Wednesday, August 21, 2013

'On Writing' with Janine Sherman Barrois...

Remember Janine Sherman Barrois' name. The television scribe who got her start on half-hour comedies like The Jamie Foxx Show and The P.J.s then spent nine years in the "John Wells camp" transitioning into much more serious storytelling fare. Television has been her home and her heart because it's a place where you can go on a real journey with characters, telling "a story that keeps changing and keeps evolving," and her career is certainly a marker of that. Barrois decided to make the switch to drama from comedy because she wanted to be "writing about life and death"-- something she has mastered as an executive producer on Criminal Minds.


"That's what I think about; I think about life and death and humanity. In comedy you just sort of write to the joke; you don't really write to the nuance of human behavior... In comedy, you're usually writing three jokes per page, so there's a rat-a-tat-tat to the voice, and in drama you're writing the way people speak. And people speak in a way that's naturalistic." Barrois said.

"I had to learn it all over again, and John Wells would initially criticize my work to say 'It sounds a little too vignette-y' because I was writing to a moment versus letting the moment unveil itself naturally."

Wells, who Barrois credits with bringing out the best in her writing, instilled the "Let the moment be real" motto in her while she was working with him on Third Watch and E.R. There she had to adjust to the different act breaks, dialogue beats, and overall story scope of an episode, let alone season, that drama can deliver. But it was also where she was really allowed to hone dichotomy in the tone of her work-- writing a light moment and then juxtaposing it with an intensely dramatic one.

"That John sort of saw as a skill of mine...and sort of taught me to use the humor in the one scene and leave the audience feeling like we'll go to the next scene and maybe it will be humorous, but then we break their heart," Barrois said.

Being able to surprise an audience with emotions is just as important as being able to do so with plot points and twists in the dark and complex stories Barrois works on every week for Criminal Minds-- a show that comes with its own special kind of formula (a teaser and four acts) because it is a procedural, but the key is to embrace those elements and know that the characters are what will make the motions special and unique.

"You basically, in any sort of drama that deals with loss, cops, or medicine, you're dealing with something's happened and your heroes have to figure out why it's happened, how it's happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. So the same sort of tools you'd use on E.R. to understand why a patient is dying is the same sort of investigative tools that you use when you're on Criminal Minds and you're seeing a girl is killed and she is turned into a marionette. Why is this happening, and how can we stop this? They're all mysteries," Barrois said.

"The psychology of people sort of transcends all of the shows I've been on."

Barrois also believes greatly in the act of collaboration-- not just within the writers' room but with her series stars, as well. After all, the writers' room staff can change from season to season, but the actor will inhabit the role for the entire run-- whether it's a few episodes or nine years. As Barrois put it, "The people that are acting those [characters] every day have a concrete idea of what those characters would do."

With Criminal Minds specifically, Barrois worked closely with Shemar Moore for a pivotal season eight storyline that revisited his character's childhood abuse. It was something that had been tipped for the character in a much earlier season but really became an important part of a case of the week later, ultimately calling back the earliest days and paying off a character detail in a big way, "peeling back a layer on an established character." While this is something Barrois finds most rewarding about working on a show like Criminal Minds, where a unique challenge is constantly creating new and exciting stories for characters the audience feels they know like their own family, she is also excited to dive into bring stories and characters that are completely of her own design to the television landscape, as well.

"One of my agents said 'Listen, you have to write a show that you would want to watch for seven years and also that you would want to work on 100 hours a week. What show is that?' There was one that was percolating, and I started talking about [it] from complete passion, and it had drama; it had humor; it had nuance of life. And you could see in the room-- my agent said 'That's the show. The other shows are ideas, but that's the show because that's the show that's going to keep you up on Christmas Eve to get that draft done when everybody else is wrapping gifts," Barrois said.

Of course Barrois' personal excitement is only a small portion of the process of creating and pitching the show. She will pour her heart and soul into every page, but she still has to find a producer who believes in it as much as she does, and then hope the network wants to make that same show, as well. Although Barrois admitted "everybody wants to have a hit" and she does pay some attention to trends in order to keep in mind what is selling these days, she noted that the most important thing for a new series is that it has your complete passion, as well as a "humanistic" approach. That is what will ground the series and keep it relatable, and in many ways universal, too.

"As an artist or a writer, you can't actually sit around in your office or in your bedroom in your pajamas, trying to predict what the whole country wants. You have to grab onto the zeitgeist, find something that you want-- that you're delivering this big, big show or this nuanced idea that people, maybe they've seen a version, but they haven't seen your version," Barrois said.

Coming from such hit shows as she has, Barrois is also aware that what the industry may want from her may not be 100% what she wants to put out to the market. While she obviously believes in compromise with her team once the show is already a living, breathing organism, she noted the importance of sticking to one's guns in the earlier stages of the series-- to ensure that she not only wants to make but feels like she can make is ultimately the one that she agrees to make and that gets sold.

"Being a professional writer, you have to make some sort of compromises, but I think you have to keep asking yourself 'Is this the show I want to make?' when you're addressing notes. I mean, there's clearly a point where you want to sell it, so you want to give the buyer what they want, but at the end of the day, you're going to be the one left holding the bag, so you've got to make sure that it's a product that you like," Barrois said.

"If someone has an idea that adds to it or compliments it, I really listen to my gut and go 'Is this what I really feel or is this what I feel because I'm listening to trends or what's hot? Am I really doing this because it's what I love?' At the end of the day, I worked really, really hard to get to this point...and the only way I can prove it was worth it is to get to write something I really love."


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