Every week now seems to bring news of another Hollywood project being delayed. Sometimes this is because you can’t make money in an empty theater, but it’s just as often due to production halts in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of that industry hits pause for now, one crucial segment has not—the writers. Like many of us, they’ve instead become intimately familiar with the inner workings of on-the-job Zoom calls.
“I kind of feel for every aspiring TV writer at home right now due to the pandemic,” said Sera Gamble, showrunner of Netflix’s You (formerly of Supernatural and The Magicians), during this year’s online-only edition of the ATX TV Festival. “They’re trying to write while doing a bunch of other stuff; well, congrats, you’re now in showrunner training. I’ve frequently had to sit down in the past and rewrite a script in a moment that felt like a severe crisis, and sometimes it was a severe crisis. But it feels like that times 10. I have to reset expectations every morning: I wake up, wait a minute before checking my phone, check in with loved ones, and then take the problems of the day as they come… [I tell my writers] ‘You can’t solve what you can’t solve, so what can we get done in the next hour?'”
For this late-addition panel to this year’s ATX TV Festival, Gamble (virtually) joined Dan Goor (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Rec), Melinda Hsu Taylor (Nancy Drew, Lost), and Beth Schwartz (Sweet Tooth, Arrow) to take streamers “Inside the Writers (Zoom) Room.” For some, the change came abruptly. Hsu Taylor and her staff had nearly completed both writing and production on the latest season of Nancy Drew when suddenly they had to convert everything to be remote-friendly (she credits doing a Zoom birthday for her son around that time for helping her grasp the basic logistics and experience). Other writers started wholesale in a digital world, like the staff of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. They were five weeks into story-breaking at the time of this panel and hadn’t been together in-person at all while working on the upcoming season eight.
No one had a choice, of course. As COVID-19 continues to surge in the United States—the country passed the 2-million-case mark within the last two weeks—all walks of life must adjust. And when any in-person interactions come with potentially life-threatening risk for the foreseeable future, suddenly Zoom calls sound downright preferable.
“Right when we went home, there was a little bit of a relief,” Gamble said. “We were social distancing in two separate rooms for weeks before we went home just so people could have six to 10 feet between them. At one point, I asked a writer’s assistant to track how often ‘coronavirus’ was said—it was every two minutes. So at least if we went home, we’d be able to work.”
Logistically, certain things have been trickier for TV writers in this shared Zoom existence. Larger writers’ rooms pushing 10 people or more may have difficulty translating into a single Zoom chat, where not talking over each other and reading the room become harder. So, You and Brooklyn Nine-Nine now opt to have multiple, smaller Zoom calls focused on more narrowly defined tasks, and only the showrunner will hop between conversations. That magic writers often like to refer to—the creative spark, the inner-staff interactions where a lunch convo might solve a plot problem later that afternoon—has also proven harder to recreate in these digital work spaces.
“It’s more efficient, but it is weird and less fun,” Goor said. “There’s less joking around. We did every possible Zoom joke we could do that first week—changed all the backgrounds, mine was my mom’s water colors. We did background videos of each other… so I guess we found new ways to waste time, now that I think about… But it’s nice to feel a reaction to a pitch, and it’s much harder to do that over Zoom. I find myself talking myself out of story ideas.”
Early on at least, Zoom has also surprised writers with a few positive benefits. In writers’ rooms where some staffers have been with a show much longer than others, Zoom may take away some unspoken hierarchical barriers and put everyone on equal footing. “There’s something democratizing about these squares that are always present and equally sized,” Goor said. “For new people, it might be easier to speak up now. ‘Oh, and April, what do you have to say about this?'” Zoom also inherently leads to less workday interruption: fewer bathroom breaks, less losing the room to endless joke-offs, and skipping longer lunch routines like the Brooklyn Nine-Nine staff’s elaborate Wheel of Fortune-style approach to selecting takeout.
But perhaps the biggest change? The pandemic has given everyone in the writers’ room a more holistic perspective on life—episode four of season whatever no longer gets to be anyone’s most important thing. Add it all up, and many writers now have a much more traditional work day.
