"Write Your Ideas:" A Conversation with The Conners' Amy Fox

"Write Your Ideas:" A Conversation with The Conners' Amy Fox

For my interview with Amy Fox, a Story Editor on "The Conners," I built a series of questions to discover how the show found their stride after their star character left. Amy couldn’t answer any of those under contract, unfortunately.

But that’s okay—

What I learned about forging a writing career in Hollywood was even more interesting ...

KPW: The first question every writer wants to know: how did you break in as a screenwriter?

Fox: The advice based on my experience is that it’s a long road. There are a million strategies, but what worked for me was to stay loyal to my instincts about what I wanted to write. That may not pay off in the short term. You might think, “I guess nobody wanted to see that thing.” But fifteen years later, it leads to a strangely opened door. My career didn’t snowball the way people have this one lucky break where things fall like dominoes. For a lot of people, women specifically, you have a career goal achievement that you can’t even imagine, a movie premiere at Sundance, and you think now it’s gonna be easy. Then you realize it’s still not easy, which is strange.

KPW: Have you always written for film and TV? What other types of storytelling did you do along the way?

Fox: My writing career started with playwriting, but I was an actor in my youth. When I was in college acting classes, I was coming up against the fact I wasn’t going anywhere as an actor. It was painfully obvious.

A classmate told me, “You should be a playwright.” And he had a good reason. “The reason you’re struggling is you’re not in your body as a performer, but you’re very in your head. You know everything about this character; you’re just having trouble expressing it through your body. You should try doing that as a writer.”

It’s weird because I met this guy once—he was like a prophet who said this extraordinary thing.

So, I took a playwriting class. Immediately it felt right. I fell in love with it.

KPW: How did you then get produced as a playwright?

Fox: I moved to New York City after college to pursue playwriting, knowing I would have a million day jobs. I got a job in publishing, I volunteered at theaters, ushering tickets, whatever. I joined a playwrights collective called Youngblood, which became my training ground with a great mentor. Youngblood is affiliated with the Ensemble Studio Theatre, a well-regarded Off-Off-Broadway theater. My film Heights came from the first one-act play I had produced there.

KPW: How did you transition from playwriting into screenwriting?

Fox: There was a nice review of Heights in The New York Times, so, film producers asked me to write the screenplay version, which was unusual. I feel like a Hollywood company would have bought the rights to the play and hired someone else. But because they were an indie company, they took a chance on me. I ended up doing indie film quickly, a crash course in screenwriting.

KPW: Would you mind telling us about some of your failures along the way?

Fox: I don’t use that word, because it’s more complicated than failure. The movie Heights on my resume is a success. It went to Sundance; it has amazing actors. But it was an extremely difficult experience. It was my introduction to that world in which the writer doesn’t have any power. I didn’t have role models to navigate that piece of it. I was young and naïve. There were people taking advantage. Heights opened doors, but it almost made me never want to make another movie.

KPW: Did your idea of Hollywood turn out to be what you expected?

Fox: I did get an agent after Heights premiered. But I didn’t get another paid screenwriting gig. People said, “We’d love for you to write this or that,” but it was all on spec. My life didn’t change. I kept all the day jobs. I had limited writing time, which I would split between writing plays and film projects in the hopes those would go forward.

Then I ended up starting my family. I had two kids. There’s a 10-year chunk where I did a lot of writing, but not much on my resume. I taught full-time screenwriting at NYU, which I loved, but it didn’t leave a lot of time for my writing. But I'm pretty ambitious. I kept wanting more.

KPW: After these ten years of writing for yourself, teaching, and raising a family, how did you  get your next film made?

Fox: There were two women I had known doing theater, both actors and also producers. They contacted me out of the blue because they were forming a production company. They’d both made a list of the female writers they’d worked with who they loved, and I was the only name on both lists, which was flattering. Their idea became my next film, Equity. People have a fascination with Wall Street scandals, but there had never been a movie in that world with a female protagonist. The question of "could you do a financial thriller about a woman?" was immediately interesting to me. It was an indie film; they didn’t have money when they approached me. But I came on board. Equity reopened doors—and also went to Sundance. I felt I’d learned about navigating the business side of this career, life balance, and how to keep my full-time job while finding space to do this while also being a mom. My kids were still little, but I was done having babies. I was in a routine with teaching. I could carve out space to go back out there and pursue this. I mean, that’s never easy. It’s not like I figured it out. But I felt I was in a place to try.

KPW: Great, you were finally getting paid as a screenwriter?

Fox: Interestingly, a similar thing happened where I got new representation: I flew to L.A. for meetings. There was genuine excitement around Equity. But paid opportunities didn't emerge. I’ve learned how common this is. There’s no money in development unless you’re a known, bankable writer. People wanted to work with me, but on other people’s ideas: here’s a book, why don’t you give us your take, let’s build it into a pitch. What I’ve learned is people who find success that way, it’s a numbers game. They pitch all the time. Maybe one out of every five projects sells.

KPW: Can you expand on pitching? Does it exist where you sell your movie from a pitch?

Fox: This is where the class issue comes in because when I was pitching, I was working full-time. I’m a parent, I could work for free developing two, maybe three things in a year. At that rate, you’re not gonna win the numbers game because you’re not doing enough pitches.

KPW: How do we get stories from people who don’t have the privilege of working for free?

Fox: It’s a huge issue. this whole notion that you should be able to give sixty hours a week for free as long as it takes to make it is ridiculous. The whole industry is secretly based on that idea.

KPW: So what can we do as screenwriters? How do we solve this?

