Writer’s Corner is a place to get to know outstanding writers, talk about the craft of writing, career advice, share horror stories and find out more about compelling films, television shows, plays, etc. There’s so much great content out there being made by female creators, we should all be keeping an eye on these women.
Today we are featuring Heather Jeng Bladt
Heather Jeng Bladt is a third-generation Chinese American writer who was most recently a Staff Writer on the seventh and final season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. Prior to that, she wrote freelance episodes for Season 6 of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK and the final season of MAD MEN. In addition, she was in the writers’ room for ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK for two seasons and NBC’s THE NIGHT SHIFT for one season as a Writers’ Assistant/Script Coordinator. She also served as Showrunner’s Assistant to Matthew Weiner for the last three seasons of MAD MEN, learning the complexities of showrunning. A SoCal girl, she grew up in Orange County and attended USC’s School of Cinema-Television where she earned her BFA in Writing for Screen and Television. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.
Heather, how did you get started in the film industry? Can you talk about the trajectory from first gig to being a freelance writer to staff writer?
During the last semester of my Senior year at USC (where I was studying screenwriting), I interned at DreamWorks Amblin in the Story Department. After I graduated, there was an opening as the 2nd Assistant to the Head of Post-Production at DreamWorks Amblin and I jumped at the chance to have a job in the industry.
After working there for two years, I wanted to get onto the creative side, so I worked for a family film Producer as her assistant, developing all kinds of YA movies. But I still wanted to write and after four years in development, I wanted to make a jump into TV so that I could work in a writers’ room and learn from working writers. My friend from USC was a writer on the TV show Mad Men and told me the showrunner, Matthew Weiner, was looking for a new assistant. I got the job and worked as Matt’s assistant for the last three seasons of the show. During the last season, Matt read my writing sample and allowed me to write one of the episodes as a freelancer. But I found that even with a freelance script, it was difficult to get staffed on a show.
I was then hired as a Script Coordinator/Writers’ Assistant on a medical drama called The Night Shift. After that, Matthew Weiner recommended me to Jenji Kohan. She hired me as a Script Coordinator/Writers’ Assistant on the female prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. I did that job for two seasons (Seasons 5 and 6). During Season 6, I was given the opportunity to write a freelance script. And after that episode, I was promoted to Staff Writer for Season 7 (the last season of Orange is the New Black).
Can you talk about the differences between a streaming show like Orange is the New Black vs. a network show like The Night Shift or a basic cable show like Mad Men? Are there a lot of differences?
Actually, I would say there’s a difference between all three of those shows because of what platform they can be seen on. Orange is streaming on Netflix. The Night Shift was on NBC, a broadcast network. And Mad Men was on AMC, which is basic cable. For The Night Shift, there were a lot of notes from the Studio/Network that we would have to make sure we addressed in the scripts. Whereas, at Mad Men and Orange, AMC and Netflix let the showrunners be more auteurs. AMC and Netflix had invested in the showrunner and therefore was trusting that the showrunner knew how the show should turn out.
Because of advertising and FCC regulations in broadcast network television, there are rules and parameters you have to work within when it comes to foul language, sex, and subject matter. So, at The Night Shift, it felt like stories had to fit into a certain box – amazing stories were still told, it just felt like a bit more work sometimes to get to an agreement on what could be told. Whereas, with Mad Men and Orange, it felt like no idea was a bad idea and we could feel free to explore storylines that we may not have been able to explore on network television.
And then there was even a difference between Mad Men and Orange. Mad Men had to fit into 42 minutes every episode so that there would be time for commercials and would fit into AMC’s broadcasting schedule. Orange, being on streaming, could fluctuate around the hour mark and we even had 90-minute episodes because it felt right for the story. So, with Mad Men, you felt like you had to cut down for time. With Orange, the concern to cut was not as steadfast. One more difference is that Orange episodes were released all at once and months after we had written them. So, we were writing in a vacuum, not knowing how the audience was reacting to a certain storyline and therefore we couldn’t change course. Whereas, with The Night Shift and Mad Men, had we wanted to change course, we could have – but I don’t think either of those shows did change course.
