Harry Werksman [Interview]

 

Hello Folks, and a happy Friday to you all! We have yet another exciting interview to share with you all today. We have ventured once again into the world of wordsmiths, and are so very excited to share some words with an absolute legend in the world of television. It’s Harry Werksman, Everyone! Harry is a man that has worked as a writer and/or producer within a plethora of genres, from modern whimsical comedies such as Ugly Betty, to the sci-fi classic Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the incarnation of the wildly successful drama Grey’s Anatomy, and just so damn much more. He is an inspiring figure in the world of television and just damn good writing in general. And he also happens to give some of the best insight into some pretty common questions about the modern world of television that appear regularly here at Trainwreck’d Society, but also very often out in the real world, although I am sure many are afraid to actually admit they are asking. But, we don’t give a single solid fuck around here, and Harry Werksman doesn’t seem to as well, as he is brutally honest and, dare I say, exactly spot on with his answers (and far more rational, I might add).

So Folks, please enjoy some wonderful words from the brilliant mind of a legend in his field, the absolutely brilliant Harry Werksman!

 

When did you discover that you had a passion for the world of TV writing and producing? I understand you had a different career path before joining the world of entertainment? 

I have loved TV my entire life. For example, I would set my alarm clock as a boy (starting at age 10) to wake up at 11pm to secretly watch the original Star Trek, The Prisoner, and Night Gallery. Didn’t know back then that one day I would write and produce TV, in fact I didn’t even know those jobs existed, I thought I was really watching people doing these things. Well, except for Star Trek but I did want to tag along with Kirk and crew. 

And yes, I did have a slightly different career path. After I graduated from Northwestern, I went to Oxford to get a graduate degree in history (17th century English Ecclesiastical and Social History to be precise). The goal was a doctorate, become a Don at Oxford and teach. That changed, for a variety of reasons, I got an M.Lit. in history and moved to LA. Where, with my ever-useful degree, I got a job working for a crisis management consulting firm. After about 18 months in that job, I just couldn’t do it any more and quit. Given that unemployment wasn’t going to pay the bills and I knew that I wanted to write TV (I started taking extension writing classes at UCLA (having NEVER even seen a script before) to figure out how it all worked. While doing that, I worked as an art department PA on TV commercials. That production experience truly helped inform my writing. To be able to see what can and can’t be done and appreciate the incredible contribution everyone below the line can make. 

 

 

What was your very first paid gig in the world of entertainment? And was there anything from this experience that you learned and still sticks with you to this day in your work life? Any lessons learned, basically? 

After many fits and starts, my first pro sale was to Star Trek: DS9. At the time, the show was reading spec scripts (they had to be DS9 scripts) trolling for ideas and getting people on their pitch list. I had submitted a script, which they didn’t buy, but got me on the pitch list. After a few times going in to pitch, I had had no luck. Then on what must have been my third or fourth try, the producer I was pitching to said he “loved” the story but it was a “seventh (final) season idea. I left the meeting thinking “They’re going to steal the idea, God damn it”. About six months later, as I was now on a ticking clock to either break into TV or find something else to do with my life, I got a call from the DS9 offices saying they were buying my story and could I have a story document ready by Monday. When I picked myself up off the floor, I said “ABSOLUTELY!” It was Thursday late afternoon already. But I hunkered down, submitted it, got paid for the story and eventually saw it on the air!

The lesson for me was only do this writing thing if it’s truly what you want to do and you can think of absolutely nothing else you’d rather do and are prepared to hear “NO” 99.99% of the time. So, if you accept those two things (and dig deep for the answer) then NEVER GIVE UP. Write because you have something to say, not because you want to say something (thanks for that one FS Fitzgerald). It’s a marathon not a sprint.

The always reliable and knowledgeable website Wikipedia has informed me that you spent some time in the current “location” of the Trainwreck’d Society “headquarters”, here in the UK, including some time in Scotland as a youth, and even attending the prestigious Oxford University. With that, I am curious to know how you enjoyed living on this side of the pond? And were there any sort of British ways and means that still influence your work to this day?

My mum is Scottish. Growing up, before we moved my grandparents to California (Glasgow was no place for OAPs in the mid-1970s), I would often spend part of my summers in Scotland with my family visiting my grandparents. And yes, years later, I did attend Oxford for my M.Lit. in history, and some rowing and maybe a little bit of beer drinking.

