What goes on in a TV writers' room? Dennis Heaton answers our burning questions
There are few places on Earth quite like a television writers’ room, according to Dennis Heaton.
Heaton has spent hundreds of hours in writers’ rooms, as a scribe and producer on shows like Motive, Ghost Wars, and The Order, the last of which will hit Netflix next spring. He’s also the president of the Writers Guild of Canada.
If anyone can answer our burning questions about the inner workings of a writers’ room, it’s Dennis Heaton.
“For me, a writers’ room is a combination of a confessional booth and An Evening at the Improv,” says Heaton in a recent interview. “It’s got to be a place where everybody is able to talk about the stuff that you can’t talk about at a dinner party, and you know that that embarrassing story you’re going to tell about the worst date you ever had in your life that ended in you misunderstanding a social cue and making a complete ass out of yourself is not going to be shared publicly with everybody else. It’s got to be an extremely safe space.”
Oh, and it should have at least one couch, adds Heaton – and ample wall space for corkboards and Post-It notes.
Heaton has a standing list of rules for the writers’ room that he’ll run through at the beginning of every session, even if it’s with a group of returning writers: Best idea wins; improv rules apply (“Nobody is allowed to shoot down somebody else’s idea with a ‘no,’” he says. “You have to take somebody else’s idea and twist it and build on it”); and the only person who can say ‘no’ to an idea is the showrunner.
That said, the onus is on the showrunner to use that ‘no’ responsibly.
“I’ve been in the writers’ room when you’ve got a writer [pitching an idea] and the showrunner just shoots it down and then insults it, and all you’re doing is shooting down the creativity,” says Heaton. “It can take forever for a room to pick up speed again if an idea has been shot down and mocked because everybody is going, ‘Why am I going to pitch an idea if I’m just going to be insulted?’ When I’m the showrunner or if I’m working with somebody else who’s the showrunner, I expect them to at least be polite in diverting the conversation away from an idea that doesn’t work for them.”
On October 3, Heaton will join 10 other internationally renowned television showrunners for a 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival event entitled Meet the Showrunners. The participants – besides Heaton, there’s Simon Barry (Ghost Wars), Veena Sud (Seven Seconds), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Sarah Dodd (Cardinal), Amy Berg (Counterpart), Hart Hanson (Bones), Graeme Manson (Snowpiercer), Michelle Lovretta (Killjoys) and David Shore (The Good Doctor) – will riff on topics related to surviving and thriving in the competitive television landscape. The panel will be hosted by Tim Goodman, the chief television critic for The Hollywood Reporter.
“I’ve never before seen so much television and film being produced in Vancouver and the appetite just seems to be voracious,” marvels Heaton. “We’ve gone from a point of view where we all watched the same show Wednesday night and talked about it Thursday morning, and I find there’s so much content now, we’re talking to people [about television] the way we used to talk about books. ‘Have you read this book? Have you watched that show yet?’ It’s like no, ‘I haven’t; I have nine other shows!’”
Heaton offers the following piece of advice for emerging writers who aspire to run their own writers’ rooms:
Get a job in the industry – any job will do – and make a point of soaking it all in.
“There’s no bad job in film and television if you’re paying attention and learning,” says Heaton. “Every aspect of what you’re doing is something that you can draw on as you get into the career that you want, whether it’s being a DOP, being a writer, being a director, an editor. Being on set and knowing the nuts and bolts of how a scene is made is going to help you in absolutely every aspect of a career path.”
It’s a part of Heaton’s own journey that he’s only come to appreciate in recent years. Long before he was a writer and showrunner, he was an animation producer at International Rocketship, the legendary Vancouver animation company founded by Marv Newland that made Lupo the Butcher and Sing Beast Sing.
“I didn’t want to be an animation producer at that time, so I was actively rejecting that, and trying to shift my career into writing, and I was able to do that, and as my career went through writing, I realized that being a showrunner was definitely the place where I wanted to end up in my writing career, and if I had known at the beginning how much being a showrunner is being a producer, and not just a writer, I would have paid a lot more attention to what I was learning as a producer in animation,” says Heaton. “I think that experience definitely helped me. I think if I had appreciated it more at the time, it would have helped me more.”
Heaton has one additional piece of advice for emerging writers and producers – and it’s a big one.
“Don’t drink too much at the social events,” he says.
Meet the Showrunners takes place Wednesday, October 3 at 6pm at Vancity Theatre. Tickets at VIFF.org.