Today, Dan Merchant has agreed to share his Success Story. Dan is a writer and producer for the hit show Z Nation, and he shares some great advice about being productive and successful.
REAL PEOPLE SUCCESS STORIES
My questions/comments are in bold, Dan’s follow in plain text
How did you get started?
I’ve been working in television production and entertainment, pretty much since college, and even during college. I would do little funny short films, and hosted a talk show, and things like that.
I guess my start in the industry would probably have to be summer camp seventh grade where I wrote skits in advance of attending camp, so that we would have good material for talent night.
That was it. It was also a nice way to talk to girls I was too intimidated to visit with otherwise. I’d go, “Hey, I wrote you a part,” and then we could talk about the script. That tells you almost too much about me right there. Yeah. That was it.
I was always a person who loved stories and movies. Loved TV shows as a kid, like Rockford Files, or Saturday Night Live, were both new. When I remember the dawn of watching television, those were the shows I went, “Oh, I want to make people feel like this.”
You just sort of find whatever it is you love or have a passion for or are drawn to somehow and then try and figure out if you can get paid for it. It’s hard but I was never somebody that was going to be able to go sell insurance or sell shoes and I was too bad at math to do half the other jobs.
I just figured out a way to keep moving forward and try and get better at writing and producing and directing. Eventually that creates opportunities and relationships are forged.
Then I end up with something like five seasons on Z Nation that’s virtually summer camp with a paycheck. I mean it’s so much fun, but you also end up being tired and dirty when it’s over.
Do you spend more time writing or most of your time as a producer? How do you spend the bulk of your day?
It depends. Talking about Z Nation, we have a designated period where Karl Schaefer, the show runner and co-creator of the show, along with Craig Engler, where we sit together, all the writers and we kind of conjure up what the next season is.
We’ll do a couple or three months of that. That’s all writing, all the time, although, part of what we’ve learned is to write what we can actually afford to shoot.
I’m one of the guys that’s a producer and a director as well, so that’s part of our weight in the writer’s room, is to go, all right, let’s focus that idea so it’s something we can actually do.
Then we’ll go away and write our episodes and then we shift over to pre-production where there’s still a little bit of writing but it’s mostly prepping the show. The writing that does happen is to try and tailor a given episode to a location we found. We are trying to make it shootable, then it’s all about production for a while.
Since I’m a “triple threat”, I write, produce, and direct, I have a pretty nice variety to my year. I may be alone with my computer trying to get the script out, or I’m with a big team kind of prepping the episode. Then if directing, I’m the quarterback of the team and its lots of interacting.
You’ve got actors in that mix which makes it very different and fun. It’s really kind of an ideal situation for somebody with a wider range of skills and likes to use them all.
Then at the end of the season, it tails down to just posting and refining and it’s very much like making an album. At this point, it’s about the color correction and the sound design and getting the edit just right.
It becomes very detailed and granular and you’re shaving frames off a sequence to make it feel more exciting. That’s something that Karl Schaefer’s very involved in with us on these episodes.
That’s fun to work with him in that capacity. Some of the pressure is gone because when you’re on a set shooting, there’s 80 people standing around looking at you to decide. The clock’s ticking and the sun’s going down in two hours. You better move. In the edit, it’s different. There’s only a couple of you and you really get to refine. It’s interesting when you break down the whole entire process.
There’s really a lot of different jobs inside of one. Now that the season is mostly over and now Z Nation is back on the air on SYFY.
Now it’s back into writing, so it’s back into coming up with new shows and new ideas and finishing scripts and that kind of thing. So, there you go, there’s a comprehensive answer for you.
Z Nation,I mean it’s just so much fun. Particularly in the zombie genre which normally there’s not a whole lot out there that has fun with that.
What is the writer’s room like? I picture it like Charlie’s Chocolate Factory
Yeah, it does feel like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Karl Schaefer’s our Willy Wonka, which is not a bad description of that guy.
it’s a pretty standard conference room with white boards surrounding us. We’ll write ideas and character beats and weird ways to kill zombies and random ideas, specific character ideas, whatever.
Then it just goes up on the board but it’s a really eclectic, great group of people that Karl has assembled for the writer’s room. It’s really been fun. That’s one of the highlights. On one hand, you expect the door to open at any time and people to go, okay, that’s it. We were just kidding, there is no job as a writer on a zombie show, everybody out. It doesn’t feel like a job.
I mean, other than the fact that you must show up when they tell you. That’s the only part that feels like a job. The rest of it is really fun and they’re nice people to hang out with and twisted funny things get said. That’s where the show gets conjured every season. That’s been a real treat.
Who came up with the zombie cheese wheel?
You know, I’m not positive. I want to say that’s a Karl idea. He always has these ideas that are just a little out of bounds and over the top and silly and outrageous. That came fairly early in the series, I want to say.
You know that, and the liberty bell come off a truck to wipe out a bunch of zombies. Seems like that kind of stuff usually came from Karl but I can’t remember exactly. That’s one of the fun things about it is that the way writers’ room is set up, it’s that you’re guaranteed this many weeks to work. You’re guaranteed this many scripts to write and I need your best every day. We all just throw ideas out all day long.
I’ll have ideas that show up in most episodes. Some more heavily than others but just because we’re all spit balling and kicking ideas around and things like that. It is a nice democratic way.
Some other shows, you kind of have to compete for everything and that becomes a bit cannibalistic and much less fun. The fact that everybody’s included makes it feel more of proper team.
The sense of community around the show seems amazing.
Oh, it is. Karl has a thing that he says that I think is true. I think, hopefully you’re seeing it too, is that when people watch the show, it’s so loopy and funny and scary.
I mean, it’s like everything is an emotional peak, whether it’s a tearjerker moment or it’s a horrifying moment or it’s an outrageously silly, funny moment. Everything is in the extremes and Karl likes to say he thinks the people watching the show must imagine how much fun we’re having, making it.
I believe that.
That’s probably the secret to it. It’s a hard, hard job but that’s mostly the case. Most of the time and certainly a higher percentage of the time, it’s just great comradery, it’s great team work. I think that is reflected in the final product.
Looking back on your time in the industry, what have you learned?
Well I guess the first thing that comes to mind is the old cliché about it’s who you know. That thing. Taking that as a positive thing, not as a negative thing.
It’s who you know. Just means, if you know a lot of people and you treated them well along the way and you showed kind of who you were as a person and who you were as a talent then that’s something that people are going to remember.
For Z Nation, for example, Karl Schaefer and I had never worked together. We had both had shows at Paramount at the same time and were introduced through an executive at Viacom. He said, “hey, do you know Karl Schaefer?” You remind me of him. You guys should meet. So, we met, and I think we got together and had like a four-hour coffee or something the first time we met.
We really got along well and he’s a great guy and I really enjoyed him. We had a lot of the same touchstones. It’s a running joke that whenever there’s a big group of us out to eat, he and I will inevitably order the exact same thing, even if we’re at the opposite end of the table. Both the meals will show up and it’s like, oh, I got just what Karl got.
There was some kind of sympatico right away. Fast forward 12, 15 years, he calls me pretty much out of the blue and says, “hey, I got this zombie show thing. Would you want to work on it?” I’m like, “oh, well you’re doing it?” He says, “yeah”, and I go,” yeah, then I’m in.”
I just kind of came in as a writer at the start of the first season. Then by season two, I’m directing and running post and doing lots of other things for the show.
That whole, it’s who you know, and it’s not a thing that you can calibrate or plan on or manipulate particularly. I think it just has to do with, do your best every job you’ve got. Even it’s some lowly job that, where you think “oh, this job is so beneath me.” You don’t know who’s watching and you don’t know who’s going to go, hey, that guy worked harder than he should have or needed to.
That trickles down to somebody else. I don’t know. Always play hard and you know what, if you can’t have fun in your dream industry, then you’re probably doing it wrong.
Do you have advice for people that are trying to get into the industry?
One thing that pops into my brain, my youngest son is a musician. He has a little band called Papa Ya.
It’s nearly impossible to be a pop star. It’s impossible to be a TV producer. It’s impossible to have your scripts on national television.
It’s virtually impossible so what you should do is exactly what you want to do. Meaning, don’t chase this trend or that trend.
It’s funny, the zombie thing kind of came out of the blue and it clearly was a trend, but we did it our own way. It’s like, SYFY hasn’t had a show run five seasons in forever. Like since Battlestar Galactica or something. We’re just going to do it our way and it’s not like the Walking Dead.
We couldn’t be as fierce. We couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that because of our budget. So, we were our own thing and wow, that worked.
That’s happened more than once for me, where you just do it the way you think you should do it. Your voice, your point of view. No one’s ever had a hit with that kind of a thing, or sold that idea yet.
In the case of my son Nate’s band, it’s like, yeah, nobody’s blended that kind of music together in this way before, but who says you aren’t first one to do that.
There’s sort of a ‘why not you’ thing.
