Liz Tigelaar shares what she’s learned on her journey from intern to creator of the new CW show Life Unexpected including the one thing new writers should avoid their first time in a writer’s room.
Written by Lainie Strouse
Life Unexpected is not only the name of Liz Tigelaar’s new CW show about a teenage girl’s quest to get to know her biological parents, but could also describe her path as a writer. After graduating from Ithaca College in New York, the first-time creator’s career began with a bumpy start while applying for an internship on Dawson’s Creek.
“When I was a freshman, I got beat up by this girl and we had to be separated, [so] I had to share a bed with this senior, Ilka,” Tigelaar recalls. “I see her name as the hiring contact on Dawson’s so I called her up and said, ‘Hi, it’s Liz Tigelaar. We slept together after Micky beat me up.” She was like, ‘Uh, that was not me.’ It was so embarrassing.”
Tigelaar got hired anyway and due to the show’s success, she and her writing partner got an agent. After landing a job as a writer’s assistant on American Dreams, she was put on staff, which led to stints on What about Brian?, Dirty Sexy Money, and Brothers and Sisters.
When I met her at her tucked away home in Santa Monica, I couldn’t help but think that she is not unlike Lux, the teenage protagonist of the show, only 17 years later. The self-described “average girl” is fresh-faced with blonde hair, blue eyes, and green nail polish. As she recounted her journey from intern to executive producer, our only company was a statue of Ganesha, the Hindu patron of the arts and Remover of Obstacles. He seems to be working for her.
I wanted to ask you about the tone of the show. You made some counterintuitive choices with the lead characters. For example, Lux has been through so much, but she still appears and acts like a normal, bright teenager. She is not obviously bitter.
Photo: © 2010 The CW Network
Kristoffer Polaha, Shiri Appleby, and Britt Robertson in Life Unexpected.
It’s a combination of a lot of things. Just the casting process alone, we didn’t know who this girl was going to be. I could picture some things about her, but when Britt Robertson walked in, it was like, “Oh my God. This is the girl.” It was less about she has blonde hair and blue eyes even though I always pictured the character light just because her name means light. I pictured this little brightness in Portland, which is dark and rainy. Everyone gives us a hard time about two dark haired parents and blonde kid, but I pictured that she would stand out. We did talk about making her darker and edgier, but I wanted her to seem like an every-kid. What I really liked is that our costume designer decided to make her always layered. She has all these barriers. Whether she has a hat, scarf, three shirts, or boots that look too big for her, she is surrounding herself with these things to protect herself from the world.
What I like about Lux and what makes it fun to write and explore her, hopefully in upcoming seasons, is that there is so much we don’t know about her. She says to Cate in an upcoming episode, “I’m more messed up than you realize.” I like the idea that there is this girl who looks fine on the outside, and we haven’t even begun to delve into what she has been through and how much she feels on the inside. In that way, the character becomes relatable to all of us. We look like anyone else on the outside, but you don’t feel like anyone else on the inside. That was the idea.
With the success of Juno and all the attention during the presidential campaign about teen pregnancy, did you think the time was right for this show or is this story something you have wanted to do for a long time?
This was something that was developed before the strike, almost three and a half years ago. No one was really interested in it at the time, so I let it go. By 2007, Knocked Up had come out. I spoke with my agents and they said if you pitched this as Knocked Up 15 years later maybe that would get people interested. Then, in the course of doing it, Juno happened and then people made the comparisons. Juno was something that came later for me after the pilot was already written, and we were waiting to hear if we were going to get picked up or not. Then it was like this blessing that [the show] had any similarity to something that was this big hit. It makes it easier.
What’s your process for breaking stories?
It’s from the Greg Berlanti school. Josh Reims worked under him, and he taught me. I like to do it Monday through Friday per episode. Monday you talk really broadly and conceptually and thematically about the story you want to tell. The different characters are under this umbrella of a theme. On Life Unexpected, for example, we have Lux, Cate, and Baze. Those are the three characters we always tell stories from their points of view in each episode. For each of those characters we ask, what is the heart of their story? Then using that, [we find] the active beats to lay out. As the story beats come, you will know what you have to do to earn that climactic moment or realization.
