INTERVIEW: Screenwriter Steven Vitolo of Blackish on Breaking into TV and Creating Scriptation - Script Magazine

INTERVIEW: Screenwriter Steven Vitolo of Blackish on Breaking into TV and Creating Scriptation

Steven Vitolo speaks about his TV writing career, what it actually means to be a Script Coordinator vs. a Script supervisor vs. a Writer’s Assistant, how he, as a white writer, came to write for the show Black-ish, and how Scriptation was born.
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Steven Vitolo speaks about his TV writing career, what it actually means to be a Script Coordinator vs. a Script supervisor vs. a Writer’s Assistant, how he, as a white writer, came to write for the show Black-ish, and how Scriptation was born.

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Steven Vitolo speaks about his TV writing career, what it actually means to be a Script Coordinator vs. a Script supervisor vs. a Writer’s Assistant, how he, as a white writer, came to write for the show Black-ish, and how Scriptation was born.

Steven Vitolo has worked in production at Fox, FX, Disney Channel, Comedy Central, The CW, MTV, VH1, and the 79th and 80th Academy Awards. He has written freelance episodes for major television comedies (including Blackish on ABC) after being a Script Coordinator and Writer’s Assistant for scripted series at ABC, CBS, NBC, and Showtime. Steven also founded Scriptation, the script-reading and annotation app used on thousands of film and television productions worldwide.

Scriptation recently launched a global campaign, #PledgePaperless, during the Sustainable Production Forum at the October Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). Through the initiative, industry participants have committed to going paperless on set.

I got a chance to speak with Steven about his writing career in the television industry, what it actually means to be a Script Coordinator vs. a Script supervisor vs. a Writer’s Assistant, how he, as a white writer, came to write for a show like Black-ish and of course how Scriptation came about.

Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mike Sargent: I like to ask a few contextual questions like this before I get specifically into career. The question is, when did you first know you wanted to be a storyteller?

Steven Vitolo: Well, probably when I was watching television on my black-and-white TV, my 13-inch TV as a kid. I didn't necessarily know I wanted to tell stories, but I knew I wanted to tell jokes, and I knew I wanted to make people laugh. My first memories were David Letterman—I kind of wanted to be a late night TV host. And then I started watching a lot of scripted television and sitcoms and old sitcoms that would rerun at 11 o'clock at night or five o'clock during the day. I was in New York, so it was WPIX. I think Seinfeld was sort of the first show that I really gravitated towards. That's when I knew I wanted to tell funny stories, and I wanted to make people laugh.

Mike Sargent: Okay, in your estimation, what makes a great story and a story worth telling?

Steven Vitolo: A relatable story. A story that has a beginning, middle and a satisfying end. Using the Seinfeld example, it's funny, because I ended up writing for Black-ish, which is really about something.

Mike Sargent: Yeah, that is true.

Steven Vitolo speaks about his TV writing career, what it actually means to be a Script Coordinator vs. a Script supervisor vs. a Writer’s Assistant, how he, as a white writer, came to write for the show Black-ish, and how Scriptation was born.

Courtney Lilly, Graham Towers and Steven Vitolo

Steven Vitolo: And Seinfeld is about nothing, right? Famously a show about nothing. But in both instances, you're telling a story and you're conveying it to the audience. You're getting emotions from the audience and how the reactions are sort of different. With Seinfeld, it's, "Okay, this is so relatable and this happened to me." That's why a lot of the things that George says and does, you'll never do, but you've kind of thought about doing. That's how I would react in certain situations. Black-ish is a little bit different, because it gets you to think about things that I never really thought about it that way. But the same storytelling principles apply—you have to set up a scenario, tell the story and hopefully, you have a satisfying end. Which is something both shows do incredibly well. With Black-ish, it leaves you with an impression and something that you could be thinking about for days and weeks and could have an impact on your life. That, in terms of writing for that show, is extremely gratifying.

Mike Sargent: My last contextual question question is, since human beings have been telling stories in every civilization since the beginning of time, whether they're true stories, bible stories, made up stories, why do you think human beings need stories? What do you think the purpose of story is?

“Every kind of story has its own grind.”

