WHERE ARE THEY NOW: Q&A with Former HWP-TV Director Joey Siara EdM '14 (Screenwriter)

By Woojin Lim AB '22

IMG_0126.jpgJoey Siara EdM '14 is a screenwriter who has worked on series for ABC, CNN, and Discovery. His short fiction, “The Last of the Goggled Barskys,” was recently featured on Slate Magazine. Before receiving his Master's in Education from Harvard University and MFA from UCLA, he played in indie rock band, The Henry Clay People, performing at Lollapalooza and Coachella. He is a writing instructor in the School of Theater, Film, and Television at UCLA.

Q. Your latest short story on Slate “The Last of the Goggled Barskys” tells of a Black Mirror-esque dystopian science fiction about smart goggles that project user tasks for optimal satisfaction. When and why did you decide to tell this story?

A. I had never written short fiction prose before but got the opportunity to pitch a few stories to Slate, and they were all supposed to revolve around how we will navigate potential future technologies. I remember doing a a call with their editors, and I think there were even a couple legit scientist-types in the meeting, and then I started pitching a story about smart goggles leading to this embarrassing moment where one of the characters publicly poops their pants. I immediately felt the shame of pitching what amounted to an extended poop joke to a bunch of credible literary folks, but was relieved to hear some laughs on the other side of the line. Pairing a social critique about how we navigate technology with the lowbrow of bodily function humor hopefully made an interesting read.

While writing the story, I was nervous about my abilities in prose fiction since I had only ever written scripts and a few nonfiction pieces. Part of this insecurity came from being a fan of writers like Ted Chiang or Jennifer Egan or Tom Perrotta—it’s hard to feel competent writing anything when you’re a superfan of other writers who operate at such a high level. I had to cut myself some slack and eventually made peace with writing something that was just entertaining to me. Though I struggled to get moving, I ended up having a ton of fun writing it— once I was able to get out of my own way.

The story plays to an insecurity that I think a lot of parents have: How do we parent in a world saturated with stimuli coming at us from every possible angle? Am I messing up my kids by allowing them to interface with screens all the time? Are my kids boring? I’ve gotten a surprising amount of responses from parents who said that the story really struck a chord, which is cool. I don’t have kids, but have seen a ton of my friends enter the world of parenting. And all of them want to be amazing parents and give their kids the best lives, but it’s tough because I think we always bring the baggage of our own upbringing and then attempt to compensate. We all have blindspots. But blindspots can often make interesting stories. And I’m sure if I have kids, I’ll be doomed to have my fair share of blindspots and my kid will think I’m lame. And they’ll be right. But that’s part of the fun, I suppose.

Q. How would you describe your main body of work in terms of the larger themes and narratives that you seek to explore?

A. I met the other day with somebody who’d read a handful of things I’d written and commented that everything I write revolves around family conflict and sticking it to authority. It was cool for her to take the 10,000-foot view and notice the overall themes I gravitate towards... Yeah, a lot of my scripts feature parents who are trying their best, but ultimately, what they think is right is often flawed, misguided, and damaging—and hopefully funny. I enjoy diving into the psychology of these kinds of characters and putting them through the ringer, but then at the end, I think it’s important to show empathy for them. Again, they’re just trying. Trying is often tragic and funny. And hopefully we can learn something while trying. Despite the twisted and cynical world in which we live, at the core of what I write, I hope there is always a sloppy beating heart.

Q. Tell me more about your creative process—from pulling ideas together in brainstorming to pitching. How much of your writing is based on your own personal experience as opposed to your wild imagination?

A. I owe a lot of credit to a teacher who became a mentor and now is a friend—Howard Suber, who spent almost 50 years on the UCLA faculty and went to Harvard back in the day. He’s like my Yoda of storytelling. I think half of the things I got out of film school came directly from him. He’s big on the idea that creativity isn’t about magically coming up with something from nothing, but rather, it’s about pairing together existing elements—combining them in “new” ways. We’ve seen hitman stories before; we’ve seen stories about aspirational creatives. But when slammed together with some solid pathos—you get Barry, which feels totally fresh. Most of my favorite shows do this element blender on some level—Fleabag, Watchmen, I May Destroy You, Mindhunter, Succession—tons of bisociative elements in all of those. And I try to do this in the stuff I write. I love Friday Night Lights. I love Twin Peaks. I grew up playing punk rock in Yorba Linda, which is a city in Orange County. So, the script that got me staffed and is still my main TV sample was a murder mystery integrating all of that. It’s a splatter-paint of my tastes and life experience. 

