Savannah Dooley, a 24- year-old writer in Los Angeles, just moved back home with her mother.
Dooley is bunking with mom again for expediency, but she is hardly an example of the recession-fueled trend of “boomerang” kids who can’t support themselves. Dooley moved back home because she and her mother, Winnie Holzman, have been handed a 10-episode order for a new dramedy series, “Huge,” on ABC Family. They’ve been spending so much time together writing scripts that once the lease on Dooley’s apartment ran out, it just seemed to make sense for her to move back home for a while.
“It’s sort of a sitcom around here,” Holzman jokes. Dooley sounds like a proud daughter, emphasizing how much they are in synch, as roommates and as writing partners.
“Our tastes are so much alike, and our style of writing is so much alike,” Dooley says. “It really is a joy to work with her.”
Holzman is an accomplished TV, film and legit scribe, known as the creator/exec producer of “My So-Called Life,” among other shows, and for penning the book for the smash hit tuner “Wicked.” But “Huge,” based on the book by Sasha Paley, was largely shepherded to its series pickup by Dooley, who began working on it while she was still a student at Bennington College in Vermont. (She graduated in 2007).
The project came to Dooley through a longtime family friend, multihyphenate Robin Schiff, who at present is an exec producer on ABC Family’s “10 Things I Hate About You.” ABC Family wanted to adapt Paley’s book, which follows the lives of six teens who attend a weight-loss summer camp, as a telepic.
Schiff was interested in directing the project but was not as eager to tackle the screenplay adaptation. Having been a writing mentor to Dooley for years, Schiff had a feeling that the bright young woman would be a perfect fit with the material. Schiff and Dooley worked out the pitch and story outline, and then Dooley delivered a script that went over very well with ABC Family brass. But everything ground to a halt when the writers strike ensued in November 2007.
After the picket signs came down, Dooley began working with a different writing partner on a number of projects, and she also spent time developing ideas and scripts with her mother. Dooley was tapped by CBS to tackle a script for a pilot that never got off the ground but proved to be an invaluable learning experience.
“They were having us turn drafts around in a week,” Dooley said. “It was a fun ride.”
From her vantage point, Holzman could see that no matter how much she and others tried to explain the development process to Dooley, there’s no better way than to learn by doing.
“Just doing a lot of writing in a short amount of time is one of the best ways to become a better writer,” Holzman says.
Eventually, ABC Family came back to Dooley and Schiff with a surprising idea: The cabler wanted to do “Huge” as a series rather than a telepic. Dooley was eager to dive in but Schiff was now occupied by “10 Things.” They would need a seasoned TV writer-producer to get the show on its feet. Schiff once again had a strong instinct on who might be just right for the job, even though she also knew that Holzman wasn’t pursuing TV work.
“It was a V8 moment,” she says. “Savannah and I already realized we really, really loved working together, and suddenly here was this great opportunity.”
On a formal basis, Holzman is on board to exec produce the first episode and serve as a consultant on the rest; Schiff is also on board as a consulting producer, while Dooley will serve as a producer working with a head writer,
Gayle Abrams, and another exec producer, Kim Rozenfeld.
While Holzman wanted to make sure she had the flexibility in her deal with ABC Family to move on to other projects if she desired, she indicated that she intends to keep her focus on “Huge” for now.
“We have surprisingly few arguments,” Holzman says. “This (show) has brought us even closer because it’s been very touching to me to realize that we now have this much more in common. When you’re a mother raising a child, you’re not thinking ‘Someday this is going to be my writing partner.’ ”
For such a young scribe, Dooley has an impressive ability to write characters with great depth and clear subtext to the situation she portrays, says Kate Juergens, ABC Family’s exec veep of original programming and development.
“It’s so rare that writers are able to tell you what’s going on below the dialogue,” Juergens says. “The first thing of (Dooley’s) that I read was something she’d written when she was 19, and it was there even then. She’s just got an amazing skill level.”
Dooley can barely remember a time when she didn’t want to be a writer. “I tried to write a screenplay when I was 11. And I wanted to be hailed for being the youngest screenwriter ever,” she says. “For every year that went by and I didn’t finish the script, I’d say to myself, ‘Well, you’re still pretty young.’ ”
Dooley, of course, has had a front row seat to the highs and lows of the life of a showbiz scribe. She doesn’t have strong memories of the hubbub that surrounded “My So-Called Life” in the 1994-95 season, but is well aware of the heartbreak her mother endured. The ABC series about a teenage girl, played by Claire Danes, was praised to the skies by critics but low-rated, and its cancellation sparked an impressive grassroots “Save ‘My So-Called Life’ ” campaign in the days before the Internet could easily drive such efforts.
“I’ve been watching my mom deal with production and with writing my whole life,” she says. “I think being around it has helped me understand the craft a lot. And I think some of it has been passed through my DNA.”