Steven Vitolo: Well, it's a few reasons. It could be to validate things that are happening in your own life. If you can relate to a story, or someone succeeded, you think, "Okay, I can succeed too." Or somebody failed and maybe you failed in that situation too, and they got themselves back up, you can learn a lesson from that. I always think it's things that people can relate to and something that people can really understand. And also there's another aspect of storytelling, which is wish fulfillment. When I watch movies, those are the movies that I gravitate towards—what if situations. It's always interesting to explore some of those fantasies, too. So, there are several reasons that we gravitate towards them, but in all scenarios, you see a little piece of yourself in the story that's being presented to you. Its human nature to apply something that you see to yourself. "That's how I felt. That's how I overreacted, or this happened to me, or this is what I wish would happen."

Mike Sargent: That's a very good definition, and a very good answer. Well, let me ask you a little bit about your career trajectory. And for the benefit of our readers who are young, who are starting out and have heard that, "Okay, being a writing intern or an assistant to a writer is the way to get in." What are your thoughts on that? What did that teach you about writing, the writer's room, and the process?

Steven Vitolo: The only way that I knew how to become a writer was to work your way up in the writer's office. I didn't really know any better. I know that today, a lot of people can produce their own content, they could enter their scripts in festivals, they could enter diversity competitions and showcases, and they could get a staff job that way, but the only way I knew was to grind it out in the business, start as a production assistant and work your way up in a writer's office and hopefully you make make an impression, and they like you, and you get a script or you get staffed on a show.

I've had the experience of working in this industry for 10 plus years, starting out as a PA, pretty quickly getting in the writer's office by luck, kind of. And then being in the writer's rooms on, I don't know, 10, 15 shows. As a comedy writer, it is so important to be in a room. When I first broke into the writer's room, I was listening and not saying a word. I just wanted to absorb all the information because what you think when you want to be a comedy writer is jokes, jokes, jokes, jokes, jokes. This is how we tell jokes.

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You have writers pitching 20 jokes and one gets in, and that's how you're initially thinking. But really there's so much in that comedy room that is story breaking—most of your time is spent breaking the story. That, you can't learn if you're not in a room with 10 to 15 incredibly smart people. That's the thing I didn't know as well, because a lot of people think, okay, sitcom writer. They don't think that those people are so incredibly smart.

Anybody thinks, "Okay, I could write for TV, I can write a sitcom," but then you get in the room, and these are some of the smartest people you've ever met in your life. You're quickly learning how stories work and don't work. When you're on a show that does 20 plus episodes a year, it's not like, "Okay, we figured out the code on how to break a story and how to make a good show." There are shows on TV that have great episodes, and there are shows that have terrible episodes.

Every kind of story has its own grind. Some are easier than others, and they turn out great. Some are difficult and maybe don't turn out that great.

Mike Sargent: Some of the things you're saying, many writers can relate to. For a lot of writers, the idea of being a writer's assistant, being in the writer's room may be one way, like you said, of getting in. That was the only way you knew. But now, today, people can create their own content and whatnot. What are some of the things you think that really benefited you as a writer? Not just connections, because I have to assume once you're a writer's assistant, for one, then it's a little easier. But what do you think were some of the greatest benefits of seeing how everything worked before you actually were writing scripts and getting them produced?

Steven Vitolo: When you were a writer's assistant, the other job that I had, it's called a script coordinator, not to be confused with the script supervisor. A script supervisor is on dealing with a variety of things, including continuity, but a script coordinator, it's a step above writer's assistant, very similar job though. When you're a script coordinator, you are the liaison between the writers' office in the production office. So in other words, you're in the room taking notes, working in the script, and then outside of the writer's room, you're formatting it correctly, dealing with legal and clearance issues. Dealing with issues from other departments, understanding their needs and concerns. So, I think being a script coordinator is almost the best showrunner training you could have—you're involved in so many aspects of production.

Script Supervisor and Script Coordinator – Who is Keeping the Integrity of Your Script on Set?

