Warren Hsu Leonard HLS '99 (Executive Story Editor, How to Get Away with Murder)
By Dayna Wilkinson
“If you want to write as your second or third career, don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t do it."
Warren Hsu Leonard wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school but he knew he wasn’t ready for college. "As an eighteen year old from a small town in Maine, I certainly didn't imagine I could end up in Hollywood.”
After taking some time off, Warren sold everything he owned and bought a one-way bus ticket to San Francisco. “The documentary scene there was amazing back then. I went to movies, interned for several politicians and worked for political and environmental causes.”
He soon learned how hard it was to make it in a big city without a college education. “Luckily there was a really good--and affordable--public education system. So I started at the City College of San Francisco, and found my passion for learning.”
He transferred to the University of California at Berkeley as a junior. “It was my dream school,” he says. “I took my first film and production courses there.” He earned a degree in film theory and history, but was at a career crossroads. "I thought I wanted to write and direct independent films, but I was also interested in politics and law.”
He applied to Harvard Law School on a lark. “Breaking into the film industry seemed so difficult--I took the safer option. Even if I didn’t practice law, I knew Harvard would be an amazing experience.”
He became a corporate attorney and eventually joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as Deputy General Counsel. “I tell people it’s entirely coincidental that during my short legal career, I worked at a prestigious law firm that collapsed, a car company that was bailed out and a baseball team that declared bankruptcy.”
All the while he wrote spec scripts. "I focused on my craft for about ten years," he says. "I actively participated in Harvardwood’s Writers Programs. I blogged, moderated panels and wrote for Script and Creative Screenwriting Magazines, becoming part of a community of writers trying to break in. It was the only way--I did a lot of intensive work before I felt I could leave the law and pursue writing full time.”
The hard work paid off. In 2012, Warren was named one of Harvardwood’s Most Staffable TV Writers and a semi-finalist at the Austin Film Festival for his spec script Street Legal. By 2013 he was a staff writer on TNT's Perception.
“Being in a writers’ room is about learning how story is constructed, but also about figuring out what kind of room it is and how you fit in," he says. "It can be overwhelming at first, but hey, you’re doing your dream job. Even as a very inexperienced writer, I had the opportunity to pitch and develop my own ideas.”
Warren is now the Executive Story Editor on How to Get Away With Murder. “It’s eerie, because the very first script I ever wrote--when I was at Harvard--was a TV pilot about four law students who got caught up in a murder mystery," he says. "What counts, though, is that there were elements in my Street Legal spec that were similar in tone to How to Get Away With Murder. That plus my legal background helped me get a meeting with the showrunner.
“On Perception, I’d develop an idea and pitch it to the showrunner, then go off on my own or with a senior writer and for many weeks break the story and write the outline and first draft of the script. How to Get Away With Murder is much more writers’ room-centric. The whole writing staff is in the room all the time, and you collaborate as a group. On both series it’s been great working in the room with more experienced writers, learning how they build story, character and structure.
"Because it was a crime procedural, on Perception we spent a lot of time finetuning the internal logic of each episode. But How to Get Away With Murder is about characters and it's a heightened reality. It’s less important that, say, the legal minutiae are completely accurate. We absolutely understand the law and legal issues we’re dealing with, but our goal is to create compelling character-based episodes."
When he's on hiatus, Warren will write spec scripts and take meetings. "Eventually my goal is to create my own show," he says, "And once I gain the knowledge and skill, I want to become a showrunner."
When asked if he has advice for aspiring TV writers, Warren offers the following:
"When you start taking meetings with showrunners and executives, it's important to relax and be yourself. Know what you have to offer. If you don't get a job or if it's not a great fit, that doesn’t mean your career is over. There are more shows out there than ever in different media. Find the people who value what you have to offer, and don’t discount your life experience—it helps when you get in the writers’ room. Hone your craft, don’t give up."
How to Get Away With Murder airs on Thursdays at 10pm ET.