Our guest today is Jill Weinberger. A hard-working TV drama writer, she got her first staffing job last year on the third season of NBC’s Chicago Fire.
Since this interview, Jill has written three of the most memorable episodes from the current Chicago Fire season: Nobody Touches Anything (3×07), Three Bells (3×13), and Forgiving, Relentless, Unconditional (3×18). She also got her contract not only renewed, but upped to story editor. (Massive congratulations!)
First things first: why the television calling?
I was writing TV before I knew that it was even a thing. When I was little—maybe six years old—I was lying awake in bed at night writing episodes of my favorite TV shows in my head, going back every night and re-writing the scenes. I did not know that that wasn’t something all children did. Then I did kind of go the route of trying to seek out something with more security—maybe a lawyer. It wasn’t until part way through college—I had been writing specs for fun—that I kind of figured it out. My parents were also fortunately very supportive. That’s when I decided it was what I was going to actually try to do.
What kind of specs did you write?
All kinds. I did shows that were on and off the air. I did both comedy and drama. I wasn’t aware at the time that you were supposed to do one or the other. When I was in high school, I remember writing a Wonder Years spec which was awful. Then, going into college, I did Northern Exposure, a Buffy and an X-Files. Later I actually did two Friends. One was absolutely terrible, but the other wasn’t bad.
When I was starting, I was ordering hard copies of scripts off the internet from Script City and the like. In my mind, it wasn’t actually something I was seriously pursuing. I didn’t really think a lot about structure or the difference between comedy and drama or anything like that.
Three words to describe what you write.
Small human truths.
Three words to describe how you write.
Like a demon. Not in the sense that I’m evil, but in the sense that once I have a grasp on what I’m writing, I’m fast, and I tear through it. People tell me: “Well, you don’t really need to turn it over that fast. We have nothing to do with it. We have a schedule and we’re fairly far along in the season.” I’m like—well, it came out.
—the television series that has influenced you the most:
Both Northern Exposure and Buffy. They struck me as very mold-breaking shows in which you could tell the exact story you wanted, in the exact words you wanted. It wasn’t until I became more educated in the depth and breadth of TV that I found series from much earlier that were also very groundbreaking. When I was even younger, and I was watching TV with my parents, the first things that were really brought to my attention by them were—even though I was too young to really watch them when they were on—Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. It was television you would watch because it was really good and something worth watching, as opposed to just—this is how we end the day by entertaining ourselves. This was something that was respected and had artistic merit and had intellectual merit.
—the one episode of television that defines you:
The episode of television that I think about the most in terms of just really getting to me—because it’s so small—is an episode of Mad About You. It’s interesting because the episode is nothing like anything I’ve written. The entire episode [The Conversation] is the two of them sitting outside the closed door while the baby cries. I don’t know if it defines me as a person or a writer, but it’s always been very profound in that they’re taking their own personal journey. Their relationship is being discussed, and them as parents being discussed. It’s also funny because it’s a comedy. In the end, the baby stops crying, so in a sense, they’ve won—they’ve trained the baby and themselves. One of them, I think it’s Jamie, says, “We’ve just taught her we won’t always be there when she needs us.” To me, it’s just that tiniest of storytelling being so rich and profound, and all of it on a multi-cam sitcom.
—the television episode that impressed you the most:
It’s also kind of a small episode, this one of Homicide—Subway, with Vincent D’Onofrio. We were just talking about this the other day [in the room]. It’s so intense, but it’s so small. It’s closed, it’s claustrophobic. Vincent D’Onofrio is not necessarily the most likeable character, but he’s in the most vulnerable position. It’s just a great episode of television for me.