I used to play in a bunch of bands. When you make music, you enter into the element-combining creative process more naturally—the chorus of your song reminds you of The Clash; your guitar tone sounds like old Weezer; your vocal delivery kind of borrows from Pavement; all while the drummer thinks he’s playing in Led Zeppelin. Essentially, you’re combining elements of music that you like into your sound. All of a sudden, these flavors are filtered between four or five band members, and you have a sound that ends up sounding like your own. Ultimately, your creative voice exists in that gap between your tastes and your abilities—and how you struggle in that space is often where the magic really happens. My favorite bands were always the ones who were more ambitious than their talents would allow them to realize. And I loved them more because I could hear this struggle play out in their songs.

Q. Could you tell me more about your path in screenwriting? When was your first exposure to the film industry?

A. My path has been anything but linear. I always loved watching movies. I started as a film major in college, but switched over to history. While in school, I formed a band with my brother. Post-college, we stumbled into an opportunity to go on tour, so we went on tour for a month, thinking that would be it and we’d come back to our old jobs. But then we kept getting offered more tours and then we got signed and just went with it... We quit our day jobs and were able to turn the band thing into something of a mini-career for like six years, which was super fun and miserable and exciting and all the things.  

On the road, we’d only be on stage for like 45 minutes a night, which left an entire 23 hours and 15 minutes to kill. During that free time, we were constantly devouring TV shows. In the van, we would pass around a portable DVD player and take turns watching all of The Wire or Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. At some point, my brother and I decided to try writing a pilot. Though inevitably, they were all crappy band-on-the-road type scripts. But it was a start.

By virtue of being a band in Los Angeles, we came into opportunities for our music to be licensed in a bunch of TV shows—Gossip Girl, Parenthood, Sons of Anarchy. We interfaced with music supervisors and producers and started to see where music and TV overlapped. Eventually I was asked to write the theme song for a series called Stuff You Should Know, which was based on a podcast I really loved. The podcasters were fans of my band. When their podcast got picked up for a series, the producers brought me and and my brother on as creative consultants. We got paid to pitch a bunch of fun science/comedy story ideas. And that was a great feeling. Until the show was cancelled.

Q. From then on, what made you decide to pursue screenwriting as a full-on career?

A. The band started to plateau after several years. Plus, I’d lost some hearing and was dealing with chronic tinnitus in my ear, which is the worst thing for a touring musician in a loud band. Knowing that I had a ton of fun on Stuff You Should Know, I looked into grad school and found the Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) program at the Ed school. They seemed like a nice pipeline into a world of educational entertainment. I loved my professors and classmates and had a great time in the program, but I still felt like I couldn’t quite shake that itch to write comedy pilots.

In the middle of my time at Harvard, I stumbled on a three-day wintersession seminar taught by Greg Daniels. The Office was one of my favorite shows. I remember talking with him after class, and he said that whatever you do, find time to write what you want to write. You’re not going to be satisfied until you scratch that itch. The chat was a much-needed plot-turn in the story of my life. I ended up applying for an MFA program at UCLA, which I was only able to do because I got a job in their Disability Studies department, which helped cover my tuition. 

From then, I placed in a couple of screenwriting competitions and ended up with another writing mentor through Harvardwood, Jonathan Collier AB '83. My writing career maybe would have been dead on arrival if it wasn’t for his vote of confidence. Jon rules. I love that guy. I’d been told by enough people that Hollywood and the film industry is so cutthroat, and don’t get me wrong, it is, but I’ve also found that there are a bunch of very gracious humans in this industry who want to be helpful to young writers. And that’s something I want to be a part of paying forward, which is why I love teaching. I think fostering a supportive creative community is super important. We make each other better writers when we have that kind of support, and when we feel safe to push ourselves to tell more honest stories

Q. How do you think the Covid-19 outbreak has affected TV writing in particular?

A. Right now, there’s demand for more shows, but no production. I guess I do worry we will start to run low on content. We are hungry for new stuff. My brother wrote the movie Palm Springs, which is huge right now for Hulu and, aside from being a seriously excellent movie, though I am biased as his brother, he’ll be the first to tell you that the movie benefits from this moment when we are starved for fresh content and eager to hang out for a couple hours with some new fun characters. I was a little bummed that audiences didn’t get to experience the movie on the big screen. I went to Sundance earlier this year when it premiered and got to see it absolutely crush on the big screen in a theater full of people. But I also know that the infinite time-loop vibe of the film feels perfectly of this moment and resonates in an entirely new way while watching with loved ones on a couch during quarantine. 

