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An interview with Emmy winning writer of Band of Brothers ERIK BORK

Hi, Erik, you’re best known for your work on the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers which is the highest-rated TV Show on IMDb! You’ve also received a Primetime Emmy Award for the show. Can you let us know how did you land the job on such a prestigious TV show? I was fortunate enough to have already been working with Tom Hanks, who Executive Produced it, first as one of his assistants, and then as a writer and co-producer on the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, which he also Executive Produced. You wrote multiple episodes for Band of Brothers and you were also a part of the creative producing team, alongside executive producer Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Tell us a bit about your creative process for writing those episodes and what was it like to work with such legendary names in the industry? It was amazing to work with both of them. I’d worked with Tom Hanks for years at that point but was meeting Mr. Spielberg for the first time. Tom was so generous to me with opportunities and general good will and hilarious humor, and I was so impressed with Steven’s friendliness and passionate childlike enthusiasm for filmmaking. The creative process involved first deciding how many episodes there would be and which portion of Easy Company’s experience each would cover. Of course Steven Ambrose’s book was our main source material for that, plus additional interviews with some of the living veterans. Then it was about assigning a writer to each episode (eventually some of us worked on more than one). The episode outlines then scripts went through many drafts and rethinking in some cases, which is not unusual in the industry. As part of the producing team I had a seat at the table for most of the important meetings and decisions regarding the direction of the series and particular episodes as they took shape from script to production to post-production. i was definitely not the senior person at that table obviously or the main decision-maker. :-) It was a lot of work but also really cool to see how the episodes took shape, first on the page, then in working with the individual episode directors and cast and seeing how the amazing team of professionals brought it all to life on screen (production design, costumes, special FX, etc.). My role was mainly writing-related, working with the other writers, doing last minute rewrites sometimes, visiting the set and interacting with the directors, and later in the editing room as one of the producers working with the editors to finalize the cuts. Before you got your big break on Band of Brothers, how many spec scripts have you written and how did you learn the craft? I had written several spec features, mostly romantic comedies, which didn’t go anywhere initially, and three spec episodic half-hour scripts for the shows Frasier, Mad About You and Friends, the first of which got me my first agent, while I was still one of Tom Hanks’ assistants. Then Tom eventually read one or two of those sitcoms scripts before deciding to give me my big break, promoting me to help him with the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. I had gone to film school (BFA from Wright State University) which featured a little bit of screenwriting, but most of it I learned after that through trial and error and getting feedback from other aspiring writers, and using some books and theories of story structure and such that were available then. (Plus a few one-off classes at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program.) It felt for a long time like an impossible dream that I was not equal to, to be quite honest, even while working for Mr. Hanks, but getting my first agent was a huge boost of confidence. (That came about through a referral from a fellow assistant I’d worked with who had recently signed with her as a writer.) Besides your work on TV series, you’ve also written feature screenplays on assignment for companies like Universal, HBO, TNT, and Playtone. Can you let us know how the process of writing a screenplay on assignment works? What is the hardest part? Besides the normal challenges of writing that you’d have if it was on spec vs. an assignment, the big challenge is that you’re working collaboratively with those who have hired you (producers and executives for a studio and/or network), and they have a certain vision for what the project should be that you might not totally be in sync with or be able to deliver. Or it could be that nobody really has a clear vision and there’s a bit of fumbling in the dark. Either way, you’re ultimately needing to please particular people vs. writing something that you hope will find fans somewhere, which you’re doing when you write on spec. Basically how it works is pretty simple. Through the help of your agent, manager or a producer you’ve worked with before, you’re hooked up with a producer to either pitch your own idea or to be considered to be hired to write something they already have going. You meet and discuss the project and then hopefully a deal is made where you’re hired to start writing. You turn in material at various intervals for their feedback, usually an outline and later a first draft before rewriting to address their notes in