HUNG creators Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin graciously shared their insider insights on screenwriting, series development, and SUCCESSFUL network pitching at a POWER UP workshop. They were profoundly inspiring in their passion for their craft and the joy (and challenge) of bringing their work to an audience.
To be honest, it was startling when they first walked into the room. I thought Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes were making a surprise visit. Seriously, Burson & Lipkin really resemble Winslet & Mendes! Throughout the evening, I kept having the sense that we were seeing the American version of that very creative and powerful British POWER COUPLE.
Burson and Lipkin were originally scheduled to appear at the POWER UP 2Day TV Writer/Producer Intensive workshop in September but were unable to attend. Being the committed, supportive artists that they are, they rescheduled and presented the evening of 22 October at the Production Office of Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) and Alex Kondracke (the L word). Their production office was very dramatic — lots of brick, high ceilings, amazing wood accents — trés urban chic. Robinson and Kondracke are previous POWER UP grantees. Being in their space provided additional subtext to an already exciting event. There was a feeling of “great-POWER-UP-connections-equals-great-success” wafting through the autumn air.
Burson and Lipkin spoke about their bumpy road to success. Appropriately, Burson commented that success in the film and TV business is NOT like the male orgasm. “It’s not that you write the perfect script, meet the right person and suddenly your career shoots straight ahead,” said Burson miming something we might see on HUNG. She squinted her eyes slightly and began feeling the area all around her. Then, she grinned and said, “You try this, you write that, you talk to these people, you rewrite again and take another meeting. A career in this business is a lot more like the female orgasm!” Everyone in the room laughed in agreement and understanding.
Russian-born Lipkin was a successful New York playwright who decided to move to LA to launch a career writing for television and film. To get started, he took a class through the UCLA extension to motivate himself to complete a spec script. He shared how he used that script to get an agent at CAA and how that agent got him meetings with producers. After a couple of frustrating YEARS, they asked him to write something original. He did. Happily. Not too long after that, he came up with the idea for THE RICHES. Then, a serendipitous meeting with a new executive at Maverick Studios and a cigarette break with Eddie Izzard led the creation of his first series … which was derailed by the writer’s strike after the first season. See, there it is, the female orgasm. Never a straight shot. (Variety has a nice summary of the path to HUNG for Tennessee Wolf Pack Productions — the Burson/Lipkin brand.) In their downtime during the strike, Burson and Lipkin came up with the idea for HUNG, a half-hour comedy that Lipkin said he was looking particularly excited about because longer shows can become a bit “Balkanized.” So Eastern European, so erudite.
During their presentation, husband and wife shared about the ways they balance their family life (two children) and their work life. Burson also talked about her love of writing about a specific milieu. She gave an example of the changing milieu around the “politics of water.” Burson observed that over the years, the wealthy have begun to acquire all of the land around water … around oceans, lakes, rivers and streams … making it difficult for the average family to have access to water. They used this in the development of HUNG. Burson and Lipkin decided that main character, Ray, would have waterfront property because it had been handed down by his family, but he would be surrounded by McMansions and condescending, surly neighbors. This increased the dramatic tension for Ray and allowed Burson/Lipkin to explore this shifting “water milieu.”
Similarly, Lipkin explored the milieu of the American Gypsy in THE RICHES, a story about a character born into a family of thieves and con artist who wants to go straight. It was fascinating listening the them discuss story creation and character development.
Burson & Lipkin’s Writing Recommendations:
- Life is long and your writing will evolve. You want your writing psyche to be fierce as possible to work in this business.
- Young writers often think they have a writing “style.” This is often just a writing rut. Strengthen your writing by working on new things.
- Always be thinking: What does the character want that they cannot have and what is he/she doing to move toward it?
- Know the Dramatic Question for the series, the Major Character Arcs and the Thematic Question for the individual show. Episodes that connect to all three will be more satisfying for the audience.
- Currency is this town is ideas, we sell ideas, not scripts or shows.
Burson & Lipkin’s Pitching Recommendations:
- Pitching is a tool for you. It helps you find what is dramatic, exciting and engaging as you speak it to others.
- You pitch a series thematically. You pitch the story engine and the structure of the typical episode.
- Practice your pitch. Role play it.
- Be yourself in the pitch room. They want to know you’re sharp, have a wide range of interests, are well-versed in numerous topics AND you are going to be easy to work with.
- One way to begin a pitch is to mention well-known incident related to your story to engage the listener (remember a few years ago when a woman was slapping her child in a parking lot and it was discovered she was a “Traveller” … an American Gypsy?) If they recall, continue with facts to deepen your connection to the story, then reveal your characters and milieu.
Burson & Lipkin’s Networking Recommendations:
- Network, network, network. Luck comes from unexpected avenues from surprising people.
- As relative newcomers, they spoke to the difficulty in breaking into the industry and, while they want to give people an opportunity, it can be difficult because of the inherent risk of an unknown quantity. They praised HBO, (“God Bless HBO,” they intoned over and over again) for their support for HUNG.
- People remember. They told an amusing story about a writer they tracked for over TWELVE YEARS because they liked his work.
- While doing a short film for POWER UP (after she’d already done a feature), Burson joked that there were days she thought it should be called Power Down but went on to say she learned a lot and was grateful for the break.
This completion to the already inspiring POWER UP Workshop was fabulous! I’m looking forward to seeing the couple at the Power Premiere on November 1 … it should be an excellent opportunity to hear more about what they’re up to! Besides, I’m anxious to hear more about their son, Wolfe, a young man with a passion for self-direction already! Couldn’t happen to a nicer couple!
Other posts of interest:
Don’t Read the POWER Up Summaries
Workshop Day Two
Workshop Day One
POWER Up Changed Alec’s Life (and mine, too)