going on in production. So I was like, I gotta just toughed it out. And that's exactly what you do. Like I gotta, I gotta, I'm gonna learn this Avid, and I'm gonna get out of here, right. And that's what I did. So the second that there's toxicity, or things that come at you, which this business is gonna throw at you, you've got to kind of sit down, take the hits, as long as it's nothing, you know, to an out there, like you were saying, but take the hits and keep moving forward. Because take this opportunity for what it is and learn from it. And like you said, learn what to do, what not to do, how to handle people like this, what you should do, it's all learning lessons. It's all everything, all the negative stuff that's happened to me in my career is built into who I am today. And I will not and I wouldn't, I wouldn't I wouldn't not not have those experiences.
Niceole R. Levy 39:29
Like you learn from those experiences. Absolutely. And I just tell people, you know, it's, if you are working with someone, and I don't care if they're a producer or a, you know, showrunner or whatever, who is creating a work environment in which you don't feel safe? You need to tell someone about that situation. Yes, being being angry and not liking the person is different than that sense of I am not safe here. Correct. Even if it's just emotionally safe because they pick on you in front of the room like that's not okay. it and it's especially not okay if you're a woman or a historically underrepresented writer like it's not it's not okay for anybody, but especially none Okay, then. And so if you don't feel like you can go to someone on your show, talk to a friend about it, talk to another upper level writer, talk to the guild do something to protect yourself in the situation. But yeah, there are, look, there's just, I, I worked for somebody who is not what you would consider a tyrannical showrunner in this business. But who literally treated us all, like we worked for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, had no respect for our private time, or family time, any of that. Just call it whatever, whatever that is debilitating, to expect people to work seven days a week? Yes, we get paid really well. We're also all human beings who have doctor's appointments and, you know, nieces and nephews to spoil and kids to take care of and all those things. And you have to, to be the kind of person who respects other people's time to be good at this at this business and to be good as a showrunner. And when you run into someone who doesn't, it'll make you want to punch walls. Was that a job? I was going to quit? No. But I was certainly angry the whole time I worked it.
Alex Ferrari 41:21
And these are the things. Look, the things that you put up with when you're in your 20s or 30s are not the things you put up with in your 40s and 50s. I mean, it's just, I look back at some of the stuff I did, I'd be like, no way I would put up with something like that now, but I'm in a different place. I've been around a little bit longer, and also a much stronger position to be able to, and I also see it coming down before you didn't see them coming. Yeah, you go into that interview with that showrunner. Now you like, Yeah, this is not gonna be a good match for me. I I smell something. There's something here? I don't know. But you're just like, I just need an opportunity.
Niceole R. Levy 41:58
I just I'll take absolutely, absolutely. Look, I have I have had, you know, writers who are about to get their first job come to me and say, Hey, I've got an offer from this show. I've heard this person might be a little problematic. What do you think, and I'm like, Oh, I will tell you everything I know. But at the end of the day, you need your first credit, you need your first job. And if your first job has to be with one of these toxic human beings, just go in knowing it's not you. They treat everybody like this, like, that's what that that word of mouth thing that we do, right, that's how we look out for each other is to be like, Oh, you're probably gonna get fired, but they fire everyone. Don't worry about it, like everyone in town knows it. Just go in there, you have your first job, you get your first credit, you get out. And it's a terrible thing to have to say to somebody. But it's real. Because our business still functions like that you need credits to get more credits, right. But I just say, like, let us Let's send people in with their eyes wide open, let them choose what they're walking into, as opposed to being like, oh, no, it's gonna be great. When we know it's a night. Like, let's tell them what it's really going to be like and let them make a choice. Because then they can already be strategizing how they're going to deal with it, when the bad stuff comes up.
Alex Ferrari 43:15
And this is why I do what I do, I want to be I want to let people know that there's a punch coming. And, and most most people don't even know that they're in a ring, let alone that there's a punch coming, you know, by a professional by a professional fighter. Rather than, like it's coming and prepare yourselves either learn how to dunk, and we've learned how to take it and keep moving forward. But this is this is the reality of the business. And that's why I do what I do. Because not many people tell the truth about that. Everyone loves the sizzle, but no one is really good at that steak.
Niceole R. Levy 43:49
And it's in luck. And it's always right, even once you become a showrunner. You might have talent that's toxic. And sometimes that piece of talent is the only reason your show's gonna get on the air. So you got to manage that toxicity. affect everybody, right? And it's your job as the showrunner to manage it. Don't expect everybody else to deal with the fallout of it, you're the person who agreed to it. So manage it. And I've been in situations where I feel like that isn't managed and it just makes you want to scream bloody murder, because you're just like, well, I can't do anything about it. If the boss won't say anything about it, they're not gonna listen to me. Alright, and so, you know, it's, it's, it's all so much of this business is about personalities, and understanding who people are and understanding how you need to be around them. Right? And not to that you shouldn't be your authentic self, but like, recognizing like, Oh, this is not a person I should trust with my secrets are that you're safe, right? Yeah, there. I tell people all the time. You know, part of being in the writers room. It's so much of being willing to share your experiences. ready and willing to tell very personal stories to help build a better show. None of the show runners who are screamers and yellers and abusive get that out of people. Nobody tells their best stories because they don't feel safe.
