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The Bricks of Breaking in: Showrunner Glen Mazzara on building your career and craft

January 19, 2022
6 min read time

It was the books showrunner Glen Mazzara (Damien, The Walking Dead, The Shield) read as a child that ignited a lifetime passion for writing. As a little kid, he started creating comic books and short stories — experiences Mazzara remembers fondly.

“I would read a book and that would inspire me. I wrote a very cool short story I think in second or third grade called Danger on Ice, which was about motorcycle racing on ice tracks. It was pretty good.” 

Finding that he liked telling stories  and creating a tone and spell as somebody read his work — Mazzara showed his high school English teacher a detective story he had written. The response was not what he expected. 

The teacher told him, “This is terrible,” then advised that a person needs to read all the great literature in the world before learning to write. 

Mazzara set on this mission, reading and studying stories for years but not writing any himself. In his mid-twenties, Mazzara’s wife reminded him, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write.” That got Mazzara back to his creative pursuits. He wrote short stories, a play, screenplays, and eventually he found his way to television. 

One of the keys to Mazzara’s success with both getting his start and growing his career is dedication to the work. To write one of his early specs, he joined The Museum of Television & Radio so he could watch all the available episodes of Homicide before ever sitting down to write a spec for the show. 

“I always say I invented binge-watching because I went and watched Homicide over the course of two days.” 

It’s this kind of dedication that Mazzara looks for in the writers he works with. It’s also what he encourages in those who are looking to break into the industry as a way to stand out in the crowd. From writing a sample to getting a showrunner meeting, preparation and commitment are incredibly important. Another essential element for Mazzara is the ability to do research. 

“You need to know what seasons I ran and you need to know The Shield, because you need to know what kind of storyteller I am,” he said.

“How can you say that you’re a good match for me if you haven’t done your research on me? That shows that you have not done your job, that you are not committed to your job. You did not go above and beyond. I expect you to be able to click on a streamer and see a couple of episodes that I wrote and have an opinion on them.” 

Writers should also take stock of the unique skills they bring to the room and learn how to speak about themselves. Tell stories or anecdotes from your life that can connect with the person you’re talking to or the project you’re talking about. 

“You’re going for a job as a storyteller. You have to talk about yourself in a way that is showcasing all that you can do,” he said. 

“Too many writers just run their résumé. They say, ‘I grew up watching TV’ or, ‘I learned English watching TV.’ That’s a big thing I’ve heard a dozen times now. A lot of people work as assistants to reps or whatever, so people have very similar résumés. You’re not doing yourself a favor talking about your résumé unless you can tell it in an interesting story fashion.” 

For those like Mazzara who come to writing as a second career, he recommends that you identify what skills you developed in your first career that you can then bring to the table in a second. 

“Many people, when they come in to interview for a job, are apologetic because they’re new to the career and they feel like I did: that you don’t deserve to be here. ‘I’m a fraud.’ The truth is, we develop skills in our first career that do help,” he said.

“For example, as a hospital administrator, as a manager of an emergency room, I knew how to handle a crisis, I knew how to handle a budget. I knew how to be hyperorganized. I knew how to manage a small staff. So I had a lot of professional organizational skills that were actually perfect training for being a showrunner.” 

When it comes to craft, Mazzara feels that expectations are often set too high for newcomers. 

“There are a lot of unfair demands on writers because we’ve shifted from writing spec scripts to writing original pilots. Writing a pilot is very sophisticated business. Most veteran writers can’t do it well, so to expect a new writer to do it on their own without going through a development process is really, to me, absurd,” he said. 

“Too many writers worry about setting up the show and what opportunities are going to play out for story later, without realizing that a TV pilot is setting the stage for some character that the audience is going to want to spend an incredible amount of time with.” 

Mazzara adds that the vast majority of scripts he reads put forward plot and few have a sequence that showcases the main character. Overall though, the biggest mistake he sees from up-and-coming writers is that people don’t give their character a want so that their character is motivated going into any scene. 

“Very often beginner writers have their characters float into a scene and then someone asks them a question, someone gives them a story, someone gives them news and that activates them. They don’t have any energy before that scene starts. The scene only exists to activate the character, but the character should always be active and driven by something they want from the top, otherwise they’re not going to be compelling enough to drive a series. They’re also not going to be compelling enough to get my interest,” he said. 

As someone who is well known for supporting and encouraging writers of all levels, Mazzara reflects on mentoring and the writing community. 

“Mentoring is important, but really what we want is sponsorship. I can give you advice on what to do, but it really helps somebody if I can make a call. It helps if I can spend some of my credibility to send somebody your script or say, ‘Here’s someone I believe in, I can vouch for,’” he said. 

“If you’re looking for a mentor, look for someone in the field who’s doing the work that you want to be doing so you can follow on their path, but also then you can add to them.” 

He also reminds us to be respectful of how we ask and what we ask for. Sending a script without it being asked for, or getting help and then completely dropping off the radar can give a mentor a negative view of a writer. 

“I have to admit that I do become emotionally invested in the people I mentor and the people I care about. But sometimes they move on and I find that they don’t stay in touch, so then I start to feel like I was used,” he said.

“I could see how they don’t want to overstay their welcome, but there’s nothing wrong with an email every so often that’s not asking for something. That’s just saying, ‘Hey, I saw you’re working on this project. Good luck with it. It seems cool. You’ll do a great job.’” 

If you’re mulling over what to write next, or if you’ve been hired on a show or project, Mazzara shares something he learned through the challenges he’s had to overcome in his own career. 

“When you commit to a project, to do a good job you really have to dedicate yourself. We all know you have to find that passion for it. I really believe you have to mine your inner emotional life and find some emotional connection to the material,” he said.

“I can’t just execute a show. I need to say, ‘Why is this character a version of me? What is my trauma, my wound, my pain? What am I dealing with that I can give so I understand the characters and I can write that character from the inside out?’” 

Mazzara suggests that we don’t really write what we know, but we should instead write what we love. This way we'll have that emotional connection to the work. 

“You try to infuse your own personal story within it. Realize that people may not accept it just because they don’t know. They may not have as deep of context or as deep of an understanding for that material, so that’s why it seems odd to them or it seems like it’s not going to work,” he said. 

“You’re understanding the material in a much deeper way. Just realize that a lot of times they’re reacting to the marketplace and as creators, we have vision and we envision a marketplace.” 

Mazzara leaves writers with this advice: “Trust your original voice. Realize that your story is worth telling.”

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