How did you make the transition from freelance writer to staff writer?
I addressed this a little in the earlier question, but when I was a freelance writer, I was also still working on the show as an Assistant or Script Coordinator. And while I was a Script Coordinator/Writers’ Assistant, I was in the Writers’ Room. So, I was privy to all of the same information that the writers had and could pitch my ideas as well. Being a Script Coordinator/Writers’ Assistant felt like a training program to be a writer because I was essentially getting to do all of the same things a writer was doing. And because of that training and the trust and rapport I had gotten by working there, I was given a freelance script as a trial run. When that script turned out well, it made me well positioned to be promoted to Staff Writer.
You’ve been in a lot of different writers’ rooms, what have you learned in the process? What should someone know about being a staff writer that you wish you knew?
I have learned so much about where stories come from. Watching other writers come up with ideas and pitches from their personal experiences, articles, books, snippets of a conversation, and observations, has been inspiring. I’m sure a lot of you already knew this, but story really can come from everywhere and I have to remind myself of that. We can make anything into a story if we see it from the right angle. I’ve also learned the importance of research, because a lot of story comes from telling the story truthfully.
If you’ve just gotten your first staff writing gig, congratulations! That’s amazing. Go out and celebrate this win. And then get to work. If anyone is looking for a piece of research, be the one who comes back with the information. Be the one who went through the room notes from the day before to find the holes in the story and to see things that the room didn’t see in the moment. Be confident that you are in that room for a reason. But most importantly, have fun! You’re being paid to make up stories!
What advice do you have for others who would like to be a staff writer?
There is no clear path on becoming a staff writer. You could go the assistant route like I did but know that it doesn’t always work out and you could be in that assistant world for a long time. But if you do become an assistant, be the best assistant you can be. Don’t try to leverage yourself as a writer from day one. Do the job you’re there to do and eventually people will notice that you’re making their lives better and will want to help you.
If going the assistant route is not an option for you, keep writing. Keep writing regardless if you’re an assistant or not. Keep putting your stories out there and you will connect with someone one day
Can you talk about your experiences as a parent in the writers’ room? Any tips for other parents? Any good anecdotes?
I was very fortunate to have worked on Orange is the New Black while I had two young kids. My showrunner, Jenji Kohan, and her producing partner, Tara Herrmann, had created an environment tailored to working parents. Having had kids themselves, they provided a nursery in the building where we worked so that we could have our kids come by and stay for awhile with our nannies. The hours that they kept for the writers’ room were also very well suited for parents. We were all able to get in after dropping our kids off at school or with nannies and then left work in time to get home for dinner. If there was ever a kid emergency, there was never a question of whether or not we could leave and there were never any consequences for leaving. Because of this ideal environment, I felt safe to get pregnant with my second child while I was there and was allowed to go to all the doctor’s appointments without any raised eyebrows. I know I was spoiled by this environment and know it may never be this good again, but I’m hopeful that more rooms are moving to have this same understanding
As for tips, I would say this to any working mom or dad – your kids love you and know that you are their mom or dad. Having a nanny or other form of childcare does not make them the mom and dad. You still hold that place in your kids’ hearts. And honestly, I learned a lot about being a parent while I was in the Orange is the New Black room. We discussed our families constantly and I figured out that I was doing the best that I could just like any other parent – and your kid loves you no matter what.
Do you have a favorite episode you’ve worked on or written? Why is it your favorite?
This is tough because all of them represent different parts of me and points of my life. But the Orange is the New Black episode “Trapped in an Elevator” is probably my favorite because it was my first episode without any training wheels. I was a full-fledged Staff Writer and I was “the writer” on it every step of the way. From writing and rewriting to being the definitive writer on set for the episode, all the way through every step of post. People looked to me to make decisions and it was cool to see what I envisioned get made.
Where can we support you, see your projects, buy your stuff, etc…?
The episodes of Orange is the New Black and Mad Men that I have written are streaming on Netflix if you want to get a peek inside my mind!
What’s your website, social media handles etc?
You can follow me on twitter @HJengaB.