interview issue 31

Cindy McCreery on Screenwriting

by Jordan Hill

Cindy McCreery is a screenwriter and producer who has sold feature projects to New Line Cinema, Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, National Geographic Films, Warner Brothers, MGM, Branded Entertainment, Lionsgate, and Sony. Gulf Stream staff member Jordan Hill’s interview with her is below.

Cindy McCreery, courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin

Jordan Hill: At the University of Texas, you teach a class on the writers’ room (an office where TV writers collaborate on a show). What are some of the lessons in collaboration that you try to impart on your students?

Cindy McCreery: In that class, we create an entire season of a television series. I try to run it as though I’m the showrunner, my students are my writers’ room, and we write the season together. For the last two years, we’ve created the pilot together, and they’ve written it together. And then they each write their own episode. We’ve actually had production students make the pilot. Really, the whole purpose of the class is just to get a feel of what it’s like to work together and take on other people’s voices.

We also collaborate with another professional showrunner from LA. For the last few years, we’ve incorporated studio executives who volunteered to be a part of the class so that the class can understand what it’s like when your exec gives you notes. You learn how to work together as a room to address the notes while staying true to your voice. The most important thing in a room is to be able to be to get your ideas out while reading the room, recognizing when you’re taking over, and doing what’s best for the story rather than what’s best for your own interests.

Writing can be so isolating, but this is a good taste of TV collaboration; not only collaborating with your writers in the room and your showrunner, but with the studio execs, the network, and producers. So, I really tried to run it professionally and get feedback. In the past, we’ve collaborated with NBCUniversal. And we’ve gone out and tried to sell and get notes from people. I’ve had several students who’ve gone on to become television writers and told me that they didn’t really understand, at the time, how useful that class was.

I think upper-level TV writers understand audience. If you’re working for Netflix or you’re working for HBO, that’s going to be different than working for Disney+. It is important to know that business side and how to take notes.

I just read an article about how Jesse Armstrong runs the Succession writers’ room, and one of his quirks is that he has everyone recount their previous day in absurd detail. Do you employ quirks like this in the class?

A quirk I heard from a friend was that he could only speak if the showrunner tossed him a football. Rooms can be strange. You might be in a place where somebody doesn’t let you finish sentences. Or it could be very open, where everybody, even the writers’ assistant, can feel free to speak and be a part of it. It really differs from place to place.

But the most important lesson is to talk. And so, in the class, everyone is required to talk. They come in with ideas and their three pitches. And it could just be three random ideas—no bad ideas, you know, every idea is good, even the bad ideas, you can get something from. The most important lesson they should learn from the classes is to just be able to have your voice and to speak up. And for a lot of writers, that’s not as easy. A lot of us are introverted. But also, less is more.

Speaking of collaboration, a lot of your work has been with your co-writer, Scott Shepard. And as you know, Hollywood has a long history of co-writers. While writing The Big Sleep, Faulkner and Brackett each just adapted half of the novel. Other writing teams, like Lord and Miller, divide scenes, swap, then rewrite. On a practical level, how do you two divide the work? And a second part to this question is: how did you know Scott was the one?

[laughs] I was mainly a feature writer that wrote family stories for family films, and Scott worked as a producer at a TV production company—they did The Dead Zone and really dark shows. I had a general meeting with him and his partners, and I had an idea for a dark, hour-long show about an executioner. I saw it as an HBO-type show, and everyone I knew, my managers and my agents, were like, Don’t write like, no one wants you to write that. You write Disney-type stuff or family stuff. But I just couldn’t get this idea in my head, and Scott was like, Why can’t you write this?

So I wrote that, and then he brought me an idea a couple years later about a female-led story that he felt like he should write with a woman. We talked a lot about the plot, and he took a pass at the outline. And then, I looked at the outline and took a pass at it. And then I wrote the first draft of it; I just took the outline because he’s really good at TV plotting—he’s been doing it for years. I mean, he was on Miami Vice, you know, he’s an expert with television plotting.

So the way we started working together was he would usually write the outline, and then I would write the script because I really loved writing dialogue. We sold several scripts together, which was great. And so that’s how we always worked: talk through an idea and then talk through the plotting and characters. And then, he would take the outline, and I would write the draft. And that’s pretty much how we always worked together.

I also have a feature right now; I’m in the midst of a deal for a feature I co-wrote with another person. And she had never written a feature before. Or she’d never written a feature script or television script before, but she had the idea. So, it was almost like the opposite where I wrote the outline and, based on her feedback, wrote the first draft, and then she went in and went over that draft because it was a southern story. And I’m not Southern, to bring in her voice. And it started where I was going to write the scripts and share story credit, but then she really contributed a ton to the script, so we collaborated.

It just depends. I have a TV series right now that is in the midst of a deal with Hallmark Channel, and it’s in with Warner Brothers Television, and I wrote myself. I didn’t collaborate with anyone; it was based on a feature I had written and sold to Newline like fifteen years ago. So, I enjoy writing with other people. But I also really enjoy writing by myself because I’m the master of my domain. But it’s a little scarier because you don’t have someone else to go back and forth on. But you know, with Scott, it was great because that gave me the opportunity to write a lot of dark stuff, and now people trust me enough to at least pitch an idea on my own.