Then the other part of it would be, you better be working as hard as you possibly can. Every day make the effort to get smarter or better at what it is you do. Because nobody owes you anything and there are people that are less talented than that are out working you as we speak. That’s a fact!
Those are the two things. There’re a million great ideas. Have you done your work? Have you done your five bad drafts before you’ve written your sixth draft that’s the one? That finally fully realizes your idea.
That’s just what it takes when you’re dealing with such a competitive industry. I wouldn’t get hung up on going, oh, singing cop shows are the hit. I better go write one of those. It’s like, no, write the weird one that you’ve never seen on TV before, because you might be the first one to do that.
How involved are you with social media?
Not as much as I used to be, but I’m still on Twitter. I punted Facebook about a year and a half ago. Now I’ll live tweet for Z Nation on Friday nights and all that but that’s pretty much the only one that I deal with.
It just became, it’s too much a time waster and a distraction in general, for me. Part of that’s because I make my living sitting at the computer typing scripts. So, if I’m doing something else, except for typing, then I’m wasting my day. It’s particularly dangerous and the political rabbit holes were not helpful in all that.
How do you manage time?
As a writer, you’re always fighting procrastination. The only hack I have there, I’m fairly prolific in terms of coming up with ideas. Writing treatments, and finishing them, writing scripts and finishing them, it’s just really hard.
It’s a lot of hard work. It takes a certain amount of a runway, a month or something, to get a first draft of a script done, let’s say. You can write them faster and sometimes I do but, that’s usually only because I’ve agonized over it and then wrote it really fast at the end. But I still took the same amount of time.
One of my hacks is that I’ve got a lot of ideas. I’ve got a big white board that I write all the ideas down on and then I’m really specific with what I’m going to try and get done this week, or today. I might have, all right, I need to finish the pitch document for that show. I need to finish the treatment for that show and that’s this week.
Next week, I’m going to try and get 10 pages done on this script and I’m going to put on the headphones and just brainstorm on this other idea that I’ve come up with, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’m just going to freeform a couple of more pages.
The fact that I’ve got multiple things going on means if I get stuck on something, what I’m trying to do is eliminate the staring at the blank page syndrome.
So what I’ll do is, meh, the script pages just aren’t coming today, I’m going to jump back over to that other treatment. Oh, and that came easier. So that’s one thing. Hopping around from idea to idea, so you’re never stuck. Then the other thing is, even if my goal is to write, whatever, five pages on the script today, but in my head I thought of another scene for this other thing that’s my fourth thing on the list, we’re walking back from Starbucks and it just materialized in my head, then I’ll sit down and I’ll just write it.
The other lesson is just, grab whatever is there in your head and get it on the page. Even if it’s that I’m not even going to attempt finishing that screen play, yeah but I have this whole sequence. So, then I’ll sit down and bang it out.
I’ll go back to things a month or two later and go, oh, when did I write the 10 pages for that? Oh, that’s right. Oh, this is cool, I didn’t know I was already this far. In a way, it feels like, gee, if I just focused on one thing, I’d be done with it by now. But over the long term, it’s like, I can knock five things down because I’m not stalled out on any one thing. I don’t know. That works for me. Everybody’s got their own little gags that they do.
Karl’s thing is that he doesn’t write until he’s, “ready to write.” He might be, oh I’m going to go to the movies. So, he will go do something instead of just sitting there and staring at the page. Instead of grinding out two pages in a ten-hour day, he will let his brain keep chewing on it, let his sub conscience keep working on it.
I will go to the movies, or go grocery shopping, then when I come back, my brain might have worked it out. Then you may crank out eight pages in an hour. That happens usually with a writer when the deadlines getting closer but sometimes it’s just the creative thing. Your brain will tell you when it’s ready to write.
It’s more fun that staring at the page feeling like you’re a loser and you’re never going to write another page, which happens.
Any chance for a Zombienado?
You saw one in episode five of season one.
I wrote that one. Yeah, that was a fun one to do. Where the tornado picked up the horde of zombies and it literally throws one through the window, that Murphy connects with at a certain point in the episode.
We’re still trying to get a four headed zombie attack going in here. We haven’t yet. We did get that one out of the way early.
Did you have any sense of when you started working on the show, just what a huge success it was going to be?
That’s a good question. Yes and no. I’ve done a lot of projects through the years, and I’ve done some great projects that just didn’t really ever find an audience.
Making a good show was never in question and making a kind of wildly creative, fun show was never in question. We knew that in the writer’s room from the beginning, that this was going to be different and cool.
Now whether anyone would ever find it, is a whole other question. So, marketing and distribution become things that the creative person just can’t worry about, because we don’t control them.
Normally when you start getting a hit, somebody will fan the flames with more promotion and more publicity and they just never did. Although, perhaps this year’s a little different, we did a standing room only presentation at Comic-Con in San Diego. The granddaddy of them all, and it was a huge ballroom that was just jammed full.
That was the first year that that had happened. I feel like people have found the show or getting to find it. We’re still a fraction, you know, we’re a tenth of the audience of something of the Walking Dead.
That’s too bad because most people who like the Walking Dead will really like Z Nation. They maybe have an idea of what it is, but they don’t know. It’s too weird. Unless you’ve watch it, you don’t really know what it is. Would you say? Is that fair?
My family and I like Z Nation better. I love that it’s a little fun and doesn’t recycle clichés.
Yeah, that’s just it. It’s different. We’re not a cheaper knock-off of the Walking Dead. We’re a whole different animal. Just like iZombie is a different show from us. We just take the source material and kind of do something a little different with it. Certainly, it’s a weird, funny, pop culture homage, unlike Fear the Waling Dead.
I thought the first episode was very difficult. Considering they fell into the same trap of, there’s a neighbor in the backyard who’s a zombie and you’re approaching the neighbor, going, what’s wrong, what’s wrong? Are you okay? What’s wrong?
It’s like, on our show, we’d be making jokes about how the zombie limps just like the zombies in all the George Romero movies. Our characters are aware that zombies have been in pop culture for 80 years, since Bela Lugosi made a movie.
That’s always funny that was just ignored. That was part of the Walking Dead’s success, taking it so deadly serious which made that show so fun and so cool when it started. Cause like, oh, here’s something that’s not Zombieland.
Here’s something that’s not wild and crazy and nutty but boy, it’s a lot more fun to make wild and crazy and nutty, I can tell you that.
The writing is awesome. As much as you guys have fun, it’s more believable in a lot of ways than the other zombie shows.
Yeah, I think the thing that I would say about it, along those lines is that the relationship between the characters is human. It’s true. The situation that they’re in may be so exaggerated and so silly and so arched but when you get into these core principles of sacrificing for another.
Putting someone else’s needs above your own needs. Those kinds of things. People love that on the show. People love how generous and kind Doc is with everyone. People love how Lt. Warren is this kind of strong, low key figure and as I understand it too, the first African American woman to play a lead character on the SYFY channel.
There’re things like that where, we are presenting a kind of a slice of what America can be and we just do it against the backdrop of this crazy apocalypse. I think the way the people interact, even in exaggerated fashions, you know, they’re real and people like it and people relate to it. That’s been sort of an interesting thing where, as you write it, if you can keep those parts real and maybe is what you’re saying, and keep those parts of the show real, they can be in almost any silly situation. And it’ll still resonate somehow.
If you had to survive the Z Poc, could you shoot a zombie that could talk?
I would shoot a zombie that could talk. If you noticed in the opening of season five, there was a zombie that approaches Cooper and Lt. Warren. And when the gun is raised at the zombie, the zombie puts his hands up and says, no, no, no, don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. And then as soon as the gun lowers, the zombie continues to stalk forward.
The zombie is still going to be on a quest for brains, period. So, you’re going to be compassionate and lower your gun and get your face eaten off. That’s what’ll happen. So yes, you have to mercy the zombie.
Now, you got to make sure that it’s not a talker, which is somebody who is kind of in between. You’re still dead and you’re still slowly decomposing but just not at the rate that a zombie does.
Our unofficial tally would be that, and this is a little exclusive scoop for you, the talker might live for up to seven years if they’ve got their biscuits or a little something of brain that they could chew on daily. It’ll take them seven years to fully decompose and go Z. I would make the distinction between shooting a talker, versus shooting a zombie. A zombie’s already gone so you’ve got to say bye-bye.
That’s good survival tactics right there. I’ll make sure I explain that in the financial conferences.
There’s got to be some sort of capitalist metaphor for that. You’d probably know it better than I would. Yeah, just like in capitalism, it’s killed or be killed, in the apocalypse.
Yeah, that’s right. The real question would be, how do you do estate planning for these undead?
Yeah, right. It’s a little complicated, you’re right.
Especially when grandpa passes and then sits up at the funeral and says, no, no, no, you’re not executing the will yet.
Even though, technically I am dead. Not happening yet.
Thank you, Dan, for sharing your story! I have never felt more prepared for a Z Poc as I do right now.
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