Perfectly Scripted

KAYLA ALPERT WRITES IT ALL—FROM COMEDY TO DRAMEDY, TWEEN HITS TO CULT CLASSICS—ALL WHILE WORKING ON HER VERY OWN HAPPILY EVER AFTER

KAYLA ALPERT WAS AN ASPIRING WRITER WITH a comedic flair and a gift for dialogue when she interviewed for a job as a production assistant at CBS News. “About six minutes in, the interviewer said, ‘You seem really interested in storytelling but not as a journalist. I think you should go into entertainment,’” Kayla recalls. So, she packed her bags and headed west. That was in 1993. Today, with eight TV shows, three feature films, and numerous pilots, uncredited rewrites, and movie scripts under her belt, the forty-eight-year-old Harvard graduate has attained a level of success most screenwriters only dream about. “I’m lucky in that I’m really adaptable as a writer,” she says. “I’ve jumped around from different genres and that’s helped me stay working.”

Having just finished a two-year stint as a writer and supervising producer on the medical drama Code Black, Kayla is polishing up a pilot for ABC, which she is doing with producers Jason Reed and Sabrina Wind. Called False Profits, the comedy centers around a group of women in Arizona struggling to make a go of it in a direct-sales cosmetics business. “It’s more soapy than Code Black,” Kayla says from her home office in L.A. “It’s Desperate Housewives meets Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s light and fun, but grounded with a little edge to it.”

Comedy. Drama. Kayla is at home in both worlds—which is a rarity. “When I was starting out, I didn’t ever really pick a lane. The only genres I haven’t written are animation and science fiction.”

Although she has lived in L.A. since the mid-90s, Kayla was born and raised in Westchester County, first in Chappaqua and then Bedford. She spent two years at Greenwich Academy before heading off to Harvard, her father’s alma mater. An extrovert, Kayla embraced the Academy and the opportunities it offered. “It was such a positive community,” she recalls. “It had all the advantages of a coed school (students take classes at Brunswick) but also the advantages of an all-girls school. Women were empowered there. We weren’t the cheerleaders, we were the athletes. We were always first in academics; we didn’t have to take a back seat.”

Those lessons have served her well over the years, especially in an industry known for giving short shrift to females. “It was tricky for women back then,” she says about her early years in Hollywood. “At the time, there weren’t a lot of women I could look up to.” She credits several producers with helping her shape her voice, including John Landgraf, Nina Wass and Gene Stein. Even today, women are still in the minority in male-dominated writers’ rooms “There is a prejudice against women being funny, that somehow they can be a buzz kill,” she says. “Women have had to go out of their way to prove themselves.”

That need to constantly exceed expectations takes a toll. “An Emmy-Award-winning writer I know got fired off a show because the men didn’t like the way she giggled when she pitched,” Kayla says. “I’ve heard it all: Men say, you talk too much or not enough. You smile too much or not enough. Men can get away with mistakes, missteps and bad behavior, but women are held to a much higher standard.”

Given the current climate in Hollywood, where many of the industry’s leading icons have been felled by allegations of sexual misconduct, the times may finally be changing. “I think there will be a big push for female voices,” Kayla says. “The male apple cart is falling to pieces.”

That’s good news for the young women who are just starting their careers. Code Black’s Emily Tyra (who plays Dr. Noa Kean) bonded with Kayla right after moving from New York to Hollywood to join the series in Season 2. “I’m always aware of the female writers in the room, because they tend to be in the minority,” she says. Emily particularly liked the episodes Kayla wrote. “She has the unique ability to hit you emotionally right where it hurts. That’s difficult for most people.” Emily also appreciates Kayla’s approach during shooting. “Most of the work happens on the set. Kayla is so receptive to watching these things that are happening in the moment. And she is willing to get rid of stuff that gets in the way or isn’t useful. When you are working with a writer like that, magic happens.”

HARVARD TO HOLLYWOOD
Confident and ambitious, Kayla started honing her craft in college, where she wrote two travel guides for the “Let’s Go” series and spent a year as a stringer for the AP. “Second semester my senior year, I had a couple of electives left. I had done a lot of photography and a fair amount of writing in college, so I took a creative writing class and a photography class,” she said in a 2011 WorkStew podcast with Kate Gace Walton—another Greenwich Academy alum. “My photography teacher hated me and my writing teacher loved me. He was very supportive and encouraging. He said, ‘You’re a very funny writer. You should think about going to Hollywood.’”

Kayla ended up moving home after graduation and subsequently interviewed for the job at CBS. When all signs pointed west, the twenty-three-year-old took note and hit the road for Hollywood. “At that time, in the early ’90s, there was this mass exodus to L.A. TV and movies were exploding,” she says.

Through a friend of a friend she landed a job as a receptionist at New Line Cinema. She lasted three days. “I kept hanging up on celebrities,” she recalls. Unbowed, she found a job as an assistant in publicity at a movie studio (among her duties, answering fan mail for American Gladiator), where she spent the next year and a half plugging away at scripts in her spare time. Eventually her perseverance paid off and she landed a job writing for a kids’ show called All That. That in turn led to a stint on a tween favorite Sweet Valley High. Kayla hit paydirt in 1996, when she sold a spec script to New Line.