subsequent drafts. How many years or projects did you feel you had to put in before you felt your projects were at a sellable level? I ask because a lot of writers want to sell the final draft of their first project. It took me bout 5-6 years, most of those working in the industry as an assistant, to have a script that could get me an agent and a first job writing. None of my scripts “sold” but they worked as writing samples for that purpose, which is usually how it works. Whether they were sellable or not, technically, they did lead to those two huge outcomes of representation and employment. Interestingly (and this is not uncommon) my first writing employment didn’t come through my agent but through my own contacts, namely Tom Hanks who was my boss in my “day job.” Although the agent had helped me perfect my craft with notes that led to me rewriting the scripts that eventually Mr. Hanks read. These representatives (starting with managers, which is usually where writers start today) can be huge in the impact they have on what you write and the notes they give, so that your material has a better chance of impressing the “buyers” (producers and executives) when it gets to them. I think a lot of writers have a misconception about simply sitting down and having great writing come forth from their fingertips. Do you have a specific process or method where you work your material up to the professional level? Research? Outlines? Treatments? Beat sheets? All of the above. Writing the actual script is the last phase of the process and it stands on the shoulders of the foundational work which is key to get right. Perfecting the idea, then the story structure, and figuring out scenes on an outline/treatment level are all part of my process and are common among professionals and even required when you’re writing on assignment. For me good scene writing usually only comes as a result of having done that prior work so that when you’re writing the scene you know basically what’s supposed to happen in it and how it ties into everything else. Tell us a bit about your daily habits as a writer. What’s an average day like for you? I give myself a four-hour block for writing every weekday afternoon. Truth be told some of that time can be spent either procrastinating or getting in the right frame of mind for ideas to flow, which is usually what’s needed and not the frame of mind I sat down in! I like to know what each day’s task and goal is ahead of time, and that it’s an achievable and acceptable amount of daily progress. And even if I only end up actually writing for an hour, if the product of that is good in my eyes, I’m okay with that. But it’s important to me to set out that same block of time every day, that opening in my schedule where this is what I’m going to be doing (or trying to do, or preparing to do, or sort of doing but not really getting anywhere yet). But remember writing doesn’t mean writing scenes necessarily. It’s anything that advances a project you’re working on. It can be brainstorming on what your next idea is going to be. And it can happen while driving, walking, showering, etc. For me the best process is to first get myself in that light-hearted, curious, no-pressure state of mind from which good ideas tend to come, and then lightly considering what I want to achieve next. What do I want? An idea for the next project? The next scene? More understanding of a character? Figure out what’s in my first act? How to get into a certain scene? Whatever it is (unless it’s about rereading and critiquing prior work) the key seems to be suspending some of the critical mind that tends to attack my own work or lack of good ideas flowing, so that they can then start to flow. Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you overcome it? I never get something long-term and crippling that goes on for days. It’s more a daily battle to overcome “resistance” as The War of Art puts it, using the process described above. And writing “through” the “block” of not knowing what’s next and having no good ideas, by writing about that, even just in a Word document I call “notes” on the project, and by self-talk, by playful exploration, by moving onto something else. There are a variety of tricks but the goal is always the same: get out of the self-loathing lazy uninspired mind and into a better one. From a craft standpoint, what do you feel is the hardest part about getting a screenplay where it needs to be? Coming up with an idea that is truly viable to begin with, that has all the elements and ingredients that could make it really work if it’s well executed. Do you ever get discouraged and why? What keeps you going? Every day. See above. It’s kind of like a daily zen practice, for me, being a writer, having to practice non-attachment, get out of the ego, stop second guessing and just do the work. Writers are often told to “find their voice”, but what exactly does that mean, and what would you suggest to writers to develop a “strong voice”? It’s about writing in a way that only you can write that makes you uniquely you. You probably won’t discover it in your first few scripts or years of writing when you’re learning the craft, unless you’ve already been developing it through other creative disciplines and/or life experience. I’d say notice what you really love and who you’d like to emulate, not to copy them, but to see