by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Jenny Bicks began her career writing on shows ranging from Seinfeld to Dawson’s Creek. She wrote on Sex and The City for all six seasons, rising to the rank of executive producer. Her work on the series earned her an Emmy Award, multiple Golden Globes, Producers Guild Awards, and three WGA nominations. Bicks went on to create shows such as Leap of Faith, Men In Trees, and Showtime’s critically acclaimed The Big C. She has also scripted features such as What a Girl Wants, Rio 2, and most recently, The Greatest Showman. To say that she is one of the top writers working today, would be putting it lightly.
Bicks sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher and discussed her own writing journey and the show she’s currently helping to craft, HBO’s Divorce.
John Bucher: It’s nice to talk to you. I’ve been a fan ever since I saw you as Miss Haskell in Never Been Kissed.
Jenny Bicks: That is so funny. I just did a re-write for them, so I don’t have credit on that film. But they allowed me to be on set during shooting and wanted me there to do more rewrites if they needed them. I wish that film could respect writers the way TV does. It was so important for me to be there and be able to work consistently with the actors on that project. I am not an actor. I took improv and realized I’m a much better writer than actor. The only character that I do is a girl that gets upset in a conference room and runs out crying. I would do that as a joke on the set of Never Been Kissed and they were like, “Okay you have to go into the scene and do this.” That purely was me just playing that role. Then Gary Marshall gave me a name in the scene, so now I’m credited, which is hilarious. My only screen credit and thankfully my last.
Again, I’ll say, if the film industry could respect writers the way the TV industry does, I think everything would be better. I think we’d have better material.
John Bucher: Let’s talk about your current project. Season two of Divorce opens by making things official. Francis and Robert sign the papers and are now divorced, letting us know that season two is going in different directions. How did you begin thinking about where you were going to take the show when you came on board?
Jenny Bicks: I watched the first season of the show just as a fan. I didn’t think I would necessarily be coming in and running the second season. I had always run shows from the beginning. So, when the call came to me, it was intriguing. It was a challenge because, as you recall in the end of the first season, the characters are in a very dark place.
My thought was to move into spring on the show. It was time to infuse a little hope and movement forward. What does that look like? We had lived in this dynamic of the war of the roses for most of the first season, which was terrific and real and important. But I wanted to start to move the characters forward, and the only way for me to do that was to do a little bit of a time jump. Which is only about a month and a half or so, and have them move forward.
Because the other thing to me was, divorce isn’t just about the act of being separated and actually going through divorce. There’s so much to study about relationships even after the divorce papers are signed. I really wanted to examine and think about how you’ve got two people who were blaming the other person for everything that was going wrong in their life. When you don’t have that person really to blame anymore, what does your life look like? There’s a lot of story there to tell.
John Bucher: Do you go into a situation like this with Divorce knowing where the season is going to end up? Do you figure all that out before you dive in? Or do you sort of let it organically unfold and progress forward?
Jenny Bicks: We didn’t have a lot of time to block out the whole season. I did know the direction in general. I had a visual. And this is something, sometimes that I work with, which is that I knew I wanted her on a trampoline. I knew that was going to be my final visual. Because to me, it really literally and figuratively puts her up in the air and puts her moving towards the future and moving on, which was important to me.
But to be honest, I don’t think I had that visual until I was starting to break that first story, and we talked about the trampoline. But I did have it early on. I did know in general I wanted to continue moving into summer. Have her have to fight with letting go of the kids, letting the kids be who they were going to be. In this case they were going to go away on vacation with the new girlfriend and the ex-husband, and that she was going to be okay with it. But it was going to be a struggle. So, yes I did know in this case. That’s generally how I try to frame things. Sometimes it helps to have a visual or a word that helps me to know where I’m going to end up. I like to introduce it at the top to help me bookend the story I’m telling.
John Bucher: You are one of the rare writers that’s had great success in a number of different formats and mediums. You’ve had quite a year with The Greatest Showman and Divorce. How do you switch mindsets when you’re writing features and then breaking story for television? How do you move back and forth?
Jenny Bicks: It’s fun to do both. I know I’m not the only writer who feels this way: I have compartments. Sometimes if I get stuck in one genre, I like to be able to move over into another and play in that world for a little bit.
