I recently interviewed Roswell writers Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg, who inked “Summer of ’47”, “Wipeout!” and the upcoming “We Are Family”. They discussed how they got started as writers, their contribution to the upcoming feature Valentine and the writing process in general.
Gretchen and Aaron in the writers’ office.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up and go to school?
Aaron was born in Iowa and raised in Indiana and South Florida. Gretchen was born and raised in Pittsburgh. We met at Northwestern University in Chicago when Aaron was a Freshman and Gretchen was a Junior. We both went through a program called Creative Writing for the Media – a two-year course that introduces students to writing for television, film, and the stage.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
G: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I used to write goofy little story books when I was in 2nd grade. Fascinating stuff like, “The Mean Old Man,” and “Friends.” I had a disastrous flirtation with poetry in high school, but by the time I went to college, I knew I wanted to study writing for film and TV.
A: This is like a therapy session. Well, my dad is a minister, so I guess I spent lots of time of thinking up stories when I was forced to sit in church all day. I, too, wrote a few 2nd Grade books. My favorite is called “The Time Car.” It’s about a car that a detective made so he could hunt down criminals and it goes really fast and can fly!
G: Aaron. You wrote “Knight Rider.” You were a child genius!
What steps did you take to be able to make writing your profession?
G: We took assistant jobs in Hollywood. We studied (read “criticized”) films and television shows. Most importantly, we WROTE. Always. Screenplays. Spec television scripts. Sitcoms. Dramas. TV movies. You name it, we have at least one in our library. Everything we wrote took us one step closer to being better writers. Finally, after a few years of plugging away, an agent found a copy of one of our screenplays and liked it. He passed our television stuff off to a television agent at the same agency, and in a matter of weeks, we were signed. So we’re represented in both television and feature films.
How did the two of you meet and become writing partners? Did you actively look for someone to write with or did it happen by chance?
G: Aaron was a p.a. on a student film I directed in ’92. We had mutual friends, but really didn’t know each other well until Aaron moved out to L.A. in August of ’95. His housing situation fell through, so he moved into our wet bar. Actually, under our wet bar. Around that time, I wanted to try writing a sitcom spec, but comedy is hard. A lot of times, you’ll write something at two in the morning and think it’s hilarious, but when you show it to someone in the light of day, it’s less than funny. So, I wanted to have another person to blame if the stuff sucked, more or less. I always liked Aaron’s sense of humor, so I asked him if he wanted to try a script together. He graciously said yes. Six months later, we finished our first script. It was a “Friends” that really, really sucked. We’ve burned all existing copies of it.
Which aspects of writing are harder as a writing team and which are easier? How does it compare to being an individual writer? Have you worked on a lot of projects without each other?
A: The hardest part of writing, hands down, is hatching the story. On Roswell, we have so many characters to service and so many great relationships to track that it gets difficult. Days and days are spent outlining, ordering scenes, re-ordering, and throwing entire plotlines out. The actual writing of the script is the fun part. That’s when you get to sit back and let the characters run. Working as part of a team is an all-around great experience – except for the splitting of the paycheck. In all seriousness, it’s a great way to create because you have instant and honest feedback. Writing individually is much scarier. You’re alone with your computer all day. You’re constantly thinking “God, is this funny? Is this horrible? Am I an untalented hack?” With Gretchen around, there’s always someone to answer, “Yes” to those questions.
G: Plus, it’s really cool to never, ever have to go into a job interview or meeting alone. Our sanity has been saved many, many times when we’ve been able to get in the car after a meeting and say, “O.K., am I crazy, or did that really just happen?” Since we’ve started working together, there just hasn’t been the time or energy to write alone. Also, I don’t want to. I’m never going to be as good a writer alone than I am with Aaron. Aaron, on the other hand, is always sneaking around on the partnership. Various passion projects through the years. Damn cheat. Men will be men, I guess.
What part did you play in the writing of the screenplay for “Valentine?” Do you prefer writing for television or for the big screen? What was your reaction when Katherine Heigl was cast?
G: Valentine was a movie that was lying dormant over at Warner Brothers for awhile. Aaron and I were sent a copy of the script, and saw something in it. One year and three drafts later, Warner Brothers greenlit the movie. That means they decided to go ahead and shoot it. They attached a director – Jamie Blanks. He’s fantastic. But right before they went up to Vancouver to shoot the movie, we started on “Roswell,” and were no longer available for the project. Two other writers did rewrites on the movie before it was all said and done. We will get shared credit on the film (which will come out February, 2001.) At this point, I feel kind of removed from the project, like it really isn’t ours anymore. Very little of our stuff is still in it. That’s why I love television. In TV, a writer has much more control. Plus, the process happens much faster. There is always a deadline, so stuff is always clipping along. You have to feed the beast. In feature films, it takes much longer. You start and stop on projects over and over again. Also, your heart gets broken a lot more. You put so much effort into projects that will never see the light of day.
A: TV writers are given more responsibility and respect than feature film writers. In movies, writers are treated like interchangeable objects that can be replaced at any time. There’s much more satisfaction in TV because you know your script will get shot and aired.
G: We were thrilled when Katie was cast, because we love Jamie and we knew she’d have fun. Plus, her part was something that we wrote that was relatively untouched, so I do feel like she acted in a portion of the flick that was more or less “ours.”
A: I love Katie.
G: Aaron LOOOOOOOOOVES Katie. Whoo-hoo!
How did you become involved with Roswell and what has your experience been like so far on the show?
