The Cosmic Circus is excited to finally share our first interview! We were lucky enough to sit down with screenwriter Eric Martin, best known for working on Rick and Morty and Loki.
Due to studio mandates, there were certain topics our interviewee was not permitted to discuss on record, but we did have an interesting conversation about his time in the industry that provides some insight into his mindset while working on various shows and movies, as well as some very valuable advice for aspiring screenwriters. This is the first part of that interview.
How’d you get started in the business?
EM: For Rick and Morty I started there as an intern; that was my very first gig in the industry while I was in grad school, and then quickly from there I became a writer PA (production assistant) […] I was working on Rick and Morty but I was also working on other projects there as well, like working as a writers’ assistant and writer on different things.
Has your goal always been writing in the industry?
EM: Yeah, I think it’s writing, directing, producing, whatever. You know, just making things and being a part of all of it. Writing is just kind of like the sharpest tool I have and felt like the easiest way to “get in”. But yeah, the goal is to do a lot of different things, but yeah, writing’s my main thing.
And how did you decide you wanted to pursue it?
EM: Well, I mean, it’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. I’m one of those people [who’s] doing the thing I wanted to do when I was like six years old. I mean, I didn’t exactly know what it meant then, but I knew I loved movies and TV and that was just the thing that found me when I was a little kid and I’ve always stuck with it; it’s just always been my thing.
Growing up I would write and make a lot of videos with friends and then in college I took that to the next level and studied film there and made films and wrote a lot and then it’s just kind of always been that trajectory.
The path [to get into the industry]…you know it’s a relationship game, and I didn’t have any relationships in the industry; I just grew up as a poor kid up in northern California, I didn’t know anybody that made movies or TV. I felt like it was something I could do, but you gotta know people, so as I was looking to take that next step I was looking at grad schools; I knew I was good at school, and I knew I was a good writer, so I was looking for a program where I felt like I could shine, and Pepperdine had a small, new program where all the professors were working writers in the industry. I just looked at that and thought “okay, I can take each class and just treat it as an audition, and I’ll just work my butt off and do the absolute best I can to try and impress them, and then maybe that’s how I can have some connections in the industry”.
And it actually worked out great, like I still have great relationships with a lot of my professors from there; I have incredible mentors like Chris Cluess and Sheryl Anderson. They’ve become wonderful friends, but also they’re trusted guides; I can always go to them with any problem I have or any script and they’ve just been so generous with their time in mentoring me, and that’s also something I know I want to give back to future generations because it’s been so valuable to me.
And then also at Pepperdine Michael Waldron and I became buddies; we started at the same time and we just immediately gravitated toward each other. From there, I got a gig on Rick and Morty, so did Michael, and we’ve just kind of been at it ever since.
We got into Rick and Morty from another friend of ours at Pepperdine, he was Justin Roiland’s assistant at the time, Jonathan Davis. We were all working on Rick and Morty before it was even, like, a “thing”. Nobody had heard of Rick and Morty, and we were able to watch that grow from the ground up which was pretty amazing.
But yeah, Michael and I, we work really well together because we’ve just known each other for so long, and really “get” each other. We’re not, like, official writing partners or anything, but just trusted collaborators; we can always reach out to each other and talk about whatever each of us is working on.
What advice would you give for people looking to make connections in the industry?
EM: There is no direct path. Everybody has a different journey in. That’s one thing people always said to me, and it’s something I’ve noticed as well; there is no one path on how to break-in. For me it was about just stepping back [and looking at] “what am I good at? What am I not good at?” I know I’m really good on the page, so I write a lot. [I’d] write all the time, just have a lot of scripts, and continue just writing, writing, writing.
And I’m not a very good schmoozer, so I knew I had to get better at that, and also figure out the version of it that would work for me; I don’t want to go schmooze at a party or anything. So I keep a small network of people that are really tight; good people that I know I can depend on, be friends with, and that has worked for me.
