February 9, 2018

John Wells Names the Writing Division

By Keryl Brown Ahmed

The TV boom that began more than a decade ago and shows no sign of slowing down—currently referred to as the “Platinum Age” of television—has influenced the evolution of the Screenwriting program at the School of Cinematic Arts. This spring, one of the architects of television’s rise made a major gift to the program which is now known as the John Wells Division of Writing for Screen & Television.

Wells, who has twice served as President of the Writers Guild of America, West, graduated in 1982 from the Peter Stark Producing Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. It was there he fell in love with screenwriting. He says he didn’t make any money from the craft until age 30, eventually landing a producing job on the critically acclaimed China Beach where he got to show off his multi-faceted prowess. From then on it has been quite a career. Wells is responsible for television hits such as ER, The West Wing, and Shameless.

Having served as a producer, writer, director, and showrunner at various points in his career, Wells suggests the industry requires more business savvy of its writers now than ever before. “Writers coming out of the program need to be far more sophisticated these days about the business as a whole, and have a broader skill base,” he says, and that’s exactly the challenge the Division is trying to address. Founded in 1982 by legendary screenwriting professor Margaret Mehring, the Division was originally named the Filmic Writing Bachelor of Fine Arts Program. Six years later Professor David Howard was asked to oversee a Master of Fine Arts Writing Program. In 1995 the two programs were combined into a formal SCA division—The Division of Writing for Screen & Television—led by veteran screenwriter and professor John Furia. In the last ten years the Division has undergone radical changes, led by current Chair Jack Epps Jr. (Top Gun, The Secrets of My Success) who has worked with faculty members like Pamela Douglas, Ted Braun, David Isaacs, and others to overhaul the curriculum and make needed changes, like an emphasis on television writing.  The Division is currently home to 16 full-time faculty and around 60 part-time lecturers. The degree curriculum has been updated to include dramatic and comedic television course requirements, as well as offerings in new media such as video game narrative and virtual reality. “We really listen to the students, what they want,” says Epps. He views this as a point of pride, along with the one thing that doesn’t change: “We remain a character-based program. Great characters have great stories to tell.”

Of course, there are still classes focused on writing the feature screenplay. The Division’s multiple feature writing classes include CTWR 435 Writing the Contained Feature, a response to the evolution of a marketplace in which limited-location, low-budget indies are valuable commodities.  But the curriculum is also a reflection of other areas that excite viewers these days, which brings us back to television. There are advanced courses in dramatic series and half-hour comedy including the CTWR 419 Senior Thesis in Dramedy Television class, taught by Mort Nathan (The Fanelli Boys; The Golden Girls) to undergraduates. And a bounty of comedy offerings, including half-hour comedy writing and the four courses that convene to produce three hour-long USC Comedy Live!, SNL-style sketch shows every spring semester: CTWR 477 Staff writing the Sketch Comedy Show; CTPR 464 Directing the Television Sketch Comedy Show; THTHR 473 Sketch Comedy in Performance (offered through the USC School of Dramatic Arts); and CTPR 409 Practicum in Television Production (the Trojan Vision live-television course). In the writing section, students generate a large number of sketches under the advisement of Professor John Bowman (Saturday Night Live, In Living Color), but only about one-tenth of that work makes the show. “There’s a lot of practice, even if it can’t all make it to air,” says Epps. The show, which is entirely student-run and taped in front of a live studio audience, airs on the Trojan Vision broadcast station and streams online. Comedy’s rise in the curriculum has led to the establishment of a very successful Minor in Comedy. “It’s a cross-divisional minor with requirements from Production and Cinema & Media Studies as well,” says Assistant Director Kristen Wiley Davis, also noting the popularity of its bedrock class CTWR 404: Foundations of Comedy, which is taught by Professor David Isaacs, a veteran of shows like M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, and Mad Men. Isaacs has created the large lecture course as an expansive mix of comedy styles, elements, and theory, featuring screenings and speakers such as Ray Romano, Dave Chappelle and Emily V. Gordon.

The Wells Writing Division has also hired new faculty, in the past year adding Sonja Warfield (Will & Grace; Liv and Maddie) to teach comedy writing, and Barbara Nance (In Plain Sight/USA; The Lizzie Borden Chronicles/Lifetime) for dramatic TV scripts. Nance also teaches another of the Division’s popular classes, called The TV Writer: An Agent of Change. The 150-person lecture class explores the many ways TV writers influence social issues, push boundaries, and affect culture. Nance typically screens one or two episodes of a TV show followed by a Q&A with the show’s creator and writers/producers. “The course embodies the excitement surrounding TV right now,” says Davis, noting that most of its students have majors outside the Cinematic Arts.

