Hollywood mentors: how to be a great one

A talk with TV showrunner Nancy Miller

You may want to read the first two articles in the Hollywood mentor series – how to get ’em and how to keep ’em – if you haven’t already. Now we’ll finish the series with an inside look at the other side of the relationship: how to be a great mentor. So let me introduce you to one of Hollywood’s über-mentors, TV showrunner Nancy Miller. (No relation, in case you’re wondering.)

TV showrunner Nancy Miller. Photo courtesy of Nancy Miller

TV show creator and showrunner Nancy Miller has a reputation among TV writers as super-mentor. Writers she takes under her wing have the great benefit not only of her deep knowledge of the business and craft but also her kindness and generosity of spirit. Her career has spanned three decades and has included stints on “Law and Order,” ‘The Closer,” and “CSI: Miami,” among several other shows. The TV shows she creates often reflect her inner self and her take on tough subjects in the fiercest possible ways. Her show “Leaving L.A.” examined death. “Any Day Now,” which ran for 88 episodes, took on race relations. And most recently her show “Saving Grace,” starring Academy Award winner Holly Hunter, explored religion, faith, and sin.

You learn a lot about Grace Hanadarko, the main character in “Saving Grace,” in the promo.  There’s a lot of Nancy in her character Grace. I believe that Nancy, like Grace, wants to be the best aunt, best friend, and probably the most complicated daughter. I get the impression she likes running headlong into chaos, and I know she likes to laugh. She also likes to ask the big questions. For all these reasons and more, she’s a great mentor. She lives her life with purpose.

Academy Award winner Holly Hunter as Grace Hanadarko in TNT’s “Saving Grace.” Photo courtesy of TNT Network, 20th Century Fox Television, and Fox Television Studios.

In the past couple of years, I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know Nancy, and I have relied on her insightful, pragmatic advice on numerous occasions. Whenever I talk with her, I have an “ah-ha” moment. I’m always amazed by how quickly and confidently she diagnoses my current concern and offers the perfect solution. Because she is such an exceptional mentor, I wanted to share her wisdom with you.

I met Nancy Miller at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz and interviewed her over breakfast. To kick things off, I asked her what she thought were the qualities of a great mentor.

“Listening, encouragement, and inviting people into the process,” Nancy said. “When I have a show going, I always tell any young writer or actor, if you want to come hang out on the set or in the writers room, you’re welcome to do that. I’m always interested who takes me up on it, because not all of them do. It tells me something about them.”

“You’ve got to have tenacity and you’ve got to learn your craft, but talent is a gift,” Nancy said. “If you’ve got talent, I think anyone can make it as long as they do the other two things.”

Actor Holly Hunter and TV showrunner and creator Nancy Miller on a “Saving Grace” panel at the Paley Center for Media.  Photo courtesy of Paley Center for Media.

This is an example of classic Nancy Miller mentoring. I asked her what makes a mentor great; she dispatched the question quickly and succintly – then she focused it back on the mentee. For Nancy, it isn’t about her; she mentors to help others.

Great mentors don’t mentor for their own egos. They don’t hand out advice just to hear themselves talk, though there are plenty of folks who will offer that type of help in this town. A great mentor will listen to your questions/problems, give you advice and encouragement, then invite you to take action.

“If I read a script, I will usually give the writer a quick pass to see how he takes the notes,” Nancy said. “The next time I sit down and say, ‘Now I’m going to kick your ass.’ I go through scene by scene and challenge him. I question him. I’m hard on him while I hope getting him fired up to do another draft. I tell him it’s hard to be a writer. There’s a craft you have to learn. If you want to learn to take apart an engine and fix a car, you’ve got to learn how to do that. I say, ‘You’re not doing that. You didn’t dig in this scene,'” she said. “If I don’t feel they’re digging deep enough and the writer has potential, I can get impatient. I will continue to try to push it on his plate because so much of what we do in this business must be self-motivated.”

Writers – if you aren’t kicking your own ass, start. You don’t need Nancy to do it for you. If you aren’t taking your script apart scene by scene and questioning every movement, every line, every word – ask yourself if you really want to make it in this town. Because some other writer is reading this blog right now and will adopt this method. What’s more, most of us are already doing it.

Nancy made another excellent point about giving notes. When she gives notes, she hopes to fire up the writer to do another draft. If you’re an agent, manager, executive, or producer giving notes, you need to inspire while giving notes. You can’t just crush the spirit of the writer and expect greatness. It doesn’t work that way. If it did, we’d have stellar scripts galore.

Think about it this way: When you give notes, you’re mentoring.

Nancy’s relationship with show creator Annie Brunner (“Against the Wall”) illustrates a great mentor relationship. Nancy met Annie on the ABC drama “The Monroes,” where Annie was the writers assistant.

“I was totally in awe of Nancy when I met her,” Annie Brunner said in an email exchange. “She was the only female on a staff of six. And she was amazing. She would go toe to toe with every guy in the room. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point in my life, but when I found out Nancy had an overall deal with Warner Bros., I knew I had to work with her. So I took her aside one day and told her I would kill to work for her. She was so sweet and taken aback that anyone would want to work for her – the woman has no idea what a treasure she is.”