—the show you wish was still on the air:
I wish there were more West Wing, if there were more Aaron Sorkin West Wing. Kind of starting from when Aaron Sorkin left. And I didn’t have as much of a problem with the last three seasons as other people—it was just a completely different show. It just wasn’t my show that I fell in love with. If I could get more those characters and that world, I would eat it with a spoon. [laughs]
—the show you would never publicly admit to watching, except right now:
Does it have to be a scripted show? [laughs] I love Mob Wives on VH1. It’s like a documentary of this insane world, this entire mindset that is so different to ours. Plus they share all these weird common experiences. All of them know the experience of having your house raided in the morning at 5AM by the Feds—because 5AM is when the Feds come. And they know this. The very first episode, one of the women had been away, and her father had turned evidence, putting someone else’s dad away. She was kind of coming back into the community years after that happened. There’s a lot of hostility towards her. And at the same time, two of them are off talking at one point, and they go, “You know, we are more hostile towards her because her dad was a rat than because her dad killed 13 people. That’s kind of fucked up.” [laughs] It just fascinates me. I can’t look away.
—the show you wish you had worked on:
I would love to have worked on Buffy. Not only was it a great show, but you see most of the people coming out of that show had great success. People seemed to come out of it feeling that it was a good learning and working environment. Nobody’s saying: “Yeah, it looked great, but it was a nightmare to work on.” You do hear about shows like that. Buffy just seems like it was a really good—it made fantastic television, and it gave us a lot of fantastic television writers who gave us even more fantastic television.
What has been, so far, your journey in the television industry?
I took a long time, but I went a fairly traditional route that almost nobody takes. I wasn’t an assistant, I didn’t go through a program, and I just got hired as a staff writer. This doesn’t happen for most people anymore, but that’s what happened to me.
I came out intending to write television; spent a couple of years writing by myself, not showing it to anybody—not the best way to advance your career. Then I won the spec teleplay competition at the Austin Film Festival with a House. One of the judges in my category was my now-manager, and she really liked that spec. I didn’t have a pilot, and she didn’t think my other specs were as strong, so basically she said: “when you have the material, just keep sending me stuff”. I then spent another year writing scripts. I wrote three pilots and two specs in those twelve months. And I kept sending her everything. She sent the one pilot she really loved to an agent friend of hers—she had been an agent before she was a manager—and he loved it, gave me notes. Then when I turned around really quickly the re-write on his notes, he was like: “OK. Now you’ve got an agent.” I now had both an agent and manager. And then the writers’ strike happened a month later. Halfway through it, my agent left the agenting business. I was still thankful that my manager stuck with me—I was with my manager basically without an agent for several years.
A couple years ago, again through my manager, I met my current agent. My manager has worked crazy hard for me for years now, for no money. Now I had this one-two punch of this crazy team of these really brilliant and active and involved women. They’re very good at communicating with each other; I’m very lucky in that way. That’s when I started getting more showrunner meetings, then generals. Still, I was a three-time finalist in the Warner Bros. Workshop. I was a finalist for Writers on the Verge. I was a semi-finalist for Disney. Never got in. I had several jobs where I thought: “This is going to be my job.” I would get comments afterwards like: “They thought you were great. They like this, this, and this about you.” And then they went another way, or they ended up not hiring at the staff level.
My manager got super excited once I got the meeting for Chicago Fire—she’s a really huge fan of the show. She told me: “This is my favorite show! No pressure.” [laughs] I went in, met with Matt Olmstead, Derek Haas, and Wolf Films’ Danielle Gelber. I had a good meeting with them, but I really sold myself. The thing is that I learned the way to sell myself honestly—not trying to tell people what they want to hear. I learned to say, without sounding crazy desperate: “Look. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m ready to do the work. I’ve put in the pre-work time, and I’m ready to hustle my ass off for you.” I think that may have made a difference. I wouldn’t recommend going in and being scary intense, because I wasn’t. Also, have humor! [laughs]
How was the process of getting hired on Chicago Fire?
