Interview: Nancylee Myatt!

Underneath This had the enjoyable and informative experience of interviewing Nancylee Myatt. Please read more about Nancylee before proceeding to the interview that follows.

Nancylee Myatt became a television writer on the advice of a casting-director friend, which prompted an odyssey that would take her from her early days on the television program, Night Court, where she had the honor of writing the series finale, to an NAACP award for her work on Living Single, to co-executive producer, writer and director on the network teen drama South of Nowhere.

Indeed, Nancylee has spent more than a decade writing and producing for prime-time television. She is quite knowledgeable of an experienced in what it takes to get a television show from the page to the screen, but developing a series for the web was a novel frontier for her – one that has been a sure success. For more information about the groundbreaking series, Nikki & Nora, that Nancylee has created, please visit http://www.onemorelesbian.com/tello/webseries/nikki-nora/ .

Recently, Nancylee co-wrote with Ralph Macchio a pilot for ABC Family called “Cupidity.” Her other internet credits include break-out and award-winning web-series 3Way, and the all girl western comedy, Cowgirl Up.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and about Nikki & Nora. Before I start rambling about myself I’d like to say that this labor of love, this little engine that could, this series about a couple of young women who love each other and solve crimes in New Orleans, which started as leaked network pilot and became an internet obsession and lighting rod for the lesbian community, took a village to reboot and produce this new series.

And it would not exist without the faithful fans and amazing producing team, who I’d like to give a shout-out to at the top: Executive Producer Christin Mell and her partners at tellofilms.com. These women know their way around the World Wide Web and how to promote and use social media like no other. I bow to their wizardry and producing skills.

Executive Producer Paige Bernhardt. Paige is my partner in our production company, MyHardt productions. Paige and I have a similar network television writing and producing background. And we’ve collaborated for the last couple of decades on scripts, plays, series and webseries. It always helps to have someone who knows you very well and can call you on your stuff.

Co-Executive Producers Liz Vassey and Christina Cox. Liz and Christina were Nikki & Nora in the original network pilot 10 years ago. They have both had successful acting carriers and have been branching out produce and write for network television and film, as well. Having them back, recreating the roles that meant so much to all of us has been beyond spectacular.

We are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with…

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What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

Bad Acting… mine. Like so many other theater geeks, I was drawn to being on stage. Plus I was a class clown. You know the drill of High School; gotta be sporty or funny if you’re not going be a cheerleader or voted onto the Homecoming Court. So I went to college as a theater major. And pre-law, as my parents were big fans for having a Plan B. After graduation, my freshly minted actor friends and I moved to Hollywood and started making some noise. My writing career path was set by one of my best friends, Cecily Adams. She was an actress, comedienne and casting director. And after a bunch of years of watching me trying to get a break and working with me as an actress (I had good timing, but zero memorization skills) she said to me, “Nancylee you suck as an actress. But the shit you write for us is great.” Career Path 101. Happily I was in a good place to hear this, and trusted her and my other friends. I focused on writing and never looked back.

Initially, you wrote for Night Court, one of my favorite series from that era. What was that experience like? I really enjoyed the season finale that you were involved in writing.

Thank you. The premise of the series finale – Dan dreams all the women he wronged put him on trial – had been a card on the board in the Night Court writer’s room for years. It was great timing and luck of the draw that allowed writer Elaine Aronson and I to share the two-part finale.

Night Court was my first job on a network comedy. I had been a writer’s assistant for several years – a great path to writing TV, by the way. And when one of my former writer/producer bosses, Chris Cluess & Stu Kreisman, got hired to run Night Court they asked me if I’d like to come on board as a staff writer. Life changing. I’m forever grateful, and still in contact with most of the staff I worked with for the last two seasons of the series.

What was it like working on “Living Single”? I liked that program as well and perceive that era in television history as uniquely representative of the great diversity, especially of people of color, in the United States. How do you see the present landscape in this regard?

I came to Living Single in its final season. It was a well-oiled machine, and they had done some amazing groundbreaking television. Lucky me, I did get to share in an NAACP Award for their final season. But that path was paved long before I got there. Living Single also launched a lot of careers in front of the camera, and at the writer’s table. I’m lucky to have been a tiny bit of their history and success.

Diversity has always been at the front of most of the shows that I’ve created or been able to influence. When I started, a person could qualify as being “a diversity hire” for just being a woman. And I’m also a Native American, which I had to prove, by the way. You think any other race would put up with that? Having to show a card that says you have a “qualifying” bloodline and percentage. It’s a little Westminster Dog Show if you ask me. Anyway, the production companies got to use my name on two diversity reports. Thank goodness I didn’t have to prove I was a woman, cuz that would have been an awkward meeting.

