Melinda Hsu Taylor is a television writer and producer. She is currently executive producer and showrunner of Tom Swift and co-showrunner of Nancy Drew for the CW Network.
Melinda was also a writer on Lost and was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for best drama series on the fifth season of Lost. She won a Primetime Emmy Award for the series’ sixth and final season and has also worked as a writer on Medium, Vanished, Women’s Murder Club, Falling Skies, Touch, The Vampire Diaries, The Gifted and Nancy Drew. In this episode, she talks about how shows like Star Trek inspired her to become a writer, her journey to becoming a television writer, and what it’s like working in the writers’ room. To find out more about Melinda’s work, visit her IMDB page.
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92.22.Melinda Hsu Taylor
Melinda Hsu Taylor, Will Bachman
Will Bachman 00:01
Hello, and welcome to the 90 T report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman and I’m here today with Melinda shoe Taylor, who is a showrunner Melinda. Welcome to the show.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 00:17
Thank you for having me.
Will Bachman 00:18
So, talk to me about your journey since graduating from Harvard.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 00:24
Wow. Well, after Harvard, I decided that I wanted to go to Mexico City for a summer because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, period. And I thought I was going to have some kind of international adventure, I guess what I did, I was teaching English as a second language to kids at the American School Federation. But it was very isolating and lonely. And I realized the only time I wasn’t homesick was when I was writing. So I immediately came back to the States after that summer and started applying to grad schools ended up getting into Columbia University’s MFA program. And that was very comforting to me, because they had a campus in iron gates, and I liked it a lot better than NYU, wanted that feeling, again, of being, you know, in the safe arms of some kind of institution. And I had a great time at film school. Ironically, I actually advise people not to go to film school. Now that I’ve done it, I learned a lot there. For me, it was terrific experience. But for some people, I think it’s a lot of money to then come out with, you know, not more skills than you might have after an undergrad degree. And still the same kind of like I need to get a job, I need to make connections as an assistant or a PA, and then you’re three years older and so much more in debt. For some people. It’s terrific. For me, it was kind of like, oh, that’s how films that work. Oh, that’s how screenplays are written. So if you don’t have any basis at all, for that kind of thing, it can be useful. But you can also get that information very easily now through you know, all sorts of online courses and all kinds of practical hands on things for a fraction of the cost of Columbia. That is the end of my soapbox against Columbia University’s film program. But then after that, I came out to Los Angeles because I figured if I was going to make a try at Hollywood, that was the time to do it. I had started to get really comfortable in New York City, I love New York, I was working at a nonprofit called God’s Love We Deliver in a paid service. And I could see a path for myself where I got very involved in development there or, you know, nonprofit work in general. And I thought, if I do that, I will never never extricate myself from New York City, because it’s wonderful here. And I’m already having, you know, great friendships and real roots in the community. And I didn’t want to get stuck there. So I went to Los Angeles, not knowing anybody not having any connections or any kind of prospects at all, and got myself a job through the help of some friends who I started to meet. Like, there was somebody who I’d met at an internship during film school, and her mom connected me of all things with a tour guide job at Warner Brothers. I was one of the people driving the golf carts around and telling people from Iowa Oh, this is where they shot, you know, Casablanca back in the day. And I know all these really interesting anecdotes about the sound stages now. But it was kind of soul crushing, because when you got done with your tour, you would go back to the locker room, and everybody else who was wearing these polo shirts and giving golf carts or grant guides was, was also trying to become a screenwriter, or an actor or director. And it was just kind of really humbling. So on my worst day, in my current career, I think back to that golf cart, and those tour guides, and I’m like, Oh, I, I’m fine, you know, everything is fine. But then after that, this is a very long story. But eventually, I got into the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop. And then I realized that TV writing was actually much more my speed, in terms of like how stories are constructed, how they worked out over episodes, and seasons and character journeys. And just the actual hierarchy of the writers room made a lot of sense to me. Finally, he was something where you could get a foothold and work your way up the ranks as opposed to feature writing, which was the thing I’d started to do in Los Angeles, which was a lot more lightning in a bottle and a different kinds of road, other people got discovered, you know, through a fantastic spec screenplay that didn’t end up being my route. But TV was always a much more orderly, I think kind of entry level, moving up the ranks, and then eventually you get promoted, and then you start to have more responsibility, and you start to have opportunities to develop your own shows. And then, as you get more kind of experience, and credibility, and you make more connections, and you get a good reputation, then eventually you can interview for showrunner positions, if you’re not coming in with your own show that you’ve created, which is what happened to me. So you know, the end of 2018, I guess, I was coming off of a show for Marvel called the gifted, which was so cool to work on a Marvel show, and it was an excellent spin off and in so many ways, it was everything I had wanted. And I was still frustrated. And I realized that it was because I wasn’t the boss. And after after many many years in the business at a certain point you want to be the boss at least I do. At least a lot of people with ambition do. And I decided that the next job I would get, I would only interview for positions that were showrunner titles and when really soon after that, Nancy Drew’s pilot got greenlit to production, and they didn’t have a show on are the creators No garlando And Stephanie savage and Josh Swartz. They’re all terrifically talented people. But Stephanie and Josh were very busy with other shows that they already had on the air. Nova had never been a showrunner and was a more junior writer just in terms of years and the job. So they needed somebody like me, who was like a veteran in production and writing staffs. And, you know, HR, frankly, there’s a lot of the job of a showrunner, but then also had an affinity for the material and a good connection with Noga and somebody who was like excited about reinventing Nancy Drew. As a supernatural, leaning sleuth, teen in Maine, full circle, I got to set the show in Maine, or like I weighed in on whether it was going to be like South Carolina, North Carolina coast or Maine. And I knew he was like, Oh, this should be made because we shoot in Vancouver. So that’s a kind of, you know, rambling, anecdotal version of how I got to be where I
