Staying True to Your Screenwriting-Self With Two-Time Pulitzer Finalist Gina Gionfriddo
When Gina Gionfriddo isn’t almost winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (a finalist in 2009 and 2013), she’s writing for television. She’s written a number of episodes for various Law & Order series, Cold Case, House of Cards, and most recently, The Alienist.
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She recently called in to Yale Podcast Network’s To Live and Dialogue in LA to chat with host Aaron Tracy about her writing career and process. Here are some snippets from the conversation.
She knows her strengths and weaknesses.
Coming from theatre, Gionfriddo wasn’t used to the “art” of having to sell her work through a pitch. That agonizing, borderline masochistic process is more of a Hollywood thing. But when she began to delve into TV and have her own ideas for a show, there was no avoiding it. She’s realized that pitching isn’t really her thing — and she’s okay with that.
“I’m not a good pitcher so I haven’t been doing that,” she says. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve had enough work without pitching that I’ve been able to remain steadily employed. I don’t have my next gig right now so I think pitching may be a skill I need to hone.”
She continues, saying, “To pitch, you have to go in there and convince them you’ve got a fantastic idea. And I kind of grew up, my dad was Sicilian and he used to talk about the ‘evil eye,’ so I’ve always been, I guess I was raised to sort of downplay everything and I have a hard time selling myself and selling my work.” Maybe so, but it’s clear that she puts the effort into her work, and lets the writing speak for itself.
She’s not the biggest fan of writers’ rooms and she’s not afraid to admit it.
Playwriting is by nature a more isolated process than writing a TV show, where various people contribute to an episode week after week. Coming from that more isolated world to a more collaborative world understandably takes some getting used to — but that wasn’t even really the problem for Gionfriddo. It’s the writers’ room itself.
“Without naming names,” she remembers, “I was on a show where the writers’ room was really a disaster and I think that it was a disaster for reasons that many writers’ rooms are disasters which is, you know, hours and hours and hours of screwing around, gossiping, reading the newspaper, not doing any work, and then there’s utter panic when the deadlines are looming.” She admits, “I just don’t have the stomach for the ‘hangin’ out.’ … It’s unfortunate that The Alienist was such a quick job because it was the first writers’ room I’d been in where… they weren’t looking to screw around. We just got in there and worked.”
Certain things inspire her to write and she sticks to them.
When she’s beginning a new play, Gionfriddo says she spends “a long time with the idea. I germinate the idea for a really long time.” She begins mulling things around in her head, typically something that makes her think. “Usually it’s kind of something that’s morally, ethically sticky that I’m trying to work out in my mind. You know, with Becky Shaw, I think I was interested in what do you owe someone who you don’t know very well, who is reaching out to you with need. And then with Rapture, Blister, Burn, it didn’t make it onto the page but I was very interested in the impact of internet pornography and I had done a lot of research and ultimately I couldn’t really use the research but it wound up being about an academic who, you know, pornography is one of her areas.”
Gionfriddo knows what works for her process and she doesn’t stray away from it — which has proven to work for her.
She turned her interest in true crime into a career.
“I’ve always been a big true crime consumer,” Gionfriddo says. “There’s always been a lot of shlocky true crime on cable. (I shouldn’t say shlocky — I watch all of it.) You know, The Datelines, The 48 Hours… I think that when some of the higher-end, more well-regarded media outlets started doing it, you know, NPR and HBO, it legitimized it a little bit. And then certainly the OJ show… suddenly you had True Crime being done in a higher class way.”
Though she’s wary of the True Crime fad becoming too much of a thing, particularly the shows that focus on more recent, unsolved cases. “It’s one thing to do a case like Menendez or OJ where it’s been litigated a long time ago… some of the ones… like the case in Serial or the case in Making a Murderer where they’re more recent, there’s more of a possibility of reopening the cases, I worry with [those shows] that there is the danger, I think, of getting a guilty person another chance. So that haunts me a little bit and I think it’s very hard to dredge it up for the families.”
She has learned to embrace the differences between TV and playwriting.
“I took a playwriting class with Romulus Linney once… he used to say, ‘Don’t be willfully obscure.’ He was like, it’s much better to be obvious than willfully obscure.” She admits, “Before I started doing TV, I think I was sometimes willfully obscure and I learned when I got into TV, you know, you have forty-eight minutes; if you want something to get across you gotta say it.”
She remembers, “I had one of my early days at Law & Order, I was trying to explain to [one of the producers] it wasn’t one motive, it was three motives and they were intertwined and he said, we’re not doing Scenes From A Marriage, you have to just tell me.” That’s when the lightbulb went off for Gionfriddo; that’s when it clicked.
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Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.
Photo credit: Jim Spellman - © 2015 Jim Spellman - Image courtesy gettyimages.com
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