When A! Magazine did a feature story about Colette Burson and other "Movie Mavericks" 10 years ago, Colette was single and had just made the feature film Coming Soon in New York City. Now she is married to Dmitry Lipkin and they have two children named after famous authors. Their five-year-old daughter is Tennessee (Williams) and their one-year-old son is Wolf (as in Virginia Woolf).
Together, Colette and Dmitry are producing and writing Hung, a successful television series for HBO. Right now they're in between seasons and are contemplating the 10 episodes they need to write for the next season of shows. When they recently spent a couple of weeks in Abingdon, Va., where Colette grew up, Colette talked to us about her work.
• Why did you make the transition from movies to television?
I helped Dmitry create The Riches and wrote an episode entitled "Chunky K (Cinderella)," which proved to be very popular. (Editor's Note: The FX television series starred Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as con artists and thieves.)
• Tell us about your career, moving from New York City to Los Angeles.
It was a conscious choice on our part. When it comes to success, movies are hit-and-miss. Once a TV show is going, it's more of a sure thing -- and financially lucrative. With our family, it was the right move to make. Plus, you can be more creative on cable (television) and do very interesting things.
Both of us are playwrights, so initially we were not interested in the money; we were more interested in our art. When we decided to make more money, we were already well-honed as artists. When we finally went to Los Angeles, it was 10 to 15 years later than when our peers went.
• What are the differences between directing and writing for movies and for television?
For a movie, I write one or two adventures for the characters and then they're out of my mind. For a TV show, the story goes on and on, the characters kind of haunt you. The script is about 45 pages per episode; that's 450 pages for 10 episodes. After about five or six hours of material, the characters take on a life of their own. Stories go slower in TV, so you can make the characters more in-depth. Everything is more intimate, more intense, because you get to know the actors, to know their strengths and weaknesses. The way the actors behave can influence how you write for them -- who they are as people, what inspires them, how they act, what they bring to the table.
• How did you get your foot in the door at FX with your previous series (The Riches) and now at HBO for Hung?
A career in the arts does not have an ad in the paper that says get this degree, apply for this job -- it's not a clear path. What you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, keep believing in yourself, go toward the light, go to the place where you're doing art.
It's a process. You build relationships and build your writing muscle. When I applied to graduate school, I could not do this; but today, if you say I need to submit a 50-page piece of writing, I could probably have it for you tomorrow or the day after. I've learned to be sharp and fierce in terms of my writing. I've learned how to do it and do it fast, to keep it moving forward.
It was never my goal to be successful and to make money. I was happy just to be a good writer.
You have to believe in yourself or things can trip you up along the way. (For example) I applied to six graduate schools before I got in. It was very discouraging, but the time to fail is in your 20s.
Some people who know me think of me as having incredible luck. They don't see my open heart and hard head. There are 99 failures behind every success. The failures are upsetting, but you have to keep going. My "overnight success" has taken 15 years.
• Tell us about a year in the life of a successful TV writer/director, especially now that you have the go-ahead for a second season.
Imagine being a drum major and conducting a band for 16 hours every day -- then imagine that two of your band members are under age five! Everything is maximized. It's all about creative decisions all day long.
Dmitry and I are very demanding and obsessive. I write, he re-writes, we both re-write each other. We want it to be perfect or as good as we can make it. We set very high standards for ourselves. Many times we're far harder on ourselves than our bosses [are on us]. We're more critical of our work. We spend a lot of time debating what's going on in the episodes and discussing different lines.
Each script goes through about six drafts. It takes us about five months to write an entire season. When we give a script to the actors, we make sure they understand the intentions behind the theme. We deal with the actors every single day and try to figure out ways to make them shine.
• What are your views on the future of TV?
Network television is going to gravitate more and more toward reality shows.
Cable TV is where you will continue to find high-quality shows. If you're intellectually curious and want high-quality TV, it's on cable. If you want more money, you work for the networks. For more creative license, you work for cable TV. That's why HBO is a great place to work. I've worked for other networks, and HBO gives us more creative license. They trust us when we want to do something, which is inspirational to us and makes us want to do the best we can for them.
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