Will Bachman 05:57
Melinda Hsu Taylor 06:19
Every room is a little bit different. When I say entry level, I actually mean, you come in as a PA, you might come in back before we had zoom rooms, you wouldn’t be the person getting lunches and making photocopies and dropping off packages ups, or a writer’s assistant taking notes in the room script coordinator is a little bit higher than that who’s doing more of a, it’s a very technical job with publishing scripts over email now, but there are a lot of I don’t even know, administrative duties that go along with actually putting these scripts out to the production side of things. And then there’s also showrunners assistant, and that person gets involved in a lot more of the granular details of getting notes from the Network in the Studio or fielding calls from many department heads or scheduling, you know, casting sessions or just like the whole infrastructure. So you can learn a lot as an assistant. And it’s really important, I think, to come in as an assistant if you can, because then you get to see the politics of the writers room. And that doesn’t have to be like, you know, toxic politics or dysfunctional politics. But it does have its own kind of rhythm and hierarchy, I would say, as much as any writers from says, Oh, we don’t have a hierarchy, all ideas are equal. Yes, and no, you know, it’s kind of like, if you have a great idea, and you’re an assistant, there are lots of great ideas from the systems that we’ve put on the air. But it’s also like, if you’re listening to an executive producer on the show, who was literally produced hundreds of episodes of TV, there’s a reason that they still have that job. So you should give a little bit of weight to what they’re saying, you know, and also, if there’s a creator of the show, it’s their vision, it’s, you know, everybody else’s job is to execute and manifest the vision of the creator, you can, you know, add to it, you can be inspirational on your own, but it should be a unified motion towards what the North Star is as determined by the Creator. Anyway, so those are just the assistant jobs as you come up the ranks or staff writer, that’s the first year story editor, then executive Story Editor, a co producer, producer, supervising producer, co executive producer, Executive Producer, there’s also a consulting producer, which might be somebody who would normally have a much higher title, but maybe they’ve got an overall deal, or they, you know, are just doing a favor for a friend or they’re developing at the same time. And so they wanted a different kind of contracts, or like an adjunct professor. But a lot of these things are tied to pay rate from the Writers Guild. And different benefits start to happen as you come up the ranks like you get paid extra for a script that you write when you’re a story editor or above. As a staff writer, you know, however many scripts you write, you don’t get paid extra. But in terms of what people write, that also depends on the show. Sometimes you might have a staff writer who writes several episodes by themselves and they get their name on the episode and lots of their words get on screen. You might also be in a situation where your co executive producer, and you have your name on an episode. But literally none of your words got on screen because your showrunner rewrote you from page one, that happens all the time. So a lot of the I don’t know if politics is the right word, just kind of like absorbing the bio rhythms in the ecosphere of the writers room is really helpful to assistants because they understand just kind of the many, many body blows that you take as a professional, creative person, in terms of like, oh, I had this idea that I just loved. And I thought it was brilliant, perfect. I had it all worked out 10 pages of a story. And you get in the room and you pitch everything to the showrunner or you get a paragraph in and the showrunner is like, oh, no, I don’t want to do that story because blah, blah, you know, they might have really great reasons or it might just be a personal taste thing. But you just have to be able to let go of those 10 pages immediately and keep moving. So that kind of thing is what I mean by like observing the room from an assistant level before you’re in the job yourself.
Will Bachman 09:59
When we talk About a writers room, maybe things have changed during COVID. But, you know, historically, traditionally, is this. Paint me a Picture a little bit? Is this a physical room where people are kind of like shouting out ideas? Like, yeah,
Melinda Hsu Taylor 10:15
short answers. Yeah. Short answer. Yes. Before the pandemic, you’d have a conference room with a bunch of writers, sometimes couches, I could never do couches, I fall asleep on couches. And a lot of people do too. And no matter what they say, conference room with chairs, you know, little rolling chairs, just like a board room. dry erase boards or magnetic cards on dry erase boards, or old school cork boards with index cards. Not too many people use those, but some people like them. And people would talk about the ideas for an episode or a character journey or the season. It depends on where you are in the season. But, for instance, if you’re breaking a new episode, they call it a story break. And you come in and it’s serialized, you can say let me just take an example from last season’s Nancy Drew, we’re coming into the finale, Episode 313. We know that one character has a mystical piece of a soul stuck in him. And he’s going to be the target for a mystical serial killer unless they can somehow get this piece of a soul out of him. We also know that in the finale, we want to vanquish or nemesis. So those are the big things that we have to play with. How are we going to get there, people start tossing out ideas like I think it’d be fun to do this ritual. I think it’d be fun to trapper with this way. You know, that would be a great scene to see, but it doesn’t fit or that’d be a great scene to see. But it should happen before we even see the title card of the show, because we’re going to expect it to happen later. What if we start the episode with that? So you start to talk about moments, you want to see this narrative arcs, you want to see where it lands structurally, in a 42 minute episode with six act breaks. This is very different on network than it is for like HBO, or something or Netflix. An episode of Stranger Things can be an hour and 15 minutes long if they want an episode of Nancy Drew has to be 42 minutes long, has to have six commercial breaks cannot be longer than Well, you know, like 10 minutes starts to be weird. Shorter than four minutes is a problem for broadcast standards, or like when they went to deliver it overseas. So you’ve got all this like carpentry to deal with, on top of the narrative things and the emotional things and the clever dialogue and emotional you know, longing looks that you’re trying to achieve. It’s really fun. It’s a fun job.