Like I said, I didn’t have any connections in the industry so I just found a way to find some. You do not have to go to grad school for that. It worked for me, but you know, paying that money to be there, there’s an argument that that’s a bit of a waste. You can just go and get any job in the industry and just start meeting people. But that does kind of require that you move to Los Angeles, and that’s the thing I tell most people: if you want to get in, the quickest route is just to move to Los Angeles and get any job in the industry, and then just start looking for a better job in the industry.
And if you want to write, write. Write all the time. Don’t just talk about writing, you have to actually write – and become really good at it – so when you get that opportunity where you just happen to be in the right place at the right time and somebody says “I need somebody to write this” you just throw your hand up and know you can do it.
Do you suggest aspiring writers build a portfolio, and if so, how?
EM: It depends, for every person it’s gonna be different. I started out as a comedy writer but I always had interest in other genres [like] drama, and just the film form in general. So while I knew I had a sharp tool with comedy I wanted to keep challenging myself to become better at the other things. And so I had built a war chest of scripts and projects, and I’m always juggling a few at a time, so if I’m waiting for notes on one thing, I’m now working on the other thing. And at any given time I have like four or five projects I’m juggling. That works for me, [but] some people like to only work on one thing at a time and just really focus on that. Again, I think it’s [a matter of] understanding what you’re good at [and] how you work, and just lean into that.
It’ll never be a bad thing to have a bunch of scripts, but at the end of the day you only need one great script to break through. But if all you have is that one great script [you’re gonna be under] a lot of pressure to do that next thing, and maybe you haven’t actually developed all the skills necessary [to succeed] yet. You’ve just got one great script, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily a master of the form. So I think it’s always good just to keep working.
But again, that’s just for me. I really like to write, I like to do all that work, so that’s what I do. But everybody can get in in different ways.
If someone is meeting with a potential employer in the industry, for writing specifically, what should they be prepared for?
EM: If they’re already meeting with you, they like your work, and so they want to hire you as a writer. You might be in competition with other writers, but I think the best thing you can do is just go in there and be low-key and normal and nice, just be a decent person – hopefully, you don’t have to pretend, hopefully, you actually are that. Just be a normal person because they’re gonna have to work with you, and think about if you were on the other side of that, talking to somebody, interviewing them. You’re gonna want to find somebody you know you can work with that isn’t gonna be really difficult.
I think that’s the biggest thing, just presenting that you’re malleable like you aren’t gonna come in like “nope, nope, I’m only gonna write it this way and only this way”, that you want to come in and collaborate and be a good partner, and you’ll be much more likely to get the job.
I’ve never found that I’m very good at the “persuasion game”, like, pitching [to] people, but I can prepare really well ahead of time, and like, take people through this whole journey. I’m much better on the page than I am actually pitching the idea because I think there is a lot of nuance to what I do. And so I feel like I’m missing that in just like pitching out “yeah, no, it’s a guy but he just like, traveled through time just by shutting his eyes” and like, I don’t know, that doesn’t really interest me that much. But like, when you talk about […] the emotional impact of that, that’s not as “pitchable”, but for me, that’s what gets me into it, that’s what gets me interested.
And so, it’s not always gonna be the best thing in the room, but if you can just show them that you are good to work with, and if they pitch out an idea and you can build off that in real-time, that’s gold.
Is there anything you think people might be surprised about in regards to working in a writers’ room that would be beneficial for aspiring screenwriters to know before they reach that point?
EM: That it’s very collaborative [and] that you are gonna have a script with your name on it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s just your unfiltered voice; there is gonna be somebody above you that’s probably gonna be rewriting that. And also [that you’ll have] spent months in a room with people; people are gonna pitch out jokes and lines of dialogue and bits of action that are gonna end up in that script that you put in there but, like, that wasn’t your idea.
That’s the big thing, when anybody has a great script, it’s a victory for everybody, not just the person with their name on it. Increasingly, I think people are starting to look and they see like, “oh Eric, you know, Episode 4 was really great, congratulations!” and it’s like, “thank you, but it was a group effort, we all worked on that, we all worked on every single episode”.
I think a little bit [of it] is just putting that ego at the door and just really wanting to collaborate to make the best thing together, and just know that your name might be on it but it’s not gonna be your unfiltered voice.
