Thomas Quinn, Emmy Nominated Writer-Director-Producer, on Documentaries, Writing, & Navigating a Career in Hollywood.
August 24, 2015
I’m originally from New Jersey and moved out to California after graduating college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but was inspired by “regular guys” like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (I’m a sci-fi fan), to believe that kids like me could grow up to make movies.
So, when I lived in San Francisco in the 1980’s I took night classes at the Berkeley Film Institute to learn the basics of 16mm film production.
First Job in the Entertainment Industry
After moving to L.A. and spending years as a story analyst (script reader), for studios like DreamWorks, HBO, Paramount, Sony, and others—and writing screenplays along the way—I decided that the documentary work on Discovery Channel was most interesting to me and something I could do well.
It came more naturally to me than the dramatic writing. So, I bought a home video camera, and used editing equipment at a public access TV station (where I did a weekly interview show as a film critic for Entertainment Today magazine) to assemble a half‐hour sample show about end‐of-the-world stories collected from many cultures. (It was called Ends of the Earth—written, shot, hosted and edited by me).
I used the video as a pitch document. I sent it to 30 production companies.
About five responded. Three said “no thanks.” Two had interest. And one finally hired me to be a writer/editor on their ongoing Discovery Channel show…Beyond Bizarre. They never produced my show idea, but it got me my first job in the documentary biz.
My favorite documentary guys are Michael Wood (In Search of the Trojan War), James Burke (Connections), Carl Sagan (Cosmos), and Ken Burns (everything else).
In fact I have a little score to settle with Ken. In 2005, a show I wrote and produced called Beyond The Da Vinci Code got two Emmy nominations, but we lost to Ken Burns…who didn’t even show up at the awards ceremony! That hack. (But hey, I’m not bitter).
I’m motivated by stories that I think the public should know about but that nobody is telling.
I like to set the record straight on sacred subjects. This is what drives my documentary work. I wrote and produced a 22-part TLC series called Mostly True Stories? Urban Legends Revealed, which deconstructed famous urban legends.
MythBusters was a spin‐off of that series.
I’m better at reporting history, science and facts, and making them fun, than I am at inventing fictional dilemmas.
Real figures and stories from history are more interesting to me than created ones.
Medieval Recreation in Italy
I wish I were better at the fiction—it makes a lot more money. But somebody’s got to discuss reality.
Favorite Role in Entertainment
My greatest strength is writing—which is how I entered the biz.
When you can’t afford a camera and can’t find a job, you write.
Eventually, I got to write a small documentary for a production company in San Francisco where I was working in their office. I branched out from there, and got more involved in production.
I like directing because I’m a control freak (so I’m told), but I have no trouble writing and producing shows and letting talented directors do the re-creation work.
Anything that makes a show with my name on it better is a good thing.
Skills & Traits Necessary for Success in the Entertainment Industry
Networking and schmoozing people—which I’m not the world’s best at—is key.
I send out zillions of resumes while job hunting, yet most jobs I’ve had came from unexpected sources, usually through a referral from somebody I know.
It also helps to specialize in one specific skill at first, and get really good at it. That way you become the go-to guy for that particular craft.
Once you’ve got a reputation in that one area, you get more work and can branch out into other skills. Also, don’t take most rejections to heart.
Most people are too busy to have a serious attitude about you, so failing to land a job is as much random chance as any shortfall in your own experience.
After graduating with a Masters in Dramatic Writing from the American Film Institute, I was more than qualified to work as a story analyst for an independent feature production company.
By reading screenplays, I got educated not only on how to write them, but on what kind of material was out there kicking around Hollywood.
There are movies released in recent years whose screenplays I first read 20 years ago.
If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, it also helps you gauge how good you are compared with the competition. It turns out my work was better than about 85% of what was out there. But without connections or a big name, it had to be better than 95% of the competition in order to sell.
I sold two screenplays and saw one produced in a low budget film. (I had to write it in two weeks, so it’s not a great film—and I won’t mention the title). Clearly, I needed a career that moved a little better than that.
