Jeffrey Berman on The Write Environment

When the writer’s strike happened in late 2007/early 2008, writer Jeffrey Berman was looking for a way to stay busy in a productive manner. And that’s how his new project began–The Write Environment. Here’s more details on the project: “THE WRITE ENVIRONMENT features 50-60 minute, in-depth, one-on-one interviews with some of the most lauded and prolific writers in the television industry today, including Damon Lindelof (Lost), Tim Kring (Heroes), Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), Doug Ellin (Entourage), Sam Simon (The Simpsons), and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

… each episode … takes viewers backstage into the heretofore unseen world of the writer’s room for intimate interviews that offer a rare look at these diverse writers and what inspires them. From that first idea to the finished script, the writers share their views and stories, examining their successes, failures, and everything in between.”

I enjoy the chance to interview interviewers, so my thanks to Berman for his time.  In preparation of the interview, he was kind enough to allow me to view screeners of the Lindelof and Whedon interviews. My thanks also to Sylvia Desrochers for making this interview possible.

Tim O’Shea: How did you first come up with the idea of doing this series when the writer’s strike was in full swing? Do you think you would have been able to get these writers’ time if they had not been on strike?

Jeffrey Berman: The series came about as a byproduct of the Writers Guild Strike. I had co-founded a web site called UnitedHollywood.com. Our mission was to keep our members, and the public, informed as to what was really going on behind the scenes. My contribution to the site was producing live interviews from the strike line as well as viral videos to assist in getting our point of view heard. As the strike progressed we started talking about cutting out the middleman, aka the studios, which would allow us to retain ownership of our own projects. As an aside, I’ll tell you that screenwriting is the only faction of the creative world where the creators do not retain ownership or rights to their material once they sell it.

Anyway, The Write Environment felt like a natural progression from what I was already doing at the time. Plus, how often do you really get to hear interviews with the people who create the entertainment we spend the majority of our lives watching? I saw this as an opportunity for the fans to hear from the folks behind the scenes, while offering some insight into the work process to the screenwriting neophytes out there.

O’Shea: When you saw Dr. Horrible mapped out on Whedon’s planning wall, did you have any inkling how popular his “Internet thing” (as he described it to you in passing) would be?

Berman: Nope. Who could? Of course, it was expected that anything Joss did would have an impact and certainly find a home with his fans, but I’d wager even Joss was surprised with the attention, and sales, he received from it.

O’Shea: Whedon confided how he paces while writing (not in a narrative sense, but literally walking in his writing area)–I was curious if the floor was worn where he paces–or did you look?

Berman: That’s funny, but no. There are no trenches worn into his floor. Of course, had it been a carpeted floor it probably would have shown more wear, but I related to this as I do the same thing. No trenches in my home, either.

O’Shea: Maybe I’ve not read or watched enough interviews with Whedon, but had he previously discussed the fact that his father and grandfather were writers much before?

Berman: Not to my knowledge. I discovered this while doing due diligence for the interview. Prior to that I had no idea he came from such a prolific family.

O’Shea: Given that most of the interview subjects are associates of yours, did you have to do much research in preparation for the interviews. Did you prep the interview subjects about what ground you wanted to cover before filming began?

Berman: Yes and no. I did research each of the writers background and reviewed their work histories but beyond that I approached the interview from two sides; As a fan and as a student. Then I split my question down the middle. Or at least I tried to. And no prep was given to the writers beforehand. Though Joss and I did have a chance to talk a little shop while the crew was setting up for the shoot. Wouldn’t you like to know what was said then? Heh-heh!

O’Shea: In all the writer’s offices you toured in the projects, what was the most impressive heirloom that you saw?

Berman: Hands down, Mr. Echo’s stick in Damon Lindelof’s office.

O’Shea: While you are an experienced writer yourself, I’m curious if you gained some writing lessons from the interviews?

Berman: Absolutely. As a comedy writer I probably benefited the most from my interview with Phil Rosenthal. As an aside, I have to tell you that it was hands down the most enjoyable of all the interviews. His comedic timing is beyond perfect. He had the whole crew in stitches for a good portion of the interview. His insights into comedic writing probably had the greatest impact on me.

O’Shea: In talking with all these successful writers, were there any common traits (for success or effective storytelling) that you observed with a majority of the subjects?

Berman: Yes, writers write. That and never sacrifice your characters for story.

O’Shea: Were any of the subjects immensely more forthcoming with information than you originally expected when you picked them to interview?

Berman: It’s really a crap shoot when you do these kind of interviews. It’s taxing to ask someone to sit and talk about themselves for over an hour at a time. ( Which is why I chose to do it in a surrounding where they’re comfortable. ) I was extremely pleased and rewarded with how generous and forthcoming all of the writers were. Not to mention insightful. Each of them has a s wealth of experience in different formats and they were all absolutely fascinating to speak with.

O’Shea: I’ll ask the question you asked some of the writers: “what makes a good writer”?

Berman: Fortitude. Writing is hard. It’s so easy to just not write. But in those time where I’m not writing, in-between the enormous guilt I feel and the sheer joy of not being chained to my computer, I’m still thinking about writing. The struggle to turn off the TV and get back to work, that’s the hardest part for me.

O’Shea: In talking to these creators about their show, did any of them instill in you a new level of appreciation of the show or its characters?

Berman: I have to go back to Phil Rosenthal because I think he broke the mold with Everybody Loves Raymond. How that show was allowed to survive for nine years astounds me. And lucky for us it did. It was on the bubble many times, but kudos to CBS for sticking by it.

O’Shea: How do you explain your encyclopedia-level knowledge of TV (ie your example of Donald Bellisario’s breaking his vow never to delve into JFK in Quantum Leap)?

Berman: I’m a fan. What can I say?

O’Shea: Where can folks get the DVDs?

Berman: Yeah, if I can put in a plug, please check out my site at http://www.thewriteenvironment.com/indexFlash.html and buy a DVD or two. Then tell a friend. Then tell your friend to buy a DVD or two… or three… Okay, I’ll stop now.