|Holly Sorensen grew up in Montana. She was given scholarships to the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, Washington and to Dartmouth College, where she studied philosophy and film. Holly later became an entertainment journalist for print & TV and was the Senior Editor for “Premiere” and has written for "Us Weekly," "InStyle," "O," and other publications. In 2000, she served as President of Production for The Shooting Gallery. And in 2008, Holly wrote and created "Make It Or Break It" for ABC. She is currently developing "Vain" for ABC & producer Mark Gordon as well as a legal procedural for CBS & Generate.
You were born and raised in Montana. How did that possibly shape you as a writer down the road?
I count growing up in Montana as one of the biggest blessings of my life. The topography is sort of tattooed on my soul. Recently I’ve had the craving to spend a lot more time there as a writer – I’ve lived so many places now, I’ve been so many people, that its hard to recall the inner voice of each place, if that makes sense. I feel like every place I’ve lived and everything I’ve done has created a slightly different inner voice inside me. But Montana is my native tongue and that particular voice inside quickens in me whenever I am there. Montana has a unique literary tradition, and I think just the pace of life there prepares you to be a writer. I spent a lot of time as a kid alone, in nature, just my imagination, no technology.
When did you find yourself truly interested in writing for film and/or TV? Or even just writing stories, etc.?
I read and wrote stories pretty rabidly as a kid, and then kind of lost it all in adolescence. Some researcher wrote a book – I think it was Deborah Tannen – about how girls tend to lose their creative voice in adolescence and that definitely happened to me. I think that’s more of a generational thing because my friend’s daughters are some of the most creative people I know. But I had absolutely no hope that I could ever actually be a writer – that was for other people, it was too audacious to even think about. Where I was from there was no model for that. Now I go to a coffee shop and see college kids writing their novels and screenplays and I marvel at the entitlement. Where on earth did they get the idea they could actually be a writer? At that age? And if writing was impossible, screenwriting was a whole other world. When I was in college there wasn’t this cultural idea that people could be a screenwriter or go to Hollywood like there is in colleges now. But I never lost a place buried very deep inside me that writing was what I would love to do, if I ever could.
You attended Annie Wright School in Tacoma, Washington and also Dartmouth College. You studied philosophy and film. Why philosophy along with film? What were your experiences like in college in terms of studying filmmaking? Writing scripts?
Both boarding school and college feel like sort of happy accidents. I got a scholarship to boarding school on the Puget Sound – all my high school friends were older and off to college, and I was ready to put small town life behind me, so when I was given the opportunity, with the support of my parents, I went. I wasn’t really looking to go, my mom just saw in the paper that they were interviewing for this scholarship. In retrospect it was deeply loving of my parents to let me leave home.
I’d never been east of the Mississippi, didn’t visit any of the colleges I got into, mostly on the east coast, and picked Dartmouth out of some sort of romanticism I think. It wasn’t the greatest fit for me, I was really insecure and a bit odd and not the confident model of a Dartmouth co-ed. I was also pretty much an iconoclast, and the Dartmouth of that time, the preppy handbook era, was not so welcoming to outrageously dressed thrift store girls. Humorously, my contemporaries report they found me bad ass and intimidating; of course I was the intimidated one, of all that money and history. I didn’t study any writing there – remember, that was for other people – but they had a strong theory and a strong documentary focus and I studied a lot of that. I’ve always been big on the big questions – life, death, meaning, soul - so religion and philosophy were natural to me. Dartmouth has a great faculty and many classes were extremely intimate. I was in one seminar on the Christ figure in literature (where I saw “Cool Hand Luke” for the first time) with just one other student.
After working as a bartender at Wrigley Field and as a cook in restaurant and even as Gloria Steinem’s assistant, you worked as Senior Editor for “Premiere” magazine and also wrote for publications like “US Weekly.” Did you learn anything from these various experiences that has carried over to your career as a writer? How did writing for “Premiere” shape or influence your interest in working in the TV and film business? What perspective did it give you about Hollywood? Are there many or any things you look at differently now from when you were writing about Hollywood vs. now writing for Hollywood?
