Screenwriter Tom Fontana on Recurring Writer Problems & What Comes First: Plot or Character
By Martin B.
Tom Fontana is the Emmy award-winning screenwriter and producer of “St. Elsewhere,” “Homicide,” and “Oz.” His TV series were among the first modern medical and police dramas, setting the stage for shows like “Law & Order” and “ER.” Mr. Fontana recently sat down with Martin Bergman and Meg Bishop to talk about writing, the industry, and how to stay inspired.
What are the recurring flaws in young people's writing, and what can they do to improve?
Well, the best way to start writing is to write about things you know something about. I wrote a novel when I was 13, and I passed it around to all my neighbors, and everybody thought it was the funniest thing they'd ever read. And, of course, I hadn't intended it to be funny. I thought it was a searing drama. But it was because I didn't know what I was writing about.
I'm not saying you have to write about being a teenager – you can write about being a king – but write about your experiences up to that point in your life. As you get older and you're exposed to more things, then you can go further. Write about what's important to you, what upsets you, what confuses you, and what inspires you. I'm still doing that, and I'm a lot older than 13 at this point.
When you begin a new project, do you start by developing characters or a plot outline?
I always start with characters because I think strong characters are really what people want to see. Plots we all kind of know. We can guess how the story's going to go most of the time, but I think really interesting characters are what keeps us coming back [to a TV show] week after week.
When I'm creating a character, I start with how his mind works, how his heart works, and how his soul works. The brain: What's his/her education? How does he/she reason through a problem? And the heart: Who does this character love? Who would this character fall in love with? Does this character have a father, a mother, a brother, a sister? And the soul part: What does this character want out of life? What does he/she hope for or believe? And I don't just mean religious belief; I mean how do they perceive the world? And then how does that make them behave: well or badly? Because either they have a moral base or they don't, and you have to make those decisions at the beginning of the writing process. And not everything comes out in the script. You may think, He's got a sister whom he deeply cares about, but the sister may not ever appear in any of the stuff, but you need to have the character's realities in your head.
What's your biggest weakness or challenge as a writer? And what do you do to overcome it?
I think my biggest weakness is probably television's biggest weakness: being very obvious. You have a limited amount of time and you want to make sure the audience gets what you're writing – your theme or your point. And because you're banging scripts out week after week, it becomes a factory of dialogue. And the impulse is to just write the point of the script and have the character say it. But that's not necessarily the best kind of writing because what we say in a dramatic situation and what we feel are usually not the same thing. People are a lot less self-aware in real life than they are in television. In television everybody seems to know everything about themselves (and everybody else). I fall into that trap and constantly have to fight that impulse.
How do you feel about teenagers watching shows like “Oz,” which can be very graphic?
I'm against it. Whether it's a film or a television show, I think parents have to decide what their kids can watch. I know certain people who had their kids watch “Oz” to be “scared straight.” But I wouldn't be the one encouraging anybody to watch “Oz.”
What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become a professional writer?
If you can do anything else, do it. That would be my first advice. Then I would say, you have to write what you really care about, what really defines you and the people around you, and if you write well, someone will pay attention.
Because we live in such a media age, a lot of young writers I know go see “Iron Man,” and want to write an “Iron Man.” And that's all well and good, if that's what you want to do. If it's just commercial, if you just want to make a zillion dollars, then that's fine. To me, that's not writing per se. That's just filling up space, as opposed to trying to write stuff that defines your generation. I think we all have an obligation to define the times we live in, whether it's through comedy, drama, poetry, whatever.
Becoming a professional writer is really hard – getting an agent, getting meetings with people, getting publishers. When I was about 20, a very successful director told me, “You really shouldn't be a writer. You're not very good at it.” And I was too stupid to listen to him. So my entire career is based on my stupidity. Because anybody with a brain would have thought, This is a very important director, and he would know. But I couldn't figure out what else I could do. That's why I said before, if you can do anything else, do it.
What do you hope to achieve when you write for a TV show? What kind of impact do you want to have on an audience?
My only goal is to make the audience ask questions. My goal is not to preach or pretend that I have answers; what I write are basically questions. And if people watch my shows and then turn to their wife or husband, and say, “Well, I think this,” and the wife or husband says, “No, I think this,” and they get into a conversation about it, then I've done my job. What you don't want is people turning off the TV and saying, “You wanna get a burger?” – where it just has no impact whatsoever. I want to stimulate discussion because I think that's the joy of being in a democracy, that we get to have conversations that other people under other governments don't. That's the only way to make things better.
