DAWSON'S CREEK, LIFE UNEXPECTED, and Beyond: Liz Tigelaar Reflects on Her Writing Career (So Far) - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

DAWSON’S CREEK, LIFE UNEXPECTED, and Beyond: Liz Tigelaar Reflects on Her Writing Career (So Far)

December 19, 2014 by  

Liz TigelaarTelevision writer and executive producer Liz Tigelaar has had a fascinating career — fascinating enough to warrant sitting down with and talking in depth about its trajectory and the various lessons she has learned along the way.

Tigelaar got her start in the writer’s room of DAWSON’S CREEK, a dream project for many television fans and writers of a certain age who wanted to work on relationship dramas. That first show immediately set the tone for her career and her niche. She went from there to shows like AMERICAN DREAMS, WHAT ABOUT BRIAN, and BROTHERS & SISTERS before creating her own beloved — but sadly short-lived — family drama LIFE UNEXPECTED on The CW.

And it was after the cancellation of LIFE UNEXPECTED that things got really interesting, though. Tigelaar signed an overall deal with ABC Studios and ended up making the rounds on some of their highest profile dramas before doing a stint with A&E,  and, oh, at times she was pulling double duty preparing her own pilot, too. Tigelaar went from being the boss — the person who created the world of the show and knew it inside and out — to working in a room on a show whose world had been established before she came aboard. Many writers who had already achieved what she had might have balked at the idea of working for someone else again, but Tigelaar not only took the opportunity but welcomed it to grow even further.

“So much of the external success — getting your show picked up, selling pilots — it’s all such a matter of someone else’s taste and of their perception of you. Those are really the things you can’t control,” Tigelaar said. “I mean, I feel very fortunate that The CW put LIFE UNEXPECTED on. Of course I was really disappointed they canceled it, but they put it on and gave it two seasons and it was an amazing opportunity. But by no means do I think because I ran that show that I don’t have anything more to learn about writing or show running! I feel like if anything probably running a show shows you how much you have to learn.”

After LIFE UNEXPECTED was canceled in 2011, Tigelaar jumped onto ONCE UPON A TIME later that same year: “Coming off of running your own show to going onto other people’s shows, I think is always very tricky,” Tigelaar said. “I think that’s a hard letting go process… I chose ONCE UPON A TIME and hoped that they would choose me too, because so [many] of the themes of it felt similar to LIFE UNEXPECTED to me, even though they were completely different shows. I was really, really drawn, out of all the ABC shows at the time, to being involved with that one because I think there was a way, in me, I felt that I could kind of continue, even if I had to give up on the characters, I didn’t have to give up on the themes yet.”

Tigelaar credited ONCE UPON A TIME showrunners Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, as well as OUAT writer/producer Jane Espenson, for making the genre elements of the show accessible to her, despite her background being in more everyday storytelling. Between the clear vision the guys have, and their “very organized” writer’s room, Tigelaar adjusted quickly.

Tigelaar moved over to REVENGE in 2012, working for Mike Kelley, who she noted just innately breathed the material. While the series that centers on a young woman trying to avenge the frame job that painted her father as a terrorist is big in scope, Tigelaar had a comfort level with the interpersonal relationships in a way that mirrored some of her previous working experiences.

“When I got to REVENGE, it felt like I was a little in more wheelhouse with people I worked with before… There was something about it that came a little bit more naturally. That you could kind of bang it out and it was really fun,” she said.

Tigelaar then worked on NASHVILLE from 2012 to 2013 during a time the show was in a state of transition. “Callie Khouri on NASHVILLE is just such a beautiful writer. I feel like every scene she writes has this one line in it that just breaks your heart and is what the whole thing is about, and just to even witness her even taking a scene you wrote and infusing herself into it is so valuable. There’s just such a, obviously, Callie-ness to everything she does. And so, I think to get to be around those people only makes you better,” she said.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, after so many straight relationship dramas, Tigelaar jumped back into genre television with BATES MOTEL in 2014. “BATES isn’t the type of show I typically would watch, but I did watch it, and I loved it!” Tigelaar said. “You sometimes end up working on stuff that you [can] write well but [isn’t] necessarily something that you would actually gravitate to watch. And there was something about BATES that I was just so compelled by and intrigued by. Carlton Cuse is such an amazing storyteller and plot twister and an incredible writer. And Kerry Ehrin — who I knew from FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and PARENTHOOD — comes at things so sideways, and things kind of start about one thing and become about another, but the way she connects the dots — it’s so unique. I felt like those are brains I want to learn from. Those are really people who if I could aspire to be more like them, I would like to be, so I want to work for them, you know?”

While on NASHVILLE and BATES MOTEL, Tigelaar was also working on a pilot, THE JONESES, for Bravo, who ultimately decided not to order the adaptation. Obviously, balance is key to Tigelaar — both to her creative process when fleshing out characters and writing episodes, and to the business decisions she makes on what show to work on next.

“My preference is to focus on a show and do a smaller order and then focus on my development,” she said. “For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to do both at the same time and it’s hard. You do have to set aside time. I didn’t want to feel like I was splitting my time between things and had my brain in two places.”

Currently, Tigelaar is working on ABC’s ASTRONAUT WIVES CLUB, which has a 10-episode order that fits into Tigelaar’s plan — and her wheelhouse as another character-driven drama. But she admits the show still provides a new challenge to keep the content fresh for her because it is a period piece.

“The heart of the show is to tell a story that honors these women’s unseen contribution,” Tigelaar said. “Even if it is a TV show, and you have to come up with plot moves that may not have exactly happened that way, it’s more about the spirit of it: we’re really trying to capture the essence of who these women are and tell a story that at the end of the day, we think, they would be proud of. I mean, that’s the hope. And that by telling it, more people will know who they are and what they did and how their role was just as vital.”

Tigelaar clearly has a passion for learning from those around her and being inspired by other creative minds. But the value she sees in being in a writers’ room is not simply in learning various styles. Climbing the so-called ladder of Hollywood and immersing one’s self in the various, nitty gritty details of each job description as you get promoted has been key to her — and advice she gives to anyone who wants to write for television — too.

“There was an article [recently] about how there are so few showrunners because there are so many people who haven’t worked their way up the ladder. That’s kind of a bummer; I feel like people now can be less experienced and get shows. But [that way] you can risk getting your show taken away from you because you don’t have the experience to run it yet,” Tigelaar said.

“I’m a ‘rungs of the ladder’ person. That’s how I did it,” she continued. “And, you know, I had a pilot years ago when I was a story editor and had it gone I wouldn’t have been able to run it. And I think it would have been hard even though I had somebody great attached… Starting as a writers’ assistant, becoming a staff writer, getting a freelance gig, working on your own stuff [on the side] — being in a room can prepare you so that when you’re in a position to sell your show, you’re also in a position where you could actually run your own show. That’s the most satisfying.”

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