I have to say that I actually enjoy Zoom meetings for pitches and generals. I don’t love driving from Westwood to Burbank in the middle of rush hour for an hour meeting. So I’m cool with Zoom meetings. Though the whole Zoom writers room thing seems like a new frontier and the folks I know in those rooms still feel like they are working out the kinks. Zoom writers’ rooms must be tough to negotiate because part of what makes a writers’ room work is the nonverbal body language cues about what pitches are landing and what storylines the showrunner likes. Some of that can get lost in translation when you are on a little rectangle screen. 

Q. What is the best advice that you’ve personally received in the industry?

A. Be wary of chasing trends. If all you’re doing is chasing after a gold rush only because the industry is buzzing about this trend or that trend, then I struggle to understand your voice as a writer. If the thing you love to write about happens to be in the zeitgeist, then rad, go for it. But I don’t love the idea of writers being purely mercenary when it comes to what they are creating, especially early in their careers before people are able to get a sense of their voice and POV.  

Also, just be a gracious, supportive human. Don’t be an asshole. Help people.

Q. Paying things forward, do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters? 

A. When I teach screenwriting, I make my students on the first day of class write a massive list of all the things they like—TV shows, books, movies, podcasts, pieces of art. Part of your writerly identity is in the mix of all the things that you love. So I challenge them to really examine those things and ask themselves, “Why do I love this particular show or book or whatever?” Are there recurring patterns in your list of favorites? So, when you pick what to write about, you should pick stuff from within this giant brainstorming bubble and then find cool ways to slam them together. That way you write about things you are already attracted to. You can make your writing feel more personal as a result, and usually I can tell when reading a script if the writer is enthusiastic about the project. Even if a script doesn’t immediately click with my tastes, a writer’s true enthusiasm is hard to deny.

Also, pay attention to how the shows and movies you enjoy make you feel. You should be writing from your heart, not over-thinking with your brain. Harvard students, in particular, can often feel this pressure to write super-cerebral, complicated stories that end up feeling more like an intellectual exercise than something that really moves you on an emotional level. But if you write a list of all the things that you love, you might see a pattern that speaks to the emotions. My favorite movie is Jaws. It makes me feel a certain way and I watch it at least once a year so I can feel that feeling again. Same with music. “What a Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke was the first song I remember hearing as a kid that made me feel something. And I’m not even sure what it was, but I know I wanted to feel more of it. Even the more cerebral things I enjoy end up making me feel. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eternal Sunshine.... So, yes, my advice to people is to pay attention to how art makes you feel.  

Last thing I will say for advice is to take chances with your voice. I used to think of myself as a half-hour comedy guy until I was forced to take a drama class, and I ended up finding my voice in that space in between. And now I know I like to tell higher-stakes dramatic stories but with a slight comedic tilt. So, I encourage young writers who are developing their writing voice to stretch what they think they’re comfortable with and possibly surprise themselves with where they land.

Q. Where do you see yourself next?

A. Great question. I’m taking out a new series. Finishing a feature I’ve been sitting on for too long. I have another feature that I wrote with my brother in the last year. And the production company behind Palm Springs bought it and seems motivated to make it. We will see. I haven’t put out a record since the band officially broke up in 2012. So, I have a new band and we have a new record that we tinkered with over the last year. It’s a scrappy mid-30s indie rock record. But I had a ton of fun making it. Super low stakes, it’s mostly just to satisfy ourselves.

I absolutely loved being staffed. It’s the best. There is part of me that hates writing alone. So being on a staff with really smart, funny folks was a dream. And now, I’m sort of hooked on collaboration. I love bouncing ideas around. I love the energy of building off of pitches. What can I say? I’m a social person.

After writing the Slate story, I’ve had a handful of people asking me about possibly doing a collection of short stories around a theme. I haven’t decided how I feel about that because, again, 80% of that first story was a pain to write. But I’m open to it. In the meantime, I’m continuing to work on the things that bring me pure passion and joy. I’m writing to entertain myself, and hopefully, that will translate and entertain other people too.

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