Interview With Ingrid Escajeda

*This interview first appeared in SLO NightWriters Newsletter 

Ingrid Escajeda got her first taste of entertainment as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley where, while working on a degree in biology, she studied acting and comedy. Hooked by the biz, she went on to get her MFA in film production from USC where she studied both directing and writing. Early in her career, Ingrid worked as a producer for lifestyle networks such as Fine Living, Travel Channel and Food Network (including FN’s Hungry Girl). Alas, writing has always been her true passion and she got her start in narrative comedy staffing on Disney's Hannah Montana and ABC's Better Off Ted. Ingrid then transitioned to drama and has loved being part of the Justified writing team for the past two years. 

What was your dream job when you were a child? Have you always wanted to be a writer? 
I wanted to be a marine biologist. I grew up in San Diego, so I was totally obsessed with Sea World. But I did do a lot of writing back then. I even won quite a few awards for stories and essays. And I watched a ton of TV and movies – I saw SIXTEEN CANDLES so many times I knew it by heart. But as I got to high school, it was all about science. Well, that and partying. So the writing fell by the wayside. By the time I got to Berkeley, I was set on medical school. 

Seems like a long way from medical school to entertainment... 
My first taste of entertainment came in my senior year - I took an acting class and a class on comedy. One day in the comedy class, my friend Josh had a bunch of film school applications with him. I asked to look at them and it was like finding the Holy Grail. Up until then, entertainment always seemed like a world unto itself. To me, the whole “it’s who you know” thing meant you had to know a head of a studio or be a star’s kid or something. Plus it just seemed like such an unstable and flaky profession. I never thought it was something I could have actually done. Nonetheless, by then I was toying with the idea of taking a few years off to “find myself” anyway. I still took the MCAT and did pretty well. But on the writing sample, I got only one point away from a perfect score. It reminded me that not only did I used to love to write, I was actually quite good at it! So after a few years of your typical early 20s self-discovery and even an acceptance into law school (obviously I didn’t go), I realized and accepted the entertainment spark had stuck with me. I finally applied to film school and got into USC. It was funny – my first week there, I ran into my friend Josh who was on his last year there. He was like – what the heck are you doing here?? I thought you’d be a doctor by now! 

How does one become a writer for a TV show? 
There’s no set path. Some people come up through the ranks as writers’ assistants, some people come in through writing workshops like the ABC Fellowship, and some people – as I learned! – just know someone. But the one thing in common with all of us (other than ability) is perseverance. Because no matter how talented you are, it’s a tough road. And for most of us, a long one. Frankly, had I known how tough it would be when I started out, I’m not sure I’d have ever started. 

You have worked on Hannah Montana (a Disney teen sitcom), Better of Ted (a satirical sitcom) and Justified (a TV drama). These are three completely different genres. What was your genre preference? How did you make a transition? 
I always thought I’d be a comedy writer. Following my friend's suggestion I wrote a couple spec TV episodes of SCRUBS and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (spec TV episodes are not actually for the show – they’re used as calling cards for potential jobs to show off talent, etc). Long story short, a manager who read them liked them, signed me on as a client and got me an agent. I wrote more specs and a few years later I finally got my breakthrough shot on HANNAH MONTANA. Being a multi-camera sitcom, HANNAH was a very joke-heavy show and thus, a joke-heavy writers’ room. I learned very quickly that I was most definitely not a joke-heavy writer. I can go off on my own and write some hilarious stuff but I’m not a stand-up comedian. Not even close. And that’s what fills a multi-camera room. I was surrounded by hilarious people who would toss out zingers left and right. My comedy was more like THE OFFICE or WEEDS -- funny that stemmed from character and situation. So even though I was good at that and other stuff like story and structure, I felt like I could never keep up funny-wise and it was extremely stressful. It was a pretty awful realization. Here I was in my dream job – the job I’d been working for years to land and it was giving me an ulcer. 

That sounds like Better of Ted was a better fit for you. 
BETTER OFF TED was better. It was more character-driven and just a really, really smart show. Personally, I think it was way ahead of its time as well as on the wrong network. But I digress. So yes, even though the material was a better fit for me, I still had the same problem and it nagged me that I felt like I was only good at 80% of my job. Plus by that point, I found myself craving more. Drama on cable was exploding and I was watching a ton of it – LOST, SIX FEET UNDER, BREAKING BAD, RESCUE ME, etc. I wanted a part of that depth and character. I wanted to explore motivations more. And darkness. And conflicts. You get the idea. So after TED was cancelled, I decided to make the move into drama. I knew it would probably be difficult to do but I was lucky to have a very supportive agent (who’s now my manager). He encouraged me to go for it. “Sure,” he said, “just go write a kickass drama.” So I went off and wrote a script about the LAPD bomb squad. (How that came to me is another long story – suffice to say we had a scare at my condo complex and I made a new friend.) That was the script that landed me on JUSTIFIED. And thank goodness it did! JUSTIFIED was exactly the kind of writing I was looking to do – character-driven, gritty. I seriously don’t think I could have landed in a better place. Looking back, part of me does miss comedy somewhat, but really, the transition to drama was the best decision I ever made. It was only after I started on JUSTIFIED that my agent admitted to me how worried he had been, how a transition like that was crazy hard, especially for a writer with so few credits. I’m so glad he never told me that sooner! 

How much plot is developed in advance as far as the number of episodes is concerned? 
It’s hard to say episode-wise, but the writers go in about three months before production starts, so we have a good sense of what the season is going to look like before we start shooting any footage. And we’ll usually have about four scripts locked and loaded. 

How do you proceed with the plot - do you react to audience feedback, critics' feedback, or something else entirely? 
No audience or critic feedback. By the time anything airs, we’ve completed too much to take any of that into consideration. I know that the first couple seasons – before I got there – a lot of stuff came out of Elmore Leonard’s “Raylan” book. (JUSTIFIED is based on the Elmore Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole”.) Before seasons 3 & 4, I went to Kentucky – Lexington and Harlan – and did a ton of research. The U.S. Marshals in Lexington are a great group who always have stories for us. And Harlan is an incredible town filled with a lot of amazing people with stories that you wouldn’t believe, so a lot of ideas came out of those trips. Our star Tim Olyphant (who is a producer on the show) is also a big part of the process and has a lot of great ideas himself. My boss, Graham Yost (Executive Producer/Creator) is also an idea genius. We’ll toil over something for a while and he’ll go off and do his “yellow-padding” and then come back with something that blows us all away. But day-to-day, it’s the “discussing and processing” engine of the writers’ room (headed by Graham) that churns out the storylines you end up seeing on TV. 

What are your goals for the future? Any big plans or hopes you can share with us? 
 JUSTIFIED is currently on hiatus until July so I’ve been working on my own projects these days. I have a few irons in the fire for ideas that I would love to see come alive on the small screen (including my bomb squad pilot) so we’ll see. And of course, high hopes that season five of JUSTIFED will be our best one yet!

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