Jeffrey Lieber is a screenwriter (Tangled, Tuck Everlasting) and TV writer-producer (Miami Medical, The Whole Truth, Pan Am, Necessary Roughness). He also received co-writing credit for the pilot episode of “Lost”.
I recently spoke with Jeff about his background, his screenwriting and TV writing projects, and the writing craft. Today in Part 1, Jeff describes how he found his way into the entertainment business:
Scott: You went to Evanston Township High School, then the University of Illinois. Where in that educational process did it dawn on you that you wanted to be a screenwriter and TV writer?
Jeff: I was living in Chicago, and it was 1993 or ’94, and I was acting in a production of “Awake and Sing!” at Steppenwolf. And I was playing Ralphie. I was doing the “got to organize them down in the warehouse” unionizing speech, when I had this overwhelming sensation that I was wearing makeup and the walls were an inch‑and‑a‑half thick, and that I’d the same thing nine times that week. Oh, and there were 200, 250 sleeping elderly, mostly Jewish women staring at me. I had what would be described in the best terms as an epiphany or in the worst terms as a breakdown. That’s when I realized my time as an actor had come to an end. At that point, I had already, since high school, been writing plays, so I decided that I would pursue half‑hour and consider moving out to Los Angeles since I’d tried my hand at a “Mad About You” spec and a “Seinfeld” spec.
And so I’ll give you the whole story and you can do what you want with it, but what happened was this, was that I sent the scripts to a friend who was an actress who was at an agency called Writers and Artists. And she gave it to one of the literary agents there, who I think basically wanted to have sex with her, and so as a way of getting in good with her, said, “Hey, sure, I’ll represent your friends. I like the scripts.”
So I and my writing partner at the time moved to Los Angeles and we spent about six months preparing for staffing season and meeting with our agent, a guy named Jason. And then one day we went in the morning to discuss a movie idea we had. And then lunch came and after lunch I called back to ask an idea. And the assistant said, “Jason doesn’t work here anymore.”
And I said, “Well, he did two hours ago.” He said, “Well, he doesn’t anymore.”
A week or two passed and I went in to meet with Rick Berg, who was running Writers and Artists at the time, and basically said, “What happens now?” Rick said, “Look, you were hip‑pocketed, which means that Jason was representing you in name only and none of us knew about you. We don’t have anyone here who supports you. So I’m sorry, but we’re going to let you go.”
I gave Rick Berg one of those rousing speeches of, “You’ll be sorry. I’m a great writer. We’re great writers. When I get big, I will send you my check stubs, and you’ll be sorry you ever had this day.” “Yeah, yeah. Fine, go.”
Eight months pass by. I’m banging around Los Angeles one way or the other. Eventually got a script to an assistant, who was friends with an actor’s assistant, who was friends with a writer’s assistant, who read the script and liked it so‑so, and gave us notes.
We did a rewrite and she gave it to her agent. The agent really liked it and called us up and said, “Hey, I’m gong to represent you, but I’m leaving my agency and I’m going to land somewhere else in a couple of weeks, and I’ll call you when I arrive.” Two weeks later she called back and said, “Hey, I’m at my new agency. Congratulations, you are now represented by Writers and Artists.”
I was reintroduced to Rick Berg at the time, in an elevator. It was now six months after he’d fired me. He of course did not remember me or my speech or anything else. I ended up sending them my check stubs for the next three years because they represented me. That was my transition.
Scott: A Hollywood education, right?
Jeff: Yeah, exactly. I believe I remember what happened to Scott. He ended up actually, next casting on “The Simpsons.” You know, if you think about it, considering they use the same voices all the time it’s one step up from costumes on “The Simpsons.” So he went from being a literary agent at Writers and Artists to casting for “The Simpsons.”
Scott: When you were growing up were you more of a TV guy than a movie guy?
Jeff: Well, no, because what happened was that after I moved to Writers and Artists, I was sent on a meeting with a woman named Robyn Meisinger, who at the time was in development for Barry Mendel. In my meeting with Robyn, she looked at me and she said, “I’m going to manage you.” I became her first client. I’m with Robyn still, 15 years later. I had written two film scripts, both of which were small independent movies that everybody loved to read but nobody was going to make because they were so quirky.
I actually, by the time I got my first job, was a film writer. My first seven jobs were all film scripts, one of which was Tuck Everlasting which eventually got made. It wasn’t until three of four years into my career that people started coming to me and saying, “Hey, we’re looking for new voices in television.” I started writing pilots, and that transitioned me back into television.
My arc was I thought I was half‑hour writer. Turned out I’m a joke a page short. Then really wanted to do films, specifically for independent film. Then realized that, for me at least, the television world is much more hospitable to the kind of stories I like to tell. The work environment is much more attractive to writers.
Scott: Did you have any formal training in writing, either TV or features? How did you learn the craft?
Jeff: I didn’t. The only training I had was that I took a class very early on at a place called “Writers Boot Camp.” One, I think it was a half‑hour class or an hour class. I don’t remember what it was. Not brilliant or not terrible, but quite useful. Really it’s been an education by reading a lot of scripts and learning. I credit having an acting background as an actor for having a pretty deep understanding of how structure works, both within a scene and within a script. That’s most of my training.
I went to the theater conservatory at the University of Illinois, so I had four years of Shakespeare and Chekhov and Ibsen and all that sort of stuff. So I had that kind of thing, but in terms of TV and cinema, not really.
Scott: Given your background, would you recommend writers do at least some training or take some classes in acting?
Jeff: Yeah, I would. I mean it certainly helps you understand the amount of stuff that characters say that is unnecessary and puts you in a position to realize how late you can and should get into a decision and how quickly you should get out of it. As an actor, the minute you have a scene where you go, “Hi, how are you? Sit down,” and you realize I’m doing nothing but killing time before, “Why are you fucking my sister?” right?
So you become aware as an actor when you are kinesthetically engaged, and you go, “Ah, that’s where the scene starts,” right? So I certainly recommend it. First of all, it’s fun. Second of all, it really exposes you to a lot of people. But it does give you a real understanding of how certain dialog works and how scene structure works and all that sort of stuff.
Tomorrow in Part 2, Jeff discusses his background as a screenwriter and his involvement with “Lost.”
Please stop by comments to thank Jeff and ask any questions you may have.
Jeff is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.