The Girl On Fire: Executive Story Editor Jamie Pachino
Another playwright makes the leap from stage to screen, bringing with her character development skills that don’t rely on murders and explosions.
Mandrake: \ˈman-ˌdrāk\ A plant in the nightshade family that allegedly has roots that resemble human form.
The word isn’t commonly known outside of Harry Potter mania, but it plays a small yet crucial role in how Jamie Pachino wound up as a writer and executive story editor on the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire. A Chicago actress working as a receptionist in a law firm by day, Pachino befriended the firm’s mailroom director and the two made a wager.
“He bet me that we couldn’t pick a random word out of the dictionary and write a play around it,” Pachino says. “The word that we wound up randomly picking was ‘Mandrake,’ which is an awesome word to write a play around. I wrote this very dark, black comedy about a family.”
And with that, an actress moved from winning parts to writing them, and nabbing a boatload of awards in the process. Nine years later after her play, The Return to Morality, got optioned for a film, Pachino gained a small foothold in LA and moved to the West Coast to write for the screen. Since then, she’s written 16 TV movies, worked on eight feature films, and scooped up writing gigs on three television series, including the period drama Halt and Catch Fire, which just got picked up for a second season.
Jamie Pachino: [Series co-creator] Chris Cantwell grew up in Dallas and his dad worked with computers during that era, so that’s sort of where this whole thing started, with his brain and his background. Some of us in the room lived through the ‘80s, not all of us. All of us lived through the ‘80s but not all of us were conscious beings in the ‘80s, and all have some experience with computers, whether it’s that age or forward depending on where you pick up your computer experience. Having said that, we have a great researcher, amazing technical advisors, a writers’ assistant who gathers up this is what happened in 1983 in Dallas, this is when the hurricane landed, or this is when this happened, so we can really cherry pick that stuff. Then the rest of it, like always, is your imagination combined with other grounding.
JP: I have loved working on this project for AMC. One of the reasons is besides the visual thing, there’s also this emphasis on character and the idea that you can take your time to unfold a story, that the viewers are patient, that they don’t need everything wrapped up in a neat package at the end of each episode, and they don’t need a car chase or a murder to necessarily drive the storyline. That something like computers in the ‘80s can be compelling enough because it’s character-driven to grab an audience. I think that that’s one of the best gifts that you can give a writers’ room, especially writers who are character-driven writers, is to say what is the story that you want to tell? I love that part of the job. Also for me, I had come from two procedurals before this, so not to have the case in the middle that you have to service was really fascinating.
JP: They are two completely different animals because what you find is, with a procedural, that most of the work that you’re doing in the writers’ room is to make sure that the math in the case of the week or if it’s a medical drama, whatever it is, that the math of that plot storyline holds together and is surprising and has twists and turns and “Where do they show up? How do you do it?” The character work kind of folds in around it. The character work is illuminated by the case or is driven by what they’re in over their head with that week, procedural-wise. When there’s no case of the week, what you find is that there’s this great expanse of space to tell a story inside. For us, obviously, every week the computers story had to move forward. That’s the math that we had to do, but around that [we had to delve into what] actually what was driving these people. So figuring out their relationships, their marriages, their dreams, what questions they have, and all that stuff and how you map that out over the course of a season, it’s delicious. It’s so much fun.
JP: Sure. … All of the writers are in the writers’ room breaking stories. Each writer winds up with at least one outline for an episode that they then go and write. Sometimes, depending on your budget and where you shoot and whatnot, sometimes you’re on set. Sometimes you’re not. Usually, at producer level, you’re on set with your episode. Because we shoot in Atlanta, I didn’t get to go to set this time, but on Fairly Legal I was in Vancouver twice. It just depends on budget and vision and who’s doing what and who wants to be where. I think unfortunately it’s not a very strict job description to lay down. It really depends on the needs of the show and the showrunners.
JP: I think one of the challenges I like about writing for series is the collaborative voice. It’s six, eight, 10 people in a room, executing one or two people’s vision and trying to create a coherent storytelling experience for an audience. I find that to be really fascinating and exciting and challenging and interesting work. I may be alone in that, but I think it’s a really cool thing.
JP: I would say playwriting was the best thing I did. You can’t hide from character and dialogue in a play. You just can’t. You can kind of hide from it in the movies because structure is much more important and the math of storytelling becomes much more important in movies and TV than it does on stage. But on stage, you simply can’t hide from character and dialogue. It really teaches you the right lessons for how to build three-dimensional people and how to distinguish the way that they talk and how to build rhythms and conflict without it being an outside [factor]. You can’t have a car chase. There are so many things that you can’t do visually on stage where you have to rely on language and character. There have been a couple of times where I’ve gotten jobs and my spec sample is a play.
JP: I think you really, really want to immerse yourself in television. I know that sounds like a horrible job [laughs], but you do. You want to understand the structure of it, the language of it, the tone of it, what draws you in, what you gravitate toward. There are things that I love to watch that I think, “I could never write that,” but there are certainly things that I look at and go, “God, I would die to be on that show and I would be good on that show.” If you can figure out, literally, structurally, tonally, the dynamics of it, the dialogue in it, just the real craft of what makes the shows that you’re drawn to work, then you can really start to understand how it’s built.
To have a map for where to go, I think, is incredibly valuable, and you can only get that by watching and also reading TV scripts. I’ve found [that] personally really valuable because there’s something about seeing how it’s laid out and how many pages an act is. Different networks have different rhythms to them; some have six acts and some have four acts. Network is very different from cable. Prime cable is very different from all of that. You really need to understand the market that you’re going into and the language of what you’re going into. I think that’s the first and biggest step to figuring out how to rewrite to make it successful for the place you want it to go.
JP: There are, and with good reason. It’s a wonderful place to be working right now. There’s so much good content and there are so many outlets now. The “write a spec for a show that currently exists” model is really out of fashion. What people really want to read is your original work. Whether that’s a spec pilot, which I did, which sort of was the thing that helped me get into Fairly Legal, or a play or a feature; my experience is that people just really want to see that you can tell a story that holds together, that’s structured well, that has compelling characters, and they will start to call you in based on the work. I think original writing is really what’s capturing people’s attention right now.
Halt and Catch Fire season two airs next summer.
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