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Sam Boyd

Sam Boyd, creator of HBO’s incredible LOVE LIFE, reveals how making lookbooks helps him craft his intimate, realistic romantic tales.

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AH: The great Tony Gilroy once said: “As a screenwriter, there are three days that pay for the entire year.” Those three days are “the days that you’ll build a temple around. You will now spend your next six months building around that idea, around that moment. But you have to be there, right? You’ve got to be at your desk. You gotta have your ass in the fucking room, and stay there until it happens.” Sam Boyd – the creator and co-showrunner of Love Life, one of my favourite shows of 2021 – thinks about these words often.

SB: You have to treat it like a job because you're never going to be able to anticipate when inspiration’s going to strike. My wife would always get half jokingly frustrated because we'd be leaving for dinner and I'd be like: “Baby, I'm sorry. Inspiration just struck. I have to write.” And she'd be like: “You've been sitting here all day! Why now? We're going to dinner!” I think so much of it is just trying to work when you have that feeling – when you have to get it out of you. There’s a lot of banging your head against the wall – [writing is] 95% writing stuff that isn't good and throwing it away and being okay with that.

AH: Sam is speaking from experience by the way. He wrote his Love Life pilot in what he calls a “wild fugue state” after endless days, weeks and months with his laptop open, body draped over bits of furniture in his apartment, searching for something that sparked an emotion in him. When that lightning bolt strikes, it’s an amazing feeling: you find yourself typing from a place of total intuition instead of screenwriting theory. What flows out of you on those three lucky days a year has a naturalism and authenticity to it that you spend the other 362 days a year replicating and elaborating on.

SB: A lot of it is sitting there and coming up with nothing worth anything. But eventually if you're lucky, inspiration strikes, then it pours out of you. And there might be some really contained period of time after thinking about it for a while, where you actually get something that does click and does feel right. And usually that is good because, if it's flowing out of you like that, it means you're not thinking about it as much. You're not sitting there going: “this cold open has to do this and this.” You're not kind of over cooking it.

AH: I’m Al Horner, and today on How I Write, a podcast about the highs, lows and workflows of screenwriting – Sam Boyd reveals what he means by “curatorial storytelling” and why it’s a shortcut to effective, emotive TV. We also get into the importance of what he calls “productive procrastination,” how finding the holes in a genre you love can help you create an energised new version of it, and the trick involving action verbs that he deploys when he’s stuck on a scene. That’s all to come today on How I Write, presented by Arc Studio Pro – the screenwriting software that lets writers stay focused on the stories they’re trying to tell on the page. Get your free trial today to check out its intuitive design, seamless real-time collaboration feature, excellent outlining functions and easy-to-use import and export capabilities. More on Arc Studio Pro later – but for now, with no further adieu…

SB: I'm Sam Boyd and this is How I Write.


SB: With Love Life, we always kind of hoped that it would feel almost like a pop song that is sort of so fun to dance to that you don't notice how sad the lyrics are. That was kind of a feeling that we talked about for a long time. And I think, you know, [with] the show following a different character every season, and each season following a series of that character's relationships, it's really fun to try to get at those feelings as much as possible. So much of it is about a vibe and feeling and just wanting to get as close as possible to putting the audience there with these characters, tapping into some kind of well of memory that they have, or some kind of mistake that they made when they were 22 or 28 or 32 or whatever.

AH: As someone who made plenty of mistakes aged 22, 28 and 32, I can confirm that Love Life is punishing in its relatability. It’s also moving, hilarious and uplifting – the type of show that wears its love for screenwriters like Richard Linklater and Lena Dunham on its sleeve. Each season takes a new character and follows them through a decade of romantic adventures and misadventures. Each episode centres on a different moment and therefore relationship in their life. The result is not only a mini-time capsule of the 2010s, incorporating the music, fashion, technology and cultural climate of each year from 2012 to present day. It’s also a refreshingly realistic take on love, rooted in real stories curated from friends and family.

