Talent On Tap – Showrunner Rob Cooper Enters the Writers Room

If you’re not familiar with the Pacific Screenwriting Program, otherwise referred to as PSP, it is an aspiring TV writers dream. They open the gates once per year to writers that aspire to write for television and then select 6 lucky candidates. As a writer, it is the equivalent to winning a lotto ticket. The 15-week Scripted Series Lab will polish and prepare writers for an entry-level position on a series. Not only does this program hone their writing craft and skills, it also strengthens their collaboration and presentation skills to create a bulletproof portfolio and have a greater understand of a real world working writers room. If you aspire to write for TV then please don’t hesitate any longer, put that pen to paper and start creating your pilot to pitch for the next entry opportunity. If you are ambitious, you have discipline, you found 20 dollars I lost last week and have the creative juice to pump out an original pilot then you can have the same opportunity to reach your dreams as that guy Walter at Starbucks, who’s always working on his laptop and sucking ice through his tall empty cup of half caff soybean latte, no dairy. 


You might be asking yourself, who’s running this program anyways? I’m so glad you did, because it’s someone with over 15 years experience in the television industry with a track record longer than my semi successful dating career… if you don’t count friends I’ve had lunch with that made me pay. If you’re sitting down I will tell you it’s none other than Rob Cooper, tremendously talented writer and co-creator of Stargate, Atlantis and SG-Universe. After the franchise Rob then came on board the network series Dark Matter and later Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency as writer and Exec. Producer. Rob’s writing mind never rests and after the show ended he wrote the TV mini-series, Unspeakable. Rob Cooper continues to create and now foster new writing talent through PSP.


I recently had the absolute pleasure of talking to this television giant in the hopes of siphoning as much pertinent information as possible before security had me removed. I hope you enjoy it.     


“When did you first start writing?”

“I always wrote. My sister just texted me the other day and asked me if I still had the comics that I’d made for her when I was 7 and she was 3. I used to make serialized comics for her. When I was in grade school and high school I used to write and was part of a program called The Antonymous Learning program where you’d get to choose what you wanted to do as your course. I chose to write. I was on staff at summer camp and created a filmmaking activity for the kids. When I was still young I’d gone to see Jaws and it left a profound effect on me. It was the first time I can remember feeling the power of film as a storyteller and the influence it could have on somebody.”


“I had also seen Jaws in the theatre when I was young. I remember discussing the movie in film school. The film had demonstrated how to use the camera as a character as well as the sound. Spielberg is amazing.”

“It’s actually an interesting debate in the writing community in terms of how much license you take on page to dictate that. Because it’s the directors’ domain, do they get offended by that? At the same time you always have to understand that when you’re writing a teleplay/screenplay you are writing the blueprint for something that is going to live in a 3 dimensional world and shouldn’t you contribute to painting that picture? There’s been episodes where I’ve written scripts that were so lean and non descriptive but only because I was going to direct the episode so I knew how I was going to shoot it and I didn’t want to waste the time explaining it.”


Rob continues, “I went to film school at York University and took the LSATS and got into Law school as a backup. After I graduated I took a year off to see if I could write and make it work. One of the lessons I try to pass on is, when you’re a writer you don’t write 1 script and trot it around, it’s a process. I wrote many scripts and tried to shop them around.”


“What type of genre did you write in?”

“Everything, which was probably to my detriment, unfocused. People try to put you on a list and try to figure out who you are and I liked everything. I sent them around and I got some attention from a company called Northstar. The development executive brought me in and told me my scripts weren’t very good and they weren’t going to make them but that I had demonstrated a passion and commitment to the craft of writing. They felt that it deserved some follow up. I was hired as a staff writer and wrote tons of stuff for very little money but had gotten produced which led me to an agent. I slowly worked my way into television. My first job was writing for a kids show. That script got me onto a show called Psi Factor, a paranormal investigation show hosted by Dan Aykroyd. The premise was; they were dramatic reenactments of real events. I did that for a few months before getting an interview to work on Stargate. I flew myself out to Vancouver for the interview and it turned into 14 years later.”


“Is it Canadian made?”

“The financing came from MGM and it’s an American studio show. The original series SG-1 was co-created by Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner, John being American and Brad Canadian, however the vast majority of production such as the directors, producers, writers were all Canadian.”


“Is it science fiction that interests you the most?”

“It’s the job I got. We used to talk a lot about the fact that Stargate wasn’t one genre, it was all of them. It was a canvas that allowed you to do anything you wanted. If you wanted to do a Rom-com one week between two characters you could do that, if you wanted to do horror and monsters you could do that. If you wanted to do thrillers or action you could do that. Science fiction is almost a way of telling stories that are part of the fabric of who we are as people with a bit of safe distance; we could do them as a metaphor, we could do them in these fictional places with fictional people while dealing with issues that were relevant. Yes it was science fiction but you could do something different every week. It allowed me to stretch creatively. After awhile it can feel like you’re doing the same thing a lot. I was a fan of science fiction, but as a writer/television viewer I gravitate toward drama. The things I wrote after Stargate were more drama oriented. It took awhile to switch gears after doing 300 plus episodes in 14 years.”