Fox: Just to be clear, there is a distinction here between doing free work for others versus your own stuff. With original projects, you still have the challenge of how do I find the time, but the projects are yours no matter what happens. When I was doing a lot of free work developing on intellectual property, I didn’t know enough writers to realize there’s something wrong with that model. I kept thinking, this is hard for me, I can’t carve out enough time to make it work. Now that I’m a member of the Writer’s Guild and have a community, I’ve learned this is hugely controversial because the Guild’s policy has always been "don’t do free work." But agents, managers, and producers are pushing the free work. Most people find that if they don’t do it, they can’t get jobs. It’s a systemic issue which the Guild is wrestling, not something an individual should be looking at their calendar saying, “I guess if I wake up at 5 a.m. to do this free work before I go teach, I can get it all done.”

KPW: I have to get up at five every Monday through Friday, or I don’t get it done. If I don’t get  up, I feel like a failure, especially if I want to, god forbid, enjoy my life the night before. And even when I do get up every day, I can never quite manage my entire list.

Fox: Yeah, and I’m sure there’s someone out there going, “Oh, good. You’re a hard worker.” But the whole point is there isn't a system here that allows people who are not independently wealthy to do what it takes to break in. Because it requires this impossible juggle. I took a year where I did very little development because I was tired of spending all this time on work I don’t own. I used to always think these other people’s projects were more likely to get made. But if there’s nothing attached to it that would make it more likely except for this other person’s confidence, you need to write your own projects.

KPW: At what point during this pitching/development process, teaching, raising a family, and  writing for free in NYC, did you move to L.A. to write for "The Conners?"

Fox: Something unexpected happened, which was a phone call from a friend, who I had worked with on a play in my 20s. She was an actor on the original "Roseanne" and back for the reboot. She reached out, “We’re looking for smart, funny women to add to the writers’ room, and I want to recommend you.” This was the second time women from my theater work remembered me. Those relationships were forged in the theater in my first years in New York. During those years, I felt glad to be doing theater, but I wouldn’t have said my career was blowing up. I now realize my work has always been pretty high-quality and people remember that about me. That’s a very affirming feeling.

KPW: How did you find a work/life balance on "The Conners?" Did your family come with you to  L.A.?

Fox: They stayed at home in NYC with my husband during my first season. My family has since moved to L.A. but not for those first six months.

KPW: I’m impressed. Did you feel guilty that you went to L.A. alone?

Fox: It was hard because I missed them. But men don’t use the word guilt when they go away from their children. People hear that part of my story and say, “I’m impressed,” or “I’m inspired.” I had that inspiration from a friend who went to L.A. for six months to work on a show. She had two elementary-age kids who stayed with her husband in New York. I was thinking, “she’s amazing. I could never imagine doing that. I would never ask my husband to step up in that way.” And then, when I got the opportunity, she was the first person I called, “I can’t do this, right?” She got very militant, “You have to. These opportunities do not come along. You might do it for six months, and never do it again. Or it might open up a hundred doors, and you cannot walk away until you have that information.” I hung up feeling there has to be a way to make this work. I try to pay it forward because she made me see it was possible. I want other women to see that it is possible.

KPW: How did your husband feel about you leaving him at home with the kids? Did that inform your recent episode where Darlene gets promoted?

Fox: The character Ben is a nice guy. We weren’t interested in a relationship with some chauvinist. We were interested in a relationship where it’s a great guy, and the promotion still feels weird to both people. It’s important to mention, my husband is great. He’s a great father. But I wouldn’t say he was heroic about me leaving. He was grudgingly supportive. It’s also worth noting there were times when my kids were babies when I was offered to go away for a three-day-weekend when I couldn’t go. You can shift from that person. From that moment where you can’t leave, to several years later, where the landscape has shifted.

KPW: That episode is thematically similar to the strong female characters in Heights and Equity struggling with work/life balance. It’s interesting that you didn’t yet have a family when you wrote Heights.

Fox: Everyone in Hollywood has “I’m the person who writes x.” My brand is that I write strong women who are in worlds that tend to be male-dominated. This feels very natural to me. When I researched for Equity, I realized how common women’s experiences are. The statistics on how many women reach leadership and how many women drop out when they have children are the same across industries—the arts, hospitals, law, politics. This has become something I have insight into and am passionate about.

KPW: What is your dream gig after "The Connors?" If you could do any show you wanted? Do you know yet?

Fox: I want to run my own show. I’ve been around. I was on set for Equity. I’m on stage at "The Connors." I taught in a film production program where I advise people on casting and editing. I feel I have a skillset where I can do more. The idea of being a writer/producer is appealing to me in television. As far as what that show is, I definitely want it to have amazing roles for women.

KPW: Do you have any advice for people who want to write for film and TV?  

Fox: I had this dream many years ago where I was a showrunner on a British costume drama/soap opera. It was heaven. It was everything! I’m a sucker for that stuff. (This was pre-"Downton Abby.")

I woke up imagining:

What if we lived in a world where a show like that could get made? I could work on writing my idea, but it was ludicrous to me. I never even told anyone. Because who would make that? Then years later, you have "Downton Abby." I’m not Julian Fellowes, but when you start to think, “my idea could never work,” you always end up seeing that someone else made it work.

So write your ideas. You know?

*Feature Photo: Amy Fox on the set of "The Connors" during the 2020 pandemic

Karin is a screenwriter and a development exec at Script Pipeline and the JK Studio. She writes horror, party films and TV.
More posts by Karin Partin Wells.
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