What it's like to be a young writer working with Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson

Andrew Chambliss is one of the most successful young writers in television — he's written some of the most memorable episodes of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse and The Vampire Diaries. He told us what it's like to work with genre legends.

When did you first become a science fiction/fantasy fan? And what's your favorite scifi/fantasy that you haven't worked on?

I've been a scifi/fantasy fan as long as I can remember. Being a child of the 80s, my love for sci-fi started with Star Wars (and yes back then I loved Ewoks more than anything else – how things change, right?) was subsidized with a healthy dose of He-man, Thundercats, Transformers and the like.

Seriously, I watched a lot of TV as a kid. The first movie I saw in a theater was The Neverending Story – and I've been told it made quite an impression on me at the time, which I'm apt to believe since I can still recite the movie word for word and am embarrassed to admit that I tear up when I think about Artex dying. This love for sci-fi and fantasy continued as I grew up – Star Trek: TNG, The X-Files, Buffy, Alias, and on and on…

I'm sorry that I missed out on the chance to work on Star Trek: TNG. TNG is the TV show that completely pulled me into its world. It's the first television show where I felt like I really knew the characters as people. The first con I went to was for TNG and I can still remember how excited I was because I got to meet Marina Sirtis. I would have loved to have written a moment like Picard's reveal as Locutus at the end of "Best of Both Worlds Part 1." And Data – who wouldn't want to write for Data?

What made you want to be a writer? And a T.V. writer specifically?

Reading Ray Bradbury made me want to be a writer. When I was in middle school, I couldn't get enough of his short stories –- I've probably read The Martian Chronicles cover-to-cover ten times. I briefly entertained the idea of being a novelist – and even made several aborted attempts — but quickly realized that I didn't have the patience for it. Plus, I loved movies and television so much that I decided it made more sense to study film and pursue screenwriting than to toil away on a novel I might never finish.

But it wasn't until I was studying screenwriting at NYU that I actually considered writing for television. It's funny because shows like Buffy, the X-Files and Star Trek all played a huge part to my desire to be a writer, but it never occurred to me that I should pursue a career in television to write for those kinds of shows. I think part of the attitude among so many students at film school was that screenwriting was the holy grail and television writing was somehow beneath that.

It wasn't until I interned with the script coordinator at Law & Order that I realized that attitude was totally bogus – in television, writers see their work produced on a regular basis and the writers are in charge! Why wouldn't I want to write for television? Especially when genre shows had meant so much to me growing up? As soon as I had this realization, I shifted my entire focus onto television writing, took every television class the department offered, and moved out to LA a few days after graduation.

You won a Alfred P. Sloan film school award (an award that students from a half-dozen colleges are eligible for that focuses on scripts and films that portray the sciences and scientists) your senior year of college. Was that your first stepping stone to writing scifi?

I probably would have ended up writing scifi without the Sloan competition, but it gave me a push in that direction – at the very least it made me realize that people think science is cool. It validated the science nerd in me (which is no small part).

One of the coolest things to come out of winning a Sloan award was the opportunity to attend a small festival they held with the Tribeca Film Institute the year after I won. Not only did I get to meet a bunch of other Sloan winners who shared my interesting all things science, but the Sloan foundation brought in a number of scientists to talk to us about rooting our fiction in actual science. So I end up sitting in a room, listening to people like Brian Greene and James Watson talk about their views on science and how we can use our medium to captivate and interest people in what they do. What's more inspiring than listening to one of the scientists who discovered the shape of DNA? I definitely walked away from that panel feeling like I had a responsibility to stand up to that challenge.

N

What it's like to be a young writer working with Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson

ow to be honest – and remember that the point of the Sloan Foundation is to encourage writers to accurately portray real life science – I haven't written on any shows where accurate science is the name of the game. I mean, I don't think anyone believes that we're a few steps away from Dollhouse brain tech. At least I hope not. But in Dollhouse, I do think we managed to explore some of the issues that real life scientists face – issues of moral responsibility to their creations. Once Epitaph One established the end results of the Dollhouse tech, we were able to study how it affected the people who created it – particularly through Topher and Adelle's journeys in season 2. So in a sense, I think this is an example where science fiction is accomplishing what the Sloan Foundation sets out to achieve.

How different is it writing scripts in workshops or specs, versus writing for a show that is in production?

In one word — DEADLINES. When you're on a show, the train is always moving. Production is always going to need a script every eight days so they have something to shoot. So that means you don't have the luxury of sitting around and thinking about the hundred different directions every story can take. You have to make decisions and find ways to make the decisions work.

