Writer and producer for the hit show Dexter and Dorchester native Clyde Phillips talked to Emerson students April 19 about his experiences on the show, and about how they can get “a toe in the door” of the TV writing industry. Emerson students filled the Bill Bordy Theater for the Q&A session with the three–time Emmy nominated writer.
Prior to his talk, Phillips screened a pilot for a 1999 TV show that he executive-produced called Get Real, which starred Anne Hathaway and Jesse Eisenberg before they became recognized actors. The comedy-drama aired just one season on FOX before it was taken off due to low viewership. Phillips explained that since Get Real, he has grown significantly as a writer and producer. “You don’t stop growing, you don’t stop learning, you don’t stop evolving,” he said.
Phillips’s television career began in an unusual way. After he earned his English degree at UCLA, he went on to graduate school, where he struggled financially. He went on a game show called Split Second to make some extra money, and while on the set, he noticed the production that goes into a television show. He decided he wanted to be a part of it, wrote some potential questions for the show, and set up a meeting with the producer. The producer told Phillips that he would let him know if he had any openings on the writing team. Phillips got a call from him the next day.
Phillips explained with that first job, he got “a toe in the door” of the television industry. He went on to be a personal assistant for two producers, and he worked his way up to being a producer himself. “There are two ways to break into the [television] industry,” he told the audience. “One is to write the best script anybody’s read, which is really hard. The other is to simply get in the room.”
About six years after the disappointment of Get Real, Phillips was asked to write for Dexter, which was just an idea in the works at the time. At first, he turned it down. Dexter is a show centered around Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a police department blood spatter pattern analyst, who is secretly also a serial killer who kills other serial killers. “When they first came to me with Dexter, I said no because I didn’t want to go to that darker half of my head,” Phillips explained.
One student asked Phillips why he thinks Dexter, a show that features an “anti-hero,” captivates so many people. Heroes are predictable, Phillips said; anti-heroes surprise people. “A writer’s job is to astonish on every page. For a show to not fall apart, you have to keep it interesting and provocative all the time. The anti-hero helps a lot.”
One similarity, an audience member pointed out, between Phillips’s writing style in Get Real and Dexter, is the use of voice-over narration with the characters speaking directly to the viewers. Phillips explained voice-over narration helps with the most important part of storytelling: character telling. “Nobody is more removed than a serial killer. How are you going to get an audience to care about him? Well, he’s going to talk to the audience.”
Phillips left Dexter after its fourth season to spend more time with his wife and daughter at their home in Connecticut. He’s currently involved with two shows that are in the works.
Phillips’s visit to Emerson was organized by student screenwriting organizations Spec and Thread.
During his visit, Phillips also announced the winner of Spec’s annual writing contest, which focused on TV pilots this year. Stephen Ronaldson ’15 won for a one-page pitch of his pilot Roofless, which follows a college student who must live his day-to-day life while hiding the fact that he’s homeless and lives in Central Park. His prize includes the opportunity to have his pitch workshopped by a Writers Guild of America member.