How Does Smash Get Written?
Hollywood writers on their collaboration.
Photograph by Patrick Randak/NBC.
Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky met as 9-year-olds when they both attended Saturday morning acting classes in Center City, Philadelphia. Now, more than 30 years later, they are a long-established screenwriting team whose TV credits include Sex and the City and the current NBC drama Smash, whose first-season finale airs on Monday night.
Slate talked with Rottenberg and Zuritsky about Smash, what it’s like to work in a TV writers’ room, and the secrets of successful collaboration.
Slate: TV writing has a reputation for being a collaborative process. Is that true?
Rottenberg: TV is an incredibly collaborative medium. Smash requires even more because of the show within the show. You have a group of writers writing the story, and then you have Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman writing songs, and you have Joshua Bergasse creating the choreography. So there was a real need for a lot of collaboration.
Slate: Smash is also a show with a writing team at its center. Do Tom and Julia feel like a realistic writing team?
Rottenberg: Well, we’ve tried. That’s one of the aspects of the show that really attracted us to it, because we often find ourselves explaining to people how our writing team works. Obviously it’s a little different, because they’re music and lyrics, but as far as their relationship and the foundation of friendship and love that they have with each other—which sometimes gets in the way of and sometimes helps the work—it’s certainly something we can relate to.
Slate: So how do you two write?
Zuritsky: We have a time-honored process. We map out the script we’re writing, what’s the story, who are the characters. Once we have a blob of an idea, we talk about what scenes we need to tell these stories. We outline together. We map out the beats in a beat sheet, then we chop it in half.
Slate: What’s a “beat”?
Rottenberg: A “beat” is something that happens. Ideally in every scene something happens that moves the story along. You discover very quickly what doesn’t need to be there.
Zuritsky: Then we go off and separately write our portions. That can take a week, two weeks, whatever. That’s our first draft. Then we email to each other what we’ve done.
Slate: You’re in different places when you’re writing.
Zuritsky: Yes, that’s important, I think. Then we read each other’s stuff, and this is where you have to not make things about you. We go over each other’s work, and we write right on top of it, and we change lines and add lines and keep them. Then we read the whole thing many times, and keep taking notes. At that point we’re back in the same room together, and we go over it page by page. It’s almost like a Talmudic process. We do that several times before we’re done.
Slate: Tom and Julia have a ritual to celebrate the anniversary of their writing collaboration on the show. Do you?
Rottenberg: No, but we do have other rituals. On Sex and the City, Michael Patrick King, our boss, who we love and who continues to be such an important force in our lives, noticed that at the beginning of every day’s work, we’d be yacking away about dates we had last night or food or TV—very girly stuff. He couldn’t take it any more, and he decided, “OK, guys, I am defining the first half-hour of every day. We will call it ‘host chat,’ as if you’re on a talk show. After host chat, we’re off and working.” But then eventually in the middle of the day, we’d start rambling on some tangent, and someone would say, “OK, can we have a quick host chat?” Now we’ve adopted that in our own lives. We’ll say, “Can we start with some host chat?” before we jump into the work.
Slate: Isn’t it hard, to have a clear divide between work and friendship?
Zuritsky: That did not happen overnight. That was a muscle that we needed to develop.
Slate: In what sense?
Zuritsky: Just learning that there is a difference between our professional relationship and our friendship. Occasionally we’ll have our own complicated feelings about things that are happening in our career, and we’ll say to each other, “Can I talk to you as my friend right now? I’m worried about this.” It’s a very different part of your brain. That wasn’t clear until we were formally working together for a little while, and I realized there are certain things that don’t belong in my work conversations. Just as if we were work friends, we wouldn’t share our marriage issues with each other.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.