When you're writing a spec all by your lonesome, you don't have looming deadlines and it's very easy to get paralyzed by all the ways you can go. And whenever I try to impose fake deadlines on myself when I'm working on a spec, I can never quite take it as seriously as when an entire production crew is waiting for a script.

What it's like to be a young writer working with Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson

Okay, I lied when I said I could name the difference in one word. I'm going to use two more words right here – THE ROOM. And to be honest, this is the thing that makes writing under tight deadlines possible. There's nothing like working with a room full of talented writers to break story, find solutions to script problems, and often times split writing duties to get a script written quickly. When you're writing a spec script on your own, you have to do all these things by yourself – which is possible, but often takes much longer, involves banging your head against the wall a lot more, and is generally much lonelier.

I've been fortunate to have worked in some great rooms — Joss put an amazing room together on Dollhouse, the same with Steve DeKnight on Spartacus, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more talented, hardworking, and fun group than the writers I spend my days with at Vampire Diaries. Everyone ends up bringing their own strengths and particular talents to the room so you end up learning a great deal about writing from your colleagues.

In this way, a writers room functions as a de facto, on-the-job writing workshop. I definitely owe a great deal of my growth as a writer over the past four years to my wiser and more experienced colleagues.

You were an assistant to Tim Kring on the first season of Heroes and then a writer for Bionic Woman. Was the transition between assistant and writer difficult?

It's always hard to make the jump from assistant to writer, and I feel very fortunate to have made the leap when I did. I had signed with my agent shortly after I started working for Tim on Heroes. During the first half of the season as Tim's assistant, I was building up my portfolio so that by the time staffing season rolled around I had a few specs of existing shows and a pilot that my agent was sending around town. At the same time, I was also soaking up everything I could about running a show from working for and watching Tim on the first season of Heroes.

During staffing season, my spec pilot was well received, and I ended up meeting with showrunners for pilots that were in contention for pickup for the following season – one of which was Bionic Woman. I still owe a lot to Glen Morgan and David Eick for taking a chance on me. When I met with them for Bionic Woman, I had no credits to my name, other than a few Heroes comics. A few days later, I got the call from my agent that every aspiring writer wants to hear – they're hiring you on staff. Yay, let's celebrate. Then, the panic set in – don't screw this up!

Fortunately, the actual transition into the job wasn't as difficult as I had anticipated. The biggest shift for me was from spending my entire day thinking about what someone else needed to be doing to thinking about what I needed to be doing – which was coming up with story to pitch. More fun than answering phones and keeping a schedule, but not necessarily easier. There's a correct way to connect a call to your boss, but finding the right story for Jamie Sommers isn't necessarily as easy to figure out. If it had been easier, maybe the show would have lasted a little longer…

Bionic Woman had a great staff that really helped with the transition. Glenn Morgan was running the show at the time and made me feel right at home. Jason Smilovic was also one of the EPs and took me under his wing. Even though Bionic Woman was short-lived and had some bumps along the way, I ended up working with some great writers and producers – Glen Morgan, Jason Smilovic, Jason Katims, David Eick – and learned a lot from each one.

You've worked with Joss Whedon, Jane Espenson, and Tim Kring. Have you ever had a total fanboy moment when you were, "Oh my god, I'm in a room with these people?"

What it's like to be a young writer working with Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson

I think my biggest fanboy moment was when Joss called to welcome me to Dollhouse just after my deal had closed. Mind you, the time from when I met with Joss, Liz Craft and Sarah Fain to when I was officially on board the show was less than 24 hours so I still hadn't processed how cool it was that I was working for the man who created Buffy, and here I was talking to him on the phone.

All that was going through my head as the conversation started was – "Don't say anything stupid… are you being clever enough… don't say anything stupid…" but Joss has a way of instantly making you feel comfortable when you talk to him so all that anxiety disappeared, and we chatted for a bit about the show, and finally he told me what time to report to work the next morning before saying goodbye. When I got off the phone, it finally sunk in that this was really happening, Joss was my boss and I was going to be writing for Dollhouse the next day.

I've had some smaller fan boy moments along the way. Being a huge fan of Star Trek TNG, I geeked out when Jonathan Frakes directed an episode of Dollhouse – especially when Michael Dorn showed up to visit him on set. Just imagine Commander Riker and Worf standing in the middle of the Dollhouse – it was like some sort of weird, fanfic mashup.

I've also had a lot of fun working with writers like Glen Morgan, Darin Morgan and John Shiban from The X-Files. Having John Shiban on The Vampire Diaries writing staff has been a blast this season – especially since I'm working my way through The X-files again on my Netflix instant streaming. It's amazing to be able to go into work and have discussions with a writer who broke and wrote the episode I watched the night before (yes, we've had many discussions about Badlaa and where the idea for the butt genie came from).