Alex Ferrari 45:12
You know what there was? I had the privilege of having Martha Kaufman on the show. And we were talking about friends. It's just like, do you remember that scene? Where Joey is getting measured by the the, or Chandler's being measured for Pat by the Italian? Taylor. And it went too far. He went too far up, and he was doing things he shouldn't be doing. Yes, that was real. That was one of the writers in the room, told us that story. So they felt comfortable enough in that room to say that story and it became a classic sitcom scene.
Niceole R. Levy 45:46
Yes, exactly. And that's the thing, right? So like, especially because sometimes we get hired in for experience, I worked in law enforcement. So my first several jobs, I was there, because of my law enforcement experience. If I'm worried about being ridiculed, when I share a story about something awful that happened at work, I'm not sharing that story, right? Just not. And so you need to create a space where people feel safe enough to say really hard, honest things. For the sake of making your show better. They're doing it for you. So make them feel safe. And there's lots of different ways to do that. Lots of different showrunners have different methodologies. But at the end of the day, it does fall completely on the show runners shoulders, to make a room where people feel safe.
Alex Ferrari 46:35
Now, I agree with you 110%. Now, there's I we talked about this earlier in the show, there's too many producers on television. And there's there's 1000 versions of them. And television, it's not movies. So it's a completely different vibe, different different things mean different things. Can you please explain the hierarchy of the writers and the producers? Because I know some I look, I'm in the business. I talk to people like you all the time. And I see people asked me to like, I think a call EP is a writer who's been promoted. The EP is not the showrunner, but it could be a co showrunner. There's so many rules in regards to this. Can you just explain it a little bit, please?
Niceole R. Levy 47:20
Sure. So in its most basic form, when you get your first writing job, you're a staff writer. At present, staff writers get a guild negotiated minimum salary, they do not get screwed, and sort of considered like an apprenticeship being sort of position, there's conversations about changing that. That's how it is right now. So in a perfect world, you do your staff writer year, let's say on a traditional 22 Episode show, because it's hard, it's harder to get promoted right away on the shorter orders. So do your 22 episodes, you become a story editor the next year. After that, you become an executive Story Editor. So though all three of those positions are considered lower level writers, and basically what that means is you come in your first year, you're learning what the job is, you're learning what it's like to be in the room every day, you're getting a feel for how you're how to pitch stories in the room, it's your your staff, writer, yours, you're learning, right? Story Editor, you're you come in, you've written, you've probably written at least one script or half a script, you've been in the room for a whole season now. So now your confidence is a little bigger, you can pitch faster, you follow the board easier. And hopefully, you're looking out for the new staff writer who came in behind you, right? Be that person, pay it, pay it back. Before then, yes. And then you get to executive Story Editor, executive story editors where the money starts to change in terms of instead of getting paid X amount of dollars per week, you now get paid per episode. And so it changes how long you can be stuck working on a show. And it's all a lot of complications that I sort of talked about the book. After that, you go to co producer level co producer is basically mid level writer, so co producer and producer. And typically, what the differences now I know back in the like 70s they were bigger demarcations of all these jobs. But what it means now is your showrunners just rely on you. Right? If you're a co producer, you've probably hopefully been to set to produce an episode. Your you've done prep meetings for episodes. So they might be like, even on an episode they're writing and producing be like, Hey, Nicole, can you sit down those prep meetings for me today? Because I got X, Y and Z and you just get thrown into the mix to do that kind of stuff. Um, if they need really quick rewrites on things, they might look to you because the upper level writers are busy on something else and they need two scenes rewritten. And they'll go to the mid level writers and be like, Hey, can you guys take a pass on this side effect. So you just start to get a little bit more responsibility, a little more assumption that you know what you're doing is really right from the top. And then after that you move into the upper level writers. So supervising producer, co executive producer and executive producer, what that really means is at supervising producer, there's a real good chance you might run the room sometimes, because the CO EP or number two is on an important call with the showrunner. And so the supervising takes over and keeps the train running in the room. You might stay on, especially on a streaming show, you may stay on for production when everybody else gets released. Once you get to that level, that's what I did on fake the week saga, I stayed on for three months and helped with the first block of production. Um, and it co EP, it's really, you're probably running the room most of the time, or some of the time, depending on if there's another co EP, um, someone in that rank and that CO EP supervising producer, in a really well run room is looking out for the lower level writers making sure that they know what they're doing that they have questions, they know who to come to all that stuff. And, um, you know, you probably are staying on for production for the whole run, unless somebody else has already agreed to do it. And you're popping out after 20 weeks, which just happened to me on the show. And it EP level EP level gets tricky, because right, you can get executive producer status without being the showrunner, because you just have the career right to have earned that title. If you've been, you know, a co EP for 10 years, and you're gonna basically be running the room and overseeing post and doing all that stuff, they give you the executive producer title. You can also be an executive producer, because you're in the showroom.
