For issue #3 Simpsons fangirl L.A. Ronayne caught up with the hilarious and charming scriptwriter Stephanie Gillis. At her house in California she gave us a glimpse into what it’s like to be a Simpsons writer on one of the planet’s most renowned TV show and let us rummage through her Simpsons memorabilia – dream day!
Did you always want to write for animation?
When I was a kid, I wasn’t so much into animation, more live-action programmes and movies. I have to thank my mother for letting me watch so much TV – I really don’t think I would have been so interested in writing for television if it wasn’t for her. I was like a walking TV guide, I could tell you what the programme listings were for any night on television. I endlessly watched Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Cheers, The Odd Couple. I could recite the dialogue.
Other than watching television, I loved to read and write. I still have all of my diaries. There isn’t much going on in them because I spent most of my time babysitting and watching television, but keeping a journal is a good way to get in the habit of writing regularly. At college I was an English major and worked as an editor at the daily student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator. After graduation, I worked as a magazine writer and editor. I usually had two or three jobs at one time though, because I couldn’t pay my rent and student loans just from writing.
I was writing for a website at one point and an agent read my columns and offered to represent me. I wrote a couple of spec scripts for two television shows – one single camera and one multi-camera. My Curb Your Enthusiasm spec script got me meetings at different studios and one of the studios was FOX.
What’s a typical working day like for you?
When I have a draft due, it starts with me getting coffee and going straight to my computer. Once I’m there, I don’t get up. If I feel the writing is coming quickly and I’m making progress, I don’t want to stop. It’s like falling into a vortex.
This past year I wrote a screenplay and most of it was written from a bench in the kitchen. The vinyl covering the bench began to stretch on the seam from my sitting in one spot. Eventually it split. Writing is exactly that glamorous – sitting for so long that you split your furniture. Forget what it does to my pants. Though when I’m writing, I’m usually in pants with some sort of stretch to them, so there’s less chance of them splitting.
I break for dinner and then start again around 9. I usually write until late in the night, 1 or 2 am. I find I get a lot done between 10 and 1. I wish I was an early morning person who finished writing for the day at a reasonable hour. So far, that goal has eluded me.
Is it true that The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show episode was a response to FOX’s request to add another character to the Simpsons family?
Yes, you are right about that episode – it was in response to FOX’s request. When the network was starting up, they wanted to sign Jim (James L.) Brooks and he negotiated the ‘no notes’ policy. No other show has ever gotten this deal. It is extremely unusual and we are extremely lucky.
What advice do you have for hopefuls looking to do what you do?
- Develop the ability to sit for long intervals. There are also standing desks now – that’s probably healthier.
- Read scripts, books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Go to a play! Reading scripts is particularly helpful. You can find them online.
- Watch TV. Try not to watch as much as I did.
- Your work and life experiences are invaluable as a writer. Love is nice, but heartbreak brings out the really great stories. Go out and get your heart broken! On second thought, don’t go and do that on purpose. Life generally brings enough heartbreak on its own. When it does, capture it and write about it. When you do, try not to judge your first draft. Just write. You can edit later.
- Get a dog from a shelter. There’s nothing better and they are great company, whether you are on the bench or off.
How do you prepare ideas for the pitch stage of the process?
Preparing ideas for the pitch can begin months before you write an episode. I keep a list of ideas I’ve accumulated for the show. It sounds organised, but it’s generally scraps of notes and news clippings that I keep in a drawer. One of the many great things about animation is that you can write about almost anything you can imagine. There’s no limit to what you can have the Simpsons do. They can go into space; they can pass through space and time. Once I narrow down what I want to pitch, I research the idea. Sometimes the research alone takes the story in directions you may not have imagined. Researching is one of my favourite parts, but there comes a point when you have to have to start writing.
My pitches tend to run long – I like to map out where I want the episode to go very thoroughly. The story usually changes many times during the process, but I like to have the beats of the story in place before I start the draft. Once I start writing the dialogue, the beat sheet helps me stay on track.
Which episode are you are most proud of writing?
The episode I am most proud of is Once Upon a Time in Springfield. I have a deep-seated love for Krusty, and a deep-seated hatred for anything ‘princessy’, so there was a lot of material there from the beginning. I wrote the part with Anne Hathaway in mind after seeing her sing (this was prior to Les Misérables). It’s one thing to create a character and another to hear what it sounds like when it comes to life. Anne could not have been more perfect. She came into the read and was hysterical and killed every song with these incredible high notes. Dan [Castellaneta] and Anne working off each other and singing together made it one of the most memorable table reads we’ve ever had. It was our 20th-anniversary show, and it was Emmy nominated for Outstanding Animated Program. Very deservedly, Anne won an Emmy for her role for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance. It’s also my parents’ favourite episode.
The characters’ ‘personal development’ is closely contained; do you have a vision of how they will gradually progress?
The characters don’t progress during the course of the show. It’s our goal. No one learns any lessons and they return to where they started in beginning. A lot like life.
Do you have specific characters that you really enjoy writing for?
Depending on the story and what’s going on in my life, there are different characters that I love to write for. In no particular order, Moe, Krusty, Maggie, Lisa and Homer are strong favourites.
What’s your take on ‘the glass ceiling’ in the creative industry?
It definitely exists. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves (or is just a fool). This week we have the CEO of Microsoft telling women they should trust they’ll get raises when they deserve them and that they should have “faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.”