Monday, March 8, 2010

On Writing...with Liz Tigelaar...

"I was always interested in storytelling, and when I was younger, I liked to act and I was really into Days of our Lives specifically: I wanted to be a soap opera actress. But then in high school I was always doing the weirdest things, like making my friends be in soap operas to kind of see what would happen...I don't know, it was something I was always super into-- storytelling conventions. And you know, I wasn't allowed to watch a lot of TV growing up so once I was finally older and could watch it, I was really fanatical about certain things."

Sound familiar? No, I didn't interview myself for the first posting in my new sporadic column 'On Writing,' in which I interview some of the leading storytellers across various mediums. Such is how Liz Tigelaar begins our conversation about her influences and experiences, and right away I think it is obvious why she was chosen as the first profilee: she is the successful version of myself!


Unlike myself, though Tigelaar admits that she didn't always know she wanted to write professionally, and she didn't really know the names or faces behind the words she so connected with, either: "There weren't really [writers] I looked up to, it was more the characters that I fell in love with."

It wasn't until she was in college-- she studied Television and Radio at Ithaca College-- that her mother pointed out how much she loved the craft and maybe should try it as her concentration. "I never really thought about a career as a writer because I wasn't particularly great at English in school, but I came out to L.A., and I got an internship on Dawson's Creek, and I saw how much fun all the writers seemed to be having, and I really wanted to do it," Tigelaar explains. And it all exploded from there.

Tigelaar may have started as an intern, but she very quickly began climbing the ladder, and one look at her IMDb page lists an extensive, impressive list of credits. "There are all these different assistant jobs you can do in terms of production assistant, writer's assistant, script coordinator-- things like that-- and basically I kind of did all of those jobs!" Tigelaar discusses her early years humbly, proving her success was not overnight as is a common misconception in this business. "I was a post P.A. and then a script coordinator and a writer's assistant, and I got to co-write a script, and it was all great experience. You don't even realize how much you're learning; you're just learning it...That's the goal: you kind of want to get on [one] show and climb up the ladder"

But still it's a far leap from writing someone else's show to creating and actually selling one of your own. Tigelaar's current hit, Life Unexpected, was not her first original show pitch. Years back, when American Dreams, the show she was then-on got canceled, Tigelaar's agent told her to start writing her own pilot. "At the time I was only a story editor, which is, like, one notch above writer, so I was like: 'Can story editors even write pilots? Would anybody want to read it?'" Tigelaar's concerns went out the window pretty quickly, though when her show (Split Decisions, "a kind of Sliding Doors in high school") sold and went into production as Aaron Spelling's last pilot. "Sometimes you're not getting attention, but you just have to take control over the situation and do something that will get you the attention," she advises wisely.

Tigelaar tends to gravitate toward character stories and relationship dramas, perhaps because those were her early influences. "With American Dreams," she starts as an example, "how that girl felt watching Bandstand, that's how I have felt with so many shows!" And she candidly points out just how important it is to really care about the story you are writing and the world you are helping create. "[If] you're always trying to shoehorn yourself into whatever show you're going out for, it really might not be your skill set, and eventually it will probably show."

Tigelaar has also crossed mediums as a young adult novel writer, starting with a few Dawson's Creek and American Dreams novels that she co-wrote while working on those respective series. "The writers were like 'Are you kidding me? We get paid tons of money to write for TV!' But I said I would try it. I was always focused on TV writing, but the book opportunities allowed me to just keep writing." The openness to new experiences are perhaps the most important trait a writer can have because so much of the writing and re-writing process requires somewhat of a go-with-the-flow attitude anyway (see my piece about the evolution from script to screen for reference).


When Tigelaar was prepping Split Decisions, she ended up getting staffed on Kyle XY, as well. "I went from having no jobs to two jobs," she laughs. Instead of burning her out, the creative multi-tasking seems to empower Tigelaar. With Life Unexpected doing so well, she should be able to finally take a breather and just think about what she wants her character arcs to be for season two. Instead, though, she is still pulling double-duty overseeing the writing of twenty-four episodes of a web series being adapted from her young adult series Pretty Tough. It appears that Tigelaar has found the true key to staying power among the dime-a-dozen writers in Hollywood: connections may open the door but an unparalleled work ethic will keep you in the room!

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