Mellinda Hensley takes us inside a writer’s room for daytime television, Pay Up Hollywood, and what part of the industry she’s paying attention to in the midst of Covid.
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Tanya Musgrave (00:01):
Welcome to There to Here, an educational podcast where industry professionals talk nuts and bolts and about how they got from there to here. I'm Tanya Musgrave, creative director here at CoLab Inc. And today I have Mellinda Hensley, a screenwriter who just recently won a WGA award for Best Daytime Drama as a writer for CBS's "The Young and the Restless."
Mellinda Hensley (00:24):
Hi, I am so glad to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Tanya Musgrave (00:27):
We're really excited to have a writer, to get your perspective on how things are being affected out there and kind of some of the changes that you're seeing in your industry. So I want you to go ahead and expand on your role in the industry. What has it been and what is it looking like now?
Mellinda Hensley (00:43):
Definitely. So kind of starting ... I don't want to completely go back to the beginning of things because that's a relatively winding road. I moved out to California in 2013 to go to grad school at USC. I initially went in as a fiction writer in a multidisciplinary program. And about halfway through I took a summer writing course with Michael Price, who is a writer for "The Simpsons" and he's now on "F is for Family" and it's lovely. Shout out to Michael. He's great. But what he did is ... because the program was multi-disciplinary, we had to take different types of genre courses and so I took a screenwriting course with him, where he basically set up the class to replicate a writer's room at least as close as we could get. And there were about 12 of us in the class, and we created our own TV show over the course of a couple of weekends. We created our own TV show and then wrote the pilot together.
Mellinda Hensley (01:37):
And it was some of the most fun that I have had in a long, long time. Writing collaboratively was so cool. Coming from a fiction background that wasn't kind of something that I was used to and I really, really enjoyed bouncing ideas off of other people and just being collaborative with other writers and learning how their brains functioned and it was just very cool. And after the class he approached me and was like, "Hey, I really enjoyed the work that you guys did. You did a great job. Would you like to come to the table read up "The Simpsons" with me?" And I lost my damn mind. I was so excited. I was like, "Yes, of course." So I took an afternoon off from my current job, went to the table read, and afterwards my goal kind of walked me out, walked to my car and he asked me what I thought.
Mellinda Hensley (02:28):
And I told him that if I could figure out a way to do that for the rest of my life, that I would be happy. Like I would feel creative with Phil. And so after that point I was like, "Okay, this is what I don't know. I don't know how, but I'm going to attempt to do this." And so from there I kept working at my current job as a legal assistant for at least a couple of months after this kind of building up finances and getting ready to leave. And I explained to them that I was going to leave and I was going to attempt go into TV and I didn't know what was going to happen. And I might come back with my tail between my legs, so please don't forget that I was here.
Mellinda Hensley (03:06):
So I left and I kind of just started doing odd jobs on sets, like learning how sets for different things functions. Basically, I was a PA on set or an office PA on multiple like commercials, like on a Ross Dress for Less commercial, on a Nickelodeon insert commercial on a bunch of just random commercials that I had seen postings for, and who just needed an extra set of hands and they'd give me 125 bucks a day and call it a day and send me out. After working one of those jobs, they liked the work that I did as a PA, and they basically invited me back to do a couple more commercials. So that was kind of how I supplemented income during that period of time for myself. Then I, basically a friend, and this is going to kind of be the overarching. If there was a too long, didn't read for everything that I'm about to say, it's that there is no one way of getting into anything.
Mellinda Hensley (04:03):
Everybody has a different journey and that's for a reason because I think that that shapes you is writer or producer or director or whatever you want to do. There's no one right or wrong way to do things. Just keep doing things because you like to do them. Because when I was still doing PA stuff, I knew that I wanted to write, so I was writing stuff on the side and then going to set for 12 to 15 to 18 hours. I'm on set. But all that to be said, a friend of mine basically said, "Hey, we have an opening on a show as an assistant. It was for The Young and the Restless on CBS." And I was like, "Yeah, of course it's television. Why would I turn this down?"
Mellinda Hensley (04:38):
And I went in for an interview. I met the executive producer and the head writer. We hit it off and I ended up getting the job. I worked there for two years and then at the beginning of my ... Basically last January, I was asked to step up into the layout writer position. It was a really, really lovely moment where I was kind of ... it was out of a lot of fear because Y&R would shoot Tuesday through Friday and we would shoot five, sometimes six episodes in four days.