I had the showrunner meeting with the guys [Matt, Derek and Michael Brandt] and Danielle on a Monday. Before I even had that one, I also got the call to set up the network and studio meeting on Thursday—which is fairly unusual. It can go in either direction, but usually you need one and then they give you kind of the stamp, then you go onto the other. When I came home Monday and nobody had said, “It’s OK, you don’t need to come in on Thursday,” I knew that meeting had gone pretty well.
I had the network and studio meeting on Thursday. It was good because I had a little time to reflect. Think about anything that I might have wanted to say in the other meeting but hadn’t gotten in. Also talk more in detail about some of the story lines on both Chicago Fire and Chicago PD. Can you describe the differences between the various meetings (general, showrunner, development, etc.)?
I’ve had a bunch of experiences and they’re definitely different. I actually also have had some development meetings, thanks to a pilot that people really liked. Last summer, I was pitching a network on that pilot, but it didn’t get sold—pitching is a whole other beast.
General meetings, network studio meetings—those are by and large very similar. A lot of the general meetings I’ve had, you’re meeting really early in the pilot season. You’re meeting with the person who’s covering all the new ones. The pilots haven’t been picked yet, so they don’t even know what they’re not hiring for. They’re just reading scripts, building up an arsenal of writers they might like. Those are very casual meetings, like a first date. “Tell me about yourself,” and, “Please don’t be insane.” Nine out ten of those, you do well, but nothing comes of them because half of those pilots don’t go. The huge part is sitting around, talking with somebody else who loves TV about how much you both love TV.
Then I’ve had showrunner meetings where we meet at a restaurant instead of in their office, or things like that. Those are very much different and specific according to their personality and style. Those meetings are a little more intense. [laughs]
How was the development of your pilot?
We had gotten a lot of staffing meetings off of this one pilot I wrote. Even though I hadn’t gotten hired, my reps told me: “Wow, people seem to really love this script. Let’s see if we can package it.” They sent it out to production companies and studios to see if anybody wanted to come on board. I teamed up with a couple of producers who had a great track record of developing new writers. One of them was friends with Angela Bassett, and my script called for an African-American female lead. They had already decided to package with me to pitch it, so I pitched Angela Bassett over the phone while she was in her car—she was getting ready to shoot American Horror Story. We already had meetings set up based on the relationships and reputations of these producers, but once we had Angela attached, everything got moved up. More and more important people started getting folded into the meeting up until they told me: “And Nina Tassler will be there!” I was like—“Wait, what?”
How is your pitching process?
People pitch very differently. I only pitch the one way because I was basically coached the whole way through. Some people pitch with cards. The way I did it—it’s basically like a book report. [laughs] You just talk for about 20 minutes straight. There’s like four to six people just all sitting in a semi-circle, staring at you, possibly taking notes, hopefully occasionally laughing at the jokes. The way we pitched was: paragraph setting up the world; set up all the main characters—again, like a paragraph each; a brief synopsis of the pilot; and then a little bit about where things are going to be at the end of the first season and where ideally things will be at the end of the show. It works out to be, maybe, ten printed pages. Like I said, a 20-minute essentially non-stop speech. It’s a freaky process. [laughs]
Can you talk about your experience with your first script on Chicago Fire?
I’m still in the process, so there’s stuff that’s not for open discussion. We have a very specific process here. Traditionally, new writers on staff get paired with one of the showrunners to write our first episode or our first few episodes. We have three guys here, which is unusual, but I’ve been on my script paired with Matt Olmstead, who is fantastic. The way our process works overall is: first we meet in the writers’ room and we beat out the basic ideas of the first half of the season. Once it’s your turn to develop your script, you sketch it out on a white board; you work on the white board with the rest of the writers; then you pitch it to the guys. They suggest their changes, and then you go from that board to outline. If the changes are major, you may have to re-pitch the board again. That’s not usually like you’ve done anything wrong—it’s just due to the course of the season changing as other things develop.