J.K. Rowling Biography Documentary
This was actually a very simple project, consisting mostly of searching the internet for archival footage of J.K. Rowling (she doesn’t do interviews), and hunting down people to talk about her (also hard to find).
It was a half-hour show for Bloomberg Network for a series called GameChangers…about innovators in various industries.
We could liberally use footage from other shows because Bloomberg is a news network so we had a lot of “fair use” footage, which normally you could not use. It was a nice little project, but mostly a desk job.
I always feel like I waste a lot of time…brainstorming, reading, writing dead-end stuff.
I usually adjust my schedule to the job.
If a job demands long hours and seven day weeks, you roll with that.
At the Berlin Wall in the 1970s.
When I get a job I do a mental calculation of what I have to do to meet the deadlines that are set. Then I try to get a rapid start and frontload my work schedule (rather than procrastinate), so that I get ahead of the game if I can.
I feel more in control of the process, and inevitably it’ll take longer than I figured or there won’t be enough time towards the end of the project, so getting a head start is important.
Apps feature little in my strategy—though I suppose some might be useful in getting organized. Ultimately, apps don’t write, produce, direct or edit.
I have Final Cut Pro X that I use at home for my own projects, and I use Hightail to send big files, a map app for travel, and Skype for occasional calls…but not much else.
Improvements in Technology
Technology has created a lot more opportunities to both learn and get work. However, it has devalued some crafts because so many people are competing now— like editing or camera.
But it hasn’t created a generation of Alfred Hitchcocks any more than the typewriter created a generation of Shakespeares.
You still need talent, experience, and something to say.
Tech has made sending out resumes and reels much, much easier and cheaper. But it’s also put more pressure on producers. Because executives know that technology allows for faster changes than ever before in writing or editing, they ask for more changes on shorter schedules.
They want higher quality for less money.
It was much easier to find enough material for a show 15 years ago because the pacing was so much slower. Today it’s exhausting, and often too frenetic for its own good.
Favorite Experiences as a Writer
Actually, my favorite writing experience wasn’t someone else’s script but rather my own Chocolate Jesus book. It was an indulgence—something I wanted to write for many years and had to get out of my system. So I took eight months off from work and made every day a writing day…which I loved.
I like the writing process; I’m comfortable with it.
I loved getting up in the morning, knocking back a coffee, and then sitting down to just research and write and make jokes and discover new information and organize material and do lots of rewrites.
Nobody to bother me—I was master of my universe. It was just a playground of fun ideas for me and I had been busting to do it for so long.
That’s what really makes for inspired work. You have to be bursting with something to say that nobody else is saying, or saying as well.
Start early. People are more impressed by your skills when you’re younger, alas. Get really good at one specialty and get know for it well. Meet people, party with ‘em, schmooze, connect online, go to classes or professional conferences.
Be useful to people so they’ll use you and give you experience.
Observe how pros around you behave so your energy will fit the environment. Learn your jargon, even if it sounds a bit obnoxious.
Don’t talk a lot, just do.
If nobody will give you the time of day, find a way to create your own small project—something that shows off what you have to sell. It’s a calling card and people do respond to it.
They like the initiative it took to make it and they have a concrete example of what you’re able to do. Employers want to eliminate guesswork about their people.
And don’t waste a lot of money entering screenplay contests. How many movies have ever been made from scripts that won a contest?
Favorite Experiences as a Producer
Shooting a Viking fire funeral in the Shetland Island was a magical experience.
Thousands of people marched by torchlight in the frozen north and surrounded a full size Viking ship they built—complete with dragon head.
Then they torched it.
That was cool and you can see a clip from that show below:
Another great shoot was my Top Five, Eaten Alive show for Discovery Shark Week.
We shot it in New Zealand, Australia and the Bahamas. We had a giant fake shark head to re-create five true stories of people who had been swallowed by giant sharks and lived to tell the tale.
I was writer, producer and director. It was a big project in a foreign country, but the people were great.