Will Bachman 12:15
Talk to me about the job of a showrunner. So my, my knowledge is the extent of it is kind of what I learned online reading about this, which is often a former, you know, it’s often a writer that has overall creative responsibility and management responsibility. But what’s the day to day job like of being a showrunner?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 12:37
Well, let’s see today. I started the room. I started with the writers room at 1030. We now have a Zoom Room, actually to finish my answer. Like after the pandemic, a lot of writers rooms moved to all zoom. And some people have gone back to in person we have not because we have a lot of writers who have toddlers unvaccinated at home. And we didn’t want to do that. And also I’ve come to really like the convenience. We do sometimes meet once a week in somebody’s backyard or for a social lunch. And I think that’s important too. But generally, we just go on Zoom. So I started in the Zoom Room, you know, 16 Squares writers talking about like, where we left off yesterday breaking the new episode, we’re talking about episode 406. And then half an hour into that I went to the concept episode for 402. And we talked about all the different scenes that are going on there. I should also specify that the showrunner of Nancy Drew this year actually is no go Lando. Previously, I’ve been the showrunner and now I’m co showrunner I guess I would call it. But I was showrunner of Tom Swift until a few weeks ago when it got canceled by the CW, which was very sad. Oh, it’s a bummer. Yeah, it was. But anyway, so I was in the concept meeting, where they kind of go through the script, page by page and say, okay, and this thing, she’s driving a car, there’s a sudden stop at a stop sign. And then she pulls ahead. Do we think that’s going to be done in the process trail? Or is it going to be a green screen reprojection thing are we going to have the actual camera strapped to the car, we’re going to have a tow rig or we’re going to have a separate car, pulling the second car. And there are cameras everywhere. And so it’s that kind of you know, nuts and bolts concept meeting, you know, where they’re kind of like one of the big picture, things that we’re going to need scene by scene. After that, I was looking at a draft of 403, which we’re going to publish to the studio today and making small revisions but Naga had already done a big pass on the draft meaning like she’d done her tweaks and polishing and edits already. We have another executive producer named Alex Taub, who’d already done his past as well. So I’m doing very small stuff, just kind of like trying to get a page widow out or if I think that that phrase doesn’t fall quite round in my ear. I think that actress is going to have an easier time saying this. I think she’s going to understand the audience will understand better if we break this idea up into two sentences, just little bitty polishing things on 403 that I went back to the room to keep talking about 406 with the rest of the Zoom Room. We segwayed back to talk about the Prop into a 402 which we had, you know, had a bit of a call conversation about in the meeting. And then I realized in an email with Noga, while all this other stuff was going on, that she had something different in her mind than anybody understood, including me. So I drew a picture. That’s where you found me when you call me faxing. And I’m sorry, that’s how old I am texting a copy of this picture to the prop master and the director of the episode and the writers of the episode and Noga, to say like, this is what we just discussed, this is the new idea for the mystical stomach pump. Anyway, after lunch, I will go back to the room and talk about 406, maybe a little bit of 407, the four or five story outline is coming in soon. And we’re going to look at that and do our passes on that. Tomorrow, I’ll talk to the 404 team about their episode, because they’re in the middle of writing that, for one is filming right now. So we might get a text message saying, Hey, we couldn’t find the black gloves or brown gloves, okay, and we’re like, no, don’t have brown gloves, she always wears black gloves, we’ll just write a thing and that she’s already taken them up for your questions from set from the thing that’s going on. By next week, we’ll have things coming from post for episodes that have already filmed or, you know, episodes that are in the process of being filmed. And then the whole thing just keeps layering onto itself. Meanwhile, because Tom Swift is still on the air, I also am, you know, occasionally popping into post production virtually, for Tom Swift, we have a platform called PAC post where you it’s just like being in the edit bay. So you’ve got all two little screens, just like zoom, but for editors and cuts in visual effects and process. And so I might be giving notes on the score or the visual effects saying like, Can the middle thing be brighter orange, I’m having trouble separating the holograph of the people behind it. Or I really like how this punctuation for the act out happens. But I think before them, when they have this really dramatic moment after yield, I want to pull the score way down. So we can really hear the silence and the awkwardness. And you know, it’s not just volume, I guess we’ll have to thin out the orchestration a little bit like you get really granular, it’s very satisfying. So that’s another thing. But then, on top of all that, there are human resources, things, a lot of my day sometimes is like a big chunk of a morning could be spent dealing with a personnel issue, it could be kind of like this person. I’m trying to think of something that doesn’t breach HR confidentiality. Well, we had one person just for instance, a season or so ago, who wouldn’t wear his mask on set, so we had to let him go. But there was a whole like, protocol thing that we had to go through and kind of we’ve notified him a number of times, now there’s a written thing, he’s still not doing it, okay, we’re gonna let him go. And but it’s easy. And employees, we have to go through that process as well. Or there might be an interpersonal conflict among people on you know, in a department of the crew or sometimes in a writers room, not the Nancy Drew rhetorician was wonderfully, you know, harmonious. But those things come up, and you have to handle them very, very delicately. And with, you know, the full corporate machine of Viacom’s HR behind you, or, you know, in tandem with you, and they’ve been great, but it’s a you know, it’s time consuming.
Will Bachman 18:00
What about when you’re getting a show going, I imagine to what to what degree are you involved in selecting the directors of each episode or the the the casting types decisions, you know, selecting the editor, selecting all the other ancillary staff,
Melinda Hsu Taylor 18:18
you’re involved in all of it to different degrees. Casting were intimately involved in like, I’ll even write audition sides actually kind of enjoy those because I know what I want to look for in the actors coming to the role because I know what’s coming for them down the pike in the season. But editors, we have a really wonderful post production producer, who handles all of that. His name is Jonathan Brody, and he’s a genius. And so he’s got a wide pool of people he goes to and he’ll kind of have a shortlist of people for us to interview based on different experience based on how he feels they’ll fit with the existing editors that we’re hiring. You know, if we’re adding to an existing team, I actually sourced an editor, just coincidentally, I knew somebody who knew somebody who was right for the job. But more often, it’s people you know, in their own spheres, bringing forward candidates for directors, our executive producer from fake empire, this Wednesday is amazing. And she you know, all the time is having general meetings with new directors or directors and she’s wanting to work with before. The studio recommends people the network recommends people, we are very intimately involved in hiring the writers. They get submitted from agents in studio and execs and big empire if you’re working with producing company. And also just like lots of word of mouth, people know people who know people, and then you read the material, you interview them, you vet them, you kind of figure out where they would fit in the chemistry of the team that you’re assembling. A lot of it has to do with how much you can afford so you can you have a budget from the studio of X amount of dollars, but people with more experienced costs more money. And so you kind of build from the top going down. And after you run out of money in the budget, you can not hire any more All writers have to make it all work for your budget.