SB: The writing I've done has always skewed more towards being kind of curatorial, I guess, is the way that I say it, where it's not so much me sitting and going, oh, what's something that could happen that no one's ever seen before?” and instead thinking about my own life and kind of culling stories together – things that have happened to friends and trying to make something relatable. It's funny because I love all kinds of movies and shows as a viewer where I’m always like – you know, I'll watch the Big Lebowski or I'll watch Hot Fuzz and I just will have like my mouth open the entire time, like: “How did someone write this? This is so insane. The language is incredible. Everything is so tight and perfect.” I just have never known how to do that. So for me, I kind of approach the opposite way, which is this kind of compendium of hopefully relatable human experiences and verisimilitude and, you know, not pretending it has any answers – it's more about the questions and trying to replicate life as much as we can in an entertaining way.

AH: Love Life, like a lot of Sam’s writing, is both an ode to the romantic comedy genre and an indictment of the fantasies it sometimes basks in. For him, there’s creative opportunity in identifying the things you love about a genre, and the things that you think it might be lacking – in the case of rom-coms, a dose of realism, a sprinkling of authenticity.

SB: The starting point for me always was thinking about genre – thinking about romantic comedy, which is a genre that I love – but also seeing an opportunity to bring something that felt a little more real to it. I grew up loving so many character-driven romantic comedies. Whether that's When Harry Met Sally or Annie Hall, which are basically just people hanging out, there's not really plots to those movies. There's no hook or whatever. I think we got to a point with the genre where high concept had kind of ruined it, you know? Every romantic comedy, in order to be big enough to be made, had to be about how one of them's a ghost or one of them's writing an article about the other one or it's all a bet or whatever. I've always just really been trying to get back to the more hopefully realistic feeling version of those kinds of stories. The goal was always trying to kind of split the difference where it's [like]: “Okay, we're making something that feels big and feels entertaining and doesn't feel like some small, soft thing. But at the same time, you are kind of surprised by how it reminded me more of your life.” As much as I love, you know, anything from The Devil Wears Prada to any number of romantic comedies that are so well constructed and well-made and fun to watch, the aim here was to try to start from a place of: “what are the things that have really happened to me?” When I'm working with the writers room on both seasons, that's always where it kind of comes from: “what are things that have really happened to people? How can those be departure points for the story?”

AH: You might be wondering to what degree Sam thinks about the market when he writes – whether an idea as smart and unique as Love Life was born out of identifying a certain appetite not being met or a space in the cultural landscape not currently being filled. Sam says he’s tried this – and it’s only ever led to failure. Sam wrote Love Life as an escape from a feature film he was meant to be writing which did pay attention to what was quote-unquote sellable. The huge acclaim that’s greeted the show, however, and especially its season season, starring William Jackson Harper as a newly single man exiting a marriage as he’s entering his 30s, shows the power of sometimes blocking out advice about the TV landscape and what gets picked up by networks.

SB: Anytime I've tried to think about what other people want or what the market or the industry is looking for, it’s backfired. That feature script was very much me trying to say: “oh, here, this is the kind of thing people want. It's like a biopic, it's this and it's that or whatever.” I was moving away from the things that I had had success with, which were these kind of smaller, more grounded relationship stories. Because when I would write stuff, people would always, always, always say: “this feels too small.” In film school, my professors would read stuff that I wrote and say: “you know, the dialogue is really good and the characters are good, but wait until you figure out how to couch this in a sci-fi hook.” or whatever. I think, especially at that time, which was 10 or 12 years ago, people weren't looking for relationship stories or romantic comedies. In a weird way, that caught back up with the stuff that I was writing, but thinking no one wanted. I think there are definitely ways to try to anticipate the needs or desires of the industry. And I'm sure there are savvier people than I who may know how to crack that code. But the joke for me has been, every time I've tried it's just been sort of a joke. And anytime I've been like: “this thing's just for me,” whether it was the first short that I made with any money or the Love Life pilot, anytime I'm like, “this is just for me, whatever who cares, let me just write about this relationship I had” from this kind of pure place – that's the thing that people respond to. I think more than anything, generally, people can sniff out what's really in your heart.

AH: “Start with character” is advice that emerging screenwriters hear all the time, whatever genre they’re working in, and for good reason. TV shows need characters that, good or bad, pull audiences in. Sam, however, in the case of Love Life, let format and feeling guide him rather than character – an approach that sometimes opens new ideas for stories, that you can fit relatable, well-written characters into later.

