With no prior experience in a writers’ room, New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether has helped lead her staff to WGA and Golden Globe Awards nominations. What’s her formula for success? Let the show lead the writing.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
When Elizabeth Meriwether was studying English and theater at Yale, she grew fairly accustomed to bleary-eyed all-nighters. Now that the 30-year-old screenwriter and playwright has her own WGA and Golden Globe Award-nominated TV show, Fox’s “adorkable” comedy New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel, it seems little has changed.
“My showrunners [Dave Finkel and Brett Baer] gave me a chest of drawers filled with pajamas and slippers,” says Meriwether. “I now feel like I’ve moved into my office, which is pretty pathetic, but I guess also pretty lucky.”
Meriwether, the daughter of a print journalist/newspaper publisher father and a painter mother, had never been on a TV writing staff prior to New Girl, but was given a shot when Jonathan Davis, executive V.P. of comedy development for 20th Century Fox Television, was sent a playbill for one of her East Coast theater productions by his mother-in-law. He read a few of her plays, loved her voice, and called her up. Meriwether pitched an idea about an offbeat girl moving in with three single guys, and the show was born.
Other more experienced TV writers might turn green with envy upon hearing Meriwether’s story, but in fairness, New Girl actually represents her sophomore try at TV. She developed another pilot for 20th Century Fox in 2008 before New Girl was picked up and also has one screen credit, the Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher comedy No Strings Attached.
She spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about her crash course in television, letting the show lead your writing, and why she was actually at the end of an office all-nighter when she learned about New Girl’s Globe nomination.
I guess you were actually writing late in the office when you heard about the Golden Globe nod?
Yes, it’s true. I’d been up all night. I got the e-mail when I was working on a draft at like five in the morning. It felt appropriate given how my year has been going.
Photo: © 2012 Fox Broadcasting Co.
Zooey Deschanel in New Girl.
So you’re still pulling all-nighters?
I am. It’s been getting a little better. I’ve heard, and I hope it’s true, that the first season is the hardest. There’s just so much to do.
A lot of times I’m finding that, when we’re in production, the night is when I have time to read drafts and write and rewrite. Hopefully, there’s an easier way somewhere in the future.
What kind of staff do you have and how are you guys breaking story? Give me a thumbnail overview of your writing system.
I’d never written on a show before this, so for me, it was all really new. I didn’t go into it with a system in mind. I had no experience in a writers’ room.
My showrunners Dave and Brett have been on many shows and came into it with an amazing amount of experience and comfort in the writers’ room. I really relied on them to organize it.
How many writers do you have?
We have about 11 right now. It’s a really funny, flexible group of people. With a first year show it’s important that you have people that don’t get set into one idea of what the show is, but that can adjust with the show. You’re learning so much every day about the actors you have, what stories are working and what seems to be landing.
Everyone goes into it with different ideas in their head of what it’s going to be. It’s great to have people that can move and adjust with you and the show.
So we’ve all been working on stories together, and then I usually take a final pass at the draft because, coming from film and theater, I was more comfortable taking the script away to my office and writing it by myself as opposed to room writing. The idea of room writing is still sort of strange for me. When I’m in there, I usually take over for the writers’ assistant and just start typing up on the monitor because it’s hard for me to write without typing. There must be some weird synapse in my brain that only works when I’m typing.
I definitely didn’t go into the year with a set system in mind. We’re sort of finding our way.
You’re letting the show tell you where it’s going?
Yeah. Especially with a comedy, that’s one of the best things about writing; it’s such a collaborative effort. As I’m getting to know my writers, their ideas are informing my ideas and watching the actors work is informing everybody’s ideas.
I’m a really collaborative person, and I can’t imagine going into the year with a set idea of what everything is supposed to be.
Having said that, in a general sense, what were some key things about this show tonally or story wise that were important to you at the outset? Like, it’s important to me that it be smart or cute or against format, you know?
Definitely not cute. We went into the season wanting to be as emotionally real as possible. Every story having to feel like it was grounded in some emotional arc as opposed to going from the joke into the story.
You wanted to go from a legitimate emotional center to the joke.
Yeah, to the joke. That was always the goal. Sometimes someone is like, “Oh, there’s a turkey in the dryer!” And you’re working to that, but the stories never work until we find that emotional spine.
We’ve definitely tried to make stories work without an emotional spine, and they just never do. That was the one thing we knew going into it; that we wanted to keep that emotional center.
I love shows that don’t have an emotional spine. I love just comedy for comedy’s sake, but in terms of what I can write, I need that emotional center.