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Q & A with JEN GRISANTI

Posted by >>>>> on November 15, 2010

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Lorna Garano

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Q & A with JEN GRISANTI,

AUTHOR OF STORY LINE: FINDING GOLD IN YOUR LIFE STORY

Jen Grisanti is a Story Consultant, Independent Producer, Writing Instructor for NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Blogger for The Huffington Post and author of the new book, STORY LINE: FINDING GOLD IN YOUR LIFE STORY (Michael Wiese Productions, March 2011, paperback).

Grisanti started her career as an assistant to Aaron Spelling 15 years ago. Aaron was her mentor for the next 12 years as she climbed the ranks and eventually ran Current Programs at Spelling Television Inc., covering all of Spelling’s shows including Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and Charmed. In 2004, Jen was promoted to Vice President of Current Programs at CBS/Paramount where she covered shows including Medium, Numbers, NCIS, 4400 and Girlfriends. While at CBS/Paramount, she served as a mentor in the CBS Diversity Program, which seeks out and nurtures young writers and directors.

Q. You’ve had an incredible Hollywood career that began with being mentored by Aaron Spelling. First, how did you come to work with a Hollywood legend like Spelling and what are a few key lessons that you learned from him?

A. When I graduated from USC, I didn’t know anyone in the business.  I joined an entertainment job placement firm called The Friedman Agency.  They put my up for the position as an assistant in Aaron Spelling’s office.  When I went for the interview, I got down to the last two women and didn’t get the job.  I was devastated because I was such a huge fan of Aaron Spelling’s work.  BEVERLY HILLS, 90210 was my favorite show at the time.  After not getting the job, I temped for the President of Spelling Films for a month.  Next thing I knew, I got an offer to work in the Spelling office again, only this time they offered me more money.  The first woman didn’t work out.  So, it ended up working to my advantage that it happened the way that it did.

Aaron Spelling taught me so much about what to look for in building strong story.  I would read all the scripts that came into his office, both pilots and current shows.  Then, we’d discuss notes.  He mentored me for 12 years as I climbed the ladder at Spelling on how to make story the best that it could be.  He taught me that when you’re giving development notes, you always want to focus on the positive first and then move to your more critical notes.  He said that it’s very important to let writers know what you do like about their writing.  Then, they’ll be more open when you go into what need to be fixed.  Aaron helped me to believe in my own talent.  He let me know when he loved what I was doing.  I can’t say this about a lot of bosses.  He also taught me that if you love somebody’s work who you see on TV or watch at the movies, write a letter and tell them how much you enjoyed their work.  This is something that I’ve done my whole career.  Aaron was a perfectionist.  He wanted everyone to be perfect.  Since he expected perfection from himself, you could respect this and learn to want to be the best.  Aaron was big on compliments.  He made everyone around him feel valued.  I learned how important this is in business.

Q. In your position in Current Programs at Spelling Television and later as Vice President of Current Programs at CBS/Paramount you covered some of the most successful TV programs ever, including Melrose Place; Beverly Hills, 90210; MEDIUM; and NCIS. What do you think made these shows successful?

A. For BEVERLY HILLS, 90210, it was about the universal concept of the growing pains we all go through while we are in high school.  We could identify with the characters, the situations and the issues.  The fish out of water aspect with Brenda and Brandon moving into Beverly Hills was something that many could connect with.  It was an issue-oriented show.  It was a challenge from the creative standpoint to do an issue-oriented show that lasted 10 years and had 22 episodes a season and manage to keep it fresh.  Yet, the extraordinary talents of the writing staff, the insight of Aaron Spelling and his partner, E. Duke Vincent and the passion of everyone involved made it happen.

MELROSE PLACE was much like DYNASTY in the soap opera like feel, the wish fulfillment and the great looking cast that was juggling what it was to balance career and personal life.  I loved the aspect that they all lived in one place.  This was something that Aaron loved in his show, having a regular meeting spot for the cast.

MEDIUM won the hearts of audiences because of the strength of a strong female lead, played by Patricia Arquette and the dynamics of the family.  The psychic abilities that allows her to help the police solve crimes mixed with a rich home life that we can all connect with, make this show really stand out.  There is something for everyone.  Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a brilliant Creator in Glen Gordon Caron.