And then we have non writing EP, who are executive producers who do not write but came in as producers, when the show was actually being birthed when it was going through the development process. And you can all level of involvement from non writing up, some are right there. In the mix. Some of them you literally never see their name just appears on the screen and they get a check. So level of involvement. I added
Alex Ferrari 52:40
I had a friend of mine who Oh, my goodness, say the show. But it's a very famous show from a very famous showrunner, and, and writer. And I knew the EPS and question and they told a different story. But then when I actually talked to someone, staff, writers, and some staff producers on that show years later, they're like, We never saw them once. I think we saw them on the first day. And they never showed us this again. And they just collect checks, and they own the IP. And that's why and that's why they own the IP. So that's why this show was that's why they own it. So I was like, okay, so I didn't know that was a thing. Oh, yeah, but that one this business decision basically set them up for life. They're never have to work a day. They're gonna keep getting residuals. They're gonna keep making movies, they're gonna keep doing things off the off the rip the comic books, and amazing, remarkable but yes, they never showed their face ever.
Niceole R. Levy 53:39
Yeah. And the one other thing I'd say when you're in that upper level territory, that's where you get called on right for a staff writer script came in and it's not very strong. And the showrunner doesn't have time to give it back to the to the staff writer for notes. So you might get called on to do a page one and then give it to the showrunner, that kind of stuff. So you get called on more for you know, someone was supposed to cover set and something happened and they can't go, your name is going to come up to go covers that because you're one of those top you know, two or three writers on the show. So you definitely get more responsibility more crunch time. Everybody, you know, I these are the people I need to help me get through this emergency from the show.
Alex Ferrari 54:23
And so as you go up on the the ladder, if you will, you're not just a writer anymore, you are actually a producer, you are actually producing the show, helping produce the show, getting in prep meetings, things like that. So it's not only a title, per se, you're actually producing and actually handling things that writers generally don't handle.
Niceole R. Levy 54:44
Yeah, it is it is definitely more work. And you know, the trick to it now is one of the things that we're finding right with all of these streaming, six to 10 episode shows is people are getting promoted title is because they have the clout to do it. And they've done a decent amount of work to get the title bump. But because they're not going to set, you're having people get all the way to cotp. And they've never produced an episode of television. Right. So that's when it gets a little bit tricky. And you better be able to bring all that other stuff to it in terms of being able to do a factory, right? Being able to run the room, all those things, make sure you're honing those skills, because now you're going to have to learn a new skill, which is going to set and producing an episode of television, when everyone's going to assume you know how to do you so right, because
Alex Ferrari 55:38
You you've actually played both you believe played in both kind of rooms, you've played on streaming shows, and you've also played in network television. And network television still seems to be the old school, you know, you're gonna learn a lot going through 22 episodes of standard television, as opposed to being on a Netflix show. Or a cable show that maybe only does eight episodes. So like, it's a completely different mindset, even though the title might be the same. The experience is not so you got to prepare yourself.
Niceole R. Levy 56:08
It is absolutely and I encourage young writers like if you get an opportunity for broadcast show, he fell into it for one season, do it because you will never understand what it's like to be in that process of like, we got to write this episode, right? This is episode shoot this episode, it airs a month later. Like, it's so different than the streaming model. And it's like, it really teaches you how to move quickly how to make quick decisions be very decisive. How to handle emergencies, how to you know, I learned how to read one sheet, because number one on the call sheet had to drop out and we were like, Okay, what are we doing? Like, we got to figure out what the schedule looks like. Um, so it just, it teaches you skills that are very hard to get outside of broadcast right now. And I myself, I went back to broadcast, so that I would get experience and post because even though I had produced episodes of television post is like the place nobody lets you go. And so I was like, I need to, I need to go through post on episode. So I went back to broadcast so I could do post and get a feel for what it was like, what's fun? Oh, it's fun. I love I mean, I was a closed caption ER for years. So I thought, wow, oh, yeah. And so it was like, you know, it fascinating to me. And so I was really happy to finally get to be there. And like, see, there's a reason you have multiple people watch it, right? Because not any one person is going to catch everything you get, you know, people who are really all about the music and people who are like, we need more dialogue here. We need more dialogue here. And the people who are like shortage, shorten and shorten it feels wrong. And that's what makes it all work. You get all those people together. And it's not as one person having to catch every mistake.
Alex Ferrari 57:57
Right! Exactly. There's always the like, is that a boom in the shot? Let me that's the worst go through the entire episode, edit and 1000 people have seen it. And I QC kicks us back you like yeah, there's there's a there's a boom in the shot guys. Can you can you remove the boom?
