Far from the Hollywood Hills and the bright lights of Broadway, the entertainment industry has found an unexpected hotbed for storytelling in the heart of the Midwest. Ever since the Iowa Writers' Workshop introduced the nation to the academic study of creative writing more than 80 years ago, the University of Iowa has proven to be a magnet for some of the world's most gifted wordsmiths. The university's abundance of high-ranking programs in the liberal arts has similarly attracted actors, directors, and other artists—all seeking to hone their craft in a flourishing creative community.
"No matter where you are, people are people and talent is talent," says Alan MacVey, professor and chair of the theatre arts department and director of the UI Division of Performing Arts, "and we're so fortunate to have a lot of it here because Iowa is known for its writing."
Earlier this year, a series of blockbusters from Iowa alumni aimed the spotlight on the UI's enduring success at nurturing emerging screenwriters and filmmakers. Avengers: Infinity War, co-directed by Emmy winner Joe Russo (92BA), debuted with the best box office weekend in cinematic history and skyrocketed into the biggest global summer release of all time. A Quiet Place, an original thriller written by Bettendorf natives Scott Beck (07BA) and Bryan Woods (07BA), became one of the greatest Hollywood success stories of the year.
Meanwhile, Diablo Cody (00BA), the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, sparked a national conversation about the challenges of motherhood with her new comedy, Tully. Cedar Rapids native Jeffrey Tomsic (99BA) directed his first popcorn flick, Tag, which starred former UI student Jake Johnson of New Girl fame. And Iowa City filmmakers Tommy Haines (05BA), John Richard (04BS), and Andrew Sherburne drew international acclaim for their award-winning documentary, Saving Brinton, about a rare cinematic treasure found in smalltown Iowa now housed in UI Libraries' Special Collections.
Furthermore, several graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Iowa Playwrights Workshop helped usher in a new golden age of television in recent years with groundbreaking hits such as The West Wing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Girls, House of Cards, and Game of Thrones.
These Hawkeyes in Hollywood are only the latest to carry on a UI screenwriting legacy that stretches back as far as Rebel Without a Cause and the classic James Bond and Star Trek films. And like their predecessors, the current crop of UI storytellers was influenced by a broad liberal arts education at Iowa that encourages students to take courses in departments as varied as English and creative writing, communication studies, cinematic arts, comparative literature, literary translation, and theatre arts.
"There's no one path to where you want to go or one destination," says Christopher Harris, associate cinematic arts professor and head of film and video production, of the UI's options for aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers. "You can come in and do any number of things."
Nevertheless, the UI plans to aid future screenwriters on their journey of discovery by exploring ways to build the program and offer post-graduate mentoring. An increased number of faculty from various disciplines are teaching relevant courses, including rising Iranian-American filmmaker Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, a new hire in cinematic arts who has twice dazzled audiences at the Cannes Film Festival.
The university is also working to strengthen not only collaboration across departments and programs, but between its ambitious students and proven professionals in the field. Several of Iowa's top alumni screenwriters and filmmakers took center stage on campus in recent months to share stories of how the UI contributed to their success and to mentor students who long to follow in their footsteps.
A Quiet Place screenwriters Beck and Woods returned to Iowa this past spring, revealing to UI cinematic arts students that a nonverbal communication course they took as communications studies majors inspired their hit film. "It really opened our eyes to how much we communicate with each other without actually using words," says Woods, who with Beck recently finalized a deal with Twentieth Century Fox to adapt Stephen King's The Boogeyman for film.
Just three days after Avengers: Infinity War's record-breaking release, Russo similarly shared at a screening in Iowa City that UI courses with religious studies professor Jay Holstein influenced his decision to bring deeper moral complexity to the character of Captain America. "You wouldn't have Infinity War without [Professor Holstein]," Russo said at a public event at the Englert Theatre hosted this past April by the UI Lecture Committee and FilmScene. "A lot of his teachings have found their way into our storytelling at Marvel. He understands the human narrative and mythology, and he inspired me to start telling my own stories."
Recognizing the experiences and mentors who helped them along the way, many UI alumni are now determined to reach out to young screenwriters and filmmakers who hold similar aspirations. "It's really exciting to see someone who went to Iowa make it as big as you can make it," says Wendy DeCora (00BA), a UI film and video production grad who attended Russo's lecture. "It gives you a lot of hope to go ahead and pursue your dreams, because you don't know where they might lead."
The UI's concerted efforts to harness the power of its alumni network for the benefit of students and recent grads can be seen in the theatre arts department this fall. Every Wednesday afternoon at the Theatre Building—where Tennessee Williams (38BA) and Gene Wilder (55BA) once commanded the stage—two of the most renowned writers and producers in television today instruct promising UI students in the craft. This semester, Robin Green (77MFA) and Mitchell Burgess (78BA)—the Emmy Award-winning duo behind Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, and Blue Bloods—are volunteering their time and talent to a small mix of undergrads, graduate students, and post-grad fellows as instructors of the first-of- its-kind Writing for Television course.