I think the TV landscape looks better now, much better. And I’d like to give most of the credit to my mentor, Norman Lear. He was way out ahead of everyone with diversity. Race, religion, economic. He made people pay attention to faces and life experiences that weren’t their own. And he did it because his shows were some of the best on television at the time. Write and produce a great show, with the stories that people relate to and root for, and you’ll find, that even if they don’t look like you, or sound like you, or even might love someone of the same sex, you’ll get an audience. And at the end, maybe your show will influence that person’s perception of diversity and the world.

Just a side note: It’s an interesting path we television writers take. Or truthfully, get handed to us. In most scenarios, before you’re a creator or producer and creating your own opportunities, you are a yeoman writer trying to fill a spot at the table. Most creator/writers bring some of the staff with them, people they had worked with and trust and knew what skills they brought. And after that, they fill in the other spots with writers (they hope) who will bring a unique voice or something that’s missing from the mix. And some producer/writers inherit a staff or the network or studio will influence the hiring.

So your career can be this – If your first job is Friends you are set for life, open doors, everyone wants you because they believe you had something to do with the huge success. Or instead of a hit that runs 10 years, you get on a new show that does 6 episodes or one season and out. Then you’re back on the street looking for the next job. I actually worked on the series Jennifer Aniston did before Friends. It was called Muddling Through. Great show, amazing writers who went onto other notable series. But for the most part – very few people remember Jennifer in that one…

Any career in show business is not for the faint of heart. I teach writing and TV production occasionally, and I always tell my students, if there is anything else, that you like or want to do – do it. Because there is no solid path to success in the entertainment business. But if it’s the only thing you see yourself doing, go for it. And again, from my personal experience, be open, as it may not end up looking like you thought it would.

What was the impetus to create the web series, “Nikki & Nora?”

There is no one thing that motivated us to reboot Nikki & Nora for the web. I think it was this perfect storm of a great show that never was, the fans who saw themselves in this couple and refused to let it go away, the changes in programming and diversity in mainstream television, combined with the power of the internet that opened the door for us to revisit it.

The rights of the original project had returned to me and I was thinking about a book series. I was also producing another webseries called 3Way, with Paige Bernhardt and Maeve Quinlan, who I was working with on South of Nowhere. 3Way was a comedy that made a lot of noise on the Internet. It was ahead of its time in that in addition to creating smaller 10-minute webisodes and content, we were also producing half hour episodes just like network television. Within 3Way we had also created some silly spin-off series, shows within the show. One was a soap opera called “Young Doctors Who Cry.” And the other was called “Lady Cops.”

I asked Liz and Christina if they would come and spoof their characters in Lady Cops. They played Mikki & Laura, cops who were partners, who may or may not be involved with each other. That was our way of letting the faithful Nikki & Nora fan base know we were thinking about them. When they responded to the spoof, we knew that they were still there. Waiting. Ready to make it happen. Yet it took 5 more years for us to find that crazy timing of everyone being available to come together to make it happen.

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This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online. From your point of view, how has technology affected television production and viewing?

First of all, I’d like to repeat what you just said – “This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online.”

Can we get a round of applause!? The Veronica Mars movie was crowd-funding at the same time we were last year. Their fans wanted more of a TV series they identified with, that they felt went off the air too soon. The VM team raised millions when their fan base rallied. Meanwhile, we were reaching out to an “underground” fanbase that refused to let the idea of Nikki & Nora die. They were emotionally involved with Nikki & Nora and hoping for the resurrection of a show that never aired on network television.

When Nikki & Nora first appeared on the Internet it was at the time when YouTube was just finding its way. People realized they could create entertainment or take existing video and edit it into something that spoke to them. That represented them. When I say Underground Fanbase, I mean that they took a bootlegged DVD of the network pilot of Nikki & Nora and shared it across the web universe. Which launched tons of love letter type music videos to Nikki & Nora, all cut from the original 37-minute pilot. Which then spawned tens of thousands of pages of fanfiction about their favorite New Orleans couple, Nikki & Nora. And let’s just give credit where it belongs — It sure didn’t hurt to have the beautiful and talented Liz Vassey and Christina Cox representing a crime fighting couple that just happens to be gay.

It’s an amazing story. And I can say that because I had nothing to do with it. While we remained very close, Liz, Christina and I had moved on, off to other projects and shows, as it the nature of our business. Nikki & Nora is alive and back again, because of the fans who longed for more of their story.

