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US showrunner Alexa Junge: empowering Aussie writers

Writer Alexa Junge on the writers' room of Friends, The West Wing and Grace and Frankie and her commitment to bridging a gap between Australian screenwriters and the US.

Alexa JungeAlexa Junge

In between writing for global series such as Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, four-time Emmy and Writers’ Guild of America nominee Alexa Junge has made it her personal mission to help Australian screenwriters get noticed.

Junge first got to know Australian writers and producers when she headlined the AWG National Screenwriters’ Conference in Victoria, and was immediately impressed.

“I have so much respect for the work that’s being done in Australia,” says Junge, who has been a showrunner or written for projects including Friends, United States of Tara and The West Wing.

She kept up the support upon returning to Los Angeles, but in June she made another trip to Australia – to take part in a series of In Conversation talks, the International Showrunning Masterclass for AWG Pathways Writers, and a writers’ room workshop that was part of a Screen Australia and Australian Writers’ Guild initiative in association with Scripted Ink.

For three days, Junge worked in a writers’ room with Matt Ford (House Husbands, Love Child) to help him develop his television series concept The Surgeon’s Knife. They were also joined by fellow Australian writer Ellie Beaumont (creator of House Husbands and new SBS series Dead Lucky).

“It's been just a load of fun to be looking at a show in its earliest stages and to be able to really zero in on what his vision is and trying to build on that,” Junge says.

The Surgeon’s Knife was selected for the intensive opportunity from a number of applicants and Junge says she “was impressed with so many of the projects.”

“My only regret is that I didn't have time to work with ten writers.”

Junge says initiatives like The Writers’ Room Project and the work of the AWG and Scripted Ink are part of a bigger push to empower Australian writers.

“The work that Scripted Ink is doing is fantastic,” she says of the company, which was founded by NCIS showrunner Shane Brennan in conjunction with the AWG to invest in and build the Australian screen industry through script development. “The idea that writers can own their own IP and that they are developing projects that are writer-driven and that the writer developed is hopefully revolutionary.”

In particular, Junge would like to see Australian writers be the ones pitching their projects to networks and feels herself “getting protective and frustrated” at the thought of them sometimes not being in the room when that pitch happens.

And Junge says she’s not about to stop being a shepherd for Australian writers and scripts.

“I'm really hoping to be able to help bridge a gap to the US so that more material can be sold there and there's a bit of a pipeline to empower writers to develop projects,” she says.

“And I've enlisted the help of agents and producers in the US who are really wanting [that] too. Because everybody knows that it's an incredible market of very talented people and I think there's a hunger to get to know Australian writers in the US.”

Here’s some of Junge’s thoughts for Australian writers on everything from pitching to US networks, development time, tone, getting an agent, and recent changes in the industry:

What do Australian writers do well?

I'm impressed by how pragmatic (they are). There's a kind of facility for plotting because the orders for shows are so big and there's a constant hunger, like we have this amount of time, we have this many episodes, we're going to roll up our sleeves and just start plotting. And so I think I'm impressed with the writers that I've met, their ability to just sort of really get that moving and make it happen in a really timely way. I feel like if I hired an Australian writer they would get it done on time, they would they would have the episodes broken and they all are speaking of really great high-level discourse about plotting and moving at all forward. Australians know what they're doing in a way that could absolutely translate to the American staff situation.

What’s your personal approach to development?

It completely varies, but I tend to spend more time on character and then not really dig into plotting if I can. So that character is creating plot rather than the other way around. And it depends too whether it's a half-hour or hour show because they are different animals. So a half hour is intrinsically more character-based than about cliffhangers at the end of acts.

How long would you develop your projects for?

I would tend to say up to a month and a half if I'm chewing on the characters and the set up. I could do it faster than that, but sometimes I like just having the time to plough the soil, think deeply about the characters, and run it by other writers. But that's not time I'm necessarily paid for. Right now I'm working on two different projects. [With] one, somebody came to me and said ‘we'll pay you to write this in-house because it has a funny tone and then once we get a script, we'll get a fancy actor to be part of it and take it out [to market] and see who wants it’. So [in that case] if I take longer to develop it, it just takes longer for me to get my paycheck. But then other situations you are not getting paid to come up with a pitch. I worked on a show not too long ago where it took me three or four months to get the pitch together and then the show didn't sell. So it really depends, but for me I want to make sure that I have the development worked out correctly. I'm not the kind of writer that is going to have a half-baked idea and go in. I want to have looked at the subject from every angle before I take the picture.

How important is knowing the exact tone and being able to relate that to the director and crew?

What's nice is when I started the business you had to either do comedy or drama, but now it's completely changed. Now you have cross genre pieces such as dark comedy and there's just such a range of tone.