The couple had already established the Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess Fund for Iowa Writers' Workshop student scholarships in 2002 and were honored in 2004 as UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences alumni fellows. "When Mitch and Robin decided to teach writing for longform television, everyone just jumped at the chance, because they're experts and you can't really get any better than them," says associate theatre arts professor Lisa Schlesinger (89MFA, 95MFA).
Burgess and Green's desire to give back to the university arose from transformative life experiences at Iowa that they say helped shape their careers. Burgess, who enrolled as a history major through the G.I. Bill, credits his freshman rhetoric instructor for recognizing his writing talent and pointing him toward an undergraduate fiction writing workshop taught by Green. "It's the kind of influential moment you only get at school with a teacher guiding you," says Burgess. "[Before that experience,] I thought I'd end up working in a factory in Cedar Rapids like my father."
Meanwhile, Green left her job as the only female journalist at Rolling Stone in the early 1970s to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she studied short stories alongside T.C. Boyle (74MFA, 77PhD) and under Lenny Michaels, Raymond Carver, and Henry Bromell. After Burgess took Green's course, the two became a screenwriting power couple whose first big break came from Burgess' former basketball buddy, John Falsey (78MFA), the Emmy Award-winning creator of dramas such as St. Elsewhere, I'll Fly Away, and Northern Exposure.
That Iowa connection helped catapult the duo to critical acclaim as they created stories with multifaceted characters and rich themes. From 1999 to 2005, the couple served as writers and executive producers of The Sopranos on HBO. While the show is now praised for launching the era of prestige television, Burgess and Green believed at the time that they and Sopranos creator David Chase were taking a great risk in introducing America to a mob boss and his family drama. Rejected by every major network before being picked up by HBO, Green recalls thinking: "It's either going to change TV forever or sink like a stone."
By attracting up to 12 million viewers per episode, The Sopranos showed TV executives that audiences were willing to engage in gritty, cinematic serial storytelling on the small screen. As MacVey wrote in his nomination of Burgess and Green for the UI's 2014 Distinguished Alumni Awards: "Their work helped transform television from a moderately entertaining medium to one of the most creative enterprises in recent history."
Nearly 20 years since The Sopranos first aired, Green says she and Burgess are "returning to the scene of the crime" where they formed their award-winning partnership. Back in Iowa City for the semester, they have met new binge-watching, college-age fans who were too young to watch the show when it first aired. The couple has enjoyed interacting with these fans and other faculty members, as well as watching Hawkeye football games and attending films, readings, and shows at Hancher Auditorium. Green also has taken advantage of her time at Iowa by enrolling in a Life Drawing art class and promoting her new memoir, The Only Girl: My Life and Times on the Masthead of Rolling Stone, with a reading at Prairie Lights bookstore. "We want to dig into university life, which we haven't done in 40 years," says Burgess. "We'll vicariously live our youth again and have some fun. Iowa City has a lot to offer."
Besides participating in the creative life of this college town, Burgess and Green also delight in investing in the future of its young writers. The Blue Bloods creators personally sifted through writing submissions and recommendations to select 15 students for the Writing for Television class. Over the course of the semester, students develop a concept for a one-hour drama, outline the season, write a pilot, table-read their work, and learn about the post-production process. The couple also invites guest speakers from the field to offer practical, nuts-and-bolts advice.
As students learn the challenge of weaving different plotlines together into one powerful moment for their pilots, they start to realize what it takes to keep audiences invested over the course of a season. "It starts with the characters," Burgess tells his students. "Then you must have a compelling story."
"I've never been in an executive meeting where they didn't ask, ‘Why this? Why now?'" adds Green. "There must be an immediate reason why this is compelling. Something life or death is at stake."
Students become heartened to know they're entering the field at a time when there are more opportunities than ever for writers in television. When Burgess and Green started, they only had a handful of networks where they could pitch their work. Now premium cable channels and online streaming services have changed the landscape, opening an infinite number of options—even for those new to TV. "As an executive producer and someone who hires writers, it's a thrill to find talent in young people," says Green. "Fresh talent is the best part of the job."
Students in Green and Burgess' class may not only walk away with a script as a calling card into the business, but also two top-notch references for their résumés. Burgess says he hopes to recommend gifted Hawkeye screenwriters to his friends in the industry. "Iowa was instrumental in helping our careers, without a doubt," says Burgess, "and that's the reason we're doing it."
