On The Rise With…Daniel Tuch
Hey guys! I know it’s been awhile, but…welcome back to “On The Rise With…”! This month’s interview is with up-and-coming television writer Daniel Tuch (pronounced ‘tush’). Daniel is a talented writer who has worked on shows like “Burn Notice” and the new Amazon series “Hand of God”. (Check it out if you haven’t done so already!)
This interview is especially tailor made for writers looking to break into TV, as Daniel shares some great insight not only on how he broke into one of the toughest fields in entertainment, but how you, too, might be able to get a golden ticket of your own. So please, sit back, enjoy this funny, talented guy’s answers, and take a gander at his favorites at the end. You may be surprised by one of his answers… and I assure you, it is not a prank on my part…
Michael Marcelin: When did you know you first wanted to be a writer?
Daniel Tuch: Ever since I was a little kid, I used to write short stories. And I remember that I didn’t want to finish them. I remember this one short story…I entered the Goosebumps Writing Contest when I was a little kid. I wrote this short story called “Welcome to Splesville”, and I thought it was like “Splendidville”. I think “Pleasantville” had just come out and I was like, “Well, I can’t call it ‘Pleasantville’, unfortunately, thanks to Gary Ross.” (laughs) So I had to call it Splesville. And I didn’t want to finish the story. My dad said he wouldn’t buy me a present ever again until I did. So I think I ended up doing some Deus Ex Machina ending…like dropped a nuclear bomb on it, or light killed the bad guy. Something silly…because I was like, “I just want to finish this.” But I think the big thing was, I wanted to act in high school, and I went to college thinking I was going to do that. And when I came back my first year of college…to visit my high school and give a talk to my old English creative writing class and read some poetry I had written in high school…I talked about writing and being a double major in English and Theater. My English creative writing teacher asked me if I wanted to write in TV, and I said “Yeah, I do”. So she hooked me up with her son, who was the executive producer on “Prison Break” at the time, Zack Estrin, and he got me my first internship on a show called “Reunion” for FOX, when I was 18. I realized I loved being in a writers room, and I started writing plays in college, and after that, I was like, “I want to be a TV writer. I’d rather do that.”
MM: What kind of things did you write in high school and college?
DT: Well, in high school, I was actually part of a little film club…I was on the school news station that aired a news show at the school every Monday called “480 Seconds”, because that’s how long it was, and I was in a little group in that class called…well first we called ourselves “Group Zero”, then we called ourselves “The Shirtless Film Crew”…and we did a bunch of sketches, so I wrote sketches with my friends, growing up in high school. And in college, I started writing plays. My first play was called “Battle Axes and Parking Tickets in the Cornfields of Calgary”.
MM: That’s a mouthful.
DT: (laughs) Yeah. It was very bad. It was literally just everything I wanted to put in a play. I was just messing around…there were ghosts, and light sabers…it was just me and my friends making every inside joke we could think of inside of a play. And this second play I wrote after that was called “Revolution Over Tea”, which was like an attempt at serious theater about a man who had lost his son who wanted to start a revolution in a café. It was trying to be very Jean Giraudoux “Madwoman of Chaillot”. So yeah, that’s kind of what I got started on: sketch comedies and stupid plays.
MM: Were they produced?
DT: Yeah. We had this theater at our school, called “The Pocket Theater”, and you could apply to have your show done there. They let you rent out rehearsal space, and they gave you a weekend to show your play, and a budget of $100. In fact, my first play, “Battle Axes and Parking Tickets in the Cornfields of Calgary”…the reason I called it that was because they were like, “We have $100 for you. What do you want to buy?” and I was like, I didn’t really need anything, because my props were empty beer cans and everyone was going to wear their own clothes. Then I said, “Well…can I have a battle axe?” And they said, “Is there a battle axe in your play?” And I said, “Now there is.” So I bought a $100 battle axe that I still have to this day.
MM: Everyone knows getting a writer’s assistant job is like running into a unicorn in a field of four leaf clovers. How did you get your first WA job?
DT: I…was running through a field of four leaf clovers…
DT: So, I got my first internship, like I said, when I was 18, and I came back that summer after college to do it. And that internship got me my next internship that second summer home from college on a show called “Big Shots”, which led to me getting to know these two non-writing executive producers who I really impressed, so they hired me as an executive assistant out of college. Then I became a set PA…then I was a Post-Production assistant, and finally, Zack Estrin, who got me my first internship six years before, calls me and says, “Hey, I’m on a show called ‘The Good Guys’ on FOX…we’re looking for writer’s assistants…do you want to put your hat in the ring?” So I met with Matt Nix’s assistant first, and had an interview with him and turned in a script…then I met with Matt, and he sort of tested me out, and…I got my first writer’s assistant job on “The Good Guys”. And then they liked me on “The Good Guys” a lot, and the “Burn Notice” writer’s assistant got promoted, so I got to go to “Burn Notice”. I spent three years on “Burn Notice” as a writer’s assistant there.
