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Stu Krieger Tells it Like it Is

December 4, 2008

In my last quarter at UC Riverside, I found a class on the schedule called “Creating the One-Hour TV Drama” at a time when I could take it (which every college student knows is a miracle in and of itself.)  It seemed like fate.  Graduation was fast approaching, and the vortex that is Hollywood had been drawing me in since I was six.  I loved television; writing for it seemed the only logical conclusion. I just needed a little help.

What I found was a calling – writing a tv script clicked for me in a way that a full-length screenplay hadn’t, and the man to thank for helping me find a new passion, is Stu Krieger.  After gifting me and my classmates with copies of the Grey’s Anatomy pilot, he taught us all about act breaks, raising the stakes, and pulling double-duty.

Whether his work on kid-friendly projects, like Monkey Trouble with a young Thora Birch and the Disney Channel movies Zenon: Girl of the Twenty-First Century and Smart House, has kept him youthful, or his energy and attitude are just suited to the job, it’s hard to say.  His red hair, cheerful outlook, and casual wardrobe reveals a kid at heart.  

A graduate of the State University of New York at Brockport, Stu moved to Los Angeles in October of 1973.  “I knew I wanted to be a film & TV writer,” he says, “but I needed a job to get my foot in the door.”  He took the post of copy-boy at the now defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and worked his way up until he was writing film and television reviews, interviewing celebrities.  “I was constantly writing scripts and sending them to agents.”

After quitting the paper in 1975 to devote his time to writing, he found an agent in early ’76.  “He connected me with a producer named Michael McFarland who hired me to write a coming-of-age screenplay that became the 1977 film ‘Goodbye, Franklin High.'”  Things, he says, took off from there.

While Hollywood might be about ‘who you know,’ it’s also about climbing the ladder, paying your dues.  Stu’s number one piece of advice to young writers interested in writing for television is simple: watch it. “It is totally counter-productive to try to reinvent the wheel.  Even in this 500+ channel universe and world of out-there cable shows, there are certain conventions that work and that are always going to sell so you have to have a broad knowledge of what’s on the air, what’s working and what isn’t.”

Even though he’s a veteran of the often grueling process, thirty-plus years haven’t dampened his enthusiasm any.  “The most exciting part is walking onto the set of something you’ve written, seeing it all come to life.  When you meet actors who fit the parts, see teams of construction workers building sets that match what was in your head and watch upwards of 100 people all laboring to make your vision – which started with a lonely white piece of paper – come to fruition, it’s pretty great.”  Which isn’t to say the buck stops with him.  For most of his ten Disney Channel movie experiences, he “was on-set for the rehearsals and first few days of shooting and then stepped back.”  Last minute rewrites “in this modern era” were done from home, communicating with the filmmakers by phone and by e-mail.

We’ve all heard the scary stories about the changes a script undergoes from page to screen; many a writer has actually refused credit because the final project barely resembles his or her work, but when I asked Stu about his experience he said, “I have been pretty fortunate since the vast majority of my produced credits have come out pretty close to the way I’d envisioned them.  Since I’m somebody who has never had a desire to direct – I’m a writer, through and through – you have to give up a certain amount of control and do your best to maintain a healthy relationship with the director so you can have continued input.”

Knowing your audience certainly helps.  For Zenon, Stu says most of the pitches coming to the studio were “‘Star Trek’ meets ‘Beverly Hills 90210’,” so when he pitched “‘Eloise at the Plaza’ on a space station,” he was hired immediately.  The biggest difference, he says, between writing a feature film and a movie for television is having to write act breaks around commercials.  “You have to be much more aware of building in several climaxes that each deliver enough intrigue, suspense or comedic surprise to keep the audience from switching away to another channel.”

Clearly Stu has the formula when it comes to kids.  The writer of The Land Before Time (the original, not the millions of poor sequels), he’s currently waiting on the greenlight for season two of his Noggin animated series, Toot and Puddle, a preschool show about “two best friends who find adventure wherever they go.”  Though curiously enough, despite his youth-based resume, when I asked him what show, past or present, he would write for if he could write any at all, he chose The West Wing.  Perhaps not so surprising once you get to know him.  “I was a political science minor in college and would have loved to have been a staff writer on “The West Wing” – even though Aaron Sorkin did most of the writing himself and his staff often felt like glorified research assistants.  It was still an inspiring and beautifully scripted show.” 

Of course, I know him best as a teacher.  He started with a class in the Peter Stark Program at USC in 2001, and then applied to the tenured-track at UCR in 2006.  “It really felt like the time to look to the future and have a second career that allowed me to give back, helping to nurture the next generation of entertainment industry writers.  And, so far, it’s been a ball!”

*

Though we had never met before the first day of class on that Tuesday in April, I later found out I’d gone to high school with his son.  Hollywood truly is a small world.

 

Quote of the Day:

Zenon: ONE sin minor and my life is a living black hole! 

Zenon, Girl of the 21st Century

Link of the Day: Prop 8 The Musical 

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