So you write your outline—in my case, working with your co-writing showrunner—and then it goes up the chain of command. It goes past the show runners, past Wolf films, past network and studio, and then gets revised according to people’s comments. Once that gets cleared at the final level, you go to script, and go through the same process again.
How is your writing room?
Our room is a great room. It’s very open, diplomatic and supportive. There’s a lot of give and take, every idea is heard—it’s not “competitive” at all. That’s part of drama VS. comedy. I think comedy is a little bit more competitive in getting your jokes on the board. You kind of go in knowing 80%-90% of what you throw out there isn’t going to work, so you don’t feel like, “Everybody thinks I suck.” You think: “Hey look, I got that thing on the board!” We have a grid for the first half of the season, with the episodes across the top and the characters down the side. Everyone has a little square in the grid for each episode. That’s where you put up the little beats—the little arcs.
And when we’re in the room, it’s just us. Talking and talking and talking. 10AM to 6PM with a break for lunch. What people would maybe not realize on our show is a giant percentage of it is about character, about story, about emotion. We always want to have our fire fighters and our paramedics go on interesting calls. It’s got to be visual because it’s a TV show, but number one rule of thumb is: there’s a reason we have gone with these people on this call today. They go on dozens of runs in a day, maybe. If you’re in an ambulance, half the time you don’t even come back to the house. You run for 10 hours straight. So why are we following them on this? And it’s not because it looks cool. It’s because it has an emotional impact for one of the characters or it’s significant. We absolutely work to show interest, and we also spend a lot of work on making it authentic and respectful. Sure, we condense for time and take some artistic liberties. But we have our working consultants who we run everything by. It’s very important to us. At the end of it though, it always comes down to character and who these people are. What this journey is for these or the next three episodes.
What is your day-to-day like?
When the season started out, we were all in the room. People then individually peel off to work on their episodes. We’ve been on our own offices for the most part because we’re in production right now. For the past few weeks, we haven’t really been in the room, but we’re going back in. We’re starting to spend some time looking at the seconf half of the season. It’s all about keeping everything going.
For actual production, most people go out for their own episode. Usually as a writer you go out for part of the shooting, not all. That’s at the discretion of the director and what the director feels they need. If things are going to explode, they don’t need me there. But if it’s going to be an emotional scene, and all of a sudden they need to film in another place because of production issues, that might need a last-minute rewrite to address the different physical circumstances.
What is the hardest thing about being a TV writer?
Personally, I want to make sure that I am contributing and being valuable. I want to stay. [laughs] In addition to the fact that I really like the job, I really like it here. I don’t think I could have landed anywhere better for my first gig. It’s a fantastic education and a fantastic environment. It’s just amazing.
For our show, the hard thing is keeping it fresh. Keeping on producing stories that are really significant. By season 3, we do want new viewers, but we have people who are really loyal to the characters at this point. They really care what happens to them. They really want to see something that reflects the two years we’ve been following them. They want all of that to pay off. They don’t want to see someone knocked down for no reason, just for drama or something like that. Of course, we’ve also taken them on a lot of these adventures in terms of the rescue or fire calls they go on. It’s really just a question of giving that audience that same show they have an appetite for, but, at the same level, with some “newness” that pays off what they’ve already invested in.
What is the easiest thing about being a TV writer?
Coming to work every day. I love it. I get up, I get here half an hour early every day. My favorite thing—I was just thinking about this—walking from the garage to the office every day. It’s a very short walk, but I am so happy every day to be making that walk. I’m not going for a meeting, I’m not going to impress somebody, I’m going to my job. I belong here. I get to come and I get to make TV, which is all I ever wanted to do. Just the fact that it is as good as, if not better than I imagined it—I’m still high on it, even a few months in.
Who do you look up to in the television industry?