SB: The concept for Love Life is something that I actually thought about for a long time and really, it was the structure. That was the idea. I think it started when I was a couple years out of college, thinking something as simple as, “oh, it would be cool to do a book of short stories where each chapter in the book is one partner of a person and it's kind of moving through their life” or whatever. That was also concurrent with a rise in really interesting and ambitious uses of half-hour television structure. Again, this was eight or 10 years ago now, but when, you know, you're watching Girls and you're watching Atlanta and you're watching Transparent – these incredible shows that [were] kind of changing the way that half-hour television seasons were being used. That became really interesting to me. So I think even before anything else, it really was [a case of] thinking about TV and thinking about “what can you do with 10 half hours? And how can you use that as a way to break a story up and to hide things in between the episodes and omit them?” That structure really was kind of the beginning of the idea.

AH: Once Sam has an idea for a show or movie, he tends to experiment, exploring on notepads all the different variations of what it could be. Ultimately, with Love Life and with everything else he’s written, Sam comes back to what he knows – what he can write about from a position of real-world experience.

SB: In this case, the first step for me in going from idea to actual material with Love Life was sitting with it for a long time, writing other stuff, thinking that was the thing, not really knowing how to crack it. And then one day something just dropped. I think starting from the idea of the structure that I had had, there were so many versions, you know? Honestly, it can be hard to have an idea like that, ‘cos it could be anything. I remember when I was trying to figure out what Love Life was, I was like: “oh, is it about the punk scene in 1980s Northern California?” It could be anything. Trying to elevate it – because everything I had written about me and my friends or just young people till now had been kind of derided as too small by people who had read it – I was kind of trying to make it big and go: “oh, it's, you know, period. It's this and it's that.” And you know, no one really wanted that either! So there were a couple of versions that I thought of and abandoned. So eventually I just tried to work from as simple a place as possible. I started thinking about my time in New York [when] I went to NYU for film school and I really tried to tap into not just the place, but the time – this idea of being specific about the years where the show takes place, that it’s the recent past. And so I'm able to tap back into that part of myself and hopefully drudge up feelings and vibes that resonate with an audience.

AH: There’s a difference, however, between writing what you know and writing yourself into your story. Sam likes to insert a bit of distance into his work between himself and his protagonists, to maintain some sort of objectivity about the character that helps him punish them and put them through the kinds of hardships that make for great drama.

SB: Until season two of Love Life, I generally would try to explore female characters. It gave me a kind of nice buffer. With this kind of storytelling, it's easy if you make the character too close to you, [for it to] feel like some kind of bad stand-in for yourself or something. So it was fun to go: “This person is not me. I'm putting feelings in here and I'm trying to remember things that happened to me or trying to understand what it might've been like to be this woman in this relationship with me. But there's a distance there.” And so it was sort of like, “okay, it's going to be this woman” then slowly, you just chip away at it. You go, “okay, it's going to be her in her twenties. She's kind of just getting out of school.” And again, all thinking about what's the feeling you want to convey? And what are the things that when I think about them, they give me that pang of nostalgia or melancholy?

AH: Being a director as well as a writer, Sam likes to look for opportunities to imprint a sense of style and tone onto the page, baking it into the story at the earliest opportunity. Love Life, for example, features a fairy godmother-like voiceover that matches the fairytale-like tone of most romantic dramas that hit our screens.

SB: Thinking about the conceit of this narrator and the kind of storybook quality that we tried to give the show that kicks it all up a notch, was really me thinking about movies that I loved, like Royal Tenenbaums or Amelie. Those are extremely idiosyncratic and kind of fanciful – I think emotionally realistic, but not actually realistic – stories. And this was a little bit of an experiment to go: “Okay, what if we take that kind of fanciful storybook treatment of a story, but apply it to something that's often mundane? What could that be like? Is there something interesting there that kind of gets at how important anyone's story is to themselves? Or how big it feels to be at the center of these kinds of situations where you're trying to figure it out, you're wondering if you can ever be loved? And you know, the kind of big and small of that – that there could be this kind of ornate magnifying glass but we’re trying to point it at really kind of mundane, little stuff. What would that feel like?”