I never studied screenwriting or anything about Hollywood, but you could not get a better education on any of it than rising in the ranks of “Premiere” magazine in the late ‘90s. Many, many times in my life I’ve been in the right place at a seminal time, and this was no exception. For the young’ins, “Premiere” was the first and only outlet that focused on Hollywood and the business of Hollywood. It was the first to ever publish box office or to talk about what that meant. It preceded “EW” and “Access” and all of that, it was the only game in town, it was read by everyone in NY and LA as well as superfans. It was staffed by some of the best film and entertainment journalists working, and some of the best journalists of our time, period. Susan Lyne (who went on to run ABC) Cyndi Stivers (who launched “Time Out New York,” and now edits the “Columbia Journalism Review”) the great writer Peter Biskind, Kim Masters, Nancy Griffin, Rachel Abromowitz, Chis Connelly, John H Richardson, I could go on and on – not to mention the assistants from there who’ve gone on to be key players in Entertainment Journalism today – top editors and writers at so many places. (Max Potter, Christine Spines, Oliver Jones, Mark Malkin, Jill Bernstein, Josh Rottenberg) The “Premiere” of THAT time was exemplary, and it was exciting. I don’t think anything like it exists today. As an associate editor, you’d call Steven Spielberg, and he would take your call. “Premiere” had that much influence. And as an editor there, you became an absolute expert on the town and how it worked. You read every script, went to the set, talked to the execs, saw the marketing, got deep inside dish about what worked and what did not, and you could just draw your own conclusions from that much access. It was more helpful than any grad school education, I’m convinced. I really learned the bare bones of telling a story from learning how to write for magazines. To this day when I’m trying to get a young writer to open a script in a more compelling way, I think, “you’re burying the lead!” And most recently, I learned that being a magazine editor – the long form arc of how a magazine lays out over months and years, the soliciting the right pitches from “the room”, the seeing into the future… is excellent prep for being a showrunner.
You then came out here in 2000 and served as President of Production for The Shooting Gallery. How did this opportunity manifest itself? How did you go from an editor to heading up production? What was the change like for you? For those not aware of what a president of production does, what were your responsibilities? What was your job like overall?
Another happy accident. I’m a believer in conjuring miracles, but it’s worked for me. Via “Premiere,” I met this brash guy, Larry Meistrich that ran this indie studio, The Shooting Gallery. We shot the shit, we shared a love of football, he said he wanted to produce a TV show giving tips on Fantasy Football ( the first one of its kind). I told him I loved football and gambling and wanted to be on that show – and a week later we were shooting it, and I was one of the hosts. I think we did two seasons, it was called “The Fantasy Football Report.” Larry and I became friends, stayed that way when I went out to LA and started producing, and when the position opened up at SG, he hired me. They needed someone with an indie literary brain and sensibility, but who knew how the town worked. Absolutely another right place, right time situation for me. The place was bull goose loony. Just crazy town. But a blast. We were in the center of the indie film movement when it was blowing up, and our movies like “Slingblade” and “You Can Count on Me” were big parts of it. I loved that job.
I read lots and lots and lots and lots of scripts. Developed many more. Met agents, actors, and writers. Hustled for money, for deals, for any way in hell to help get these things made. There was a lot of hustling at SG. All of it also, it turned out, was also great prep for showrunning.
After The Shooting Gallery shuttered in 2001, you switched gears and started writing. Had this been something on your mind for why? What prompted the change to writing? Was this a difficult decision to make?
I actually wrote a script, right before I took the SG job, with the very smart and interesting actress Traci Lind – it was the very first script I wrote. I was producing a movie at Universal, we hired a writer, and that writer brought along Traci as her co writer. Traci and I became friends. We wrote a script together on a lark, again, the first one I wrote. Neither of us had read any screenplay books or taken a class – but we’d both read a ton of scripts. It was based on this idea I had, and it got us the first agent we gave it to – Mike Sheresky at William Morris (now UTA, still my agent), and the next thing we knew we had a two script deal for Robert Zemekis at Dreamworks and a fun career. I got the Shooting Gallery job at the same time, so I actually was a full time screenwriter and a full time executive for about three years, which frankly almost killed me, and was tough on the partnership too. I had like five days off in three years. When SG went under, I just dropped off the radar for awhile to rest – I even tossed my cell phone for six months, which annoyed all my friends. I had some opportunities to transition to bigger studio jobs, but decided I wanted to write, and I wanted to do it alone. As you know when you leave a writing partnership you have to start from scratch, write a spec, and build your career all over again – which is what I did.
