ERICA SHELTON KODISH: Showrunner, BEING MARY JANE
Erica Shelton Kodish was a writer and producer on shows like CSI: NEW YORK, COLD CASE and THE GOOD WIFE before taking over the showrunner position on BET'S BEING MARY JANE. A native of Detroit and graduate of Northwestern, Erica was the recipient of the Courtney and Stephen J. Ross Fellowship at USC, which was "designed to give deserving women an opportunity to pursue a degree in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts."
What are your top 3 tips for building a writing career?
Study the craft. Thanks to the internet, anyone can read some of the best TV/films scripts ever written just by googling them. Don’t just look at the structure, but how things are handled on the page. There are all kinds of lessons to be learned just by reading the works of other writers. Often, you will find an artfulness in the way a character is introduced or a skillfulness in the way a tragic blow is delivered. I read the script for THE TERMINATOR in college and still to this day I marvel at how deftly James Cameron handled the action sequences. There is a crispness to the description that makes even the rather involved action sequences a pleasure to read.
Let it sit. After completing a script don’t immediately send it out to 100 of your closest friends. Let it sit for a few days or even a week. Forget about it. Then re-read it. Putting some distance between you and your masterpiece will help you see it more objectively. Things that didn’t occur to you when you were in the “writing cave” will suddenly become clear.
Know how to tell your story. Once you have a few great writing samples under your belt, you’ll get to a place where you have to meet industry people and talk about yourself. Craft that story. We all have unique qualities and experiences. Highlight those things. If the only thing you’re sharing is the city you’re from and where you went to school, you’re not crafting your story.
Can you tell us about a moment, either before or during your career, when you were dealt a blow to your screenwriting dream, and you had to find a way to regroup and soldier on?
Getting my writing career off the ground seemed insurmountable. After graduate school a professor told me to expect it to take 5-8 years to launch your career. It took every bit of that. I wanted desperately to be in a television writing room and I couldn’t even seem to land a writing assistant position. It was very difficult because others seemed to be having a much easier time of it. But I’ve learned in this business, it does you no good to compare yourself to others. None. In the end, it didn’t really matter that it took me a little longer to get there. What matters is that I persevered. Yes, there were some who got there faster. There were others who took a lot longer too. In hindsight, I noticed that the only people who didn’t eventually break through were the ones that gave up.
You've got a script due. There are a million distractions including but not limited to your child, your fatigue, your unanswered emails. Take us through how you get the script done.
Honestly, I’m still figuring this out. Copious amounts of coffee is a must. In the wee hours of the morning is the only time I seem to get any writing done. So I have to do my best to plan for several late nights.
What advice would you give to women of color who hope to build a successful writing career? Has a WOC Hollywood community been important to you? What about a mentor?
It takes a village. For me, it was a patchwork of African-American writers, a tight group of women writers, women of color and a couple key mentors who made it possible for me to have a writing career. For a WOC the challenges are steep. That’s the reason it’s important to have a network of people with whom to discuss these challenges. This group made it possible for me to persist when I was full of self-doubt or just dealing with the everyday challenges of the business.
So, I would advise any women of color to find a network of people to use as a sounding board. And don’t be afraid to ask writers/showrunners you admire to meet with you. I found one mentor simply by introducing myself and asking for help.
Are you living your career dream, or is there more yet to unfold?
The good or bad thing about working in Hollywood is there are always new heights. I’m running a show right now, which was my dream back when I was an undergrad in Northwestern’s TV/Film program, but I have yet to successfully create my own show. That’s the next step.
Tell us how you came to this career.
I knew I wanted to write for television when I was in the womb practically. Okay, maybe not that early, but I began thinking about it when I was a teenager and I had no idea how to make it happen. Aftergraduating college and working in TV news in Chicago, I beat the odds and won a full-scholarship to attend USC Graduate Screenwriting Program. One of the best things about film school was the internships opportunities. I interned at various production companies around town and after I graduated, I landed a job as an assistant for director/producer Thomas Carter. During the day, I would learn as much as I could about the business and write at night. Working for Carter proved to be an invaluable experience. It provided an education on how the business truly works and Carter became a life-long mentor. He was the one who hounded agents to read my scripts. His efforts paid off because I got an agent and that agent got me my first gig on CSI:New York where I worked as a writer’s assistant and co-wrote two scripts. I still get advice from Carter even today. This is the reason why it drives me crazy when I meet young aspiring writers here in Los Angeles who aren’t taking advantage of the entry-level jobs and internship opportunities. It’s experiences, relationships and lessons from those jobs that can launch your career.
What are the films and TV shows that inspire you? Is there anyone who’s career is a beacon of inspiration for you?
Right now, I’m entranced by shows which have a unique vision or vibe and approach it with conviction. ATLANTA, which for me is the 2017 SEINFELD, where it’s not about the plot or premise. It’s about the particular way the characters see the world.
Of course, Shonda Rhimes is a powerhouse. I have been fortunate enough to work for some fantastic showrunners like Veena Sud who managed to be amazingly organized, fair and creative all at the same time. I’m failing miserably at achieving her level of showrunning wizardy, but I aspire to reach that level someday.
For all the working moms out there, what are your top 3 time management/sanity management tips?
Amazon…or any delivery service of your choice. I order everything online. Everything. And automate it. Things like toothpaste is delivered at regular intervals. Cut out all trips to the grocery store, Costco, Target, etc. They are huge time wasters.
Accept that things will fall through the cracks. Holiday cards didn’t happen this year. And photos of the baby’s first birthday were sent like two months later.
Hire a babysitter and set aside one day a month just to get things done around the house. It helps me feel more sane if I feel like I have “something” under control even if it’s just the shoes in my closet.