Andrea Ciannavei is a WGI mentor, Board member, playwright and TV writer. Photo by Kelly Stuart.
We know you’re a playwright and a TV writer – tell us about your earliest memories of writing. When did you know it was something you wanted to seriously pursue?
Honestly, I keep asking myself if this is something I want to seriously pursue every day. The business of writing is so unstable and can be really frustrating and heartbreaking so it helps me to always take a temp check to remind myself that I am free to do whatever I want whenever I want.
To answer your question, though, I was always writing stories as a kid. I kept diaries and then in elementary school I wrote these horrible, racy romances with my best friend John. I would write a chapter and then he would write the next chapter and we went back and forth like that.
I started writing plays in high school and directed them. I kept a journal consistently starting from the age of about 14. I have about 45 notebooks now. In high school, I wrote a metric ton of extremely bad poetry too. I was obsessed with Jim Morrison so I tried to emulate him. I’d sit in class and just secretly write poems a lot of the time. But I never really thought of it objectively as a career. It just felt more like a compulsion.
I had my heart set on going to school for acting and my mother was hard pass on that. So I focused on my required courses for the first two years, wrote a few short plays and then when it came time to declare my major, my best friend Demosthenes called my mother and got her to agree to let me apply for Dramatic Writing Program at Tisch. I applied and got in. While there, I wrote more short plays and produced them along with other people’s work at NYU and in downtown theaters like NADA and another basement theater on I think 19th street.
For a few years after graduating I stopped writing, I felt I had nothing to write about so I just focused on acting. I did a movie, a few TV shows and some plays. I took it for a writers block of some kind. That’s been a recurring them for me. I didn’t write another full play again until 2005 at LAByrinth Theater Company. The first iteration of that play was a colossal and humiliating failure. Philip Seymour Hoffman and I sat down and he told me what he thought about the play and introduced this idea of emotional honesty to me, which I said I understood but really didn’t because I was so consumed by my own wounded ego. I went home and for 3 weeks I sulked and cried. It was very dramatic. But the single greatest artistic failures that happen in front of your peers can be like that.
Anyway – I realized I had a couple of choices: 1. I could throw his notes away and say fuck that and just dig my heels in and do things my way. 2. I could quit, because if writing felt this awful then screw it, it’s not worth it, or 3. I could investigate the note further and take the leap and do a page one rewrite.
I finally surrendered and took the third option.
I brought the rewritten play back to LAByrinth and folks talked a lot of shit before the reading even started because they thought I was about to torture them again with the same play. But the play happened and the audience response was 180 degrees in the opposite direction from the year before. Phil and John Ortiz produced it at The Public as a development production in 2007 and it got me into Juilliard in 2008. I applied because it was free and I was just trying to force myself to take positive actions. I didn’t think I’d be accepted. But I was. I was convinced they made a mistake, there was always a big part of me that felt like I was not going to get anywhere. I was very fearful about my ability and about the competition of it all.
In 2010, after working for Tom Fontana for a few years, he asked me to write a script on his show Borgia which was a huge deal for me. I was really nervous but excited and I wanted to do a good job for him and not leave him regretting his decision. So he showed me through that – that I could do this.
I should say that at this point I met with an agent and they read my stuff and said very frankly that they like my writing but it was “too dark” and they didn’t know how to market me. So I went home and wrote a comedy and when Tom hired me for Borgia, I emailed the agent and said: “Hey here’s a comedy and also I just booked a job.” They started working with me after that and I’ve been with them ever since. I say this as a reminder to myself an anyone who reads this that sometimes “no” means “not yet.”
So by 2010 I had an agent and they asked me to write a pilot that they could use as a writing sample to get me staffed. So I avoided doing that for a couple of years, again very fearful and kept telling myself I wasn’t smart enough to do it. Instead, I traveled the world at the behest of Marsha Norman (a WGI mentor and my Juilliard teacher) doing research for her for a project. When I returned to the states, I threw myself into working and activism. Again — procrastinating on this pilot my agents wanted.
Three years later, in 2013, Liz Tuccillo (another WGI mentor) sat me down and basically told me to get my shit together, get over myself and write this pilot my agents had been waiting for. I took a look at my life: activism, travel, politics. From experiences I had, I developed a pilot, got into a pilot writing class and wrote the script. Six months later, I booked a show in LA with that sample. I had $150 to my name. I moved across the country with 5 days notice.
I say all of this to illustrate that the decision to pursue writing as a career came in episodic moments. Because most of the time I’ve been telling myself that it is not possible. This is probably more than you asked for and feel free to edit it but there was never one day where I just decided I was going to do it and that’s it. It was (and is) something you have to keep choosing. Like any relationship really.
What do you think makes a good story and what kinds of stories are you drawn to?
