October 21, 2016

Stranger Things Writer, Producer to Speak at Cornell

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Alison Tatlock, writer and producer of several popular television shows, including Netflix’s Stranger Things, will be visiting two Cornell classes next week and speaking at the Schwartz Center on Monday.

Tatlock, the sole writer of the fifth episode of Stranger Things and co-producer of the first season, said she has been overwhelmed by the response to the series, which garnered critical acclaim, earned a Saturday Night Live parody skit and even generated a meme.

“I thought it would be good, but there was no way to predict that it would have this kind of splash,” Tatlock said. “It’s undeniably cool to have been a part of something that people are so excited about.”

The day after Netflix released the first season, Tatlock said teaching assistants at her daughter’s school began emailing her, praising the show and telling her they had watched the entire first season in one day.

That’s when Tatlock said she knew Stranger Things was a hit. Even with experience writing for CBS, ABC and other major networks, Tatlock said this was a different level of buzz.

“It’s pretty intense,” she said of the reaction to Stranger Things. “I’ve never experienced anything even close to it. It just seems like young people are going crazy for this show.”

Tatlock’s career has followed an unusual trajectory. The writer progressed from understudying as an actress on Broadway, to running workshops in juvenile detention centers in Los Angeles to ultimately writing and producing some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed television shows.

After moving from New York to Los Angeles in 1999 “for a boy” who later became her husband, Tatlock said she began volunteering in juvenile detention centers for the non-profit Street Poets, Inc., and eventually worked her way up to executive director of the organization.

Working mostly with young girls, Tatlock said she designed poetry and drama workshops and ran them with the teens, an experience she said was fulfilling but chaotic.

“It was a crazy life-changing experience,” she said. “These are mostly teenage girls — a few boys — who had been kicked out of the foster care system or had been released from a juvenile hall and didn’t have a family to return to.”

Tatlock recalled reading the girls’ poems, which were sometimes about their battles with drug use, and being forced to ask them what they meant by “tweaking,” a term used to describe a hyperactive state caused by drugs. Making the class more difficult, Tatlock said, was the fact that many of the girls were on medication and would sometimes be passionate one day and catatonic the next.

Soon, though, she said she began connecting with the teens by sharing her own stories and shifting the focus from drama to poetry, in which her mentees showed more interest.

The increased focus on writing and poetry in Tatlock’s workshops meant calmer classes, but she said it also served as a catalyst that sparked her own interest in writing.

“The writing became the center of not only that place … but of my life in LA. Eventually, I really started to love it and really reconnect to [writing],” she said, adding that it had been 20 years since she had written a poem.

Tatlock said she doesn’t remember making a conscious decision to move from acting to writing, but when she looks back, the change clearly happened while working for Street Poets.

“Poetry started to crack the story open a little bit, and as that happened to the young people I was working with, I believe that was actually happening to me,” Tatlock said.

In 2009, after five years as the executive director of Street Poets, Tatlock was offered a job writing season three of HBO’s In Treatment.

Tatlock’s friend, who was working for the show, mentioned that there might be a role for Tatlock, who was already a big fan of the series and thought there was no chance she could actually write for it.

“It was just hard to believe that it would actually work out,” Tatlock said. “My first TV job would be on this show that I was already obsessed with.”

When she first arrived on the set and noticed the script she had written was on a teleprompter, she said she felt “a weird sensation” and “actually got kind of woozy. It was just surreal.”

Every episode of In Treatment was simply a conversation between a therapist and a patient, making it an extremely intense writing job, but one that Tatlock said also made her a better writer.

Over the next four years, she wrote for several network television shows including ABC’s Betrayal and A Gifted Man on CBS.

Tatlock said she is happy to be writing for digital and cable outlets again because of the freedom they allow. She also gave an insider’s perspective on what it was like to write for Stranger Things.

After Matt and Ross Duffer, the brothers who created the show, shared their vision to Tatlock and four other writers, the team got to work. They sat in a room together for eight hours each day and outlined the season’s major moments before going back through the story arc multiple times to fill in more granular details.

This process, standard for television shows, can either be incredibly fun or excruciatingly frustrating, Tatlock said.

“Before anyone does any writing, you spend weeks figuring out what the season is going to be,” she said. “You sit together with all of these other [writers] every day — eight hours if it’s a good job 12 hours if it’s a bad job and until 3 a.m. if it’s a shitty job — and figure out the big moments of the overall series.”

Once the general storyline is established, the group assigns a writer to individual episodes to create the actual script.

Tatlock said she was able to draw on her own experience when writing for a series that centers around a group of young boys in 1983. She grew up in that decade and had previously written a script set in 1982 about the punk rock scene in Boston.

“Even though I’m not a young person — I’m not a young writer — I didn’t feel daunted by writing young voices,” Tatlock said. “I was a teenager in the ‘80s, so that actually felt very natural to me. All the music and all the clothes, it just felt familiar.”

Tatlock worked on Stranger Things for about four months in the summer of 2015, and then quickly moved on to her current gig, writing and producing Halt and Catch Fire, an AMC show about the early days of the 1980s technology boom.

“I had a winding road and I’m okay with that,” Tatlock said of her career. “Would I be more successful and richer if I had started writing television at 23? Yes — and oh well.”

Tatlock will be speaking to students in Prof. Nick Salvato’s introductory television class on Monday, as well as Prof. Austin Bunn’s class, “Screen and Story: Script Analysis,” on Tuesday.

Her moderated discussion in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts will run from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on Monday, during which she will also take questions from the audience. The event is free and open to the public.