AH: Coming up on How I Write – why Sam creates lookbooks to keep him on track when he’s experiencing writers’ block and how sometimes the best way to write episodes of TV is to envision a key scene then work your way backwards, forging a pathway to that moment. But first, a word about Arc Studio Pro.

Screenwriting to me is all about immersion. I want to stay immersed in that dreamy fantasy-like state while I weave my story and craft my characters. I don’t want to be distracted by anything and I certainly don’t want to be thinking about text formatting. Arc Studio Pro understands that. It’s so intuitive. It has a minimal and dare I say beautiful interface that allows me to stay completely focused on the story I’m trying to tell. If you like to work with a writing partner like Jim does, well, good news – Arc Studio Pro has seamless real-time collaboration kind of similar to Google Docs which allows you and whoever you’re working with to stay and literally and figuratively on the same page. Importing and exporting other formats like PDF and Final Draft files is easy. And best of all, it has an always free plan. Meaning you can sign up today and start writing. To take your screenwriting to the next level, visit ArcStudioPro.com. Click the link in today’s show notes to find out more. Okay, back to the conversation.

AH: Like all of us, Sam is prone to procrastination – especially in those moments when something’s not clicking and you can’t figure out why, on days that are decidedly not one of the three a year that Tony Gilroy speaks about. The key for Sam is finding a way to still be contributing towards your story in some small way when you’re in those moments – productive procrastination, as he calls it. For him, this means creating lookbooks – images and pieces of text that serve as inspiration for him, and a window into what he’s working towards for anyone else he later tries to collaborate with on the project.

SB: Making lookbooks was something that I started doing on my own. Where I maybe once would have just started writing a script that I didn't know anything about, when it was totally premature and I'm suddenly writing dialogue that means nothing for characters who are nobody, because I haven't done that work to figure it out yet –  instead of doing that, I was able to pull images and move stuff around on the page and put into words and images, the feeling that I was going after. I think in a weird way, that was a sort of means of procrastinating that ended up being really beneficial. When I did finish that pilot script and we went out to sell it, I also had this lookbook that people really liked. For me, with this show, I always was trying to make it feel as unlike a TV show as possible, sort of a “TV show” in quotes, if that makes sense - wanting it to feel kind of weirder and more specific. like a movie or a bunch of little movies. And so this lookbook really was like a helpful way to figure that out.

AH: When it comes to first drafts, nowadays Sam has been chiselled by the lightning-pace demands of TV to blast through drafts pretty quickly. That wasn’t always the case, says Sam, who describes being much more precious about his drafts – something in reflection, was rooted in self-doubt.

SB: I think the first time I ever was able to put something in front of someone or felt confident about it, A lot of the time, it was kind of earlier than a first draft. Because again, at that point I was working from such a kind of place of insecurity that I needed someone else to tell me: “this is okay. This is worth continuing with. This is good or bad.” It's funny, I used to just obsess over format and the formatting of screenplays – all this stuff, which is its own form of procrastination. It's a way to go: “I need to see what the script looks like.” But [now I’m] like, who cares? No one cares! It's just gotta be a good story. Just write a good story.  

AH: In terms of writing scenes, Sam says he benefits from the help of his collaborators– both co-showrunner Bridget Bedard, and the team of writers in the Love Life writers’ room. Not only do their perspectives and lived experiences help with the curatorial storytelling style at the heart of Love Life. They also have expertise that have changed his view on how to shape scenes, making them feel naturalistic instead of obvious story points, moving a narrative forward.

SB: So much of what I've learned about writing a scene and about story came from Bridget Bedard, who was my co-showrunner on both seasons. And you know, it's funny – I think she and I balanced each other out very well, because I've always been the kind of person that's like: “I think this is good enough. Is this good enough?” And she's like: “no, this sucks. Try to start over,” really pushing the process, pushing us to go deeper. It's not trying to reverse engineer [story] as much as it's looking for moments to kind of work back from. In season one, there’s this moment at the end of [one] episode about [Darby’s] friend, Sarah, where she agreed to go to rehab the night before, when she was blackout drunk, but then wakes up in the morning and has no recollection of having agreed to that. Then it's like, okay, that scene, is it – everything else is about getting us to that scene. It's tough. It's intuitive for me. I think obviously you always have conflict and stuff like that. But I think we're also very conscious, always, of not wanting it to feel like a “scene” and not wanting it to feel like a TV show or like a story. So on the one hand, you're trying to give [each scene] sturdy bones. But you also don't want it to feel over crafted.

