Andrew Colville AB ’94 is an Emmy-nominated and WGA Award-winning screenwriter. He studied English at Harvard and graduated in 1994.
Q: The first episode of the new series MONARCH: LEGACY OF MONSTERS that you executive produced is coming out on the 17th of this month. In what ways does the show reinterpret the canonical character Godzilla, and/or how does it pay homage to historical renditions of the monster?
We don’t reinterpret the character, but we do shift the perspective from which Godzilla is viewed. MONARCH takes the POV of the people staring up at this terrifying creature. How does it feel to be as insignificant to Godzilla as an ant is to us? Does life seem more fragile or precious? How does that vulnerability color your relationships with your friends and family? We try to imagine what it’s like emotionally to inhabit such a world.
Q: What are you most excited for audiences to see throughout the 10-episode arc? What’s been the most exciting or rewarding part of the process?
People are going to come to MONARCH for the monsters, but hopefully they’ll stay for the family saga. Imagine discovering that multiple generations of your family had secretly been chasing monsters. That it had gotten some of them killed and traumatized others, yet your father keeps trying to save the world -- and now you’ve gotten wrapped up in monsters too. Is it the family business, or the family curse?
Q: Your list of professional credits includes writer, producer, and executive producer on shows like MAD MEN and SEVERANCE. Do you prefer the producing roles or writing roles in the industry? Why?
I think writing is harder but more satisfying. There’s nothing that’s more fulfilling than creating something out of nothing, a scene from the blank page. I agree with what a colleague once said about screenwriting – “It is rocket science.”
Producing used to be sitting on set at video village and giving the actors a few line tweaks between visits to the craft services table. But with streaming and the larger scale of projects these days, producing has become much more demanding, another whole round in the writing process. On MONARCH we are constantly re-writing for location and visual effects. Not to mention for actors, who now come from movies and are used to having more creative input in the process. There are more balls to juggle in the air and a lot more pressure. But the thing that guides my producing is always the writing. I had a boss say that if you know the intention of a scene, why a character says or does something, then you can tell the costumer what clothes they would be wearing, or the set dresser what objects they keep on their desk. And if you know the story well, then you know what you must shoot and what you can live without.
Q: How did you know that you’d “made it” in the industry? Do you have a “big break” story?
I’m still waiting to feel like I’ve “made it” in the industry. But I remember the time when I felt like I had gotten my foot in the door.
I came up via the path of being an assistant, and one day my boss told me he needed to go to traffic school. Okay, I said, I’ll schedule you for some evening or weekend. Nope, he insisted, it’s got to be today (otherwise he’d be assessed points on his license). Fine, I said, I’ll find you something that meets right away. Are you nuts, he replied -- I have to run the writers’ room (these were the days before you could do traffic school online). So I needed to find a creative solution…
I called around, and when I heard a Russian voice on the other end of the phone I figured he might be open to “negotiation.” My boss and I drove over to his office, which had dirty chalkboards with flip-top desks. It was a Potemkin classroom, purely for show, and when we sat down with the proprietor he asked my boss for two things: “Show me a picture and a portrait.” We looked at each other – huh? The proprietor elaborated – he needed the photo from my boss’s driver’s license and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin from a hundred dollar bill. My boss turned to me and smiled, “You can have dibs on that line.” My law-breaking/loyalty was rewarded when he gave me my first staff writing job a couple years later. Though I’m still waiting for the right scene to use that line.
Q: When you approach your creative work, what are the core tenets that you try to follow in your process?
The first thing I do is gauge my immediate reaction to an idea. Is it exciting to me, and if so, why? Does it appeal to my heart, my mind, or hopefully both? Has it been done before, and if not, would I want to watch it? Then the tests get a little more technical – what form and length does it take? What genre(s) is it? How can I convince other people to feel the same way I do about this, and what would be the obstacles to selling it? Once I’ve written something, I only have two tests to evaluate it, which come from my wife, a casting director: Do I buy it? And do I feel it?
