Screenwriting alum builds career from MFA internship
Bob Dearden (Screenwriting MFA’13) chose to leave a fifteen-year career as a silviculture contract supervisor—running tree-planting camps in remote areas of northern Canada—to join the UT graduate screenwriting program. This decision turned out well for Dearden, as it led him to a co-writing gig in Hollywood with Veronica Mars series creator, Rob Thomas.
During his time in the RTF program, Dearden won the 2012 Longhorn Screenplay Competition, was a semifinalist in the 2012 Austin Film Festival TV writing competition, and landed what soon proved to be a valuable internship with Rob Thomas. He later followed Thomas to Hollywood to work on the feature version of Veronica Mars, a production funded by its well-known and record-setting Kickstarter campaign. Together, the pair went on to co-write a comedic “meta-spoof” web series, Play It Again, Dick for CW Seed, centered on Ryan Hansen's Veronica Mars character, Dick Casablancas. The series started airing in September 2014, and is also available on iTunes.
Dearden is now working on Thomas’s latest series for The CW Network, iZombie. Set to premiere on television March 17, 2015 (with its World Premiere the night before at SXSW!), the genre-splicing crime dramedy revolves around a medical student who, after being turned into a zombie, gets a job at the police morgue in order to better access the brains she craves – then uses the deceased’s memories that come along with them in order to help solve their murders.
In this interview, Dearden lays out his trajectory from RTF to Hollywood.
How on Earth did you manage to connect with Rob Thomas in the first place?
In the spring of my first year of graduate school, I attended a presentation Rob gave through the Austin Film Festival [AFF]—a screening of the original, unaired Party Down pilot. During the Q&A, he mentioned how nice it was to be able to live in Austin but still have a career in Hollywood, and that he was currently writing a pilot for HBO.
I was looking for something in Austin to fulfill the MFA program’s internship course requirement (rather than LA), but I wanted my internship to be as much of a hands-on learning opportunity as possible. That summer, I emailed the AFF to broach the subject. I told them I would love to fulfill my internship requirements working for Rob in some capacity, and asked if they would they be willing to pass along my request to him. I found out later that my email to the AFF was received by Board Member Maya Perez, who was about to enter her first year in the UT Michener Program. Maya forwarded the message to Rob, and he responded almost immediately. He thought it was a great idea, and offered to meet in person to discuss it further. At the time, I was in British Columbia working for the summer, so we agreed to meet when I got back to school in August. In the meantime, we emailed a bit back and forth and started to develop a rapport.
What did your internship consist of?
At the outset, I had no idea what to expect – for all I knew, I would be doing typical intern things – administrative tasks, getting coffee, dropping off drycleaning – but Rob was extremely welcoming and generous, and the internship was all writing-related, based around the various pilot scripts he was developing.
The first few months of working together, those scripts included the HBO pilot, as well as pilots for the CW Network and USA. He would bring me up to speed on whatever he'd done in my absence up to that point, and then he'd start working on the next beats or the next pages. I served as a sounding board for his ideas – a silent one for the most part at first, for fear that I would embarrass myself if I offered a stupid opinion. For all of his experience and success, however, Rob never acted like my opinion wasn’t worth hearing; eventually I grew comfortable enough to weigh in, and even pitch ideas from time to time. It became almost like a two-person writers' room – obviously, he was running things, but I could help facilitate the discussion a bit.
I don’t want to speak for him, but I think, as much as anything, it was just helpful to Rob’s process to have someone in the room with whom he could talk things through out loud. Pretty early in my internship, he asked me if I had any other classmates that would be interested in interning with him. At that point, John Bellina and Steve Stringer (both MFA ’13 graduates as well) came on board, and at least one of us was usually working with him every weekday.
Rob allowed us to listen in on notes calls from the studio and networks for which he was working, and he answered a thousand questions from each of us about his writing process, and how the business works. It was as comprehensive a learning experience as I could have imagined.
So, how did your internship with Thomas segue into co-writing a web series with him?