When you're a staff writer, you're just a writer, that's your job. You come in, you pitch jokes, you go home, you write, you come back, you write. That's your job. When you're a script coordinator, you're going to production meetings, tone meetings, you're dealing with the line producer, you're talking to other departments involved in their clearance issues. So, you really understand what makes a show. That experience, I don't think you can get it anywhere else. So beyond just storytelling, which you get from being in a room, and understanding that.

But being a writer as a script coordinator, you're getting the full production view. I know that you can go to the Writer's Guild and there are showrunner-training seminars—and those are going to be fantastic and above and beyond—but I've been in situations as a script coordinator where I have worked on more shows than the showrunner. In terms of dealing with the studio or network legal clearance, production side, sometimes I'm the one giving suggestions on how things should work and how things should run for a show, and really, you can be an asset helping your showrunner navigate through some of the stuff that they necessarily don't want to navigate through, so that they can focus on telling stories.

Mike Sargent: That's very interesting insight. Tell me a little bit about Hot in Cleveland. So you start as a script coordinator. At this point, you had already done it for a couple of shows. And like you said, you knew the nuts and bolts of it. Your first script, how much of it was understanding going into a show, understanding it so intimately and so well, that allowed you to write for these characters, versus if you were just sending in a spec script and you didn't really know all of the politics and mechanics behind?

Steven Vitolo: Yeah, this was the last season on Hot in Cleveland that I worked on as a writer's assistant. I hadn't been watching the show for the first five seasons. Of course, as soon as I got an interview for the job, I was like, "Okay, let's play catch up time." I watched a ton of episodes just to understand the characters, so I could really know what I'm talking about if they were asking questions in the meeting, but we did 20-something episodes, I think we did 22 or 23 episodes, a ton of shows. I remember, Hot in Cleveland, when I was watching it, it was such a crazy show where they could kind of get away with anything. What I really appreciate working on that show was that they could do those things and the audience would go with them—they were fun as hell. I started with the writer's assistant because the last season, I was brought on as a script coordinator, and a friend of mine was brought on as a writer's assistant. We had worked together on a bunch of shows previously.

So, they brought us on as a team because they wanted to run as tight a ship as possible—why not bring on like an experienced guy and someone he's worked with. I remember for the first two weeks of the show, as a writer's assistant, you're just writing down everything in the room that they can't, like any joke, pitch and any everything. The other writers’ assistant, named Jess, and I were just writing down like every single pitch, whether it was viable or crazy. The show itself was so crazy that I didn't know what was a real pitch and what was a fake pitch.

So, the writers were like, "Guys, you don't have to get down everything." Jess and I are thinking like, "I don't know if this is like a real thing we could be doing or not, because everything was so crazy on the show." So throughout, when we were first starting and entering a new show, that has been like a well-oiled machine, you're really trying to figure out, "Okay, what's a viable pitch? What was it a take, what do people like?" So it takes a while.

Eventually, both Jess and I started pitching jokes. It was the sixth season of the show, we were doing 20 episodes, so it wasn't so easy to break story when you've done all of the stories. Because it was one of those situations where it's like, "Oh, we did that season two. Oh, we did that in season one. Oh, that was a C story that we did." So there was a lot of that going on. Jess and I had the opportunity to pitch a bunch of stories for the end of the season. And of course, throughout the season we were pitching a bunch of jokes.

I remember the two showrunners at the time, they had an announcement in the room that Jess and I were going to get our first script, then everybody applauded. The first one, it was just an incredible feeling and experience. It's always nice when someone commits, and when the showrunners trust you enough to give you an episode to write. And of course, they don't just say like, "Here's an idea, go off and write it." They say, "Here's the idea, let's all break the story together. Let's all write the outline together, and now go and write it, and then we'll rewrite it."

So you're not getting total free rein to do whatever you want. Going back to the initial question, sure, you can write a spec for a show, but being in the room and understanding the dynamics, what people like, and where you want to go in the season arc, especially since we were doing the end, that's obviously invaluable being in the room.

 Writers Steve Vitolo and Graham Towers

Writers Steve Vitolo and Graham Towers

Mike Sargent: Let me just get a sense for our readers of your sensibilities. To me, one of the most interesting things about your career trajectory is that you start out being an intern on something like Smallville, which was a huge, huge show. You become an assistant on something like Hannah Montana. Then you move on to these scripted three-camera sitcoms that are sort of the bread and butter of the TV industry, and then you move on to actually doing not just a hit show, but a show that is always about social relevance, and you're not necessarily a writer of color.

