I had the pleasure of interviewing Karl Schaefer, who is one of the creative geniuses behind some of the most innovative and rule-breaking shows on TV. Karl is the showrunner for Z Nation and was the creative force behind the ahead of its time, Eerie Indiana.
Z Nation's Karl Schaefer Spills the Beans on What's Coming Next
Karl Schaefer is an American television producer and writer and businessman. He is best known for co-creating the 1990s series Eerie, Indiana with José Rivera. Prior to working on Eerie, Indiana. Karl Schaefer created the series TV 101. His other television credits include Strange Luck, Monk, Small Shots, The Dead Zone, Eureka, Ghost Whisperer and the television film The Apartment Complex (1999), directed by Tobe Hooper. He is currently Executive Producer and Showrunner for Z Nation, a zombie series he co-created with Craig Engler
My questions and comments are in bold; Karl's responses follow in plain text.
Please tell us about yourself:
I grew up in Downey California, the home of the Apollo Space Program. I was always the audio visual nerd in school. I was the editor of the high school paper but turned it all into fake news except for the sports results. After graduating from USC Film School, I wrote a script called What I Did To The President's Daughter that I sold by direct mail to Disney without an agent.
Based on that script, Grant Tinker hired me to develop television shows, and the first show I pitched I sold to CBS. It was called TV 101, and was about a high school paper that converts to broadcasting a cable news show — back when that was a new idea. Since then I've created or co-created six television series and executive produced about 250 episodes.
How did you get started in your career?
I actually started when I was 16 working for an old-time school photographer as a lab tech and photographer.
What does a typical day look like these days?
Chaos. Lots of screaming and wailing. Then a nap. After that, we break stories.
Actually, it depends. When we are in the writing phase everybody is together in the writer's room for 8-10 hours a day. We write Z Nation really fast. We only have two days per episode to write the story.
What is one thing you have learned from being successful?
Sic Transit Gloria. All fame is fleeting. You can never stop working hard.
Is there a mistake you have made starting out that you wish you could change?
Not really a single mistake. The mistake I make most, and have learned to watch for, is underestimating people. Even young writers I think are good, still, surprise me on the upside.
What advice would you give someone starting out?
There's always somebody better, so just compete against yourself. Don't be a jerk. Treat everybody nice because that idiot assistant today is tomorrow's network exec you'll be pitching to.
Professionally, what are you most proud of?
Getting somebody a job.
Looking back on your career, is there something you learned from the industry that you found surprising?
How fast it changes. The business has been through four or five complete market/production overhauls in my career. Your set of business assumptions you think the business operates on changes about every 3 years now. Even faster for technology.
What advice would you have for people that are having difficulty making it in the industry?
Be flexible. Be a well-rounded FILMMAKER and take every opportunity to make movies.
Do you have any tips for people trying to make it in your field?
Write a great spec pilot that is very distinct and original. If you write an undeniably great script, people will take notice.
If you could recommend a book (or two) to help people be more successful what would it be, and why?
Any book on meditation, because this is a stressful business. And 101 Reasons Your Screenplay Sucks by Will Akers.
Any upcoming projects you are working on?
What does your social media strategy look like, any tips?
Try not to step on a landmine.
Any mistakes you see people routinely make with social media?
Posting things that aren't great just to keep posting something.
Where can people connect with you online?
Do have any tips to be more productive?
My best advice I give people when they are stuck breaking a story is to change the medium they are working in. If you are using a whiteboard and you can't figure out the structure, change to working in 3×5 cards, or write it in longhand, or type it — each way you physically approach it changes the part of your brain you are engaging.
Don't keep doing the same thing if you're stuck. Try a different medium. It never fails.
How do you manage time?
I don't wear a watch or keep a calendar. My day is like damage control on a Submarine when we are in production. I go where my spidey sense tells me I'm needed the most. There's always 3 places I should be at once.
What is the best advice you have received?
When I got turned down for acceptance at USC the first time, my Dad told me to believe in myself and keep applying.
Do you have any advice for people that may feel discouraged about reaching their goals?
Be realistic with yourself, and if you're still confident you can do this, then keep at it. Most of the successful people I know, at every level, are driven to do what they do. They don't do it for the money, they are obsessed. I've worked on some aspect of filmmaking every day since I was 17. It's like being a musician that way.
I worked with Teller of Penn and Teller on a project and he told me they made a pact at the beginning of their careers when they quit their day jobs, that they would never turn down work if they were available, no matter what it was. They still do that today. That kind of crazy work ethic is something you see in every successful person.
How import is fitness to success?
It's a hard stressful business with long hours. You need to learn your limits and take care of your immunity system.
Do you enjoy working out? If not, how do you get motivated?
I get motivated by sheer panic.
Do you have anything you would like to promote or tell us about?
Let's all watch the final two episodes of Z NATION and get it renewed for a 6th season!
What is the one thing you wish everyone knew?
How much easier everything is when you are kind to people.
Anything I should ask that I have not?
My last piece of advice to people starting out is to not wait for permission. There are a million ways to make a great movie or web series for no money, that can find worldwide distribution. Don't let anything stop you. And if you're not having fun you're doing it wrong.
If you had to survive a real-life zombie apocalypse with five fictional characters of your choice, who would you pick?
Huckleberry Finn, Doc from Z Nation, Conan the Barbarian, Warren, George, Tom Sawyer. They are all survivors with a sense of humor.
Also, any chance of an Eerie, Indiana reboot? I loved that show.
Yes. I’ve been working on some possible ways to bring back the show.
Thank you, Karl, for your time and sharing all of this with us!
Michael launched Your Money Geek to make personal finance fun. He has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, side hustles, and all things geeky.