“Would that have been 15 episodes per year?”

“No, back in the day we were doing 22 and 20. For 2 years when we were doing Atlantis at the same time as SGN we were producing 40 episodes of TV per year out of the same writers room. We’d have one writing team producing both shows.”


“You were one of the staff writers in the writing room?”

“I was an executive producer of the show. I co-created Atlantis.”


“Were you the showrunner?”

“I was the showrunner for SG-1 for two years and Brad was showrunning Atlantis but we were doing both shows and helping each other out. We were very much partners.”


“How is it that you kept the show fresh with new creative storylines?”

“It tends to come from character. You introduce new villains; you introduce new characters to the mix. We had our core 4 but then you bring new foils into that, where an actor will leave for some reason or another. Michael Shanks left the show for a while; we had a new team member come in. That changes the dynamic/changes the story. You always come at it from a character point of view. There are only so much science fiction concepts out there to explore.”


“Given your TV writing experience, when watching a new show do you have a sort of sixth sense where you can tell if the show will have longevity?”

“Umm… no. (laughter) I’d like to think I do and I certainly have my opinion but it’s really a science I don’t think is worth engaging in. I’ve seen horrible shows go on forever and have seen shows I thought were great get cancelled. When trying to come up with my own new ideas, I try to first come up with something that I’d like to watch and think is a good idea in the hopes that if I like it, hopefully enough of others will also like it in order for it to be successful.”


“Is it sometimes a matter of finding an idea that currently doesn’t exist?”

“That’s really tough and I get asked that often. I actually believe that we’re not really in control 100% of our conscience regarding a lot of what we do. I think there’s a subconceince at work and we’re just the public relations for it. It’s also input; we’re processing all this massive input that’s out there and digesting it. Occasionally if we’re interested, spitting something back out. What makes something unique and interesting is often the filter it’s processed through, that’s you. I actually look to stories of amazing people that have done amazing things. You can’t make that stuff up and rarely is it similar to another story. Peoples’ lives are like fingerprints; they’re unique. I’ve found that some of the most riveting things I’ve worked on have been inspired by true stories.”


“Are there legal obligations to buy those rights to those stories?”

“You’d usually go out and option it and buy the rights to it. If you’re changing or fictionalizing it enough you don’t have to.”

“After writing TV for so many years, did you take a break?”

“I was developing a bunch of projects before getting the job of writing for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which I did for two years. While I was doing that I was also writing Unspeakable, which is the story about the Canadian tainted blood scandal. It was on CBC earlier this year and still available on Gem (streaming service). It was a very personal story that I lived through, I was a victim of tainted blood. As a true story I felt a tremendous responsibility to get it right and hopefully do it in a way that evoked an emotional reaction in people that caused them to learn about the story and care about it, for many reasons because it’s still quite relevant today. It was such a horrible tragedy that there was no way we could condense it into 8 hours of TV. If anything, I hoped it would make people angry enough to do something and to recognize that if we don’t fight to protect ourselves, our families and loved ones otherwise things slip through the cracks and tragedies occur.”


“Can you tell me how you came to be teaching the program at PSP?”

“When Brian Hamilton had approached me I immediately said yes. As much as it’s a volunteer position there’s a selfishness to it. I wanted to grow a community of writers here and wanted people I could draw on and could use. There may be writers that have an interest in writing that have attended schools with writing programs but those places and institutions aren’t focused on how to break into the business and how to take that next step. What we wanted to do is to really give people the work experience that would allow them to get jobs and take them to the next level. The primary mechanism for that is the scripted series lab. Six applicant writers are picked from a pool of 80-100 to participate in a writers’ room, which will be run by me. Aside from that we are also trying to support the broader writing community, such as a Speakers Series, we’ll do boot camps, we’ve sent a group of more senior writers to pitch in LA; we’ve got a lot of contacts in LA. We’re not trying to get people jobs in LA but it’s a global business and you can’t make television for just BC.”


“To my understanding the participants will be working in a writers room with the showrunner helping to develop an idea for a show. Is that correct?”

“It’s a writers room in every respect other than the residents not getting paid but it’s an opportunity to get to work with an experienced showrunner and get real world experience.”


“Having previously spoken to a showrunner, I was told that in a writers room, a writer might get assigned to 3 or 4 episodes. Is that fairly accurate?”