Do you think violence and drug use on TV affect teen behavior?
I wish I had an answer. There's research that says yes, and some that says no. I had a meeting a while back with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) who was emphatic that violence in television was destroying teenage minds. And he may be right, I don't know. I think it's a really big question.
But I do believe that we have to protect two things: young minds and freedom of speech. And sometimes they are in conflict. That's why I think parents and teachers are absolutely essential because they have to know what those in their care are being exposed to and not dictate choices, but help them make choices. It's a really complex question, and like all the important questions, whether it's the death penalty or anything, the danger comes when we say that it's black or white. It goes back to what I was saying about having discussions. We have to keep talking about these things as opposed to just dictating.
You have taught at a number of universities – Columbia, Syracuse, your alma mater, State College at Buffalo. Do you think writing can be taught?
No, absolutely not. The craft of writing is teachable, but not the art. I try to guide people to open their hearts and minds and get their souls in touch with the storyteller we each possess. Sometimes I teach classes about great writers and their processes.
You're known for really well-developed characters. Do you base them on real people or do you create them from your imagination?
Both. I think that a good writer is always looking at the people around the table. I rarely take a whole person I've met and put them on the page. I take a little here, a little there, and I mix the traits of two or three people together. So, the answer would be yes, it comes from people I know, and it goes through my imagination.
Do you pay attention to what the public and critics say about your work?
With the coming of the Internet I have had to deal with that more. I used to get fan letters through the mail, and some would be angry and some would not be, and I'd write them back. Now, five minutes after the show's over, people are going online and saying, “That was the worst show I've ever seen in my life,” and I'm thinking, Please give me a second. Let it breathe! So now I tend to ignore everybody, the critics and the bloggers. I keep a couple people around me whose opinions I trust, who aren't going to lie to me, and if they say, “Tom, that was terrible,” then I know it's terrible. You can't make everybody happy, so you just have to write as honestly as possible and then take your lumps.
A lot of teen writers like myself experience writer's block. Do you have any solutions for that?
I've never had writer's block. I'm knocking on wood because I'm hoping never to have it. [As far as suggestions,] I don't know. If you write at the same time every day, your brain and your heart will be there, ready to go to work. It's like how you eat at the same time over the course of the day – you should be available to write at the same time every day. If you have nothing to write, you should still write. Whether you write your name 100 times or describe a banana. If you write for five minutes, and you just get the words down, at least you're doing something.
What kind of environment do you do your best writing in?
Upstairs in my house, I have a little writing room that I built on the roof. That's the perfect environment, but I can pretty much write anywhere. When you are really into the writing, you don't hear anything, you don't see anything. I've never tried to write in Grand Central Station but I bet I could. Because you go into the zone and you just stay in the zone.
Do you have a routine?
For about 30 years, I've gotten up every day at 5:30 and started writing immediately. I get out of bed, sit down, and start writing. How long I write depends on what I'm working on that day.
Sometimes just before I go to bed I look at the scene I'm going to write the next morning. And a lot of times that'll be the last dream I have waking up. And so that's what makes it so much easier to sit down and start writing.
If you could go back and change any piece of writing, any TV show you've done, what would it be?
I'd rewrite everything I've done. I feel like I could do it better now. It's a strange experience because I'll be flipping the channels and “Homicide” will be on, and I'll think, There's that episode, uh oh. And I want to get everybody back and film the episode again because I know how to make it work this time. The work always can be better.
Who are some good role models for teens today?
That's a good question. It's very easy to be influenced by famous people in the media, and I think that's very dangerous. Because to get consumed in the life of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears or any of those starlets, just watching it from afar; it's just wrong. I wish the media was better at representing positive role models as opposed to scandals and sensationalism. I watch a lot of news, and I'm irritated when the death of Anna Nicole Smith gets more time in the course of a week than starving children in Africa.
Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney are doing an extraordinary thing by using their celebrity to help people. Brad Pitt down in New Orleans helping to build houses – that's a pretty good role model.
You wrote your first screenplay at nine. What was it about?
It was kind of a Batman and Robin thing. I read a lot of comic books at the time, and I basically stole everything I could from DC Comics. I added my own little flourishes. But if you knew anything about Batman, you'd say, “I read this last week in DC Comics.”
How much time do you spend researching and outlining? When do you know it's time to start writing?
Well, it depends on the project. When I was writing “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” the show I did for NBC, I spent a couple of months with the homicide unit in Baltimore. But with that show we had a deadline and we were starting production, so I had to stop the research and start writing.
