The Bricks of Breaking In: TV Showrunner Moira Kirland On Staffing Season
January 30, 2020
Growing up with a playwright father, The InBetween showrunner Moira Kirland was interested in writers at a very young age. Yet even with that influence in her life, she didn’t start out with the goal of becoming a writer herself.
Instead, Kirland wanted to work with writers, coming out to Los Angeles thinking she’d eventually become an entertainment executive.
She relates her hesitation to dive into writing to an idea David Milch talks about, “There’s an insecurity in there of like, well, that’s not for me. That’s for Eugene O’Neill. That’s for F. Scott Fitzgerald. I can’t do that. That’s not for me. It took me a long, long time to get past that.”
Kirland got a job working for Steven Bochco, reading scripts during the day and working on the great American novel at home—a process that was taking forever. “I would rewrite and rewrite, and I could never seem to move forward with it.”
That struggle led to encouragement from her screenwriter boyfriend to shift her efforts. “He basically said, ‘Don’t be stupid. Stop writing a novel, write a screenplay. You can do it.’”
That change in medium brought an excitement to the page. Kirland recalls that those first scripts of hers were pretty awful. With practice and persistence, her abilities developed and she signed with an agent in Endeavor’s Feature Department.
After getting her first staffing gig on Dark Angel, Kirland went on to write for shows like Haunted, The Dead Zone, Medium, Castle and Madam Secretary. With NBC’s The InBetween, Kirland has now stepped into the role of showrunner, giving her a new perspective on writing and creating television.
One of her biggest revelations as a showrunner came with staffing and a memorable encounter with a lower level writer that just blew her away; who always circles small talk in the room back to the show.
“Here’s what I realized being on the other side. The showrunner is so exhausted talking about their own show and thinking about their own show, and meeting people and talking about the show, that when you come in, there is often a real urge from the showrunner to not talk about the show [in the room].”
Kirland’s biggest tip for those trying to staff on their first series, “You’ve got to hijack that meeting and talk about the show and how you feel about that show. Especially when you’re the lower level and there are so many people vying for your job. You have to feel passionate about the show.”
She drives her point home with questions writers can ask of themselves, “So you have a great meeting because you’re connecting on a level, but when you’ve left the room, have you been the person they want to hire? Are you the person that understands their show? I don’t know. I know I like you. Maybe I like your script. But have you made the impression you intended to make?”
Kirland offers advice from personal experience. “Never love your day job. I did love my day job and stayed there for ten years. I think if I had been less happy there, I might have come to the realization that there were other things I wanted to do sooner. Not loving your day job if you want to be a writer keeps you motivated. You’re just paying the rent. That’s really what you’re doing.”
She further encourages writers to believe in themselves as they go down this path. “I once said something to my mother that she quotes back to me all the time. I was taking a risk and I’m not really a risk taker. She said, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ I told her, ‘I have to bet on myself. I never lose when I bet on myself. Because win or lose, I’m better for it.’”
“So I try to remind myself and others in this, you gotta have that belief in yourself. You’ve got to believe you’ll get another job. You gotta believe you can do the job that you’ve just taken.”
Even with a strong belief in yourself, Kirland knows this isn’t an easy profession to pursue. “This business is like a bronco, it’s trying to throw you off every minute. You’ve just got to hang on and do your best and wait until the buzzer sounds.”
One of the biggest challenges Kirland had to work through was something she still sees newer writers dealing with. “When you come in, you think you know a lot more than you do. My challenge was learning what I didn’t know and knowing what I did know.”
“When you’re a new writer, you don’t have the playbook. And here’s the thing though, something I’ve learned myself, when the showrunner is sitting there in silence and staring at the board, it’s not that they haven’t thought of the thing you want to pitch, it’s that they’ve thought about it, they’ve done the work in their head, they’ve taken it to its conclusion, and they already know it’s not going to work.”
She adds, “Everybody loves passion, but there’s a point where you just have to go look, I’m working on this show and it is this person’s vision and this is what they want to do, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
Up-and-coming writers always want to know how to get staffed. When hiring for The InBetween, Kirland notes, “A million referrals come in, which is lovely.”
“One of the best things that writers do, and I think it’s in sharp relief now that we don’t have agents, is that we advocate for each other.”
According to Kirland, another helpful outlet for staffing rooms has been, “The #WGAStaffingBoost and all of that on Twitter. We all really stepped up for ourselves and for each other. Everybody reaches out and if you’re a decent person, you write back and say I love that person, you should hire them.”
She does offer a word of caution on Twitter and similar outlets. “I feel like social media is a bit of a minefield. Getting in arguments with showrunners who are on social media is just not going to help you. That’s not going to get you anything. Being the smartest kid in the room who hates a new show, it can come back and bite you.”
She further suggests, “I think it’s okay to edit yourself on social media or make the decision and say this is who I am. Then live with those consequences. There will be consequences, whether you know about them or not.”
For those writers just getting their careers going, Kirland passes on this last bit of advice, “Your reputation early on is all you have. You’ve got your sample and have as many as you can. You’ve got people who will say nice things about you. That’s kind of all you’ve got when you’re starting out.”
With that in mind, she recommends, “You should always be writing. You should have nothing but samples stacked up, because everybody is going to want something different.”
Written by: Kelly Jo BrickKelly Jo Brick is a television and documentary writer and producer. She wrote the Telly Award-winning film PAUSE and the Frank Lloyd Wright documentary The Jewel In The Woods. A Sundance Fellow and winner of Scriptapalooza TV, Kelly Jo has been a panelist at the Austin Film Festival, Wisconsin Writers’ Institute and for Stage 32. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJoBrick.