Adopt a Writer: CATHRYN MICHON Interview

Adopt A Writer

This interview is part of the Adopt a Writer project.

Cathryn Michon

CATHRYN MICHON is one of the many writers affected by the strike. She was nice enough to take time out of her day to speak with me and talk about how she started writing, the way the strike has affected her, as well as her plans once the strike is over (which I guess would be now).

Cathryn Michon is a writer but also an actress and stand-up comic. Some of her writing credits include “China Beach,” “Designing Women,” “Diagnosis Murder,” and “Side Order of Life.” In addition, Cathryn Michon is also the author of two books “The Grrl Genius Guide to Life” and “The Grrl Genius Guide to Sex” both based on her very own Grrl Genius philisophy. More recently, Cathryn Michon has produced a film, “Cook-Off!”, slated for release in 2008.

You can visit Cathryn Michon’s website to learn more about her and her Grrl Genius philosophy.

Can you talk a little bit about how you got into writing?

Cathryn Michon: I am an alumni of The Second City in Chicago, so I actually came to writing through improv, and I am also an actress and a comic. So my entree into writing was really more writing down stuff that we said earlier that was funny. My introduction to writing for television is kind of one of those great lucky breakable time things, I had a play that I had written that the woman who was the reader for “China Beach” had seen. She knew me from Carnegie Mellon and recommended me to John Wells, Carol Flint, and Lydia Woodward on “China Beach.” They wanted to hire a very young woman writer because this was the last season of the show and it was a show about young women. So they decided to hire someone as young and inexperienced as the actual characters on the show. I was hired as what is called a “staff writer,” which means you don’t get screen credit on the weekly show, you just kind of get to go to film school for free and that’s what happened to me. It was a huge break and those people have been great mentors to me and I’m really grateful to them.

Can you talk a little more about that experience on “China Beach”? How does the staff writing work?

Cathryn Michon: Well, that show was really one of the best experiences you could ever have and John Wells and John Sacret Young were really the reasons for that. Even though I was the lowest person on the totem pole, I was included in everything and I learned everything about editing, casting, dubbing, production meetings, concepts meetings. We were included in everything, which is not always the case on a TV show, it tends to be very hierarchical and usually only higher level staff get to go to all those things. I actually wrote two episodes of the show, but I really got to learn all these other production things which was such an amazing opportunity.

Can you talk about your experience on “Side Order of Life” and how different it was from “China Beach”?

Cathryn Michon: That experience was great also. The woman who created the show, Margaret Nagle, is a friend of mine and someone who is like me also an actress. Margaret is one of the best natural storytellers you’d ever want to meet, if you have lunch with her she’ll tell you a bunch of great stories, she’s just a storyteller, and I was one of many friends that encouraged her into “You gotta write that stuff down, you ought to consider being a writer as well as an actress” so just as a friend I read many drafts of the show and talked out things with her long before it was picked up by Lifetime. I think it was a great show, and since the topic is the strike, I sort of feel like many things, it hasn’t officially not been picked up but since nothing can be picked up at this time its future is pretty uncertain, and I think that’s unfortunate because it really was a lovely show. I mean it got some of the best reviews I’ve ever seen for a pilot.

I was looking forward to finding out what happened next on “Side Order of Life,” so I hope I’m not going to be disappointed.

Cathryn Michon: Yes. You know Margaret has very much got a big vision for where she wants the show to go. This is such a weird and awful time. I wasn’t in the business last time there was a strike and people are not meant to not work. So it’s just a pretty strange time.

On that note, how has the strike affected you in your personal and in your professional life?

Cathryn Michon: Really bad (laughs). Well, in our professional lives, everyone does not have a professional life as far as Hollywood is concerned at the moment. Most of my friends are in show business, just because we all work such long hours, those are the people you know, and I don’t know anyone that hasn’t been affected. Even my hairdresser told me that on the first day of the strike his appointments were down 25%. Everybody says the same thing, it really just affects everyone here. The loss in income to the city has been really bad. I know that you guys are supportive of writers, it’s been said many times we are really just looking for a fair deal in new media. The way the payment of actors, writers, and directors is structured is that we take a risk along with the company. We get paid for our initial work and then if the work we created is successful, if it goes into syndication, or it goes into reruns, or on DVD, or whatever the further downstream version of it is, we then share in that success. If it’s a flop, we don’t. That’s pretty fair, and if you had to pay everyone up front for as successful as anything might be, no one could afford to make entertainment, it would be too expensive. All we’re really asking for is the same kind of split whether you watch it on your computer screen or a TV screen, whether you get it from Netflix or download it to your hard drive. We are not asking for anything more than we’ve ever gotten, we’re just asking for the same. Seems pretty reasonable to me.

Do you have any projects that you are working on during the strike?

Cathryn Michon: Oh sure. We’re mostly independent contractors/freelancers. I’ve published books, I’m a stand up comic, I’ve always worked on things that aren’t necessarily film or television projects and I’m part of Strike TV, which is a venture where we are introducing web content that we are creating, I would have been interested in that regardless of whether or not there was a strike. I’m an independent filmmaker, we had film that premiered at this past year’s Aspen Comedy Festival, so for a long time I’ve been doing things that are outside of the studio network system, as well as working on shows like “Side Order of Life.” So yes, I’m still working on the things I’m allowed to work on, I just can’t write a screenplay for someone else and I can’t work on someone else’s TV show and I can’t pitch projects.

What is the name of the film you mentioned that was at the Aspen Comedy Festival?

Cathryn Michon: It’s a film that was adapted from a book I wrote. It’s adapted from a chapter in “The Grrl Genius Guide to Life” and it’s called “Cook-Off!” and it’s sort of “Best In Show” meets “A Million Dollar Bake Off.” It has an amazing cast with Diedrich Bader, who was in “Office Space,” Stephen Root, who also was in “Office Space,” Mindy Sterling, who is in “Austin Powers,” Markie Post, who is in “There Is Something About Mary,” a bunch of people from the cast of “Reno 911!,” a bunch of people from “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a lot of improvisers, because a lot of the dialogue in the movie was improvised. As far as we know it’s supposed to come out in 2008, but that’s up to powers that be that aren’t me. It won the Jury Prize at Aspen for Best Comedy Performance and everywhere it’s been shown so far people have loved it, so it’s a really cool project.

What inspired you to write the “Grrl Genius” books?

Cathryn Michon: I don’t know about you, but most women I know suffer from unreasonably low self-esteem, though most of them are great. And they never think they’re pretty enough, or smart enough, or talented enough, and I am certainly no exception. So I decided to start over-compensating just so that I could get to normal. I just decided to declare myself a Grrl Genius based on nothing, no IQ test or anything, I just thought “Well I’ll just aim high and see if I can end up at average” and I found that that idea resonated with a lot of people. And even guys like it, because guys are tired of women having low self-esteem. Every guy in the world dreads the most horrible question he could ever be asked “Do I look fat?” I say in my act it’s like Sophie’s Choice to a man, there’s no good answer, even acknowledging the question it means that you look fat in something or could be fat, so that’s sort of where the idea for the books came about and they have proved to be rather enduringly popular, so I’m grateful for that.

What’s the difference between writing a book and writing for a show?

Cathryn Michon: Well, writing for a book, if it’s terrible, there is really no one to blame but you (laughs). You can’t say “Oh well, you know that actress wasn’t really funny or the director wasn’t very talented or the network made me do it” or any of that. I have been really privileged, both books, the “Grrl Genius” books, had an amazing editor, a woman named Diane Reverand, and she loved my voice and only made the books better. But it’s a nervous feeling to know when it goes out to reviewers and what not that if they don’t like it you really have no one else to blame. I never thought that I would think that that was something that I would long for, but the first time the book went out I was like “Oh my God, if they don’t like it, it really is my fault.” But I was really lucky, both books got really encouraging and rave reviews so I didn’t get ripped by anybody.

Which one do you like writing better for?

Cathryn Michon: What I really like the best is what I got to do on “Cook-Off!” which was writing the script and then being in the cast and being part of it. That’s my background, as a writer performer, that was my favorite thing. I also hosted a television show for two years called “Grrl Genius at the Movies” where I got to kind of do the same thing and that’s probably my favorite; to do what Larry David does on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and what Tina Fey does on “30 Rock,” where you are both the writer and the performer.

How has the strike affected you performing now that you can’t really write?

Cathryn Michon: It affected it badly, except this series that we are doing on Strike TV that I am allowed to do. It’s internet content, I mean that’s the whole thing we’re fighting over so we don’t actually have a contract yet for the internet so I am allowed to do that work. I’m a member of SAG also, but SAG actors are allowed to work on the internet as well.

SAG actors are supporting the strike as well, so are they not allowed to perform either?

Cathryn Michon: Well, the way it’s gonna come down in TV at the moment is that really every series at this point is for the most part shut down, I think there are very few series that are shooting. In SAG because we have a no strike clause, if we have a contract we’re required to show up even though there’s a writers’ strike going on. But there were a number of cast members on “The Office” for example, people who are both writers and actors who decided sort of not to continue, because they had dual roles on their show. But I think the solidarity, for a lack of a better word, between SAG and WGA in the strike has been unprecedented and I think it has been a real surprise to the companies. What happened to the Golden Globes was a real surprise to them. I mean there’s seventy actors who were nominated and unanimously they said that they would not cross the picket line. And they’re saying the same thing about the Oscars so I think everyone’s hope is we can come to a good deal so that there can be an Oscars. I don’t know what an Oscars without movie stars will look like.

The DGA reached an agreement and some people thought that might lead to a new deal with the WGA, do you know anything about that?

Cathryn Michon: I’m hopeful that it will, it certainly has broken the stalemate in that our leaders are in informal talks directly with company heads. What’s been reported in the press, which is really all I know, is Bob Iger, from Disney, and Peter Chernin from FOX, are two of the CEOs who have been meeting informally with attorneys and our leadership. Certainly, there were gains in the DGA deal that were things that the companies said that they actually would never agree to. So it’s clear that that deal never could have come to but for the sacrifice of writers being willing to walk around in circles and driveways.

What are your plans once the strike gets resolved? What’s the first thing that you want to do?

Cathryn Michon: I’m gonna go to Disneyland. (laughs) No, we have a number of projects that were in process that we hope will still exist. I work alone and then I also have a writing partner, W. Bruce Cameron, is my writing partner sometimes, and we have a couple of film projects that we are hoping to resurrect once the whole strike ends. I would love it if “Side Order of Life” came back and work on that again that would be great. You know we just move forward, we’re independent contractors so we would be back in the place we always are which is working on things and getting things going and hoping that things get picked up that we’ve gotten going and that’s our lives and we’re used to that. What’s been really awful is the idea that no matter what you do nothing can happen. I’m used to rejection. Obviously we hear no much more often than we hear yes and that’s okay. We just want a chance to hear no. Now I’m looking forward to no actually, no would be exciting.

Since you guys are freelancers, how do go about getting on jobs?

Cathryn Michon: We have agents, a manager, and an attorney and they are responsible for letting people know what we are doing or if we’re publishing a new book or if we have a new screenplay and then also people call them and say “Hey, we’re looking for someone to write an episode” or “Hey, we’re looking for someone to be on staff” or “we have a movie assignment.” That’s how my life has been for a while. When I first broke in it was about someone who saw a play that I had written and that’s certainly how a lot of people kind of get seen, or they make a short film or now with the internet it’s so great, people can put content out there. I think it’s getting easier if you have really good work for people to be aware of you, which is a good thing.

Some people think that all the writers are really rich, can you tell us your side of that argument?

Cathryn Michon: Well, there has been these sort of dueling numbers. The AMPTP put up some number that I don’t even know where they got that said the average writer makes something like $200,000 in a year, it would be great and I won’t say that there aren’t years where you might make that amount. It isn’t backed up by the figures from our own union who believe me we all pay dues to on what we make, so they know exactly what we make, and the figure is much closer to $50,000-60,000 a year, which I don’t think most people regard that as being a millionaire, unless they are doing some kind of math I don’t understand. And the nature of it is, let’s say you’re a screenwriter, screenplays often sell in six figures but you don’t necessarily sell one every year. Somebody might have a great big screenplay sell where they made $200,000-300,000, but they might not sell one for 3 years. So you have to plan very carefully. But say your screenplay gets made and then that’s where all those things like the residual payments and all that come in. There are many years that I worked on something and then didn’t work for a while and the only reason I had health care or income was because something was in reruns or syndication. One show I can’t tell you how many times I have thanked Mister Dick Van Dyke as I worked on “Diagnosis Murder” and man that’s the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of income, because it’s been such a huge success in syndication.

Have you been surprised by the support the strike has gotten?

Cathryn Michon: It’s just really touching. I think writers are pretty used to being the ignored ones and I think that fans just think that “Oh the actors make that stuff up.” There has certainly been shows that I worked on where people wrote really nice fan letters or something, but I don’t think we ever anticipated that fans would be so supportive of us and it’s been really cool.

Is there something else you would like to add?

Cathryn Michon: We’re for the most part most people in Hollywood, not just writers, actors and directors as well. Mostly we’re middle-class to upper-middle class people. We went to college, we did whatever we did to get into this business, but the idea that most members of SAG or most members of the WGA are a bunch of millionaires or are just greedy is inaccurate. We’re mostly just regular middle or upper-middle class people. We make the kind of income and have the kind of problems that you’d expect to have if you were a college graduate who went into a profession. What bothers me is that everyone assumes that working in entertainment is glamorous and anyone that’s involved must have millions of dollars, I wish it were true and I actually hope it will be true. We take a risk first, we take a risk before Warner Bros. takes a risk, we risk our time, we risk our reputation, we risk our ideas. We’re entrepreneurs, and having produced an independent film I know how expensive it is and I know how much work it is and we should be partners. Most of the people that I worked with on the studio side are great people, I just hope that when this is settled everybody can get back to just being normal and stop the name calling and the demonizing on both sides, because it’s not helpful, we have to work together you know.

Read more interviews over at Adopt a Writer.