Tuesday and Wednesday, you start breaking the beats by character. The writers will pitch through the story beats, and by Thursday, hopefully you are blending it into acts. Friday we go through the blend and see if they flow and how we can intercut these two scenes. “Oh, let’s move that there,” or “That should be in the third act” trying to navigate what happens in each act. Monday through Friday is ideal, but sometimes things get in the way.
As a writer, is there something that you have discovered on your own that you wish someone had told you?
It’s like Survivor. Don’t grab the map the first day. When they get dropped off on the island, there is always the person who grabs the map right away, and decides they are going to be the leader. They are always voted off first. When you are just starting out, you want to prove yourself so badly, and you want to show how valuable you are, as if it matters how many ideas you contribute. I think it’s better to sit back and listen. Don’t talk for the sake of talking, and when you are going to say something, make sure it is great and helpful and concise and has a point. Sit back and get the lay of the land and don’t take the map. There is a hierarchy and you don’t know if it is going to be one of those rooms that adheres to the hierarchy or doesn’t.
On American Dreams, Jonathan Prince did not adhere to the hierarchy at all. If the P.A. had an idea, [he could] say it, which is great. But if the room has one, you have to adhere to it. I think that was something I wasn’t particularly good at in the beginning because I was just so excited and wanted to say things, have ideas, and participate. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue and not say everything you feel. It is really important. You can be a dissenting opinion. You can challenge something and offer solutions, but it is really easy to say, “This story sucks” or “This doesn’t make any sense.” If you are going to say that, then you better have a fix. That type of stuff I have had to learn.
Can you give us some insight into your writer’s room?
So much of the room is social and political. Not in a bad way. You can’t just say, “I hate that idea.” It is just like high school or being on the playground. People do the same things. People can be just chugging milk or being inappropriate. We have a pretty small writer’s room. There is no hierarchy. Everyone is equal. I love things being challenged, but with solutions. I am in and out of the room. I tell them to come get me when they are stuck. I’ll go in every hour or hour and a half and check in. It’s very similar to What about Brian? with Josh [Reims], which was a fun room… That is definitely the type of room that I want. I want everyone to feel free to speak. The more you want to step up, the more it is appreciated, the more I will give you. Half of the staff I have worked with before, so I wanted everyone to be friends with me at the end of this. I want to have been a good boss. I don’t want the writers to have to order dinner. Maybe I’ll send some work home with them, but I really like to keep it normal business hours.
It’s different being the boss because I’m used to being in the room. Being really close to everyone. When you walk in and you are the executive producer, you miss all the jokes… They are going out afterwards for drinks and you have to stay and watch a cut. Sometimes I can hear them getting crazy and having a great time. I have to close the door and say I hope you are getting this done. I don’t like to be a taskmaster at the same time I like to set clear things that need to be done today. It’s a fun and a productive room so I know something about the dynamic is working really well.
What is the best advice anyone ever gave you in terms of your career?
If you ask for notes, take the notes. Don’t argue or be defensive about it. Hear their notes and don’t argue about why what you did works. Hear what they are saying, try it, and learn from it. You can’t learn if you always think you know more than everyone else. I use Winnie [Holzman] as an example. I was Winnie’s assistant, and I never asked her to read my writing. I would have never have even thought to ask her to read it, but once I became a writer, Winnie would give me the nicest recommendations just on the basis of having worked hard for her.
Obviously, she knows that I can string some words together because I’m employed, but I think people appreciate when you are doing what you are doing and that you are not always about what you are trying to get. When you do that people tend to support you as you are trying to move up. I’ve gotten so many writing jobs from Winnie introducing me to someone or putting in a nice recommendation. It’s not about demanding things.