By Michael Robin AB '08
Roberto Patino '06 is a writer and executive producer on HBO's Westworld. He has written and produced Prime Suspect, Sons of Anarchy, and The Bastard Executioner. His feature Cut Bank, starring Michael Stuhlbarg, John Malcovich, Liam Hemsworth, and Billy Bob Thornton, came out in 2014.
Q. How did your experience at Harvard inform your path? Were there any professors or instructors who pushed you to pursue writing?
A. Brighde Mullins, who was teaching Screenwriting in the English department when I was an undergrad, was the first person to take my scripts—and me as a screenwriter—seriously.
The first thing she read was my application to write a creative thesis when I was a junior. I had written a couple scripts by that point but I'd never really shown them to anyone. For the application, I took the first ten pages of one of my scripts, and reworked them obsessively. Submitting that was the first time I took something I'd written for me alone, as opposed to, say, a class assignment, and showed it to someone. It was the first time I put myself out there and said in some kind of official way that this is what I really want to do. I was terrified.
Brighde responded to my work well and agreed to advise my thesis. She was tireless in this capacity. If there was ever the faintest whiff of something careless or something I didn't think through, she'd sniff it out and drill in on it. I spent the summer after my junior year writing the first draft of my thesis screenplay, and in the first session I had with her at the top of my senior year, she gave it back to me and it had red Xs across every page. She made me throw it out and start over. Those sessions were very tough but also so lovely—she was very hard on me while also being so affirming. She expected a certain standard of excellence from me, and however much I put into it, she would match that level of attention and personal investment. Everything I brought to the table was examined and questioned. She taught me to be purposeful with everything I write. If I sought her out, she would avail herself; if I was really dedicated to, say, defending a certain beat in my story, she would go toe-to-toe with me and defend her take, but be open to mine—she welcomed my dissent and forced me to be resolved in what I was writing.
My big takeaway from her was to not let any word go to waste. In a screenplay, there's a limited amount of real estate—and the whiter the page, the better. Brighde taught me to be very intentional about everything I write. I emerged from that experience confident that screenwriting is what I wanted to pursue.
Q. What were some of your formative TV experiences?
A. I grew up not watching TV. Aside from the weather channel during hurricane season and presidential elections, watching TV was just something we didn't do in my house. So I came to the medium rather late. After college. It was The Wire that showed me what you can do with a broad canvas, that really opened my eyes to the long-form story. The Wire blew me away. I remember at the end of season one, McNulty goes and arrests Avon Barksdale—this event you've been waiting for for the entire season—and it just happens. There's no fanfare, that's it. It's just a scene amongst a sequence, without any music. I think McNulty even says, "This isn't as much fun as I thought it would be." The audacity of it... it just completely stripped what I'd come to expect from a big climax in a story of everything but for the characters and the drama. And then as the story kept sprawling out laterally, I kept looking for some resolution—some moment when it's all going to come back together—but that of course never came. There is no resolution. That concept alone punched me in the face and redefined for me what a season of TV could be capable of, and it got me interested in pursuing the medium. It made TV feel new. Surprising. Full of exciting opportunity as far as storytelling goes.
Q. How did you get your start in television?
A. After I graduated from Harvard, I went to USC's film production program for a year, then took a semester off to start working for David Ayer. He was directing Street Kings. It was a lovely experience—he gave me free rein on set, and I was right next to him the whole time. After production was over, he brought me on as a post-production PA, then asked to read a script of mine. I gave him my senior thesis. He liked it, and told me to go bum around Mexico and write some scripts.
I didn't do that, but his feedback was the kick-in-the-pants that I needed. I started tutoring, took another semester off from film school, and wrote a script that was a finalist at the Sundance Feature Lab. That got me an agent. Then came the pressure to write something commercial. I kept hearing, "You write thrillers. Write something like the Bourne films." I started down the road with this very forced idea—I didn't love it. Working on it was a slog. And in some sort of cathartic way, I put that idea aside, and started writing this script called Cut Bank that was really just fun. I thought of it as a healthy exercise, playing with characters that I'd ginned up, characters that I quickly started caring for and stories that I was having fun with. I kind of burped that script out, really. And it ended up getting positive reviews from around town, and landed on the Blacklist in 2009. So in a very passive way, I ended up dropping out of film school.
It was around then that television shows—and the prospect of writing on them—really popped up on my radar. So I wrote a pilot, got meetings, and got my first staff job on a legal show called Outlaw. It lasted only seven episodes, but that gig landed me a staffing job on Prime Suspect, which I loved—the staff and the show were both so incredible—and Prime Suspect got me in the door at Sons of Anarchy, where I worked for four years.