Again, I don’t want to speak for him, but I think the more we worked together, the more he trusted my instincts and my writing abilities. He’d heard my pitches throughout our sessions, and seen a bit of my writing, and I think he was hoping to give me a shot if the right opportunity came along.
The Veronica Mars movie wrapped in July, and by November, they were pretty heavy into post-production. At the same time, Rob was working on another three pilot scripts, and was able to bring me back onto the payroll as his assistant. It was around that time that the idea of the web series, Play It Again, Dick, came up.
Play It Again, Dick was originally conceived as an advertising tie-in to the [Veronica Mars] movie release. It was supposed to be a very small, inexpensive, fun little project, so Rob asked if I’d like to write it. A former student of his (and fellow RTF alum), Viet Nguyen, was hired to direct it. However, as word of the web series reached higher up the studio and network ladders, it kind of took on a life of its own, and became a much bigger deal than anyone on our side had imagined. As such, we just didn’t have time to get it done for the movie release tie-in, and it got pushed to the summer.
By the time we came back to it, one of Rob’s pilots, iZombie, had been ordered to series. I’d been hired as the writers’ assistant, but we had a brief window before the writers’ room was scheduled to open to work on the web series scripts. It was the perfect first project for me as an inexperienced writer – the scripts were only going to be about 8 pages each, and it was meant to be more broadly funny and satirical than the stuff we had typically worked on together. Furthermore, Rob would be overseeing the whole thing, so there was a pretty big safety net. That said, it was a huge gift to have my first credit handed to me like that, and for it to be such a fun project with a relatively high profile.
Tell us about the co-writing process on Play It Again, Dick.
Because we’d been working together in some capacity for almost two years, the outlining and writing of the web series was a familiar process. Rob obviously took the reins and did most of the heavy lifting, and I’d offer feedback and suggestions of my own whenever it was warranted. We split the writing of the episodes down the middle, four apiece, and I submitted each of my drafts to him once they were ready. He’d give notes on my work and specify what he’d like rewritten. He’d make some edits himself, punch up the jokes, fine-tune the dialogue, but, as I’ve learned, that’s not much different from how it works on a TV show for any lower-level writer on staff.
By the time we shot Play It Again, Dick, he was busy with iZombie, so I got to be the writer on-set. I was able to give feedback to the director and to the actors, write revisions on the fly, and participate in the post-production process. Another great learning opportunity, and possibly my favorite part of the whole experience.
Not long after we wrapped, I was hired to write a freelance episode of iZombie (the WGA mandates that one episode per season per show be written by a freelancer who is not on the full-time writing staff), so I got to do it all over again, this time on an actual network TV show. I could never have guessed that my internship would’ve opened so many doors, but it’s really a testament to Rob’s generosity and how much I’ve been able to learn and grow as a writer under his tutelage.
Do you see yourself primarily as a comedic writer?
My instincts tend to veer toward the comedic more often than not, but I wouldn’t say I’m a comedy writer. I’ve never tried to write a traditional, at-least-one-joke-per-page sitcom, and I don’t think I’d be very good at it. The web series was a whole different thing, just layers upon layers of absurdity, so that was fun and I’d love to do something like that again.
Do you prefer to work in television, features,…both?
When I started writing, it was almost all screenplays. I didn’t know much about how television writing works, or how to break into that game. Feature screenplays seemed more likely to help a guy get from nowhere to Hollywood in one easy step. That was a naïve way to look at it, but that’s where my perspective lay when I was starting out. I am definitely concentrating more on television at this point, but I’d love to work in any medium that would have me. They’re each appealing to me for opposing reasons: TV allows you to think about how the story will continue, while features give you the option to tell a complete story, right to the end.
How would you say RTF prepared you for your writing career?
The MFA Screenwriting program gave me a great foundation for understanding story structure, and how a screenplay should function. I learned a lot about my writing process as well—how to operate under a deadline in a creative field, how to most effectively approach a story and turn the seed of an idea into a more fully fleshed piece of material. Maybe most importantly, the faculty and the design of their classes provided a really great mix of both the theoretical and the practical—both of which have been essential to getting a foot in the door in Hollywood and starting my career.