The Internet and “created for web” content, has changed the way creators get to tell their stories. We don’t have to go through the studio system and the lottery that is the development and pilot process. Or the advertiser driven decision-making that occurs with network television. The end result of doing a web series is that the vision we have is not changed to fit a network demographic. It lets the audience that show was made for find it in its purest form. Now that being said, an Internet-based show is, many times, expected to rise to the levels of network television show. Which is an unfair scale. Because most of the time, as with Nikki & Nora, we had one tenth of a network budget.

When “Nikki and Nora” was first created, it would have been the first lesbian-themed drama series on television. What were barriers to the show being aired then?

The political climate in 2004 was very conservative at the time. The Christian Right was very vocal with regard to TV, Films, Music, etc., which they felt was adding to the corruption of America’s moral fiber. The network and studio behind Nikki & Nora had taken a lot of hits that year from the FCC, so they weren’t ready to ask their advertisers to back a project that had a potential target on it’s back in a George W. Bush America.

After Nikki & Nora I went on to write and produce South of Nowhere for creator Tom Lynch, and had done an article for Afterellen.com about the show focusing on two teenage girls falling love. And then got promptly called on the carpet by the “N” now teen Nick, which was an MTV network where the show was going to air. Apparently, the Christian Right had me on their hit list or watch list or burn the witch list, who knows… But the network was concerned about negative “gay agenda” publicity on a kid’s network. So Lynch and I agreed that he should do all interviews going forward. He created the show. And Tommy is an Irish Catholic father of four boys. Which made it hard for the haters to find an agenda. It made him the perfect person to talk about this story of “love is love.”

With the explosion of cable networks and now web-based entertainment, I no longer believe that the executives are afraid of “controversial” programming. In fact, niche programming and aiming for a smaller demographic is what is building these networks. But, as long as the Broadcast Networks have to answer to advertisers to pay for programming they will always try to program to the middle and a more conservative audience.

Approximately nine years elapsed between the initial development of the series and the online airing. In the interim, what changed for the media representation of LGBTQ+ people and communities?

I’m not the most informed person to answer this question. GLAAD may be your better source for the actual facts and figures, because the majority of my television work does not focus on the GLBTQ community. But again, I always try to make sure that there is a lot of diversity in the shows I create or can influence. I do think that the wider range of entertainment outlets have helped to promote and find homes for more GLBTQ programming. Yet, with the exception of The Fosters on ABC Family, who has a lesbian couple at the head of a family, there is still no adult mainstream show with a lesbian couple as the primary leads. So you would think that Nikki & Nora should have been able to find a home on the networks that program more comfort food procedurals like Castle or Rizzoli and Isles – who contrary to popular belief and audience pandering, those girls are not a couple.

From your perspective, what needs to be different regarding the media portrayal of other minority groups?

As I mentioned before, I think telling a compelling, relatable story cast with the multi-ethnic faces of this nation and world will do the best for visibility and acceptance.

The main characters on “Nikki and Nora” seem realistic. How do you maintain that characterization over time?

Write what you know. Or at the very least, draw or jump off from your own experience. I try to remain authentic to the characters I’ve created, their voices, and how they react in various situations. And I’m a gay woman, who has been in a long relationship, and recently legally married. So I can at speak to the same-sex issues, but I can also speak to the stuff that all couples go through, like nesting and relationship issues. And in my case, this insane drive to remodel and reinvent every house I’ve owned. Instead of @ishakeitup my Twitter name should be @MrsWinchester. (Kudos for those of you who know her twisted story) But I give Liz and Christina the credit for taking my script and these characters and making them their own. With their own rhythms, and humor and pathos. And like any good actor, they are also drawing from their own true-life experiences and finding the touchstones from their life that they can draw from to make it grounded, real and relatable.

How did you decide to set the series in New Orleans?

I set the show in New Orleans because it was a city that I had spent a lot of time in with my family. It was also my favorite place to run to: to play, write and be inspired. It’s a city with a rich history and culture. A city of darkness and light. A city with it’s own voice and look. My mother called it “The Paris of America.” It’s also America’s original party town and has always been a place were the gay community gathered. New Orleans was perfect home for Nikki & Nora.

I’ve said before, that most writer/producers who are shooting cities and locations that have big personalities like to say that their city is also a “character” in the show. I think a successful example of that was what show runner Michael Patrick King did with Sex and the City. He was telling stories and hitting themes for his characters that had were unique to Manhattan. And that’s the way I’ve approached Nikki & Nora in both incarnations.

Were there any other shows or films that influenced “Nikki & Nora?”