Q. What was it like to work on Sons of Anarchy?
A. I came onto Sons as a staff writer, when the show was already a well-oiled machine. Kurt Sutter allowed me to grow into my own. On a craft-level, he is one of the best showrunners out there. He's perfectly calibrated to every aspect of the show, and he delegates. He taught me that good showrunners are like CEOs—they can't do everything, so they have to be master delegators. And they have to surround themselves with people they trust. Kurt enfranchised people. My first year, he put me in charge of pre-production of each episode. So just like that, I was heading wardrobe meetings, location meetings, budget meetings, props meetings. His philosophy was chucking you into the water and forcing you to learn how to swim. As a producer, that experience was invaluable. Working under Kurt was in many ways like a grad school education. In time, I started covering production and co-running the writers' room.
When Sons ended, he asked me to run his follow-up show, The Bastard Executioner. I ran the writers' room in Los Angeles, then moved to Wales for that for five months, and oversaw physical production on that show. The show didn't work out, but off of that job, I was brought onto Westworld to do a similar thing for the first season. There have been points during my career where it was really challenging—times when I was navigating a lot of uncertainty, a lot of budgets that were spread dangerously thin, a lot of times when it just felt like the ground beneath you was going to open up and swallow you whole—but, I've come to find that as long as I am fully dedicated to whatever it is I am doing, it always comes together and it always yields personal forward progress. Opportunities that I could not possibly have foreseen have seemed to open up when I am fully committed to the gig at hand. Sons certainly laid the groundwork for that mentality and work ethic.
Q. How did you get your start on Westworld? What's it been like working on such a complex show?
A. I came onto Westworld two years ago, while production had already started on the first season. They had shot about two-thirds of season one, then shut down production for a few months. That's when I came on. We had rough cuts of the first six episodes—all of this raw material, this footage that was so beautiful—and in addition to breaking and helping write and produce the final third of the season, I spend a lot of time in the editing rooms. Then in season two, I've been tied to the material from the ground up, from inception to writing and producing to execution and delivery.
During editing and post production, my guiding question is always: What is the most compelling story? The scripts? They're behind us now. Yes, we started out with an idea, and honed that into what we thought were compelling stories on the page. But now we're on the screen. It becomes such a nuanced craft. Every micro-calibration in a performance, every choice a director or DP makes can bring so much to the story that you had not imagined up to that point. Even an unintended glance in a performance can totally re-inform a scene. We're in post now for Season 2 and our process has been to weave the best elements across the board into the most compelling one-hour episode. It's a lovely feeling getting to see the evolution of the story you set out to tell being told in ways that surprise you.
Q. Who are some of your primary creative influences?
A. I love films that, on a story level, are clean and elegant. My two favorite movies are Le Samuraï, a French noir directed by Jean-Pierre Melville that's so spare and just so damn cool. And I also love A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson, about a man who escapes a Nazi prison in World War II—it's so spare and obsessively methodical in its storytelling. Regarding screenplays, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples' screenplay for Blade Runner is the one of my favorite examples of a script that just gets out of the way and lets the story play. It's amazing—I do love that screenplay. And the film.
Q. How has growing up as a child of Colombian immigrants informed your writing?
A. I was the youngest of four; I have three older sisters, and my family moved from Bogotá to Miami right before I was born.
So I grew up very thoroughly entrenched in Colombian norms and traditions. But I grew up as my parents found their footing in this country, so I never really had the shock of adapting to a new way, nor was I very aware of my parents' struggles as they adapted, because I was living it—it was my norm. That mirrored my experience growing up in Miami; it's a magical city, such a rich stew of race and class and so many different worldviews—so much so that I never really had to consider what it meant to be Colombian, to be the son of immigrant parents. Most everyone was the child of immigrants, so it just didn't really factor into how I viewed myself or how I carried it into the things I pursued. It was only at Harvard that my Colombian heritage started to mean something. I met people who came wearing their heritage on their sleeve, people who were driven by their culture. So in that regard, Harvard challenged me to confront my own identity—to define what it meant to me, to be proud of it, to defend it, and to think of it as something I can contribute as opposed to something I simply am.
As that pertains to my writing, I guess I tend to approach the main players in my stories with a certain cultural blindness. It's more like they start out as an amorphous collection of emotions and qualities and truths that come from some history. What's important to me is to work with characters that feel true. Growing up among a million different ethnicities and worldviews certainly played a major role in developing that approach.
Q. Any advice for writers who are just starting out?
A. For me, the name of the game is twofold: you have to stick around until after the dust settles—you have to hang on and hang in there and keep showing up to work, even if work is at a cafe or a library. And you have to figure out how to be kind to yourself. That's the only way to stay sane and healthy and to have any degree of longevity.
It's important to be honest with yourself about what it is you are setting out to accomplish in the immediate future, in the five-year plan, and in the thirty-year plan, and you need to be able to honestly evaluate the steps you've taken as well as what steps you're hoping or planning to take. And even when forward progress is not quantifiable or is objectively minimal, you have to celebrate it. Your achievements can be massive and press-worthy, but they can also be very quiet or internal. Those are the ones that that are easy to brush off, but it's important to honor and celebrate that growth.