I loved all the time I spent in the UK. Scotland was magical as a child. Oxford was an amazing experience — the friendships, the intellectual challenges, and just seeing the world from a different POV than through the colored prisim of America. The thing I think I carry with me the most is the ability to “take the piss” out of someone and have the same done to me. We’re just telling stories… getting paid to make up lies. I have a responsibility and a hope that what I write makes a wee bit of difference.

You were there in the beginning of the mega successful series that is Grey’s Anatomy. The popularity of this show was almost instant it seems like. Medical dramas have been around for a while, but GA will most likely go down as the greatest one of all time. With that, I am curious to know what initially drew you to this project? And were you able to foresee the success that it would become?

I had spent a year in Sydney, Australia working on Farscape and fell in love with the country. When I came back to the US, I wanted so desperately to go back  that I wrote a pilot set in Queensland. I eventually sold the pilot to ABC. It didn’t get made but it got me an interview with Shonda Rhimes.

When I was offered a job on the first season of GA, I took the gig but had NO CLUE it would become GREY’S ANATOMY! I don’t think any one did. Those first three seasons were a wild ride. The magic of that show was/is that it’s not really about the medicine. That’s just what the characters “do”. Medicine was a mirror that we held up to the characters that reflected what was going on with them and who they were and hoped they could become. 

 

You have worked several other damn fine projects over the years, such as Ugly Betty, Star Trek: DS9, and many more. And I would never ask you to choose your favorite project that you have contributed to in any capacity, but I am curious to know what you believe to be some highlights of your career thus far? When you look back on your career thus far as a whole, what are some things you find yourself having the most pride in?

I have been truly blessed with the career I’ve had so far. I’ve learned something new and experienced something different every step of the way. I’m proud of every show I’ve contributed to in one way or another, from Staff Writer on VIP to helping make Grey’s what it is to Show Running Moonlight (the little vampire show that could but was about a season too early).

But I’m most proud of every bad idea that I’ve had, on every show I’ve been part of, that started a conversation that resulted in a good idea being born, nourished or sometimes even brought back from the brink of death.

With a career that has spanned 25+ years, I am sure you have seen a lot of change in the ways in which television is made, not to mention the more recent resurgence of the television platform being where all the best stories are told. So, I am curious to know what your thoughts are on the current world of television? We have so many different ways to be entertained these days. Do you consider the abundance of shows available to be a good thing, or is the business simply becoming oversaturated?

Holy shit snacks! 25+ years! That’ll make you feel right sized if nothing else will. 

Yes, I’ve seen and experienced a lot of change in the TV world. The world is a very different place than it was 25 years ago. TV today is amazing. There are so many choices, so many voices, so many perspectives, and so many interesting stories being explored. Another Golden Age they say and I’d agree. The medium had to evolve the way it has to keep pace with radically changing technology and the way we consume our entertainment.

There will be over 500 scripted TV shows produced in 2019. Is that too many? Not enough? I’m not sure. Certainly there are more opportunities but that also means the opportunity for more crap (that being wholly subjective of course). As long as smart, funny, engaging, challenging and thought-provoking projects are having a chance to break through the clutter and noise then, while we may be reaching a saturation tipping point soon (I don’t really know, just my opinion), I say bring it on! Let’s take on any and all comers. Tell a good story that people care about, that makes them think and feel something, for better or for worse. At the end of the day, my job is to: Show up. Keep up. Shut up. That’s entertainment. 

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers? 

I’m still just a working writer. I joke that I go to the “Word Factory” everyday. I’m continually coming up with new ideas, wherever and whenever they might come to me. I read a shit ton of books of every description and genre. I write pilots for stories with great characters, interesting stories, a specific POV and maybe something to say about something. I take pitch meetings, general meet and greet meetings, open writing assignment meetings, whatever comes my way. The one project I’m quite keen on at the moment (and has been an obsession of mine for years) is about the world of art crime. The Thomas Crown Affair meets Mission Impossible. It was recently optioned by a production company so my fingers are crossed. Stay tuned. 

What was the last thing that made you smile? 

That question and the fact that we should all smile more often. Though I just read that in primates smiling is a sign of fear. But maybe, just maybe we’re not just monkeys hitting a keyboard an infinite amount of times and producing Shakespeare. 

 

 

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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