We already discussed Buffy. I think Joss Whedon is a great creator. I think the pilot for West Wing is one of the best pilots ever. Also we talked about David Milch, Steven Bochco. Actually, since we were discussing St. Elsewhere—I got to meet Mark Tinker just in the hallway here. It just blew my mind. I’m still crazy about St. Elsewhere. I’ve now gone back and watched all of it. If it were not literally for the quality of the film that tells you that’s in the 80s and the fact that people are smoking in their hospital rooms, you could think that was filmed today. It’s amazing. Of course, I also love a lot of the female creators. Julie Plec, Jane Espenson, Amy Berg, Marti Noxon. People who are not only great writers, but also people who really make an effort to be accessible to up-and-coming writers, sharing their knowledge. That’s a really big deal for me.
What is the ideal job you would like to ultimately have?
It would be fantastic to be creating. I definitely do want to be developing. Eventually. I’m happy to be working on someone else’s show for a good few years, just because I feel like I have so much to learn. I spent a lot of time getting as good as I could in the vacuum of my own space. I worked hard and I got good enough to get the job. Now, it’s like the whole learning of how thought turns into television. The process. I literally learn something new every day. Obviously I haven’t been here very long, but I feel like I have no problem being part of somebody else’s team or somebody else’s vision.
When people from outside the industry ask what you do, what do you tell them?
I tell them that I work for a TV show. [laughs] I think a lot of people don’t really understand how the writers’ room works. Some people think that—I guess there are some comedy rooms like this—but some people think that we all kind of sit in a room and write all the shows together. I do kind of explain what I just explained here. We figure out the basics of the season, and then we’re on our own writing our script.
What is your best professional advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
One of the most important things I say to people is: it’s going to take longer than you think. Even though a tiny fraction of the people who think they can do this can do this, there are still way more of those people than there are jobs. Once you are on the playing field, just with all the other people who can actually do it, and who are good enough, then it’s just waiting until the odds play out in your favor. It’s going to be somebody else’s yes, and you’ve got to wait through your no’s. You have to practically make sure that you can support yourself financially, not go into debt. Really support yourself, don’t just stay afloat while you wait for your chance. Don’t be the person who gets so, so close, and then has to move out of LA because you can’t afford to live there anymore. I feel like I had a lot of near-misses and a lot of bad luck. It was somebody else’s day for a long time for me. I did however have good luck in that I was able to financially support myself.
Ultimately, you either can write or you can’t. Once you can write, you either put the work in to get good enough or you don’t. That’s just the basics of it. But if you are good enough, and you’re going to be the person who works hard enough, then you have to be the person who can make it past the odds.
What is your best personal advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Have a life. If you spend your whole time thinking of your life until your break as kind of the meantime, you miss out on a lot of life. Life is what makes you a good writer.
Have people and have different sorts of experiences. We live—especially as aspiring writers in LA—very insular lives. We sit around and watch TV together—which I love to do—but we need to get out. Get some experiences, do some volunteering, join some adult sports league, spend time with people who have nothing to do with the industry, or activities that have nothing to do with the industry. You don’t want to stay, emotionally and experience-wise, 22. Because then what are you going to write about?
What is your next step?
Getting hired for the rest of the season. [laughs] Getting my contract picked up, that’s the next step.
Any last words?
Take in as much as you can. Read all the scripts you can. Read all the books you can. Read non-fiction. Watch television and film and documentaries and things that you might not think would be interesting. Everything makes you a better writer and a better human being. And being a better human being makes you a better writer. Empathy is at the core of great TV writing. You have to get people to empathize with the characters.
I said small human truths earlier—you have to be able to see the connections between all kinds of life experiences, and all kinds of people’s stories. So for that, again, you kind of have to live. You have to be open to all sorts of stories. It will translate to a completely unrelated story in your writing. It will be that emotion, that human experience, that truth which helps you make it real for someone watching.
Many thanks to the super awesome Jill Weinberger for this great interview!
You can follow her on Twitter.
Watch Season 3 of Chicago Fire, Tuesdays at 10PM on NBC.