An Interview with Writers Nilanjana Bose and Jakub Ciupinski

An Interview with Writers Nilanjana Bose and Jakub Ciupinski

Nilanjana Bose and Jakub Ciupinski are writers for Season 2 of "Dr. Death." They fell in love as students at Juilliard and began writing scripts together shortly thereafter. They are Sundance Episodic Lab Fellows and alumni of the IFP Series Workshop. Their sci-fi one-hour spec pilot "Winterovers" was honored on the 2019 WeForShe WriteHer script list. The team recently wrote a feature film Promethea Unbound for Fifth Season (fka Endeavor Content) and adapted the acclaimed novel My Hands Came Away Red as a feature for Wayfarer Studios.

I initially had the pleasure of meeting Jakub and Nilanjana at the premiere party for Peacock’s second season of "Dr. Death." Realizing I had never met a husband/wife writing duo who worked together in a TV writers’ room, I asked them to tell me—and Pipeline Artists—all about their journey from Poland and India, respectively, to meeting at Julliard, attending the Sundance Episodic Lab, and landing at the acclaimed series.  

Jessica Hobbs: In addition to writing, Nilanjana, you are also an actress, and Jakub, you’re also a composer. How did each of you get your start working in the arts?

Nilanjana Bose: I think so much of it had to do with the cultural context that I was raised in. I grew up in Eastern India, in Bengal, where the arts are such an integral part of your life. By four or five years old, everyone goes to a singing class or a painting class or a dance class. Our neighborhoods are filled with dance teachers and singing teachers. It was always at the back of my mind that the arts, of course, would be a very important part of my life because that's kind of part of everyone's life, isn't it? But no, that's not true. But eventually I started seriously training in Indian classical dance. It's a very ancient dance form. There's six kinds in India, and I trained in one of them called Manipuri. Then I started doing plays in high school, and I was like, “Oh, I like acting!” I did my undergrad in India. I studied history, and then I was like, “Oh, there's a school in New York called the Juilliard School, and it's supposed to be really good. So let me just apply and see what happens.” And I applied, and I flew myself here to audition, and I got in, and then theater took over my life. In regard to the South Asian community, there is that typical idea, “you’re all supposed to be doctors and engineers,” and I just never got that. It's just not true. That's how I think it's portrayed a lot in media for everyone.

Jakub Ciupinski: I almost felt like I didn't have a choice. When you are five years old, and your parents send you to piano classes, you become a musician, right? And unless you quit, you are a musician. I was pianist first, and then was more interested in creating my own work. That's how I went into composition. Obviously, my interest was leaning heavily towards film music and storytelling. Even as a teenager, I was very interested in writing short stories or the art of screenwriting. In my early 20s, I committed my biggest crime, which is my short as a director. I was always flirting with the idea of filmmaking. I was filming my own experimental video clips with music. So, I was always leaning towards that direction, but when we met, and we started a relationship, we were very lucky because our tastes in movies and TV shows are extremely similar to this day. I don't know anybody else who has the most similar taste to mine. That was a very good bedrock for both, obviously the relationship, but also for collaboration. Then we started thinking about making our own shorts, we started meeting people, and from that that point, we started kind of climbing the ladder. It's nice to grab a camera and do something, but there's nothing more important than a good, solid story. So screenwriting is, I think, the most complex and interesting in that regard, because from that point everything else can flourish, or it's doomed to fail.

Jessica: That's so very true, and as we’ve heard so much this past year, with the strikes and everything, the importance of writers really can't be overstated.

Nilanjana: It's interesting, Juilliard is classical theater, and the story is the most important part. No story, no actors. It's the words, it's what's on the page. From day one, the amount of emphasis that is put in the training on text and analyzing text and breaking story and creating. So that played a huge part, too, the importance of story and the craft of storytelling.

Jessica: You both had that foundation, and you had your tastes together, and knew how you wanted to craft a story. How did you get into becoming professional writers?

Nilanjana: It was gradual, but it was definitely as a team from the beginning. But there was, I would say, a specific incident, at least for me, that sort of flipped the switch of “No, I have to start creating on my own work,” and it's when of I saw Jakub's pieces being performed at the Ruben Museum in New York City. I remember having this moment, this piece is just stunning, and just so ethereal and beautiful and powerful. And this is six months after I graduated from Juilliard as an actor, and I'm in the thick of the audition process, and a lot of the industry and business realities have started hitting me. And I'm like, “My God, I want to create something that's outside of myself.” That's what I remember thinking. To have something concrete outside myself that gave me a sense of “Oh, it's tangible, and it's eternal, and it will exist in perpetuity. I want to write, and I have way too much to say.” That's when we first started writing and thinking about our first feature.

Jakub: At first, the goal was to write a script for an ultra-low or micro-budget production that we could just invite bunch of our friends over and create something. As we developed that first script, we started encountering people who are maybe not insiders from in the industry, but they're already trying to break in and already have some connections and ability to present that script. Our work was circulating, and obviously at that time it was very difficult to even have one pitch meeting, or any kind of meeting with someone who is a respected producer in the industry. But gradually, we started building towards that.