Will Bachman 20:04
And why is it in the world of TV? That you have? Multiple writers? I mean, for a book, someone writes the book, or for fans, I understand that, you know, sometimes one screenwriter will write the whole screen. Yeah. What is it about TV? Is it just the pace, there’s the volume of content, or you need the diversity of ideas, or
Melinda Hsu Taylor 20:26
I think all three of those things are really important. I have known of shows where only one person writes it like Julian Fellowes writes all his own stuff for Downton Abbey and the Gilded Age. And that’s just how he rolls, I’m good for him. The CW, you know, we don’t have weeks and weeks and weeks to do these things like where every eight days, another episode starts shooting. So we have to have material ready. And there are so many steps to getting material ready. First, we have a story area that is like, well, on a newer show, you might have a story area, that’s four or five pages long, then you have an outline that’s 12 or 15 pages long, then you have the draft that’s 45 pages long. But at every step of the way, you have to get that vetted by the studio, they have their notes, then you go to the network, they have their notes, and then you repeat the steps for everything. So you’ve got like, six documents, at least coming up towards an episode, before you get to the production draft, which is something that they start to based off of when they’re doing this concept meeting where it’s kind of like, okay, we’ve got the thing at the stop sign, she pulls ahead. And that is the act out. But you know, on the way to get into that scene, there have been weeks of discussions about like, what’s the most impactful act out to show that this thing is taking hold of her like that her behavior has changed? And then the studio had an idea that oh, is it too sudden? Is it not clear enough? The network had a note about like, you know, do we want her to really say that word or, you know, have that attitude? Or how clear is it that this is where she is on her character journey. And so you’re revising and revising and revising and revising. So while that is going on for one script, all these other scripts are in the hopper, all the things that I described, you know, right now, we have six different episodes in various stages of concept or production, or, you know, just coming up with story ideas in the Zoom Room. And if one person we’re doing all of that, that’d be one very, very busy person on this pace. When we have to turn out a new one, a new one has to come off the assembly line every eight days. That makes sense.
Will Bachman 22:21
One thing that I guess, surprised me a little bit hearing you describe all this is that it seems like a lot of your work is on the script and getting kind of everything ready to go. But then when it actually comes to shoot the episode, it sounds like you’re typically not actually present, watching the episode being shot and so forth. So that at that point, if you mostly handed it off to the to the director for that for that episode.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 22:50
That’s a good question. Sometimes we’re able to send writers to set happily we’re able to resume doing that this year with Auntie Jia. We couldn’t do that during the pandemic because of COVID protocols. I suppose I should have included in my week as a showrunner. Yesterday, I was on set in Vancouver, which was great, because we wanted to know that I wanted to be there for the first day of filming. So I was meeting crew members and, you know, responding to takes and saying, Yes, I like that costume. No, not that costume. You know, like, it’s really fun to be that actively involved. But because of all the other things that are showing are supposed to be doing, it makes a lot more sense to have the writer of the episode, go up and cover set and cover pre production. Another reason to have more physical bodies doing this,
Will Bachman 23:30
but it sounds like to do your job effectively, you do need to have, you know, at some point your career spent a lot of time on set. So you’re familiar with all the types of shots and the terminology and how things get done.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 23:43
Absolutely, yeah, it’s incredibly helpful. It’s not necessarily a job requirement on paper. But that’s why sometimes, you know, if you’ve got a younger person who comes in with this amazing idea, and they’re like a playwright or something, then they’ll partner them with somebody like me, who has been on set a lot. Because prior to Nancy Drew, I mean, I’d been working in TV for like, I don’t know, do the math, I started in 2003. And Nancy Drew was 2019. So I’ve had 16 years of different kinds of production experience. Golly, I feel old. But it’s really valuable, you know, because it doesn’t occur to me sometimes how many things I do now. Just for instance, we were talking about oh, the black veins have to appear that’s probably going to be cheaper and visual effects. And I knew that they would also need to put makeup dots to track the visual effects on set, it would be quicker than painting on things are quicker than some kind of practical effects. But I just know that because I worked in the Vampire Diaries for four years, you know, so there’s a lot of I have a kind of, I don’t know, memory bank of knowledge that’s really useful. That’s a shorthand when I talk to people in production. Like nobody needs to explain to me what the makeup dots are for. Okay.
