John Wells remembers minorities
As Allison Janney strides hurriedly down a long hallway in TV’s version of the White House’s West Wing, a Steadicam operator moonwalking ahead of her, she passes just a few feet from the still, compact figure of Jessica Yu, who is intently watching the shot on a monitor. Yu, a month into an internship on the show, barely blinks as Janney breezes by; Janney’s fellow actor John Spencer, however, jumps up from a seat near Yu. His character, presidential chief of staff Leo McGarry, needs a word with Janney’s. ”Oh, C.J.!” he rasps, popping into view on the video feed. ”Mention that the HUD secretary’s announcing changes….”
As C.J. heads for a press conference (en route, she’s also beset by West Wing regulars Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff), we’re seeing yet another ”walk and talk” on a show that’s made an art of such handheld-camera gavottes. While the shot heads into its second continuous minute, Yu reveals a small, resolute grin. Making TV doesn’t get much trickier than this — and sometime this season, it will be apprentice director Yu’s turn to try.
You may remember Jessica Yu from her moment on stage at the 1997 Oscars, claiming her statuette for best short documentary (Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien) with the quip ”You know you’ve entered new territory when your outfit cost more than your film.” That film, about a writer confined to an iron lung, led to other well-received documentaries and such paydays as a Hyundai ad campaign but was no quick ticket to the kind of big-time directing jobs that an Oscar would seem to promise. Yu, 34, disdains complaining. Still, she notes, ”it’s true that if you’re a woman and a minority and you’re trying to pitch yourself as a first-time feature director, people are always looking for a reason to say no. That’s why concrete experience is so important. That’s the only thing you can present to somebody — to say, ‘This is what I do.”’
Enter producer John Wells and his production company’s internship program, announced just this past June, for female and minority directors. While he’s relied on such film veterans as Jonathan Kaplan for episodes of his No. 1 drama ER, and seasoned Aaron Sorkin collaborator Thomas Schlamme for episodes of the Emmy-winning The West Wing, Wells has been feeling a need for what the internship program addresses: a way to fill a highly specialized directorial spot with fresh talent. The program also comes in the wake of stinging criticism last fall from the NAACP about television’s casting ”whitewash,” and, in particular, the failure of The West Wing’s producers to have included one major African-American character in this very left-wing administration. ”We screwed up,” said Sorkin (who created and is coexecutive producer of the White House drama) at the time; ”…our cast in The West Wing is awfully white.” In response to the criticism, he and Wells recruited young black actor Dule Hill to portray a personal aide to the President (played, it’s true, by Latino activist Sheen), hired John Amos as an admiral heading the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and this season will bring in Anna Deavere Smith (The American President) to play the fictional administration’s national security advisor.
Given Wells’ own statement that ”we should have workplaces that reflect what America looks like,” his mandate for the internship program is to help break the white male lock that exists behind the camera in much of TV production. ”It’s a sad commentary,” says Wells, ”that it’s difficult to find qualified minority people to give them a shot. It’s a limited pool because there aren’t enough people getting the initial opportunity.” After failing to find experienced minority directors, says Wells, ”we figured if they weren’t out there, we would, like any good business, train them.”
For aspirants, it should be noted that the Wells program has a narrow gateway. The producers scouted and contacted Yu themselves — ”We were familiar with her work and she just seemed a natural candidate for this,” recalls Wells — and Yu’s two peers were hardly neophytes. Scott Sanders, 32, an African American who was an assistant at United Talent Agency but lost his job when his boss left, was signed to UTA a month later as a writer when his 1992 spec script for the series Roc drew some TV offers. Seeing how directors constantly fell by the wayside (leaving new slots to fill) if they shot one weak feature, Sanders ”reinvented” himself as an auteur and adapted a book into a script called Thick as Thieves, which caught Alec Baldwin’s attention (he eventually costarred with Andre Braugher). After a 24-day, $5.7 million shoot, and a good reception at Sundance, Sanders laughs at the luxuries of ER, where NBC shells out $13 million for each original episode. Sanders was chosen after pitching Wells, whose TV production company also had a film arm, to produce his script for an adaptation of the comic novel My Search for Warren Harding. He’s vowed not to pick a directing job ”off the rack” until he can get Harding mounted, and says he wouldn’t be interested in TV if he weren’t the director on one of Wells’ shows. ”The only way is being with the top dog with a top one-hour drama,” notes Sanders.
