Paul Simms is a long time TV writer and producer of several hit comedies from NewsRadio to Atlanta. On his ninth and tenth nomination for his work on What We Do in the Shadows, Simms talks about his writing process, including the different kinds of comedies he has worked on and writing in a group setting. Also he gets into the joys of the more silly TV shows and how it can make more work for a show.
Awards Daily: Looking over your filmography, you have mainly written for television. What attracted you to the medium?
Paul Simms: I just always loved TV, and that’s it. Growing up I never knew anyone who wrote for TV or anything. But I just loved watching it and one thing led to another, and here I am fifty years later.
AD: In the episode of What We Do in the Shadows for which you were nominated (“Ghosts”), you have the possessed doll of Nadja. Where did that idea come from?
PS: I have a hard time remembering. I think it came from the idea that we thought it would be funny that Nadja and Nadja’s spirit would still be around, but it is also very hard to shoot the ghost parts, not just the technical but simply figuring out how to do it. I don’t want to say that we chose the doll just because it was hard having the actors acting next to each other. It was one of those ideas that, as I was writing it, I thought, this will never be as cool as I am imagining in my head. But they made that robotic little doll that takes two people to operate everything, and putting Natasha’s voice to it, it really is cool. Because when you are on set and the doll is looking around and winking and moving its head you really do start to react to it like it is a real thing. So that is very cool.
AD: So with this show you get to write an individual episode but you have a group effort for the overall show. How does that affect your writing?
PS: A lot of it is the initial part we all sit down as a group and talk about the stories we are going to tell and then we narrow it down to what each episode will be. And then each writer gets assigned episodes and they write their version and then Stefani (Robinson) and I and Sam Johnson do some rewriting. I guess the only thing that’s slightly different between this show and other shows is that we don’t sit around in a room and everyone tries to write a scene together. Everything is written and then from there the kind of rewriting we do is mainly I write very extensive long notes and write notes in people’s scripts. It’s not like some shows where we do it line by line. But I think the writer’s own sense of humor and idiosyncrasies come through better when they are on their own writing their first drafts and rewriting their scripts so that works out.
AD: That actually goes into my next question. You have done an eclectic group of television shows with very different senses of humor. How have you been able to do that?
PS: I don’t know. I sometimes stop and think about it, if you look at all the shows I have worked on there isn’t a consistent thread that goes through them. Some are very silly and funny like NewsRadio, What We Do in the Shadows, and Flight of the Conchords, and some are more serious like Girls, and The Larry Sanders Show was a little more grounded and real. I don’t know. I wish I had a better answer. I will say that, having done all this, it is a special kind of fun to write the really silly stuff like this and NewsRadio and Flight of the Conchords was. It’s a particular challenge to make it silly in a way that isn’t corny and also tell a story. Even though it seems like the sky’s the limit and you can do whatever you want, you still have to find a way to focus it down. It is fun to do a show like What We Do in the Shadows but it is incredibly hard work to make something that looks so silly. You think of an idea like they are floating three stories in the air, peeking in on Dungeon and Dragon Larpers, but figuring out how to do all that is much harder and takes a lot of work. But it is fun!
AD: Is there a lot of competition between you and your two co-writer nominees for the Emmy?
PS: Yes, I want to beat them. No, we are all very close, and I actually felt that the standout episode was the Jackie Daytona one that Stefani (Robinson) wrote. There was something very special about that one. I thought the one that Sam Johnson and Chris Marcil wrote with the singing in it was great. When my wife and daughter came in and said, “You and Sam and Stefani got nominated for an Emmy.” I was, like, I didn’t think we submitted that last episode we wrote together, because that was the only thing I could imagine. Then they said, “No, each script got nominated.” I was really surprised and happy.
AD: I read an article that you are writing another show for FX about a family surviving a widespread technology crisis. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
PS: Not yet. With our current actual crisis, we haven’t figured when we are doing anything. The last few months have been figuring out season three of What We Do in the Shadows. And then, when and how we can start shooting these shows again safely, that has been taking up all my time. But I’ll let you know when we have news on the other one.
AD: Can you tell us any details about season three of What We Do in the Shadows?
PS: Stefani and I asked this question a few times and realized once we started talking it’s sad we make it sound so boring, which the show never is. I think in an overall sense in the next season the vampires, each in their own ways, are going through a spiritual crisis and start to wonder if being a vampire is the greatest thing in the world. And try to search and see if there is something else out there. I say that now, and someone will end up watching the third season and will be, like, I guess that was in there but there sure was a lot of funny, crazy, insane stuff.
AD: What about Guillermo?
PS: Oh yes, where we left Guillermo off, he slaughtered a bunch of very important vampires, and he did it right in front of the vampires he works for, so the secret that he has the vampire killer expertise is not a secret to them anymore. So that’s really where the jumping off point for the next season is going to be. How are they going to deal with that?
AD: Will be seeing more of Jeff, dead or otherwise?
PS: That I do not want to give away. But that is a fair question because his ghost’s unfinished business on the planet Earth was never finished; he just got sent away. Another thing we know from season one, Jeff is reincarnated every few years and comes back into Nadja’s life in a new way. So, not giving away any secrets. But it is a good question.
AD: What advice can you give to other people who want to write for television?
PS: My best advice is to write everyday. You can’t wait to be inspired, you have to set yourself a schedule and do three hundred words a day or five hundred words a day. You just have to do it everyday. Every day that you do it, even if you don’t write anything useful or good,you are teaching yourself how to write, and every day in a row that you stick to it, the easier it gets and the better you will get at it. I think a lot of people wait for inspiration to strike or to feel like they are in the mood to do it, but you have to grind away at it like a job, and do it when it is easy, and do it when it is hard.