Tanya Musgrave (05:11):
Oh my gosh.
Mellinda Hensley (05:12):
Which is an insane amount of content. A person would burn out relatively easily.
Tanya Musgrave (05:16):
So for the listeners who don't know what a layout writer is?
Mellinda Hensley (05:21):
The closest thing I could compare it to ... It is not precisely the same. There are differences. So basically I don't write scripts for the show. What I would do is I would meet with the head writer and another layout writer or two.
Mellinda Hensley (05:34):
We kind of acted in a way as [inaudible 00:05:36]. We would break story with him and then summarize the story. Basically we would break a week's worth of story like every week, with some pretty intense constraints. The way that Y&R is filmed is we are filmed at CBS television city. We film on two stages that are in the building, and they normally don't location shoots, not now. So that being said, we only have the sets that are available to us on those two stages to use. You can take some down and put new ones up, but that costs money. And that also is a big strain on the set and staff who works there. So we would attempt to not change any of our sets, and we would look at the sets we had, and we would say, "Okay, what story can we do in these sets with the actors that we have?" Because every actor has their own guarantee for how many times they can appear on the show.
Mellinda Hensley (06:32):
I tell people it was like the most fun puzzle game I ever played, like just a really cool game of "Tetris." It was a challenge to see how we could still capture like the essence of the show as best we could create drama for our viewers, and do something that made us creatively feel fulfilled as well. And also like give stuff to our directors that they want to shoot and give stuff to our producers that they want to make. We tried to do that as consistently as possible in a model that constantly turns, you know what I mean? Like in a very, very fast moving hamster wheel. So my position was kind of at the very like the genesis of ideas. Basically, our head writer would come up with the concepts himself of what he wanted to see. He would talk it through with us. We would try and work out the kinks that we could and put in as much practicality as we could. Aka, what sets we have available? How our actors are? What their guarantees are like? What our budget looks like?
Mellinda Hensley (07:30):
And then we would write up summaries of our episodes. So we would try to do anywhere from five to six a week and then those summaries would go to our outline writers. So our summaries were maybe four or five pages per episode. An outlined writer would get that and then turn it into a very specific outline for that episode, which could be anywhere from 12 to 14 pages. And then that outline would go to a script writer, who would take that very specific outline and write anywhere from a 50 to 60 page script.
Tanya Musgrave (08:08):
What is the turnaround time for that process right there?
Mellinda Hensley (08:12):
Two weeks. Right. It's insane. It's utterly insane. Our script writers, we have five of them who are all amazing. They write 60 pages a week. Every week.
Tanya Musgrave (08:30):
Oh my gosh.
Mellinda Hensley (08:31):
And we would have some instances where if a writer needed a medical emergency or if we ... Everybody had vacation that they were required to take. So if a writer was on vacation or was unable to do a script one week, we would have a writer who would double up and would do two episodes in a week. Which is again, astounding. And same to our outline writers too. To take our summaries and then literally beat it out scene by scene, like where it would take place, what characters would be there and then a paragraph summary of what would happen in that scene. Everyone who's on that team is fantastic. I really feel like daytime deserves so much credit. And it's a really truly fascinating meme with some really, really loyal fans.
Tanya Musgrave (09:16):
So this is a really fascinating look inside of our writer's room because this is actually something that ... I've been more on the production side of things, like once everything has already gone down the pipe. So you were kind of talking about how you can protect yourself in the industry and you know, talking about these nuts and bolts for a writer, how do you approach being a part of a writing team?
Mellinda Hensley (09:40):
I have two different hemispheres of my brain that want to answer this. So as a writer's assistant, it's literally every room is different but kind of the overarching thing is don't say anything unless you're asked to say something because you are there to literally help the other writers. That is your position and you can learn so much from them just by listening and you can get immersed in that world and not feel like you have to spit out the next great idea, because you're there to assist and you should be absolutely praised and lauded for that because your position is not easy. But then as a writer in the room, I would say, that again every room is different, "Learn to listen, learn to be kind, learn to read a room, get the general temperature of how people are feeling and how an idea might fly."
Mellinda Hensley (10:27):
It doesn't have to be perfect. I think some of the best ideas that have ever come out of breaking sessions with the head writer at Y&R have been me saying, "This is dumb but ... " And then just like going with what my idea was and we would shape it into something else. And I think this is also a maxim that people go by is "Don't hate someone else's idea if you don't have something that could be substituted."