There are known tones – what we call ‘touchstones’ – where we can say ‘that's like a CSI show’ or ‘that’s a network drama’ and that implies a certain tone. Hopefully, if you're working from a script the tone is evident in the actual pages. And that becomes a blueprint for how to talk about tone with everybody else. The hard thing is when you are pitching a show that it has a unique tone - sometimes it's a bit harder to articulate and for executives to wrap their heads around. But tone is so important. And in my country the writer would be the person talking about that tone and you might collaborate with the director and they might have a lot of great ideas, but you would be in all of those meetings making sure that the director's vision and the writers’ were in accordance.

What is the role of the writer/showrunner in the US?

In our business writers are the most powerful people on the show. We outrank the directors and we creatively outrank the producers. Executive producers and creators of shows have always had the power in our business all the way back to the 70s and Mary Tyler Moore. So if you're a showrunner or show creator you're telling the production art direction crew how you see things and what you want. [In casting] obviously it's important that a director has a point of view, but the writer has a strong say in who gets cast. So I think our definition of showrunner is really different than the definition in Australia.

It depends too. It's not a one-person job to be a showrunner, so some showrunners will have directors that they work with and trust where the director will be on the set and they will go back and forth. But sometimes it's a showrunning team too.

How have the writers’ rooms you’ve worked in differed?

It really depends on the unique show. So when I worked on Friends we were in the room a lot. Everybody still did have a lot of ownership over their episodes, but there was a lot of room work. When I was on The West Wing there was not that much room work. The room was used to break story and figure out episodes but it was not a ‘come to work in the morning and stay in the room until the end of the day’. We had a lot of time in our own offices. And then I was on another show where there was no writers’ room. We all had offices and you would meet with the bosses and turn in an outline, but there wasn't any group discussion about it. So I think it’s really the way the individual show runner/creators work. It depends too [in that] I'm working on a show that has an eight episode order and they can only afford four writers, so we won’t stay in the room all the time. But if it's a big network show that's a comedy you want people there to be breaking jokes and helping break episodes and sometimes you have two or three rooms going at a time.

What was your big break?

My big break was getting hired on Friends. But it was also a big break to get an agent and start being considered for jobs, because in Hollywood when somebody is looking to staff a show they reach out to the four big agencies. Those agencies submit clients. Some agents submit 15 people for the show and then other times they work individually. So if I'm hiring I have relationships with certain agents that I trust and would call them first to ask ‘who do you like for this?’. But you have to be in that group to even be seen. Sometimes if somebody I know suggests a writer who doesn't have an agent I'll read them. But legally it can be complicated. And so in a way by getting the agent that signed on to represent me was the way I got in the pool. So that then when Friends came up they got my material and liked it.

How did you find your agent?

I'd had a big theatre agent in New York, but when I moved to California, it didn't transfer. I could not get them to return my calls. And so I just had to start trying to find an agent on my own and pound the pavements and use connections to try to be proactive about getting my material to someone. But it's not easy. I’d already been a head writer on a staff, I was in the [Writers’] Guild but it took me about a year and a half to get somebody to represent me. She's been my agent for over 20 years now.

Are there other ways of getting an agent in the US?

If a writer had a project that a producer responded to, the producer could help them find an agent, so you can do it that way too.

You’ve written for the broadcast networks like NBC, as well as cable networks such as Showtime and streaming giants like Netflix – how do you adapt to the different styles required of each?

Each cable network has its own personality and it just depends on who the executives are and getting to know them and how they work and collaborate. Like I just signed on to run a Showtime show and I know what that brand is and how to make it kind of ‘Showtime-y’. But I'm [also] trying to make a good show and so I'm following what makes a good premium cable show. So [for example] I would just focus not so much how do I make this HBO, but how do I make this a good show, and leave that to the HBO executives [to guide you]. Like sometimes HBO will say you're plotting too fast, we want to slow down – they like slow drama over there – but it's not always true either. Sometimes they want it faster so you just go with your own instinct. I would probably start with doing what is interesting to me and then letting them tell me.

What are some recent changes in the screen industry and the pros/cons associated with them?

There so much need for content. And with social media people can go write a web series, which didn’t exist when I was coming up - so you can actually create your own content. There's tonnes of network shows that come from the internet and internet personalities, and there are people whose jobs it is to look for that in unexpected places. So there's no excuse not to write something or get something out, which is terrific. But I also think there is a lot of ripping off going on financially. And we have a really strong guild, so I'm not complaining, but it's easy to be exploited because it's sort of a new frontier. Sometimes when you are contracted for a show, it will be a six month job for the first season and then get stretched to much longer for the second season for the same pay. So we just we just are finding in our guild that because it's new media there are a lot of ways that owners and executives are trying to exploit writers so that's just something that's shifted a little bit.

Any last pieces of advice?

It's easy for me to say from where I sit to be yourself and follow your passion, but in Hollywood that's what gets people jobs, because there's a lot of OK writers and there's a lot of reliable, safe, good writers, but there's not that many inspired writers. So actually in a lot of ways it is a meritocracy. I believe the people that are really successful have unique points of view and vision and they're doing their own thing. And I feel that we live in a time where that's a value.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.