Will Bachman 24:51
What are some of the changes or trends that are happening in the world of TV
Melinda Hsu Taylor 25:00
Streaming has been a huge impact on us ever since. I didn’t know back in 2008, this is on my mind, because contract at the Writers Guild is up for negotiation again. So people are talking again about the possibility of a strike, which I hope doesn’t happen. The last strike was really terrible. It was necessary. And I’m glad we did it, because it gave us a tiny, tiny, you know, toehold in streaming residuals, meaning that if you write something for Netflix, and then they just kind of keep running it in perpetuity on their platform, you can get a little bit of a dividend, every time it airs, or whatever your arrangement is trying to like, analogous terms, but on, for instance, a network, it’s a really significant piece of money. Because if you write an NCIS NCIS, sorry, and it keeps airing, you keep getting lots of money every time it airs, and those things repeat all the time. So people really live off their residuals after a certain point. And if you don’t have that, if you have only a fraction of that money coming in for streaming, then you know, people’s livings make a hit. And if you don’t have any, you know, say at all in how those things are being calculated, or Netflix’s famously guarded, and its data or you know, how well things are doing, it’s just kind of hard to get money after the initial work for hire. So the fear of writers is that oh, will become disempowered work workers for hire, and the studios are going to make all the money and keep all the profits. And you know, there’s evidence to support that. At the same time, it’s kind of hard for, for me personally, to wring my hands too much as a writer who, you know, works in TV, I make a good living, and I think the rest of the country, let alone the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have the standard of living that a lot of writers do. So it’s a delicate line to walk between what we feel is fair, and what we do think that we are contributing to the creative content, versus like not coming across to the public, as you know, oh, I need to send my kid to private school or oh, I’m, you know, living in Beverly Hills, and this is my mortgage, most of the country is going to be like Crimea river, you know, we’re hardly auto workers, no offense to auto workers. So anyway, but when you look at it from a term, the idea of like intellectual property, and if you think of us as patent holders are like we’re selling our creative product, to people who then make money off of it in ways that they’re not even letting us do the calculations, then you start to feel like oh, well, we do deserve a piece of the thing that we brought into being in the universe, then it starts, you know, if you look at it a different way, it’s kind of like, Oh, it’s so insulting that the studios won’t give us a little percentage, a tiny fraction of a percentage of this so that we can put money into our health care, because that is actually what the deal is about. Having portrayed in one way, let me portray it the other way, we, we only have so much money in the pension fund right now to support lots and lots of writers, there is a thing that’s happening in streaming. And also just across the industry called mini rooms, where they’ll order like six or eight or 10 episodes of something, but then all the writers contracts will end they’ll go off and do other things. And they never see the finished product, they’re not involved with the production of it. So they’re not getting experience, or the thing never gets made. And so they don’t have any produced credits, which is harder for them to get the next job. Or they’re, you know, held on to these contracts that kind of stretch out over such a long time period, that it sort of advertises the lump sum that they’re getting paid, and now they’re working for not enough money based on guild scale. And, you know, they can get taken advantage of many ways they can get taken advantage of being asked to do rewrites for free, or everybody, all the chefs in the kitchen want their own version of it to do like, you know, producers notes. So if even if your contract says you’re supposed to write two versions of the script, you may end up doing 10 versions, not exaggerating, because of all the people asking for, you know, revisions along the way. Or you might end up doing so much work for free on the way to pitching something, which is understandable in a way because you’re highly incentivized to try to sell your pitch and get the show on the air or get paid to write the pilot script. But you’re still doing work for free. So at a certain point, people that are kind of like, shouldn’t we be paid a little bit to do all the work for free? Like I wouldn’t ask a contractor to come to my house and and show me 10 versions of a porch railing and not pay him for any of that work. You know what I mean?
Will Bachman 29:27
Are there changes that are happening in terms of the demographics for scripted shows, or the types of shows that are possible to make?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 29:41
I think it’s getting a lot more targeted in some ways on streaming you know, you can have these very small audience appeal things that can have a life on Amazon Prime video, or Netflix or you know, if you look at any streamer, for instance, apple plus they’ve got these big event things that are very like an Only on Apple products. Could you see this thing only on apple plus could they poured this kind of money into it? Netflix, I think has run into trouble the last year or so that’s been, you know, written about a lot in trades and, you know, other places where they’re interested in dissecting what happened with Netflix. But it used to be that they would just put tons and tons of stuff in their library, but it was sort of impossible for people to find what they really liked. And then, you know, algorithms or the metrics or whatever they were using to, to gauge what was the success or what they wanted to bring back for multiple seasons. I don’t think all of that was adding up to new subscribers for them. So suddenly, they realized, Oh, we thought we were going to have all these new subscribers, and actually, we’re losing subscribers. So then they had to do all these layoffs. That’s my understanding of Netflix. So whatever they were trying to do in their internal calculus hasn’t been paying off for them. So that’s a problem for them. And also for, I think, in some ways, the streamer model of like, throw a lot of money at it. And definitely people will turn up and subscribe. If it doesn’t work for Netflix, other people are going to be taking a look at what they do. But in terms of demographics, for shows, I think you can get a lot more specific on like HBO, Max like euphoria. It’s not for everybody. It’s I haven’t watched it. But I hear it’s a great show. But I understand why somebody who is into that kind of programming would really like that show, because it goes really hard at that thing, and doesn’t apologize for being about what it’s about. Whereas on a network like CBS, or ABC, you’re supposed to appeal to as many people as possible and offend nobody. So those shows have a certain kind of fastball down the middle feeling, which can be great. I mean, they’re very comforting to tune into, they do a certain thing. And they do it really well. I mean, there’s a reason that NCIS is going into its 20th year, which is stunning, but also not surprising at all. It’s a thing that really works and people really like it. Go might argue with that.
Will Bachman 31:52
How much TV do you watch to your perhaps keep up with, you know, what your friends are doing or what other people are doing?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 32:01
Not enough, I should watch more TV.
Will Bachman 32:03
I very few people say that.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 32:07
That’s so funny. I actually should watch more TV for market research and exactly that to kind of understand what the what people are watching what’s succeeding, what’s not succeeding, what people are talking about, I hear the bears really good on Hulu, I really want to watch it. Station 11, I kept hearing about and finally watched it like five episodes and thought it was great, and then kind of ran out of bandwidth. So I still have a number of episodes left to watch on that. I really liked the Gilded Age. What else? Believe it or not, I don’t own a TV at the moment. That’s crazy. I watched TV on my laptop. It’s a long story. But a new TV is in my future soon. Okay, the point is that I should make more time for it. And sometimes I find myself not having hours in the day to watch TV because of all the other things I’m doing, you know?
