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.
Slate: And you’re conscious of switching.
Rottenberg and Zuritsky: Yes.
Rottenberg: The upside to having a partner who is your best and oldest friend is that you have this incredibly long-lived bond and this foundation of trust and love. This is a hard business, and there are some really bad days when your ego gets bruised or when you’re feeling bad or someone’s mean to you, and that’s when it’s super nice to have your best friend there to give you a hug and make you feel better. The downside to it is that when we are having a hard time in our career or a hard decision we have to make, it was harder to talk to Elisa—and I’m sure vice versa—as just a friend.
Slate: It’s interesting to me that you said “our career.”
Rottenberg: We share a career. It’s like our child.
Zuritsky: We do feel like we’re married to our husbands and we’re married to each other. We both write on our own, not as much as we’d like to, but right now our career is by and large one …
Rottenberg: … entity.
Slate: There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about job-sharing—two people sharing one job, especially women with small children or other dependents. Does working as a team—you guys count as one employee, splitting the salary—help your work-life balance?
Zuritsky: Smash is the first show we’ve worked on since we’ve had kids. So we were really, really anxious about what that was going to be like. When you’re shooting, the hours are brutal—12- or 13-hour stretches at least. We came up with a system that worked really well. We’d be there together for the livable, typical workday hours, but then we would split up the really extreme early mornings and late nights.
Rottenberg: We’d just sit there with our calendars and say, “I want to put my kids to bed that night. I want to take my kids to ballet …”
Zuritsky: Even doing that, those shoots would kick our butts.
Slate: Have there been times when it has been hard to work together, and how did you get through them?
Rottenberg: We’re very close, and we’ll just have cranky days for no reason. Sometimes it’s the kind of thing we can deal with right away. We’re getting better at that. It can start with something professional that shouldn’t be taken personally, but it’s hard for it not to seep into other things. I hope we’ve learned to address them, and move on.
Zuritsky: And like a marriage, ride out patches that may not feel productive. We’ve definitely gone through hard stages in our career. But it’s a matter of staying calm and waiting for a cloud to pass.
Slate: I’m curious about honesty. In work situations it can be very hard to be honest. You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, you want to be kind …
Zuritsky: Especially if you’re a woman …
Slate: … but it’s not really kind to avoid hard truths.
Rottenberg: It’s necessary to be honest. Especially in this medium, where you’re under such deadlines, and there isn’t a lot of time to be careful of other people’s feelings. It’s really important for everyone to acknowledge hard work or a good impulse, but it’s a collaboration where the showrunner has the final word. We’re lucky enough that at least in television it’s a writer—not a director or an executive—who’s deciding, “This is my show, this is what I want the sound of it to be.”
Zuritsky: We worked in one writers room—I won’t say what it was. It was the nicest group of people you can imagine, and the nicest showrunner, but it was the worst process. I remember saying to someone at the time, “This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Slate: It was because people were being too polite?
Rottenberg: Totally. There has to be room for tension and conflict.
Slate: What are the rules for successful collaboration?
Zuritsky: Focus on the ideas that you’re putting out. Don’t feel threatened or bullied. If you feel personally attacked or insulted every time someone questions an idea you have, the process just gets completely stymied.
Also, learn to think for yourself and to say what you want and what you need. That’s something that women have a hard time with. It took me a long time to understand that was my job. Good teams are made up of two strong individuals who take care of themselves and each other.