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BU in LA

Part 3: The writers: learning to roll with the script

For the actors and writers studying in BU in LA this semester, the evening of September 27 had a distinctly medical theme. In the basement of CBS, the actors were learning that each of them would be a featured extra on an episode of Scrubs, thanks to an alum working on the show, an announcement that was received with gasps, cheers, and “Can we get a SAG voucher for this?” And down the hall, in the CBS network screening room, another alum, Grey’s Anatomy executive producer and head writer Krista Vernoff (CFA’93), was doing her best to warn the writers what lies ahead.

“It’s super cool what we get to do, but it’s not a walk in the park,” she says. “You’ve got to do something to keep your spirit alive, because this town is a bitch.” The 10 writers, most of whom will receive an MFA in screenwriting from the College of Communication in December, nod.

The BU in LA program is primarily designed to give students internships in the entertainment industry, but they do take classes in the evenings throughout the semester. The subjects range from Survey of Entertainment Promotion to Professional Production Methods, and guest speakers play a prominent role in each class. “The students are learning the names of people who work in the industry,” says program director Bill Linsman. “Yeah, you can read it out of a book in Boston, but here, well, there’s a sound mixer.”

Students work on collaborative projects and are taught and coached by BU alums who are Hollywood success stories, including Jason Alexander (CFA’81, Hon.’95), who played George in Seinfeld and has starred in many other stage, film, and television productions, Nina Tassler (CFA’79), president of CBS Entertainment, and Vernoff. Students are also given opportunities to audition for TV and film projects and to showcase their work to agents, managers, producers, and development executives. Applications for the spring programs are due November 15, but will be accepted until the programs are full.

Vernoff, who has been in Los Angeles for nine years and has been a staff writer on four shows, knows the industry well, along with how capricious the business can be. She says she’s been both blessed and lucky — she found her first full-time staff job after just a year writing scripts on speculation as a freelancer, has worked steadily since arriving in Hollywood, and is now on one of the top-rated shows on television. “I have no idea how it happened,” she says. “Nobody thought Grey’s was going to be a hit — we didn’t even think it was going to get on the air. The network wanted it to be a procedural medical drama.”

Having made it close to the top, however, she has a lot of advice and experience to share. Vernoff, who planned to be an actor when she graduated from BU, actually supported herself working in theater in Portland, Ore., but found she was never as happy on stage as she was writing scripts. When she finally decided to come to Los Angeles in 1997, she didn’t tell anyone she had been an actor, she says, because “clarity of purpose is pivotal.” If you tell people you’re interested in writing, directing, and producing, “nobody will take you seriously. You have to know what your first goal is.”

She tells the students how to approach writing spec scripts, where to find networking opportunities, and how to contact agents. Vernoff describes how she deals with the medical terminology on Grey’s (“I write, ‘Meredith: Did you see the medical? Brock: No, it’s a medical medical.’ And then I give it to the doctor on the writing staff”), and how she reacts to plotlines that hurt her favorite characters (“I was like, ‘Meredith is not sleeping with George — she’s my friend!”). She explains the revision process — the way the script keeps changing even as it’s being filmed — and how a writer’s job is to roll with it.

And she warns them that even for an executive producer, the experience can be brutal.

“This is your heart,” she says. “You’re putting it on the page, and you’re giving it to commerce, to the studio, to the network, to Broadcast Standards and Practices. You are putting your whole self into the script and giving it to people who change their minds.”

Vernoff loves her job, she says, but won’t be satisfied until a show of her own makes it to the air. In 2004, she was given $4.3 million to cast and shoot her own pilot — the best experience of her life, she says. “Then, one day, they called me up and it was over. We didn’t get picked up. You know what got picked up? Invasion. Commander-in-Chief. Those aren’t even on the air anymore.”

“I’m not trying to scare you away,” she continues. “But this is going to be hard for a little while. It’s not about your talent; it’s about diligence. What it’s about is saying, I want this badly enough — to have a voice in the world.”

To read part one of the BU in LA series, Learning and Living The Biz: The actors, click here.

To read part two of the BU in LA series, At Lions Gate Films, script readers learn what studios really want, click here.

Aspiring actor Garth Whitten (CAS ’06) talks about the importance of patience and the comfort of process.