It seems like you've often been one of the younger (youngest?) writers in the room. Has that been a challenge?

I was pretty lucky to get staffed on Bionic Woman as young as I was (I think I was the youngest by two or three years), but I wasn't treated any differently because of my age. In my head, I might have been wondering if people took me less seriously because I was the youngest writer in the room but at the end of the day a good idea is a good idea so the room or a good EP isn't going to ignore it because of the age of the person who pitches it. But all that anxiety was on me, and I tried to squash that as quickly as possible so I wouldn't psych myself out. I definitely think that I've gained a lot more confidence in the past three or four years but I think that comes more from experience rather than getting older.

Again, you've worked with some really amazing writers and producers, what do you think the most important thing you've learned is?

Wow, I think the question is what haven't I learned? But if I have to boil it down…

In terms of writing, the most important thing I've learned – and this is a mantra that's been imprinted into my head – is character, character, character. The coolest plot twist, the funniest line, the biggest scare won't mean a thing to the audience unless it's rooted in and means something to the characters in the show. The first question Joss would always ask when he was trying to wrap his head around a pitch was "What does it mean for the characters?" If you had a good answer to that question, he'd be onboard.

What it's like to be a young writer working with Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson

Likewise, Kevin Williamson always asks us a similar question when we pitch ideas for Vampire Diaries — "Is this really how the characters would act?" If the answer is no in the given situation, then we're probably trying to make something work because it benefits the story but doesn't stay true to the characters. It becomes a false beat that's not servicing who the characters are.

As different and Joss and Kevin are stylistically, their attention to character is what makes their shows as good as they are, and I think this is why they've both had success in television. At the end of the day, TV is about characters — developing and exploring them over the long haul. That's why people tune in week after week. I'm fortunate that I've been able to work with writers who won't let me forget that.

You've worked on two sci-fi shows (Bionic Woman, Dollhouse) and are now working on a fantasy show (Vampire Diaries). Is there a difference between writing for sci-fi and fantasy? (i.e. Is one more restrictive than the other, are there stories that you can only tell in one genre, etc.)

At the end of the day, I don't think science fiction is any more or less restrictive than fantasy or vice-versa. Dollhouse and Vampire Diaries at their core are both shows about characters – and all the trappings of the world are just ways to explore those characters. In Dollhouse, we explored the characters and issues of identity via brain imprinting tech. In Vampire Diaries, we explore the characters via vampires, werewolves and the supernatural.

The one good thing about both genres is that you get to create the worlds for your characters to inhabit. It's not like a cop show, a lawyer show, a doctor show where there are certain real life constructs that you have to stay faithful to – in science fiction, if you need some sort of tech, you make it up. In fantasy, if you need a centuries old curse, you make it up. Maybe I write science fiction and fantasy because I don't know enough about being a cop or a lawyer or a doctor, but I like to think I write it because it's more fun.

Vampire Diaries is based on a book series, while Dollhouse was original. Is there a different process involved when you're "adapting" a book series for television? Or does the show not follow the books?

We don't follow The Vampire Diaries book series closely, so the writing process isn't that different from what I experienced on Dollhouse.

I know you haven't really worked on one, but do you get the sense that the writing process is different for non-genre shows?

I don't think the writing process is that different on non-genre shows. When you're breaking a story, you're still going to need to find all the same things – a story that means something to the characters, a story that has enough turns in it to sustain an hour of television, and a story that feels like there's a reason to tell it. Like I mentioned before, the only difference is the world the story takes place in and the rules you have to follow in that world.

You wrote some great episodes of Dollhouse (Spy in the House of Love, Public Eye, Stop Loss — and with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, Epitaph Two). But Spy in the House of Love really stands out: we get the wonderful repartee between Victor and DeWitt, some great spy/thriller action pieces and Echo volunteering to be imprinted. There are a lot of reversals in this episode: were they difficult to keep track of or get just right, or was it just as fun to write as to watch?

A Spy in the House of Love was my first produced episode of television, so I'm glad it was so well received. The process of writing it was fairly quick so there wasn't a lot of time to step back and say, "Wow, this overlapping, multiple-POV episode is complicated to break."

With the room, I had originally broken and outlined an episode that dealt with Topher having to leave the Dollhouse with Dominic to "brain-nap" his mentor, a neurology professor who was developing competing Dollhouse tech for the government. There was a lot of fun run-and-jump stuff, some cool character beats where Topher started to question his amoral view of science, but at the end of the day that episode wasn't pushing the season arc forward and also wasn't pushing Echo's development as an individual.

