Interview with Screenwriter and Executive Producer Jeffrey Lieber
June 30th, 2014
Jeffrey Lieber is a screenwriter (TUCK EVERLASTING, TANGLED) and executive best known as a co-creator of the hit TV series LOST. He also served as executive producer of Miami Medical. Lieber spent the last three years as an executive producer on USA’s Necessary Roughness. Currently he is executive producer of NCIS New Orleans where he is helping creator/executive producer Gary Glasberg in running the series. On the Twittersphere he is known for his “Showrunner Rules” about the TV industry. (Check out Lieber on Twitter)
I got the chance to speak with Lieber over the phone as he drove to work stopping to get coffee at The Grind in Venice, then on to the Studio lot, and into his office. I found Jeffrey to be hilarious, personable, intelligent, and a pleasure to get to know. The writers that work for Lieber are lucky to have such a down to earth and creative showrunner at the helm.
What do you think influenced you to become a writer and a producer?
Well the funny story is that I was a high school tennis player and a big sports kid when during my sophomore year I went to see a play production and there was a hot blonde -- Suzie Moore -- who I became infatuated with. So I decide that I would do whatever possible to get in the same air space as Suzie Moore and her low cut white blouse. So my entire TV career was to get as close as possible to a hot blonde in a low cut blouse... but seriously, I did start acting and writing plays because of that experience which was really interesting to express my general sense of wanting to have a good time. Everything really started with my high school and college experiences when I became really serious about writing.
Where did you grow up?
Chicago, I went to University of Illinois and I came back and started acting in Chicago running a theatre and at some point I decided to go to LA.
Were you confident that you were going to make it?
No, not at all. I came to LA convinced I would be there for a few years and then go back to Chicago; I never really thought it through. So I get out to LA and I had two of the strangest years. Right away I got in a car accident, then my relationship blew up, and all the while I was constantly moving; I lived in three or four different places. I then lost contact with some friends and broke down in a theatre one day because I thought I was alone in the world. It took almost exactly two years for me to get my first writing job and once I got that job I have never stopped working.
What did you do to sustain yourself as you pursued your career?
I worked as an associate producer for an R-rated video game company and my job was to manage all the assets which included mostly a lot of photos of dildos. It’s crazy, but I would get to work every day and my job was working with a green screen to make sure that the edges of the photographs were smooth and fit on the screen -- so my days were spent tracing the outside of dildos.
Hilarious, that experience had to have helped you later on in your career!
I don’t know, though I do deal with some real life dildos so maybe I got to know them. I would say that for a heterosexual male I know more about the male penis than any other heterosexual male that I know.
You have a new show NCIS New Orleans, what do you look for when you hire a writer? Is there a specific trait?
Well a couple of things; one is you know they can write so that gets you in the door. I try to find writers who have specific talents. That’s one of the Showrunner Rules because having twelve writers whose only talent is that they can write is like having a car with no steering wheels or brakes or… whatever.
So you need two or three great draft writers on staff; and then you need one person who is just an idea junky who throws ideas one after the other. You also need somebody who is good with the cut, you need somebody who is really effervescent and buoyant and will keep the room alive; oh, and you can always use somebody with good organizational skills to run the board. I need a diversified staff of people who can write, but their secondary talent is what makes them useful to the show.
How do you find writers? Is it mostly about relationships?
Yes it is all about relationships. There are really only two ways into the TV industry. One is get a mentor, for example become someone’s assistant who then becomes a showrunner or whatever -- that is one way. The other way is you make it in some other discipline. So you became the world greatest armadillo juggler or you make your way as a graphic novelist.
Those are two ways because what happens is you have the guy or girl you have been counting on for two years and you want to give them a chance or somebody calls you and says hey I got this writer and they are like, “hey they are the world’s best armadillo juggler” and we happen to need one for the show. So you are like “okay I will set a meeting;” that becomes your entry. So those are the two ways into TV writing.
Your Showrunner Rules are really awesome. Early on you focused mainly on writing, your first one talked about screenwriting as string theory, can you elaborate on that a little bit? How does that apply to a writer?
Well in bad scripts you see the entire math equation – it’s right there. You see earlier on where the character says “I have always wanted to have a kid.” Then you see the scene where he meets the woman and she has a kid, but he doesn’t love the kid because it’s not his kid. Then you watch the math and you see the scene where the kid and the guy bond; you essentially see all the plus and minus signs. In string theory you get to the end of the script where everything comes together and all those moments are there, but they were hidden from you or they sneak up on you the moment when the guy falls in love with the girl’s kid. That moment looks like it’s something entirely different and then all of a sudden it present itself and its suddenly a great script; all the same math comes together at once but you just don’t see it until that moment.