Niceole R. Levy 58:13
Yeah, I know. I was unsettling time. And I swear the boom dropped below the safety rider. And everybody was like, No, it didn't. No, it didn't. And I was like, I mean, we're gonna do another tape anyway. Can we just mark that it might have like, calmed down. Like I'm telling you, I wouldn't have said anything. If I didn't feel confident I saw it drop a lot of
Alex Ferrari 58:34
safety. As your imagination recall, it was just your imagination. That's not a real it's a phantom. It's a phantom boom, mic.
Niceole R. Levy 58:41
Yeah. That's why we do more than one takedown.
Alex Ferrari 58:45
So let me ask you, as a writer, and I, I've gone through this as a writer, but I don't write nearly as much as you do on a daily basis. When you're in a room, and you're on a deadline, this is the thing that's fascinated me about a room is different than a screenwriter. Screenwriter can take a year, his time, even if there's a deadline, you got 12 weeks maybe to turn something around, you know, something will get a draft done or a rewrite done. But when you're in a room, you have a deadline, and it's a hard deadline. There's no There's no Mickey Mouse and around with that deadline. I have to believe that there's a point in your career that you just sat down, you're like, I can't I just nothing. I'm dry. There's nothing there for me. I can't my muse is on vacation. I can't get through this. What do you do as a staff writer to power through those moments when you just don't have the thing that you normally tap into as a writer?
Niceole R. Levy 59:45
So I'm one of those people who doesn't actually believe in that.
Alex Ferrari 59:50
I think there has to be times when the floor was not as heavy as
Niceole R. Levy 59:53
Yes, definitely. There's times when like it's not coming out in that natural state that I know it's the best writing Ever. But you know, and I think part of it is starting in broadcast, right where the deadlines are not fungible, like John balls to tell you don't ever miss a deadline on one of my shows, because it'll be like, you only do it once. And, and so I think the way to do it is, is again, I think the saving grace is remember, it's a job. So like, even if all you can do when you're feeling like, oh, I don't know if I can do it, take the outline, or the beat sheet or whatever your show has created. Put it in final draft, and just start formatting. Just start adding slug lines and being like, Okay, this is all description. Oh, I need some lines of dialogue here about this and about this and about this. And it'll be the world's worst first draft, but just doing that will get you for a file and it'll get you in your flow. And then I have literally had, you know, where the episodes flowing great, but then I get to a scene where I'm like, what is the scene anyway? I totally ah, stupid. garble garble. garble, you know, like all the, the crap that has to get spewed out in a procedure or whatever. And I will literally just write like, the Cole has to say something funny about whatever, you know, Alex has to do whatever and just write that and then keep moving. Come back later, and fill it in. Because when you have a hard deadline, you just have to keep moving forward. And you can say, when you turn it in, hey, here's the draft. I'm really not sure about that. That act added act to like I tried, but like, I'm just not sure why it works. That's fine. You have yes, no one's expecting a staff writers first draft to be perfect. They just hope it's serviceable. They hope they do not have to page one rewrite. So as a staff writer, please give yourself a break. Nobody's expecting it to be like, Oh, my God, this is the greatest script I've ever know. And as you move up the ranks, you know, different shows have different voices, and some are easier to pick up than others. And so have I been on a show where I wondered if I could nail the voice? Sure. But I wrote the script first. And then I went back and worked on the voice well with the rest of my time. So it's about budgeting your time, right? If you have five days to turn the script around, I highly recommend getting a really bad, you know, vomit draft done in like two days. And then spend your time just going back through going back through it going back through working on it. It's it's a process and you just have to make yourself do the work. And, and I think, you know, broadcasts was a really great training tool for that. Because in streaming, definitely, the deadlines become more fungible, right. It's like you have a schedule, we're going to try to stick to it. Oh, wait, we just got three episodes blown up. Well, we'll get to your script we get to.
Alex Ferrari 1:02:59
Right. It's a whole other world. It's Yes, it's it's streaming versus network. I mean, that work has a time you got eight o'clock on Tuesday, so it's gonna show up in streaming. You know, we'll wait another half a year for Stranger Things to come out.
Niceole R. Levy 1:03:12
Yeah, I think.
Alex Ferrari 1:03:16
Now, how do you deal with notes when you get it because as writers, you're gonna get notes. And screenwriting is a screenwriter for features is one way of studio notes. But as you're getting, you're getting feedback, like in the room sometimes. Or studio notes or executive notes. How do you deal with these notes?
