Person of Interest: Screenwriter David Slack

by Pamme Boutselis

David Slack is an animation and television writer. His credits include “Person of Interest,” “Lie to Me,” “The Forgotten,” “In Plain Sight,” “Law & Order,” “Generator Rex,” “Transformers Prime,” “Jackie Chan Adventures,” “Totally Spies!,” Teen Titans” and more. The Penmen Review recently had a chance to ask Slack about his experiences as a writer.

You started with an interest in acting and transitioned into writing. What initially interested you in acting and did you find that some of the skills employed in acting were transferrable to writing?
I started out acting because, like most teenagers, I thought being famous sounded like a pretty good way to earn a living. A few years later, I had an honest conversation with myself in a mirror that went like this: Me: “Well… you’re not Brad Pitt.” Over the years, I’ve realized that it’s not just about looks. The actors that I know, the real ones, are fascinated by people. Just people. They want to know all about them, understand them, become them. I’m interested in people, but I’m much more interested in what they do, how they interact, and the stories that their lives tell. It took me years to understand it, but rather than thinking of myself as an actor or a writer, I primarily consider myself a storyteller. Has the study of acting influenced my writing? Certainly. When you’re writing a scene, you have to play all the parts, feel what all your characters are feeling. And I think it helps to have studied acting.

Your earliest professional screenwriting was in animation before moving on to prime time. Tell me about the similarities in each and the differences as well.
I wrote animation for 6 years before moving to primetime. And when my schedule permits, I still write for animation to this day. I’m enormously proud of the work I’ve done there. When I moved from Teen Titans to Law & Order in 2005, I was terrified. I expected to have to learn to write all over again. And while I have learned a lot since then (mostly clever ways to kill people and dispose of their bodies), I was surprised how similar the skill set was. Sure, I had to make adjustments for tone and subject matter. And I still miss being able to make things make sense simply by throwing the word “quantum” into a sentence. But story is story. Whether it’s superpowers or police powers, the job is the same: keep your audience curious about what happens next.

What was it like landing your first professional writing role?
Thrilling and terrifying. I was so excited to get the shot and so scared I’d screw it up. The man who gave me that shot, a brilliant writer named Duane Capizzi, was kind enough to patiently mentor me through those first difficult scripts. But as my career got going, I encountered something surprising. The thrills and terror were replaced by depression. Now granted, my brain’s chemistry gives me a head start in this area. So maybe other people don’t have that response. But I mention it because I think a lot of other beginning writers might. For years, you’ve been telling yourself: everything will be great if I can just get work as a writer. Then you get work as a writer and guess what? Everything’s not great — it’s the same. You’re still you. You still have whatever issues you had before. Just now, you have deadlines. So, for all those looking forward to their first paying gig out there, enjoy that moment. And don’t be too hard on yourself when it doesn’t suddenly make you like yourself afterwards. Oh, and I’ll never forget depositing that first check for my first animation script. It changed my bank balance by an order of magnitude. (Don’t be too impressed. I was in the mid-three figures at the time.)

How long do you let an idea soak before you start writing?
Depends, when’s it due? TV writing is very deadline driven. I just always work like I’m three weeks behind schedule, because chances are if I’m not, I will be soon. That said, I’m a big believer in giving your subconscious time to do its work. Your conscious mind can really only spot problems, figure out clues, and pose questions. It’s the brain you can’t control that comes up with the stuff that really matters. As my buddy John Rogers, co-creator and showrunner of Leverage, once said: “Procrastination is part of the process.”

What comes first, characters or story?
For me, it’s story. I’m a plot guy. But I know fantastic writers who are character people. Any good story has to have both, so it’s really just a question of which one you need to understand first in order to be able to figure out everything else. I have a hard time knowing who the people are until I know what they’re doing. Other people can’t figure out what happens in the story until they understand who’s driving it. Neither way is better. Like everything in writing, it’s not about how you get there — it’s about where you wind up.

Do you always know the whole story before you start writing?
Yes and no. More accurately, I always think I know the whole story before I start writing. But some of my favorite moments in things I’ve written have been stuff I figured out along the way.

Do scripts start as short stories or is the genesis always to be on the screen?
As a staffed writer working in television, they generally start out as a quick conversation with my bosses. With my other work, I try to let the content dictate the form — but honestly, you can tell almost any story in almost any format. So before asking myself if a new idea is a TV show or a movie or short story or play, I try to stay focused on whether or not it’s a story worth telling.

Do you consider production when you’re writing, or do you just write?
One of my professors in college, the great dramaturg Paul Walsh who now teaches at Yale, taught me that you have to figure out what you want to do before you figure out how to do it. I still follow Paul’s advice every day. In a writers’ room, you have to allow yourselves to dream big. That said, I’m a big fan of thinking about producability while the story is still on the board. Even the best script is just a blueprint, a production crew has to go and build the thing. So in as much as every scriptwriter is also an architect, I think it’s very important to make sure that you’re creating something on the page that can be realized just as well on film.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started writing?
I guess the big idea that I wish I’d understood from the start is how to find the “spine” of a story. It’s not the plot, it’s not the theme. It’s what the story means, what it makes you feel. Once you’ve found the spine of the story, it gets a lot easier to tell what belongs and what doesn’t. It got a lot easier once I learned how to do that.

How important has an agent been to your success, particularly initially?
I’ve been lucky enough to have a series of terrific agents over the years. They’ve been able to open doors for me and help me make important decisions about which jobs to take and which to pass up. (Like most writers, I always want to say yes to everything because what if they stop asking???) That said, I always advise aspiring writers to focus on writing great scripts rather than getting a great agent. The best time to find an agent is when you’ve sold something and you have a deal to negotiate. How does one achieve balance between writing what is artistically satisfying and what is popular/successful in the business? I’ve been fortunate enough to find most of the shows I’ve written for artistically satisfying. There has been the occasional soul-crusher, but by and large, I really enjoy the work of writing — and the challenges presented by each new show. That said, I try to write my own stuff whenever possible. I have three short stories just burning a hole in my pocket.

You become aware of what you perceive to be an amazing opportunity, but you need to put together a quick portfolio of just three scenes from various scripts to be considered. Which would you choose and why?
Tough question. No one’s ever asked me to do that. The more common thing is that you’re asked which scripts who should submit for a given opportunity. If I had to just pick scenes, I wouldn’t really know where to start, just one scene doesn’t mean much out of context. It would be too hard to pick.

As to the favorite scenes or scripts I’ve written, I have to invoke the old “they’re all my favorites” defense. I can’t name specific favorites, though I am presently very happy with my recent work on “Person of Interest.” I guess the moments I’m the most proud of in my writing are the ones that surprised me — where the characters told me something about themselves that I didn’t already know. More than once, I’ve had the voice of a character interrupt my train of thought with something to the effect of: “No, no, no. I wouldn’t do that, I’d do this!” When that happens, it’s a real thrill.