Written by Dylan Callaghan
Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon are proudly one of Hollywood’s longest standing female writing teams. Based on the smash success of their USA Network mini-series The Starter Wife last year, the two are now running a same-titled series starring Debra Messing based on the novel by Gigi Levangie. The show continues to tell the tale of the fabulous post-divorce life of Molly Kagan, the freshly-minted ex-wife of a powerful entertainment mogul.
The world of women in Hollywood is something both these writers are familiar with personally. After 23 years of writing features together, they have seen their share of the interpersonal lunacy and extravagance of Tinseltown and the more stark and real hills and valleys of the movie business.
This duo met with early success as screenwriters. They sold their very first script, 1993’s The Favor (featuring a just-emerging Brad Pitt), and then reeled off a string of jobs, including Three Men and a Little Lady and Runaway Bride. But luck is fickle and things dried up as quickly as they started. “We were getting a script or two a year, and then we hit reality, and 20 years went by,” quips McGibbon.
They blame a combination of luck and the ever-changing tastes of the film biz for both their early luck and their subsequent drought.
“Thelma and Louise had just come out,” says Parriott of their fast start, “and I think there was a huge surge of interest in women writers, and we were one of the only team of women writers out there at the time.”
“And we were cheap,” adds McGibbon, “but as we got more work, we got more expensive.”
Nonetheless, they survived, and raised kids and are now experiencing not only a resurgence, but a whole new career in TV. They spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about identifying -- to a degree -- with the world of Gigi Levangie’s original novel, adapting to writing a six-hour mini-series and, ultimately, finding a new favorite medium in television.
Did you guys relate on a personal level to Gigi Levangie’s novel?
Sara Parriott: It’s funny. Josie and I were talking about how, from the very beginning of our writing partnership, this is where we love to be -- dealing with the comedic approach to life with women and the battle of the sexes. Gigi is so clever and witty, so we responded to the humor of the books so much and knew it was in our wheelhouse.
Josann McGibbon: It was a funny world that we knew -- certainly not as well as Gigi, because, you know, we’ve never had dinner with Steven Spielberg, we’re writers -- but it’s a world that we certainly know peripherally and can enjoy.
Photo: © 2008 USA Network
Brielle Barbusca and Debra Messing in The Starter Wife.
And personally speaking, I was a single mother for a few years before I remarried, so the story of divorce with a little kid was something I very much identified with. And I wanted to do it in a way that I didn’t think we’d seen it before -- what is it really like when you’re standing there and your ex-husband is driving away with your daughter for the weekend.
Going back to the mini-series, you were not only going from features to TV, but you were doing a novel adaptation. Was there any trepidation there?
Sara Parriott: One of the trepidations was that we knew Gigi’s book wasn’t going be enough to fill six hours. That was our first panic. You know, “Oh, holy smoke! We’re gonna have to make a lot of this up!” It was a new form for us as well...
Josann McGibbon: But I would also say, because it wasn’t a series, it was more what we were used to -- it had a beginning, middle, and an end. It was just that, instead of an hour and 40 minutes, it was six. In fact, it was a bigger leap to go from the mini-series to the series. How do you write something that isn’t supposed to end, you know?
Sara Parriott: All of the sudden we were learning about act breaks where you have to bring the audience back, and all of that was new to us.
If you were really forced to distill down what the most striking elemental differences for you writing for a TV series versus features, what would they be?
Josann McGibbon: I would say, in a very wonderful way, there’s more liberty to emphasize character in TV. That is part a reflection of the audiences that movies seem to be catering to more -- certainly the bigger movies -- don’t get to develop characters as much as we do for television.
You’ve got a much longer character development arc with a series.
Josann McGibbon: Yeah, it is assumed that you have a longer attention span in TV, wouldn’t you say, Sara?
Sara Parriott: I don’t know about the attention span, because it’s only an hour, but I do think people begin to love and know your characters in a completely different way and there’s a freedom and joy in exploring that more.
One of the most grueling parts is having to break stories all the time -- feeding the maw of character-driven plot is the most challenging.
How well has this original material fed that maw?
Josann McGibbon: Well, and now it’s much more of an ensemble piece. It’s still based around Debra Messing, but now you have stories for all the characters around her as well. We’ve given each character interesting enough attributes and story lines to fill 10 hours. But when we think about next season, it’s always daunting.
Sara Parriott: It is fertile though. The true stories we hear in the writers’ room of this world, of the opulence and craziness, we almost can’t tell the true stories because they’re too wild. But there is this constant feeding of stories based on things that have happened to people working on the show.
What’s your basic writing system as a team? Do you parcel out skill sets and duties differently?
Josann McGibbon: No. Maybe 20 years ago we had different strengths and weaknesses, but we don’t anymore. We’re as indecipherable as our voices are. It’s just two people splitting a paycheck and splitting the work down the middle.
Sara Parriott: With the series, we finally started doing it like a lot of partners do -- you take the first half, and I’ll take the second half. When we were working on movies and the mini-series, we would take a clump of scenes that seemed to go together and then we’d have enough work to go off for a couple days and work separately. We almost never actually write in the same room, but when we get down to the page-by-page punch up, then we do that together.
Having worked in both features and television, which do you prefer?
Josann McGibbon: TV. To be in every aspect of pre-production, production and post-production, to have our vision as the one that matters and to be running the show, that’s intoxicating after being a writer in features for 20 years.
Sara Parriott: We get the feeling that we’re indispensable instead of dispensable.
Wow, you guys are drunk with power.
Josann McGibbon: We are drunk with power.