[The following interview also appears on the official Adopt a Writer site. Even though the Writers Strike has ended, this project will continue to support the WGA by highlighting writers and their experiences; putting faces to the names we see scrolling by in television and film credits.]
As someone who loves and works with music, I was tremendously
honored and excited to be given the opportunity to interview David Leaf for Adopt a Writer. As I prepared
to speak with this amazing music historian and writer, I popped in my Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE CD and
re-read David’s eight page liner note introduction.
David Leaf is the king of pop culture and music
retrospectives. He is one of the Peabody Award-winning writers of the 9/11
A Tribute to Heroes,” for which he also received an Emmy nomination, and he won
a Writers Guild award in 2003 for “The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of
Performing Arts.” In addition, David is a
documentary filmmaker: he wrote/directed/produced the Grammy-nominated “Beautiful
Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE,” and co-wrote/co-directed/produced
“The U.S. vs. John Lennon.”
David has been called ‘Brian Wilson’s biographer,’ and he’s authored
the books The Beach Boys and the
California Myth and The Bee Gees: The
Authorized Autobiography. He received
a Grammy nomination for “Best Historical Recording” for writing the books that
accompanied The Pet Sound Sessions
4-CD boxed set, which he also produced.
In addition to the WGAW, David Leaf is a member of the Authors
Guild, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, ASCAP, The Society
of Professional Journalists and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He even gets to vote annually for the Rock
& Roll Hall of Fame.
At what point in your life did you
realize that you wanted to be a writer?
I always told stories.
I just didn’t start writing them down until I was about 13. I’m lucky in that I believe I was born with a
certain ability to glibly synthesize information and tell a story. What my high school history teacher used to
call “BS.” In junior high, I was writing about sports for
the school paper and was even sports editor of the Latin newspaper. In school, I
was a class clown. Or at least I thought
I was funny.
2. How were you first introduced to Brian Wilson, in what was to become a
For my college newspaper, I had written an article about
Brian. That was inspired by reading
about his roller coaster of a life in Rolling Stone. At that time, I was inspired by the work of
Edward R. Murrow, and thought I could be a crusading journalist. So I decided that I wanted to write a book and
tell the real story of Brian Wilson’s life.
I met him just after moving to California.
I was shooting baskets with a friend at a local YMCA in 1976. Brian walked onto the court with his cousin,
who asked us if we wanted to play 2-on-2 with him. What really makes this story even more unbelievable
is that his cousin was an NBA player.
Anyway, a few years later, when I wrote and published my biography
of him, we weren’t friends at that point. Thanks to some friends of his, who
wanted me to have a better understanding of what he was really like, I’d gotten
the chance to spend a little time around him while I was writing the book. Through the 1980s, I continued to see him
around town. Ironically, given what
inspired your ‘adoption’ of me, it was during the WGA strike in 1988 that I got
a job at Warner Brothers Records that put me into regular contact with
Brian. So it was around then that we began
to develop a friendship.
Are there any writers who have had
an influence on your careers? Who are
your mentors in this industry?
For sports writing (which is how I started), Larry Merchant.
For journalism, Pete Hamill. Both wrote
for the New York Post, which had an amazing, diverse collection of columnists
when I was a kid.
As for authors – Kurt Vonnegut. To me, his world view was essential, letting
me know it was okay to see things differently than conventional wisdom would
suggest. And of course, I’m the cliché: J.D. Salinger.
In fact, the first chapter of The
Beach Boys and the California Myth opens with a quote from The Catcher in the Rye.
I guess if I had a mentor, although he would have laughed at
the idea, you could say my comedy writing mentor was Greg Fields. Working with him
was like getting a Masters in comedy writing. He was extremely influential for
me, teaching me how to spend every minute in the office making comedy out of
life, teaching me that nothing was off limits when it came to comedy. He knew
how to make everything funny without being mean. I think he was an extraordinarily
talented comedy writer.
How long have you been a member of
the Writers Guild of America?
For just over twenty years now. I wrote my first spec
features and spec sitcoms in the early/mid-1980s. Then, I earned my WGA membership in 1987 writing
a Beach Boys anniversary special for ABC television. A year after that, I got
hired as a staff writer on The New Leave
it to Beaver.
How did the Writers Strike affect
your current development deals and projects?
Being on strike and picket line felt like being inside a
TiVO and waiting for someone to hit play. Everything was in suspended
animation. It was a frustrating yet unavoidable situation for everybody. I had
spent most of last year writing, developing and pitching, and I guess the way
it affected my current deals was to bring everything to grinding halt. Now we all hope to reignite the momentum that our
What level of involvement with the
Writers Strike did you have? Were you out on the picket lines? How often were you able to participate? Can you describe that experience?
I was on strike in 1988, but it was different back then in
terms of organization and membership involvement; we only picketed sporadically.
This time, it was very well organized. I was on a specific team with a specific
assignment, 4 days a week for four hours a day. From my point of view, it was very important
to be on the line every day. And from
the team I was on, there were about a half dozen regulars who walked together
and became friends. It was like being in a writers’ room, without any deadlines
or scripts to write. It was a very good support system during what were tough
times for everyone.