The shows I grew up on, those light mystery shows that spent as much time with the main characters or couples at home, as they did with them solving the crime of the week. Like Hart to Hart, McMillian & Wife, The Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Charlie’s Angels, and Moonlighting.

And for me personally, my parents were the original inspiration of what a great couple looked like. They were sexy, funny, hard-working and passionate. They were generous whether they were flat or flush. They were each other’s best friends and partners in crime. They loved New Orleans and never missed a chance to live life large and out loud.

Were there any unexpected moments regarding the fundraising campaign for the series?

I think for me, and probably the actors who play Nikki & Nora, Liz Vassey and Christina Cox, it was the fanfiction writers who surprised us. There were about half a dozen N&N fic writers who were rather well-known in those circles, and they ignited the conversation and campaign with pod casts, a Nikki & Nora panel at fanfic convention, posting the information on fanfic pages and boards, and talked about it in the chat rooms. They invited us to do interviews and told us how much N&N meant to them. And when we launched the Indiegogo page with a video from Liz and Christina speaking directly to the fans, things moved very quickly and the money started to come. While we didn’t ask for the kind of cash that Veronica Mars did, we did raise 30% more than our goal.

Several of the fanfiction writers who helped us with the campaign, and are running one of the Nikki & Nora tumblr pages, came to set and worked on the shoot. In addition to the efforts of the fanfic community, we also had some amazing supporters, who are also now friends, who gave substantial donations to project. We got to spend some time with them during the process, as well. All of this was just another confirmation that we were doing something meaningful. And serving an audience that still wasn’t seeing themselves enough in mainstream television.

It seems like perfect symmetry to have a series that was kept alive on the Internet, rise from the network television ashes to become a show just for the web.

Overall, what have been the most surprising commercial and critical responses to the series?

The funniest critical response we received was that the fans wanted more kissing between Nikki & Nora in the show. All I can say is that we are writing a couple that’s been together for 10 years, and we tried to create a very realistic view of a couple still in love and very comfortable with the rhythms of their life together. However, we will take it under advisement for the next season.

The most frustrating critical response was that several people complained about the $4.99. monthly subscription to tellofilms.com. I usually respond with, “For the price of buying a beer you are getting original programming created just for you. As well as, all the other great series on tellofilms. And if we don’t pay the bills we can’t make and broadcast new content.”

On what other writing and television projects are you working?

Most of us who worked on the webseries of Nikki & Nora, cast, producers, crew, etc., are also working in network and cable television, doing the same jobs we did on Nikki & Nora. So we’ve returned to others shows and/or out pitching and writing new projects.

I’ve got three new scripts going out to various networks. And I’m working with very prolific producers and directors on each. I don’t want to jinx anything by giving too many details, but I’ll tell you that each project is very different. And yet they are right in my wheelhouse, speaking to the audiences that have followed me before. For the young adult audience there is a comedy and a genre drama. And for the grown ups there’s a female driven family drama with a procedural element and a dark twist. Stay Tuned…

What insights do you have for aspiring writers?

I think I covered some of this when I was talking about my path to writing television. But one thing that is really simple and a call to action is that “Writers write.” Whether it’s a TV script or screenplay, articles for magazines or news outlets, novels or short stories, poetry, song lyrics, or fanfiction. It’s not enough to talk about writing, you have to sit down and make it happen. Visualize your future, work for anyone who will let you get the experience in the field that you want to work in. Treat it as your job and give yourself a daily schedule, a page count or a goal.

I heard somewhere that Stephen King writes at least ten pages a day. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s a lot, whether it’s a novel or a teleplay. When I’m on a deadline I use that as a goal to keep me in the chair. And sometimes I like to change-up my writing location – change my POV and hear some different voices. When I’m home in New Orleans there are a couple of local watering holes in my neighborhood that are cool with me taking over a booth and working for a few hours. We actually shot a scene in one of them, Tracey’s Bar, with Nikki & Nora sitting in the booth, which they called their Satellite Office, where I wrote most of the script. Kind of Meta, don’t you think? (Yes!)

Keep writing. And then one day, things will shift. For me, I know I’m on the right road when the characters I’ve created are so well-formed that they start leading me in the direction they want to go and talking for themselves. And sometimes that happens even when I’m not enjoying a cocktail…

You can find the trailer of Nikki & Nora and all seven webisodes of the first season at:
http://www.onemorelesbian.com/tello/webseries/nikki-nora/

And if you want to see where it all began, here’s a link to the original pilot of Nikki & Nora from 10 years ago. I do not take any responsibility for the putting the bootleg video up on the World Wide Web. But… Enjoy! It was ahead of it’s time, and sadly, still is.

-Sem

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