So Joss and Tim Minear came into my office with the idea of doing an episode that would follow multiple engagements – almost like a Dollhouse version of Conversations with Dead People – and push the development of multiple characters.

Over the next day or so, the idea of self-contained engagements turned into overlapping engagements that would lead to the discovery of the Dollhouse mole. Once we knew what those individual stories were, Joss and I went to dinner to structure the episode. Then, I went home and spent the night writing an outline. Went into work, got feedback from Joss, cleaned up the outline and was sent off to script.

What it's like to be a young writer working with Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson

I wrote the first draft over Thanksgiving weekend so, like I said before, the writing was pretty quick. The biggest challenge was finding the touchstone moments that would serve to anchor each engagement in the timeline. I had to establish all those moments in the first act with Echo and then find ways to show them from another character's POV in each subsequent act – this ended up being things like Victor's cross with Dominatrix Echo in the parking garage, Echo waving to Mellie on the balcony, Sierra and Dominic crossing with Echo on the bridge…

What made the script so much fun to write was that each act was its own genre. The first act with Echo was intrigue, the second act with Paul was a paranoid thriller, the third act with Sierra was a action movie, the fourth act with Victor was a romance, and the fifth act with spy-hunter Echo was an interrogation. As soon as I got tired of one genre, it was time to move onto the next.

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were starting out as a television writer?

When I was first moved to LA, I wish someone had told me to write the thing that excited me the most – the thing that I thought nobody else could write but me. I spent time writing specs and pilots that didn't go anywhere because I was writing what I thought people wanted to read.

Being able to write in other people's voices is an important skill to have as a television writer when you're on staff, but it's a bit of a double-edged sword – when studios, networks and showrunners are reading material for staffing season, they need someone who can write in the voice of their show but – and more importantly – they need someone who has a voice of their own and a POV to bring to the writing staff. This is what aspiring television writers need to demonstrate in their writing samples – and it's not something you're going to achieve if you're not writing in your own voice.

When I finally started writing the things I wanted to write – the things I knew I could write – my scripts started to get traction and eventually led to my first job.

What do you think your greatest strength as a writer is?

This is starting to sound like I'm meeting with a showrunner for a job, but let me see if I can find a way to answer that doesn't sound like I'm selling myself too strongly. The way I start a lot of my writing, especially when I'm writing something original, is by reading everything I can about a particular subject. I'm fairly good at synthesizing this knowledge and incorporating it into my writing in a way that's interesting and sounds believable – for instance, while I was working on Dollhouse, I read everything I could get my hands on about neuro-plasticity. Because of this, I ended up writing lots of Topher's techno-babble when it was needed. This also lends itself to developing plot concepts – for instance, the idea for planting a camera in Echo's eye in the cult episode came out of an article I had read about the changes a person's brain undergoes when they lose their sight. I think that science fiction is at its most interesting when it's rooted in reality – even if it's just the original kernel of the idea that's rooted in reality.

Lots of genre television writers seem to work in other media (novels, games, movies, and especially comics). Is this something you've considered doing or would be interested in?

Hmm, I don't think I have the patience for novel writing, but everything else you mentioned is definitely in my game plan. I grew up on Marvel during the comic craze in the early 90s, did a bit of comic writing on Heroes, and definitely plan on getting back into that world. I have a few ideas for original comic series that I've outlined. I just need time to write the scripts.

I'm also a bit of gamer. Okay, more than a bit – I may be developing a very serious addiction. I actually play on X-Box Live with the writing staff of another genre TV show, but I won't give them up. Writing is all about procrastination, right? Everyone has to procrastinate.

I've only gotten back into the gaming world in the past year and a half, and I've been impressed with how sophisticated the storytelling has gotten. I love the Fallout series and would love to be a part of shaping that world in one form or another (ever since I wrote Epitaph 2 with Jed and Mo, I've been kind of obsessed with the apocalypse – fictional, not real). Fallout's combination of "gee-whiz-1950s-futurism" and bleak post-apocalyptic world hits a sweet spot for me (remember, Ray Bradbury is a huge reason I wanted to be a writer). If Bethesda wants someone to have a go at a Fallout TV series, I'm their man.

And movies, yeah – it's what I originally thought I'd be writing when I was at NYU before I became enamored by the world of television. Definitely something I want to do, but at the moment I'm having a blast in television, loving what can be done with longform storytelling, and working with a bunch of ridiculously talented writers. I'm not ready to walk away from that yet – or even take a break.