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An interview with Emmy winning writer of Succession SUSAN SOON HE STANTON

Hi Susan, according to your bio on your website you’re a playwright, television writer, and screenwriter based between New York and London, from ‘Aiea, Hawai‘i. Can you let us know your secret of how you’re able to manage so many jobs and so many cities? :)

Not so much of a secret as much as being okay with being an itinerant writer. Hawai‘i is where I grew up and the place I strongly think of as home. I go back there as much as I can, not only to be with my family but also to create work about a deeply meaningful place with a unique history.

I moved to New York for University, and mostly stayed. It’s where we shoot Succession and some other shows I’ve been a part of, but also where theatre happens. I also have worked on plays in other cities or writing residencies. I’m very interested in community, and having conversations with cities, getting a sense of each place as much as possible.

I’ve been fortunate for these opportunities, but you also have to be okay with the risk and instability of working as a freelancer and willing to be in many places. It’s not something that a parent could do as easily. For London, it’s always a place I’ve loved and seeked out ways to return.

How were you learning the craft before landing any writing jobs? Did you attend any schools for Dramatic Writing? Did you participate in any Writers Groups, writing fellowships or screenwriting competitions? Have any of these helped your career?

I think a writer can have natural gifts. Writing programs isn't for everyone. That said, I’ve taken a number of courses, and the experience has benefited me. I went to NYU Tisch for Dramatic Writing, where I studied theatre and playwriting. Then, Yale School of Drama primarily for playwriting, which was a bootcamp in so many ways and training with Paula Vogel and a number of other master teachers was extraordinarily formative. I also believe in writing communities, I’ve done a number of writing groups over the years. MaYi Playwriting Lab, Public Theatre Emerging Writers 'Group, programs at the Playwriting Center and the Lark, [and] SoHo Rep Writer Director Lab. Giving each other feedback and going through the process of watching other writers develop and revise their work, while I am doing the same, has been very instructive. I’ve also taught on and off during the years. Teaching has been a time-consuming but essential experience to discover which lessons of craft I most believe in and I believe it has made me a stronger writer.

It’s not always immediately quantifiable how each program has helped me specifically, in my craft or my career but there’s an accumulative effect that happens over time, especially as other writers help each other rise, staff each other’s shows, or help each other out. It’s been beautiful to witness.

So you've written Short Scripts, Plays, TV Pilots and Feature Film screenplays right? That’s impressive! Of the various media you've written for, which kind of writing do you find most difficult and why?

It’s all difficult! Playwriting is the most comfortable because those are the waters I’ve been swimming in the longest. Screenplays are the most challenging I suppose, only because TV scripts are dialog heavy, and more like plays, while screenplays are more visual and more of a director’s medium. I enjoy moving between these related but different forms as a challenge. I think some stories are best told in a serialized form and some stories are better as films. There’s such a push to make TV now, sometimes a TV show will come out that feels stretched, like it’s meant to be a film. But then some films over the past would have been so much better served as a limited series, perhaps.

How many plays and scripts have you written so far and at what pace are you coming out with new material? Do you still write original material?

Too many. I think I have about eight major plays. I continue to write for the theatre and writing in my original voice is a major reason why I write. It depends on the year. I write one play per year. I used to do that to have a play to send out to various competitions. TV has been a lot faster. There’s a quicker turnaround. It’s hard to say but maybe I write 2-5 TV scripts a year. I don’t think of myself as a fast writer, but I’m not the slowest. Sometimes it comes quickly and sometimes it takes time to think through.

The main ambition of the screenwriters from our TV Pilot competition is to sign with an agent and/or manager. Do you have some advice for screenwriters on how to get signed? Can you walk us through the process of how you signed with your agent and manager?

My entry point might be different from some of your screenwriters, because I was signed first with a theatre agent, and at that point I also had a tv and film agent through the agency. I will say it took a few years before an agent was ready to take me on. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a manager, and many of my colleagues swear by them, but I’ve chosen so far to only work with my team of agents.

I would say there are probably a number of entry points, and it might take a few attempts to find your way in. For instance, submitting to the Black List and screenwriting competitions and TV or film labs. It is also helpful to speak with friends, colleagues, and mentors who might be able to recommend you to an agent who might be willing to read a sample. Also a writer needs to have patience. It can take time. Before I had an agent, I was tired of waiting so I self-produced some films and plays. I know friends who have gotten representation from that. It’s important, albeit frustrating at times, to be as active as possible-creating work, writing, and developing relationships. Sometimes you may have an agent read a script and have a meeting, and it feels like nothing has come from it, but that agent may still be tracking you, and you can respectfully give that person updates on your professional developments.

How did you land a job in the writer’s room of Succession?

Was it through the agent/manager?

Well, yes and no. When I was in Los Angeles, my agents would set me up with general meetings—the water bottle circuit. You do many meetings in a single day, it can be exhausting. It feels a little like professional speed dating. But from those meetings, I’ve found that I’ve met some producers who are wonderful, and we’ve built relationships over time. During one of these trips, I met a wonderful producer at HBO. We stayed in touch, and my agent also helped keep me in mind for various staffing jobs with HBO. When they were looking for writers for Succession, this producer recommended me. Then I interviewed with producers for HBO, then I had a meeting with Jesse, the showrunner. I would say it’s really entirely up to the showrunners, they are the ones who best know what their room needs and how to fill it with the writers they need. The first year Succession room was partially staffed with frequent collaborators of the showrunner who were all UK based. But Jesse also brought in some Americans, and he was open to working with writers he hadn’t met before, and playwrights. It was helpful that I was vouched for by this HBO producer and that I had knowledge of living in New York and had worked briefly as a journalist. But I would say, the most important thing in getting hired is having a very strong writing sample. Without that, I wouldn’t have made it through.

