Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #1: Jamie Pachino

As someone who tries to mix writing for film, TV, radio, and stage, all while trying to be a parent, I'm always curious as to how other people manage to pull it off.  I realized that this blog can provide a chance to talk to folks about how they juggle creating in different media, and also about being an artist and a parent.  Today marks the start of what will be a series of weekly "Juggler Interviews"   with some of my favorite writers and creators and role models.

First up is Jamie Pachino, whom I first met years ago, and whose stage plays, Waving Goodbye and Splitting Infinity, remain two of my favorite plays.  (The Boston reading of Waving Goodbye was a truly intense theatrical moment for me.)  As her plays gained more national attention, she also made a move to Los Angeles to write for film and television.  She's had great success writing for film and television, and most recently has been a writer for the show, Fairly Legal.  And she's the mother of two lovely kids.  She was kind enough to take a few minutes from her busy schedule to reflect on how she's managed to make it all happen.

You were having great success in Chicago as a playwright, and then made the decision to move to LA to also write for film and television. Right around this same time, you gave birth to your son.  So you were making a huge transition to a very different city, becoming a parent, and engaging in a whole new modes of writing—how did you balance it all?  Were there times at the beginning, where you said to yourself: “What have I done?”  And was there a point where you realized, “Oh, this is going to work out.”

I left for Los Angeles in June of 2002 when I was 6 months pregnant with my son. Some people thought I was insane. But in my head, it was the perfect time: I had a brother in LA with two kids, close friends (one about to have his first child), an agent, a manager, and a blind script deal with DreamWorks. It was actually the way I always dreamed about moving to one coast or another: with a job and a life already in place. I’d spent the previous two years traveling to New York or LA about every two months to “take meetings” with various film folks. So I felt like I wasn’t coming out here with no idea what I was getting into. From a parent perspective the idea was: let’s go where there’s family, friends, potential money to be made and sunshine. It’s such a cliché, but you really can’t underestimate the sunshine, especially with kids.

That said, it was definitely a big transition to parent/writer—something I still juggle every day. There are definitely times I still think: what have I taken on? But the truth is, I’ve worked hard to surround myself with a support network of smart, creative, loving friends and colleagues, and married a man that understands what I’m trying to do. I don’t know that I’ve ever been 100% sure it’s “worked out” for good, but thankfully whenever it’s been touch and go, something has come along to make it work. (Jamie now knocks on wood).

As your film/television career started to gain speed, you had your daughter.  (How old are they both now?)  How do you manage to juggle writing and parenting?  And you have an additional challenge in that your husband, Lindsay Jones is a highly regarded sound designer and composer for theater, film and television, and spends a lot of time on the road.

My daughter came along 4 years after my son (they’re 9 and 5 now—4th grade and kindergarten). When they were babies, I was a “half time” mom—I had a sitter 4-5 hours every weekday, and did the “mommy and me” life the other part of the time. Of course, that also meant that when I was on deadline, I woke up at 5am to write before they got up, wrote during naps, and stayed up after their bedtimes to get things in (still do—often), but that’s the trade off I wanted to make in order to be a present parent and pursue this work. I also tend to write pretty quickly, so I can be productive in shorter bursts (and pushing a stroller is a gold mine, in terms of working out a writing knot). Since they became school aged, it’s definitely become easier, in terms of managing my time.

The complication definitely comes with Lindsay’s work schedule. He’s gone about two-thirds of the year, so that’s the crazy part. It was much harder when the kids were little, and it still has its challenges (especially now that one does gymnastics and ballet and the other does karate and baseball in addition to all the other parts of managing kids’ lives).

You recently got a job writing for the show, Fairly Legal What was it like writing for episodic television?  Was it easier, family-wise, because the demands are fairly consistent?  I’ve heard nightmare stories about the writing schedule for some TV shows, and I always wonder how parents pull it off.

