Interview with: John Wirth - Television Writer/Producer
John Wirth is writer and executive producer of 'Nash Bridges' starring Don Johnson and Cheech Marin. He serves on the board of the Writers Guild of America west on its Television Writers Council. He graciously took time out to tell us about his career and advice for the young writer who wants to be in television.
HOW DOES ANYONE PREPARE TO BE A TELEVISION WRITER?
The answer from John Wirth is in one word: Write.
'It's just that simple,' he says. 'You write and write and write, and if you have talent, you will get better. The thing I always am surprised about, even now, is how much work it is. It's a serious misconception among many young writers that it is easy to write anything well. It's not; it's hard hard work. Many younger writers are not prepared for the work; they think it's as easy as it looks on the screen.
'It's very helpful to have been in film school, writing programs like Iowa University's writing programs. These writing programs clue you into the world of the screenwriter. How to network, make friends with people who may one day be colleagues of yours. Beyond that, once you're out of there, you have to continue to write.'
HOW DID A YOUNG KID FROM MINNEAPOLIS END UP BEING THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF 'NASH BRIDGES'?
'I had an intense desire to be successful even though, to be honest, I had no idea what any of this entailed. I'm a child of the sixties; I always had a fascination for the movies; and television. I loved WILD WILD WEST, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, all those wonderful shows. I was so naïve, I had no idea you could work and earn money writing shows.
'I was teaching English to junior high school students in Minneapolis and was in my mid-20s when I decided I wanted to try writing for Hollywood. I thought I'm gonna do it. It was an exciting time for television: 'Saturday Night Live' was the newest show, and there seemed to be a lot of opportunities. I was so naïve and ignorant. I came to Los Angeles not knowing anyone or anything. Never had written anything, I still thought if I didn't do it then I would never have the chance to do it. So, I immersed myself in the learning process: I took extension courses, I studied other scripts, and just sat down and wrote.'
'In fact I wrote 25 screenplays before I got my first job: I sent a spec script to Remington Steele. Lots of people say don't send spec scripts of the show you want to pitch to, but sometimes it does pay to break the rules.
They not only accepted that spec script, they eventually hired me to be on the staff.'
'I remember going to the set one day and the crew was readying a huge billboard for Pierce Brosnan to climb up. I turned to him and asked if he was excited to do it and he replied matter-of-factly, 'If it's in the script, I'll do it.'
'Then, I realized, it's in the script because I wrote it that way!'
'It was absolutely thrilling to see and hear that first script come alive on television. Even when it's a last-minute change in a script that's requested for 'Nash Bridges' and we stay up late at night, get it down, send it up to San Francisco and meet the next evening to watch it on the screen; that level of thrill has never left me.'
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
'My writing process is to do the rough draft on the computer, print it out, and do the rewrites with pen and paper. It somehow works better for me; it slows me down; rewriting is totally different process than writing.'
Today, Wirth uses sophisticated screenwriting software and state-of-the-art computers, but in those early days of Remington Steele, he was the only one who had a computer, sold to him by The Writers Store. 'Dan and Gabi were so wonderful to me. They sold me my very first computer, and got me into the 21st century. They were knowledgeable and supportive friends. One time I lost 14 pages of my script, and Dan worked much of the night and recovered at least 12 pages of it. I'll never forget him for it. Theirs was not only a great business relationship, but we became very good friends, too.'
HOW DID YOUR CAREER PROGESS?
After Remington I was in development for quite a long time, and wrote more than a dozen pilot scripts, some sold, some did not, and that led to 'The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.' with Carlton Cuse where I was the supervising producer. Then for seven years my writing partner and I did a lot work together but we both realized that it was a lot better to get 100% of the salary instead of being two people earning the salary of one! It was also a rude awakening to be asked by prospective producers, 'Which one of you did the writing!' Wirth sold a spec script again to a currently-running show, 'Picket Fences,' which led to a staff position on the Emmy award-winning CBS drama.
DO YOU EVER MISS THE CLASSROOM?
The teaching profession left its mark on Wirth. 'The staffers call me Teacher Man', he revealed, 'because every single day for the last 15 years, I feel I've been the teacher to staff writers. I'm very good at what I do. Lots of writer/producers are just writers with another title, without the necessary management skills it takes to work with writers. Learning how to manage junior high school kids was great training in managing, teaching, inspiring a writing team.'
'I believe in raising people up to do the level of work they can do. I feel strongly that the best writing today is on television. We do nearly everything in-house, with just a few guest freelancers that we know. It's been very gratifying to give a number of people breaks on the show. I really enjoy my job.'
TV is a highly collaborative medium. We have six writers on the 'Nash Bridges' show and we team up on every script; it's faster that way, easier to bounce ideas off one another. And, that's the way I love to work.
'It's exciting, hard, pays well, challenging, sometimes even glamorous. Would I want to eliminate the two-hour commute? Yes. Would I like to live on an island off Seattle and write novels? Someday, but for now, I can honestly say about my work, I LOVE IT!'
WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR CHILDREN TO BE WRITERS?
'I grew up with nothing. No money, no culture, no opportunity. I had never traveled, never been on an airplane nor stayed in a hotel. I just had the vague notion of being rich and famous even though I really didn't have any idea what that was. If either of my children were to say they wanted to be a television writer, I know I'd say, You're lucky, I can help you, and I would, because I know how hard it was, and is to succeed in this business.'
WHAT IS THE NATURE OF TELEVISION WRITING?
'Each week we create scripts in which we need to know how to develop a story through character, create dramatic events that are organic to the story, that just don't happen. It's rare to see character driven movies like 'Erin Brokovich', which was all about character versus being event, big scene loosely tied together with looser narrative.
'In television writing, we offer tightly plotted stories, deeply etched characters that we know a lot about. We're creating 24 little movies every season to explore these people's lives.
'In television, your goal is to cast an actor for whom the character becomes an extension of his personality. It's a fine line. Don Johnson is an actor who brings a certain edge and dynamism to his role. What he says as Nash is an amalgam of what we feel as writers. Deepening character is our way of deliberate storytelling, allowing Don to reveal the unseen heart of his character.'
'Rewriting is the hardest part. If I find a writer who can rewrite a script and make it better, I know I've found a great writer. There's an anecdote about Hemingway apologizing for the length of a letter to a friend. He wrote that he didn't have time to write a short letter.'
Refining the letter of the script is not only the goal but the true accomplishment of 'Teacher Man,' John Wirth.