MM: What was it like working on “Burn Notice”?
DT: It was great. It was a really cool learning environment. Matt was really big on making sure everybody got the chance to learn how to be better writers, including all of the assistants. They let us at least take a stab at writing a scene for every episode sometimes, or writing an outline beat. If you earned it, you were able to talk in the room and speak at the table. Matt Nix was so professorial, and big on making sure that this show was a launching pad for his staff: if you were already a writer, you were going to leave being a showrunner…and if you were an assistant, you were going to leave being a writer, which was the case for me. But yeah, it was really fun. There were a lot of pranks. We had “Febearduary” one year, where I grew this beard, which turned into “Marchstache”, a competition to see who could grow a mustache the longest…and there was a pot we put a lot of money into if we won it. And then after that, it became “Foxtober”, which became a game of who could get me to shave my mustache first. And I had to keep it for eight months. We did paintball together…it was a super cool, playful environment. Hanging out in the writers room was like hanging out with a group of your buddies. So yeah, I had a really good time on “Burn Notice”. I definitely miss it.
MM: You worked your way up from WA to writing two episodes on that series. How did that come about?
DT: Well, season five was my first season…season six was my second season…and Matt, again, was very open to letting everyone have a shot, so he let everyone pitch episodes, and…none of mine were good. No one liked any of them, so they ignored it (chuckles). But I got lucky, because we got a bit behind schedule, and episode 14 was coming up, and no writer had really claimed it yet. We had a calendar, where this particular episode is supposed to be broken by this day, and this script has to be written by this day, and I’m looking at the calendar and episode 14 is falling further and further behind. I know it’s going to get done no matter what, but I remember thinking, “How convenient would it be if I happened to have something written by the time it’s due?” So I came up with a story based off of an article I’d read about a drug called Succinylcholine, which is a drug used in ambulances that sort of paralyzes everything but the human heart. They use it when they intubate people. And I thought it would be cool if you use that to fake someone’s death in an interrogation. So I worked on a pitch and I broke an episode by myself, and I kind of went to all the other writers in the room, and I asked them for their notes and their help, and kind of at the last minute, I asked Matt, “Hey, do you have a story yet for this episode?” He said, “No”, and then I said, “What if I already wrote one?” They ended up giving me the story credit, and Matt let me write half the teleplay with him, and they sent me to Miami to co-produce the episode with one of the actual writers. So yeah, it’s a great example of me not going home at night…I just stayed and wrote so much. I just waited for my opportunity. And sort of the exact same thing happened in season seven…where I pitched my ideas…everyone hated them…and once episode nine was coming around, I was like, “Hey, I happen to have an idea…”
MM: For our up-and-coming writers reading this, tell us what it’s like for a writer when a series ends, and there are so many possibilities out there for you.
DT: Well, it’s kind of like you’re on a dandelion…and then the dandelion gets blown, and all the little spores go off into the distance, and you kind of grab onto one of them. (laughs) But that’s the great news. You’re on a show, you’ve done a good job…I value writers, and I really admire the writers I work with, so it’s easy, but I like to get to know everybody really well, and I try to prove myself enough that everyone’s going to want to take someone they know onto their next show. So I always get lunch with all the writers…even now, I still get lunch with everyone…even the assistants…to make sure I maintain those relationships. If you’re lucky…people want to work with people they know. They don’t want to get into the shit and have someone they don’t like when they get there, so they really prefer to work with someone they know is going to work hard and they know they enjoy. That’s what happened after “Burn Notice”. A couple of writers actually asked me to work with them on other projects, so I worked on a few different pilots, and different shows, all because I maintained those relationships from “Burn Notice”. I think it’s a great opportunity when a show ends, because you have eight writers in a room, maybe, and six of them are going to end up on great shows, and a couple of them are going to be showrunners, which is the case with Ben (Watkins) and “Hand of God”. I mean, it’s always sad when a show ends, but it’s an awesome opportunity for someone at the assistant level.
MM: You next landed in the writer’s room of Amazon’s new hit series, “Hand of God” as a staff writer. How excited were you to see your career going forward so fluidly?