Unless you’re on staff on a show, you probably don’t spend that
much time with writers. Being on the picket line provided the opportunity to
reconnect with other people trying to do same things you were; writing,
selling, pitching, developing, etc. We
had some great days out there and were lucky with the terrific weather in California. We’d tell
each other stories, talk about the business and the creative part of writing.
It was a positive part of the strike – the sense of being in it together.
Another positive thing was that we were able to walk and
talk with some of our own writing heroes; major screenwriters, legendary TV
writers like Allan Burns (Mary Tyler
Moore), Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart
Show), Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Cheers
& Frasier) and writers from The Simpsons.
It was a community of writers and ideas.
Unlike the strike in 1988, we felt like we were working
together in battle. We were on strike; that’s where we should have been, out on
the picket lines. We didn’t start the
fight or pick it, but once we were in it…we were in it for the duration.
7. How did you become involved with FremantleMedia, the company
responsible for shows like American Idol?
Can you reveal any details about your future plans with them?
I was approached a few years ago to work on a multi-part History
of Rock and Roll project. We’re still developing it and hope to get it made
sometime soon. They contacted me after Beautiful
Dreamer appeared on the BBC, and I was flattered to be considered by them for
such a prestigious project. And there’s
a production from my company that’s “in the works” that they’ll be
Your long list of credits as a
writer/producer of music specials for television is very impressive, from
benefit and live concerts to pop culture icon profiles. You’ve covered artists
and performers as varied as Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Christopher Reeve, Billy
Joel, the Marx Brothers, the Bee Gees, Jonathan Winters and Nat King Cole. Do
you approach an opportunity to write for and about these particular individuals
as an admirer, as a writer, or both?
For me, the idea usually starts in the same place—what is it
about these artists that I love and think is important for others to know about?
I then figure out how to tell their
story using their work to speak for themselves, which is essential when the
artist is no longer with us.
I don’t ignore sensational aspects of an artist’s life, but
my focus is more on the artist and how they created their art. Naturally, their
private life will come into the story as it affects their work, but it won’t
come into the story unless it’s relevant. In some senses, I’m a fan and
proselytizer, but more than anything else, I consider myself a storyteller. I
ask myself, what is the most important story I can tell about that particular
artist, a story that you as a viewer need to know. Watching these retrospectives, if you are a
fan, you might get a deeper understanding and love for the artist. If you’re
not a fan, you might become one. Or at least come to respect the artist. The goal is to experience their art and at
the same time, enhance your appreciation of their work. I want to keep the focus on where the art came
from, but also get the artists to reveal something about themselves. Most of all, I make the show I would want to
Besides specials and awards show,
your career as a primetime television writer for series has been sporadic; a
staff writer on The New Leave It to
Beaver from 1988-1999 and Party of
Five and Beverly Hills 90210 retrospectives. Were sitcoms and primetime dramas just
not your cup of tea?
Not at all. I’ve
always been a big TV addict, I love sitcoms and one-hour dramas. I started as
staff writer on The New Leave it To
Beaver in mid-February of 1988, but within three weeks the industry went on
strike. When the strike was over, I did one full season of that show.
That was just about my favorite job of all time, being on
staff on a sitcom. I would love to do it again in the future. You’re paid to reveal
your ‘inner smartass.’ There is nothing more fun that trying to make people
laugh all day long.
10. Now that the Writers Strike is over, do you look forward to a
normal life of writing and producing again?
Is there a specific project that you’ve been itching to return to?
don’t know if there is any such thing as normal life for a writer. The last four months, however, have been very
abnormal. During this strike, I shut
down for the first time in a very long time. The only writing I did was e-mail.
But the reality is that in the blink of an eye, many of us went from ‘striking
writer’ to ‘unemployed writer.’ It’s
very strange. But we are all pretty excited that we can get back to it. We’re all going to have to readjust, but we
are all anxious to put this behind us and get back to where we were before the
are two projects in particular that I want to reignite ASAP. One is a feature
spec, the first draft of which I finished just before the strike started. I can’t wait to take that out into the
really proud of it. I think writers often
feel that ‘this is the best work I’ve ever done.’ But this is a script that really ties
together everything I want to do as a writer, and hopefully someone out there
will see that and also see the movie I see.
other is a feature spec pitch that I sold. I am looking forward to my agent
completing the deal so I can start outlining and writing it.
I’ve learned not to predict what’s next in my writing career, because I certainly
didn’t plan my career to go the way it went. I didn’t plan to become a director
and yet I became one.
didn’t set out to make retrospectives, but I’ve done a lot of them. I didn’t
plan to spend lots of time developing and pitching as a producer, but that is
what I’ve done.
came to L.A. to
write sitcoms and write movies. Last year,
with the developing/pitching/writing I did, I was back in touch with ‘pure’ writing.
Even the picketing had that effect. I feel much more like a writer today than I
did a year ago.
I would like to thank David for participating in this interview,
and for sharing some of his incredible experiences! He was very generous with his time and information, and it was a real pleasure to speak with him at length about writing, television and music.