David Milch, Maurissa Tancharoen

Scott Council

Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan

Scott Council

Winnie Holzman, Liz Tigelaar

Scott Council

Edward Zwick, Jason Katims

Scott Council

Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof, Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis

Scott Council
Fill 1
Fill 1
August 22, 2016

Me and My Mentor

True tales of how great mentors helped turn mentees into the next generation of showrunners.

Randee Dawn

Learning to tame the beast we call a modern TV series requires skill, tenacity, talent — and experience.

That’s where mentors come in. Industry vets have been helping newcomers find their way for decades. The six showrunners appearing here were once talented rookies, and each had the good fortune to become the protégé of a knowing pro. Here’s how they came together, learned from one another — and went on to make great TV.

Chris Carter (The X-Files), mentor

Vince Gilligan (Better Call Saul), mentee

How They Met: “I got lucky right out of film school,” Gilligan says. When he graduated from NYU in 1989, he won a screenwriting contest in his home state of Virginia and struck up a friendship with one of the judges, producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man).

But after five years with only one produced feature script (1993’s Wilder Napalm), Gilligan agreed to meet with X-Files creator Carter when he was out in Los Angeles. “Luckily for me, he said, ‘Do you have any X-Files ideas?’” recalls Gilligan, who was a fan of the Fox show. “It was the end of season two and they were hurting for scripts. One thing led to another.”

Why They Clicked: “Vince came to us fully formed,” Carter says. “He was an X-Files writer from the get-go. I don’t take credit for his success, only that he saw what it took to produce a television series — and hopefully I passed down some of that wisdom.”

Carter’s style involved total immersion by a writer, and Gilligan was ready to dive in.

Writers on individual episodes were expected to go to Vancouver while the episode shot and help the director, then go into the edit suite and even visit composer Mark Snow to assist with the music.

“I had more of a holistic approach to the work, and [believed] that you can never accept laziness in the script — the plotting and writing and prepping — because it will always show in the final product,” Carter says.

“It was like going to film school and getting paid to attend,” Gilligan says. He brought the same writer-focused technique to Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

Mementos: Extremely busy schedules keep both showrunners from meeting as much as they’d like these days, but they still exchange birthday presents. “He always gets me books, though one year he got me a bowl made out of old film, which was a very novel gift,” Carter says.

Books aside, Gilligan recalls another way Carter relaxes. “One time at the end of a long season, we’d been under the gun and things lightened up. Chris stuck his head in my office and said, ‘Hey, some of us are going to go shoot bows and arrows — want to come?’”

They walked across the street into a park. “Chris said, ‘Let’s do some archery!’ And damned if he wasn’t William Tell, or Robin Hood.”

David Milch (Shadow Country), mentor

Maurissa Tancharoen (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), mentee

How They Met: Straight out of Occidental College, Tancharoen landed a plum job at Bochco Productions in 1998. “I was wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, looking to learn any aspect of television,” she recalls.

Eventually, she connected with Milch, who was working on NYPD Blue. “He asked what my aspirations were, and I told him I wanted to be a writer. He took time to read my puny one-act plays, and we established a relationship. I have lupus, so I took off time here and there, and he empathized. He’s forthcoming with his various conditions — I think we bonded over that.”

Why They Clicked: “She was unfailingly the most pleasant presence I think I’ve ever encountered,” Milch says. “She was focused and responsive and a delight to work with. She was unfailingly present, and on several occasions I would ask her for a suggestion about this scene or that scene — and she was right [every] time.

"It’s absolutely natural to be ambitious and thinking of personal concerns, and quite clearly she wanted a career, but it was never at the expense of what we were doing at the moment.”

Despite their rapport, Tancharoen says they were never buddy-buddy. “I always found him incredibly intimidating — I’m very timid around him,” she says. “When you have a brain like that, there are times you can be abrasive. I’ve seen that, but he’s never been like that with me. He was big on not making any excuses and creating obstacles to get in the way of your writing.”

Mementos: Tancharoen fondly recalls the rare occasions when she’d take Milch’s script dictation. “He does it out loud,” she says. “What I was exposed to is him positioned on the floor, propped up by pillows and swirling his wrists around, coming up with lines and stage directions.

"It’s no secret that sometimes that was maddening to people on the show. As they were poised to block a scene, [new] pages would come down, but it was brilliant work, and a privilege for me.”

Winnie Holzman (Roadies), mentor

Liz Tigelaar (Casual), mentee

How They Met: In 2001, a friend’s recommendation led Tigelaar (who’d been assisting on Dawson’s Creek) to her “second big job” ever: as Holzman’s assistant at Once and Again.

“I hadn’t become a writer yet,” Tigelaar says. “I knew [Holzman’s previous series] My So-Called Life, but I didn’t know Winnie by name. My mom checked her name online while I was getting on a plane to go straight to [Winnie’s] house and told me who she was, so when I met her I tried not to gush too much.”

Why They Clicked: For Holzman, Tigelaar was the upbeat center of a crazed backstage atmosphere. “Getting a new show off the ground can be a little overwhelming, and having someone in your life who always sees the positive is a blessing,” Holzman says. “She’s a real ray of sunshine, and a positive-energy person.”