DT: Very, but it definitely wasn’t fluid. After “Burn Notice” ended, I got hired as helping other writers with notes on their pilots that they sold. I was doing like $100 a day kind of work. And that was for a year or two. Then I got hired as Ben’s script coordinator/assistant for about a year on the pilot. So it definitely wasn’t like being a writer’s assistant on “Burn Notice”, having written and produced two episodes, to going straight to being a staff writer. I still had a good year of sort of being unemployed and doing day long writer jobs (laughs), and then finally being an executive assistant again. And then “Hand of God” was picked up to series, and almost a year after we had started the pilot, we went to series.
MM: How different was it going from working for a TV network show to a streaming series?
DT: Not really different. I mean, I think there’s a lot of differences between USA and Amazon, for example, but it’s about their content, and how they work with writers, and people they hire. As far as writing a TV show, I don’t think anyone felt like the way we made the show is any different, except for the fact that Amazon was very open to letting us make the show that we wanted to make and go crazy. They weren’t afraid to take risks with us. And I think you probably get more notes with a USA show, especially in the beginning, where Amazon…who definitely had some fantastic notes…but I think they were more, “We trust you to make the show you want to make.”
MM: Aside from your staff writing gig, what other projects do you have in the works?
DT: Well, I’m writing other things. I have two pilots that I’m trying to go out with right now. But the biggest focus is, I’m writing a new script right now, because the pilots I’d written before “Hand of God” don’t reflect the darkness that I displayed while working on “Hand of God.” They were all sort of adventure-comedic one hours, and now I’m trying to work on a much darker hour long.
MM: Are there any genres you’re hoping to tackle that you haven’t done so, yet?
DT: I’ve always wanted to write a romantic comedy. And I did write a pilot that I’m really proud of that I want to do more with, which is sort of a ghost hunting show. I would like to write a straight up horror movie. A straight up spooky, ghost-y horror movie.
MM: Every writer has his “genre kryptonite”. What’s the one genre you’re terrified to sit down and write within?
DT: It was period pieces, but I just wrote a period piece, and it was really fun. And I think that was the big lesson for me, because I used to think I could never write a period. I do a lot of research, and this one, I set it in 1850s Cambridge, and I went on Google Books, and I found a journal by a guy who went to Cambridge in 1854, and he wrote about every day of his life for three years. So I picked up the language, I picked up the way daily patterns went, and once I spent three or four months learning about everything about it, it wasn’t that hard. So, I don’t think there’s anything I’m terrified of, because that was my number one answer a few years ago, and now that I’ve done that…there’s nothing I’m afraid of. Bring it on. (laughs)
MM: What advice would you give writers looking to break through, like you have, in television?
DT: For younger writers, find internships and don’t complain if you’re just getting coffee for people, because I just got coffee for people, and those people hired me two years later. If you can just make those relationships and impress people, then that’s all that matters. I think there’s a lot of shitty stuff that went on, like with Darren Aronofsky interns suing because they weren’t learning enough…it’s just, you learn what you want to learn. And I think that those relationships are super important…that environment is super important…spending time in a writers room as an intern…spending time in post- production. That’s another thing: get any job on a show. I was a post-production assistant on the new “Melrose Place”, and it came out as I was leaving for “The Good Guys” that I wanted to write, and the showrunner was like, “Oh, if we only knew you wanted to write, we would have loved to have gotten you a job working in the writers room.” So being in that world is so important.
I was a post PA, a set PA, an executive assistant…if you’re really tenacious and friendly, people are going to like you and they’re going to want to help you get to other places. So just be in that environment as close as you can. The other thing is to just be prolific and get lots of notes from people who are mean. I don’t think getting notes from people who aren’t writers is helpful. I think there’s the Blake Snyder approach of pitching to everybody…which is a great idea…because if you’re pitching and you see their eyes glazing over, and they’re bored, then that’s a bad sign. But when it comes to reading a script, anyone can read it and say if they like it or not, sure, but only writers or people who know that science…the anatomy of scripts…can tell you what needs to be fixed.
I got my first offer to read my script for a staffing job when I was 20, and it was an ABC show, and I didn’t have a good pilot ready, so I was like, “Nope! No thanks!”, because it wasn’t anywhere near ready. And I’m glad I didn’t turn it in, or I would have really sullied that relationship. But I got the executive assistant job on that show, and I learned a lot that way.
MM: And if anyone would like to follow you and your career, what would be the best way to do so?
DT: @funnylastname on Twitter.
Movie: Memento; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
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TV Show: Fringe; Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Book: American Tragedy; For Whom The Bell Tolls
Writer: Ernest Hemingway; T.S. Elliot
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Game: Mass Effect
Cartoon: The Venture Brothers
Music Artist: Taylor Swift