What was your first script like? How did you approach it? At this point, did you feel the need (now) to study any particular books or take any classes on writing or did you dive right in based on your past experiences?
Nope, we just dove in like idiots. Again, never read a book or took a class. It was a black zeitgeisty comedy, pretty prescient now that I think about it, and quite a lot like most of my spec features, which tend to be slightly satirical comedies that really come out of the political/cultural trends of the moment. It will sound so quaint now, wayyyy before reality tv, it was sort of “To Die For”-esque, about a power hungry girl in South Dakota that stages her own kidnapping to become a star. It was a riff on media and celebrity, and it was way before its time. It was way before the “Truman Show” or anything like that.
It’s not a popular idea at DDP, but I’m a big believer that some people can write, some people can’t. Of the folks that can, many, many can write a perfectly adequate script, some might even get made. A lot of smart people can read a screenwriting book or take a class and come out with a script that’s just fine. Maybe even very nice. Maybe even darn good. For those people, it might take ten years to really hit on an idea that works.
But only a tiny percentage have a that rare combo of an original voice, a grip of the medium and all it can do, and a way of seeing things that just clicks into the zeitgeist. Talent in our business is more than just being an adequate writer or even a good writer. It’s a way of seeing patterns, of seeing the world as well. It’s about putting things together in new and fresh ways. I have the gift of seeing that gift in others immediately. I can see it in the first several pages of even a really uneven or structurally miserable script, I can see it in your first script. In fact, often those people haven’t got structure down quite yet. But those are the people I want to work with.
Its something you cannot learn or cultivate, no class or book can teach it. Everything they teach in a class or a book? Any reasonably smart person can learn. That rare gift, you can’t. I’m currently working with three totally newbie writers who have that gift, and I’d love to have time to work with more. They are still learning structure and basic rules, but that’s the easy part.
You wrote and created “Make It Or Break It” for ABC (in 2008). The series followed a group of teen Olympic hopefuls as they trained and prepared for their day in the spotlight. Where did the idea for the show come from? What was writing the pilot like? What was the process in getting this set up?
I have always been interested in exceptional people, and especially what an exceptional person in a family does to that family. What does it to do to the siblings? To the parents marriage? I’m a sucker for the Olympics and find it amazing that people give up their childhood, their lives, and ten years in the life of their family – for one day of Olympic competition. It’s just so inherently dramatic. Gymnastics has so many great themes that are resonant with teen life – body image, perfectionism, individual vs. group (team). The process of getting it set up was – you guessed it – pretty magical and effortless. Instead of going in with a well rehearsed pitch that may or may not be what the net was looking for, I set up a general meeting with the network where we just tossed ideas around. I told them what was on my mind, they reacted immediately to Olympic gymnastics. I was busy writing another pilot and they actually called my agent, told them they wanted to hear the pitch – I literally woke up at 5 am the day of and wrote the pitch – and they bought it in the room. I don’t recommend that as a strategy, btw.
I had a personal tragedy that prevented me from finishing the script that year, the next year was the strike. The network still wasn’t sold on a series about girls and sports, they asked me to write it as a movie, I did. I sold them another pitch based on the fashion industry, was pregnant and on bed rest, about to write it… when they called and said the pilot I wrote years before was going to series. Magic.
Also, you served as the showrunner for its 48 episode run. Can you take us through the basics of being a showrunner? What it entails in terms of putting together a staff? Making sure scripts get done each week? Dealing with ABC Family and their notes? Executives? The other producers (about a dozen)? How does one juggle all the people, opinions and tastes and not lose their mind?