One of a few undergraduates selected for the Writing for Television course, Kaylyn Kluck is excited for the opportunity to learn from Iowa's storied alumni. "It's a new golden age of television, and there are more platforms than ever to have a TV show produced, but that doesn't mean it's easy to get there," says Kluck, a journalism and cinema major with a minor in theatre arts. "I hope this class will be a stepping stone on my way."
Though Kluck, a senior from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, is most passionate about writing for the screen, she's grateful that Iowa's vibrant literary atmosphere has allowed her to explore many different types of writing. She learned to get to the heart of a story as a reporter for The Daily Iowan, while penning plays produced by the theatre arts department allowed her to bring her stories from page to stage.
Much like Kluck, Writing for Television classmate Leigh M. Marshall was attracted to Iowa's rich literary tradition. Empowered by the support of her instructors and peers in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, the second-year graduate student says she's become more productive than ever—finishing three new plays in one semester. "There are not many places like Iowa where there's a diversity of perspectives and no effort made to homogenize that voice," says the San Francisco native, who drew The Sopranos screenwriters' attention with her play that explores the impact of divisive political rhetoric on the United States. "Iowa's imperative to encourage originality and risk-taking creates an ideal environment for someone who wants to write for the screen."
Conditions also are ripe for playwrights like Marshall to break into television, which has tapped the dialogue-writing talent of Iowa Playwrights Workshop grads such as Mad Men and House of Cards screenwriters Rick Cleveland (95MFA) and Keith Huff (94MFA). "The rule for playwriting is that if you want an audience to have a piece of information, then a character has to speak it, so the entire world of the play exists in dialogue," says Marshall, who dreams of joining a TV writers' room and becoming the showrunner who holds creative authority. "The opposite in screenwriting can be true. There are scenes where no one speaks, and the image pulls the entire load."
As Kluck and Marshall receive guidance from experienced professionals in the classroom, two recent UI graduates have earned a more intensive, professional-level mentorship from Burgess and Green. Claudia Ramirez (18MFA) of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Sam Lahne (16MFA) of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop have been working closely with The Sopranos screenwriters through a privately funded post-graduate fellowship. The fellows meet at least weekly with Burgess and Green to pitch and develop their ideas in a partnership similar to a TV writers' room.
A fan of The Sopranos and Blue Bloods, Lahne carefully studied Burgess and Green's work in preparation for the fellowship. "Once I applied, I went back to re-watch The Sopranos and quickly realized my favorite episodes were written by them," he says. "Their writing is perceptive without being heavy-handed, and they do a fabulous job of connecting the interpersonal relationships of the characters within the larger scale of the show. I have so much to learn from them."
Lahne already has benefited from the support of established alumni such as Newhart and Coach creator Barry Kemp (71BA) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. producer Norman Felton (40BFA, 40MA, 41MA), who have donated scholarships to promising UI theatre arts students. Now the Washington, D.C., native hopes to trace the path of rising young Iowa grads such as Lila Byock (04MFA) and Sam Shaw (04MFA), writers for Castle Rock, a hot new Hulu horror anthology series based on the characters and stories of Stephen King.
Byock and Shaw first met at the Iowa Writers' Workshop during the rise of The Sopranos. Still, the married couple never considered a career in TV until Burgess and Green made a guest appearance at the workshop. "It felt like they were emissaries from a different planet, but it was an exciting moment, because The Sopranos represented such a different idea of what TV could be," Shaw says of the show's novelistic quality. "It was attractive and appealing as a writer to do work that would find a much larger audience than a book."
Although they didn't focus on screenwriting while at Iowa, Byock and Shaw found the Iowa Writers' Workshop to be good preparation for the collaborative and competitive nature of the TV writers' rooms where they now work. In both spaces, the couple says writers learn to take a story apart to understand its underlying structure, its successes and failures, and how it creates an emotional experience. "Being in the workshop environment is about learning how to sublimate your own ego for the larger goal," adds Byock, "and that's a lot of the work of being a TV writer."
After landing his first major TV writing job with Showtime's Masters of Sex in 2013, Shaw created the critical darling Manhattan, which explored the lives of scientists working on the top-secret Manhattan Project during the 1940s. He then co-created Castle Rock. More than half of the writers' rooms on Manhattan and Castle Rock—including Shaw, Byock, Mark Lafferty (04MFA), and Vinnie Wilhelm (04MFA)—first began refining each other's words around the Iowa Writers' Workshop table as students of Ethan Canin (84MFA). Lafferty and Wilhelm also have worked with other Hawkeyes: Lafferty as a writer and producer for AMC's Halt and Catch Fire featuring Iowa actor and former UI student Toby Huss, and Wilhelm as a writer on AMC's The Terror, a chilling drama created by fellow Iowa Writers' Workshop grad David Kajganich (94MFA) about a famous lost expedition.
