Lauren Schmidt Hissrich graduated with a BA in english literature and creative writing, from Wittenberg University. Hissrich has been working in television for almost 14 years, starting as an intern and working her way up the ladder. She has written for such shows as The West Wing, Parenthood, and Do No Harm on NBC; Justice and Drive on Fox, and Private Practice on ABC. Hissrich is currently writing for the Starz show called Power. She has also developed shows for networks such as CBS and Bravo. Hissrich currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Michael and two sons, Harry and Ben.
Q: What initially inspired you to become a screenwriter?
A: I grew up in Ohio, and went to an amazing college that offered two routes for writers: poetry and fiction. Neither one was really up my alley, but honestly, I didn’t know there were other choices. I’d never even heard of screenwriting. That changed when I came to Los Angeles for a few weeks between my junior and senior years, to visit my aunts. When I got bored, a friend of theirs (who — fun fact — later became my husband) asked if I wanted to answer phones on a new tv show called “The West Wing.” It sounded glamorous and exciting and so-very-un-Ohio-like, so I jumped at the chance. In between rolling calls and grabbing coffees, I pored over drafts of the first few scripts by Aaron Sorkin — and as cliche as it may sound, the experience changed my life. I fell in love with this “new” form of writing. I returned to Ohio long enough to finish school, and then packed my Honda Civic and drove back to LA to take a job as a Writers’ PA on (thank god, wildly successful) “The West Wing.” I spent seven years on the show, and it was the best inspiration — and education — I could have ever imagined.
Q: Do you believe that your experiences as a female writer have influenced what you choose to write about and the kind of characters you create?
A: I don’t know if my experiences as a female writer have influenced me as much as my experiences as a female, period. Like all writers, I bring my own life story to the plate, and some of my experiences — most recently, motherhood — are uniquely female. That being said, I think my best work comes when I get out of my comfort zone, and put myself into shoes that are most definitely not mine. My favorite writing sample takes place on prison grounds, told from the perspective of a 14 year old boy. The show I’m writing on now is about a drug dealer trying to go good. I have to dig deeper to access these characters, but I’m consistently surprised by how I’m able to relate to them on a lot of levels.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration for your work?
A: I peel things out of my own life, constantly. It’s fun to watch shows with my husband, because he can pick himself/our relationship/our children out of a story in a nano-second. On the final season of “The West Wing,” the writers crafted a story in which Josh and Donna finally get together… and a lot of their interactions are based on me and my husband “coming out” to our colleagues on the show. I also love minute, crazy details of other people’s lives. I’m constantly writing snippets of conversations down, from things I hear at my dinner table to things I hear in an airport bathroom in St. Louis. I’m basically a professional stalker of human behavior.
Q: How have you gotten to where you are today?
A: It’s a combo platter: a lot of luck and good timing, of course; a lot of hard work; and a dash of ballsiness. I am, by nature, a slightly shy person. I don’t love attention, and it makes me uncomfortable to state my needs. But very early on, someone told me to make sure people around me knew what I wanted to do in the bigger picture. Tell them you want to write. And honestly, the advice probably served me in two ways: people above me in the food chain opened the right doors and exposed me to the right opportunities, to help me get to where I wanted to be; and two, the more often I said it, the more I believed that it was a dream worth chasing.
Q: What is your opinion on the amount of females there are in the screenwriting profession?
A: I taught a screenwriting class a few years ago at my college in Ohio, and I was thrilled to see that there was no real gender gap — just as many young women had applied and been accepted to the class as young men. So here’s the good news: the desire is out there. The talent is most definitely out there. The next step is translating that desire and talent into the professional screenwriting world. It’s happening, bit by bit. I’ve worked for two strong, smart-as-hell female showrunners, and with many passionate female writers and assistants, at all levels. There’s still gender inequity, of course — but I think the burden is on people like me, who hope to have shows on the air soon, who can be the agents of change. We have to put our money where our mouths are, and hire the next generation of strong, smart-as-hell women, too.
Q: What was your personal experience as a female screenwriter in the industry?
A: The truth is, I used to very much be married to my job. I was the one saying hi to the janitor as I typed in my office at 2am; the one who returned an email instantly on a Saturday morning, even if it said “no response necessary”; the one who volunteered to take one more pass, or do one more round of notes. And then something happened: I got married… to another person. In the last four years, I’ve taken time off work for my wedding and honeymoon; for OB appointments; to have two children; to take care of said children when they’re sick. I’ve been so blessed to work in environments where these kind of things are accepted, even encouraged. When I told my last boss, David Schulner on “Do No Harm,” that I was newly pregnant, he didn’t run away, shrieking, feeling like I was a waste of his allotted writer budget. He hugged me and told me that I was free to escape to my office and lay down on the couch if I ever felt nauseated. It’s very simple: I’m a human (a female human!) first, and a writer second. I try my damnedest to work for and with people who feel the same way. After all, if we don’t go live our lives, we’re not going to have stories to tell, you know?
Q: What do you think about the variety of female representations that exist on television today? What would you like to see more of or less of?
A: I think as a whole, the entertainment industry is really tapping into realistic portrayals of women. Female characters aren’t being slotted into the Madonna/whore dichotomy; they’re being allowed to reside in a gray area. Take Olivia Pope on “Scandal.” She’s the lead, portrayed as the smartest woman on the show, and one of the smartest women in D.C… and she’s having an affair with the President. She’s strong, sexy, vulnerable, scared, all at the same time. She’s complex. Imperfect. Makes great decisions, and then terrible ones. She’s basically every woman I’ve ever met (in a killer wardrobe). I think that’s why the show resonates so much: even through her mistakes, she doesn’t feel sorry for herself, and we don’t feel sorry for her. We allow her to be fallible without being weak. And I think there’s a lot of room out there for more characters like her.
Q: Do you have any advice for the aspiring female screenwriters out there?
A: Find someone whose career you respect and love, and try to make a connection. On my first show, I had a wonderful female mentor — who hated when I called her that, because it made her feel like the old wise woman on the hill — who taught me a lot about how to write, how to be graceful, how to lead, how to carve out my niche in a writers room. And on my last show, I became that wise old woman to another young female writer.
In fact, make as many connections as you can. I think women are stereotypically thought to be catty and competitive — so do your part to break that cycle. Reach out to other women. Nurture other women. Read, note, revise together, share tips on jobs, share your war stories… and eventually, you can hire each other!
-For more on Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, visit her twitter at @LHissrich !