Nancy went on to create “Leaving L.A.” She must’ve been moved by Annie’s desire to work with her, because she asked Annie to be her executive producer’s assistant on that show.

“I became Nancy’s assistant and she told me up front that as long as my stuff was covered, I was welcome to do whatever I wanted. And I did,” Annie said. “When we did the pilot for ‘Leaving LA,’ I was on the set before we started shooting and didn’t leave until wrap. I stuck to the director and Nancy like glue. When we did the series, I was able to sit in on the writers room, as well as casting and editing. Any time I had left over, I spent on the set.”

This carte blanche invitation is all but unheard of in the industry. TV show assistants often are chained to their desks and unable to take full advantage of being around those amazing artists. What’s more, some showrunners worry that assistants will muck up the works and slow things down if they are observing editing or hanging around on the set. Truthfully, an extra person here and there can impede workflow. Showrunners simply don’t need another problem to fix, so it’s easier to curb assistants. Nancy doesn’t seem to worry about these potential issues. She’d rather her staff have opportunities to learn.

“Even when Nancy is at her most stressed, she is still a warm, wonderful human being,” Annie said. “You can always tell how a showrunner is by walking onto a set. If it’s fun and friendly, you know the showrunner is too. If it’s chaotic or everyone is freaked out, that’s coming from the showrunner. And I don’t understand it at all. We’re in the most amazing business. There is no excuse to be a jerk. Nancy is living proof you don’t have to be.”

Annie makes an excellent point about Nancy and her generosity. Nancy’s ability to nurture her staff and create a positive work atmosphere is an extension of her personality. She’s a natural leader. She can juggle the many issues that arise daily on a TV show while keeping everyone focused on producing their best work. That’s the very definition of an excellent showrunner. Nancy carved out time to take a special interest in her staff as she did with Annie.

“Annie didn’t want to be my assistant forever, but she didn’t know what she wanted to do,” Nancy said. “So I said, ‘Why don’t you write? See if you have that in you.’ She’d been thinking about it herself. And on ‘Any Day Now’ [Nancy’s next show] I gave Annie a script.”

Lorraine Toussaint and Annie Potts starred in the TV show “Any Day Now.” Photo courtesy of Lifetime Television.

Annie actually got two scripts on “Any Day Now,” which started her career as a writer. Annie went on to “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Huff” before landing back on another Nancy Miller show, “Saving Grace.”

“Nancy had a screening of the ‘Saving Grace’ pilot,” Annie said. ” I went home that night and sent her an email saying how much I loved the pilot and that I would do anything to be a part of the show – even mop the floors.”

Annie’s enthusiasm and her writing convinced Nancy she should get one of the coveted slots on her writing staff.

“Annie had blossomed as a writer,” Nancy said. “She had learned her craft. It was like a whole new Annie Brunner. I like to get people and take them wherever I go. And a lot of people on ‘Saving Grace’ knew Annie from ‘Any Day Now.’ They were blown away by her growth and where she was in her career.

“Working on ‘Saving Grace’ was one of the best experiences I have ever had and also very stressful the first season,” Annie said. “I knew Nancy had taken a chance on me. It was very important to me to really shine.”

Annie’s desire to shine made her an excellent protégé. You always want to make your mentor look good when she gives you a shot.

“The great thing about working with Nancy is she challenges you to go beyond the usual scene – how do you take something normal and make it special?” Annie said. “I remember helping out on an episode. I wrote act four. In it, Rhetta has to tell Grace that Father Murphy [someone from Grace’s past] is alive. The scene could play very painful for Grace, but I decided to add humor. I had Rhetta refuse to give Grace her car keys so Grace had to chase her through an open field. I was able to turn something very painful into something very funny. I could never have gotten to a place like that in my writing if I hadn’t worked with Nancy.”

Nancy had so inspired Annie, she decided to write her own pilot. Nancy recalled Annie’s dedication to her writing with respect and pride.

“In the last year of ‘Saving Grace,’ I would say, ‘Let’s all go out to eat and grab a beer.’ And Annie’d say, ‘No, I’ve got to go home and write. I’m writing this pilot.’ So she had this completed pilot, which was great. And I said in an off-hand remark, ‘Send it to Lifetime and tell them I’m attached.’ So Lifetime read it and wanted to do it. And that was ‘Against the Wall,'” Nancy said.

Nancy may make it sound casual, but her offer was far from it. Nancy had generously offered to be the showrunner for Annie’s show. This commitment suddenly turned a spec pilot into a valued, viable property. Having an established showrunner sign on to your spec pilot is incredibly rare. Most showrunners have their own projects they want to set up and have little or no interest in taking on an inexperienced show creator. And even fewer established showrunners have any interest in teaching new show creators about being a showrunner.

Fortunately, Nancy Miller doesn’t think this way.

