Interview: Nicholas Roth

Interview: Nicholas Roth

Winner of the Script Pipeline First Look Project with his pilot Power Suit, Nick Roth had a varied career in the industry before becoming a full-time screenwriter. Following his contest win, Pipeline executives connected him with management at Zero Gravity, who saw the clear potential in his high-concept TV project set in the world of 1980s Hollywood.

Before we get into the pilot, you told us a story of writing a screenplay with your father (a veteran TV director) in China over the course of several months. . . . How formative was that for you, creatively and professionally speaking?

So I decided to pursue screenwriting full-time a little over seven years ago, and since then, I sort of have had the beginnings of two completely separate writing careers. In one, I spent about six years as a writers’ PA, assistant editor, researcher, middle school substitute Latin teacher, etc., and eventually I was fortunate enough to get staffed on Season 4 of ABC’s American Housewife, where I’d been a writers’ PA and then writers’ assistant for the first three years.

Meanwhile, my father fell into this just totally insane journey developing film and television in China (very long story) and brought me along as a co-writer for part of the ride. Over the years, we’ve pitched a slew of projects, living in Beijing for four months, written one and a half screenplays, and even wrote an entire eight-episode first season of a serial drama. But at the end of the day, not a single frame of anything we’ve written for China has ever been shot.

In both cases, the existential lesson I try to take away is that it’s actually desirable to stumble, fail, and encounter setbacks along the path to building a writing career. Like, we all have this fantasy we’ll just write the ultimate thing and get it made and then sell specs to Netflix for three million dollars a pop, but in reality I’d rather get forged in a fire that forces me to become a better writer than just be another, you know, Max Landis.

Power Suit caught our attention from page one (to be honest—the pitch alone). You based the story of a female film industry executive in 1980s Hollywood loosely on your mother, who was herself a top exec for many years. What prompted you to use this backdrop as a basis for a series?

Power Suit actually started as an idea for a documentary that I was definitely never going to actually make.

And then for a little while I thought maybe it could be done Drunk History style and have fabulous drunk moms narrate/ventriloquize re-enactments with comedians. But whenever I mentioned any version of the pitch to anyone, they would tell me I was being an idiot and that Power Suit was obviously a pilot I should write, so eventually I did.

One of the first things I knew about the show was what the cold open would be, because it was based very closely on reality. In the late seventies my mom had been working at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire and then managed to talk her way into a secretary job at a young Norman Lear’s company even though she didn’t know how to type. If that’s not a good way to set up a protagonist who eventually becomes a successful sales executive in 80s Hollywood, then I don’t know what is.

How much research did you feel you needed before jumping into the writing of the script? Was it crucial to hear the stories of the people who lived in that era?

My mom is an excellent and prolific storyteller, but her preferred medium is the dinner party. So a lot of writing Power Suit was just adapting what I already knew into a character piece for TV.

But also I did sit-down interviews with several of my mom’s friends and former colleagues (and filmed them in case I eventually could use them in a doc or teaser of some kind for the show), and from those few sessions there was already way more material than I could ever get into a pilot.

If I’m ever lucky enough to get to actually produce the show, I’m sure a lot more research will play a big role in breaking the first season. And that’s a job for a whole room of writers, led by a veteran female showrunner.

Maybe an obvious answer, but: why this pilot and why now?

I suspect the reason people have responded well to Power Suit is that fundamentally it’s based on a really good true story, and—basically because of sexism—we just haven’t seen a lot of this kind of story before. My main impetus for writing it was to better understand my mother, who is a complicated figure with whom I have had a complicated relationship.

Power Suit isn’t intentionally political beyond just trying to do the best job it can at telling a female-centered story (which is of course in and of itself political). But I do make a couple of jokes in the pilot about a male character, for example, being as naked in the scene as if he were a female character and this were shot in 1983. And I have a note at the end of another scene, where two of the female leads play racquetball together, that there is specifically not a sexy locker room shower scene afterwards.

You signed with management this year, much of that because of the potential they saw with Power Suit. I like to ask every writer—what’s the advice you’d give someone before going into that first general meeting with a company interested in repping you?

Oh man, do I feel unqualified to give advice on this. . . . I’ve only had a handful of such meetings, and I suspect they present very different challenges for different people. I will say that for myself, in any future meetings I would try to heed the age-old wisdom that there is no such thing as too much preparation.

Like, if I were going into a meeting next week with a potential agent, for example, I would probably make sure I had the elevator pitch of everything I’ve ever written and every pitch I’ve ever thought of memorized, rehearsed, and ready to go. I’d try to be familiar with every title the company has recently produced, and learn as much as I can from social media about anyone who I know will be in the meeting.

And then, if I am being honest, right before the meeting, having not really done those things, I would probably recite the litany against fear from Dune and/or do that thing Alexandria Ocasio Cortez does in the documentary Knock Down The House where she says to herself like a mantra some version of: “I’m powerful. . . I take up space. . . .”

Best 80s movie with a female lead not named Sigourney Weaver. . . ?

You mean I don’t get to pick Gorillas in the Mist?!

Okay, I want to say Agnès Varda’s 1985 classic Vagabond to sound both erudite and feminist, but if I’m being honest it’s Paul Bartel’s cult classic, Lust in the Dust, starring Divine. It’s the absurd slapstick drag queen western comedy you definitely did not know you needed in your life right now, but which you should at least go immediately watch the trailer for it on YouTube.

Honorable mentions: Return to Oz and Clue.

Nick Roth grew up in L.A., went to grad school to be an English professor, then instead became a substitute middle-school Latin teacher, and finally a film and television writer. He also lived in Beijing for a little while, and you would likely be surprised how good he is at guitar.

He and his wife have two rescued dogs: Stanley Poochie (bossy) and George Bailey (very brave), as well as a surly genius cat named Galileo. In his spare time, he is an active local political volunteer and would love to talk to you about saving the world. He is repped by Zero Gravity.

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