G: The crazy thing is, I’m a little psychic, and I knew long before we even heard that “Roswell” was looking for writers that we would end up on this show. When 90210 wrapped, we had to look for a job. So our TV agent sent out our writing samples. (This year, we had two scripts – an “NYPD BLUE” and an “X-FILES.” Our agent determined which sample was better for each show-runner to read.) If people like what they read, you get called in for a face to face meeting. Then the hell begins. Sometimes two or three job interviews a day. And as you’re going out on these meetings, you keep hearing about all the other writers who are snapping up jobs. (Every TV writer in Hollywood is looking for a job at the exact same time. It’s VERY nerve-racking.) It’s meeting after meeting after meeting, with network executives, studio executives, and finally show runners. By the time we met with Jason Katims, we had job offers from both “Titans” and “Felicity.” But in the same week, we were meeting with David Kelley for “Ally McBeal.” It was a real honor to meet David Kelley, but we just fell in love with Jason. We knew there would be a lot more for us to do at “Roswell,” and to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better pilot. We were very, very excited for the opportunity to work here, so when 20th Century Fox made us an offer, we happily accepted.
A: Our experience on the show has been wonderful. The writers are all so different and so amazing. We were blessed to be given the chance to write Episode 4, (“Summer of ’47.”) It’s such a departure from the “Roswell” episodes in the past. It’s a very supportive place to work, and the staff really cares about the show.
G: I feel like we won the lottery. We’re so happy here. Jason Katims is a huge talent, and he’s so passionate about the show. He brings such dignity and heart to his characters. We learn something new from him everyday. The same goes for Ron Moore. He’s so good, so enthusiastic, and a great teacher. The two of them are the best bosses we could ever hope for. (Are they going to read this?) The rest of the staff is fantastic as well. We really enjoy everyone here. Plus, the cast and crew are so gifted. We love visiting the set and watching them work.
How is writing for Roswell different from writing for 90210? Do you approach the scripts in a different way – such as in having to do a lot of research?
A: In a lot of ways, it’s not so different. We have deadlines. We have to make sure our scripts come in at a certain page count. We work long hours. But with “Roswell,” it’s a relatively new show with a lot of room to grow. By the time we joined the staff at 90210, a lot of stories had already been told. “Roswell” lets us be a lot more imaginative in our story telling. And the cast is great.
G: Also, I like these characters a lot more than the characters we wrote for at 90210. I’m much more emotionally invested. And it’s a joy to watch actors interpret your work who aren’t burned out or bored. Yet, at least. Let’s see how they’re doing in another 8 years.
A: As far as the ’47 episode goes, we did do a lot of research. We thought the fun part of that script would be if it was based in truth. We wanted to make sure we got the “facts” right. We’ve always done research, though.
G: We like to do our homework. And it was fun to marry the show’s version of the Roswell crash with the actual event.
Describe the writing process of a television script from beginning to end, from pitching the idea to Jason Katims, to handing in the final script. Take “Summer of ’47” as an example.
A: Basically, television writing is all about throwing an idea out there, holding your breath, and usually watching someone shoot it down. Not shoot it down, but throw it back to you in a different way. We spend a lot of time collaborating, which is where the best work comes from. For “Summer of ’47,” we saw a picture of four 1940s-era army guys leaning against a jeep, and I thought, “I wonder what their story is.” And that’s how the episode was born. We pitched it to Jason, including the idea that our actors would play the roles of the people from that time, and he went for it. After getting story approval, we disappeared for a few days to write a beat sheet. After that is approved, we go to outline. The outline goes to the rest of the staff, production folks, the studio, and the network. After they weigh in, we implement their notes, and then we write the script. After you’re all done, there are more notes, another re-write, a table read, and then it gets shot. (But the notes never stop.) Then, you get to see a cut of your episode, and it’s OUR turn to give notes. They add sound effects, visual effects, and music. Then finally, it airs on TV. But by then, you’ve already moved on to the next episode you’re writing. It’s a never-ending process.
G: Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t omnipotent when it comes to our episodes. You have to get approval from everyone. Nothing gets on the air unless Jason, Ron, Carol Trussell, the studio, and the network give the go-ahead.
How much control do you have over the episode once it is written? Do you have any say in how it is filmed, acted, directed, edited, what music is picked, etc.?
A: We’re still figuring that out. Every show is different. The one place we can really express how see the episode is in something called a tone meeting. That’s when you sit down with the director and really get into the pacing of the episode, the character’s motivation, and special moments that require extra attention or emphasis.
G: We’re still relatively low on the totem pole, so we don’t assert our opinion all that much. After all, this is Jason Katims’ show. He always gets final say. (Luckily, he’s always right.) Some day, when we have our own show, we’ll be more involved and vocal with all of that stuff.
In your professional career, what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment?
A: Getting to do what I love.
G: How brainy of you.
What has been your favorite writing project? What would be your dream project?
A: I am so hypercritical of everything I work on, it’s really impossible for me to say that one thing or another is my favorite. However, the 90210 episode where Donna’s men’s line goes up in flames was quite delightful to write. The kids had to band together to remake her entire collection and then had to model it in a fashion show. That one goes in my personal time capsule.
G: Though I found that episode to be a cheesy, delicious piece of art, I think I’m most proud of our two feature romantic comedies – “Rippee” and “Night in Vegas.” Of course, no one liked them, and no one bought them, so I’m pretty much alone in this.
A: You guys are a tough audience, so one of my dream projects would be to write an episode of “Roswell” that the fans like.
G: This may sound lame, but in a lot of ways, “Roswell” is a dream project. I mean, it’s just so perfect for the here and now – where the show is, and where Aaron and I are in our career. We’ll learn a lot here. And thus far, it’s been a blast. I really like coming to work every day. And if I’m ever feeling down or uninspired, I can just stroll over to the sound stage and bask in Jason Behr’s beauty. Now THAT’S a perk.
Special thanks to Caty Foster (Catalinay) who contributed questions for this interview.