Zen and the Art of Screenwriting: A Chat with Emmy-Winner and Dayton-Native Erik Bork

Dayton, Ohio, may seem like a far way from standing on-stage and accepting your Emmy for “Outstanding Miniseries” with fellow producers Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, but if you ask screenwriter and producer Erik Bork, who made that journey, it’s a path anyone can travel.

“I tell writers to focus on bettering their craft, and not on trying to get their script to the right person,” says Bork. “When your work is ready for the marketplace, the right connections will come.” In other words, it’s not so much who you know, but what you’ve got. Good work will always get noticed.

Bork’s journey began at Wright State University in Dayton, where he earned his degree in Motion Picture Production. As many writers do, he worked full-time and wrote whenever he found time, waiting until the itch to move to Los Angeles begged to be scratched.

“I became convinced that screenwriting, as a career, was what I wanted to pursue, and that Los Angeles was the one city, perhaps in the world, where people doing that tend to live,” says Bork. “ Not that you can't write from outside L.A. – and I did – but for me, being around others doing it, and hopefully having a ‘day job’ that would immerse me in that world, felt like the right move.”

A series of temp jobs at 20th Century Fox landed him a gig as an assistant with Tom Hanks’ production company. And while it might seem a cinch that this contact was what landed him on stage for his work on From the Earth to the Moon, even Bork will tell you that’s not the case.

It was the work – and nothing less.

Midwest Movie Maker (MMM): So you’ve made the decision to head to L.A. Can you give us a snapshot of what it was like once you landed on the West Coast?
Erik Bork (EB): It was major culture shock in terms of the sprawling geography of the place and the wild variety of people from every sort of background you could imagine.


I had married before moving, and fortunately my wife had an uncle we could stay with initially – and she had a teaching job lined up. I quickly found temporary secretarial employment (as per my plan) with the help of another Wright State film graduate who had been there a while and was doing that. My exciting first days of work as a 'temp" was covering various "assistant desks" at 20th Century Fox, in every manner of department you could imagine – from corporate offices miles from the "action" to producers working out of bungalows on the studio lot.

MMM: Eventually that led to working with Tom Hanks, correct?

EB: After two years temping at Fox (including a stint working as a writer-producer's assistant for the first season of Picket Fences), the woman who ran the temp pool apparently thought highly of me, and assigned me to temp at Tom's production company offices, which had just moved onto the Fox lot from Disney. At the time, it was just him and his long-time assistant, and they needed at third person who could help them get moved in and set up. That job turned into a permanent position, and I ended up staying.

MMM: How did you end up working on From the Earth to the Moon?
EB: While working as a kind of "second assistant" to Tom Hanks, I was writing scripts on the side – first features (I completed one or two romantic comedies, but it was slow going), and then sitcom sample scripts, after taking a writing class at UCLA's extension program.

The first one I wrote was a Frasier. An assistant friend, who was also an aspiring writer and had a kind of beginning agent, was willing to show it to her agent, who then signed me. I worked with the agent's feedback on rewriting the Frasier, and then wrote a Mad About You and a Friends. She got me a few meetings with people in the sitcom world based on these writing samples, and I was perhaps on track to eventually get a job writing on a sitcom somewhere.

All this time I continued to work in Hanks' office (this was when he won his back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump – it was an exciting time). About that time, Hanks pitched From the Earth to the Moon to HBO and sold the idea.

He knew all along I wanted to be a writer, and eventually read my Frasier and Friends, and liked them. He decided I was going to be successful at that, and "leave him someday." So, one day, he surprised me with the offer of a big promotion: help him with From the Earth to the Moon. Instead of being an assistant, I would have an assistant. Plus, it was the week of my 30th birthday. Great timing.

I started by helping Hanks write a long outline, or bible, for the miniseries. That led to being his point person, working with a other producers to find writers who would be tasked with writing scripts for the 12 episodes.

That opportunity expanded over almost three years, until the project was finished. I ended up writing one of the episodes, then rewriting some of the other scripts, and being a kind of "junior producer" on the whole thing, thanks to the mentoring of the project's primary day-to-day producer, Tony To.

MMM: That project eventually led to the critically acclaimed Band of Brothers …

EB: After the success of From the Earth to the Moon, both Tom and Tony wanted to continue working together, with me writing, and there were a number of projects we worked on that didn't end up getting produced. But when Tom and Steven Spielberg decided to make Band of Brothers, both Tony and I were recruited to play similar roles to what we had done on Earth. That became another three-year process that involved writing on multiple episodes and playing a producing role, helping to creatively oversee the whole thing.

MMM: What was it like working on something so epic?

EB: It was fantastic. For me, a kid from Ohio with modest roots, getting to travel all around Europe, scouting where the battles took place, then shooting in England and spending lots of time there – as well as meeting the veterans and getting their input on the stories (as I had done with astronauts for Earth) – was all very heady stuff, as were the awards and accolades when it was all done.

Both of these projects were huge endeavors. Dozens and dozens of professionals, experts in their craft, doing amazing work, such that I was definitely just one small part of it. At the same time, because of my role, I was able to be kind of in the center of everything, learn a lot about the process, and participate in some way in many aspects of the project, such as casting and editing, as well as being on the set.

MMM: What are you working on now? Any spoilers you can share?
EB: I'm working on a pitch for a drama series. It is a medical show with an alternative medicine aspect.

