From the little town of Shepparton to TV writer in L.A. – Nick Watson has lived the dream and challenges of uprooting, switching countries, and climbing the TV totem. I interrogated him about the experience of his move across the sea and into the big leagues of writing for Hollywood.
Tell us about the shows you’ve written on.
Most recently, I was a writer on Season 2 of the TBS animated sitcom Final Space, the first season of which just came out on Netflix internationally (including Australia) on July 20. Before that, I wrote for Littlest Pet Shop: A World of Our Own, which is an animated kids show from Hasbro Studios which airs on Discovery Family over here. Prior to that I wrote for three seasons on the late night talk show Live on Bowen in Australia, and was a segment producer for one of those seasons. That plus a bunch of pilots, shorts, and other projects.
You’re in a writing partnership. How did that relationship develop, and how has it helped?
I met my TV writing partner, Kelly D’Angelo, through a writers’ group not long after I first moved to LA. We read each other’s stuff the first week and instantly realised we had the exact same sense of humour. We both loved absurdism, farce, satire, heightened tone and worlds, and of course, animation. We got together at a coffee shop and threw around some ideas that excited us until one stuck, and spent the next few months writing it, and everything just flowed on from there. People loved that script, and we started to get work together from it, meanwhile we were continually writing more samples.
Having a partner has been incredibly useful. Creatively, it’s like having a second head that you can bounce jokes and ideas off of, draw from different perspectives, and split up scripts and scenes to get them done faster. When it comes to networking and putting ourselves out there, it also means we have double the reach – Kelly can be at Sundance meeting dozens of new people while I’m in LA having coffees with executives and producers and working on our pitch documents. If you’re lucky enough to find someone that you click with on a creative and personal level, take advantage of that. But make sure that you’re both in it for the long-haul: writing partnerships require an equal amount of commitment and dedication from both partners.
We met while writing on the talk show, Live On Bowen, and you’ve rocketed up from there in only a few short years. What did you do to get yourself from there to where you are now?
I was studying my Masters of Screenwriting while I was writing for Bowen, so I think that was a great starting point towards taking the next step in my career. To me, it signified that I was ready to focus 100% of my energy on writing from that point onwards, and that this was what I was going to do with my life – no more Plan Bs or safety nets. Being surrounded by other talented writers was a hothouse for personal development. We all helped lift each other up, and are all still close friends today, with many of us having gone on to success in the writing, producing, directing, and entertainment fields both locally and internationally.
I believe the most important thing I did to advance so quickly is to really, really want it. You have to be willing to put everything on the line, and pursue your goal with single-minded determination and persistence until you get what you want. If that means having to end a long-term relationship to move overseas for your career, or to almost go broke, or only sleep 4-5 hours a night because you’re working 60 hour weeks, and networking, and writing all the time, then so be it. I don’t say this to romanticise the life of a writer, or the struggle of trying to make a living as a creative – it sucks. There’s nothing pretty, or fun about it. But sometimes that’s what you have to do, and if you want it badly enough, then those are the kind of sacrifices you have to be willing to make.
US shows tend to be more writers’ room driven, though your projects to date have been animated shows which can tend to be more freelance. Have you worked in writers’ rooms, and how do you feel it makes a difference in the writing?
Final Space was a traditional writers’ room, and even for some of the freelance shows like Littlest Pet Shop, we would have a ‘mini-room’ or ‘writers’ summit’ where we could get together with a bunch of other writers in a room and break out lots of episode ideas, and build out the world and the characters, even though you’d go off by yourself later and work on the outlines and scripts.
I really enjoyed the experience of the writers’ room for Final Space, it was great to come in Monday-Friday and just focus all of your time and energy on how to tell the best stories possible.
Whereas with freelance stuff, you’re finding time in the evenings or on weekends here and there to work on scripts, and it’s just not the same as being immersed in that world and those characters day-in, day-out. The ability to bounce ideas and jokes off of a room full of writers and riff and play around until we find something good is invaluable. And everyone brings different skills to the table – some people are great at coming up with ideas, some people are great with story logic and structure, some are really focused on the characters and emotion. Others are just joke-machines and are perfect at punching up lines and gags. Having a bunch of specialists like that really puts the story and the script through a trial by fire that makes your work the best it can be.
What do you wish you had known before you flew off to the Americas to start a new life?
That it was possible. I think I set out with the mindset of ‘well, this is almost certainly going to fail, but I’m going to try anyway’, and kept scraping my way along from milestone to milestone until I stopped and looked back and realised I was actually doing it. I wish for that anyone who wants to do what I did to know that it is actually possible – it’s going to be hard, it’s going to require a lot of sacrifices (both personal and financial), and it will be filled with uncertainty. You will almost never feel ‘safe’. But that’s what you need to motivate you to keep pushing, and with enough persistence, it is absolutely possible to achieve your crazy dreams. The worst thing you can do is never even try.
What has been your crowning fanboy encounter in L.A? Which celeb or artistic hero have you had the chance to meet?
I got to meet a lot of cool people when I was working on The Muppets – not the least of which being all of the Muppet performers who do both The Muppets and Sesame Street. Some of them had been in all the Henson movies, and even the original Star Wars movies. But we also had celebrity guests every week like Dave Grohl, Jack White, and Keegan-Michael Key (from Key and Peele) – who I shared an elevator ride with, and it was the funniest 20 seconds of my life. In terms of people who mean the most to me creatively, meeting some of The Simpsons writers, and Nancy Cartwright, aka Lisa Simpson, at an animation Emmys event, plus Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon (creators of Rick & Morty) at Comic Con. Oh, and Tom Kenny (aka the voice of Spongebob) voices the character of HUE on Final Space, and working with him was incredible.
Many young, hungry (literally and figuratively) Australian writers will be reading – what would you yell while you grab their lapel and shake them as if you’re a young Doc Emmett Brown who’s already seen their future?
If you have the ability to do so, get over to LA and spend some time here on the ground. Whether it’s for a couple of weeks to a month to take some meetings and make some connections, or if you can get a visa to live and work here for a year, do it. Nothing will advance your career faster than actually being here, where the right people and the right opportunities are for TV writers. Other than that, just write, improve at your craft, and have a good arsenal of samples ready to go.
Lastly, figure out your ‘brand’ or niche – what are you passionate about, what defines you, and what do you want to make a career out of? It’s better to say you’re a hard sci-fi TV writer or a network multi-cam comedy writer, or a feature Rom-Com writer, than to try to be a jack-of-all-trades who does a little of everything – at least when you’re starting your career. If you don’t pick a lane, other people will pick it for you. You can always branch out later.
And finally – what next?
Right now I’m writing an episode of an Australian animated kids show I can’t talk about just yet, I’m in the early stages of development for an animated feature for a big studio, and keeping my fingers crossed for a Season 3 of Final Space!
Nick hasn’t just disappeared into endlessly blue skies and white-knuckle trips in Ubers around Los Angeles. His podcast PAPER TEAM is a killer resource of info and interviews with TV VIPs, and is a weekly masterclass: www.paperteam.co
He gets funny on Twitter: @_njwatson, and writes entertainment industry satire for the Salmon Pages at www.medium.com/the-salmon-pagesIngrid Elkner is a Melbourne-based writer, comedian and music-maker. You can read her NSFW tweets here: @ingridelkner