ATX TV…from the Couch! hosted a discussion with Showrunners Dan Goor (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Beth Schwartz (Sweet Tooth), Melinda Hsu Taylor (Nancy Drew), and Sera Gamble (You) about their experience with transitioning to virtual writers rooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the transition itself was not a challenge for the writers, being able to capture the same essence of a physical writers room suffered.
“It became really useful right away,” said Taylor, speaking on behalf of the new CW series, Nancy Drew, which was recently picked up for a second season. “I realized that I was actually a little more focused,” she added before admitted that the new set up “was weird.”
Goor echoed similar sentiments. “There were a lot of things we did as a group in the physical space that were really fun and felt integral to the process,” said Goor, who is currently working on season 8 of NBC’s cop comedy. “It is more efficient, but it’s weird. And it’s less fun. I would say there’s less joking around.”
For Gamble, “There’s a lot about being in a writer’s room that’s just the chemistry of people hanging out. I think when you’re running a writers room, that’s about little things you can do with people in a room that keep morale up. And it’s been a learning curve for me to try to figure out how to translate that to a virtual world where I’m just staring at these little faces and trying not to read too much into what their faces are doing at any given time. It’s just a completely different way of speaking to each other.”
She added that the new normal has “taken a little of the romance and spontaneity” out of the process of breaking stories. “Talking about one story that you’re talking to your coworker at lunch can lead to solving a problem in the script. So those are the kinds of things that you miss. It takes the fun out, yes. But it also takes the creative process and makes it more challenging.”
“It’s also the intimacy,” said Schwartz, co-showrunner and executive producer of the forthcoming Netflix DC series, Sweet Tooth. “People share really personal stories. And I feel in zoom it’s like you can’t get to that place because it’s impersonal. You’re talking to the screen, you’re not talking to that person. So I feel like it’s harder to get to those deeper places sometimes where naturally like in a room you would share some of those things when you’re physically in the same space.”
The telecommunication format is perhaps the least of the worries for writers who are now faced with the challenge of putting stories together while still being cognizant of the social distancing guidelines still in place during this health crisis.
“It already changed scripts as soon as it started happening,” said Schwartz. “As we started writing new scripts, when we’re breaking them, I’m like, ‘Oh, we can’t have this, being on a train with like a hundred extras. Let’s make that into cargo instead of people.’ So those are the kinds of things that you have to think about.”
“First of all, we’re not going to do things that actively put people in danger,” Gamble insisted. “Television shows are not worth it. It’s like when there’s a baseline of safety, then we will have these other conversations. We will change what we can and we will all keep an eye on that line.”
Casting will also come with its own difficulties especially when it comes to youth talent as Gamble pointed out. “Joe Goldberg (played by Penn Badgley) has a baby in season three… I couldn’t pitch you how we’re going to solve that. We are living through a global pandemic and we don’t want to put babies in danger. We’re gonna figure it out.”
Goor will have to tackle the same issue as his show is also planning to introduce a baby next season.
“Jake (played by Andy Samberg) and Amy (played by Melissa Fumero) had a baby at the end of the season and people want to see it, said Goor. “It’s obviously going to be a lot harder to have a baby. We’re looking into animatronics.”
He added that the issues will go “in so many different directions and we don’t know what’s going to happen. So it’s hard to write for it. Is it going to be safer to shoot outside? Originally we were thinking everything should shoot on the stages as much as possible, everything will be controlled, but in fact, would it make more sense to like shoot exterior? Because it seems like it’s just healthier and safer to be outside for people. So we’re trying to balance and trying to stay current and that’s difficult.”
Moving forward, the showrunners do see a future where a mix of virtual and in-person gatherings could work, which could also promote more diversity in the room.
“I think for a comedy like Brooklyn, there’s a lot to be gained from being in the room. And also being on set when we shoot, if you wrote an episode, you’re set. I could imagine in preproduction saying like, ‘Hey, let’s do zoom Fridays.'”
“It’s good for the creative process and it’s good for production,” to be in the same room “but I think it will be easier to say we should just meet on zoom on this particular day, Gamble suggested. “And when you talk about the disabled community, I’m actually excited to think that that line has been crossed in so many showrunners’ heads because we’ve tried it and it could work. If an agent were to call and pitch me somebody and explain why this writer would rarely or never be able to be in a room or on set, it’s like, well, I know that a version of that works now.”