While Byock and Shaw have spent most of their TV careers surrounded by their former classmates, they never realized the growing number of Hawkeyes in Hollywood until UI faculty and staff began making visits to Los Angeles to receive alumni advice on how to best support students interested in the entertainment industry. The couple is heartened to see the UI's focus on the arts and humanities, bucking a trend of divestment seen at other schools. "In difficult times, it's easy to look at storytelling as inessential frivolity, but stories are important and remind us of who we are and what we believe in," Shaw says.
Adds Byock, a writer and producer on the forthcoming HBO series Watchmen: "It's clear that writing is the crown jewel of the UI, and the university is really trying to nurture and grow it."
Indeed, by the time Hawkeye writers graduate, they have built a supportive network not only of peers and instructors in Iowa City, but also of alumni across the country. Some donate their manuscripts and papers to the UI Libraries for study, while others give lectures, scholarships, and job opportunities to their fellow Hawkeyes. When the Saving Brinton filmmakers screened their documentary in major cities across the country this past summer, Iowans everywhere turned out in support. A recent showing for the Los Angeles IOWA Club drew about 50 people, including the likes of Russo, Star Trek screenwriter and director Nicholas Meyer (68BA), and actor Ron Livingston, a Cedar Rapids native best known for Office Space and Band of Brothers.
Beck and Woods say their first step when moving to Hollywood was connecting with other Hawkeyes, including members of the Los Angeles IOWA Club. At a critical juncture in his career, Beck will never forget Meyer's invitation to his home for some mentoring. "It was one of the most generous things that I think I've ever received from anybody," says Beck.
Nurtured by this creative environment, UI screenwriting grads say Iowa City was an influential stop on their way to Tinseltown and the Big Apple. "For some, L.A. or New York might be the entryway into the entertainment business, but in terms of quality of life and writing life, Iowa is incredibly supportive of writing across the board—from fiction writing to theatre and film," says Schlesinger, a graduate of both the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Iowa Playwrights Workshop who now teaches screenwriting at Iowa. "You can get a lot of work done here as a writer."
That support continues even after writers receive their diplomas. As Lahne—who returned to campus for a post-grad fellowship with two of the most celebrated screenwriters of our time—says: "It's not news that Iowa is the place to be as a writer, but it's exciting that it continues to create new ways to engage and develop its wordsmiths."
Mitchell Burgess (78BA)
Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, Blue Bloods
"Iowa was instrumental in helping our careers, without a doubt."
Patrick Sean Clark (88MFA)
Northern Exposure, Evening Shade, The Commish, Coach, Early Edition
Rick Cleveland (95MFA)
The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, House of Cards, The Man in the High Castle
Diablo Cody (00BA)
Juno, Young Adult, Tully
John Falsey (78MFA)
St. Elsewhere, I'll Fly Away, Northern Exposure
Robin Green (77MFA)
Northern Exposure, The Sopranos, Blue Bloods
"All these experiences at Iowa shaped our future."
Sarah Heyward (09MFA)
Heyward refers to her time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop as "the best two years of my life," which helped her to "see the different ways there are to be talented at writing."
Keith Huff (94MFA)
Mad Men, House of Cards, American Crime
David Kajganich (94MFA)
True Story, A Bigger Splash, The Terror, Pet Sematary (2019)
Barry Kemp (71BA)
Taxi, Newhart, Coach
"At Iowa, I had a bright and thoughtful teacher with very high standards, who took the idea of wanting a career [in show business] seriously but was also cautious in painting a picture of what the real world looks like."
Mark Lafferty (04MFA)
Manhattan, Halt and Catch Fire, Castle Rock
Richard Maibaum (31BA, 32MA)
classic James Bond films
Nicholas Meyer (68BA)
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, The Prince of Egypt, Medici: Masters of Florence, Time After Time
"This is the place that shaped me; I'm a creature of this place. For better or worse, I was invented here."
David Milch (70MFA)
Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Deadwood, True Detective
Stephanie Savage (93MA)
The O.C., Gossip Girl, Runaways, Dynasty
Sam Shaw (04MFA)
Masters of Sex, Manhattan, Castle Rock
"Iowa is the mecca of literary fiction."
Stewart Stern (43BA)
Rebel Without a Cause
Jeff Tomsic (99BA)
D.B. Weiss (98MFA)
Game of Thrones, Star Wars
Gene Wilder (55BA)
Vinnie Wilhelm (04MFA)
Manhattan, The Terror, Castle Rock
Tennessee Williams (38BA)
The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire
Bryan Woods (07BA)
A Quiet Place
Woods says he was shaped by "the rich history of writing and amazing writers that are on campus. It was just an inspiring environment to be a part of, and to be around so many talented people helped me be better."