I was the only person on my entire series who had never worked on a TV show before, so it was a pretty grand experiment. Showrunning requires such a wide range of skills. Not every showrunner has them all. It was a huge leap of faith for the network to let me do it. They paired me with a non writing EP with a lot of experience – Paul Stupin – who is the greatest EP and partner a newbie showrunner could ever have. ABC Family was also a wonderful place to get my sea legs. Some really fantastic women over there, who are very supportive of women. As it turned out – everything I’d ever done prepared me for being a showrunner. I’d planned a long creative calendar as a magazine editor. I’d managed lots of people as a production exec. I knew budgets, I knew post production, and I’m a good story breaker. Best of all I’m an excellent judge of talent in others. And I hired brilliant people.
You really need to be a great multi tasker to be a showrunner. Scientists say women are better at that then men, and if that’s true more women will find their way into the job. You also really have to be clear on your point of view and not be wishy washy or people pleasing. Which is why there might currently be more men in the job. It is very much a leadership position. In terms of both running the show and dealing with the network, you need one skill especially – the ability to pick your battles. I think that skill is the hallmark of maturity generally.
You really have to bravely go forward and not live in fear or second guess yourself. Know when a better idea than yours shows up. Keep people motivated and excited. We never once delivered a late outline or script, we often delivered them early. That is just plain respectful to your other creative partners in locations, design, costumes and production
The series ended its run after three seasons. How difficult was it to see it end? Were there many things you still really hoped to do with the characters? Certain storylines? And how tough was it for you and the writing staff to wrap up the series creatively and professionally? What should new TV writers possibly understand about this process?
It was difficult because the best part of being the boss is you get to hire everyone you work with. And we hired great people that we loved working with. To this day we still get together and I am often told “MIOBI” was the best professional experience of many peoples lives. It was also difficult because we were doing something nifty. We were going to the Olympics in real time, and I had planned three years out to have our characters be at the Olympics in the Olympic year. I really thought if supported and doe right it could’ve been a great TV event. The plug was pulled right before that happened. But we were so gratified to what “MIOBI” gave the sport of Gymnastics, it was thrilling to read about how all U.S. Gymnastics Olympians were fans of the show, it was a delight to tweet them, have the cast tweet them, have them answer, be a part of it, even when we were off the air. If we were on, it could’ve been even cooler.
I like my hands in many pots, I generate a ton of ideas, and I was really ready to do new things. You’re tied to a series exclusively in its early years. So I was excited to work on new things. Having said that, it is hard to say goodbye, both to the people and the characters. And there are no platitudes for your show ending. You don’t just “suck it up.” It’s a death. You just have to grieve it, and move on.
What is it like working in a writer’s room? What should aspiring TV writers be aware of and keep in mind in case they get the opportunity to be on staff for a series someday? What are the demands? The pace? The pressures? What is a typical day and writing week like?
Well, I only know one writers room, mine, which was a hilarious, warm, supportive, fabulous place. For newbies, it’s a delicate balance of both not being afraid to participate, and being emotionally and socially sensitive to know when you’re participating too much. I can’t imagine better training for a young writer. From what I’ve heard, our writers room isn’t exactly typical. It was just filled with a lot of heart, a lot of love, and a lot of respect. Everyone has remained good friends and we still get together. I can’t imagine a better gig for a new writer than to be an assistant to a showrunner or a writer’s room assistant. Invaluable. I promoted both of my assistants into the writer’s room and promoted writers room assistants to writers. I also gave scenes to write to anyone in the office or crew that wanted to give it a shot.
My writer’s room ended at six every night. My first co up, the great Joanna Johnson, had two small children at home, I had one. I actually gave birth the day after we wrapped the pilot. I was told I was nuts for hiring another mom, but I instinctively knew that no one wants to get the work done right and get out the door at six like a mom with babies at home. So we were very efficient. I have heard many stories of many rooms that are wildly dysfunctional. I can’t imagine that. That room generally worked 10-6, the writers produced their own episodes on set. If we got ahead, or there wasn’t a quorum (there were some writers on outline, some on script, some on set) I’d have the other writers stay home. I respected them enough not to have them just sit at a desk. We were a soap so we really had to break the whole season in advance, before breaking any episode. I can’t work any other way, I have to know how its going to end. Even when I pitch a series, I know what happens in five years. That of course changes, but I need to have an idea of the biggest picture before I can take the smallest step in creating the world.