There was an extensive production team, including four divers, and somehow we pulled it altogether. I also love working in the tropics.
I was nominated for both writing and producing for Beyond the Da Vinci Code, for History Channel about ten years ago.
We lost (to Ken Burns, grrrrr), but it was fun going to the Emmys and hearing my name called out.
And this year, a big miniseries I worked on as a producer and writer, The American Revolution, received an Emmy nom for sets and costumes.
We’ll see if we win. I’m having Ken Burns followed…
Favorite Experiences as a Director
The shark show, the Viking fire funeral, a headhunter attack re-creation in Borneo, interviewing Hugh Hefner and Deepak Chopra, filming a Satanic mass, shooting a gay wedding in Hawaii 15 years ago, spending a weekend at Marine Corps boot camp, exploring a 1000‐foot deep silver mine in Mexico, and shooting urban legend re-creations for the Mostly True Stories? series.
Keeping up with technology, especially in post-production, is a constant challenge, especially when you started out learning on film or ¾” videotape.
Cave in Costa Rica.
I’ve also done jobs where I had to leave before I was finished. In some cases it was illness, in others it was because I didn’t deliver what they wanted. Sometimes it happens and you have to get over it and move on, even you feel like a failure.
Every show isn’t a winner, or a fair situation to work in. Occasionally shows fall apart. Recognize that, learn from your mistakes, and press on like a winner.
Approach to Creative Projects
I like to frontload my projects with lots of research and reading, so I feel familiar with the material—and can then brainstorm ideas of how to approach it (if the network gives me the freedom to do that).
The more info you have, the more creative and confident you can be. Then I organize all my computer folders and physical files to get ready.
I watch all the video available, if there is any, and sometimes check out other documentaries about the same subject. I ask for samples of the kind of thing my employer wants, and I study them.
And each day when I finish work, I set up what I will attack the next day, so in the morning I know exactly what I have to do.
I give myself mini-goals to meet to keep pace with the schedule.
And then the network says they hate it and we start over.
Social media has made applying for jobs and getting your credits out there much easier.
And job-hunting websites (like one for the Producer’s Guild, of which I’m a member), have helped me find work. Other than that, social media is more of a playground for me than a professional tool.
Top 5 Moments in Entertainment
Filming two million bats flying overhead in a cave the size of the Astrodome in Borneo.
Watching a dragon‐headed Viking ship get set on fire by thousands of torchbearers.
Going to the Emmy Awards as a nominee (and cursing Ken Burns’ soul).
Attending the Oscars twice as a film critic, interviewing dozens of stars, and ending up on an elevator with Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, and Karl Malden. (I was the only one there with no Oscar).
At Metre Peak in New Zealand
Finding myself in the South Pacific ocean directing a shark show only two weeks after getting a call about the job in a city (Dunedin, New Zealand), that I never knew existed.
Something People Might Not Know About Your Work
It’s writing and production work, but it’s the life of an actor. If you’re not on a company staff (something I’d recommend as you get older), every job is your last job.
You have to manage your money, control your overhead, and have a sense of adventure about your life and career. You can’t want routine or certainty.
I came late to the media biz. My undergraduate degree is a double major in Economics and Political Science. I was going to be a lawyer, but decided to choose a career with more integrity—television.
I had to work my way in after college, with no formal training except at night school at the Berkeley Film Institute. I took classes for two years.
Then, six years later, I got into the American Film Institute master’s program in Hollywood. That helped me transition to Los Angeles and allowed me to meet people in the biz.
You can’t take too many classes or learn enough skills. The secret is being useful to the point of indispensible.
Not really. I learned on the job. I could have used more advice, especially in the early years, but didn’t get much.
I do have to thank Al Brito, a producer/director, who gave me my first shot at writing a professional script, and John Burrud for giving me my first break as a writer/producer.
I’m producing three episodes of a new series for Discovery networks focusing on a specialist who gets murderers to confess their crimes.
Do what you love and what you’re honestly good at, and keep doing it until somebody decides to pay you to do it.