Niceole R. Levy 1:03:37
So until it's your show, what I would say is just remember, like, it's all about what the what the showrunner wants, right? So the studio might send you two pages. And it'll be very overwhelming. And then the showrunner is gonna look through that and gonna be like, Okay, try to address this one. Ignore this ignore, ignore this. This is a good note. Try that. Like they're going to help you sift through it right? Very few show runners are just going to be like, here's the notes go with God, like see what happened? Because they're trying to protect their vision from the studio or the network as well, who are not trying to give you bad notes, but sometimes give you bad notes. I think you know, I was brought up by showrunners who were like, at least consider it right when you read it read it legitimately like, is there something here? Sometimes you're just like, can you guys read it literally says it on the page, the thing that you're asking for and you want to scream bloody murder, but sometimes they're really confused about something and and just looking at it and changing three words, gives them what they want, it makes clarity and they feel heard. So as you're coming up the ladder, you know on staff, you will have guidance on how to handle those notes when you're showrunners Giving you notes. Just remember, it's their show. You're their service that you're there to service them. And you might hate the note, it doesn't matter. So at your show, go to the note. And when you see things like I had a show runner who I love, by the way, who rewrote every joke I ever put into a script. And I was like, annoyed by it, but also what I would say was like, well, at least I was right. There was supposed to be a joke there. And just right, you were right, that it needed a joke. The showrunner just wanted to tell a joke they thought was funny. And, you know, instead of yours, so you just have to roll with that kind of stuff. Because almost everybody on staff gets rewritten. Sure. I mean, I've been on shows where COVID keys get rewritten, like it just happened. So you just got to roll with it. When it's your project, when you're doing development. And you know, you're trying to do your own stuff. It becomes sort of a dance, right? Because you're producers in the studio. And if you get there in network, we'll all be giving you notes. And it's tempting to want to say no to all of them. And you can't do that. And it's tempting to want to say yes to all of them to just make your life easier. And you can't do that. And it's really about now, what's your vision? What are you protecting here? And if the note doesn't completely offend something that you really care about trying? But sometimes you're gonna get notes that are like, Well, I think it should just be about one person instead of all four of these characters. And that's a different show. Right? And you're not, and I, and I've gotten that note, and I had to say, I'm not doing that. And sorry, if that's the show you want, I am not the right person to write that show. And you have to be sure, because they might say, Okay, then we'll go get someone else to write it. My experience was, I was so passionate about it. And I explained it so clearly, that they were like, Okay, try it. And then they were like, Oh, my God, it works amazing. But like I had to get them to that point.
Alex Ferrari 1:07:05
Right! Right. So these are the things that they just don't, unless you're in the room. Unless you're unless you're SSA say in the shit. You don't, you just don't have the experience until you get it true.
Niceole R. Levy 1:07:19
It's really true. And one thing I really stress to writers coming up, especially because a mentor taught me this, if it's your story area, or your outline, if it's gonna get you the guest to go write the next thing. Take the note, if unless it's that catastrophic, right? It's just like, we don't think you need this in the pitch. And you absolutely think you need it in the pitch, but cut it. And then later, someone's like, going to ask you a question. And you're going to be like, it was a little thing like that. But okay, you already know the answer. So you don't have to. But they're all sales documents. They're all trying to get you to here's money to write your script. So remember that, like, someone might give you a bad note and outline. And if you can finesse it, so that you take their note, but it doesn't ruin anything for you. When you write the script, you can try to write them out of that. No, because now they're gonna get scrapes, they're gonna get story with the characters and all the dialogue and stuff. And you might write the scene in a way that they don't even remember they ever gave you that.
Alex Ferrari 1:08:27
Did you watch the offer? yet?
Niceole R. Levy 1:08:30
Not yet. No. So yeah, so
Alex Ferrari 1:08:34
I loved the writing the directing the production, the acting is all done well, but there's no there's a scene there where Albert the producer is trying to negotiate with the mob, to let them make the godfather. And one of their notes is like, it was actually from Frank Sinatra, apparently, who was a very against the movie. And he said, I don't want to hear the word mafia in the script. And he's like, how can you make a movie about the mafia without the word mafia, the spirit. So Albert, very coyly, just went over to Francis and Mario Puzo in like, on a location said, like, Hey, guys. How many times is the word mafia, the script? And he's like, once, and he's like, precise, the line goes, can you get to get rid of that? Word doesn't matter. You know, I'm fine. And they just moved on. So what was considered a catastrophic, like, how could you make a movie about the mafia might say the word mafia. They literally had no, it was just it was all a family, the family business, it was never referred to generally speaking. So it was interesting. So everyone was happy after that.
Niceole R. Levy 1:09:42
Yeah. Yeah, it's exactly that kind of like sometimes the notes here like,
Alex Ferrari 1:09:47
What in the world are
Niceole R. Levy 1:09:49
You talking about?
Alex Ferrari 1:09:51
The door what?
