Equipped: Tips and Quips from creator and executive producer Samm Hodges
July 27, 2022
What makes a successful writer tick? How do they handle bad news? How have others changed their lives and how do they pay it forward? If you want to learn from the best, you’ve come to the right place.
Read on below for a glorious dive into the mind of:
Creator of Downward Dog
Years in the WGA: 6
Samm, most people may know you as the creator of Downward Dog on ABC, but a lot of your current work has veered away from comedy. How many projects do you have in development right now?
Six at the moment, but yeah, none of them are comedies. Some dramas with funny moments, but I’m also working with mystery and thriller elements. One of my passions is writing about class, disability, and rejects, in the most humanist, joyful, chaotic way possible.
Not just writing what you know, but writing what a lot of people are experiencing but don’t get to see represented on screen.
Exactly. We grew up on about $8k a year, and I’ve had a stutter all my life. Not being able to speak growing up, was really intense. I know there’s some conversations about disability happening now, but even now, the invisible disabilities, you still feel like people think you’re faking. I can speak clearly now because I’m jumping around words, but I can’t read a paragraph back to you without stuttering.
What has it been like to have a stutter in an industry where you need to pitch and sell your ideas?
When you go through the checklist of my childhood experience: my mom died when I was 7, experienced extreme poverty, went to school dirty, experienced abuse... of all those things, not being able to express myself verbally and defend myself verbally was by far the most traumatic of all those things. But I think some people view having a stutter as a cute tick. Like “Oh, I like it, it makes you more interesting.” And I realize they don’t understand. They don’t get it.
I learned to make fun of my stutter, because when I stutter I’m not uncomfortable, but everyone else is. So I learned to do that to make everyone more comfortable. But I can’t stutter in a pitch, and I’ve learned techniques to help me not stutter in a pitch, but it’s fucked up that I can’t just speak in my usual way. I basically have to be in character to pitch.
It’s one thing to be able to laugh at yourself to get levity for something you’re going through, but it’s another thing to feel like you have to laugh at yourself to make yourself more palatable to others.
Yeah, it’s a survival mechanism and on a biological level, humans have an aversion to anything that looks like it could be a flaw. Whether that’s a face that’s less symmetrical or a speech impediment. I don’t think judging or shaming people about their reactions to disability helps, but I am surprised at how little understanding there is in the world about disability.
Especially when you consider that the disabled community is the only community anyone can join at any time, and you probably will, and the odds of you joining it increase with age.
What kind of things inspire you? Do you have a favorite fiction book?
Kurt Vonnegut’s The Monkey House is the book that most changed my life. It’s a collection of short stories. Vonnegut is such an iconoclast. He’s so funny and so heartfelt at the same time and really pushing things. Maybe Cat’s Cradle as well. There’s a passage in Cat’s Cradle, I’m gonna butcher it, but it’s this guy talking about the meaning of life, and he goes “God made mud, and some of that mud got to sit up and look around.”
I found the full quote, here:
Yeah, that’s it. I always think now, as a nontheistic, spiritually-interested atheist, I think that’s a well-rarified meaning. I don’t know what life all means, but I know I got to be here. And I just feel gratitude at having gotten to be here, that’s the core meaning behind my life at this point."
That’s so beautiful. They say you need to take in more than you put out so you don’t burn out. Where else besides books do you draw inspiration from when you need input?
I play a lot of music. I’ll stop what I’m writing, I’ll jam on guitar or piano. I’m not fantastic, but I’ll find an emotional mood and riff. And then when I’m in that emotional zone I’ll go back to the draft. I’ll also spend time in the park with my kids. I’ll spend time with friends. I read a lot, fiction and non-fiction. I’ll go through at least a book a week. It’s amazing how reading a book about ancient history, will inspire a joke in a modern character.
Do you have any favorite writing habits, tools, or tips?
My favorite tool for writing is to start with meditation. I find that writing and meditation are the same mental challenge. It’s to be present as thoughts appear and [to] be non-judgmental about them. I find myself writing way more pages, and way better if I do that first.
That’s such a great tip. I feel like it’s one of those tips people will read and think, I should totally do that, and then never do it. I wonder why we sometimes ignore stuff we know would be good for us.
It’s admitting weakness, you know? We're such irrational creatures and to admit that it’s embarrassing in some ways.
Do you have a life motto of any kind? Or if you had to put something on a t-shirt, what would it say?
Be nice to yourself, is one. If I was giving advice to a young person – there’s this idea of if you do well in small things, your work will be seen in the courts of kings. So do a good job when you think no one is watching. And do excellent work for its own sake. Because the work will be excellent, but it will also attract people who want to back you.
It’s long for a t-shirt but that’s great advice.
How about “try hard when you think no one’s watching.”
No, no, let’s not shorten it, haha. What’s a TV show or film that has stuck with you, personally, or as a teaching tool that’s blown your mind?
In the film space, I’ve been watching more and more Mike Leigh films. I think he’s the best. He did Secrets and Lies, Naked, and High Hopes. He’s a UK director who has this radical writing process where he has a vague idea of his films and then casts all the characters. Then he writes the first scene and rents the location for the first scene and then the actors will rehearse the first scene for weeks and then when it’s polished, he’ll bring in the crew and they’ll watch the performance and figure out how to film it, and then they’ll go and write the next scene. And they’ll go in order, and it creates this really life-like flow. The characters are so nuanced and fully fleshed out, and it’s so compelling. He also loves working-class people and writes them so clearly. I love his work.
What’s something you know now that you wish you knew when you first entered a writer’s room? Any advice for upcoming writers?
Yes, and it’s the Mark Duplass, 2015 South By Southwest thing of, when you have a little success, you’re gonna get reps, you’re gonna get meetings all over town, and everyone’s gonna love you, and nothing’s gonna happen. And if you DO sell something, you’re gonna be in development for five years and it’s not gonna get made. Or if it does, it’s not gonna be what you want for it to be. The whole point of all of that is, you HAVE to go make shit.
I’m filming a lot of my own stuff now, finding my own financiers, making stuff I really want to be making with the people I want to make it with. Because the system will not put your project forward. The cavalry is not coming. You have to be the one who drags things screaming into existence. Whether that includes a buyer or a pod or not, things will die without you doing that. And if it doesn’t die, it’s because you kicked it into happening.
And this isn’t something to be angry about or cynical about. It’s just true. Things will probably die unless you make them happen.
We need each other to remind us of that because this industry can be so disorienting. One last question: What does paying it forward look like for you?
To me, that comes down to who is portrayed in our scripts. Having real stories and representation about poverty, class, disability, rejects. Everything I grew up with and have lived [through]. I have a real passion for people on the fringe. Whoever is the least trending group to care about, that’s who I want to write about.
Written by: Liz ThompsonLiz Thompson is a screenwriter and freelance development consultant. She has one show currently in development, is featured on The BitchList 2020, and won the 2019 Tracking Board Launch Pad Julian Silver mentorship. In between outlining and pitching she runs The Writer’s ARC group on Facebook, and can be found on Twitter at @howtoliz.