Is it kind of odd for you now to be like, Wait, I’m the grizzled vet!

More and more so every year, especially referencing something in the classroom. I’m like, Oh, God, that’s an old reference.

I really liked your Shakespearean, Freaky Friday-esque teleplay on Haven. You found kind of moments of humor through the funny body-swap premise. But I also saw that you and Scott wrote The Seventh Day, which, like The Blondes, is an apocalyptic show. What draws you to the apocalypse and why?

Scott wrote a novella that was published called The Seventh Day. He was hired by a company to write the whole series, all nine episodes of the series. He had sold the pilot already and was commissioned to write all nine episodes. And so he called me, and I’d already read the book because we’re friends. So I knew the story really, really well. And I’m also a fast writer, and we wrote the whole series in a couple of months. He really trusted me with the characters and the dialogue.

I love the idea of people being put to the brink, you know, but it’s like that wish fulfillment: how would I be if I was in this desperate situation? How would I react? And also, what are the most important, pivotal points in your life that you would reflect on? And who would you want to save?

I also think it’s important to bring your own voice into what you write. The Seventh Day was very dark story. And then I think just my voice spread a little bit of light. And there’s a young girl in the story too, which is important. So you don’t overtake the story where it doesn’t fit the world, but have you put yourself into it where it makes sense while still not taking anything away from the tone.

And I love disaster movies. I love them. Because you think, What would I do if the aliens invaded?

You mentioned that you love writing dialogue and that you’re a fast writer. Aaron Sorkin describes dialogue as having like a musical quality. When do you know that you’ve got it in terms of dialogue—what makes great dialogue great?

I don’t really know what the story is until I have a first draft. And then I know the characters better. I know what they would say. And so I always over-write my first draft. So I have characters say what they’re feeling, very on-the-nose stuff. That way, when I go back, I’m like, They don’t need to say that. They could just do an action.

Everybody has their own unique way of speaking. And it doesn’t mean they have to be super quirky or odd. But people don’t really finish sentences. And so, I think it’s important to know your character, where they’re from, how they grew up, you know, what their family life was like, they go to school. I think it’s important to know all those things, to understand how they would talk. Because somebody who grew up in South Dallas is going to talk differently than someone who grew up in Southern California. My husband will overhear me speaking as my characters, but you know your characters are better if they speak to you rather than you speaking to them.

What are some of your current projects that you’re excited about?

I’m just waiting for this deal to go through: I wrote a half-hour comedy based on a feature I wrote a while ago, and I’m really excited about that. And I’m working on a new feature based on characters I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

I just I wrote and produced a feature that we made independently this last summer called, You Are Not Alone, which we’re editing right now. We finished a rough cut and are looking for a composer and music supervisor. And we’ll be ready after probably in the spring. So I’m really excited about that because it was my first time producing a feature. I wrote that script about twelve years ago, and it was based on a personal story when I was my brother’s caregiver when he had bladder cancer, but it’s a comedy. It took a long time to raise the money. I’ve never gone through that process because everything I’ve ever done has been very studio or Hollywood. And we raised the money and did it independently here in Austin in the summer. So I’m really excited about that. It’s been a labor of love for the last few years.

How was having more creative control as a producer with such a personal script? And how was the transition from writing about the apocalypse to something so intimate?

I wrote it quickly—I didn’t really write it to sell it. It was almost like therapy. I gave it to my agent Stephen, and we had some interest from one producer. They wanted me to do a big rewrite, but at the time, I was writing a movie for Warner Brothers. Then a colleague of mine at UT who’s a director said, Hey, do you have anything that would be inexpensive, you know, that we could maybe make independently here? I showed him the script, not thinking about it. But he really loved it. And he didn’t want me to change it. We did a stage-read reading for the Austin Film Festival, which went really well, and I made adjustments, especially for budget. But I felt like I was in complete creative control, for sure.

The good thing about producing it years later is that I got to step back from it. Rewrite it with distance. And I did get permission from all my family members, but nobody’s name is the same, and the characters are different. And then we did a huge casting call with a casting director out of LA, which was excellent. And then we ended up casting Jasmine Batchelor, who is a black woman. And so that made it different. Because she played a part based on me, and obviously, I’m not a black woman, and that changes the dynamic, but it’s about a mixed family. My family is mixed, and we do have different races, different fathers, mothers, and so on. So the casting, you know, helped change things. It was a fun process to have that control but also that distance. The first draft was based on us, but by the time we made the movie, it was really just an inspiration.

We’re looking forward to seeing it! Thank you so much for your time, Cindy.

Cindy McCreery was a Walt Disney/ABC Feature Writing Fellow and has since sold feature projects to New Line Cinema, Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, National Geographic Films, Warner Brothers, MGM, and Lionsgate.  She also writes for television and has sold projects to SyFy Channel, Disney Channel, NBC, Universal Television, and AMC’s Shudder.   Cindy has been teaching screenwriting and television writing since 2004 at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and is currently an Associate Professor at The University of Texas at Austin in The Department of Radio-TV-Film.

Jordan Hill received his MFA at FIU as a Lawrence Sanders Fellow. He is a Sundance Co//ab Imagined Futures runner-up, Screencraft Cinematic Short Story finalist, and is currently a Fulbright Scholar based in Sardinia.