Television writers were forced to adapt at the beginning of the pandemic by shifting to virtual writers’ rooms for what they were assured would be a temporary experience. As the months have dragged on, it has become clear that virtual rooms will be the standard for the foreseeable future.
The situation is not ideal. But some writers are finding advantages in the experience.
Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah, the co-showrunners of the upcoming Hulu series “The Girl From Plainville” starring Elle Fanning, from Universal Content Prods., agree that the freedom to work from anywhere has been beneficial to them and their writers.
“The need or obligation to be in Los Angeles to spend 10 hours a day in one room — obviously not having to do that, there’s benefits to it,” Hannah says. “And I think there are benefits in sort of a mental health way of ‘I can be wherever I want to be,’ rather than ‘This is where I need to be.’ So I definitely think that is an enormous advantage.”
To that end, Hannah says that three of the show’s writers, including Macmanus, are currently based on the East Coast. They have adjusted accordingly by stipulating that people on the West Coast must turn in work by the end of the day, while East Coasters must do so at the beginning. “I think it ends up making it a very productive room, because people are kind of always working,” she says.
But that productivity did not come right away. Macmanus says that he expected to be able to plug the same system he has
used for delivering scripts on time directly into the new method of working, but quickly learned that was not going to pay off.
“You just go batty online, so you have to cut the time [in the room] in half a little bit,” he says. “It has been a little bit of an adjustment over the course of the last couple of weeks to our calendars because of that aspect of it.”
DJ Nash, the creator and showrunner of “A Million Little Things” on ABC, agrees there are distinct advantages to the virtual writers’ room model. One is the ability to allow writers more full days to write and to simply check in with them at the beginning and end of the day rather than spending multiple hours online together. Another advantage Nash has enjoyed is breaking into smaller groups on a more regular basis.
“We’re in the big room if I need us to move story in some direction, or if I need to recap the block or a shift we’ve made that affects a bunch of episodes, but then, as quickly as possible, we break off into smaller rooms,” Nash says. “That actually has been great and very effective.”
The one thing Macmanus, Hannah and Nash agree on is that the camaraderie one normally finds when everyone is in the same place is seriously lacking online.
“Even though we may have had 8- to 10-hour writers’ rooms in the past when we were in person, quite a bit of that was really just sitting around and talking,” Macmanus says. “It is like a release valve of sorts that allows you to just sort of be for a bit. I’ve always found that the six hours of sitting around talking about little more than what was in [your] lunch and what [were] the headlines of CNN and MSNBC led to a lot of really good work in the two hours that were remaining in the day.”
While writers are one of the few segments of the production process whose workflow has not been completely upended by the pandemic, it is clear that even smaller-scale changes can have big impacts on the creative process.
Nash says that when the writers on his show, a drama about the effects of a sudden death on surviving friends, delve into real personal pain when coming up with story ideas, being together had meant he and the others in the room were there to form a “nurturing environment” to make it easier to share. That process is now significantly more difficult, given the constraints of meeting virtually.
He also says that there is more of a disconnect among writers than there has been in years past.
“There’s half of our staff I’ve never been in the room with,” he says. “I don’t know how tall they are, and yet I know so much about their lives. In some ways, it’s more personal because we’re literally in everyone’s house or apartment. But in some ways, we’re a little detached, because we don’t have the normal bonding approaches that we’ve taken the previous years.”