‘I excel at writing torture scenes’
It is now a well-established fact that Indian American actors, from Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory to Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, are making a splash on American TV. But over the past few years, some Indian writers have slowly climbing their way to the top of the Hollywood ladder and it’s not an uncommon sight today to see Indian names in the ‘Written by’ credits of a TV series. From Luvh Rakhe in The New Girl to Vali Chandrasekaran in Modern Family, Indian origin writers are becoming a familiar part of the TV scene.
One of the youngest such writers, 29-year-old Sneha Koorse, has a CV that would be the envy of most writers. In the few years since she graduated from the University of Southern California, she’s won the prestigious Slamdance Film Festival Writing Competition, worked with legendary writer-directors like JJ Abrams (Star Trek) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) on the show, Believe; written on the critically acclaimed FX show, The Americans, and is currently working with The Dark Knight writer, David S. Goyer on a DC Comics show, Constantine. In a Google Hangout interview, Sneha gives the dirt on what it is like working as a writer in Hollywood.
How do you get a job on a DC Comics show? One would imagine you’d have to pass a geek test before it!
We are all geeks in our own way. It wasn’t so much about being a comic book geek, but being able to appreciate the character and what stories of our own we could tell with this particular character. We have a good mix of people, some of whom read all the Hellblazers back when they came out, others who were just being introduced to the character and comics. It’s good to have a variety of perspectives.
Is it easy to write for a fan favourite comic book like Constantine? Especially one that is even more fantastical than other comic books.
Some of the comic issues are really best suited for the comic book format and aren’t easily adaptable to television. Some issues are so fantastical – like tripping through different dimensions and all that – it might not feel grounded on a series. But the issues are all incredibly imaginative, and the writers have created this great character that you just want to spend time with. The challenge is in taking this uniquely appealing character and finding a story structure that fits the television format.
You’ve worked on Constantine with writing legend David S. Goyer. Earlier, you’ve worked with JJ Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron. What have you picked up from these greats?
They are all legends and so different from one another! What they all have are strong points of view. I think that’s the biggest thing. Having a vision and being able to communicate that vision with confidence. The idea-generating part of their brains is also very strong. It’s like a muscle that has been strengthened with years of practice.
The other common theme in your career seems to be that you’ve only worked on gritty shows. What’s the fascination with the darker side of things?
(Laughs) I am a very happy person so I wouldn’t say that’s come from anything I have experienced in my life. But I’ve always been fascinated by why human beings are bad and what are the emotions behind them doing something ‘evil’. I’ve always been curious to try and understand them. I have also always been attracted to things where the stakes are raised to life and death. For example, In The Americans, the fact that any decision the lead characters take could lead to death is more interesting to me than a break up (smiles).
The Americans was the first major TV series you were hired for. How did you manage to start your career with a niche cable series, which area far harder to break into?
I had written a bunch of stuff – some feature length scripts, some TV pilots, episodes of Homeland and Breaking Bad – that I applied to the showrunners with. But I think it all comes down to being in a room with them and connecting to them as a writer. Although my interview with them was over the phone, I think when you are speaking to another writer and if you are passionate about being a writer and about the subject matter, they can see that. They can see that writing means something to you.
I think what worked for me was the fact that I was an immigrant and that my parents had an arranged marriage just like the Russian spies in The Americans. In it, the lead characters fall in love after 17 years of arranged marriage. And the fact that I wasn’t from this culture really helped me. Funnily, I have contributed more in terms of the action on the show, because I love writing action. I also somewhat excel in writing torture scenes, which has kind of become a joke now (laughs).
In The Americans, the fact that you are an immigrant worked in your favour. But as a female writer and as an Indian-origin writer in an industry predominantly dominated by white males, did you face a tough time breaking in before this show?
For Believe, the room was about 50% females because the show creator Mark Friedman wanted a strong female perspective for our young female lead. And on Constantine, there are several diverse writers regardless of quota or subject matter. It seems to be about the writing. Every show is different. And you just hope that your show runner is smart, socially aware, and seeking perspectives other than his or her own. I’ve been lucky, as far as who has hired me.
So would you say that Hollywood is now embracing change when it comes to diversity in the writers room?
I would say, yes and no. You know, you can count the number of female showrunners in Hollywood – Meredith Stiehm of The Bridge, Ann Biderman of Ray Donovan, Jenji Cohen of Orange is the New Black, Mindy Kaling. It’s still some time to go before there is balance between white male-dominated rooms and diverse rooms. The thing is that white writers have traditionally tried to work with friends so they can sort of have a room where they can be unapologetic, and don’t have to be politically correct or be aware of women in the room. When there is another perspective they can’t be who they are. It’s been a boys club so they are just more comfortable making jokes and not having to be diplomatic. But that’s changing because there is now a drive to hire more female writers and more writers of colour. Of course, if you are not a good writer you will not be able to stand the test of time.
Do you think such drives of diversity quotas are a good sign for writers? Doesn’t it mean we are still not at the point where great writers would be hired irrespective of the colour of their skin?
I think it’s complicated. I think quotas still exist because they’re still needed in a predominantly white male industry. People tend to hire who they know. However, people are also more accepting that diversity provides the kind of perspective needed for complex writing. The great thing about television right now is that there are so many niche markets that these diverse perspectives can take center stage.
So ever plan on writing or making anything in India?
Definitely. India is a rich setting for stories. I have some stories set there, but with some American characters as well. A clash between the two cultures, or any story that involves an interweaving of the two cultures, would best represent me, since I’ve grown up in the U.S. but I’m still connected to my Indian heritage. If I was ever to write an epic, maybe I would look to a Bollywood film. They’re sprawling stories!
What would you say has been your ‘Hollywood moment’ so far?
I’m not sure I would call it a “Hollywood moment” because it wasn’t this big glamorous thing, but it was a very proud moment — when my first episode of television aired, I had a group of my close writer friends in Los Angeles gathered at a friend’s place to watch it. When my “Written by” credit appeared on screen, we paused the show and they snapped photos of me standing next to my credit, a big smile on my face. It was a special moment, I think for all of us, because it’s a challenging thing to achieve, that first credit. But we’re all in the fight together, so when one of us “makes it” it’s a victory for the team. We all root for each other and look forward to those moments in all our careers.
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Note: An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian in the January 31, 2015 issue.
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