Will Bachman 32:54
Do you work on instinct? or to what degree do you try to understand the audience of a show that you’re working on either through surveys or other sorts of qualitative or quantitative research, to then kind of inform how you make the show.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 33:15
For Nancy Drew, we started out with a particular, you know, Vive, for lack of a better word, and we stuck to it. And it’s been successful for us. But we also had a lot of audience testing right off the bat, they do a thing where they get together a couple dozen people in Las Vegas, because apparently there’s a cross section of people, they show them a new pilot, and they give them these little dials. And if they like what’s going on, the dial goes up. And if they don’t like a dog goes down. Generally people like it when scary things are happening or, you know, people are kissing or people are pretty or there’s an exciting murder mystery. They don’t like it. At least for a CW audience. They don’t like it when people over 40 are having conversations with each other. They don’t like it unnecessarily if people are vomiting or if they’re like, just talking about something that’s very dry and intellectual or just I don’t know. It depends on the audience. But for CW shows, we look for a certain thing, and then we kind of fine tune it based on our audiences didn’t find this character likable, or they found this character incredibly likable. Let’s write more for the character. Let’s make a dialogue pass in the next episode so that this character doesn’t come across as so strident, let’s say, you know, or mean. So it’s really interesting what people respond to and what they don’t respond to. Like Nancy Drew, in the first pilot testing, Nancy Drew is having sex in the pilot. And a lot of people who came into it not knowing what Nancy Drew the you know, our reinvention of it was going to be like they were really shocked that she was having sex. And we got a lot of comments about that. We didn’t do anything to change it because we were that was what we were committed to. But it was interesting, you know, and I think on a different network, maybe would have been encouraged to not have her have, you know, sex so much and felt like she had sex all the time. But she is a healthy young woman, and she has boyfriends and partners, and she does have sex anyway. But in terms of like, the next shows, for instance, that I want to develop, I want to go out with a new project pretty soon. And if that’s a much is like, I’m trying to get my finger on the pulse of what people like, generally, I think I’m fortunate in that I have pretty mainstream tastes. So I feel like this show that I’m working on right now with another partner. It’s not like, oh, because I like it, everybody will like it. But it’s more like, I know that I like things that people like. Sounds really simplistic. But I’m not a person who like I only like one out of 10 shows on the air. I like I love Marvel movies. I love Star Wars, I love Downton Abbey and Sherlock and Game of Thrones. And I liked things that had been wildly successful. And I know what for me was resonating or exciting or fun or engaging about those shows. And I find those same things where I think that I’m going after those things in the projects that I develop on my own. And also, knowing a little bit of inside information about some of the platforms or venues that we want to try to sell this to, I kind of feel like yes, our show, or at least as I envisioned, it lines up with shows that are already successful for that network. So if you like such and such a show on that network or that platform, I think you’d also like this show that I’m working on because it has the same kinds of like relatable characters and a little bit of a mystery that gets solved every week, or emotional stakes and time urgency. But also like it’s super understandable. There’s nothing terribly esoteric about the thing that I’m working on right now in a good way. I like people who, in my opinion, will like this show that I’m working on now the new one, they want to drop into a show immediately understand the world have fun with it, get emotionally invested in the problem of the week, feel really good when that problem gets solved, and have a little bit of mystical wonder along the way, but a very culturally specific kind of experience to but not in a way that makes you feel like oh, I have to be Chinese to appreciate or enjoy this. This particular show, it’s more kind of like, Oh, that’s really cool. I didn’t know that about Chinese culture. But it makes sense to me, because there’s a similar thing in the Christian traditions that I was brought up with, or there’s a thing in that family, even though their names are different from my family’s name. My dad totally treats me like that when he looks at me versus my older sibling, you know,
Will Bachman 37:30
when you watch a television show, do you find yourself just kind of watching it as an ordinary consumer would? Or do you find yourself more clinical or professional are saying, Oh, I that’s interesting how they decided to do that special effect that must have been cheaper than doing it this or Wow, that’s an interesting location they picked I’ve always wanted to go to locations that are Well, the nice job in the music there. Are you kind of thinking about all the technique and the decisions and so forth that were behind it?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 38:03
Usually, but if it’s a show that I’m really into, then I will forget that at a certain point.
Will Bachman 38:08
What are some of the things that you are noticing?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 38:13
I noticed costumes and I noticed horses do those things. I notice big stunt sequences and you know very expensive visual effects. scenes with tons of extras like the Gilded Age just blew my mind because it’s a hundreds of people and ballgowns. And every single thing about it is so curated and perfect and period appropriate and streets full of horses. And you know, I could go on and on about the Gilded Age, or I don’t know haka the Marvel show, which I really liked a lot. It was on Disney plus, I really enjoyed the stunt sequences, I was kind of like, wow, they did this huge action sequence. And it was really fun and other things exploded. And it was very convincing. You know, I can watch a show that doesn’t have a lot of money for a stunt sequence. And I can see like, oh, they did that elegantly. But I also know that these are the three moments they picked, like, here’s the guy he breaks through a wall that was a big thing he gets he goes out a window, that’s also a big thing. But everything else inside that room is just two guys throwing punches at each other. Or I can you know, be really impressed with the show that is able to spend tons of money on visual effects and like that was an incredible like, hologram or the thing where like in Loki and other Marvel show, there are lots of monsters chasing after Loki and the later episodes is that and it’s just sort of like there’s so much money that goes into that scale of visual effects. That’s really impressive to me.
Will Bachman 39:35
So you’re kind of mentally kind of telling up Wow, that was that was an expensive visual effect are
Melinda Hsu Taylor 39:43
expensive, so expensive. So expensive. Yeah, that’s kind of what’s going on in my head.