But Tigelaar was always focused on the job, not on a future prize of running her own series, which Holzman appreciated. “Liz never showed me anything she wrote, which I was grateful for at the time,” Holzman says. “She came to me at a time in her life when she was looking to be inspired. So, as with any assistant, I tried to be encouraging and model a certain way of approaching work.”

“She really taught me to do the job you’re hired to do,” Tigelaar attests. “Don’t bug her for notes, or to get on staff, or the next thing. If you do the job you’re hired to do, good things are going to happen. She has a way of getting to the heart of things and uncovering the essence, so all you want to do is do things better.”

Mementos: “She had to MapQuest everywhere,” Tigelaar says, chuckling. “Even from the studio to her home.”

Meanwhile, Holzman (who says her own TV mentors included Marshall Herskovitz, Ed Zwick and Richard Kramer) immortalized her assistant in the Broadway show Wicked, by giving her last name to the Scarecrow. “Tigelaar is such a wonderful last name,” Holzman says. “It was so natural to name him Fiyero Tigelaar that I may have forgotten to tell her. Then when she went to see Wicked with her family, they flipped right out.”

Edward Zwick (Nashville), mentor

Jason Katims (The Path), mentee

How They Met: It sounds like a story out of classic Hollywood, but it really did happen like this: in 1993, Zwick read The Pallbearer, a one-act play Katims had cowritten, and he called Katims at his Brooklyn apartment.

“He said, ‘I read this play of yours and I liked it,’ and he said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ and I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘By way of résumé, I created thirtysomething and directed a movie called Glory,’ and I said, ‘Okay, you can stop there,’” Katims recalls. “My wife, who is not in the business at all, knew exactly who he was because she was a huge thirtysomething fan.”

A trip or two to Los Angeles later, Katims was writing for My So-Called Life, which Zwick was co-showrunning.

Why They Clicked: “I’m not a mentor to everybody,” Zwick says. “That’s a dangerous word to throw around. It should be used advisedly. But you feel drawn to someone’s voice and someone’s spirit and maybe you recognize something of yourself, or you wish it was something you had.

"So you offer to collaborate. It’s not always pedagogical. Writing can be learned; I’m not sure it can be taught. There’s a big learning curve from being a playwright to being a showrunner, and Jason was paying attention. He was really present.”

“I was a baby writer,” Katims says. “I had zero experience. It was this incredibly romantic thing to suddenly be not only working on a TV show, but working with these people who had basically changed television.”

Mementos: They’re still in touch and occasionally meet for dinner with their wives. Katims brought Zwick’s son, Jesse, on board at Parenthood as a new writer. “It was this great feeling to give back in some small way to Ed,” Katims says. “Because he really changed the course of my career and my life in this amazing way.”

And that play, The Pallbearer? It became the 1996 David Schwimmer–Gwyneth Paltrow rom-com of the same name, with Katims as cowriter.

Carlton Cuse (Colony, The Strain, Bates Motel), Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers), mentors

Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis (Once Upon a Time), mentees

How They Met: Horowitz and Kitsis have been writing partners since their days at the University of Wisconsin. Having worked with Cuse on one show (2003’s Black Sash), they were already in full mentee mode before joining Cuse and Lindelof on Lost in 2004. But that was where things really blossomed.

“They helped us find our sound,” says Kitsis, who talks in rock-and-roll metaphors.

“Damon was that incredible coach who could make you a better player,” Horowitz says, offering a sports metaphor. “Carlton looked at our writing and helped us see what we couldn’t see ourselves.”

Why They Clicked: “I’d walk across broken glass for Adam and Eddie,” Cuse says. “Damon and I did everything together, so we didn’t bat an eye at the thought that they would be capable of doing the same.”

He and Lindelof handed off responsibility for the humor and secondary character details on the show. “They were able to bring humanity to almost every area of a show that was usually dark,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Lindelof was being mentored by Cuse at the same time he was helping mentor Horowitz and Kitsis.

“I was 30 years old and had never run a show before,” he recalls. “I brought Carlton on Lost to be my mentor. Carlton’s primary area of expertise is the actual showrunning, and I tended to focus more on the creative. So Eddie and Adam learned a lot from him about the day-in, day-out things — how to hire a staff, how to figure out a budget — and with me, they learned more about storytelling.”

“Damon instilled in us to never be afraid of pushing the script and pushing the breaking of the story. He made us be fearless,” Horowitz says. “Over the last five years when I’ve felt overwhelmed, I can turn to Damon and he can clear the weeds. Or I might have a lunch with Carlton, and he can help you see the forest for the trees.”

Mementos: While the quartet stays in touch, what’s really gotten lost since Lost ended are their epic matches of ping-pong and the arcade game Galaga.

“Damon and I used to get into some pretty intense ping-pong matches,” Horowitz recalls. “We have our own personalized paddles but haven’t dusted them off lately.” Kitsis adds: “The four of us need to do a show again together, if for no other reason than to break out the ping-pong paddles.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2016

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