Niceole R. Levy 1:09:52
Right! And then you have a conversation and someone gave me great advice that when you get a note that literally you're just like, I would like to murder you for giving me this. Go back to them and say what is it you're trying to feel? What what what is it you're trying to feel from this note? And usually, it will get them to talk about it. And you can find out what the what they're actually talking about. Because oftentimes those notes are poorly worded, and not actually communicating what the issue is. And sometimes what they're looking for is a moment between two characters. But it sounds like they're asking you for some huge drastic rewrite. And then you're like, so you want these two people to talk again. And they're like, Yeah,
Alex Ferrari 1:10:37
you're supposed to rewrite this entire scene from scratch. Yeah.
Niceole R. Levy 1:10:42
And then you're like, great, I can do that. I can do that.
Alex Ferrari 1:10:45
You know what? That's so interesting, too, because you're right, because a lot of times people who are giving notes are not writers, especially executives, financiers, actors. They're not writers. So the notes that they give you, they're doing their best to interpret your language, just like when I worked with a composer, and God forbid, I tried to talk music to them. Like, look, no, I remember, my composer was working on a movie once and he was trying to talk, I was trying to get fancy. We're like, can we get this note here to do this? Or that? And he's like, no, no, what emotion Do you want to hit there? And then I will interpret the emotion that you and the thing that you're trying to hit, and that is how notes should be given. It's like, I feel like they need to talk again, because I don't feel that there's a connection with these two characters, as opposed to me writing. You know what, I think the structure of this scene is off because of this, this and this. And I'm talking to a language that I might not know. And we as writers have to take those notes. And they said decipher them. Yeah. But that's great. Great. When what does it mean emotional? Was it that festival?
Niceole R. Levy 1:11:54
What are you trying to feel?
Alex Ferrari 1:11:57
Great for you?
Niceole R. Levy 1:11:58
Oh, man, it was incredibly helpful. It literally saved me a huge fight. It was like I was ready to throw down. I asked that question. And the answer was so simple. And I was like, Hold on, I can totally do that. Like, that's fine. And it's like, because you want to be right TV is a team sport. You want to be a team player and be cooperative. But say, I'm just like, What are you talking about? What's what's, I don't even understand what that means. Sometimes you just like, what? And so you need, you need to find a way around it to figure out what's really happening.
Alex Ferrari 1:12:36
So I have to ask you this question. Because I am a fan of the movie. You wrote the banker. I love the backer, and Jonathan is a friend of the show. And he's wonderful, wonderful guy. I've known him for a while now. How did you get that movie? Made? Because it is not an easy pitch, my dear. This is not a this is not this is not a blockbuster by any stretch?
Niceole R. Levy 1:13:05
Yes, well, I'm gonna say all of the credit for that movie getting made falls to Georgia annual fee, our director, and Joe Vitale, who was our editor, and one of our producers, um, the backstory on that is that Joel came across that property when he was an executive years and years ago. And once he started working with George brought it up to George and Anthony Mackie while they were making the Adjustment Bureau. And Anthony and George, were both like, yes, we should definitely do. It's the sounds amazing. And then it kind of sat there. And then George decided to make a TV show. And brilliantly hired me to come work for him, obviously, his TV show. And that's how we built our relationship. And towards the end of allegiance, which was the TV show. He was like, Hey, do you have a feature sample? And I was like, That's random. But yes. And I sent him a feature sample. And he called me the next week. And he told me a story about Bernard and was like, you know, you want to you want to make this movie with me. And I was like, Yes, please, I would love to do that. And so that's really how I came into the, to the process. And they really did all the hard work of drumming up financing and doing all those things. Like they were amazing. And what I will say is because, you know, we always knew Anthony was involved, and he was gonna play Bernard. And so we were, you know, it was there. And the, you know, one day my phone rang, and it's George and he was like, guess who we got? And I was like, did you get he was like, Samuel Jackson, who we always wanted, but didn't know if we could get and I was like, Nick Fury and the Falcon are both gonna be in this movie. I mean, not as Nick Fury in the Falcon but yeah.
Alex Ferrari 1:14:56
Though that would have been a very interesting version of the movie. It's been a very different version, right?
Niceole R. Levy 1:15:04
I feel like there would have been a lot less, a lot less racism if it had been taking on
Alex Ferrari 1:15:12
Versus the first time someone say something in the curious, like, does.
Niceole R. Levy 1:15:19
But it was an amazing experience. And I'm so proud of it. And I actually because of knowing Anthony from that is how I'm writing. Well, I have already written my next feature, which is another true life story that Anthony is directing.
Alex Ferrari 1:15:36
Nice. Yeah, just back. So what are you up to next? So that's the next job.
Niceole R. Levy 1:15:42
That is next thing up? Well, we'll see. Because, you know, Anthony has 17 jobs. So it seems like he's Captain America. He's, he's Captain America. He's got all the jobs. Because he's got like three TV projects, whatever.
Alex Ferrari 1:15:57
Just announced his movie, but that's used to two years ahead. I think it's two years down the line. Captain America will be the new one at least but yeah, he's, he's gonna be in the Marvel Universe for a few years. Let's just put a few years.