what really appeals to you and what wants to come through you. Your own personal obsessions, interests, tastes and approach to things. And trying to write what you can write really authentically and originally, while still observing the other conventions of good storytelling and writing that aren’t just about being unique. How have you grown as a writer over the years? What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started out? In terms of the craft and in terms of the career? It’s hard to quantify the growth but I know it’s there. I feel like I’m always learning and getting better in some ways. Probably not so much in other ways. One thing I’ve learned is that you have to have passion for what you’re writing, have to really believe in it, and it doesn’t work to chase the money or opportunities professionally if those things aren’t there. In terms of craft, I think learning to trust my instincts has taken time, which I have combined with learning so much about just what makes good stories, scenes and characters work. You’ve been in the screenwriting business for a long time. How do you think building a career as a professional screenwriter is different today than it was 10 or 20 years ago? What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in the industry over your career so far? A couple big changes are that writers usually need managers first and then agents, and it used to be just agents. Another is the fragmentation of the audience in TV with all the different outlets for shows, which means more potential buyers and more ability to write “niche” audience shows that don’t have to appeal to every single American because it’s on at 9 PM on NBC and there are only 3-4 networks people can watch. This doesn’t mean it’s easier for writers to break in, unfortunately, or to make a lot of money. But once you’re in, there is that wider possibility creatively. In our TV Pilot Screenplay Competition, we evaluate submitted TV Pilot Scripts in these 10 categories: Idea, Plot, Characters, Concept, Structure, Dialogue, Originality, Writing Style, Marketability and the Potential for the whole series. When you’ll be reading the screenplays from our contestants, which of these 10 categories will be the most important for you? They’re all important but to me the idea or concept comes first, which means the idea for the series and for the pilot episode, before you get too deep into structure decisions. Or course you want that idea to be both marketable and original, and your characters are a big part of your idea, so they are really all pretty intertwined. Every Screenwriter who enters our TV Pilot competition will receive a free copy of your e-book The Idea! Tell us more about the book, why and how did you decide to write it, how is the book different from other screenwriting books and what would you say it’s the most valuable advice from the book? It’s different because it focuses on what makes a viable idea in the first place, in more depth than most books, courses or writers usually go. There tends to be a rush to get to structuring and writing but in my experience, 90% of the notes I give (or get) on scripts are notes on the basic idea. It’s much harder and rarer to get to a really solid idea than people think, and scripts have almost no chance of succeeding when based on a not-solid idea. So my book goes deep into the qualities of a good idea, which I think is the key thing most writers need to better understand and be able to execute. The winner of our TV Pilot competition will also receive your exclusive Online Course The Idea at the value of $900! Please tell us more about the course and why it has such an amazing value for the writers. My course takes what’s in the book and adds to it and helps writers apply that knowledge to their own ideas by studying specific lessons and how they are illustrated in classic movies. I have 35 lessons, each taught with a 4-5 minute video, after which a 100+ page workbook takes the student through activities to better notice how that lesson applies in great movies and then to apply it to their own burgeoning idea(s). In the end, however many ideas they’ve taken through this process, they should have developed and adjusted to them to a much stronger version of what it started out as. (Or started over with a new idea.) There are also monthly group coaching calls with me where students pitch loglines for my feedback and can ask questions. Finally, what is the best piece of advice that you could offer to someone who is looking to break into the world of television writing? Keep at it, understanding that it’s a marathon, and have the approach that you’re always going to be learning and growing. And make sure that happens! :-) What are you working on now? What can we expect from you next? Raising money to direct my first feature, a rom com that takes a look at the political divide in our country through a different, light-hearted lens. Where and how can our followers support you? What’s your website and social media handles? @flyingwrestler on Twitter @erik.bork on Instagram Amazon page for my book Free mini-course on loglines ScreenwriterErikBork on Facebook LinkedIn My course THE IDEA

Thanks Erik!

To get a MENTORSHIP from ERIK BORK click below to Submit your TV Pilot Script to our TV Pilot Screenplay Competition:

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