Does that method of crediting ever worry you? How do you deal with receiving the bulk of the backlash for something due to your name being the only one on the script?
EM: You know, I try to take it in stride. I think on Twitter you can dwell on all the negative [stuff], but at the end of the day, especially with something like Loki, I mean a billion people are gonna watch that. It’s such an honor and a responsibility to be able to talk to that many people, and the overall response we’ve gotten has been so incredibly positive, I would just be a masochist to sit there and focus on the negative.
I want to hear the criticism, like, criticism actually doesn’t bother me. That’s one of the things about being a writer, everybody’s critiquing [your work] constantly, and you’re having to deal with lots of “no’s” and people saying what they like and don’t like. I try to remove myself emotionally from that and just hear what it is because I want the thing to be the best it can possibly be, and I only have a limited frame of reference to be able to form that, and I want to hear other people’s points of view.
So, like, the criticisms online, sometimes it’s like “okay, you guys are just being mean now, you’re just being nasty”. […] But you know what? It’s fine! People can not like something, and that is their right. Like, we put this thing out there for people to like or dislike, but once we’ve done it, once we’ve made it, it’s theirs now. Like, it’s not ours anymore, it’s the world’s. So people get to take it apart and see what’s meaningful, what isn’t meaningful, what they want to see more of, what they don’t. […] That’s all up to them, what it all means to them.
And there are definitely things that have been misunderstood, that were not our intent, but you know what? The world is gonna make it what it makes it. And so that’s kind of the beauty of it all, I think, it’s an interactive thing, and people get to have it be their own.
On that note, do you believe in the concept of “Death of the Author”?
EM: I don’t know, I think you have to take the totality of a person to really understand some of the stuff [they create]. I mean, it’s the same thing with [things] like dream interpretation; you can interpret your dream, [but] I can’t, because the same things don’t mean the same things to me, and to you, and to someone halfway across the world. A flying dream might mean something totally different to somebody living in China than it does to me, because they just have a different frame of reference.
And so for something like that I think you can just look at the product as just this thing and only imprint yourself on that, and see what you see, but for me, I’m kind of a history nerd, and I kind of see everything as progression, and like anything that happens right now you can trace back reasons and like a path in the past for how it happened. I think you can do the same thing with films, where you can look and see “oh, okay, this person had this experience in their life; I think I understand now what they were saying with this relationship, why they were interested in this relationship between these people because that’s meaningful to them”. For me, I like to understand a little bit more about the authors in that way.
But, you know, again, people can interface with works in their own way. So I don’t think anybody needs to do that, that’s just how I like to do it.
There’s such a big push for more representation in media going on right now. If you’re working on a project that involves topics or themes that you don’t have any personal experience with, how do you tend to go about tackling it?
EM: That’s a big reason why I write, so I can actually wear the skin of other people and understand [them better]. It’s like, I want to be a more whole person myself, so I want to write a character that is not me, and then I stop and try to understand what life is like for them and how they would react in [the given] situation, just so I’m a more full and complete person, and I think a more empathetic and understanding person.
So I’m always looking at it from that point of view, [though] I think there is the other point of view where you should only write stuff that you – based on your skin color or gender or whatever – have experience with. I think theoretically I kind of disagree with that, because I wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they couldn’t write…you’re pigeonholing people into something just by the way they look, and also assuming a lot based on their life experiences, and I think it really just boils people down to how they appear on the outside, and it’s really impossible to know what their inner life is and the life they’ve lived up to that point.
I think we can all look at people and make some assumptions, but do we really know what they’ve lived, what has been meaningful to them? And also I don’t think every character can be boiled down to just their race, gender, or anything, because I think humans are just more complicated than that. I definitely don’t try to boil people down to that in everyday life, because every person’s an individual; I don’t know what they’ve lived, and I’m not gonna presume [anything] just because they look a certain way.
So yeah, I don’t know. I definitely take all of that into account when working on anything, but I’m just trying to find the place where I intersect with it, so I can understand and internalize that.
Part two of our interview with Eric Martin is now available here!