And obviously, the Sundance Lab was the break, and I remember one person at Sundance told us that the industry is a bit like a fortress, that you knock on the door and no one will ever let you in. So you have to find a catapult that gets you inside. And once you're inside, they're almost acting surprised, like, “Where have you been? We were waiting for you.”  And there was also this chicken or the egg situation, where, when you don't have reps, you can't really cold call or reach out to anybody, because no one treats you seriously. But in order to get reps, you need to have already had something else done. And that was our problem that whatever we tried to do, it was impossible to get anybody's attention, so we sent our script to Sundance, and we were lucky. It was our first submission, and we got in.

Jessica: That's wonderful. I'm so glad to hear you had such a positive experience with Sundance. But you did the episodic lab; how did you move from writing a micro-budget feature to the episodic format?

Nilanjana: We were developing a TV series while we were writing the feature as well.

I think "Breaking Bad" already happened. It was that golden age of TV, and it was so exciting. We were developing this science-fiction show called "Winterovers," set in Antarctica.

Jakub: I think, for both of us, the entry point was obviously our passion for movies on the big screen. In fact, when I grew up, one of my friends told me that his dream was to work in TV as an actor. I almost felt like, isn't it embarrassing to even be associated with TV? Because it's so mundane, and cinema is the thing, right? That's where the true art is. I obviously changed my mind during that time, because that was this moment where we started realizing that TV was transforming. You can do incredible art that is also suitable for that format.

Nilanjana: I have to say, though, I had a slightly different experience with TV, because "The X-Files" played a massive role in my childhood. I think it was seven or eight years old, totally precocious, and I was always drawn to things that are supernatural and other worldly. I have seen episodes of "X-Files" so many times, I don't even know. I would talk about those episodes to my friends and narrate those stories.

Jessica: I love that so much! Every Thursday night, that was me and my dad, watching "The X-Files" and talking about aliens. It was awesome.

Jakub: I also remember that! In Poland, Thursdays will also the nights for "X-Files." Among all those more mundane TV shows, there were a couple that I really liked. Definitely "Northern Exposure." There was also "Twin Peaks," that was going to a more experimental zone that I really liked. That seed of prestige cinema was always there.

Jessica: How did you come to work on season 2 of Dr. Death?

Nilanjana: Patrick Macmanus, who is the show’s creator and EP of season 2, he's been a mentor for a few years. Soon after Sundance, we connected with him, and he loved our work. We've developed more than one pitch with him. During those pitch sessions with Patrick in his office in Brooklyn, we met Ashley Michel Hoban, who is the showrunner of season 2.

Jessica: Was this a topic or a genre that was of interest to you? Were you fans of season one?

Jakub: I was a fan of season one and of the podcast. It's a good true crime show. I listened to the entire podcast before Patrick even pitched the show.

Nilanjana: It's such a complex world, and the characters are so complex—it's so nebulous and ethereal. There is something so heightened about that reality. We’re dealing with something every day—like doctors who lie and cheat and do terrible things—but the circumstances that they operate in, the circumstances these patients find themselves in is so heightened. There's no straight answer to those stories. One of the most encouraging and creatively fulfilling things were those debates in the writers’ room about, who is this guy?

Jakub: In many stories, we have a very clear protagonist or antagonist with clear motives, and you know exactly why, and you just don't know how. But here, we know how. The question was always lingering, and it still remains, why did he do it? From the very beginning, the entire team kind of liked that idea that we actually don't want to give straight answers. Instead, we can explore all possibilities around that mystery. I believe true art always contains incongruity, whether it’s music or dance, there should be something that your brain, in the end, is not able to process. That incongruity results in you thinking about those stories or those artistic experiences because they cannot be closed.

Nilanjana: Multiple contradictory things can exist and be true. That’s very interesting to me as a storyteller. I think there is always that pressure of making sense, trying to figure out that childhood incident that made this person the way he or she is. And I think it's a control thing we have as humans, to understand and figure things out. But I think to surrender to that mystery and that incongruity and that constant contradiction, I feel so much relief thinking about things that way, because I just feel it's more honest.

Jessica: At the premiere where I met you, I spoke to [Director] Jennifer Morrison about the first two episodes and the decision to show us the love story first and to make the audience fall in love with him. What was that process in the room of crafting that sort of narrative? And how do you go from breaking the story all together as a team to assigning episodes to be written by one, or in your case, two writers?

Jakub: We didn’t start from scratch. In this particular show, the outline for the season was already created. Ashley Michel Hoban brought us the entire arc of the season to write up on that. So we had that bedrock, we knew where the story goes and more or less, what happens. While breaking episodes, the showrunner already starts assigning different writers to different episodes, trying to leverage their strengths.

Then you have to write an outline. There's a very specific schedule, so we spend a couple of hours where all other writers are trying to fix all our mistakes or give us feedback on our outline, and it has to be approved by network and by the studio. Then, at some point, you have a deadline for writing the first draft, then first draft goes through the same process of review—the room, the network, studio, and then the second draft, and so forth.