I just finished my second novel. (The first one, you'll remember, I started when I was 13.) This new one is being published by Harper Collins and takes place in the ninth century in Rome. I knew nothing about ninth-century Rome, and now I know everything that you can possibly know. I did continual research while I was writing the novel. I don't think you ever stop researching. You're always thinking, There must be another piece of the puzzle that I can use.
When writing a story or poem, the product is yours. But a screenplay is more of an extensive production. So, are you open to the opinions of directors, producers, etc.?
[Laughs] That's a dangerous question. I like to think I'm a collaborative person. And I think most people who work with me would agree. A writer in film or TV has to know what is important in the script, the key elements that they really need to maintain, and the rest you can compromise and trade off.
Writers spend so much time by themselves writing, and then all of a sudden there are cameras and actors and makeup people and directors, so it's easy to think, I'm losing control of this material. That's why you have to go into production with a sense of collaboration as opposed to defensiveness or self-protection.
I love having a director's input because it's like having an editor. You want somebody to say, “Have you thought about this? Move this up here. Why is she saying that? You need that other point of view.” And when you add actors, they have to invest themselves in the characters so deeply. If you're doing a series over five or six years, the actor knows the character best because he's lived with it every day. So being a writer in film and TV, you have to have an ego, but you also have to roll with the punches.
How do you develop a character? Where do you get the inspiration for their mannerisms and personality?
That's a collaboration between the writer and the actor. I like to write parts for specific actors I've worked with because I already know the kinds of things they do. When most of the great plays were written, the playwright was part of an acting company – Aeschylus and Molière and Shakespeare. They knew the actors. Shakespeare would not have written Hamlet if he didn't know Richard Burbage. So I try to write for actors I know.
When I don't know the actor, I imagine an actor I do know or a famous actor – I'll write this as if Blythe Danner or Gwyneth Paltrow is doing it, even though I know she's not going to do it. At least I have an image in my head. But the minute that you cast the part, you give it over to the actor and they start coming up with things. And the better the actor, the more inventive.
One of the parts in “Oz” I had written as a homeboy, and this wonderful actor came in and read it. When he didn't read it very well, I asked, “Where are you from?” And he said, “I'm originally from Nigeria.” I asked, “Can you do the scene as if you're from Nigeria?” And the scene was so much better than what I had written, because I had written more of an obvious scene, and by him being Nigerian, it suddenly had all this texture going on. And so I cast him. And then he said, “I'm going to wear this hat.” And I was like, “That's great.” Sure, wear a hat; I don't care. And viewers were like, “How does he keep his hat on his head?” (He would shave his head but he would leave hair in the area under the hat was so it stuck.) A smart writer trusts the actors he hires. Some of the best stuff I've been given credit for came from the actor.
In literature, how a character looks is completely up to the writer. What is it like to put a real face on your characters?
I try not to get too married to the images in my head of what the actor should look like because I really like when an actor comes in that I didn't expect. For example, on “Homicide,” Yaphet Koto, who played the lieutenant of the homicide unit – the character's name was Al Giardello – and he was written as an Italian. Well, Yaphet came in, and Barry Levinson and I went, well, that's pretty great, and we'll have an Italian who's black – because in Baltimore, the Italian community and the black community are literally divided by a street. And we thought, Great, he's both. And I would have never, when we were writing the show initially, ever thought of Yaphet Koto in the part, but the minute he started saying the lines, the part was his. So I think it's important not to get too stuck to what's in your head. Let the actor surprise you.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a kid, my parents took us to see “Alice in Wonderland” in Buffalo, New York, where I was born. And I went home that night and started writing dialogue and I had no idea what I was writing. And I haven't stopped writing dialogue since. It wasn't like I made a conscious choice to be a writer, it's just what I started to do. In the same way, I guess, somebody else starts playing baseball when they're a kid. I just started writing.
I come from very basic, honest, good people, not artsy people, or involved in the arts at all. And when I said to my father after I got out of college, “I'm going to New York to be a playwright.” He said, “What's a playwright?” But they were incredibly generous to me while I was starving in New York. And I owe them everything. When I explained what a playwright was, he said, “Wait a minute, people get paid to do that?” He was a beer salesman.
A lot of your shows deal with life and death. Is this a product of experience or imagination?
Well, both and neither. When you're doing an episodic drama series, in order to have the audience listen to your characters, the characters need to be in jeopardy. I think it's important for a drama series to be rooted in life and death, the urgency of life and death, because it gives the characters weight.