Mellinda Hensley (10:53):
So if you're working on a piece that strictly in comedy and you don't like somebody's joke, you better have a joke. Do you know what I mean? You better have a joke to sub for it or you're being as obtuse as like, "Oh, I don't like that," or like "That doesn't sit right with me." If you can't explain yourself, then I think that you really need to evaluate why you're saying what you're saying. You should add to that space and you were there for a reason. That's another thing too. If you get placed in a room, there is a reason that you're in the room, as an assistant or otherwise. You are good enough to be there. So don't be afraid of the ideas that you have. Don't be afraid to pitch ideas or to talk about things. Just do it in a way that reads the room accordingly.
Tanya Musgrave (11:38):
So we were kind of talking before about how the industry was starting to change, because for instance, I think you said hashtag #PayUpHollywood was a thing.
Mellinda Hensley (11:47):
Yes. So that is Liz AlperBaby. She started this hashtag and a giant, giant spreadsheet and basically it was if you're an assistant in Hollywood, put down what ... And small anonymous stories had been kind of bubbling up before. It's one of those things where everybody kind of had this underlying knowledge that things sucked. We just didn't know how bad. And then when there were figures and facts and submitted testimonials as to how bad things were. Wow.
Mellinda Hensley (12:22):
There was a report in Variety that said that like, I don't want to get my percentages wrong, so I apologize. Perhaps I will send you the link later, but it was like 10% of assistants had said that an object had been thrown at them while they were on the job. The most common item was a stapler, which is insane. You shouldn't have to go to work thinking that a thing will be launched at your head. At the end of the day, you're making television. I care about this art form and this medium so much and I understand how it becomes like a hotbed for tempers and abuse and everything else. But at the end of the day, we're all still just making television. Nobody should have to physically or emotionally or mentally get hurt to make television. To know that wasn't a common thought was just insane.
Tanya Musgrave (13:10):
What's interesting is that the previous guest he's in his 50s and he was just like, "For right now it's been taking years and decades for me to come to the point of having healthy boundaries," which show business doesn't really have a good track record of having healthy boundaries where you can exist, you can do your job, and then you can also have a life, because there's always somebody who is willing to do the job cheaper or for free. That's why PAs don't unionize and you know, blah, blah, blah, blah. So the industry was already changing. My question for you is with coronavirus, what changes can you see on the horizon that might actually be for the good or changes in general?
Mellinda Hensley (13:59):
Yeah. Okay. Yes, yes, yes. It's very good to focus on the positive, especially at a time like this when things are utterly insane. I think that this time is very scary for a lot of reasons because shows are, at least from what I've experienced. So I can't speak to every show or every medium, because also every medium is handling it differently. You have late night that's being super creative and figuring out how to still get things done. But at the same time in order to get it done, they're still using crew members, but they've had to furlough some of the positions they've had. You know what I mean? And again, every show is different, but I totally respect that they're still making things. I respect that they're still employing people and giving people jobs.
Mellinda Hensley (14:41):
But it's a lot of friends that I know has come to the point where it's like, "Well, I find out whether or not I'm still employed soon." That's a very scary thing out here, especially with the cost of living, et cetera, et cetera. I think that this is also changing for the better because it's causing us to connect with each other in ways that we haven't before. And by that I mean just writers in general. I wasn't a big user of Twitter until this thing happened. And the writing community on Twitter is really nice for the most part. I mean it's Twitter, so it's a rage machine at the end of the day. But still there's such a helpful community on there if you are willing to trade scripts and bounce ideas and just take care of each other during this really difficult time. So I think that that's a good thing because it's pulling us all closer together as writers.
Mellinda Hensley (15:31):
I think that shows are going to be really challenged to think about what their model business has been for years and years and years, and now it doesn't work. So what are you going to do? I think that coronavirus is really going to push these longstanding networks and these longstanding institutions to really think about the way that they create content and to think about how to do it safely for their crews. Even if writing can continue virtually, there's still an entire other part of things once we get to production, like how does that work? I genuinely hope that that causes us to really look at the benefits provided to those who are in production and to make sure that they're taken care of at a time, right now, when everybody is really, really stressed and looking for work. I genuinely hope that that's not taken advantage of. Do you know what I mean?
Tanya Musgrave (16:27):
Yeah. Yeah. So what is happening with them right now? What is their plan right now? Everything has screeched to a halt.
Mellinda Hensley (16:33):
I honestly can't speak to what the trends going to be right now because a lot of people just are-
Tanya Musgrave (16:39):
Nobody can, I guess.