Are you more of a showrunner now? Do you still write a lot?
Yes, I am writing. Gary Glasberg, my partner in writing the NCIS, wrote episode one and I wrote episode two. I will probably write three episodes this season if we go all 22 or 24, so yes I absolutely still write.
Give us a little bit about your writing process? I mean how do you sit down and tackle a TV episode, what is the process for that?
You know it all depends with the show you are writing. You first figure out what your engine is? Say it is a case concerning a dead body or whatever it is, that drives your story and provides you with something that will move you forward. For example, we have a dead body, now we can do this or we can do that, and then there is a twist or turn, so that drives you.
You also try to look for some character pieces that fit into that. Stories about fathers and sons, maybe, so you try to find a way to do that on the character side. if you are doing a strict character show like Mad Man, it’s such a straight character thing they almost don’t give a crap about plot, it’s all about characterization. Sometimes so much so it can get slow because you just feel like they are painting in such subtle shades.
Do you think television has passed film with regard to narrative and quality writing? I hear so many people say that they are more interested in watching their favorite television drama than they are going to the movies. Do you think there is some truth in that?
Yes. But I won’t say that there are better writers in TV because I don’t think that is the issue, I think that the medium now has became so friendly to writers at every level because you are not required so much to get everybody in opening weekend like film, because you have a much longer arc to tell stories. And because frankly the writer’s in charge where in film the writer is an appendage to get you to a director and once the director is there they are the ones that run the show.
Television producers/writers really have so much more control. I mean you are literally writing one day and filming the next sometimes.
I left film because I got really tired of killing trees -- writing and writing and writing and not getting the results I wanted. Partially the goal was for me to succeed, but at which point I get replaced. You do a really good job on a film and in come the director and they bring in their guy to rewrite you. There is also I think a lot of problems with film in how you are married to the process and so you are writing film set pieces… those remote concepts as opposed to writing something I care about. I also think the high pace and immediacy makes for better and more inventive writing in TV.
What advice would you give aspiring writers trying to break into television writing?
I would give three pieces of advice: one, keep writing but as much as possible make the things that you write, even if they are crap; two, is find a medium that you are great at even if it is not screenwriting and excel at that because it could be your card in; and three, is start making relationship and part of that is moving to LA at some point. And it’s harder and harder to do. So to make the real relationships over the web for example is hard. You know where you get that phone call and I am going to hire you because I know you and we met. It is just logistically difficult if you are living in Iowa; even if you are a great writer. Because you not only need to know the showrunner, you need to know the network executive, studio executive, and all of them have to approve your hiring at some level.
So you just don’t write a script and send it off, there are so many moving parts for everybody in the business.
Yes you have to know a large segment of people and that requires you to be in some sort of proximity. Once you know those people you can go back to doing whatever but you really have to be here. If you were a miner you have to live somewhere near the mine to get that job. You have to be able to drive over there and meet the foreman; it is sort of the same thing. A writer PA came in and she knows one of our writer’s PA, and I get to know her and she is great. I am going to get her a story in the first year and she will be in the system.
Do you see yourself writing feature films ever again?
I’m always open to it. But I don’t think I will ever write Batman 38, it‘s not who I am and I am not part of that system. I really think there is a world that is coming that is web driven. I would love to go back to that kind of model.
Do you ever see yourself directing a television show?
I do. It’s a natural thing to want to direct and if the show goes multiple seasons I think I’d like to throw my hat into that ring just for experience. Though television directing is really tough, it is an exhausting sort of business. I did some directing of a web series on my last show and I enjoyed it, but that was like four minutes of web series stuff; so expanding that to TV length is another thing entirely.
Last question. Matthew McConaughey at the Oscars said that his hero was him in ten years. Who are you in ten years and why would you be your own hero?
That’ funny. Can my hero be Matthew McConaughey in ten years? I didn’t know. I would not have guessed I would be here ten years ago. I mean ten years ago I was not thinking of myself as a potential show runner. So I don’t know. I hope in ten years I really love what I’m doing. If in ten years I still love it that will be great, that is really all that is required. You never know. So you just wake up in the morning and love what you do … that is a pretty good life.
About the Author
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(Follow on Twitter) Christopher Wehner is a published author and produced screenwriter, EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS @Netflix and AMERICAN DREAMER (later this year); visit his IMDB page for future projects. Christopher has been a leading member of the online screenwriter's community going back to the 1990s. In 2001 he published the groundbreaking book Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web,.
To contact Chris visit his website: Warm Beer Productions.