James Manos joined James Altucher to talk about persistence, following your passion, and what it was like to write the College episode on the Sopranos. He also created Jimmy Stones and South of Hell which he talks about in this interview.
Manos has a rich IMDB profile with credits for Dexter, The Sopranos, and The Shield – the career “anti-hero” shows as James calls it. Manos says that the anti-hero is “a much more realistic version of what we’re all capable of doing and what we’re all capable of being.” This trend didn’t just happen. Manos says that The Sopranos was in “turn around” for five or six years before HBO picked it up. Originally it was bought by Fox, who David Chase wrote a pilot script for. They passed. So did every network to the point that HBO was the last broadcaster standing.
Even when the show started, “none of us were conscious of creating something that became truly iconic.” Manos tells James. It’s similar to this Dave Grohl quote about how Nirvana became Nirvana:
As the interview goes on, Altucher says that it seems like HBO was the “grandfather” to so many great shows. Manos says that “the best shows happen when the networks allow the original creator to do what they want to do. Disney knows this, so does FX.
For FX it went like this: “Basically, Louis (CK) gets very few notes, with very little supervision, for very little money. He has complete control over every aspect of the show and is able to create the show he wants.” But he’s talented, shouldn’t he get paid more? “FX exec John Landgraf explained, “I can write you a check right now for 200 but anything more than that I’m going to have to go ask Rupert Murdoch, and you’ll have to tell him what it’s about.” Louis agreed to keep it at $200,000.)” This is an example of building up career capital and trading it for career control, a theme to our April book club
When you find a creator who has a chance to create, take the advice of Harold Ramis and try to stand next to them. (~1:10)
Part of the work feeling like play attitude that Manos has sought comes from working with people he likes. The world isn’t going to be full of kind and nice people, he tells James, so you may as well try to find some at work. Tom Shadyac (episode #15) said that working with Jim Carrey made him funnier, and vise versa. Brian Koppelman (episode # 98) said that marrying the right person was the best choice of his life. Find good people and be around them.
Manos’s big break came when he got “very lucky” in obtaining the rights to the “Texas cheerleader story.” The movie included Emmy Awards for Holly Hunter nad Beau Bridges.
Altucher observes that it seems like story arcs for television has gotten more complicated. Manos doesn’t think so at the character level, and this is part of why he has been successful. His advice to Altucher about writing is that he writes what would be true to the character, and “my only goal is to come up with good stories.” In his eyes there is no change for a character, and if there is one that’s a failure of the writer. He said that working with David Simon was easy because he had such a clear vision. “If you know the characters really well, it doesn’t become all that complicated to reach your desired goal.” Manos says. In the Vanity Fair oral history Chase said, “I would always go away before the season even started and come back with a whole, overly complicated story arc for the characters. It started out very simple, just for Tony. Then as the years went on, I would do one for Tony and one for Carmela, one for Chris Moltisanti. Tony would have three story arcs by Episode No. 13; Carmela would have two or three; Chris would have a bunch. You’d lay them out and see how they’d all line up. Sometimes you’d see a resonance in the stories, and sometimes not. So we would start to work it out”
On a more macro level, Altucher might be on to something. In the book, Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson makes the case that games, television, and the internet are getting more complex over time, and that this is actually a good thing. Ironically enough, Altucher hits on what’s considered the start of this movement towards complexity in television with Hill Street Blues. “Watch an episode of Hill Street Blues side by side with any major drama from the preceding decades – Starsky and Hutch, for instance, or Dragnet and the structural transformation will jump out at you.” Johnson writes. Dragnet is a “single line.” Starsky and Hutch is a single line plus a “comic subplot.” Hill Street Blues by contrast has more characters, more scenes relevant to more story lines, and fuzzy borders where one episode begins and another ends. Then we get to The Sopranos.
“The total number of active threads equals the number of multiple plots of Hill Street, but here each thread is more substantial. The show doesn’t offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix. The episode also displays a chordal mode of storytelling entirely absent from Hill Street: a single scene in The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot atop another. And every single thread in this Sopranos episode builds on events from the previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond.
Here’s are the graphs that Johnson uses to explain this. The vertical axis is number of threads, the horizontal axis, time.
Altucher had a similar conversation with David Levien (episode #85) about this.
For the actual writing process, Manos doesn’t have much advice, even admitting that he doesn’t want to know how he writes. He’s not alone, none of the writing guests give great specificity about their process, but Simon Rich, (both episodes), Andy Weir (episode #92), and Ben Mezrich (episode #84) all beat around the bush. It’s not that they are intentional, it’s just that like, Manos, they aren’t sure how exactly it happens.
One thing Manos does know for sure, is that he needs to be doing it, the story telling. He said that he recently got a phone without email capabilities because “I don’t want to be inundated with email all day long.” He’s not the only Hollywood person to do so. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter Christopher Nolan said he doesn’t have email or a cellphone. How can that be?
“Well, I’ve never used email because I don’t find it would help me with anything I’m doing. I just couldn’t be bothered about it. As far as the cellphone goes, it’s like that whole thing about “in New York City, you’re never more than two feet from a rat” — I’m never two feet from a cellphone. I mean, we’ll be on a scout with 10 people and all of them have phones, so it’s very easy to get in touch with me when people need to. When I started in this business, not many people had cellphones, I didn’t have one, I never bothered to get one and I’ve been very fortunate to be working continuously, so there’s always someone around me who can tap me on the shoulder and hand me a phone if they need to. I actually really like not having one because it gives me time to think. You know, when you have a smartphone and you have 10 minutes to spare, you go on it and you start looking at stuff.”
Toward the end of the interview, James asks “how do people find their passion?” That’s one of the big ideas here and Manos credits an old boss for giving him two weeks off to see if he really enjoyed the job he had. Zappos has something similar in The Offer.
Maybe though it’s not about finding your passion in a two week hiatus. Maybe it’s about finding your skill. Adam McKay was on the (very good) Working podcast.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. From the age of nineteen on, I was actively writing sketch and took screen play classes and I’ve watched thousands and thousands of movies, and I’ve rewritten and written – at this point – a thousand different kinds of scripts in my life.”
Thanks for reading. The book club starts in April and you’ll need to track down the book by the end of March. Sign up here. It’ll cover ideas like why you don’t need to check email as often as you think, what really matters in the passion vs. skill balance, and how you can build your own skills. It’s one book, six emails, in thirty days.
*A previous version of this post misspelled Jim Carrey’s name.