I would advise young writers to avoid getting too obsessed about the industry or about getting an agent. I know those things are important, but developing your work, getting your writing to the point where it is strong enough not to be denied, is the most essential part of being a professional writer.

What’s the creative process in the writer’s room of Succession? How does one episode get developed?

Oh, wow. I’d really recommend the New Yorker article that just came out about Jesse and Succession, the article goes really in-depth about the process of the show. But, briefly, there’s the writer’s room which is maybe 3-4 months where we research, discuss, spitball, and begin to plot out the season. Then the showrunner assigns episodes. The writer creates beats, then a fuller outline, an episode, and then there’s a back and forth with notes and feedback with the showrunner, the producers, and so on. A later episode might have a knockback effect on an earlier one. Then in the production phase, there’s preproduction, production, and the edit. A lot changes from the first ideas in the room, and it’s a lot of fun to see how much stays in or changes from the first weeks to the final cut.

What are some interesting writers’ room experiences you have? What’s the good and the bad about being staffed on a show?

Hmm. Interesting…I’m not sure! I love hearing all of the wacky personal stories that writers share with each other in the room. So it’s not like much ever happens, but it’s certainly a journey. Also, you really learn everyone’s food preferences and allergies because we all eat lunch together every day. For me, I really enjoy staffing overall. It can be intense to engage for that many hours around the table and pitch stories. I think it’s easy to question yourself or feel insecure in the process of putting yourself out there. I also think we are trying to be a hive mind to help the showrunner create their show. So, it’s important to take time to create your own work in your downtime. I also find I need to take care of myself more. We are really just sitting and talking, but I find I get tired more often when I am in writers rooms. I have to make sure I sleep more, get outside. One writer I know goes to an ashram for a week-long silent retreat after every room she finishes. That sounds so nice. I’ve not tried that yet but I want to.

Can you talk about climbing the ladder in the TV world? What’s the process of going from newbie staff writer to producer level?

With the guild, the longer you are on a show or in TV, you naturally progress from one title to another. It almost feels like military ranks, although I’m happy to say I don’t find most writers’ rooms themselves hierarchical. I was very nervous at first, and I worried a lot about when to speak or how to be useful, but it helped I had spent time in playwriting groups. It’s not unlike that, writers just giving feedback, but, instead, it’s all of us working together on one project. On a producer level, more is expected from you and you end up participating in higher up decisions, which can be intimidating, but it’s also thrilling.

Succession has gotten a lot of critical acclaim including the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Series. What has it been like to be a part of something that has become so beloved and so well-known?

It has always felt like a very special show. From the beginning, I’ve always been awed by the level of talent and rigor that’s applied to every aspect of the show. It takes a lot of time and effort to make any television series and so often hard work isn’t recognized, so it’s really nice. That said, there’s the added pressure that comes from that, and I know everyone wants to do what they can to keep pushing towards making the strongest storytelling as possible.

Can you talk a bit about your writing day? Do you do set hours? Do you have a writing routine? How do you come up with the best ideas?

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 terms of the career?

No set schedule unfortunately. I admire people who write every morning. It's the kind of person I'd like to be. But writing can come out in bursts. I sometimes take one day to think, then one to two days to write intensely, and one more day to edit, and end up with a lot done in that period of time. I like to think that I have more tools in my tool box than I did when I first started out. I believe I’ve become more ambitious in exploring various plot structures, trying to write fearlessly and as personally as possible, and diving deep into research. I think also rewriting is absolutely essential. If a writer is insistent that their script is perfect and is completely closed to notes, then that writer may not grow. That said, it is important to fight for what you know is true in your story. I think when I get a lot of very didactic notes sometimes it’s that other people can identify the problem, but the writer is the one who can truly deliver the solution. I think maybe I always sort of knew this, but writing is a lot of hard work and hard thinking. For the most part, there’s no hiding behind bad writing. And in terms of career, I used to be intimidated about television (albeit it wasn’t as exciting and risk-taking as its become now), but I thought transitioning from theatre to film/tv writing might involve “selling out.” Which I now think is a little silly. It’s important to constantly search and create opportunities that are exciting. It’s a job, but when it stops feeling exciting, that’s a problem.

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?

That’s like trying to choose your favorite child. I’m the least interested in Marketability and Potential for a whole series, and most interested in finding writing with strong craft and an ear for dialog. It could fall into originality, but really what I think is the most compelling, regardless of genre, is, does the writing feel alive on the page?

What final advice would you give to new TV writers?

Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Read the pilots of your favorite shows. Read pilots of your most hated shows (maybe). Be patient with yourself and try to avoid comparing yourself too much to other people. What matters most is the writing, and there are a number of roads towards a career in TV writing. There’s no formula or deadline. That said, please take care of yourselves. Don't forgo the essential things you need in life to chase opportunities, because then you might burn out. It's different for everyone, but I think writing is a long game. You have to be kind to yourself, listen to what you need to keep sane, well, and keep going or you'll burn out or get too discouraged.

Where and how can our followers support you? What’s your website and social media handles?

and @susansoonhe on twitter and Instagram.

Thanks Susan!

To get a MENTORSHIP from SUSAN SOON HE STANTON click below to Submit your TV Pilot Script to our TV Pilot Screenplay Competition:

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