So, it has to say something about how strong a writer you've become through your process here. I'm curious what you credit in terms of your sensibilities as a writer for someone who was inspired by Seinfeld, like you said, to being able or having the cojones to say, "Yeah, I'm going to write for Black-ish now. To hell with Hannah Montana." You know what I mean?

Give us a little sense of Steve, who you are as a writer and maybe how your career experiences helped shaped you and make you the kind of writer you are and will be.

Steven Vitolo: I'm very fortunate to have had all of those experiences in my career. Writing on a multi camera, like you said, writing on a multi-camera kids show for Disney to writing on Black-ish, single camera, socially relevant, as a white person.

Mike Sargent: That's a little different.

Steven Vitolo: Yeah, it's a little different. But I think back to your initial question, it's about telling a story, right? So in all of those, in every show I've worked on, they've all been ... well, with the exception of Smallville where I was just interning, I was getting coffee for people. Being in the writers’ room, it is all about telling a story. What people don't understand when they crave certain shows and shit on others is that, for example, a lot of the writers on Black-ish, who are Emmy nominated writers now and are considered brilliant and are, have written on shows in the past that have been critically panned.

A lot of times on Black-ish, we don't know where anything's going to go. And then we figure it out as we keep talking about the story. And, I've not had that experience in any other writer’s room before in my life.

There was a contingent of writers on Black-ish that wrote on Trophy Wife, which was actually a critical darling but didn't get ratings and was gone after the first year. The people who created Modern Family created the Patricia Heaton, Kelsey Grammer show Back to You, which only lasted one season. Then they did Stacked, which was that Pamela Anderson show, which didn’t even last a full season. So it's those same people that are writing this show that people think are brilliant, have been on staff to shows that people did not think were so brilliant. So it's a lot in the DNA of the show.

If Jerry Seinfeld were to create another show, not Seinfeld, it wouldn't even be close. So I think sometimes shows are just their DNA between the types of writers, between the actors, the network that it's on, time slot. There's this magic formula that just works for a certain shows that, for whatever reason, doesn't work in other shows. Because if it worked all the time, then we'd be able to figure out programming—what worked and what didn't work. And there wouldn’t be hundreds of shows canceled every year.

It's just one of those things where you could be working on Hannah Montana and then working on Black-ish. But it always comes back to me and going to my Seinfeld obsession when I was a kid—telling a story. The way Seinfeld did it, which was so hard to do, which I think doesn't get appreciated enough, was that they did a thing where they had four separate stories, and they all came together at the end. That is so hard to do in good and satisfying way. You could do it in a crappy way, for sure. There were certainly episodes of Seinfeld, towards the end, where it wasn't as satisfying as it was earlier in the season. But, oh man, when you do that, and you hit it out of the park, it feels so good.

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Mike Sargent: Sure. And there are a lot of examples of that in film. Even filmmakers, like a Robert Altman, who does it great and then sometimes, no.

Steven Vitolo: Woody Allen.

Mike Sargent: Woody Allen. Exactly, exactly.

Steven Vitolo: I do want to answer your question about how does a white guy write for Black-ish. I think that's super important. Obviously, I can't speak to black issues like black people can speak to black issues. That is clear as day. And I'll never be able to have that point of view. That's why it is important, especially for Black-ish, but for other shows, to have diversity in writers because I'm never going to bring that kind of point of view.

But what I can do is, I can bring story, and I could bring my white, middle-class, Long Island point of view, if it plays any role into the point of view of other writers, then great. I'm allowed to give my opinion and give my thoughts. We have discussions in the room amongst black writers and disagreements amongst black writers. Kenya Barris, who created the show wants that. He wants diversity of opinion amongst all writers. He doesn't say, "Okay, just because you're white or you're not black, you don't get an opinion on this. No, I want to hear your opinion. Maybe it's not relevant, but let me hear it, and let's have a discussion." That's kind of how Kenya runs his room.