In September 2012, you set up an untitled project at ABC/ABC Studios which you wrote. It was based on an idea by you and actress Victoria Smurfit. You will also executive produce along with Mark Gordon. The untitled series will follow three very average girls who break into New York’s beauty industry with a product that holds a wicked secret. You described the untitled project to me at one point as “Sweeney Todd” in a beauty shop. How did you and Victoria come up with this idea? What was the writing process like? (How involved was Victoria?) At what point did Mark Gordon become involved and how did he influence or shape the script?
The idea of a beauty cream based on dead people was Victoria’s. She’s a newbie writer but an accomplished actress, currently working on the Dracula series for NBC. She is one of the people I was referring to when I said you can see talent instantly. She wrote just one script, there were 100 things wrong with it but it had the one mandatory element, that special thing. She has the gift, and she’s a quick learner. In the process of working together on this pilot, called “Vain,” she learned a ton and she’s going to be a great writer.
But the idea really had to be stretched and expanded for network, and we ended up with a bigger pitch that was something like “Sex And the City” meets “Breaking Bad.” Wrestling this idea to the ground was gratifying, but hard, and for some reason, writing this script was hard too. I reached out and got a lot of help on it. Everyone is trying to do the impossible, read the network, and it felt like there were a lot of cooks to service. But I adore the peeps at Mark Gordon. They were true co-creators, great collaborators and I just love them personally as well. I think the script turned out great, and it’s gotten a lot of accolades. But it really pushes the envelope creatively. It’s a big idea. So it’s a leap for a network.
The area where a middle class writer has the most control is in the beginning steps. Because you control who you work with. Often for a young writer, there is an idea that if anyone loves your idea, wants to rep you or wants to produce you, you jump into the sack with them. I’d advise people to really think differently about that. The first steps of a project are when you will have the most power. Use it wisely. Use it especially to sign on to work with great people you love. It’s the most important thing you can do. I love the Mark Gordon boys, and I really dug ABC Studios too. I really adored Paul Lee when he worked at ABC Family. So all of that was a good fit for this project. The Gordon Company got me a blind deal at ABC; I told them about three or four story arenas I was interested in and vetted and massaged with Nick and Brian at Gordon, and they generously said they’d take any of the four. We landed on one, but I swapped it out for “Vain” with the total support of my producers after a month because I really didn’t want to play it safe, I wanted to be audacious and take a big swing. I have another script this season with another group I love, Generate, for CBS. It’s a legal procedural, because I always wanted to write one, and I wanted to write one that was blue sky, not dark, but had relationships you really rooted for. It’s set on the Venice Boardwalk and it’s called “Tattoo Bikini Lawyers.”
Do you outline your scripts first? Write treatments? How do you prepare before you beginning to write? Is there much research involved?
Yes, outlining is the bane but it is absolutely mandatory for me. Outlining is where the real work is. After that, writing is the fun part. Working on a series really hones your outlining ability because it’s mandatory. I do just enough research. With computers now it is so easy. I say “just enough” because researching is one of the easiest ways to avoid writing. I do a lot of research in the very early part of the process, to learn the language of the world I’m creating.
What’s a typical writing day like for you on your own or even on staff for a series? Do you write on a strict schedule? Is there a time frame you try to fill each day? Or page count you try to reach?
I am the evil person that has never written a word in my life I have not been paid to write. I don’t write every day, and never have. I only write when I’m on assignment. Actually, that’s not true. I’ve written two specs features in the past ten years, and I’m about to write a third with my former assistant. Again, she’s written only two scripts and has never written a feature, but she has the gift.
So a writing day for me is realizing I’m on a deadline and better start working, and blowing it off for as many days or weeks as possible until I absolutely must begin. Then it feels like pulling out my own toenails, until the world or the script reaches a sort of critical mass. Then you can get into that great writing zone where you lose all sense of time and it feels like its writing itself. That is almost worth the pain. Almost.
You are repped by UTA. I know you said that you’ll run a general idea by them and discuss but you don’t actually take notes from them. You simply rely on them to sell what you write. Can you expand any more on that? Also, how difficult was that to establish with them particularly considering how willing and ready pretty much everyone in this town is to tell you what they think should be different?
