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A Late-Blooming Writer on the Complicated Business of Time and Television

Rob Fresco is a writer, producer, and director who has worked on the television shows “Heroes,” “Crossing Jordan,” Judging Amy,” and “Providence.” He was four years ahead of me in school but I’ve managed to transcend little sister status. We spoke in the commissary at Disney Studios in Burbank, CA, where he was working on “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.”

Q: You said that you found your career late. How old were you when you started writing?

A: I feel I did everything late. I mean, I got married late, too.  I started writing when I was 32, but I was a musician, as you may recall, so there was a little bit of groundwork done in terms of the creative process and the discipline. I think I had a little bit of a kick start.

Q: Why did you switch from music to writing?

A: For not very inspired reasons. It was very much out of necessity.

Q: Because writing is such a money-making venture?

A: Well, it turned out to be for me, yeah.

Q: That sounds so funny.

A: I know.

Q: You became a writer out of necessity.

A: Yes. Right. Out of the frying pan. I was just not really happy with my career as a musician. It wasn’t going well, I wasn’t particularly successful, and I had sort of plateaued in the music world. And for whatever reason I just started writing and I started making money.

Q: What was your first job?

A: The first thing I did was write a spec feature. It got optioned right away, and then it kicked around, and then it got made as a low budget feature. And then it actually got sold to Showtime and became Intimate Strangers starring Debbie Harry.

Q: Oh, wow.

A: Yeah. And it wasn’t very good. It was just kind of a generic by-the-numbers thriller.

Q: Still, it’s such a novelty to have that kind of first experience.

A: Right. I mean, it was great after 12 years of knocking around as a musician. It was incredibly positive feedback to have the world say, “Okay.” I mean, there were all these people carrying cables and moving around cameras based on my script. So it was a very literal manifestation of the world saying, “Rob, you can do this now,” as opposed to the musical world where I was just calling out into a echo chamber, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” and there was very little coming back to me.

Q: Had you done any writing at all?

A: Just songwriting, but not any prose. Not even in high school. It was very odd to me. It still is a strange thing. I’m a college dropout, I didn’t take any classes in it. I just found I could do it.

Q: And you’ve been working ever since?

A: Pretty much. There were a couple of tough years in there. I started with TV movies and there are a lot of them, maybe 20. I’ve been on six different TV series. And I’ve directed a couple of cable movies as well. So it’s been pretty consistent for about 20 years.

Q: What’s changed during those 20 years?

A: Well, technique-wise or in terms of the actual writing, it has very much changed. I think it’s a little bit like sex. When you’re 20 you can go all night, but when you’re in your 40s or in your 50s, you know what works and what doesn’t work. And you know sooner into the process when you’re going down a dead end that’s a waste of time.

Q: You’re more efficient?

A: Your instincts get sharpened, I think. And I think when you’re young you’re flailing about more and you’re trying different things and after many years of that I think you just learn a shorthand with yourself, so you don’t waste as much time. And I think you just trust your instincts more because they’ve been validated.

Q: Is there a downside?

A: Yes. Yes. There’s something exciting…I mean, I remember when I first wrote my first scripts. I remember nights passing where I was writing and then suddenly looking out the window and it’s dawn. That doesn’t happen to me anymore. I’m yawning when it’s 12 o’clock and I want to go to sleep. I just work more normal hours. I’m less wildly inspired for great lengths of time. Once in a while that happens, but I’m a better writer now than I was when I began, certainly.

Q: What’s the proportion of writing you do for your “day job” to the writing you do on your own projects.

A: It depends on my schedule. When I’m on a show I’m usually a co-executive producer which is pretty high-level in the food chain of the writers and it’s a very busy job.

Q: What does a co-executive producer do?

A: You’re mostly a writer, but in addition to writing scripts you’re more in charge of the other writers. You also might be more involved in editing your episodes when they’re filmed. You spend a lot of time in the editing room and on set while they’re shooting. But mostly you’re just a higher-level writer. Fran Lebowitz has this great documentary, and in it she was differentiating between the arts and saying that writing is one where you really do need to have lived life. As an example of that she pointed out that there are no prodigies in writing. There’s no equivalent to Mozart. Of course these rules are so full of holes. There are great writers that obviously wrote masterworks before they were 25 and then never thought up another good idea.

Q: It sounds like you feel that you’ve been on a steady ascent.

A: I would call it a jagged ascent. Yeah. I do feel that the last couple of things I’ve written have been really good and have benefited from my experience in terms of what we were saying, in terms of knowing what works and what doesn’t work and trusting that I can be a little more nuanced and little more subtle, knowing how much I have to spoon feed and when it’s too much.

Q: And do you feel like you are valued for that in your field?

A: I just want to add, I’m also better at knowing what I like more and being a little more comfortable with that, where I felt when I was younger I was writing more for some mysterious audience, that I was always trying to hit a target that was the public or something. And now, with this newer stuff, it’s like, “Oh, this is something I’d like to see.” And I didn’t feel secure enough to really own that perspective, or it wasn’t my A perspective, when I was younger.

Q: You didn’t trust it.

A: I didn’t trust it. It was sort of like it was in the background, but more importantly what would my agent think and what would my producers think and what would the public think? And that’s less important now.

Q: I think we agree that by and large writers get better with time, but I wonder if the emphasis on youth in the entertainment industry also impacts people behind the scenes, for instance the writers?

A: I feel pretty exempt so far, and I’m the oldest guy on the last three shows I’ve worked on.

Q: Really?

A: So that’s both flattering and scary, right? I mean, it’s flattering because at least I’m still invited into the club. But it’s also like any job could be my last. The evidence points that way. That’s not me being paranoid. It’s me and a bunch of 30-year-olds in there.

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