Before we break story, Kenya will come in with something that happened, or an idea, and it's like, "Let's discuss this, let's get opinions and let's see where it goes." A lot of times on Black-ish, we don't know where anything's going to go. And then we figure it out as we keep talking about the story. I've not had that experience in any other writers’ room before in my life. But in Kenya's writers room, that's kind of the way it worked, and I never felt like I couldn't share. A lot of times, I didn't want to share an opinion because there was nothing that I could speak to that would help the discussion.

But if there was something that I could speak to, then I never felt like I couldn't share my opinion and I was welcomed to do that in the room. Sometimes it helped the story, sometimes it didn't. But Kenya was always open to hearing anything.

Mike Sargent: Well, that is very interesting, and I think it also says a lot about him and his sensibilities. I want to lead into Scriptation and why you created it.

I would think, considering you're from the East Coast and you did that thing, where you went out to the West Coast, you interned, you got into TV, the way they tell you you're supposed to get in, you did your thing. But I would also think you met other folks who were trying to get in, some more successful than others, and you're around writers all the time in writer's rooms, whether you're assisting them or working with them or getting them coffee. So you had to have some idea of the needs of a writer from not just writing standpoint, but seeing all these different ways in which writers work.

So tell me how, if at all, any of that influenced what you created in Scriptation and what Scriptation is for those who don't know.

Steven Vitolo: Sure. I'll start with what Scriptation is. It's a script reader and annotator made for film and television production. I probably should have mentioned this before... I know I keep bringing up Seinfeld, but when I was a kid, this is kind of where the TV writer in me and the tech side merged. I actually created a Seinfeld fan site when I was 13 years old, 12 years old. I was at Staples one day, and I opened up a magazine called Yahoo! Internet Life. I was listed as number seven on a Seinfeld fan site.

I started getting calls from like The Today Show, The St. Petersburg Times. This, when Seinfeld was going off. I don't know if you know Eric Deggans, but he was a writer for The St. Petersburg Times, he actually interviewed me for an article, I think I was 15, giving my opinion on the Seinfeld fanaticism because I had a Seinfeld fan site. I always had this tech side.

When I was working on a pilot, this was almost five years ago now, as the script coordinator, like I mentioned, you're responsible for getting the script formatted and you're also responsible for distributing the document. We had two weeks between the table read and when we started shooting. Every single night, I was distributing a 50-page script that was going to be printed 100 plus times, and distributed to all of those people.

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Every night, we had a new full script—every night, a full 50-page script, times 100 copies. Then the next day, they would toss that script in the recycle and get the new script. Everyone in the writer's office is actually thinking that this is an incredible waste of paper. It's so inefficient because everyone from a writing staff to the production crew are getting their paper scripts, writing notes, getting a new script, rewriting their notes, and throwing out the old drafts. So my initial thinking was, "Why aren't we doing this digitally? We have iPads, we have all sorts of tablets devices, we have PDF annotation. So why aren't we doing that?"

Then my next thought was, "Okay, so say we do start doing that, and we start making notes on a document. What happens when we get the next draft of the script, what do you do?" I asked some friends whether they knew a developer that could transfer annotations from one draft of a script to another draft of the script. And that's kind of how the company started. At first, we didn't think we could do it, and then we figured out that we could do it. Now, Scriptation is being used on, I would say nearly every show on television. In some way or another, there is somebody using Scriptation to read and annotate scripts.

When you're working in TV, you could have 10, 20 [revised scripts]—there was a show that literally had 100 revisions of an episode. When you're dealing with all these script revisions, Scriptation is the way to save paper and to be super productive. If you're working on a show, and you're making a ton of annotations, and then you get a new 50-page script, you just hit a button and all your annotations move over to that draft. It literally saves people five to 10 hours a week, that they don't have to deal with rewriting their notes.

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Mike Sargent: So you weren't trying to replace your former job, you're just trying to make it easier?

Steven Vitolo: (laughs) Yeah. I'm trying to make it easier for everybody.

Mike Sargent: For the next generation. Right.

