April 8, 2016

SCA Alumni Stories: Kate Powers

By Eileen Kwon

With experience working on hit shows such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Rectify, Kate Powers ’07 has grown into a seasoned and skilled storyteller, working hard to deliver honest stories that connect with the audience. Powers recently discussed her beginnings as a writer, her thoughts on the evolving relationship between TV and its audience, and her journey as a staff writer on the highly acclaimed television drama series Rectify.

What in your past has influenced your decision to pursue a career in television writing? The big game changer was unemployment—I got laid off two or three times between 2000 and 2002, and in between job hunting, I watched a LOT of TV. I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer twelve times a week. I literally had dreams where I would talk to the characters about their personal problems. If you’ve ever seen the show, you know it’s wall-to-wall very attractive people. And I was having very unsexy, very practical dreams, where I say things like, “Jeez, Spike, I just don’t think Buffy sees you as a potential romantic partner. Maybe you should focus on finding someone who loves you for you?” Finally, one morning, I woke up and knew I had to do something productive. I started writing spec Buffy scripts, and I think the second or third one ate my brain—I looked up and it was 7 a.m. I realized I had written through the night.

How do you think the format of television drama affects the relationship between the viewer and the show? Format has always been a tool to seduce the audience, to hold their attention until you’re done telling your story. Initially, TV drama was structured in a way that put viewers at ease and reassured them that nothing too crazy or unpredictable was going to happen in their living room. We’ve now evolved to a place where if you take your eyes off the screen or you miss an episode, you’re totally lost.

Billy Wilder used to quote a rule he learned from Ernst Lubitsch—that you have to let the audience add two plus two and get four, meaning that viewers love figuring things out on their own. The shows I’ve worked on, the shows I admire, they more or less live by that rule—and it definitely intensifies the relationship between the audience and the show. On the writing side, we constantly step back and re-evaluate what we’re doing, how we’re telling the story, what the characters are going through, trying to connect with the audience, to give them a “two plus two” they haven’t seen before, and ideally, to say something meaningful about the human condition. And as a viewer, I get incredibly invested in shows, tracking these complex, nuanced stories, and consciously or not, I also expect the show to reward me for that investment—if I give a show 44 minutes of my life, I want something in exchange.

Could you share about your first job experience after graduating? What is one lesson that has stuck with you? My first job after graduation was working as a writers’ PA on Breaking Bad, as they started making the second season. I was there for three years, and it was really like a paid fellowship on television production—Vince Gilligan, the showrunner, first told me that Billy Wilder quote, for example. But if I have to pick just one of the hundred things I learned there, I’d go with the idea that you should start by asking, “What would really happen?” As the writers’ PA, I did research on gunshot wounds, building batteries out of broken RVs and every other topic under the sun, and every time, I started with experts—ER doctors, chemistry professors, anyone who faced that specific situation for a living or knew someone who had. It was an important lesson in the value of research and embracing reality as much as possible.

With extensive experience on shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Good Wife, how have you grown as a writer since graduating from SCA? I loved my time at SCA and there’s no question that the program made me a better writer, but there is no film school in the world that can duplicate the experience of watching extraordinary writers break story for months on end—they never stop working. When I graduated SCA, I thought I knew how to brainstorm, how to take feedback, how to rewrite—but working as an assistant for seven years has taught me to think harder, work longer and with deeper focus than I ever imagined possible.

I’ve learned that it’s not enough to come up with a great idea—you have to come up with a great idea, and then ten or twelve more, and then figure out which one works best for the story you’re trying to tell. And even after something has been settled, a strong writers’ room will still take apart half a season if someone spots a serious problem with the current storyline. And above all, you cannot censor yourself—not every idea gets used, but there are no bad ideas; for all you know, the pitch you’re sitting on could be a possible seed from which a better idea can grow.   

Youre currently on staff for Rectify, which is going onto its fourth season. How has your journey been with the show thus far? From the day I interviewed for the writers’ assistant spot, I knew Rectify was not like other shows. Executive Producer Melissa Bernstein had sent me the scripts for the first two episodes and they weren’t like any other TV scripts I’d ever read—serious, funny, horrifying, and incredibly sad. Even the job interview was intense; I sat down with Ray and immediately we were talking about Daniel Holden, how broken he is, how telling his story would mean exploring things that I wasn’t even sure we could show on television. I left that meeting knowing I desperately wanted the job and at the same time afraid of getting it.

At that time, I already had a job offer from a very successful procedural series, with a very generous rate and cool offices on a lot; if I took it, I could count on being employed for years to come. On the other hand, Rectify had a lean budget, no certainty of a second season and it was new territory. I couldn’t predict how it would turn out; that uncertainty was really scary—and really intriguing. For the first time in my career, I deliberately made the most dangerous choice I possibly could. Which served as preparation for working on Rectify, because the entire show is built around making dangerous choices. When we’re breaking story, when we’re writing scripts, when the cast comes to set, when the editors start cutting episodes together, we’re always taking risks, always pushing ourselves to be a little more raw, a little more vulnerable.

Rectify made me a writer. Yes, Ray McKinnon gave me my first freelance episode assignment in Season Two and he hired me as a staff writer in Season Three. But more than that, Ray gave me the freedom to take tremendous risks. To care about these characters as much as my own family. To obsess and dream and pitch and fail and pitch again. Ray—and Rectify—has given me a tremendous gift, and I’m more grateful than words can say.

Any advice for aspiring television writers? Get your butt out there and let the world rough you up. I’ve sat in the Rectify writers’ room and pitched ideas for characters who, on paper, have nothing in common with me. But like them, I’ve been in rocky relationships, I’ve had unsatisfying jobs, I’ve felt utterly alone, and that’s given me a way into their heads, a way to see the world through their eyes.