We Chat with Devious Maids Writers, It's All Happening!
Hi everyone! As promised, I bring you the grand interview with the scriptwriters of this week's episode of Devious Maids, Jessica Kivnik (Freelance Writer and Writers' Assistant for the show) and David Grubstick (Story Editor).
SERIAL DRAMA: First of all, I loved tonight's episode! And I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions! I love Devious Maids, and am so grateful that it livens up our somewhat empty summer TV schedules.
JESSICA KIVNIK: Thank you! Tell your friends.
DAVID GRUBSTICK: Glad you're enjoying this season!
SD: Since most of this site’s readers came here originally for our coverage of daytime soaps, I just wanted to start off with a basic sausage-making question about some of the genre differences. Most of us are used to the daytime system of the Head Writer determining all of the overall story arcs, the breakdown writers outlining the scenes and plot points of an episode, and then the scriptwriters handling the actual dialogue, as opposed the more traditional concept of the writers’ room where more people are involved in brainstorming. Can you tell us a little about how the writing process works at Devious Maids?
JK: Even though Devious Maids is a drama, the room runs a bit more like a traditional comedy room. The showrunner, Brian Tanen, might have an idea of something to play for an individual episode or a place we need to end a story to set-up something for the future, but anyone can bring in a story idea. We tend to break story together, usually by character (Marisol, Rosie, Carmen, Zoila), looking for a balance of comedic and dramatic beats. This season we had a lot of new combinations to play with so that was really fun.
Once the story beats are on the wall on cards, we board or "weave" the stories together, divvy up the work and go to outline, then drafts. (Insider scoop, we play Spanish guitar music to inspire the weaving.) When you turn in a draft, it goes up on a big TV screen in the room and is read aloud to everyone by the showrunner (which is more common in comedy rooms.) It's scary the first time, but it really matters how the dialogue sounds out loud. You get a round of notes and have a chance to rewrite as needed. Then Brian does a "polish" on your draft to ensure a consistency of tone. At the end of the day, he's the boss!
Then we get to hear it read by the actors at a table read (in our case, via video conference). That part is crucial because for a show with so much comedy, you really need to hear how your jokes are playing and can make any adjustments if necessary. Plus it's a great thrill!
I didn't know that soaps had different writers creating outlines! That's something that the Devious writers do before they get to the draft stage. But we only have to produce 1 episode per week so that makes it a lot easier. Hat tip to daytime soap writers, cuz what we do is not easy.
DG: Every show I've worked on has its own writing process. But one constant is the showrunner always sets the tone for how the writers' room operates. Devious Maids is a nighttime soap with the typical serialized drama and mystery elements -- but we add comedy to that mix, giving the show its unique voice. And because we have a small writing staff, everyone pitches in wherever needed -- breaking story, outlining, writing drafts and punching-up scenes. All the writers have a hand in writing every episode. The process is very collaborative.
SD: And how did you get involved yourselves?
JK: I was hired in Season 3 to be the writers' assistant which means I sit in the writers room with the staff and take notes, do research and put episode beats on note cards that we hang on a giant corkboard. It's an amazing opportunity to learn from professional writers and see their process up close. Each show is different but this room was also really open to hearing my pitches and ideas, which is not true of all writers rooms. I must have had a few good ones, because when they had a freelance writing opportunity in Season 4, they gave it to me!
DG: I came onboard during Season 1 as the script coordinator. My job was to proofread all the outlines and drafts, oversee legal clearances and BS&P, and make sure the scripts were distributed to department heads and the studio and network. Luckily I was also allowed to help out in the writers' room taking notes when needed. That led to writing a freelance episode during Season 2. Then I was hired onto the writing staff for Seasons 3 & 4.
SD: Since the show is written in California and shot in Georgia, are any of the writers ever present on set in Atlanta?
JK: It depends. The showrunner or another EP-level writer sometimes are, especially during the first episode or the season finale. We are also lucky to have a great producing director David Warren who knows the tone of the show and helps the episodic directors to ensure that there's some visual consistency. Also there are lots and lots of meetings in prep to help the team on set really understand how the writers envision things.
SD: The relationship between Genevieve and Zoila has long been one of my favorite things about the show, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Was that something planned from the beginning or did the depth of the onscreen chemistry between Susan Lucci and Judy Reyes plant an idea in the writers’ heads? And can you give us a modicum of hope for a reunion this season?
DG: From the pilot episode, it's established Zoila and Genevieve have the longest working relationship and friendship. Their children grew up together and I like to think they know each other better than they know themselves. But Judy and Susan are the ones who breathe life into that complex relationship. Otherwise, it's just words on paper. So their chemistry is key and is what makes writing for them so much fun. And "Zoy-vieve" fans have nothing to fear - their paths cross again very soon.