NCIS is a huge hit because of the regular cast, headed by Mark Harmon.  I learned so much on this show about story.  The formula was more like 70 percent  character and 30 percent percent case.  What makes this show stand out is also the balance of the humor and the drama.  The case more serves a way to bring about banter and strong character dynamics.  The military is a backdrop to bring story in.

Q. In your new book, STORY LINE: FINDING GOLD IN YOUR LIFE STORY you talk about the process of “developing from within.” What do you mean by this and why do you think it’s such a common practice among successful writers?

A. I am so excited to share this concept with writers because I feel that it is going to open up their creative process and help them to write from a stronger place.  I believe that the key to success in writing is adding fiction to your truth.  Your truth comes from within.  For so many of us in life, we look for answers on the outside.  As we get older and have to overcome more obstacles, we start to recognize the value of going inside.  I am a very spiritual person.  I’ve practiced yoga for over ten years.  I believe that there is a strong connection between the meditative process of going within and the creative process. When the writer goes inside and learns that their emotional well is their gold when it comes to writing strong story.  If you write from the truth and add fiction to it, you will connect with your audience and allow them to see you in your story.

Q. Why do you suggest that writers start by writing a Log Line for their life and can you give us an example of a Log Line from your life?

A. This exercise has been so popular.  It originated after I did a 3 day seminar in Seattle for the Northwestern Screenwriters Guild.  I asked the participants to share some universal life moments.  By universal life moment, I mean a moment in your life when your world was turned upside down and reality as you knew it, shifted.  Well, people were going on for 15 minutes or more.  So, I had to figure out a way to shorten this.  I came up with the idea of Log Line For Your Life.  We each know our own life stories, so it is easier to learn to add fiction to them and craft them into a log line than it is to start from scratch.  When writers do this, they start to recognize the value they have inside.  They also see that they have many more story lines to draw from.

One Log Line for my Life is  “When a work obsessed corporate executive experiences a perceived fall from grace when she is told that her contract is not being renewed, she is forced to turn her plan B into her plan A and discovers that her plan B was her plan A all along.”

Q. In STORY LINE you reveal a lot of your personal history, including discovering that your husband was having an affair and how this led to divorce. Why did you bring this into the book?

A. As an executive, I was known for extracting truth from writers and then getting them to write about it.  When they would do this, writers who weren’t getting staffed suddenly were staffed and writers who who had never sold pilots, were suddenly selling pilots.  As a way to get writers to dig deep, I would reveal parts of my story.  I did this as a way to make them feel safe.  So, when it came to writing STORY LINE:  FINDING GOLD IN YOUR LIFE STORY, I knew that in order to illustrate how to do it, I had to be willing to dive into my own story.

With regards to choosing a moment in my life when my husband was having an affair which led led to our divorce, I choose this specific moment because it was in this moment that my belief in the fairy tale was shattered.  I know that there are millions of men and women who could connect with the idea of a cheating spouse and how we process this life experience.  I figured if I dived deep into this life experience I would connect with others who’ve experienced it and hopefully, make them feel less isolated.   This is the beauty of sharing story.  Since my own divorce, I’ve probably helped close to 25 people through the divorce experience.  Our stories might be different in the way that they came about but the core emotions underneath these experience is what unites us.

Q.  You’ve talked about the importance of looking at the “all is lost” moments in our lives. How does this help us create more believable characters and more compelling stories?

A. When I go to WGA events to watch the writers of my favorite feature and TV show speak, I ask a lot of questions.  I also ask a lot of questions to writers on my Storywise Podcast for itunes.  What I found was that most writers hit their peak when they write a story that comes from their life and they add fiction to it in their writing.

The story that helps writers to hit their peaks often resonates an “all is lost” moment in their life.  In story, the “all is lost” moment is when your character hits rock bottom.  It is in these moments that the character learns what they need to do to achieve the goal.  This is much like life.  For many of us if we look at our greatest successes in life, they are often preceded by a fall before we attain.  Writing from this place adds depth and emotion to your characters and your story.  If the intention underneath your story is authentic, we will feel what it is you’re trying to express even more.  I feel that truth is the key to more believable characters and more compelling stories.

Q. It’s crucial for writers not just to have strong writing skills, but also to be able to pitch their scripts. What are a few tips for crafting a good pitch and what are a few things to avoid?