Epps and the rest of the full-time faculty continually examine and update the program’s curriculum yearly to decide what to cut and add according to the industry’s ever-changing trajectory. In addition to writing technique, they consider important factors like teaching students how to collaborate across the other divisions—especially in emerging areas such as game design and themed experiences, where the working process might still be experimental. Epps also gets feedback from Davis, who is a 2006 graduate of the program and serves as a conduit to students and alumni who readily give her feedback about everything SCA. “We’ve been fortunate to have Kristen for the last ten years,” says Epps. “She plays an important role in all aspects of the Division including curriculum development.” There is also a conscientious effort to heed feedback from graduating students, gleaned through exit interviews. These meetings are part of the Wells Writing Division exit program, which also includes an entry fee to the Austin Film Festival or Nicholls Fellowship screenwriting contest, paid for by the SCA Office of Industry Relations; First Pitch, a night-long event in which graduating students pitch their projects to 8-10 producers, managers, and agents; and Script List, an annual compilation of every graduate’s loglines and contact information, that is published and distributed to agents, managers, and producers. “Our goal is to give our students the most momentum possible,” Davis says of the exit programs. “We want to put them on a course to succeed by staying ahead of the curve.”The many changes to the Writing program have served to enhance the experience of current students—like senior Evan Dodson, who in 2016 became the youngest writer ever to make the prestigious Blacklist (see below)—and bolster the career success of its alumni. In order to stay ahead of the curve and embrace innovations such as virtual reality and augmented reality, the Division is constantly steering its students towards new opportunities. Alumni who are working in emerging media platforms include Allison Raskin ’11, (co-founder of YouTube comedy channel Just Between Us), Shauna Witherspoon ’12, (writer at Wevr VR Lab), and Leah Folta & Lia Woodward ’12, (creators of 2017 web series DOIN’ IT).

Gracing the Division with the name of a top SCA alum has created an effervescent buzz on the third floor of SCA, which is home to most writing classes and staff offices.  There’s no doubt Wells’ gift will help the program continue to evolve with the ever-changing industry; however, its greatest impact is surely the inspiration the Wells name carries. With a relaxed tone that reveals his modest and down-to-earth nature, Wells asserts, “I would hope that students and applicants look at my name on the Division and think, ‘It’s possible for me, too.’” MFA candidate Zaiver Sinnett affirms they will. “Having a name like John Wells at the head of the program means only great things. It is nice to let the industry know that you have been educated in a place that values its students,” says Sinnett.

With absolutely no industry connections to take advantage of, Wells navigated his way to the top of his field with a strong work ethic and education as his base. His early professional experiences taught him that “you have to discipline yourself when there’s nobody there telling you to do it.” When asked which of his projects he’s learned the most from, Wells says, “It’s the failures. The ones that completely fall apart, that you can’t make work, that make people question your sanity and talent. By the way, I’m still failing with some regularity.”

He is well aware of the impact gifts like his have on academic divisions’ fortunes, and what that means for its students. He recalls that a year into Stark, his future within the program looked bleak. “I couldn’t come up with the funds to continue at Stark,” says Wells. “Art Murphy, the Director of the program at the time, sat me down the first week of classes and asked point-blank if I could pay my tuition. I said no. And he said, ‘Okay, we’ll get you the money.’” Wells asked how he could repay the generous donation, which came from an SCA alumnus. “Art said ‘we at SCA take care of our own,’ and he hoped one day I could do the same for someone else.”

Murphy’s commitment to education and student support played a large part in setting Wells on the path to success, Wells says; these days, he’s more than happy to serve as a mentor himself. “I’ve been looking for the right moment to do something to repay that largesse that allowed me to have a career at all.”

The son of a schoolteacher, Wells’ interest in the arts began with set designs for theatre productions at his high school in Arapahoe County, Colorado, and continued at Carnegie Mellon University, his first alma mater. He says he has always had tremendous respect for educators, especially those who prod the next generation towards greatness. Reflecting on his time at SCA, Wells says what he remembers most are people like Murphy, “who was brutal to me and then very kind. During the West Wing years, he would call me up to argue politics and storylines. It was great.” With fondness in his voice, he continues, “I went to his funeral, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what the turnout would be like because he was such a curmudgeon. But there were 500 people there. When I think of SCA, that’s what I remember.”       

Epps and his faculty try to fill that role for current MFA, BFA, and Writing Minor students, never taking a finger off the pulse of the Division. They’re determined to make students feel heard and to ensure they understand their importance in shaping the various programs. “Our students write original, authentic work. We want them all to develop their voice,” says Epps. The new namesake of the Wells Writing Division certainly serves as a shining example.

This article originally appeared in the current issue of In Motion, SCA's annual magazine.