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#LiveCivilInterview: ‘Star’ On Fox’s Ester Lou Weithers Talks All Things Screen Writing & Creating

By Posted on 0 12 m read

There has been a wake and revolution of African-American creators, writers, producers, and all around game changers. With the recent success of creators like Lena Waithe & Issa Rae, we have all been curious and intrigued by Television and film creators. Seeing relatable black women create successful, tasteful, and lucrative TV has inspired many of us to shoot for the stars. These monumental moments in cultural and entertainment history have opened our eyes to a world that we never thought we would see ourselves a part of. The television and film industry is notorious for being run by white men. In 2017, it was reported that only about 5 percent of TV writers were African-Americans. If African-Americans only consist of 5%, we can only imagine how many of them were black women.

During Ava Duvernay’s press run for A Wrinkle In Time, she emphasized that this is only the beginning of true inclusivity for people of color. We have come so far but we’ve got some ways to go. Over here at Live Civil, we pride ourselves on providing our readers with resourceful content. We wanted to get the scoop for you all on what it takes to write and create a hit TV series so we sat down with creator & screenwriter Ester Lou for the gems.

Ester Lou is most known for her role as a writer on the hit FOX series, Star. Star is an American musical drama television series created by Lee Daniels and Tom Donaghy. It revolves around three talented young singers who navigate the music business on their road to success. Star recently took over Wednesday nights on TV by attaining higher ratings than ABC’s Modern Family. Her career in entertainment began after college when she worked at Lifetime in their corporate communications department. Since then Esther has worked in scheduling and programming at VH1, was an assistant at Nickelodeon, a PA on House of Lies, and an intern turned co-creator with Black & Sexy TV.

Ester got her big break through a fellowship with Fox where she went through a 4-month intensive process of working on a new pilot and learning how to pitch. The fellowship ended with a pitching contest where fellows were able to pitch to Fox executives. Ester won the fellowship and got her first staffing job on Pitch, she then went on to land a position with Empire and now Star. In this interview, Ester walks us through her personal journey to becoming a television writer. She talks about what it’s like to be a woman of color in the writer’s room, how to pitch, how to get good at script writing, the sacrifices that she had to make to become successful in the industry, and much more.

Walk us through a typical day as a TV writer on the set of Star… 

At the start of the season before production we are discussing the season, the characters, everyone is pitching ideas for what we want to see for the season. Typically the showrunner has a vision and we’re just pitching ideas to help execute that. That happens in the first week or week and a half. After that, we start settling in on some specific ideas and the big moments that we want to see happen in the season (The creation of story arcs and character arcs happens during this time).

As we get closer to production we start making the ideas more concrete and that’s when we start talking about what happening episode by episode. We’re all sharing ideas and we are all pitching different ideas. It’s very free-flowing. It is my favorite part of the room because it is so chill and anything is possible! When it’s just about time for production episodes & scripts are assigned to different writers. This is when people start to leave the writers room to go write their script alone in their office.

Once we start shooting, people start going to set to actually produce their episodes. This is when the pace and energy begin to heighten because the clock is ticking. At this point, we’re thinking about production, budgets, actors, and schedules. It’s a little more hectic towards the end but before you know it the last episode is being filmed!

What type of stories do you like to tell? 

I love to tell stories about people who are accidental heroes, who weren’t necessarily trained or positioned or elevated to the status of hero but life happened and extraordinary circumstances brought out the best in them and before they know it they become a hero to themselves and the people in their lives.

How do you handle rejection when it comes to pitching your ideas?

Your job as a writer is to fulfill the vision of the showrunner and creator of the show. It is not your show. Unless it is a show that you actually created, it is not your show. You can pitch an idea and see how the room responds to it. If they don’t like it and you happen to feel very strongly about it, you can find an opportunity to strategically pitch it again later on. If that doesn’t work you have to move on and let it go.

If they don’t receive the idea then it’s not received. Someone else can even pitch something similar to your idea with a tweak and it would work. At the end of the day, you have to not take it personally unless you feel like someone is batting down every idea you have. If they don’t accept your idea it is cool, that is not the story that they want to tell and that is fine. Go back and think of something else.

When working as a PA, how did you go about letting the company know that you were interested in screenwriting?

I was always writing and working on a script as a PA. However, when you are a PA in the writer’s room it was understood that you are an aspiring writer. If you happen to get a job further away from the writers you should always be writing. When I worked for House Of Lies, the writers knew that when the set was closed Esther was in the office because she is working on a script. Every job I had known that I was working on a script. They knew that when I had downtime that is exactly what I was doing and that is what you’re supposed to be doing. People are always watching you, even if they don’t comment on you or anyone else they are watching you.

I would also as if I could read a script or come in for a table read. Sometimes they said no but at least they knew where my interests were and that I was trying to grow and expand my knowledge. Always ask questions because you never know until you say something. Aspiring writers should also find someone who had a similar path, those are the people who will look out for you. The writers PA in my room at Star is my homie because I have done his job and I understand what it is and what it takes. Especially now in this climate, there are more black writers, people are looking out for each other.

You didn’t stay at a job that didn’t fulfill your creativity. You constantly took risks throughout your career until you were satisfied. Can you talk about the importance of taking risks even when they feel uncomfortable?

Your best life is on the other side of comfort. It does not live within the confines of comfort. There are going to be people around you who don’t understand what you’re doing and don’t understand what you’re chasing. You have to be able to have enough confidence and enough strength in yourself to not let those people and their fears and the confines that they place on their life influence you. As long as you have a plan for your passion it will pay off.

What was your biggest risk?