I originally wrote Greatest Showman nine years ago. At the time I was writing on The Big C. I recall the excitement of being able to go back and forth because The Greatest Showman‘s so different, right? It was the first time I’d written a musical. The first time that I had written a movie with a star already involved. So, Hugh (Jackman) and I were working closely on it together. I do find in general it’s nice to have multiple projects because you just sometimes aren’t feeling a piece you are working on. You aren’t feeling whatever projects you’re supposed to be doing and you move on over and work for a little bit in a different genre and move back. I work better when I have multiple projects. I don’t think I’m the only writer who feels that way. I think sometimes it’s too hard if you only have one to focus on.
John Bucher: You had worked with Sarah Jessica Parker for many years on Sex and the City. What was it like coming back and working on this new project together? Did it feel like falling back into the same routines or a completely new adventure?
Jenny Bicks: It was different. And it was different for all the reasons you expect. We knew each other. I knew what she was capable of doing. I knew how she works. This was very different because she was an executive producer from the beginning, who’s very involved in all aspects of production. On Sex and the City, the actors primarily were actors. She would give some thoughts on scripts but for the most part, there wasn’t any actor who was as involved. She really came into this as an executive producer. It changed the dynamic a little bit but at the same time we know each other well. I think I knew how to write towards her strengths.
John Bucher: When you come onto a project like this, how much does thinking about season three, or even season four ever enter into the picture for you?
Jenny Bicks: I stopped thinking that way. I think it’s dangerous to do that because you just don’t know in this age with the amount of TV that’s out there and the decision making. I’ve stopped doing that. What I try to do is give the best season I can and leave things open enough that you can see where a story could go. I think it’s dangerous to wait.
I also think the thing I keep learning as I write more and more and more is to not hold back on story. Don’t hold story that you think, “Oh, this is a story I want to tell in season three.” Front load, front load, front load. If you have a story to tell, tell it now. Because you don’t know if you’re going to have an opportunity to tell that great story that you want to hold on to. It’s just better to tell more story than less.
John Bucher: That’s good advice. Were there certain themes that were important to you to bring into season two, that you wanted to make sure were communicated through the stories that were told?
Jenny Bicks: I think that the idea of potential and hope and self-reliance, that we can make our own happiness. I think it was important to me to tell the story of potential. That just because you’ve ended a relationship, and this doesn’t just apply to people who’ve been married, it’s any relationship that ends, whether it’s a breakup or death or anything like that, that there is hope for the future. It will take work, but we can become our best selves at times when we least expect it.
I think I’m just an optimist by nature. I wanted to infuse some of that hope in there because the first season I think in many ways felt hopeless. For all the reasons that it would be. I just wanted people to feel that there was always a second act. That it’s not the end, it’s just a turn in the road and you can move forward. I don’t know if you’d consider that a theme, but I guess maybe. The optimism and the hope and that we’re all basically in charge of our destinies. You can’t blame someone else when they’re no longer there.
John Bucher: That is beautiful. How much, as a writer, do you bring from your personal experiences and life into the process? Are there moments in the scripts that you’ve written, maybe not necessarily in Divorce, that reflect a moment from your actual life?
Jenny Bicks: I think when you write your own truth, you’re always amazed by how it’s actually universal truth. I think I learned that so strongly on Sex and the City where we were a group of women in our early 30s who were single, who were having bad dates, and trying to figure life out. We would show up in the writer’s room and just tell our own stories. From there, when we started to do that, at first it feels very exposing like, “Oh God, I’m the freak that went out this guy or who did this wrong.” You put it out there and you see from that show, there were 60-year-old women out in Iowa who thought they were Carrie, too.
When you tell your own story, it resonates. I’m a big believer in that. I have not been divorced. I am married but I would hope that the whole show is infused with my perception that relationships take work and that no relationship is perfect. Like in the show, I did once take half a Xanex to go to bed. It was a very bad idea. When you’re in a marriage or any relationship where you know each other well, you have to be very careful with each other’s feelings because otherwise it can go south very quickly.
Season 2 of Divorce is currently playing on HBO and HBO GO.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.