I heard all the same stories about the writing schedule for TV shows, so I didn’t even pursue it until this past year, when my daughter was going to head off to kindergarten. I thought… well, let’s give this a shot. I had written a spec pilot as a sample, and my representatives starting send my work around. I knew it was a long shot, with my (non-existent) series experience, so I didn’t expect much. The Fairly Legal gig came around very quickly and very unexpectedly, and fell into place beautifully. I started work right before Lindsay was going to be home for two and a half months straight, the offices were 3 blocks from my daughter’s preschool (it started this past summer before she started kindergarten), and it was 10 minutes from my house (unheard of, in LA).

The irony is, for the last year or so I’ve been loudly moaning about wanting to get back into a rehearsal room with a play. Writing TV movies and features, as I’ve been doing the past few years, is lucrative and fascinating work, but it’s very lonely. Unlike playwrighting, you don’t end up in a rehearsal room at the end of it. Once you’ve handed in your script, that’s pretty much the end of your involvement. So I’d been desperately missing the collaboration of a theatre rehearsal hall and the people who help you tell your story—but that was the irony—I found exactly what I was looking for in the writer’s room of the show. Our room (and not all shows are like this—believe me I’ve heard the war stories) has been this hilarious, collaborative, thriving place where you get support and clarity in your storytelling—and a voice. Each of the writers was assigned at least one episode to write, and the showrunner kept the full vision in his head (much like a theatre director)—and this particular showrunner has five kids, so we made it home by dinner time nearly every night. I don’t think I could have asked for a better experience (and many TV writers I’ve talked to honestly don’t believe me). Like I said, all I do is knock wood—and hope the show gets picked up for another season so I get to do this again.

As for the childcare of it all, Lindsay was home for part of it, and took on much of the role I’d had for the last 9 years, which was fun for both of us. When fall rolled around, I hired an after-school sitter who picked the kids up, did homework, and got dinner on the table. (She also cleaned up, put the forms I had to sign in one place, and packed lunches—the wife I always wanted!) so it all went very smoothly.

The experience wasn’t better or worse in terms of the parent-juggling aspect of it, but the job itself made life different for all of us because of how happy I was in my work. I think it’s great for kids to see their parents pursuing a dream—knowing the hard work it takes to pull it off sometimes —but also the great rewards, in those rare times it really comes through.

What are you working on right now?  Do you still find time to write stage plays?

I do find time to write plays! (I don’t think I could ever give it up). I have a new one called SOME OF THE PEOPLE, ALL OF THE TIME that’s circulating, and a new one I’m about 30 pages in— in the percolating stage. I’m also working with the fabulous composer Georgia Stitt as the book writer on her revue SING ME A HAPPY SONG, which she was just revising at Sundance Play Lab. Two older plays of mine, WAVING GOODBYE and THE RETURN TO MORALITY also have productions in the next few months.

On the film side, a terrific director and star asked me to write a feature on spec that I’m about halfway through, and hopefully I’ll wrap that up in time to come back for season 3 of Fairly Legal (set your DVRs—Friday nights at 9pm, starting March 16th on USA Network!).

I read an interview with playwright Jason Grote recently about his experience writing for Smash, and he was very positive about it.  One aspect he said was very different from theatre, though, was who you’re in contact with as a writer.  When we work in theatre, we spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room with the actors.  He found that wasn’t the case for television.  Do you have the same experience?  Creatively, who do you spend the most time with when you’re working in TV/film?  Do you get to be on set, and how does that inform your writing process?

Part of this I answered above. But the rest of the answer is that our show shoots in Vancouver, so we have limited access to the actors—though a very collaborative office in LA. I did get a chance to visit the set twice (once for each of the episodes I wrote), which was a marvelous experience, but it’s not so much the on-set visits that have informed my work, as much as watching dailies (what’s shot on a day to day basis) and the director’s cuts of episodes that come in.  Over time you begin to see what works best for each actor, for the show, and for storytelling purposes, and adjust. That’s been a great education.

