Sarah Heyward: Inside the 'Girls' Writers' Room
From Harvard to HBO, Girls writer Sarah Heyward discusses her move from aspiring novelist to screenwriter.
Years spent mastering the art of character and story pacing combined with an almost freakishly lucky break is how Sarah Heyward landed one of the most coveted writing jobs in Los Angeles. The youngest writer on HBO’s Girls besides show creator Lena Dunham, 29-year-old Heyward graduated from Harvard in 2006 then spent a year in New York as a nanny and interning at The Paris Review literary magazine. After New York, Heyward headed to the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she prepared for a career as a novelist, before a visiting professor, author and HBO’s Bored to Death creator Jonathan Ames, suggested she try screenwriting.
“Even though I love TV and movies, [screenwriting] was something that had never occurred to me ever for even a second,” Sarah says.
Heyward moved to LA after graduate school and took a job as an assistant to writer-director Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Please Give, Friends With Money) before landing an assistant’s job on Dunham’s then brand new series, Girls. A stroke of pure Hollywood luck moved her from grabbing coffee to eventually nabbing a Writers Guild of America award with the rest of the show’s scribes.
“While we were shooting the pilot, one of my bosses, [executive producer] Jenni Konner, just asked if she could read some of the fiction I had written when I was in Iowa,” Sarah says. “I printed out one short story for her and she was reading it on set. Lena sort of picked it up and asked what it was and Jenni, who’s extremely supportive, was like, ‘Oh, Sarah’s a writer. You should read it.’ Lena read it and then literally two weeks later, she hired me to write on the show.”
Heyward now holds her own in the writers’ room alongside heavy hitters including Dunham and executive producer Judd Apatow and has sold her own original feature film script to Zooey Deschanel’s production company, Good Universe. As Girls airs its third season on HBO January 12, Heyward discusses the challenges of weeding through viewer criticism and airing dirty laundry in front of male writers and producers nearly twice her age.
Sarah Heyward: I don’t want to overstate. Shoshanna is a creation that Lena came up with. … I don’t want to act like I created this character, but definitely all of Shoshanna’s pop culture references, the fact that she’s the most traditionally girly of the four girls, and a lot of her silly feminine little funny ways about her, a lot of that comes from me. She loves making lists. She can rattle off her top five favorite anything. All of that just comes from my personality. It’s not like I necessarily put it in the scripts, but just the other writers knowing me. We all end up writing lines for Shoshanna that could be something I had said. More specifically, the first season, we were sort of incorporating more emotional elements from my virginity loss experience. It didn’t follow the exact same path as Shoshanna, but we definitely were using little things that had happened to me and to Lena. It wasn’t just me.
SH: Definitely, because it’s not even just Judd. There are a few other men in their late ‘40s and I had to get used to talking about virginity, but also way worse. We’ll talk about yeast infections, things that you don’t want to talk about to anyone, and I’m staring at a man that’s 48 and talking about it. That part was kind of funny and I had to get over it, but our writers’ room is a particularly warm and nurturing environment. Lena and Jenni Konner are at the head of it and they just make it feel so safe and open. Everyone is telling personal stories. It’s like a therapy session, so I got over it pretty quickly, and those 48-year-old men are now some of my best friends and they know things about me that a lot of people don’t.
SH: Oh yeah, and it was really hard. … Fiction comes much more naturally to me. I’m very focused. I had been like, “I’m a fiction writer. That’s what I am,” so psychologically it was a shift. Screenwriting is very, very structure-based in a way that writing a short story, while it can be structure-based, you have a lot more freedom. Especially when you’re starting out in screenwriting, you really want to prove that you understand structure and that you can write a well-structured episode of a TV show or a well-structured movie. I felt like I was really starting from scratch learning all that stuff when some other people had been working on screenwriting since they were in high school.