“Comedy hours are usually bad, and they’ve become so much better,” Goor said, noting how he now typically works 10am to 12:30pm, takes lunch, and resumes from 1:30p to 5:30p. “Routinely for the first few seasons, we’d eat dinner [in the writers’ room] and be there till 8pm or 10pm or 11pm for a table read. We’ve adjusted. It’s partly because it’s impossible to look at Zoom for that long, but it’s partly so people can be with their families, be healthy, and experience life.”
Focusing at home versus when you’re physically in a space for a specific task can be a new challenge, but these TV writers continue to find approaches that work for individual groups. Hsu Taylor and the Nancy Drew staff start each session with a three-minute meditation to intentionally tell their minds that work time has begun. “I know some people are checking their email because I hear clicking,” she said. “But I think most like this. ‘OK, I’m doing this now.’ I’m telling my mind and body to be here for the next few hours.” And some former tasks that would force writers to split their attention now don’t exist, like having to be on set for script tweaks during an episode you may have written.
“With production being down,” Schwartz said, “you can really focus on the scripts instead of being all over the place.”
The end product
Whether good or bad, our new reality has absolutely already impacted what we’ll eventually see on screen. You, for instance, centers on a bookstore manager creepily obsessed with an aspiring young writer. To put it succinctly, the show frequently has characters at least kissing. But for the upcoming season three, that may be one aspect needing to change, no questions asked.
“We can’t put people in danger—TV shows aren’t worth that,” said Gamble. “So we’ll change what we can and keep an eye on the lines we don’t want to cross. We won’t do the show and have it be shitty because there was a pandemic. We’ll be measured and try to maintain the spirits of the show. But it’s a conversation, scene by scene by scene.”
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitates shifts in logistics, too. Where you can film and who can you film obviously feeds into what scenes a writing staff can write. The writers noted productions in Canada and New Zealand, like Nancy Drew and Sweet Tooth, will happen first since those countries have navigated COVID-19 better than the US. And with mandated quarantine for travelers to those places, local actors could have a leg up for roles, too.
For Goor and the Brooklyn Nine-Nine team, new logistical concerns start with babies. No explicit spoilers, but two characters had one last season, and the team suddenly has to look at animatronics and maybe less overall on-screen infant time (“There’s going to be a run on those bespoke fake babies,” Gamble joked).
“It’s hard, because we’re doing stories on the work-life balance for these people. This goes in so many different directions and we still don’t know where [the pandemic] is going, so it’s hard to write for it,” Goor said. “Is it safe to shoot outside? Originally, we wanted everything to be a bottle episode, so we can shoot on the stages, [and] it’ll be controlled. But now, is it better to do all exteriors? Because it seems like it’s healthier and safer for people. How many extras can you have? Can you use kids? And since there will be waves of productions, with movies and pilots starting, too, availability for guest cast will be a lot harder. Five-episode guest-star arcs are now harder.”
All these decisions ultimately bleed into the business of TV, too. For writers, maybe the option of participating in a writer’s room remotely suddenly becomes more commonplace, democratizing the career for people outside of NYC and LA (and those cities’ sky-high rents). And not having to commute regularly or be in one physical space would mean writers’ rooms could welcome writers with physical disabilities more easily, thus bringing wider perspectives to a host of shows.
“I think there’s a reason we do [in-person writers’ rooms], and it’s not just to spend studio money on all that rent—it’s good for creativity and production,” says Gamble. “But it will be easier to say, ‘We should just meet on Zoom on some days.’ And for the disabled community, if an agent were to call and pitch me somebody and explain why someone could rarely or never be on set, well, I know that works now. If this all leads to a crop of great writers breaking into the business, that excites me.”
ATX TV Festival 2020 continues to post its panels on YouTube throughout June (including a panel with the staff of The Mandalorian available this weekend). The entire discussion “Inside the Writers (Zoom) Room” is available below.