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 3, Jeff discusses several of the TV series with which he has been involved and what it’s like being a showrunner:
Scott: You have a slew of projects on TV. There was the CBS series “Miami Medical.” You created that show, is that right?
Jeff: Yes, yes. It came out of a blind deal I was doing with Bruckheimer, JBTV, who I love endlessly. When it started it wasn’t a show that was set in Miami and it wasn’t a show that was medical, so the fact that it became that is pretty funny. But that was a show that came out of our poking around and finding that there were essentially five trauma‑only facilities in the country, that were institutions that did nothing other than trauma care. And so what was really interesting to me was this concept of, how do you live your life when every day is spent receiving people who are really dying as they walk in? So we developed a pitch and took it out and sold it to CBS, and it was on the air for 13 episodes in 2006, 2007? I don’t remember now.
Scott: Were you running the show too?
Jeff: I was co‑running it with a guy named Steve Maeda, who was brought on to be the showrunner, and then he was very kind in mentoring me and allowing me to do it. So I took on the task of that along with him. And that relationship often goes horribly badly, because there’s this fight between artistic control on one side and institutional control on the other. Steve is the kind of guy who, if you’re going to get in that relationship, is the perfect guy to so, because he has a lot of patience and a very little ego. He really was…he along with a broad number of people were very good in mentoring me to do that job. It’s a job that I enjoy intensely and feel like I’m pretty good at.
Scott: There was an ABC series “The Whole Truth” which you were writing on and co‑executive producer. What was the story on that series?
Jeff: It was a show that was created by a guy named Tom Donaghy, and I segued out of my deal when “Miami Medical” did not go to the second season. I had another development deal with them, so as part of my development deal, I went and worked on both that show and a show called “Chase” as sort of a co‑EP. It was frankly my first staffing experience, because I had written pilots, a bunch of pilots, some of which were shot and never went to series, one for Fox, one for Lifetime, actually. And so the first time I’d ever been on staff, I was on my own staff and I was running the show, and the second time I was on staff I was a co‑EP on these two other Bruckheimer shows.
Jennifer Johnson was the creator of “Chase” and she was great. So I was both developing at the time and working on their staff.
Scott: How was that, working on two shows at one time?
Jeff: Co‑EP is kind of the sweet spot in television, which is to say, you have a lot of responsibility, and if you know what you’re doing, you can be very helpful, but there comes a point in every day where you go home and you go to bed and the creator or the showrunner or both are stuck trying to figure out how to keep the patient alive. So when you’re co‑EP you’re afforded a certain amount of freedom that you don’t get when you’re running your own show or you’re running somebody else’s show. So it was tough, because I had a lot to do. I had to both write the pilot I was writing and work on those shows, but in the co‑EP position, a lot of responsibilities and phone calls and meetings and notes just don’t bubble up to you, so you have a little freedom too.
Scott: What about the ABC series “Pan Am”? You were a consulting producer on that?
Jeff: Yeah, I was co‑running “Necessary Roughness,” which we can get into in a second, at the time, and Steve was hired to take over “Pan Am,” because the show was having a rough time and needed people to come in quickly. So he actually hired a good portion of our staff from “Miami Medical” to come in and try to right the ship there. Steve was spending his time really trying to deal with just getting the show back on budget and on time and everything else, and so left us in the room to really try to figure out how to re‑position artistically the show.
So it was just basically between the first and second season of “Necessary Roughness” and it was a very short, intense period of time. It was a little like getting the band back together, because we all knew each other. There was this shorthand that was really useful.
Scott: Let’s talk about “Necessary Roughness.” You’re an executive producer on that. If you’re at a party and someone says, “Oh, what’s that series about,” how would you describe that?
Jeff: It is based on a real‑life woman who was hired, who had a practice in New York, and is this fantastic New Jersey lady named Donna Dannenfelser, who’s got long nails and blingey jewelry and crazy hair and all this sort of stuff. She had a small practice in New York and then got a call one day to come be the sports therapist for the New York Jets. And so she went from helping women with eating disorders to dealing with some of the most highly‑paid, highly confusing, highly big‑issues players in a sports setting. So that was the premise that Craig and Liz sold to USA and created as a pilot and shot as a pilot. And then I was brought on to be for them what Steve Maeda was for me, which was somebody who’d basically come on the show and mentor them. And they, like me, took to it like a fish to water and have been doing it since.
Scott: I’m guessing a lot of people don’t even know what a showrunner is. What are your responsibilities in that capacity?
Jeff: The responsibilities are that you drive the bus, right? In the end, you are responsible for the creation of story‑line; you are responsible for the overseeing of the budget; you are responsible for the casting, for the editing. There are people who work with you in all these fashions. You’ve got a casting director, you have editors, and so on and so forth but at the end of the day, you are behind the wheel and you decide whether to go left or right.
A studio executive may have five shows to worry about. A network executive may have seven shows to worry about. You’re the one who’s in charge of keeping your thing alive, and pleasing the many masters that are around you.
The job of the showrunner is both to be the head writer and to also be responsible for the day‑to‑day workings of the show. When you’re in LA and the show’s shooting in Atlanta, and something bad happens on 6:30 on a Monday, you’re getting call at 3:30. Your cell phone rings at 3:30 in L.A. and you have to figure out how to make it function.
Scott: What’s a typical day like when the series is in production?
Jeff: Yeah, in the middle of the schedule of a 13 episode order. When you’re in the middle of that order, you are, let me see how I can do this correctly, you are editing episode two, you are shooting episode four, you are writing the scripts for episode five, you are breaking the outlines for episodes six, seven and eight. You are, in any given day, doing the story for possibly five or six episodes in one form or the other. You are watching casting tapes. It’s a little hectic on some mornings. You come in. You spend the morning from 7:30 to 10:00 dealing with phone calls, talking to your line producer, walking in after the first scene before they shoot it and so on and so forth. At 10:00, you sit down in a room with the writers and hopefully are able to debrief them as to what’s going on, give them some direction as to what the room has to do in a given day, ask them to break the following story‑lines and so on and so forth. If you can, you’re in there for a couple of hours.
Then you have to go off in your world. You go into the edit room for a couple of hours and do edits and cuts. That takes you to 2:00. You’re eating at your desk constantly. You’re then looking over an outline and trying to do edits on that to get it out to the he studio. Maybe have a call at four. You go back to the room at 5:30 and look at what they’ve done and give them some more notes, something you do until maybe 6:00, 6:30, when you send them home.
You go back and then you try to write. I typically will try to write from five to seven, to the extent that I can. I try to then get home to my family. Then, come 10:00, when everyone is asleep, I go back to work either writing or looking at cuts, whatever it is. That gets me to midnight. I crash out and the whole thing starts again.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Jeff talks about the success of the TV series “Necessary Roughness,” his screenwriting and answers some writing questions posed on Twitter.
For Part 1, go here.
Part 2, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank Jeff and ask any questions you may have.
Jeff is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.