Nancy endorsed Annie’s pilot script and catapulted Annie’s career again. Lifetime picked up “Against the Wall,” which starred Rachael Carpani and Emmy winner Kathy Baker. It was a police procedural about a woman from a family of cops who causes a rift when she joins internal affairs. The show had a 13-episode run on Lifetime.

One-sheet for TV show “Against the Wall” starring Rachel Carpani. Photo courtesy of Lifetime Television and Universal Cable Productions.

“It was Annie’s show,” Nancy said. “She had the final decision on everything. I was just there to back her up. She had earned it. She put in all the hard work.”

Again, this is what makes Nancy a great mentor. It isn’t about her or her ego. She feels confident in her own career and her own successes. When she’s mentoring, it’s about helping others. It’s about being there to support them when they need it and encouraging them to do the work.

“When Nancy came on to run my show, again, it was a whole new learning experience,” Annie said. “She was there to bounce off ideas and frustrations but at the end of the day – it was always my call. That is unheard of. Nancy has no ego. It’s all about the work – getting the best she can from writers, actors, and production. And she honestly believes that the way you do that is creating a healthy, warm environment. She does this not only in the writer’s room, but on set as well.”

“So Annie’s a show creator,” Nancy said with evident delight. “And she’s such a great person. It is just so thrilling. I just want to [Nancy claps her hands and cheers] Yay! It’s just so cool. She’s a wonderful human being. And to see someone like that succeed feels great.”

And that is the reward for Nancy – she wants to see people she loves succeed. And I’m not talking about the Hollywood “we love you” with air kisses affection. I’m talking genuine love and care because Nancy is nothing if not genuine. A woman of integrity, Nancy stands up for what she believes in, even if it’s not popular. Unfailingly loyal, she stands by her friends. This type of behavior can come with a price in this town. A true straight shooter, I asked Nancy if Hollywood allowed for her brand of raw honesty.

Leon Rippy as the angel Earl in the TV show “Saving Grace.” Photo courtesy of TNT Network, 20th Century Fox Television, and Fox Television Studios.

“I always like to say, I told you this when we first met,” she said. “Don’t act surprised. It’s not my fault you didn’t believe me. So I like to put it out there and then continue the journey. Who can keep track of their lies? It’s too difficult, so why not be honest and just say it like it is. I think sometimes people are shocked, but once they get to know me, then they understand I’m not fooling around. I say what I believe.”

And that’s another reason Nancy is such a wonderful mentor. She tells you like it is. You may not want to hear it. You may wish things were different, but the truth is the truth. The sooner you deal with it, the more quickly you can overcome the obstacles ahead of you. And because of her honesty, her belief in you makes you believe in yourself a little bit more.

“Nancy’s fierce. She’s loyal. She’s honest,” Annie Brunner said. “She’s the best boss I have ever had and I am very lucky to be able to call her my friend. If the rest of my career was spent doing shows with Nancy, I would consider myself very blessed!”

Great mentors listen, encourage, invite, challenge, and inspire. They help you understand your dreams are possible. They help you see a clearer path to your goals. And they’ll do it not because their egos need stroking, but because they thrill in others’ successes.

“If you get your shot, take it,” Nancy said. “That’s something I had to learn, too. Always remember – the worst that can happen is they say ‘no.’ Will you survive it? Yeah. It’ll hurt. You’ll be disappointed, but you’ll survive.”

And they might just say “yes.”

Set, Light and Shoot!

A view of the Hollywood sign. Photo by Davey Nin.

I hope you’ve found this mentoring series informative and inspiring. Finding, keeping, and being a mentor can help keep your career vibrant and fruitful. Look, Hollywood can be a soul-crushing town. Sometimes just having one person who believes in you is enough to see you through the darkest times. Being a mentor can remind you of how much you’ve learned. It can also remind you this job is supposed to be fun. As the town wears on you, it’s easy to forget how fortunate we are to get to do what we love for a living. Mentoring may remind you just how lucky you are.

If you don’t have a mentor already, find someone who helps you to believe in yourself and can show you the next open door. If you’re in a position to mentor, I encourage you to look around. I bet you’ll see someone with tenacity, craft, and talent. Then listen to her, encourage her, and invite her take charge of her career.


6 thoughts on “Hollywood mentors: how to be a great one

  1. Thanks for this! Really inspiring stuff. Mentors can be a great thing.

    I had an awesome screenwriting mentor once, but he died. Felt so lost after that it, it was heartbreaking. I’ve thought about seeking out another mentor, but it’s hard.

    I’m back into screenwriting and writing every day, taking control of my career. It’s a slow process, but I’m getting there!

    • So sorry to hear your screenwriting mentor passed away. It’s great you’re back writing every day and taking control of your career. A good group to check into is the Scriptwriters Network. They offer industry access programs and guest speaker series.

  2. Nancy Miller is truly a rare gem in this town, and you did an outstanding job expressing that, Kam. Both you and Nancy are the types of mentors I aspire to be for others. Thanks for sharing this series.

    • Thank you so much, Jenny! You, too, are a gem, my dear. As I was writing this piece, it was wonderful to see strong women helping other strong women. Nancy, Annie, and you are just a few of those many good people in Hollywood.

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