To me good stories involve complex and flawed characters who, through the plot, have an epiphany about themselves either positively or negatively. I especially love stories that interrogate and critique the times we live in — it doesn’t have to be explicit, it can be implied or satirized. We can never have enough of that in my opinion. A great example is Parasite, through the microcosm of two families, you get a visceral, nuanced, thrilling experience on the theme of income inequality. Get Out is another one. On the other end of the spectrum a show like Parks and Recreation say a lot about the way government works (and doesn’t) in America but that show says it with a lot of love and optimism even when it’s harsh. I tend to go for darker subject matter, and for mixed tone half hour comedies like Barry and Better Things. I have a pretty broad palette though. I love vampire shows, quiet character driven shows like Better Call Saul, I love period pieces, I love sci-fi, anything about transhumanism has me sold. Right now I’m watching The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and it is totally arresting. Puppets – who knew?
What are some of your favorites? (Books, Movies, TV shows)
Books: Satanic Verses, Christ Came to Eboli, Hawaii, Beloved, 1984, Hard Boiled and the Edge of the World, The Executioner’s Song
Movies: Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Sweet Smell of Success, The Matrix, Parasite, Brazil, Godfathers 1 and 2, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, La Dolce Vita, Let The Right One In and The Vengeance Trilogy by Park Chan-wook. Koreans are the greatest film makers on the planet as far as I’m concerned.
TV Shows: All in the Family, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Barry, Atlanta, Humans, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Carnivale
What inspires you?
Honestly: revolutionary Black women. They inspire me. I learn so much from them and I owe them everything with respect to me political education.
Traveling: I’ve been to 17 countries on 5 continents and I always learn so much about their histories, their environment, their politics and food. Ever since I was a little kid, I consciously told myself that one thing I really want is to see as much of the world as I possibly can before I die. I want to know where it is that I live.
Music: I have pretty broad palette for music too with the exception of a few things like death metal and German industrial music. I heard someone say today that she thinks music is actual heaven and I am inclined to agree.
Seeing other people succeed. This is an important one for me because we live in a society and this is a business that sort of thrives on people’s fear, aggression and unhealthy competitiveness. And I think it’s really easy for people to resent others’ successes when you are not feeling great about where you are. I suffered from that a lot in my 20s and 30s because of a powerful fear — a debilitating fear that I was never going to get anywhere in any aspect of life. My brain use to be a pretty unfriendly place. There’s a saying: “compare and despair.” And it’s really spot on. So I had to learn that the only person I am in competition with is myself. The only appropriate response when someone pays you a compliment is to say thank you. So it goes, that when good things happen to my friends and my acquaintances or colleagues, I cheer for them and trust that I am where I am supposed to be and as long as my side of the street is clean, I am going to be fine. The more gratitude I have for my life as it is right now, the more I am happy for others with no self-centered fear attached to it.
What is your writing process like?
I usually start out researching a topic for a while and eventually do a series of timed writing exercises for each character. From there I come up with the story lines, then write out the beats for each story line for the pilot. Then I outline and then I write the script. Full disclosure – I am a recalcitrant. I procrastinate often with doing anything from cleaning my garage, organizing 2 terabytes of music on my hard drive. Going through emails, cooking and baking, to political activism. I also make sure I exercises everyday either running or lifting weights. I also like to play NYT Spelling Bee and will do that intermittently throughout the day when I need to look away from the train wreck that is my writing process.
What’s the most surprising or interesting thing you have learned from writing?
Failure is your best friend. Also Tom Fontana told me once before I left for LA, he said: “If you believe them when they tell you you’re brilliant, then you have to believe them when they tell you you’re a piece of shit.” I will never forget that as long as I live.
Do you have a “writing quirk, if so, what is it?
I don’t think this is different from any other writer I know, but when I’m writing, everything becomes emotionally heightened. I get into this very annoying Italian high drama ennui about life. I try to avoid that as much as possible. Also I eat while standing up.
How do you juggle writing with everything else you have going on?
Sometimes when I’m on deadline I just shut everything and everyone down for days until the thing is done. When I’m not on deadline, I write every day and I call a couple of writers who are my accountability partners to let them know I’m working and sometimes I set a deadline with them to say for example “I’m going to finish breaking this episode by Friday.” Basically it comes down to this: every day I must meditate for 15 minutes, walk my dog twice, exercise, take my vitamins, eat reasonable healthy meals and I have to write for at least 2 hours. Those are all non-negotiable. Everything else comes after that is a bonus. I really had to make self-care and writing the two most important things that no one gets to mess with. When you commit to that no matter what, you find that the other stuff gets done. And then you start to see which people, place and things no longer deserve the time that is better spent on you.
What do you like to do for fun?
I love to cook, read, throw big parties, lift weights, and travel. I’d like to do more glass blowing. I always enjoy it when I take classes in it.
Any advice or tips for anyone struggling with writing?
I think writing is about struggle — different kinds of struggle maybe. But if it’s a matter of putting everything else before writing, what has helped me is to understand that putting everything in front of writing is the equivalent of putting everything and everyone in front of myself. That is not selflessness, it is avoiding the self — hiding from yourself. It’s a question of self-worth. And I think the more you just make the commitment to write something even for 15 minutes a day to start with no excuses, that habit will start to create a change in your work habits and also in how you feel about yourself.