Raamla Mohamed, executive script supervisor for ABC's hit show Scandal was at Loyola Marymount University this past weekend for a student-moderated interview in partnership with LMU's ROAR network. From her creative process to working with media maven Shonda Rhimes, this is what she had to say:
What does it mean to be an Executive Script Editor?
At least on our show, there are 11 or 12 writers. There are different levels assigned by the WGA based on how many years you've been on the show. You kinda move up the ranks if the show decides to promote you. You start as writers and work your way up to producers. Interestingly enough, most "producers" you see on TV credits are actually writers. In TV, writers are King or Queen. They are in charge of which directors to hire. It's a writers medium. My position is sort of a middle-range writer, so I have some control in the writers room and discuss scenes with actors.
So you used to be a writer?
I'm still a writer. 'Executive Script Supervisor' is more of a title that explains what I do compared to other writers in terms of level and pay.
What's the writers room like when you're working on a show like Scandal?
We come in early in the morning and talk about TV shows we're all watching, then we move onto our own show and talk about stories for each of our characters. Some days we focus on Olivia. Some days it's a Mellie and Cyrus day. We get lunch together, then continue into the afternoon. It sounds crazy, but it's a laid back environment. It does get hectic when scripts are due or changes need to be made. But for the most part, you know we're in season 5, we haven't added many new writers. The dynamic is comfortable.
When a new writer comes along, what happens?
As a writer you'll get an agent or a manager. They're important because they connect you with people and help you get your next job. The producers might meet with a few people and say "oh, we need a new writer." We also have writers go off and start their own shows. Especially on a show like Scandal, it's very dependent on agents and managers. That's why it's so important to write a good spec script that your representation can submit.
Can you walkthrough the formula for each episode?
Our show is so serialized. We write what happened the week before so we can address character arcs that happened on the previous episode. Also, since we have ideas on different events we want to have on the season, we look at the season board and see if we want it to happen now or at a different time. Sometimes Shonda comes in and wants us to do a special episode so we have to follow that. But mostly, the main consideration is for the cases or the "scandals of the week" have emotional parallels to our character arcs.
Is there already a series finale? Or is it developed as the series progresses?
I think she might know. I personally don't know. That could change. I think for Grey's she had an idea of how it would end, but then it went longer than she expected. Things can change.
How do the writers deal with 'writers block?'
They don't last long. Probably a few hours. One thing I learned is that when I was in college I would procrastinate when I wrote. it took me forever to write. But when it becomes your livelihood, it becomes amazing how fast your ideas generate. Network television is inherently fast. We don't have that much time. But the pro of that is that we think faster and the group bounces off each other. If you feel stuck, think of new ideas. Then come back to it with fresh eyes.
Do you prefer to write individually, or collaboratively?
I enjoy working with people. I enjoy that it's not just me that has to come up with the ideas. But sometimes individual writers are in charge of writing a scene with only an outline guiding them. So it's a nice mix of being able to write on your own and being able to work with other people's ideas. You don't feel alone.
What's the age-range for the writers room?
So, I'm 34. I'm the second youngest person in the room. When I started working as a P.A. I was 27 and I thought I was the oldest PA to ever exist. I thought the writers would be in their early 30s. That's not the case. There are a lot of people who have had long careers. People want people in the room who have lived lives, who have done other things. Do random jobs. Go abroad. Come with experience. That's what inspires stories.
Any fun stories from the writers' room?
We don't have a lot of conflicts. But...there are people who are more 'Team Fitz' and more 'Team Jake.' At the end of Season 3, Olivia and Jake go off to the Island. There was a discussion between the writers. "Does she get off the plane and decide not to go" or "does she get off the plane and comes back to Fitz?" I was team Jake. I wanted her to get on the plane! It got heated.
Do you have a favorite episode?
This wasn't my episode. But my favorite episode is still 'The Lawn Chair,' the Ferguson episode. It was so wonderful. Very special to me.
Do you have pressure when you tackle issues like Ferguson?
We didn't really feel pressure. Shonda wanted to do it fairly immediately. Like most people, she was so disturbed by it and...it was a story that needed to be told. We had to decide if we wanted to tell the story as the real life version where the cop gets away with it, or the wish-fulfillment version when Olivia saves the day. Ultimately, we wanted to show the injustice.
How closely do you work with Shonda?
She's in the writers room. We have a show runner, Mark Wilding, who runs the show on a day-to-day basis, but she's there for table reads. She makes notes, she hears the stories. She's involved with every step.
What's it like working with Shonda Rhimes?
I started on Grey's Anatomy as a writer's P.A. 6-ish years ago. I moved to Off The Map and then now I'm here at Scandal. So I've been working with her for a while. I've been very fortunate because she's always had shows! She's loyal to people. There are a lot of assistants who have come up the ranks. She believes in promoting people from within. It's great. You feel like all those coffee runs you went to are not for nothing. And to be honest, as a black female, it's nice to have a black, female boss. There are certain things that I don't have to worry about that I've heard come out of writer's rooms that lacked diversity. She's brilliant.
Do you have advice for students who want to attend Grad School for Film?
There's a notion in Hollywood that it's less about your academic achievements and more about your practical knowledge and who you know. I will say that Grad school definitely gives you the opportunity to make connections. I have a former classmate who's working on Power, one who's on NCIS, one who's working on (How To Get Away With) Murder. It's helpful to have these connections.
Last questions. Any advice for aspiring writers?
Write. Write all the time. I know it's cliche, but it's true. I think about some of the early features and specs that I wrote that were terrible. But I had to learn from those. You can't control time. You can control what you do in that time. If you write something awful, don't think you're the worst writer in the world. Something else will click. Just...write.
Scandal airs Thursdays, 9/8 central on ABC.