Jessica Rieder, Writer for Leverage (TNT) and Hawaii-Five-O (CBS): Culture Makers Who Influenced the Culture Makers of TV

Editor’s Note: With this week’s wrap of TNT’s long running series Leverage we thought we’d repost our interview with one of the writers who helped Leverage gain such popularity.
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Part one in ongoing series:  Culture Makers who Influenced the Culture Makers of Television.

“I told her I would do anything to work on the show. ‘I will scrape gum off your props. I will empty toilets. I don’t care!” -Jessica Rieder

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Small-town Wisconsin taught Jessica “to love God, cheese and football (not necessarily in that order).”

Jessica Rieder is one of the bright new stars in Hollywood’s TV writing rooms. For three years on the cable hit Leverage (TNT) and now with the network show Hawaii Five-O (CBS), Jessica and writing partner, Melissa Glenn, have emerged as a creative force to be reckoned with.

Jessica was born and raised in small-town Wisconsin, where she “learned to love God, cheese and football (not necessarily in that order).” In an interview with Kelly Crimmins (TNT) Jessica described her unusual transition to Hollywood. “When I was a senior in college, I worked for my school’s newspaper writing a television column. Bradley Whitford was on the The West Wing… the show that made me want to be a writer. I thought, ‘I have nothing to lose. I am going to fax an interview request to his publicist.’ I assumed I would never hear anything back. Well, two weeks later, he (Whitford) called me personally on my cell phone. Thank God it went to voicemail because I totally lost it!

A random fax to Bradley Whitford landed Jessica her first Hollywood job on The West Wing

“I set up an interview and went out to LA to meet with him. I also met his assistant at the time and told her, I am moving to LA when I graduate and would do anything to work on the show. I begged her, ‘I will scrape gum off your props. I will empty toilets. I don’t care!’ At which point, she said, “You know nothing about television, do you?” A year later I got a call from the Production Coordinator on The West Wing and ended up working as a Producer’s Assistant on the last two seasons of the series.”[1]

When The West Wing ended, Jessica worked as an assistant to the Executive Producer of CBS’s Cane. Then, in 2006 Jessica teamed up with fellow Act One writing program Alum, Melissa Glenn, and things just clicked. The Rieder-Glenn duo were twice named finalists in the Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop, signed with Creative Artists Agency, and landed jobs as staff writers for Leverage. The rest is history.

We asked Jessica, “Who are the authors, artists, filmmakers, screenwriters, poets, musicians, films, books, plays, TV shows, or any other cultural artifact who have deeply influenced you and will always stick with you.” Then gave her only fifteen minutes to complete their list, to keep it “unedited.”

Jessica’s TOP 15 (in no particular order)

The Beatles

My So-Called Life

Jane Austen

Aaron Sorkin

Pride & Prejudice(the Book and the BBC Miniseries)

Nora Ephron

Rent

While You Were Sleeping

Jason Katims

This American Life (NPR radio program)

Elizabeth Berg

The West Wing

Stylish Hawaii Five-O is one of this seasons top new shows.

Billy Joel

Terms of Endearment

Friday Night Lights (the TV series)

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What’s on your “Fab 15″ list?
Caveat: Your list must be comprised of cultural artifacts–books, shows, sculptures, etc.– that readers have access to. (So you can’t include your Mom, or some other leader no matter how great  a personal impact they had on you.)
Make your list in no more than fifteen minutes and send it to us!
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Read the Complete Series: Culture Makers Who Influenced the Culture Makers of TV  

Sheryl J. Anderson (Charmed, Flash Gordon, Dave’ World)

Dean Batali (That 70’s Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hope and Gloria)

Brian Bird (Touched by an Angel, The Shunning, Not Easily Broken)

Kevin Chesley (The Hard Times of RJ Berger)

Chris Easterly (Unnatural History, The Shunning)

Monica Macer (Lost, Prison Break)

Korey Scott Pollard (Nashville, House, Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, Monk, House, Grey’s Anatomy)

Kurt Schemper (Emmy Award winner for Intervention)

Michael Warren (Happy Days, Family Matters, Two of a Kind, Step by Step, Perfect Strangers).


