Inside the TV Writers’ Room: A Dispatch From Sundance Institute’s Inaugural Episodic Story Lab

Crystal Liu, left, meets with advisor Greg Daniels at the Episodic Story Lab. © 2014 Sundance Institute | Photo by Fred Hayes.

Crystal Liu

Crystal Liu is currently a staff writer for ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ and was one of 10 fellows selected to participate in the inaugural Sundance Institute Episodic Story Lab last October.

Imagine that all your life, you’ve been singing in the privacy of your own shower, just for the joy of it. Just ‘cause you felt the need to express yourself. And then suddenly you’re at The Voice (dressed in some fab outfit) and all the coaches are turning their chairs for you.

Even better, you don’t have to choose just one “mentor,” you get to have them all! And then you go backstage and Aretha Franklin and Adele and Stevie Wonder are waiting to greet you. They haven’t heard you sing but wanna hang out and talk about music. And that’s what my experience was like at the Sundance Institute Episodic Story Lab.

To be honest, it feels a bit sacrilegious to talk about the lab experience at all. A television writers’ room is by nature, protected by a cone of silence. It’s a safe place in which to explore ideas, good and bad, the punny, the raunchy, all in the pursuit of a common goal: to make the best damn show you can. The Episodic Lab, as conceived by the brilliant Michelle Satter (Feature Film Program founding director) and her phenomenal team (Ilyse, Jen, and Cristen) is geared perfectly for this construct.

Over the course of a few short days, they created this protective bubble set against a majestic backdrop of babbling brooks and snow-capped mountains. We were invited to express our deepest thoughts and insecurities without fear of judgment. They made it all about the process, the journey. Every day, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., our schedules were packed with activities and discussions designed to spark our imaginations.

The first day was like the beginning of a field trip. Being that this was the inaugural class of the Episodic Lab, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect going in. We were just thrilled to be asked to the dance. For me, a not insignificant amount of terror was building. I knew it was coming. The dreaded circle of doom. Introductions and condensing into a 2.5 second soundbite who I am and why I’m there.

I’d prepared for this and was going to say something about my life, how I’m constantly trying to prove that I’m worthy of the opportunities presented before me, that I deserve “a seat at the table.” (Trust me, it all ties beautifully into the theme of my project and in my head, sounded super smart and cool).

When it gets to my turn, my mind fails me, of course, and instead, what comes out of my mouth sounds something like, “Hello, Sheep reason Crystal project seat table want hello.” Mercifully I stop talking and the circle moves on. Awesome—my first impression to the group is that I’m an idiot. Then I hear something that jerks me out of my cycle of self-flagellation.

It’s the voices of Jenny Bicks and Kerry Ehrin (I’m not going to list everyone’s credits here because you all have IMDB. Take my word for it: every advisor was blow-your-mind-awesome). Jenny and Kerry know how I feel. They say that the desire to prove that you deserve a seat at the table never goes away. No matter how successful you become. And in that moment, I get it. I get what this place is going to be. It’s me, standing on the edge of the abyss, facing my fears and diving in full throttle, over and over again because waiting on the other side is a magical wonderland beyond my wildest dreams.

We began with one-on-one sessions with the creative advisors. My three advisors were Jenny Bicks, Greg Daniels, and Murray Miller. During these sessions, we looked at ways to drill down deeper into my characters. My pilot, The White Sheep, is a thinly veiled account of my life and family. So we worked on nailing down details and figuring out how to infuse these characters with my own unique specificity. Somewhere during this process, I came to the profound realization that I had written something that had resonated with these people—that they got what I was trying to say.

They got me. I think as a writer, you never know how much of what you’re trying to get across actually gets across. And what struck me the most was that my Advisors had spent the time and cared so much about my work that we were able to have this wonderful dialogue. They were able to feed my thoughts back to me, in a much more articulate, clear way than I’ve ever been able to express on my own.

After the one-on-ones, we got together into mini-writers’ rooms to break story and discuss season-long arcs for our projects. The White Sheep writers’ room consisted of my very talented comedy fellows (Lisa Kron, Heather Marion, Desiree Akhavan) and a few creative advisors (Felicia Henderson and my one-on-ones). Greg ran the room, and we worked on honing in on the tone of my show and what I’m trying to accomplish with this story. One of the highlights was getting to hear Greg Daniels pitch jokes to me in my mother’s accent—something to behold.

Next up was pitching. Once again, I had something prepared that sounded great in my head but came out all wrong. I crashed and burned, big time. But from those fiery ashes, I learned another valuable lesson. Felicia Henderson turned to me after my pitch and said, “Who was that doppelganger up there? Just be you. Do you. Because you’re good enough.” Seems so simple but those words really landed with me.

The creative advisors left us in the afternoon, and a few hours later, we welcomed the industry mentors. If the creative advisor portion of the lab was about making the script the best script it can be, the industry mentor sessions were all about execution—how to make our shows a reality. We talked about different business models, the greenlight process at one network vs. another, the buyer’s perspective when it comes to pitching, and many other topics.

It was hilarious to hear some of the mentors talk about the worst pitches they’ve ever heard. Surprisingly enough, some of the bad pitches had a few redeeming qualities and actually sold! This was good to hear going into the next day, when we were asked to pitch to the industry mentors. I was comforted (and perhaps even emboldened) by the fact that there was no way it could be worse than the day before. I think I even made a modicum of sense the second time around! And suddenly it was time for us to go.

Before we left, I decided to make one last leap into the abyss. All my life, I’ve had this crippling fear of heights. But I’d heard that the 40-minute chairlift ride at Sundance was spectacular—one not to be missed. So I thought, what better way to cap this whole thing off than by getting into the chairlift and conquering my greatest fear? (It helped that two of my brave fellows, Nick Keetch and Barry Jenkins, jumped on, too, so I wasn’t alone.)

As I clung to the tiny piece of metal that separated me from my doom, I thought to myself, “Please, god, I’m just getting the hang of this pitching thing!” But then I opened my eyes to a real life magical wonderland and a calm passed over me. Finally, I could let go and enjoy the ride.


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