Will Bachman 39:48
You mentioned extras is that like a big thing to you know if you want a big crowd?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 39:54
It is these days particularly because you have to test everybody to make sure that they’re not sick. There are different protocols for different studios. But for the actors, screenwriters guild, they have their own set of rules, same for all the unions going back to work. So, in the first couple years of the pandemic, we were testing our actors three times a week, you know, like the nasal swab test, and every time that test came back negative, that was fine, they could go on set and take the mask off and be in scenes if they were sick. Or actually, we were really fortunate, we never had to shut down for anybody being sick, but other people on the crew, because of contract, contact tracing, or because a couple of the people crew on the crew did test positive now and then they would get benched or anybody who’d been around them would get benched or you know, it’s just like, it’s a constant kind of whack a mole of people being healthy enough to work. Because it’s so many days that you have to quarantine or stay home from work, work from zoom. Fortunately, that number of days has gone down to five instead of 10. So that’s a lot easier to get people back into the rotation if they, you know, test out for some reason. But so just on that level, complicated. different spaces, like physical indoor spaces have limitations on how many people can be together. In the height of the pandemic, we, you know, had to have social distancing. So if you look at anything that was filmed in 2020, anything that’s an indoor scene, or not anything, but most things that are indoor scenes, only have like 50 people where normally you’d feel like there are 200 people at this cocktail party, and they’re kind of spread out. Stuff like that, or we would just lean away from stories that required big crowds. Being outside is a lot easier, you can have more people outside. This year, it’s getting less restrictive with the testing protocols that we have to test people only once a week, for instance. So that’s good. But just like atmospheric haze, and the first couple of seasons of Nancy Drew, there’s this wonderful kind of godliness to the air, because we would pump this atmosphere into the rooms, and it would make everything look a little bit dreamy, which is very pretty. There’s none of that in season two, and three, because the protocols changed that we could not use that kind of stuff in the air anymore. Just little things, you know. But it’s also expensive. You got to pay all those people, you have to put them in wardrobe, they have to have hair and makeup, you have to bring extra crew members on to deal with all of them. So it just exponentially gets more expensive every time you add people to a seat.
Will Bachman 42:18
Yeah. Tell me about costumes in television. How quickly? Does the costume team turn that around? Is that something as showrunner is kind of signing off on?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 42:30
Yeah, you know, you can delegate things. And it’s a great thing to delegate, but especially in the first part of the season, but on a pilot, particularly like you’re very involved with like establishing the characters looks. So you have a costume designer, you talk to them about the character, what kind of story you want to tell through their clothing, what their backstory is, and they start to come up with presentation boards, and they’re like, I think that Nancy has this very kind of all American girl. Look, I’m thinking that Kodachrome palette is going to work for her versus her friend best who has this kind of aspirations to be an heiress. So she is dressing herself and knockoff Chanel, but she likes pastels. And her palate is very delicate, versus George who’s kind of like a punk look. And she has clothes from thrift shops, because she doesn’t come from a lot of money. And her colors are very bold and dark, you know. So then you kind of dial in each look, and you pick out each costume for every, every character in every episode. If you’re doing stunts, they need to have multiple outfits so that they can get them muddy, or have them torn up in the car wreck or get blood on them or whatever. And then if it’s a fancy thing, you have to like, ahead of time, pick the clothes, maybe you have to shop for them elsewhere in Vancouver at a certain point. All the size fours are gone from the racks because everybody in Vancouver is producing TV and shopping for these very petite actresses, you know. Anyway, so there’s a long lead up and lots and lots of photos going back and forth on email and people weighing in. And everybody has a say or not everybody, but people have to say the director has to say the actors will weigh in on things that they like also. And it’s really helpful to have their input and also important to make sure that they feel comfortable and good and attractive about their work.
Will Bachman 44:07
Is there any pet peeve that you have of sort of a TV industry, scripted show cliche, that you will say like, I’m never going to do that particular thing?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 44:23
I don’t know. If you call a pet peeve. I actually have a really strong stance about guns on screen. We don’t have guns on screen and Nancy Drew and we did not have them and Tom Swift either, because I did a lot of soul searching after the Sandy Hook massacre. And I was kind of like, we have to acknowledge that by so cavalierly. Putting gun violence on screen and so frequently making it heroic and sexy. We’re doing something to the culture. And as a showrunner, one of the most satisfying things I did, period, but also, you know, it felt very empowering on day one in the writers room. I said we don’t have guns on Nancy Drew and I’ve said this to production stuff. multiple times, like we’ve got a new chief of police coming in, she’s wearing a taser and not a gun. She doesn’t wear a holster and the police station like who needs it. But I very intentionally took away any mention of gun violence, there are no murder victims that were shot not even like mentions of past crimes, where there were guns involved. There are no props, there are no pictures of guns, there are no posters where somebody’s carrying a gun, there is no artwork that has a gun. And I feel really good about that. And it’s really interesting, if you watch episode after episode of Nancy Drew, you don’t miss having guns on screen. And we tell all kinds of, you know, murder mysteries and lots of mayhem happens and there are no bullets flying ever. There was one gun, one gun that got past me, because it wasn’t on set, and somebody put a gun in the holster of our detective and he was just in the station that made me that because like he doesn’t need to wear his gun when he’s looking through files. Also, it made me mad that somebody didn’t get the memo on that. But the other time we hadn’t done on screen was during a hostage situation. And if it’s a situation where it would be really unrealistic for the police not to have guns, then I don’t want to like bend the laws of reality. But you know, he started the scene and there’s a guy of pointing a gun at the house. And the first thing that happens in the scene is that the black female detective who’s on the scene arrives, and has the guy lower his gun by gently putting a hand on it, I thought was a worthwhile visual. But you know, other than that, absolutely no guns.
