In the #HWire blog's "Where Are They Now?" series, we check in with Harvardwood program alums to find out what they've been up to and to showcase their accomplishments since participating with Harvardwood!
Julie Wong MPP '97 is currently staffed on Grey's Anatomy, though after attending Harvard Kennedy School, she first worked in campaigns and government at the local, state, and federal levels. She was selected to be a CAPE ("Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment") TV Fellow and a participant of the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. In addition, Julie has participated in the Harvardwood Mentorship Program and the Harvardwood Writers Program, in which she led multiple TV modules.
Q. You used to work in politics. What inspired you to shift career gears to TV writing?
A. I’ve always loved to write and I’ve always loved television, but I grew up in a small Northern California suburb and never really thought about being a TV writer as a career. Instead, I went into politics and helped elected officials and candidates tell their stories. But then I realized that I had stories of my own that I wanted to tell.
Q. How do you think your years spent as a political communications director impacts your TV writing?
A. In politics, I worked with my bosses to write speeches, craft responses to media inquiries, and even answer constituent questions, so I’m comfortable writing in someone else’s voice. That’s been very helpful to me, especially joining a show with such established characters. I’m also pretty good about accepting notes and rewriting—I don’t get attached to my own words.
Q. In addition to being a past participant of the HWP-TV Modules, then going on to lead them, you've been a CAPE New Writers Fellow and were selected to participate in the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. In what ways were these programs most useful to you?
A. Getting accepted into the CAPE fellowship in 2015 was a huge turning point for me because it was the first time I seriously thought I might be able to work as a TV writer. It also gave me an amazing support system, particularly the other eight writers from my fellowship year.
The CBS Writers Mentoring Program took my writing career to a whole new level. Carole Kirschner (who runs the program) focuses on the business aspects of being a writer and the whole team at CBS works hard to open doors for the mentees. I also had the opportunity to develop a pilot under the guidance of two CBS executives who very generously shared their time, experience, and talents with me.
The steadiest presence in my writing journey, though, was the HWP-TV modules. I participated in six consecutive modules to give me the structure and deadlines that I needed to finish my specs and pilots while working full-time. The peer feedback system also made my work stronger and allowed me to practice addressing and giving notes. I wrote the spec and pilot scripts that got me into CAPE and CBS in HWP-TV modules. And I wrote the first draft of the pilot that got me staffed on Grey’s Anatomy in a drama module.
Q. What was it like, meeting or interviewing with Shonda Rhimes for the first time?
A. It was amazing, exciting, and intimidating all at once. I mean, she’s SHONDA RHIMES!
Q. How was your first day in the writers' room at Grey's Anatomy? Any tips for new writers joining a room as a first-time staff writer?
A. In the Grey’s pilot, the new interns (including Meredith Grey) run around desperately trying to do a good job on their first day even though they don’t really know what they’re doing. My first day pretty much felt like that… except it all took place in one room with everyone watching. Fortunately for me, there were several other new staff writers this season, so I didn’t have to be new and alone. The upper-level writers have also been extremely supportive and helpful. I think my best advice for new writers joining a room is to seek out peers and mentors who will help you survive and succeed.
Q. Now in its 14th season, Grey's Anatomy is such a beloved powerhouse of a TV show. Were there any experiences, unexpectedly positive or challenging, that you think are unique to getting staffed on a show that's been so well established before you came on board?
A. I had to watch 293 episodes of TV just to have baseline knowledge of the show. I’d get up early to watch an episode or two before work, and I’d come home and watch as many as I could before falling asleep. After two weeks, one of my non-TV writer friends asked me if I was done. Um… no!
Q. You co-wrote "Games People Play," which aired just last month! What can you share about that process, from outline to completed draft, then going on set...?
A. We typically break our stories together in the room, so “Games People Play” is definitely a collaborative effort that benefitted from the entire writing team’s involvement. I co-wrote the episode with Co-Executive Producer Jason Ganzel (pictured with Julie on set to the right) who helped usher me through the intense writing process and show me the ropes as the writer on set. One of my favorite milestones while working on that episode was the table read—it was fun to hear our cast bring the script to life and to see the production team’s initial response to the episode. And the entire experience helped prepare me to write my first solo script—an episode that will air later in April (2018).
Q. Any advice for writers currently going through staffing season?
A. I benefitted from practicing for staffing meetings by saying my responses to potential questions aloud—not just thinking about how I’d respond to questions or writing down the things I wanted to get across (which I also did), but actually saying them. In the CBS program, we were forced to do this during mock showrunner meetings that we had almost every week for several months. But I also practiced by myself, usually while driving in my car. I’m sure it looked weird to other drivers, but I’m convinced it also helped me get staffed.