A. I would say that nerves are probably the biggest obstacles in pitch meetings.  To help avoid nerves, be prepared.  If you know your pitch well, you will be less nervous.  Practice your pitch.  Record your pitch.  Know your pitch.  If you do this, you will be able to enjoy the process more.   You should start your pitch meeting with a personal story that reveals your passion behind why you wrote your story.  Even your story doesn’t reflect an exact moment in your life, it may have a character that you identify with in a big way.  So, express this.  Passion sells.  If you start this way, you will help add warmth to the room.  Then, think of your pitch in a log line, paragraph and page.  Pitch your log line.  Let them ask questions.  Then, pitch your paragraph.  If they are still totally interested and asking a lot of questions, go into your page pitch.  Leave your pitch with as much passion about your concept as you walked in with.  Tell them why you think now is the perfect time for your story.

Q. Can you give us some sense of what producers are looking for these days? What’s in and what’s out?

A. I would say that family shows and features are very big at the moment.  Comedy is starting to come back in television with the success of MODERN FAMILY.  Shows that have a closing in aspect are big i.e. DEXTER, BIG LOVE, MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD.  These are shows with rich stories and very complex lead characters who often have a secret.  With the success of GLEE, I would say the feel good shows are in.  THE GOOD WIFE shows that when you draw from real life current events and add fiction to it, you have a built in audience.  I think the soap operas that just focus on the lives and wealth of the characters are out.  TV has evolved.  It is deeper an more meaningful.

In the feature world, high concept comedies are in.  They say that romantic comedies are out but I believe that they are always on the lookout for the next PRETTY WOMAN or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.  Psychological thrillers/action movies are in.  They always say that period pieces are out.  However, it’s all about the story.  If you pitch them a story that resonates with them, regardless of what is in or out, you can create the possibility of a sale.

Q. What are a few of your current favorite TV programs and why do you think they work?

A. My favorite current shows include; MAD MEN, THE BIG C, DEXTER, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, BREAKING BAD, THE GOOD WIFE, GLEE, TRUE BLOOD and MODERN FAMILY.

I think they work because they all make me feel.  It comes down to the brilliance in the story-telling and the ability of the writer to universally connect the audience.  Strong characters who I identify with on some level make me want to watch.  Compelling drama mixed with humor is something I love in these shows.

Q. Hollywood has a reputation for being sexist, yet you were a top exec for over a decade. What advice do you have for women who want to follow in your footsteps?

A. The advice I have for women who want to pursue a career in entertainment is to follow your passion.  Let your passion lead you.  Make it it about the work.  Try not to get caught up in the politics.  Strong work will rise.  Develop your voice.  Do not be afraid to express it.  You are paid for your opinion so educate yourself in every way possible to make your opinion well informed and valuable.  Believe in yourself.  If someone tells you “no” learn that it doesn’t mean “no” it can’t happen, it just means you have to try a different angle.  Be clear on your goal and never lose focus.  If you can see it and believe it, you can make it happen.  Doing what you love to do is a gift.  I wake up everyday with an attitude of gratitude because I am doing what I love to do as a living.

MORE ABOUT JEN GRISANTI

Jen Grisanti is a Story Consultant, Independent Producer, Writing Instructor for NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Blogger for The Huffington Post and author of the upcoming book, Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story (Michael Wiese Productions, March 2011, paperback).

Grisanti started her career as an assistant to Aaron Spelling 15 years ago. Aaron was her mentor for the next 12 years as she climbed the ranks and eventually ran Current Programs at Spelling Television Inc., covering all of Spelling’s shows including Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and Charmed. In 2004, Jen was promoted to Vice President of Current Programs at CBS/Paramount where she covered shows including Medium, Numbers, NCIS, 4400 and Girlfriends. While at CBS/Paramount, she served as a mentor in the CBS Diversity Program, which seeks out and nurtures young writers and directors.

In January 2008, Jen launched Jen Grisanti Consultancy Inc., a consulting firm dedicated to helping talented writers break into the industry. By drawing on her 12-year experience as a studio executive where she gave daily notes to executive producers/showrunners, Jen personally guides writers to shape their material, hone their pitches, and focus their careers. Since launching, Jen has worked with over 250 writers working in television, features and novels.  Twelve of her clients have staffed as writers on television shows and two have sold pilots that went to series.  In 2008, Jen was hired to be the Writing Instructor for NBC’s Writers on the Verge. Jen is also a blogger for The Huffington Post.

Visit her at: http://jengrisanticonsultancy.com/

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