[1] Leverage Website

Passover Week: Celebrating Hollywood’s Synagogue for the Performing Arts

In honor of Passover Week I thought I would let you in on one of Hollywood’s most moving connections between faith and culture: The Synagogue for the Performing Arts.

High Holy Day Torah Covers

The Synagogue for the Performing Arts was founded in 1973 by members of the entertainment community–actors, screenwriters and industry professionals who shared a common desire to worship together unencumbered by the pressure and politics associated with most congregations. That purpose has remained a constant for nearly 40 years.

Today, the Synagogue is thriving with a diverse membership that extends beyond its show business roots. It remains “a synagogue without walls,” still meeting once a month for Friday night Shabbat services. It is beautiful way for way for aspiring two handed warriors to experience a contemporary blend of Torah and culture making. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Sue and I have had the honor of attending SFTPA and found it to be a deeply moving experience. The services are often filled to capacity with members and their guests (Gentiles are welcome) exalting in an nearly overwhelming combination of Torah, liturgy, and music. While the services are essentially traditional with a mix of both Hebrew and English, there is explanation and transliteration of the Hebrew liturgy included.

The Synagogue’s spiritual leaders are Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Rabbi David Woznica.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: Named by 'Newsweek' as one of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America.

Rabbi Telushkin is not only a world-renowned scholar and author, but a screenwriter with film and television credits.Newsweek named Rabbi Telushkin one of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America, and his Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History (now in its third editions) is the most widely selling book on Judaism of the past two decades.

Rabbi Telushkin’s most recent book – Hillel: If Not Now, When? – is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand either Judaism, or Christianity and their application to 21st Century culture. (See video introduction to Hillel.)

Rabbi Woznica is a sought-after speaker. He is past Director of the 92nd Street Y and a member of the Rabbinic staff at Stephen S. Wise Temple in West LA, the largest Jewish congregation in the world.

No matter which Rabbi is teaching, wisdom, hope, and humor fill each service. (Be sure to come to the 7:15pm Q&A time with the Rabbi before each 8pm Shabbat service.)

Cantor Judy Fox, who appears often in concerts and on the Jewish Television Network, is the congregation’s musical director. She does an amazing job not only as a Cantor, but also interweaving the preternatural talent of SFTP congregation with the liturgy.

The sounding of the shofar during a Rosh Hashanah service

Monthly services are held at the Moses E. Gindi Auditorium, at the American Jewish University (formerly known as the University of Judaism) located at 15600 Mulholland Dr., Bel Air, CA 90077, just east of the 405 freeway. Locations for additional High Holy Days Services can vary. Consult SFTPA’s website for details.

The two handed art of culture making and Torah is alive and well in Bel Air, at least at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts. If you live in the Los Angeles don’t miss a chance to experience it first hand.

You won’t regret it.

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Notes

The website of The Synagogue for the Performing Arts

The website of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The website of The Torah Enlightenment Foundation

The website of Newsweek Magazine

The website of B’nai B’rith International

The website of the Judaica Sound Archives, Florida Atlantic University

The website of the Jewish Television Network

The website of the American Jewish University

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Producer & Mentor Brian Bird

Brian’s latest project ‘The Shunning’ premiers this Saturday.

Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures (with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).

Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.

Brian’s credits include more than 250 episodes of the hit CBS series ‘Touched By an Angel’

Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angel and his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.

On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.

In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.

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Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird

GDS: What excites you most about the film?

Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.

Brian worked with T.D. Jakes to adapt ‘Not Easily Broken’ for the big screen.

GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?

BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.

GDS: Any personal stake in the film?

BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.

Horton Foote’s screenwriting taught Brian to default from plot to character whenever you can.

GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker.  First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?

BB: I’d have to say The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, and Tender Mercies.

GDS: How ‘bout screenwriters?

BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.

Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.

GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?

“Tony Gilroy’s screenplays taught me to strive to be ‘taut’ in my writing.”

BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture.  Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.