Niceole R. Levy 1:16:08
Yeah, yeah. So but very excited. It's a really it's a it's called spark. And it's about this young woman named Patek Colvin, who has a 15 year old refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery nine months before Rosa Parks, and it's sort of why you don't know her story.
Alex Ferrari 1:16:28
Oh, wow. Nice.
Niceole R. Levy 1:16:30
Yeah, very, very so and we get to work directly with Miss Baldwin, which was delightful. She's wonderful. Sherpas attack and tells a great story. So
Alex Ferrari 1:16:41
That is awesome. That is awesome. f&b my favorite. Well, when I first saw it, and it was a mile, like everybody else. And I mean, what else can be said about that? I mean, he's a Million Dollar Baby. Oh, love that is such an acid. That movie is great. I wanted to punch him in the face. I swear to God, I just I was so happy when Clint beat the hell out of Yes. was so great in that part. He's wonderful actor. He's such a wonderful actor.
Niceole R. Levy 1:17:11
He's and he's lovely. He, it was so funny. Because when we were on set for the bank, or you know, I was trying to fan girl too much. Right? And, but and so I was like, super chill with Anthony. And then Sam showed up and Sam was like, your Marvel fan, aren't you? And I was like, Yes, sir. And he was like, let it out girl. And so then my fan girl just exploded and I was like
Alex Ferrari 1:17:36
Oh my, so he kind of feels so he has said Jackson understands like, are you You Tarantino or you're a Marvel fan. Okay, so your mom okay, just, let's get it out of the way so we can move on. And
Niceole R. Levy 1:17:48
Yeah, like literally talk to me about Marvel for 45 minutes? Because I gotta,
Alex Ferrari 1:17:55
I gotta ask you because people ask me all the time. Like, do you fanboy out and you know, when you meet people or you know, I interview people but or when I work with somebody or something like that. And I my personal thing is I generally don't fanboy out often. Even once in a blue moon offense. I mean, look at Sam Jackson walked in. I probably That's right. He got a bit. I'm not going to be honest. I'll probably geek out a bit. But how do you like how do you handle those situations when you're working with like Blair Underwood? You know, the first time you saw the?
Niceole R. Levy 1:18:29
Yeah. Do you know what I'll tell you? Honestly, the hardest one I ever had when I was working on the Mysteries of Laura. Stockard Channing get started on the two part episode that I was covering. And like, the amount of like, self talk I had to do with like, the professional human being she's here to do a job. You do not go in there and start screaming Rizzo at her. Like, no. Like, you have to be a grown up. And she was so wonderful. And like, I finally like, we had a break and it was getting towards the end of her time shooting and I was like, you know, this chant like, you just You're wonderful and I've admired you your whole career when she was like, me this thing and like, I kept it very, like sedate and I waited till the end but like I couldn't pass up a chance to tell soccer Channing how amazing she is.
Alex Ferrari 1:19:18
He thought I mean, and the worst The worst is like, do you ask for the picture?
Niceole R. Levy 1:19:26
Picture like we usually don't ask for the picture. I took pictures with Anthony and fam but mostly for my nephews who were like the biggest Marvel fans after me so they needed that but yeah, I usually don't ask for the picture. I think them and Blair might be the only times I've done it.
Alex Ferrari 1:19:44
Right. And again, if you're doing it it's like you there is there a vibe is there and energy with the person? Yeah, feel it out. But you're right. You want to act professional. You don't want to just go oh my god, you're Nick Fury in your pulp fiction and you're like He didn't you just like, you know.
Niceole R. Levy 1:20:02
But there's times I think, you know, as artists, we all love to know that our work is appreciated. And so like, like I met John secret young at the Writers Guild, we were both mentoring for the veterans writing program. And like trying to teach was a pivotal thing for my family, because my father would talk about Vietnam until that show came out. It was like such a thing. And so I'm so glad I took the time to go over, like on a break, and just be like, I just really wanted you to know this. And he was like, thank you so much for telling me that you know, and like, you just want people to know, and one of my greatest regrets is that I always meant to try to get a note to Steven bochco to tell him he was the reason I was a TV writer. And like, you know, I just was like, well, I'll have time. I'll have time. I'll have time. And then of course, he passed. And so I don't, I ran out of time. And so I think if you have a moment to tell someone how important they've been to you, it's fine. You just keep it professional and low key. And you know.
Alex Ferrari 1:21:02
I think Quinton was talking to John Travolta the first time the first time he was interviewing him to do Pulp Fiction because he had just done reservoir so he wasn't appointed yet. Right? You know, but he was just quit it. John Travolta years later, he's like, I think that first meeting was much more about signing his Welcome Back Kotter lunchbox, and it was that was really what that meeting was all about. I might get the part. I might not get the part. But it's really about signing that. Welcome back out on lunch box.