One thing I’ve learned the hard way over the years is to start with a unique character, versus a premise or hook. Even if you begin with a cool world, you need to raise your characters to the quality of that world. A producer I’ve often worked with says that the trick is to create a character so good that an exec will walk it down the hall of their office to present it to the boss. I keep that in mind, asking myself – is this a character somebody would walk down the hall?
Q: What’s been your favorite project you’ve worked on to date, and on what project have you learned the most?
My favorite series that I’ve worked on has been TURN, about Washington’s spy ring in the Revolutionary War. It wasn’t a hit, but I’ve had a number of people tell me how much they enjoyed it, how well-written and acted it was (my wife cast it). It’s also nice to be on a series for a long run. Not only do you get to tell the whole story you hoped to tell, you get to do it with your friends for a number of years.
Writing the first season of SEVERANCE was also lovely because the entire staff knew creator Dan Erickson had come up with something amazing, but it was something only we shared at the time. We hoped people would eventually come to love this world as much as we did, but for the moment it was just our little sandbox to play in.
Q: In what ways (if at all) did your time at Harvard influence the path you have taken since graduating?
The thing I gained from Harvard was inspiration. Whatever success you can aspire to, somebody from Harvard has probably already done it. And if they can do it, why can’t you? Some people might look at that as stifling, but I find it helpful and comforting to always have an example of somebody to look up to.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of pressure at Harvard to be considered a success right away, which often means funneling seniors into jobs in banking, consulting, and the law. But I remember talking with Stephen Greenblatt, the renowned Shakespeare professor, who related how he’d felt pressure at my age to become a lawyer. It wasn’t that he hated the idea, just that it didn’t quite suit him, and he held off doing what he was supposed to do until what he wanted to do became clear. It’s difficult to have patience, particularly for a Harvard student, and to be okay with not knowing where you’re headed, but I found his advice very helpful. A year later, when I was studying in England, I kept shirking my philosophy reading to go to movies at an arthouse cinema, and I realized I had found my calling.
Q: What advice do you have for young aspiring creatives hoping to break into television? Do you have a favorite TV show you’d always recommend that helped shape your creative voice as a writer?
I went to USC film school after Harvard, and my advice to people is – don’t do that. At least not as a grad student. You lose time that could be spent making industry contacts and the debt has been back-breaking for many of my classmates. I would have done Harvardwood instead if it had been around at the time, it’s impressive that this organization staffs more TV writers than film schools that cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. Try to avoid debt as much as possible so that you can take entry-level jobs that may not pay as much but build relationships.
I realized early on that Hollywood is an apprentice culture based on loyalty, which it mostly remains to this day. Being an assistant isn’t the only way in, but you do need someone to champion you or your writing. It’s dizzying the number of scripts that are submitted to showrunners, and the choice for them is reading pilot after pilot from strangers or playing with their kids. So naturally people are going to give an opportunity to somebody they already know, particularly if they like that person. Even if that’s based more on getting them out of traffic school than the initial quality of your writing.
As for influences, THE SOPRANOS was the series that made me want to be a writer. It has everything – character, incident, specificity, an opinion about the state of our country, and especially humor. I’ve never seen anything that could be funny on so many levels, how you could laugh with and at the characters at the same time, even in the most dramatic situations. I remember Matt Weiner repeating something David Chase told him, to imbue the most serious scenes with humor and play the funniest scenes dead straight. The more some asshole wants something but can’t have it, the funnier it ends up being.
Q: How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
My wife and son and I are big LAFC supporters and we try to attend every game here. I’ve played soccer my whole life, but it’s been fun to see my wife go from being someone who barely cared about the game to becoming such a diehard fan.
I sang a lot at Harvard and love music of all sorts. I feel like the more I listen to music – versus putting on a podcast – the more I’m tapping into emotions and connecting to other people. People sing about the things they really want, and that gives you more insight into humanity – or at least the good parts of humanity – than whoever’s angling to be the next Speaker of the House.