Will Bachman 46:26
Thinking back to Harvard, through any courses, or professors that have stuck with you and continue to shape your thinking.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 46:36
Simon Schama was one of my favorite professors, and the most amazing lecturer ever. And he was very influential in how I looked at history and art. I don’t know if that shaped my thinking. But I did love how he told the story. And the whole reason I became a history major is because those professors were such great storytellers. There was one in particular, it was a combo platter a world war two history course. Ernest May was one of the professors and or maybe Mayor anyway, and I forget the name of the Japanese professor, but it was like the American, the European and the Japanese, kind of through lines of World War Two. And they would kind of tag team, the lectures and the coursework, it was really great, great class that I took. And after that, I’d been considering being an English Lit major. And I just hated those courses, because they were immediately taking all the joy out of reading books, first of all, and I didn’t realize I guess that the whole point of being an English major is that you dissect what the written word is, I was like, This is no fun, or just want to read books, and hear stories and talk about stories. But in history, they were telling stories and like such a grand scale, and that had really happened. And these enormous events in human history pivoted on a single emotional decision, or a single mishap, you know, and I just loved that as like drama. So that’s what drew me to history as a major, but also really informed I think, how I do think about drama and fictional writing. Because I think it’s so impactful when all of these things are funneling down to a single decision point for our character. And kind of tying in this interview that I saw with Benedict Cumberbatch, they asked him how he made Hamlet fresh every night. And he said that you have to, you know, create a world in your mind, and live the experience of the character so that the very next thing that happens in that character’s life, the very next thing, he says, has to be the next line of dialogue that’s inevitable from everything he’s built up to that. So I feel like, that’s our job as TV writers also, or as fictional writers, when somebody says something on screen and TV, it should be like the only thing that their character would ever say in that situation, because of everything that’s led up to this point in their lives. And they have to say right now. So that’s the challenge of the fun of it.
Will Bachman 49:01
What about your career would surprise your college age self?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 49:08
That had happened. I think my college age self, my aspiration was to be a novelist, maybe a feature film writer, I never really even considered TV. But I also wouldn’t have thought necessarily, that I could run a show, which is cool to think about, you know, this is a nice meta moment for me to reflect. Because I’ll also, you know, just to get cards up about some things in my personal life, I recently divorced my husband, and that was a good thing. And it was amicable as these things go. But it’s I’m kind of in a moment in my life, where I’m taking stock of a lot of things and it’s helpful to realize how far I’ve come in a lot of ways. I think my college itself wouldn’t have dared to think that I basically be in charge of a company of 200 plus people, making it 1000 decisions a day and having the agency to say I don’t want guns on screen and everybody says, okay, and they take the guns off the set, and they change the costumes, and they change the backstories. And they change the dialogue on the platform. That’s really empowering. I think, when I was in college, this is also after many years of therapy. I didn’t even realize how limiting my own beliefs were about myself. Took me a long time to get to this point in my life. And you know, I wish at that time, I had known that I had this amount of forcefulness and know how within me
Will Bachman 50:35
I imagine it may be public somewhere. But can you give us just roughly what what’s the what’s the budget to produce a TV episode?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 50:45
Sure. Nancy Drew shoots in Canada, and our our budget in American dollars is just a little bit above $3 million in episode. That’s not a lot of money. Other episodes of things Star Trek Discovery, for instance, on Paramount plus has a budget that’s more like 10 or $12 million in episode and HBO pilot might be, I want to say, you know, $40 million. Just crazy. If you look at the budget for like Boardwalk Empire, or some of the things that have been done recently, I could be wrong about the latter numbers. So don’t quote me on those. But you know, we shoot in Canada so that we get a favorable exchange rate, we get some tax credits back. If you shoot in places like Vancouver or Georgia. That’s why people shooting in Atlanta. So you’re basically getting money back on the dollar for using local resources and people. And then you kind of divide that up into things like, I don’t know, your visual effects budget might be $200,000, an episode for instance, or your the actor salaries at this point, actually, I don’t know what they are. But I’m not going to comment on those. But the writing staff salary for year one of Nancy Drew was something like $100,000, everybody on the writing stuff below like Noga and me. So if a writer is paid $37,000 In episode that’s $37,000 off of your $100,000. So then you start to whittle away at that when you get to staff writer and those people are making. You know, guild scale is something like $7,000 a week. But if you think of them as basically $10,000 In episode, it kind of evens out to that. So you can only have so many people in the boat with that amount of money.
Will Bachman 52:33
Wow, that’s amazing. And congratulations to you for the getting to the point where you can really recognize what an amazing set of accomplishments you’ve had.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 52:46
Thank you, I really appreciate that. It’s kind of like you are working towards this thing over time. And sometimes you can’t help but compare yourself to other people in the industry or whatever person you’re comparing themselves yourself to. I always feel like that way lies madness. But it is nice to kind of look at your own life in retrospect, and feel like I came a long way from somebody who grew up in Maine. And that’s why I said full circle a long time ago, the reason I’m a writer, really, I grew up in Maine. And at that time, there were very few non white people in Maine. And so I was like really self conscious, and I hid in my bedroom, my whole childhood, reading the Lord of the Rings over and over again, or anything to do with Star Trek or Star Wars. Because in those books, if you were different, it was cool. And you brought something to the party. And so that, you know, inspired me to do my own writing. Also, it’s really boring. There wasn’t much else to do except write fanfiction for Star Trek at a very young age. And that eventually became a love of writing and eventually led to this career.
Will Bachman 53:42
Where can listeners find you online if they wanted to keep track of what you’re doing?
Melinda Hsu Taylor 53:49
I’m on Twitter. I don’t tweet very much except about shows and public service but it’s at m h su Taylor. And I guess that’s the best way I suppose. This will sound self aggrandizing but if you just Google Melinda’s shoe Taylor, you’ll be able to find some things on me online.
Will Bachman 54:13
I did and and I will say that that’s true. And IMDb is probably the place to keep track of your latest productions as well. That’s also true, Melinda, this was incredibly fun. Thank you so much for taking some time out. And I imagine you have a big set of emails to respond to for for episodes. 402-434-4405 Thanks so much for taking some time out.
Melinda Hsu Taylor 54:39
It was my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. I really appreciate the opportunity to be part of this.
Will Bachman 54:44
And listeners. If you haven’t already, you can go to 92 report.com That’s 90 report.com Sign up for the email to get notified of each new episode. Thanks for listening