Steven Vitolo: There's this problem that is script coordinator problem. I don't know if it's interesting to your readers or not, but there are situations where you'll have a 30-page script and then you'll have 20 revision pages. You've been taught, if there's more than half revised pages to just put out completely new drafts. Then you have assistant directors calling you saying, "Don't put out the full draft, send me the 20 revision pages because in the 10 pages that aren't revised, I want to keep my notes." So I knew as a script coordinator that keeping notes was really important to people. They didn't want to rewrite their notes.

People just really want to keep the note that they have and not rewrite it, so I'm really trying to help everybody on the crew. As writers go, it's super helpful for me when I'm on set. When I was on set on my episode of Black-ish, I was able to create printed sides with my notes on them, which is something that you can't do, because right now, people are getting their printing side from the production office, people are folding them and putting them in their pocket. I'm on set not only with my printed side, but also with my notes that I want on my [printed] side.

It's super helpful as a writer to be on set to not only have that, but have every script revision on you, on your iPad. I had seven tabs open of every single version of the script, "Okay, that joke didn't work well, what do we have for revisions to go? Maybe that'll work better." So it's super helpful just going digital in general, especially with my app.

Mike Sargent: Well, it seems it's a no brainer, like, "Wow, this is a great thing, let's use it. " And finally, like you said, almost every TV show is using it. Tell me a little bit about where you're at now and what's the future of Scriptation.

Steven Vitolo: We're announcing a big change. In November, we're actually going to make Scriptation available for free because we want everyone to have it. We're trying to get rid of all this paper that everybody is using for stage.

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Mike Sargent: That's such a great initiative for so many reasons. Clearly, it makes business sense and also makes production sense. But on another side, and I don't know how involved you've been, from an environmental standpoint, nobody ever talks about the amount of trees clearly that will be saved by not having tons and tons and tons and tons of scripts being trashed, that may or may not get recycled correctly.

Steven Vitolo: Yeah, it's absolutely insane. We're such an industry that is alleges to be so forward thinking, and so environmentally conscious, and yet, you go to a table read, and I still see this from some shows I follow, where they take a photo where everyone had the paper script with a highlighter. Then you see a stack of extra scripts at the table read, like 10 to 15 just in case. You have paper scripts on everybody's chair. It's so infuriating not only as a business person, but also just as a person, to see the amount of paper that we're consuming and the amount of paper that we're wasting, and everyone is seemingly just okay with this.

With all the technology we have, and the fact that where, as a script coordinator, I'm using the computer to write the script, I'm using it to send out the script, why aren't I using computers to read the script? It just doesn't make sense to me. There was a study done years ago where a show used 1.2 million sheets of paper in a six-month period. 1.2 million sheets of paper, and a lot of that's single-use paper that they discard. Scriptation is disrupting the process in getting everybody to go paperless. I don't know why this is exactly, but Scriptation is being used a lot in Canada, and people on Canadian production are more environmentally conscious and more concerned about the amount of paper that they're using than US production.

Mike Sargent: Well, I can venture a few theories on that, but that is interesting.

Steven Vitolo: Yeah, we have a lot of Canadian production. There is actually a show called The Magicians on Syfy, and they have a sign in their office encouraging people to use Scriptation. Clara George was a producer on the show, and she's doing her own study using Scriptation and cutting down on a bunch of other things. She already has numbers that are just mind blowing through just six weeks of production. How much water savings that is, how much paper savings, how much real cost that is. It's really shocking. And again, it's for the first six weeks of production.

Mike Sargent: Well, I have to say, Steven Vitolo, great, great talking with you. Anything new coming on the writing horizon? Do you have anything, any show that you're looking to write for or anything that you've come up with?

Steven Vitolo: Not right now. Right now, my focus is Scriptation. In addition to having our consumer version, we have a studio version that we are in discussions with several studios so that the studio can offer a secure version of Scriptation for everybody. Again, we sort of went into that, backwards way because a show needed it for a studio, and now we've learned that other studios want this as well. Now we're making a secure version of Scriptation. So that's also where we're headed. But of course, I'm a writer so I can't help not writing. I'm developing features with my writing partner as well. That's everybody, right?

Mike Sargent: And it's not a horror movie about a guy who created an App, right?

Steven Vitolo: (laughs) Oh God, I hope not. I hope that's not the end game.

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