The last few years I've been selling ideas (as pitches) to the networks, then writing a pilot episode for whatever concept I've sold – which you hope they decide to produce and put on the air. Sometimes you can work on one for months before you ever present it to anyone (almost like writing a full script, only this is a show concept expressed in about four pages of prose – that you will deliver verbally in 10 to 15 minutes).

I also work on other script projects on the side, "on spec" (meaning, with no upfront payment or guarantee anyone will every buy it) – wanting to get some new feature or half-hour comedy material into the marketplace so that I have more of a foothold there.

I'm known mostly for "one-hour TV drama" because of the two miniseries – even though they were quite different from one-hour series, the scripts were hour-length and dramatic, so that's one area the "business" can see me in. I've also now worked on staff on a couple (short-lived) drama series, as well as sold several concepts that got as far as pilot scripts.

And I've always thought of myself as more of a comedy person!

MMM: For any aspiring screenwriters out there, can you describe your writing process?
EB: So much of the process is in developing the concept or idea, and then the underlying story, which for me means a lot of talking into a voice recorder while walking around or driving. I brainstorm out loud and record the stuff I like.

People don't realize, often, that the actual putting-of-words-in-a-script is the final part of the process, and in some ways the least important. It's the elements of the story, the thousands of decisions that underlie each written scene, that is the "heavy lifting" of writing.

And it's not like you sit down at a computer and all that stuff just flows out of you. It's usually a lengthy ongoing process of exploring your THOUGHTS about it all, organizing them, sharing them with people, changing them, and so forth.

Writing is mostly about processing thought, when you really think about it. It's about creative ideas that you play with. Where do these ideas come from? I certainly don't generate them with my brain. They kind of show up, hopefully, and then I manipulate them and evaluate them and put them together into something.

Eventually, yes, you're sitting down and composing a first draft of something, and there is a daily process of writing a scene or two every day (which you will end up rewriting an incredible number of times) – but to me, "writing" is not so much about that as it is developing the ideas behind what you're ultimately putting on the page.

MMM: What advice would you give someone trying to break in to the business?

EB: Focus on bettering your craft, and not on trying to get your script to the right person. When your work is ready for the marketplace, the right connections will come.

Develop friendships with peers at your level, and share your work. Be open to others feedback (not defensive), and ask for them to be honest with you. Then be honest with yourself as you consider others' reactions. Find people whose input is really of value to you, preferably someone who deals with screenwriting for a living, if possible (one advantage to being in L.A.), but certainly people whose input makes you and your work better.

Write things you're passionate about and believe in, with an eye toward entertaining yourself and others in ways you would like to be (and pay to be) entertained.

And know that every insecurity and doubt and fear and bad habit you have around trying to be a writer you share with all other writers, including the professional ones.

It's a marathon, not a sprint, being a writer, and it usually takes many scripts and many years to develop your craft. And the learning never stops.

MMM: You offer coaching services for aspiring and established writers. How can writers reach you if they’re interested in finding out more?
EB: I like to help other writers in a constructive, encouraging way from the perspective of someone who is also doing what they're doing, and approaches a story from the "inside" (as opposed to a script analyst looking at it, and the process, from the outside).

I look for what a writer's real intent is with a project and help them to achieve that. I often work with writers on just an "hour phone call" basis, which is pretty affordable for them, where we talk about ideas they have, or maybe outline documents they've sent me – which is usually the most high-impact time to give feedback.

I'll also read finished scripts, which takes more of my time and thus costs a bit more, but always find most of my notes would've been there if we'd talked about the story at the outline stage, or before they started writing the script.

Anyone who is interested can contact me through commenting on my blog
or e-mailing me at ebork@sbcglobal.net.

MMM: A blog? Can you tell us more?

EB: My blog is about my life as a writer, and my thoughts about the process of doing what I do, and the writing life. It is geared toward anyone who would be interested in all that, but especially toward other writers trying to develop projects whom might find my insights of value, and perhaps want to receive personal consulting on their work.

MMM: Finally, the question we ask everyone we interview: Give us your view on making movies in the Midwest – what does the region have going for it, and what does it need to do to become a mini-Hollywood?

EB: I don't know a lot about this, other than the importance of a government-sponsored incentive for productions to come shoot in the area (or stay in the area if developed locally).

Writers can do what they do anywhere, and creative people who want to make their movie independently can do THAT anywhere.

It seems that Hollywood will always be the center of the filmmaking universe in America, and every other place is ultimately a location where films and series might go shoot, if the visuals and physical places make sense, along with the economics. So you can make your region appeal to such productions, which will come and go in a more or less frequent and substantial way, depending on these factors.

But I don't see ANY region becoming a mini-Hollywood in that there is substantial funding and creative talent base to initiate productions there that are anything other than one-off independent pieces that individuals raise money to make.

I guess my point is that aspiring writers and writer-directors can certainly work from anywhere on their individual projects. And people looking to be employed on others' projects (everything from actors to crew members) can potentially make a living locally if enough productions are coming to the area to shoot. But the economics seem to be that there is only one central place where it's really a viable, substantial, ongoing business, from the creative idea all the way through production, and that seems to be Los Angeles. It's just not a big enough industry to have satellite hubs in lots of other places.

Ultimately, what any region has going for it are the creative people within it who choose to stay there and do their work locally, and create a community around that, which I know Ohio has – and I have good friends doing that in the Dayton area who have been doing it ever since I left. And in some ways, it has great advantages over moving to Hollywood and becoming part of the "machine."
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