More, the real writing education has been what I’ve learned from our showrunner, co-executive producers and the other writing staff—who are my primary points of interaction. Many of them have been doing this job for years and are walking encyclopedias of what works and what doesn’t. It’s the other huge joy of the job for me—that after so many years of working alone in my own house, to be able to walk down the hall and ask someone to work out a joke with you, or re-jigger a plot point, or read a scene in process—it’s like a revolution. It’ll definitely be hard to go back to writing alone in my home office again.

Do you feel that moving to LA is a necessity for someone interested in writing for film/TV?  After you moved, did you find you were still able to maintain your theatre contacts in Chicago and on East Coast?

I think that moving to LA is necessary for series television work (even though some shows are shot in other cities, most keep their offices in LA—our office is 100 feet from The Good Wife, for example). For features it’s definitely easier to be in Los Angeles. It’s a cliché but so much of the work I’ve gotten has been because I’ve been able to grab lunch or coffee, or I run into people at a network’s offices who were looking for someone, or I’ve made friends with people who are doing the work I’d like to be doing. It’s like any business, networking is part of it, and if you live outside the network it definitely takes a toll. For me, I feel like I laid the groundwork when I was living in Chicago, but I’m not sure I could have pulled off the rest of it if I still lived there. It’s certainly possible if you have a great agent (and you really can’t get far into this world without one) to make the connections and get read for these jobs, but you’d have to be willing to come out here for the interviews/pitches, etc. to land the job. (As an example, one of our writers on Fairly Legal got the job while he was living in New York on a Friday and started in LA the following Monday. He also got married the Sunday after that, so you can see how your life can get upended…!).

As for maintaining theatre and Chicago/east coast contacts, Lindsay and I still keep an apartment in Chicago, and my agency (Abrams Artists) has an amazing NY theatre department who keep my work circulating through those channels. Ironically, many of the strongest contacts I made in Chicago have moved on to other theatres and cities anyway, and honestly, Facebook has been a godsend for staying connected to them. I personally haven’t had the same kind of time to devote to the business of theatre, so I feel that some of my trajectory there has suffered, but that was a choice I made, so I can accept that. It doesn’t mean I give up on theatre, it just means that road may be a little longer.

Any other advice/words of wisdom for writers who are trying to balance parenting with writing and budding writing careers?

Ugh, I’m loath to give advice to anyone about parenting, much less parenting and writing. I think everyone has to feel his or her own way through it. Some are happier devoting more time to the children and less to the career, for some it’s vs. vs. I found the right balance for myself—and that’s really all it comes down to—what works for your particular family and your situation. What are you willing to sacrifice and what can’t you compromise? That's personal and unique to every writer or parent. Sometimes you don’t figure it out until it’s happening —and adjustments are made. There have definitely been times as a woman and a mother that I’ve wondered where I might be if I hadn’t had kids—but the point is moot. I wanted to be a mom. I wanted to be a successful writer. I would find my way to work it out.  I’ve got a pretty good sense of when the kids are getting what they need and when they aren’t, (or maybe I don’t, and we’ll all be in therapy when they’re teenagers), but we adjust. Everything is in motion, and I’m always open to what comes next and what’s best for everyone. 

Thanks for taking the time for all this, Jamie.

Thank you so much for including me in your blog!

You can read more about Jamie and her work on her web site: FAIRLY LEGAL premieres March 16th on USA Network. (The two episodes she wrote will air April 6th and May 18th.)  Her movie, Blue Eyed Butcher, premieres this Saturday on Lifetime.

From Waving Goodbye, co-produced by Steppenwolf and Naked Eye in Chicago

Next Wednesday, I'll talk to novelist and fellow stay-at-home dad/writer, Mike Cooper, about his new book, Clawback.


EM Lewis said...

Great interview, Patrick! Jamie is amazing!


Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Ellen. I agree--she's got it all--talent, hard work, and a sense of perspective. She's definitely one of my role models.

RobynFrance said...

Loved hearing about this spectacular woman. Great interview!

Alexa said...

Great interview, and wonderful feature idea! Can't wait for the next installment.

Claudia said...

What a grand interview!