“How we’re working this particular program is, I’ll be bringing a project in that I want to develop. It’s a fulltime commitment where they’ll be coming in everyday, sitting with all the writers and talking about the show and the characters. You’ll be beating out each particular episode and then each resident will be assigned 1 script. We’ll do an outline first, then they’ll write a draft, then we’ll do some notes and hopefully do a second draft in that period of time (10 weeks). On top of that they’ll also be in the room working on the other episodes with the rest of us. They’ll have to carve out both in the evenings and weekends. It’s a fulltime commitment, which is how the television business works. If you’ve got a job on a television show you’d be working every minute you’re not sleeping. It’s admittingly the toughest part for people because they’re not getting paid for that period of time. People have to pay rent and eat but it’s the price to pay to get into a business that’s otherwise very tough to break into. It’s the difference between someone that’s going to make it as a writer and someone that won’t. You have to have the ability both financially and personal choice perspective to make the commitment to say ‘this is what I’m willing to do to become a writer.’ That can be hard for people that don’t have the means but it’s part of the struggle of choosing a profession that requires that.”


“You’ve worked in many writers rooms. What would you say makes a dynamic writers room in terms of a diverse team?”

“You want a mix of people that are bringing different things. Some people excel at different aspects of writing. Some people might be witty at jokes and dialogue and others might be strong at structure. Ideally you’re able to work within all those strengths. You want to build those building blocks out of people that are contributing so you have a complete package. Finding a good writer is really hard. In some ways you’re trying to put as many of the best talented people as you can in the room and not trying to fit them to the show but rather take the talent and see what comes out of it. One of the positive things we’re seeing now is a push toward more diversity. You end up with more characters, voices and worlds that people haven’t been exposed to, so now you have things that are fresh coming into the world.”


“Are you able to tell me about the idea you’ll be presenting to the new group?”

“Not quite yet but I can tell you one thing; I’d say it has a similar tone to things I’ve worked on in the past but it isn’t really like anything I’ve done. I tend to choose things that are often a challenge because it’s exciting for me. I purposely chose this idea out of some of the others I’d been working on because I thought it was right for the people coming into the program this year. Through the interview process we ended up picking what we felt were the best candidates talent wise. I then looked at the ideas I was developing and thought, what are the strengths of that group as a whole and how could I bring a project in that would be the best for them and ultimately the best for me.”


“What would be the end result of this program aside from the group gaining real world TV writing room experience?”

“They end up with a script they can shop around. The other part of the program I haven’t really talked about besides the 10 weeks they’ll be working on my show is that there’s another 5-week component that will be somewhat running concurrently, in which they develop their own pilot. They’ll come out of the program with a pilot and an episode of the show that I’ve developed. For their pilot they will have a mentor assigned to them who is also part of the industry. They’ll be getting exposure to people with experience that have industry backgrounds and be coming out with work they can use as calling cards around the world.”


“When you’re presenting a project for development to the group, do you have a network in mind that you see it fitting into?”

“You write what you want and then figure out what network works best for it. You don’t write necessarily to the network. There’s going to be plenty of options. The thing about the streamer’s, is they’re not so content specific as some of the networks. Netflix is not known for one thing. They’ve got comedy, horror, science fiction, drama, they do everything and all of them are going to do that. There really isn’t a show that you couldn’t take to Netflix or HBO; Disney is a little more family oriented, maybe a little more adventure but even they have a host of movies that have a broad spectrum.”


“When you come up with an idea for a show, do you want to appeal to a broad an audience as possible?”

“No, not true at all. It would be a mistake to try and shotgun the world. You want to target a specific audience. First and foremost you make the show you want to make. That show is then either going to appeal to a specific audience or not and then potentially bleed out from there. I don’t think HBO thought Game of Thrones was going to be a broad a show that it ended up being. What you want to do is make the best show you can, be specific about what it is and then try to figure out how to get it to the audience. There are a lot of shows that are super specific and are very successful within their own target.”


“Skydiving or high stakes poker game?”

“High stakes poker game. Mortality is not in question in poker. Poverty maybe but not mortality unless you’re in the old West or other parts of the world you might be taking your life in your hands.”


“Are there any shows out there currently that you’d wish to be part of the writing team or do you prefer to create your own shows?”

“I worship television, which is why I do it. My favourite show right now is probably Better Call Saul. I’d love to be even a fly on the wall in the writers’ room, let alone a writer in the room. I like a lot of British shows and yet I don’t think they have writers’ rooms. I think they have single writers that write all the episodes. I don’t know if I could do that, I’d like other brains in the room making me look smarter than I am.”


“Have you had any experience writing in other countries?”

“No not really, unless you count the US.”


I could’ve spent the entire afternoon talking to Rob. He made it very comfortable and had a tremendous amount of information I was willing to negotiate for but the clock had run out of time and I left before the restraining order had to be enforced. I dream of being a television writer someday and sincerely appreciate Rob Coopers time in the hopes that others can take something away from it as well. An intelligent man with a writers mind and a storyteller’s charm. I look forward to hearing more about the success of his next project.                             


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