SH: In LA, it’s sort of a novelty that I was a fiction writer. For example, when they were hiring on Girls, I sat in on some meetings where Judd Apatow was telling Lena [she] really should be hiring people that aren’t traditional comedy writers. “Let’s get a playwright. Let’s get a fiction writer,” so just in terms of job opportunities, it can be an advantage. In terms of the actual writing, I think this would be the case with any type of writing overlapping with each other, but everything I learned about character and backstory, all the stuff that doesn’t end up on the page in a movie but helps you so much when it comes to writing the dialogue, all of that I can draw on my fiction experience to build characters. A lot of the stuff is the same, like short and long lines of tension, like creating a moment. I just had to sort of shift my brain to deal with the more visual, like stop thinking in beautiful sentences that I wanted to get on the page and think more in moments I wanted to capture.
SH: Season three is interesting because there are a lot of expectations from viewers. Season one we could do whatever we wanted. Season two, when we were writing it, season one hadn’t even aired yet, so there really weren’t that many outside voices coming in. Season three, now we’re an established show. We’ve heard the criticisms. We’re taking them into account. There’s a lot more outside voices in our head. We’re not just alone cloistered in the writers’ room, safe from the outside world. There isn’t really a specific challenge. It’s more just trying to listen to what we think is good criticism from outsiders about increasing diversity on the show or people’s opinions of different characters and relationships. We listen to everything. We don’t always follow it, but it definitely is a conversation. Accepting that we are now part of culture and taking responsibility for that is what went into season three.
SH: That is all Lena because she’s a genius. It’s such a collaborative process and unlike other show creators, she’s there for every single part of it. We do not meet without her. She’s in the writers’ room with us. She’s on set everyday no matter what. It’s her voice and we’re just executing it. While of course we’re contributing ideas and jokes, the fact that Lena is this unifying presence means I’m never worried that there’s going to be an inconsistency in tone. It’s all coming from her and she knows exactly what she wants. She remembers everything that we’ve done already. She has very clear and specific ideas for the future. I’m sure I could ask her, “What’s Marnie going to be doing in the year 2044?” and she would have an answer for me, so I never worry about that.
SH: It would be very strange right now if one of the other actresses on the show suddenly was in the writers’ room, but I think because Lena, because it’s her creation and I don’t think she would say that she’s an actress first and foremost. I think she would say writer, director, actress … so it doesn’t feel like one of the actors in the room. It feels like it’s the show creator and she happens to act on the show. It’s actually really helpful because the Hannah scenes, we don’t have to worry at all about are we hitting the right tones for her as an actress? Is she going to be able to do this? Is she going to be comfortable with this? All of those questions just go away for the Hannah scenes because Lena’s right there.
SH: Probably just that I personally am not always the best gauge of what other people are going to like. Lines that I think couldn’t possibly get cut get cut. Story lines that I think would be perfect don’t end up working. It’s interesting with Girls because it’s not my show, it’s Lena’s show. In a world where it was my show, I would get to make that final decision. Even if you’re writing a movie alone, you’re getting notes from tons of people. I’ve had to learn to just deal with that. Honestly, the end result is almost always better than how it would have been if I had just gotten my way.
SH: My most annoying piece of advice, if they actually want to follow my exact career footsteps, is to move to LA because it’s next to impossible to start a screenwriting career unless you have major, major connections, and even then I think LA is the place to be because everyone you meet is involved in the industry in some way and you get jobs through connections you could never imagine. In a cool way, you get to end up working with a lot of your friends, which is nice. I also think starting to write as soon as you’re interested in it. I’m so in awe of people like Tavi Gevinson who started Rookie mag. … Everyone I talk to who’s in high school, I’m telling them they should be blogging, they should be trying to submit stuff to websites that already exist, they should be starting their own websites. If they have the power to do more than that and make a movie or write a novel, they should try to do that, but get started as soon as you realize what you’re interested in.
Season Three of Girls premieres January 12 at 10 p.m. EST on HBO.
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