Graduating from both NYU and Columbia did not guarantee a trip down easy street for Delaware native Shukree Tilghman, when he set out to work as a writer in the entertainment industry. He still faced many challenges and had to put in a lot of work for a long time before getting his proverbial “big break” as a full-time TV writer.
"After being broke and out of work for several years, I finally was able to get my first job as a staff writer on the USA show Satisfaction, and did a couple of seasons of that,” Tilghman said. “Then I did a season on Vampire Diaries. That eventually that led to a pilot for NBC, which led to getting staffed on the second season of This Is Us.”
University of Michigan graduate and former ballet dancer Eboni Freeman got her start as an intern for a major network.
“I got into screenwriting through an internship at Fox; just reading the scripts and getting interested in that. I worked for Fox Sports for about eight years before I came here to This Is Us,” Freeman told Shadow and Act.
She eventually got her foot into the door of the writers’ room via the Sundance Episodic Lab, which offers training in developing original series and pilots. After completing the Sundance Episodic Lab, Freeman Davis was able to secure an agent, who helped get her gig as a writer on the third season of This Is Us.
“That was a big turning point in my career. It got me noticed by a lot of people,” she said.
Both Tilghman and Freeman signed on following the first season of This Is Us. Freeman, though she had written a lot in her own, was a complete novice in the writers’ room. Luckily, Freeman was a fan of the show, so she was already familiar with the characters. Furthermore, her colleagues were exceedingly helpful.
“The staff here was very generous, and kind, and welcoming. I was able to really observe and learn from how this group interacted and how they worked, because I think every show kind of has their own way of doing things,” Freeman recalled.
Judging by Shukree and Freeman’s career trajectories, it’s clear that people can take wildly different paths to get into the same writers’ room. Although, what they all have in common is action; they each put in many hours just writing on their own. Additionally, the writers admitted that resistance can come up in the form of perfectionism, and this can deter some people from making the necessary effort. Kay Oyegun, who has been a writer for This Is Us since its first season, shared some advice on how aspiring writers can push past this.
“Just write,” she said. “Write badly, and then write badly again, and then change that and have other people read it — I think that's really, really what it is. We're all going through that process where it's like perfection is the enemy of finished. So write constantly, and write the bad version. Then that version will — as long as you stick to it — continue to become a better version.”
In Hollywood, Tilghman, Freeman and Oyegun are unique in that they work on a diverse series where there are three black writers., It’s rare to find a series that’s operated by white showrunners with one black writer, let alone three.
The racial justice non-profit Color of Change recently surveyed 234 writers’ rooms across 18 broadcast networks, cable networks and digital platforms during the 2016-2017 TV season. They found that “two-thirds of shows had no black writers at all, and another 17% of shows had just one black writer.”
“You're right. We are a bit of a unique situation,” said Tilghman, who is familiar with the study. “There are networks where there are no black writers on staff.I think when you have different sets of voices in any situation —when you can have three black writers in a room — it's going to help the show, especially if you have a black family on the show. Those things can only help.”
This Is Us is in unwieldy, in terms of the size of the cast, the depth and breadth of the stories told, and the fact that the plot does not stick to a linear timeline. From a technical standpoint, it’s harder to manage than a traditional series. Tilghman was upfront in revealing that this can be tricky.
“It's complicated,and we often sort of have some trouble keeping track of that ourselves. It’s certainly a challenge to sort of tell stories in that many storylines,” he said.
But Dan Fogelman and the rest of the showrunners have devised a method to manage the madness.
“We always try our past stories, talking to or about our present stories,” Tilghman said. “So we will always try to create a thematic link between those two things. We also have rules as to how many things can exist in a single episode. We're not going to put 2008, and 1998, and present day and then the future all in one episode, necessarily. We try to be choosy or deliberate about when we're using certain timelines, and trying not to overload the episode as we do it.”
[caption id="attachment_307294" align="aligncenter" width="1260"] This Is Us — "This Big, Amazing, Beautiful Life," season 2, episode 17.Pictured: (left - right) Lyric Ross as Déjà, Sterling K. Brown as Randall — (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC | 2018 NBCUniversal Media, LLC)[/caption]
Given the relatively broad range of personalities and class differences that are represented within the black community on This Is Us, it behooves the writers’ room to include people with a range of experiences, in order to create the voices of characters Randall, Beth, Deja, Randall’s dad, and now in season three, Zoe. Tilghman, Freeman and Oyegun each emphasized that though they are all black, they come from diverse backgrounds and have unique personalities themselves.
“We're all not the same person,” Tilghman commented. “We’re different also individually. So I think that helps you get kind of a range of experience and a range of personalities.”
“We're not a monolith, and we don’t see the black experience the same so we always approach our characters that way,” Oyegun added. “And so I think we have a room that allows us to really sort of explore. We also have incredible bosses who are open, and collaborative, and generous, and curious, and empathetic people.”
Fairly typical for a series of its kind, the writing team of This Is Us consists of 10 writers, not including showrunners. Also, there is literally a room where they all work together for part of the episode.
“We do collaboratively work on stories together and work on episodes together, until a certain point where the episode is kind of completely formed or at least outlined,” Tilghman said, while explaining the two-step process. “Then an individual writer will generally go off and sort of own that episode through the writing process with the showrunners. That person will be out of the room for a certain amount of time. While they do that, the rest of the room sort of moves on to the next episode.”
We can safely assume that personality and a capacity for discretion is a huge factor in the smooth running of a writers’ room. Not only are there 10 people trying to come together to create one story, but part of the process — especially in a series like This Is Us that is rooted stories of the human condition — requires writers to continually revisit their own experiences to ensure they’re infusing the work with authenticity.
“We really do pull from a lot of personal experiences. You might be in the room as people are sharing things that are very, very personal to them, and that is how some of the stories are shaped, Freeman said. “I think that's why a lot of people from so many different backgrounds have found the show so affecting and so relatable.”
For the ebullient Oyegun, who is set to pen the script for the upcoming Angela Davis biopic in addition to her work on This Is Us, familiarity is half the battle.
“You sort of get so connected to the world, there are certain things that you just kinda know. Then we have an amazing script coordinator, who keeps track of all the other details that you want to connect back to. So to Shukree’s point, the theme dictates what the story would be about. If the timeline doesn’t fit into the theme you save it for another time,” Oyegun said.
Understandably, they played it close to the vest, in terms of what will be coming up in the show’s third season. Oyegun did share that “season three is our most ambitious.”
“[It’s a] season that we really dig deeper into all of our characters, and sometimes that means expanding their world and introducing new people — that sort of population,” she said. “I think people are going to be very excited about where each of the characters are going, and how they get there.”
“Randall and Beth are a couple that always, in particular, is trying to find the next mountain to climb. That'll certainly be true this season, as well,” Tilghman, who carries pleasing echoes of Randall’s equanimity, added.