Mellinda Hensley (16:41):
It's a total crap shoot. The only thing that I can speak for is what I know, which is daytime. Different shows in daytime operate differently. Like how far out their schedule is. Why are tapes in advance? So there are technically still new episodes coming out, but like there will come a point when that backlog is done. The one thing that I'm paying attention to as a writer, kind of not where I'm shifting my focus because I like writing comedy and that's what I do and that's what I enjoy. I'm really, really keeping my eye on the animation sphere right now because they are the only people who can keep doing exactly what they're doing, which is making content and producing content and putting it out there without too many radical changes. You know what I mean? It's different from doing a live action show.
Tanya Musgrave (17:26):
Yeah. My friend who's up in ... He's in Vancouver right now, animated for Sony and I was going to get him on the show. I was like, "Hey, yeah, I wanted to see how you're doing, how this has affected your day-to-day routine." He's just like, "Well, I brought my work computer home and I do the exact same thing."
Mellinda Hensley (17:43):
Yeah. Again, I hate to keep defaulting back to every show is different, but it's definitely true. The animation process for "The Simpsons" looks wildly different from the animation process for "South Park." Those are two very different shows on two very different timelines. So it's very apples, oranges situation. So I can't say your job is easy and your job is hard and you can keep doing it, but we can get both halves of the process done. I've heard a lot of people who are just, myself included, who are just experimenting in that sphere right now. I'm writing stuff that could potentially be animated, just to see if it's worth pitching to anybody, et cetera, et cetera.
Tanya Musgrave (18:19):
So everything is basically screeched to a halt. But how has your particular day-to-day routine been affected?
Mellinda Hensley (18:29):
So I went freelance in January because staffing season normally happens for shows around March/April. So getting staff to your show as a writer, once things kind of go into production, that was my plan. Like to just throw all of my energy into doing that and having a sample that I'm proud of and getting staff. And so I already was doing a lot of stuff from home in January, networking and things like that. Taking meetings with managers and agents, et cetera, et cetera. And then when the stay-at-home order was issued, that changed just how networking worked for me. My sleeping hours are different. When I schedule calls, it's completely different. It's something that has taken some major adjustment. The hardest thing has been adjusting on a physical level. So kind of what I mentioned, my sleep schedule has been different. When I give myself time to whether it's to not do yoga because I can't.
Mellinda Hensley (19:25):
I know. I appreciate people who can. I can't reach my toes. It's fine. But just to give myself kind of time to budget during this time. Very practical stuff, even to the extent of getting taxes filed. All of that had to happen first and then it was, "Okay, now try to be creative in this weird, weird situation." That is truly difficult. I think that there's this weird weird thought that ... Again, I think I mentioned this earlier, I have to continually remind myself and one of my friends put it really well. She was like, "This is not a writing retreat. We're trying to keep people from dying." And so just reminding myself that, "No, I am not required to write the greatest script ever during this period of time." It's very good to remind yourself of that and to not put pressure on yourself, but at the same time the environment right now is very pressurized.
Mellinda Hensley (20:14):
We're wondering how work is going to look, how we're going to make ends meet, especially for people who were support staff. Which by the way, if your listening to this right now and you are on support staff, you should go to Twitter and you should go to follow Ms.[inaudible 00:20:28]. First of all, because she's wonderful. Second of all, they created a relief fund for people who are in support staff positions whose jobs ended because of COVID. Basically who were put on hold because of COVID, anyone who lost their jobs. And they took donations from writers and people in the industry to add to this stockpile, and they raised more than half a million dollars.
Tanya Musgrave (20:50):
Oh wow. That's fantastic.
Mellinda Hensley (20:51):
It's kind of like I mentioned before, writers are taking care of each other right now because this job is already hard and weird enough. So I'm really glad that people who are in positions of power are using this time to look out for people who aren't.
Tanya Musgrave (21:07):
So you definitely have that balance between using the time to further your business and sustain yourself, that kind of thing. "Oh, this is the best time. Get in touch." But then also having some mental clarity, some time for some forgiveness. Just taking it easy on yourself. So what is your advice for writers? Where do you think the best place is for them to position themselves right now? Not necessarily for action, but-
Mellinda Hensley (21:33):
Honestly, that's a question I'm still asking myself. It's okay if you don't know. I had a phone call with a friend of mine who is a writer and who is regularly gotten staff. And he also was like, "I'm twisting in the wind just as much as everyone else is." So it is okay to feel how you're feeling during this time. Give yourself that space. It's such a weird time to try and network because it feels so self-serving right now. People and populations are being decimated by this thing and yet I have to ask if somebody wants to read my sample. It's truly dark. But what I would recommend is a first and foremost, to be kind to yourself and I'm sure that a lot of people are going to say that. I genuinely hope that a lot of people are going to say that.