Niceole R. Levy 1:21:36
Yeah, yeah. It but you know, if you're in a fan thing, like I met me know, when at a fan event, and I was a total dork. You know, but then I went a friend took me to the Agents of SHIELD like wrap party. And I was like, Oh, I'm gonna have to behave here. And they were all just like, who are you? What do you love about the show, like, so wonderful. And so just excited to talk to someone who loved the show. And Henry Simmons was there. And he, I'm a huge NYPD Blue fan. And so I was like, Oh, my God, like, I've been following you ever since blue. And he was like, you watch it. Like he blew. And I was like, watch it. I own it. I love it. And he was so impressed that, like I knew his work from NYPD. Oh, yeah. Again, it's like, people just like to know that, like, stuff they did mattered to someone you know. So that's awesome. You just gotta find the right time.
Alex Ferrari 1:22:31
You gotta, you gotta feel the vibe, you got to feel the vibe. Sometimes you just like, not the time, not the time. But. But these are all these are all good problems to have. Let's just yeah, we're very lucky.
Niceole R. Levy 1:22:42
That's very lucky.
Alex Ferrari 1:22:45
So I'm going to ask you a couple questions asked all my guests. What advice would you have for a screenwriter trying to break into the business today?
Niceole R. Levy 1:22:53
I would say, first of all, it's going to sound really cliched and ridiculous, but just always be writing, like the amount of times that I've had to counsel counsel, young writers, or new and emerging writers, I should say, because we're not all young when we break into this business, that they need to write more samples. You know, like, one great pilot is not enough. One solid spec is not enough. Like you need to have material because even if they someone read your script, and they love it, it doesn't mean they're going to make that they're going to be interested in you for something else. And they might be like, Oh, my God, I think you're amazing. I want to put you up for the show. But it's more of a procedural than this character thing. Do you have something else? So you, you want to have every arrow in your quiver, right that you can possibly have? And so think about what's in your portfolio? You only write male leads, write some female leads? Do you only write sci fi? Can you try one straight sort of drama in case that's the job you can get first before you can go make sci fi shows because that's what I did, right? Like, you just you really have to have the material so that when someone answers your knock on the door, you have everything ready to go.
Alex Ferrari 1:24:08
Fair enough. What did you learn from your biggest failure?
Niceole R. Levy 1:24:13
I learned that I am not a person who likes to duck responsibility, and therefore, learned that the easiest way for me to solve a problem is just to walk into the the boss's office or whatever and be like, Hey, I fucked this up. I just I you know, the worry about someone finding out I did something or whatever, like, on a time for it. It's like it's ridiculous. Like, I'd rather take the heat for making a mistake and being honest about it. Then let something go and it gets found out later. And it's like who but this happened. Like I just I just learned that it's easier for me to Oh, no.
Alex Ferrari 1:24:56
Fair enough. What is the lesson that took you the longest to learn what During the film industry or in life?
Niceole R. Levy 1:25:04
The lesson that took me the longest to learn was to live my life. Very true, it really did. And it took my my mentors in the writing business to really just sort of be like, every time I talk to you, you're writing every time I talk to you, you're working, like, go have fun, get out of your house. And it's how I learned how to have balance in my life that I had people who loved me enough to be like, Girl, you're taking the next three days off, go do things, go like whatever. And, you know, I am a workaholic. By nature. It's just how I'm wired. But learning to be like, it's okay to go to happy hour, three nights in a row, because all the writers I know are on hiatus and we have time. So I don't write for three nights fine. Like, you know, you're on deadline for a script, but your friend's wedding is on Saturday. Go to the wedding. Don't drink as much as you normally would, and come home in a decent hour. So you can get some work done. But go to the wedding. Don't miss your friend's wedding. I know it's really important to just live your life because that's the stuff that's going to matter to you in the long run.
Alex Ferrari 1:26:21
And three of three pilots that every writer should read.
Niceole R. Levy 1:26:28
Hill Street Blues dice is the greatest show in the history of television as far as I'm concerned. I'm wise guy. Oh, yeah. Remember wise guy?
Alex Ferrari 1:26:40
Oh, yeah. Brilliant pilot.
Niceole R. Levy 1:26:43
And huh for my third. I'm gonna go probably unusual. But I remember being so struck by this pilot, Masters of Sex. Oh, yeah. I'll tell ya that they hit they set the characters up in that is really, really beautiful. And I think it's a good character piece for people to study.
Alex Ferrari 1:27:12
The call. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Where can people find your new book, The writer group Survival Guide.
Niceole R. Levy 1:27:21
You can pre order it right now on Amazon, you can just plug the title in. And also, the I believe that the order link is pinned to my twitter throne which my handle on Twitter is at Nicole cooking, because I started on Twitter for my baking business. Obviously just stayed for the fangirling and the TV. So
Alex Ferrari 1:27:43
Niceole it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for writing the book. And hopefully this conversation will help a few writers along the way. So I appreciate you my dear. Thank you again.
Niceole R. Levy 1:27:50
Thank you so much.
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