What is the advantage of writing for TV over feature films?
In television, the writer is the primary creative force. In features, it's the director. Because of that, a lot of writers are the producers. So I get to make a lot of decisions that normally the writer is left out of.
I love the fact that I can write something, shoot it, and 12 million people see it six weeks later. Whereas with features, they work and work on them, and never seem to be done. But I can write about something that's bothering me, and in six weeks, it'll be on the air. That's pretty exciting.
Why do you think you've had continued success as a TV writer over several series and many years?
Honestly, I don't know, especially as I get older, because television is a young man's game. It's easier for a 30-year-old person to write for 30-year-old viewers than it is for a 56-year-old man to write for 30-year-olds.
I try not to repeat myself. When I finished “St. Elsewhere” everybody wanted me to do another medical show. But after 137 episodes, I don't want to do that again. How many gurneys can you see?
What was it like to win your first Emmy? Did it open doors for you?
I'll tell you, up until I won the Emmy, the only award I'd ever won was Happiest Camper. So it was a long gulf between awards. And I was absolutely thrilled. I only later came to realize that awards, as nice as they are to have in your house, really are meaningless for a lot of reasons. If you put your identity, your value, and your work on the trophies or on making a big money deal in Hollywood, then you give away the power you have to other people (who really don't care about your work). They only want to use your work, and they're not going to nurture it the way you would.
So I think winning awards is really nice, and I wouldn't give any back, but on the other hand, if my house burned down I wouldn't be weeping – I'd be weeping over a lot of stuff, but not my awards.
Your first TV show was “St. Elsewhere,” a medical drama. What made you switch your focus to crime?
I want to keep challenging myself. I want to start to do other things. And I've written other things. I wrote three pilots about firefighters (this was before September 11th) because I find that world fascinating. None of the three went to series. I just think there's a lot of different places, a lot of great stories out there. It's not that I'm focusing on crime. But if I never did another crime show again, I'd be fine.
Which currently running TV show has the best writing?
That's a question that would get me in trouble with a lot of my friends. So I'm going to pass on that question.
Do you think writing for the entertainment industry makes you a stronger or a weaker writer?
I think it has the potential of making terrible writers, but I'm only really talking about episodic television. Because if you have to do the same thing week after week after week, and year after year, the tendency is to stop challenging yourself.
I'm a huge fan of “Law & Order,” but I couldn't write that show because its rhythm is exactly the same every week, and I don't know how to do that. I start to color outside the lines.
We used to joke on “St. Elsewhere” because it's a medical show and at least once a week you have to have a scene where the patient is in the bed, and the doctor comes in and says this is what you've got and you're going to live or you're going to die. And it's a pretty dull scene. And if you've written it a 130 times, you really are bored with it. And sometimes you have to do it two times an episode.
So on “St. Elsewhere” we started to add things like killer bees. We just tried to come up with anything that would go on in the room that would make the scene different. People like television shows that are the same every week. It's as much the audience's fault as the writer's. But it's not good for writers. The problem is, they pay you a lot of money.
Do you do any other type of writing?
I don't write poetry at all. I did just finish writing this novel, which was really hard, coming from a lifetime of writing dialogue and being used to having actors and musical scores and all that post-production magic which helps make the story work. When you're writing a novel, you're all by yourself, and you're sitting there going, “Oh wow, I actually have to describe all of this.”
I am writing a graphic novel for DC [Comics]. I find it incredibly ironic that I'm going back to where I started at age nine. It's fun because it's something I don't have a clue how to do and the people at DC are guiding me along. That's very exciting. And I'm also writing something for the Internet, but that's more of a series.
What was your big break?
My big break was when Bruce Paltrow, who has since passed away (and was the father of Gwyneth Paltrow and the husband of Blythe Danner), came to see a play. Actually, he didn't come to see it; Blythe and Gwyneth came to see the play that I wrote, and they said to Bruce, “You should go see Tom's play.” And Bruce never went to see it. And at the end of the summer he said, “Blythe is mad at me that I didn't go see your stupid play, and so I'm doing this medical thing and I'm going to give you a script to write.”
I'm convinced to this day, if he had seen the play, he never would have hired me. It's a cautionary tale about being too aggressive. Because if I had forced him to come, he would have sat there going, “This is terrible.” And it was terrible. So, my big break really came by accident. And accidents are really important in show business. Talent is important. Accidents are also important. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.