GDS: Any others?

BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.

GDS: Like who?

BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.

“Morgan Freeman …told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.”

Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.

Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.

Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.

Michael Warren, legendary TV writer-producer who gave me my first TV staff writing job, told me he was leaving the door open for me as long as I would promise to leave it open for others. (See, Michael Warren’s Greatest Influences.)

GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?

TV legend and mentor Michael Warren launched Brian’s career by opening the door for him on a CBS one season wonder, ‘The Family Man’ (above). It was all that Brian needed to prove himself.

BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.

GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?

BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself.  We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.

GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?

BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.

GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?

BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.

THW

Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).

Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.

Other Two Handed Warrior TV Writer and Filmmakers:

Sheryl J. Anderson (Charmed, Flash Gordon, Dave’ World)

Dean Batali (That 70’s Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hope and Gloria)

Brian Bird (Touched by an Angel, The Shunning, Not Easily Broken)

Kevin Chesley (The Hard Times of RJ Berger)

Chris Easterly (Unnatural History, The Shunning)

Jessica Rieder (Leverage, Hawaii Five-O)

Monica Macer (Lost, Prison Break, Teen Wolf)

Korey Scott Pollard (Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, Monk, House, Grey’s Anatomy)

Kurt Schemper (Emmy Award winner for Intervention)

Michael Warren (Happy Days, Family Matters, Two of a Kind, Step by Step, Perfect Strangers).

Top Blog Posts of 2010: Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview

Casablanca-posterI thought it might be a good idea to end 2010 by revisiting my most popular posts of the past year. According to Word Press the most popular post of the year was Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview (updated and improved in 2013.)  It evoked a solid conversation with screenwriting experts, Jim HullKey Payton, and Stanley D. Williams. Frankly, they kinda schooled me on my understanding of screenwriting, complete with a two-hour personal tutorial from Key Payton (who has agreed to do a guest post in the new year.)  Still, it was fascinating to see how concepts I “reverse-engineered” from Academy Award-winning films in order to teach worldvew were helpful to real live screenwriters.

Toward that end, I found this very cool chart laying out a construct to the four levels of worldview (not sure where it came from, so if anyone has seen it before, please let me know.) It calls only the central/core level “worldview,” but it lays out the elements of all four levels very clearly and concisely.  I’d love to know if you find it more helpful (or less) that the simplistic chart I’ve been using.

My (lame) first attempt at charting the four levels of worldview.

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A Cool Four Circle Version of the Construct I Found.

So… which is more helpful?

Gary

Using Worldview to Create Academy Award-winning Films (Series Introduction)

Striving to attain mastery as a Two Handed Warrior occasionally results in some very enjoyable if unintended consequences. Learning to “reverse engineer” Academy Award-winning films in order to teach worldview (see Teaching Worldview Through Film) somehow led to my inadvertently developing a unique skill-set for analyzing how filmmakers create Academy Award-winning films.

A true script consultant, such as Linda Seger or Key F. Payton, has read thousands of screenplays and can instantly recognize a myriad of factors that might improve an unfinished script.  I, on the other hand, hate reading screenplays, and often can’t tell the difference between snappy dialogue and good scenery.

However, in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king. Since few (if any) script consultants are trained in worldview thinking, I can sometimes help screenwriters and creative executives in story development in a way that others can’t.  The highly intuitive use of worldview often employed by Academy Award-winning filmmakers in their character-transformation arcs is often clearer to me (the amateur) than it is to more broadly trained experts.

Guiding my students’ understanding of worldview in the classroom and serving as story consultant in Hollywood have become some of the most enjoyable aspects of my journey toward becoming a two handed warrior. Helping screenwriters, producers, directors, and creative executives “see” and clarify the worldview journey in their film is a very gratifying experience.

So while I would never claim to be an expert, I hope that this ongoing discussion of the relationship between worldview and story will be as helpful to filmmakers as it is to educators.

Who knows, it might even help a two-handed filmmaker win an Academy Award someday.

Now, that would be a very intended consequence,

Gary

Next Post in Series: Worldview and the Power of Story