Moving to LA because I loved New York. Television writing is one of those careers where you have to move to LA. You can do production in other cities but if you want to work in television specifically you have to live in Los Angeles. There was not a lot drawing me there but I realized comfort would be my prison and years from now. I did not want to look back at my life and wonder what would have happened if I moved to LA.

What made you take the big leap?

I just got to a point where mediocrity was just so unsatisfying and disgusting. I felt like I could do more and that I could be more. When that happens you’ll be willing to take that risk, no matter what. If you chase it and fail, I guarantee that you will get some benefit from it or you may end up on another path that you didn’t even know was out there for you. There is never any real failure at risk, only divergent paths.

What do you suggest people do before quitting their job and risking it all?

Make sure you work your pocketbook. I’m not going to get into anyone’s pocketbook but make sure you figure that part out. I emptied out my 401K, I would not recommend that to anyone else. It’s paying off now but it worked out. Sometimes when you take a huge risk it places pressure on you to be super focused and disciplined because you’ve already risked it all. You don’t have any other choice but to succeed because failure is not an option.

We love how extreme and intense Star is, it always takes the viewers on a crazy roller coaster. What do you love most about writing for Star?

One of the best things about working with Lee Daniels is that you have the opportunity to tell stories that aren’t always told on television and you get to do it in a way that is exhilarating. We always go for it. I have also always loved music, I planned to work for a record label in college so it’s cool to show up on set and it’s a fictional record label. It feels like I made it in the music business after all!

The young ladies are also amazing, Jude, Brittney, and Ryan. They put in serious work. They rehearse back to back, learn lines, and choreography. So to live that girl group fantasy through them is really amazing. I have a great time doing that.

Why do you think that it is important for companies to have writers of color in the writing room? 

At the end of the day, you want to have representation in the writer’s room so that you can have a true representation on the screen. Where we are in our culture right now there are so many so many different people of so many different backgrounds that have amazing stories that have yet to be told. I think we are moving in that direction more and more, the politics and the profit have proven to be has proven to be lucrative for companies. They are understanding that the money is there and they are being shamed when the representation is not there.

S/O to Black Twitter, we will call you out and I so appreciate that. I think that is a major part of the reason why we are seeing that shift. Companies are learning, some are embracing it and some are learning the hard way. Either way, we are here and we are not going anywhere. Our stories will be told, we will tell them ourselves and we will do it with excellence and authenticity.

Have you ever been the only woman of color in the room? Can you tell us about that experience?

I was the only black woman in the writer’s room on Pitch, which was about a female baseball player. That was my first show so I wasn’t really sure what my role was in the room. I knew our show was about a black woman and that I was the only black woman. I felt a sense of responsibility and expertise but those two things have to be weighed within the context of the job that you are hired to do. It’s a balancing act of working with the story that they want to tell vs. what I thought the story should be. That was a balancing act for me and something that I had to learn.

Fortunately, in that room, my thoughts and my ideas were very receptive. I have had colleagues who were in the same scenario and their ideas have not been receptive. It can go either way, every writer’s room is different. I put a lot of pressure on myself but I had a writing group full of black women supporting and letting me know what was realistic and what wasn’t.

Talk to us about your experience when it came to working with other people of color who were not black?

I have been in situations where I have been in a room and I have spoken up for another character that was a minority but not a black woman. People looked at me like, “This is not one of yours. Why are you speaking up?”. There are similarities and a community. At the end of the day the mainstream is typically white caucasian and then there’s the rest of us. So we look out for each other. If I see you saying something wack about a Latino man or a latino women I am going to comment on it.

What are the complexities that come with being a television writer and woman of color?

My counterparts can just pitch an idea. They don’t have to think about anything else if they have a good idea they can just go for it. I would always have to pitch an idea but I would have to think about if it was good on the black front, woman front, immigrant front, etc. I juggle all my critiques so that they can be constructive and received well.

What advice do you have for people of color in the writer’s room who want to speak up but don’t know how?

Understand why you were hired, some people are hiring you specifically because they want your black voice. Some rooms, unfortunately, you will realize that you were hired because you are simply there to check a box for HR purposes, and you see that they really don’t want to hear what you have to say. The first thing you should do is figure out what is your role in the writer’s room and find a way to strategically do your job and find ways to make sure those characters are authentic and complex.

Your diplomacy game and your political strategic communications game have to be on point because it will be hard to get your point across if you’re just attacking people in the room. So you have to find a way to fix problems with a story solution. Know how to communicate to the people in the room so that you can get the result that you want.

How do you feel about internships and/or working for free?

I interned on a lot of jobs for free. You must be clear about what you want to get out of it. Work hard to get that thing out of it and then be out. When I interned I let them know that I would work for free if I am able to shadow the director and the editor. Internships are supposed to be an exchange. Know the worth of your values. We joke sometimes in the writer’s room if someone has a good idea, they say they are going to save that for their pilot. All though we are joking it really isn’t a joke at all, you know you’re golden egg and gold mine ideas. Don’t ever give that up! The idea that is going to take you to the top, don’t share that with anybody.

What’s next for you?

I am working on some of my own material right now, production on Star is coming to a close. I am very excited to write dramatic thrillers starring black women so stay tuned!

What do you want the world to know about Esther Lou?

I want to expand the spectrum of blackness in the world and in pop culture. I feel as though we are in an amazing time where there are a variety of black woman on the screen in literature, small or big. The spectrum of blackness is expanding people are seeing more of who we truly are, the different sides of us, the different versions of us and I am so excited to be apart of that. That is my goal in everything that I write, whether it is my own idea or someone else’s.

What type of stories do you like to tell? 

I love to tell stories about people who are accidental heroes, who weren’t necessarily trained or positioned or elevated to the status of hero but life happened and extraordinary circumstances brought out the best in them and before they know it they become a hero to themselves and the people in their lives.

 

XOXO
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