You know they’d give me notes if I asked I’m sure. I just never have. I consult with them much more before I start writing or pitching than after I’ve written something. I’ll tell them what areas or things I’m interested in, and get their feedback at that point. They are marketers. That’s what they do. And a marketing perspective is very important to me. If I was super passionate about something and they didn’t see it? I suppose I’d do it anyway, but I can’t imagine that happening. I have a good sense of marketing and I’m pretty aligned with their perspective generally. All my agents are very smart and supportive and want me to do what I’m passionate about, but I’d be crazy not to take their very sharp assessment of the marketplace.
I’m a “bleeder” and not a barfer, and generally my first draft is pretty close to final. In the six pilots I’ve pitched and sold, there is very little difference between my first draft and the final.
How do you approach rewrites?
By the time I’m writing, it’s cooked. I consult a lot with folks before and during writing. But when I’m done with the first draft, I’m pretty much done, period.
Once you’ve got a script ready to go can you briefly explain the process of getting it out there and set up? Also, any general pointers for TV writers out there in terms of pitching a show? What do executives seem to like to hear or see from a pitch? What matters to a network?
I’ve never written a TV spec, I’ve been lucky enough to sell all my TV pitches. TV pitching is very specific, and if you’re used to features, a whole different mindset. TV is now flooded with feature people who are not lasting because they are not making the shift. The first one is this: you’re not selling a pilot, or a feature. You’re not selling characters or an idea. You’re selling five years of s series. You’ve got to pull out wide and see things from 10,000 feet.
Another big difference between TV and features, is that in TV you are very much selling YOU. Your point of view. Your experience. You don’t have the “bake off” thing so much in TV because everyone wants a series that can only come from you. So its super helpful to know who you are and to be comfortable with yourself, your ideas and your point of view. I know many very experienced writers who were pushed aside, replaced, or denied an opportunity to run their show because they lacked confidence, leadership, and vision. So try to get that in place before you pitch as well.
And along with that, are there many general common mistakes and misconceptions that you see with aspiring writers? Things you’d suggest they do more of or less of?
I had two weeks to write my last pilot and so I sent it out to a bunch of people to get 24 hour feedback. Anyone I could get to read it. What I got from newbies, and folks who’ve worked but not sold a lot, and from a script consultant-ish types all the same. Format stuff. Petty stuff. Little stuff. Didn’t take one of those notes, and not a producer, studio or network exec even saw the stuff they were talking about. Newbies are obsessed with format and rules. Like if you know that stuff, you’re really a writer. As I’ve said before, a wildly marketable and original (those are not exclusive, btw) script that ignores all of that is a better bet. Don’t get bogged down in rules as a substitute for being brave and putting something new and real out there.
Work with cool people. Once you do that, you can really give the execs and the producers the benefit of the doubt, rather than instantly making them the enemy. There are incredibly smart people in this town. Incredibly smart and kind and supportive people in development. Find them. Listen more and talk less. Don’t be reactive. Say you’ll think about every note, and pick the right ones to fight about. You’re forging partnerships, you’re not fighting a war. Would you rather have your work life be a fun team, even a team of rivals, or a war? That goes for brand new writers as well, who are lucky enough to have a pro read your work. I’m amazed at new writers who totally dismiss the notes of pros or coverage people. Try to develop non reactivity. Knee jerk defensiveness is the sign of both an amateur, or a pro no one wants to work with.
If you’re lucky enough to get something in production, hold a steady clear light of vision about it, then share ownership of that project creatively with everyone. Hire the best people you can and give them the most creative control. It makes your life so much easier, and so much more fun. Everyone who works in virtually every crew position is creative. Appreciate that. Don’t be intimidated by people who know more than you do, hire them. Know the second you are in production, your show doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to everyone who is a part of it – including the fans. And that’s what makes it vital, alive, and fun.
Are you working on anything else currently besides your new show for ABC? Spec TV scripts? Assignments? Any features?
Yes, good stuff. A hugely epic period TV sports drama in early stages with Temple Hill. (“Twilight” saga, ABC’s “Revenge”). Some awesome web stuff, nurturing a few book ideas, working on two kids books, writing a naughty girl sex comedy feature with my former assistant. And really ramping up a producing slate with some great writers.