AH: When things aren’t working, Sam has a trick that helps him identify the purpose of the scene he’s stuck on.

SB: Something I learned from Bridget Bedard, that's super helpful and was kind of our litmus test when we'd go through the script scene by scene to make sure and vet every scene, like: “is this a scene or is it not?” It was about coming up with action verbs. You would kind of have an action verb at the top and an action verb at the bottom of the scene. And if those things weren't different, it wasn't a scene. You go: “okay, at the top of the scene, he's grasping and at the end of the scene, he's relenting” or whatever, and kind of always try to come up with a way to make sure that the place your character is at the beginning and end of each scene is different.

AH: Throughout all of this, it’s worth noting – nothing is set in stone. Sam loves to lean into the things that are working when he’s putting together a show like Love Life. There are intangibles that you can’t anticipate when you’re writing solely on the page, like the chemistry between certain actors.

SB: We started shooting not knowing how it was going to end, you know? It changes, it changes, it changes all the time and I kind of love it. I mean, it's a high wire act. It can be extremely exhausting emotionally and physically, but it is really great to be able to like be in conversation with the thing [you’re writing] so that as certain chemistry between actors is really working, you're able to write to it and lean in, and then that's able to inform what you've written. It is kind of a fluid process where it's all being figured out together on the fly.

AH: When it comes to writing endings themselves, Sam is helped out by the anthology format of Love Life. Most TV shows, he says, have a duty to set up the next season in their season finales. Love Life can replicate movies in offering a more concrete conclusion to what’s come before it. He thinks a lot about what his ending says about real-life, coming back again to that impulse in him to tell stories that ring true.

SB: In the case of Love Life, we had the benefit of there [being] a kind of very, very simple built-in end point, right? Which is either they end up with somebody or they don't. When those are the load bearing walls – when the stories are just about relationships and who this person is with at this moment, and if this is the right moment for that relationship or not, if it’s gonna last – with season one, I think we knew: “okay, you know, this is going to end with her ending up with somebody.” In season one, the only thing I knew was, we had this first episode where she has this relationship with this guy named Augie and he leaves before they can really see what's going to happen. My only thought about the ending was, she cannot end up with Augie. I was very adamant about it because I was just like: “okay, if we do that, what are we saying?” We're saying: “don't worry, you're just going to end up with the first person that you fell in love with when you were 22.” But that doesn't really happen that much. And I think we wanted to try to be more honest about it. We ended up telling a story about her and Augie, you know, as basically the opposite – her and Augie come back together later in the season and are different people and have to realize that and have to know, have to sense, that they weren't right for each other or that it didn't make sense to stay together. It's about the character having done the work to earn it, you know? Or to be ready to be at that moment in their lives where they can meet a person. And it is the right moment. And it does last.

AH: Naturally, one of the joys of writing a show like Love Life is hearing from people who saw themselves in your story: people who have experienced dates like Darby’s or could relate to Marcus. This is part of why Sam writes. But ultimately it’s about the process for him – a certain magical feeling that can only be attained by creating something from nothing on a blank page.

SB: I think for me, writing is so much about creating a blueprint for something to be made and an opportunity to work with actors and to work in production, which is really, I think what I love the most and when I feel the most alive, that's when, you know, the thing is on its feet and we're all figuring out together, you know, writing is the only way to get there, then I've found. It's the closest I've ever felt to a kind of magic, you know? I'm a pretty pragmatic, atheistic person – but there is something holy about the feeling you get when something is working and you get it down on the page and it clicks.

AH: Sam Boyd is the writer-director behind Love Life. Seasons one and two are available on HBO Max if you’re listening in the US. If you’re in the UK, season one is currently on BBC iPlayer. You’ve been listening to How I Write. You’ve been listening to How I Write, hosted by me – Al Horner – with production by Kamil Dymek. Music is by Oliver Knowles. Our theme song is by Nafets. How I Write is brought to you by Arc Studio Pro. Get your free trial today by visiting Arc Studio Pro.com. Thanks for tuning in – we’ll see you next time.

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