Jessica: And what do you feel your strengths were that caused her to assign you to episode 3?

Nilanjana: In episode 3, their romance is in that magical phase, she's really deep in that dream, going to Italy, meeting the mother, and he's really selling her that dream. Our work sort of deals with a lot of magical realism and genre, so I think that could be one of the reasons why we were assigned to it, perhaps.

Jakub: In the end, what you're most proud of is not that specific part of the show, but rather when you recognize your own fingerprints in entire season. When I was watching the final version for the first time, I would remember, this is maybe my pitch that someone liked. Scenes also sometimes get moved, so I recognized some of our scenes in episode 4, and I think some from the second episode were moved to ours.

Jessica Hobbs: I'm more of an extrovert and more of a collaborative writer. I really like having spitballs and post-its all over the wall. And in "Dr. Death," later in the season, when the three doctors are trying to figure out how to expose him, and the one guy starts writing on the wall, I immediately thought, that's what a writers' room looks like!

Nilanjana: Yeah, I totally remember that part. And he actually started writing on the wall. But the writers’ room by itself is just so fun. We were really lucky with this group of people, and so much has to do with the culture the showrunner sets. Ashley Michel created such a collaborative room where everyone's voice was important, doesn't matter if you're the EP or the staff writer, and I really respect that about her.

Jessica: Would you say that you prefer TV as a medium for those reasons, or are you still pursuing features?

Jakub: It depends on what story you want to tell. I personally love both formats. The open-ended design of TV poses so many different challenges. TV is much less about actual screenwriting. It's more about writing a good pitch, and that is a form in itself. You have to convince someone that you have a story for an entire season, and you feel like you would rather write those twelve episodes yourself than write a ten-page synopsis of the entire arc, because it's so much harder.

Nilanjana: I would say pitching is like auditioning for an acting job, and there are people who are really good auditioners and not necessarily really good actors. And then there's some really good actors who are so bad at auditioning, but who really shine at the rehearsal and in the job. But it's also so important to master that auditioning process, too.

Jakub: When we came through Sundance, we thought that screenwriting is about writing scripts. Very soon, we realized that most of the challenge comes from writing out the very riveting pitch, and almost no serious writers these days go to pitching unprepared. It's always rehearsed, so you can spend months developing a really good pitch. It's almost like writing a perfect poem. It has to have all the elements—it has to have right timing and obviously rehearsing and presenting. And what I realized after those first initial years when I was struggling with that, I realized that the pitching is actually the key to storytelling, because if you cannot tell the story in a pitch, it means you do not have a good story. You can tell that the underlying foundation of this story is flawed, and that's the secret.

Nilanjana: I agree with Jakub wholeheartedly, if we can't communicate our story in an efficient, simple, succinct way, then there's a flaw in the story engine.

Jakub: It often happens that we might get into overly complex stories, or that are murky, and if they're not easy to pitch, it means that they're not yet fully baked.

Jessica: I think that's a really good way to put it. It can be very hard, but it’s so important. You've both given each other shout outs, saying that the structure of being a musician and a composer, and the background of being an actor is what makes you a good team, which is really lovely.

Nilanjana: Yeah, I think we work really well as writers. The question we get asked most is, “How do you guys write together and stay married?” Our answer is, usually, that it's great, because the only arguments we have in our marriage are about the motivations of our character.

Jakub: Another thing is complementarity. A good example in our daily life is when we eat pizza. She will eat crust, and I will eat everything inside. In screenwriting, especially when we started writing, we also had our strengths and weaknesses, and they happened to fit exactly as we wanted. Obviously, over the years, we started blurring these responsibilities, but the fact that we kind of complemented each other is something that might be interesting to many people who are wondering about this—how it changes the writing process. When you think about two people writing one thing, you might think that they are twice as fast as normal writers, because they have twice bandwidth, and it's certainly true if we organize our workflow this way.

On "Dr. Death," we were able to turn back scripts or outlines very soon without a problem. But when we are working on our specs, it actually slows us down. It's almost like a Ping-Pong match where I create one draft, and then she will bring it back with new changes. And that process strengthens the story because we're constantly stress testing it. But it also slows us down tremendously. So, for people who are trying to work with partners, you have to be very conscious of this distinction. If you want to go for speed, you really have to be very disciplined about it.

Nilanjana: It helps that we kind of have our informal writers’ room every day at home because we are always discussing and bouncing ideas with each other and stress testing and creating our own storyboards.

Jakub: In fact, when we have scheduled meetings to work, I have “writers’ room” written in my calendar.

Nilanjana: I'm glad we haven't written scribbled anything on our walls yet. I think we will leave that to our four-year-old who loves scribbling.

*Feature photo of Nilanjana Bose and Jakub Ciupinski by Kartik Nair

Jessica Hobbs is a film, TV and nonfiction writer with a love of the strange and unusual. Her first book, The Witch and Other Tales of the American Gothic, debuted in 2023. She lives in Laurel Canyon.
More posts by Jessica Hobbs.
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