Mellinda Hensley (22:22):
Another is to really get to know how you work best as a writer during this time. Do weird stuff during this time. Write weird stuff that you never thought you could write before. Right now, I'm writing an animated pilot about a core heaves acid, which is exactly what it sounds like, it's insane. It's something I never would've done before. But it has kept me writing because it's something I look forward to opening every day.
Tanya Musgrave (22:47):
Your brain needs that.
Mellinda Hensley (22:48):
It needs the weirdness and it needs something to just completely throw it off its axis and be like, "Okay, this is a new genre or sphere or experiment that we're going to do and best of all, no one has to see it. If you don't like it and that's cool, that's fine." Just to get your fingers moving at all is great, and get words out of pages great.
Mellinda Hensley (23:06):
And also utilize your community as best you can. Like I said, I know that it sounds so strange to try and network right now, but networking is just talking with people about stuff that you like and they like. And if you go into it with that mindset of not what can you do for me, but how can we just connect? That's a great place to start. If you're genuine with people, they can totally tell. I will say that that's something over time that gets honed is your ability to tell when somebody just wants your business card.
Tanya Musgrave (23:38):
Yeah. Yeah, for sure.
Mellinda Hensley (23:40):
So as an example, this is something that my friends and I are doing. We get on g-chats every day. We all turn on our cameras like this and we will set a timer for an hour and we will write for an hour. When you're alone and you're wearing sweat pants and you don't care, it's so much easier to just to fall out of a routine or to let yourself get kind of consumed with anxiety or with worry or with other things and just having other people during this time, it is really useful. Living looks weird right now, so do it in the best way you can.
Tanya Musgrave (24:18):
No seriously, because you think of anxiety and depression being through the roof these days. There is no normal right now and so people are having to cope with that and figure out what step to take, when there is no step to take.
Mellinda Hensley (24:32):
Yeah. I would also recommend that friends are very important. Friends are very useful during this time. You need each other, but also medical professionals are so much more apt to handle when you have those really, really intense feelings of anxiety or whatever have you to not be afraid to seek mental help is always, always paramount. And that's even at times when we all don't feel like we're going to die. Like you know what I mean? Even when COVID passes, still take stock in your mental health and always check in with yourself. It's really, really important to not work yourself into the ground.
Tanya Musgrave (25:06):
Is that something that you see pretty often in your sector?
Mellinda Hensley (25:09):
Yes, all the time. And I think that that extends past writing people who are editors, people who are in production, the burnout rate is just really, really intense. It's important to check in with yourself and realize that you intrinsically as a person has value outside of your job. Because if you make a lot of your identity about your job, which on the one hand you will be a fantastic worker for like six months. You'll be really great at it.
Mellinda Hensley (25:40):
But if you feel like you owe something to a network at the end of the day that's going to end up biting you in the ass because shows end and positions end. Business decisions happen that exclude you. Your pay gets cut, your job gets cut. I do think it's really lovely to think of your show as a family because how can you not when you're with those people for so long, but you have to love yourself and not just your show because at some point that show will end. If you derive all of your value from someone else or something else, it can end up being really detrimental to your mental health.
Tanya Musgrave (26:18):
Yeah, for sure.
Mellinda Hensley (26:18):
The other thing I will say as a writer too is if there's text or if it's on TV or if it's made, whatever, have you, any texts that you see or dialogue that is spoken, somebody got paid to write that thing. Don't be convinced that you have to write the next great feature or that you have to be staffed on the most popular show in the world or that you have to do any of this to be a value because people get paid to literally supply dialogue or to write technically. Any of that is writing. You will get paid for it. So always consider those jobs. At the end of the day, the industry is a numbers game, so keep playing and keep making things.
Tanya Musgrave (26:55):
Nice. Nice. Thank you for joining us. If you enjoyed this interview, follow us right here and check out more episodes at colabinc.org. Mellinda, thanks so much for your time.
Mellinda Hensley (27:06):
Oh my gosh. Thank you.
Tanya Musgrave (27:07):
We will see you next time on There to Here.