After a career of directing for the stage, Julie Hebert had a feature pitch in to Wells when she was tapped. She’s from Louisiana’s Cajun country, and though she once directed an all-black Fool for Love, she says, ”I’m an aging woman, that’s my minority.” (She declines to reveal her age.) Hebert’s begun writing for Third Watch even as she watches ER shoot. ”On ER they are so familiar with what they are doing as a group, you get out about 7 in the evening; West Wing, you might get out at 11; on Third Watch, you shoot all night.” Despite the latter show’s new skew toward character over action, she hopes she’ll get some chops that will help her down the line in features: ”I really want to know how to destroy things, blow up cars, all that stuff.”
The intern program’s present trio are each currently observing a slate of six episodes, mixed and matched from among the three shows. Yu began first and should shoot her episode — whether for ER, The West Wing, or Third Watch is still to be determined — sometime this season. All three will surely get their shot, vows Schlamme: ”We weren’t going to say, ‘Well, we’ll give you a great meeting and you’re going to die of encouragement.’ We’re actually going to say, ‘We believe in you, now go and do it.”’
Back on the West Wing set, Yu looks around the Oval Office and muses on the ground to be gained in the months ahead. ”In this business, people won’t automatically give you the opportunity to do something new,” says Yu. ”If you’re not experienced doing exactly what they do, that’s an excuse to say no. What John Wells is doing is eliminating that particular reason to say no. He’s doing it by taking a risk and investing in people who would normally not get a chance.”
What? You haven’t won an Oscar, you say? Don’t fret. As with the trio in the Wells program, the climb up the Hollywood ladder of success often starts at the keyboard. Here, a list of programs for fledgling TV and film writers:
AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE
Mimi Leder, David Lynch, and Ed Zwick count themselves among the 2,600 graduates of AFI’s respected conservatory. Fellows at the Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies take part in specialized filmmaking training including writing, directing, producing, and more. Contact www.afionline.org, or call 323-856-7600.
WARNER BROS. WRITERS PROGRAM
This program was launched in the ’70s and revamped in the late ’80s. The Comedy Writing Workshop (graduates include the ‘Friends’ team of Jeff Astrof and Mike Sikowitz) is a 10-week training program in the half-hour sitcom form. Each year about 25 of the 600 applicants are selected and pay $495 tuition. The offshoot Dramatic Writing Program (from which Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb emerged to do ‘Toy Story 2’) takes five weeks and costs $250. Required are a sample script for a current show and a $30 fee. Contact Warner Bros. Writers Workshop, 300 Television Plaza, Burbank, CA 91505, or call 818-954-7906.
THE WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA (WGA)
The Writers Training Program is geared to ”protected classes” such as women, minorities, the mentally or physically disabled, and the 40-or-older demo. Accepted applicants earn a standard $672 per week for their tenure of 6 to 20 weeks. (The WGA’s Employment Access Program will assist with a list of shows and with placement.) Contact www.wga.org and click on “For Writers,” or call 323-951-4000 or 800-548-4532.
THE WALT DISNEY STUDIOS/ABC TV FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM
This Mouse House program selects eight or so writers annually who are paid $33,000 for a year (and $50,000 if brought back for a second year) as they’re put through their paces as TV or feature-film writers. (Malcolm Lee, writer-director-producer of The Best Man, is a graduate.) Contact members.tripod.com/disfel/, or call 818-560-6894.