JK: Both women really grow this season and have to navigate life without each other. I think that will give each of them some of the perspective that distance provides. I will say that sooner than you expect, we will see Genevieve and Zoila interact - in a very devious way.
SD: Speaking of Susan Lucci, since we’ve long talked about her on this site, I just have to ask: can you tell us any fun stories at all? Is La Lucci as tiny and adorable and diplomatic and regal in reality as she seems to be?
JK: She's amazing. And a huge supporter of the show. We're so lucky to have her, I think she's a national treasure. She always wants to have sexy storylines so that's why we gave her Dr. Neff (and the Blooming Orchid) last year and had her naked, trying to seduce Peter this season. She was so game for that shot where she's strategically hidden behind flowers, but the props and costumes departments wanted to be respectful so they made the flowers really big! We had to ADR a line about her being naked so it was really clear to the viewers.
DG: Susan is a pro and game for everything and anything we throw at her. One of my favorite Genevieve scenes is from last season's finale, when she was trapped in an elevator with a very pregnant Zoila, who goes into labor. I died watching Susan on the dailies pry open the elevator doors with her stiletto heels, climb up and out into the hallway, turn around and exclaim, "I've been dieting my whole life for this!" As a writer, you always hope what you write translates onto screen. Susan totally sells that moment and she's hilarious.
SD: Tell us about the episode titles this season! It's been fun figuring out a pattern each year.
JK: Cleaning puns! We're not sure if they really all speak to the content of each specific episode, but they amused Brian, so we went with it. At first we weren't sure we'd have enough but once we started brainstorming it got easier and easier. Somewhere I have list of the ones we didn't get to use. (Lots with brand names like "Swiffer" and "Windex" which didn't clear).
DG: Season 2 episode titles were names of plays, and I believe Season 3 titles were movies. If anyone out there has an idea for a theme for Season 5, we're open to suggestions!
SD: Every season I look to see what surprising way all the storylines end up connecting somehow. The cult thread is particularly delicious.
Obviously with all that money being tossed around and tonight's "machine" and Zoila being a "discontent," it reads as something that might rhyme with Schmientology. How did that idea come about?
JK: David Grubstick is an ex-Schmientologist! Just kidding! You know, we live in LA and it is really present in our world. At the end of Season 3, we brainstormed and made a list of story ideas that we hadn't used in Season 3 and some new ones. We originally thought that maybe Spence would get involved in a celebrity cult which would create obstacles to him and Rosie being together, after Ernesto left.
DG: For the record, I am NOT a Scientologist!
SD: Roselyn Sanchez was especially terrific tonight (and it's great seeing Carmen get a little action again!), and Marisol's torturous movie meetings were a perfect cringe-fest. Did either of you have any plot threads or characters that you were especially excited to write for in tonight's script?
JK: Thank you! We always try to tell stories that are relevant to women (duh!) and I was thrilled that the stories in this episode really had that in spades. Aging, not feeling like you're where you want to be in your career by a certain age, choosing career over a family, sexism in the workplace - those are universal, but we got to tell them in our own special Devious way. For Carmen, we actually had to rest Daniella because we only had the actress who plays her (Sol Rodriguez) for a fraction of the episodes. We wanted to have a man in Carmen's life and we always loved Travis Quentin Young (Doug)'s performance from Season 3 so it seemed natural that they'd get involved when Carmen is at her lowest and feeling vulnerable. We were worried that the Marisol stuff would be too "inside baseball" but the sexism played so strongly that it turned out really great. We're lucky to have such amazing actors who really love their characters as much as we do.
DG: Writing the mystery beats for an episode is always fun and challenging. Rosie's murder investigation is like a puzzle, and for each episode we have to figure out which piece is revealed and how it fits into the season as a whole. Once that's done, it hopefully leads to fun, soapy scenes like in this episode's final moment, where were learn "Tucker Westmore is the key" and Frances deals with Ben. Hopefully viewers keep watching to see how that all plays out.
SD: Any teasers on what we have to look forward to later in the season?
JK: More fun! Lots of hot people in skimpy outfits! More Killface! And the mystery really heats up in the last few episodes, you'll see all the maids get involved and get some surprising answers.
DG: I can tease the following: a reconciliation, a break-up, an engagement... and of course solving Peri Westmore's murder. I think viewers will be very surprised how that plays out. I can't say any more than that!
SD: Well, thank you so much for sharing all that, you guys! I really wanted to get a good sense of the day-to-day workmanship as well as fun show scoop. As a dramatic writer myself, I am of course always a little frustrated that entertainment media is full of interviews with actors basically making them sell/justify a storyline that they often had nothing to do with, when of course we all just yell at writers when we don't like what's happening. Thanks so much for giving us a glimpse into your primetime soap/comedy hybrid-writing lives!