“It was a gothic horror comedy set in an all-girls’ boarding school,” she says. “It was sort of a retelling of Jekyll and Hyde meets Mean Girls before there was a Mean Girls.” The movie was never made, but it launched Kayla’s career to the next level. She sold several feature scripts and did feature rewrites for Warner Brothers, Miramax and Fox among others. During that time, Fox hired her to develop pilots for Fox TV, which led to a writing job on David Kelley’s seminal dramedy, Ally McBeal in 2000.

“The show had just won the Emmys [ten in total, including comedy series, writing and lead actress],” she recalls. “I was the only other writer he hired. It was not really your typical collaborative effort since he worked on his own. He’s such a brilliant writer, he knew how to shape stories. Because I was not running the writers’ room, I could take a step back and watch the sausage being made—and occasionally throw in a little meat—and what an incredible sausage it was.”

Confessions of a Shopaholic, a big-screen adaptation of the popular Sophie Kinsella novel starring Isla Fisher, came next, followed by a “goofy” parenting show called Up all Night starring Christina Applegate and Will Arnett. In 2014, the folks at Lifetime hired Kayla to write a screenplay of V. C. Andrews’ cult classic, Flowers in the Attic. The made-for-TV movie starring Ellen Burstyn was a runaway success, with more than 6 million viewers.

“None of us could have predicted that,” says Kayla. “That movie literally played all over the world. It has the distinction of being the number-one hit television movie of the past ten years.” She penned the sequel, Petals on the Wind, which was also a ratings success.

Two years ago, Kayla joined the writing staff of Code Black, a medical procedural that takes place in the emergency room of an L.A.-based public hospital. The show, which is based on the 2013 documentary by physician Ryan McGarry, is addictive. It is told from the perspective of the doctors working under extremely stressful conditions and its ensemble cast includes A-list celebrities Marcia Gay Harden, Luis Guzman and Rob Lowe.

“From the beginning, there was a conscious effort not to be a typical medical procedural,” says Kayla. “Michael Seitzman, the showrunner and creator, is a talented writer and visionary. He always pushed the writers to explore the deeper emotions and life-or-death decisions of the doctors and patients as well as bigger social issues that extend beyond the ER.”

The writers drew inspiration from current events, weaving them into each week’s story line: In one, a crazed drug addict gets his hands on a pistol and starts firing randomly, taking the life of a first-year resident. In another, a grandmother catches the measles from her unvaccinated grandson and suffers irreversible heart damage. In another, a beloved neurosurgeon must navigate the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s. “There was a lot of verisimilitude with the medicine,” says Kayla. “It was always real and gory. We relied on our doctor consultants and medical techs to help us get it right.”

When asked to name one of her favorite episodes, Kayla responds without a moment’s hesitation. “Episode 206, Hero Complex. I worked on all the episodes, but I’m really proud of that one. It’s about women taking control of their lives—and in this case, their death.”

The episode is a powerful piece that deals with campus rape culture and assisted suicide: In one story line, a young woman awakens in the ER to learn she has been the victim of a brutal rape, while across the room another young woman with an incurable brain tumor fights for the right to end her life. “Even her mother and her doctors are against her,” says Kayla. “That was the hardest part to watch. We were crying on set. I was crying, Rob was crying.”

Emily Tyra also says Episode 206 made a big impact. “It was an intense episode, and for her to navigate those things so eloquently was amazing,” she says. “It was tricky and hard in a very male-oriented cast and crew to deal with topics that make people feel uncomfortable, and she stepped up as a leader.”

THE OMG MOMENTS
Kayla got married thirteen years ago to an Irish actor named Peter O’Meara. He had just moved to L.A. after finishing Band of Brothers in London and is currently starring in a series that premiered in December on the History Channel calle Knightfall. “We met through a friend at a dinner party at Al Pacino and Beverly D’Angelo’s house.” She paused, waiting a beat before continuing. “They weren’t there.”

Funny story: their friend, Alfred, was house-sitting at the time. But Kayla had met Al Pacino a few months earlier at a dinner party on Christmas Eve at a house on Alfredo Street. “There was a whole Al thing going on,” she recalls. “It’s a miracle we didn’t name our first child Al.” Instead, she and Peter named their twin boys Myles and Clive.

Today, the couple lives in Hancock Park, where they juggle the demands of a creative life while raising two active ten-year-olds. “The tough part about being in production are the hours, which are long and hard. But the great news about writing a feature is that I have time alone and a lot of flexibility.”

When she’s working on a TV show, Kayla’s day is defined by the hours she spends in the writers’ room, talking about stories, outlining episodes and fleshing out characters. When she’s got her producing hat on, she is involved with every detail from pre-production wardrobe meetings and casting sessions to overseeing the action on set. “A TV show is a very complicated piece of machinery,” she says. “Being on set is hard because it’s long hours and very grueling. But it’s fun, too.”

On the flip side, writing movies is a solitary endeavor. “You have moments when you wonder if you might have made a different choice during your career. And then those moments when you’re like OMG, I’m sitting in the director’s chair with Marcia Gay Harden, a two-time Oscar winner, talking about my writing. Or there’s Rob Lowe and my inner twelve-year-old is flipping out.”

Speaking of Lowe, the actor joined the cast of Code Black in Season 2. He plays a dashing, emotionally wounded Army doc who has been sent to Angels Memorial Hospital for reasons that remain a bit mysterious. “The thing about Rob is, he’s really funny,” says Kayla. “Within two minutes of meeting each other, we were cracking each other up. He enjoyed that I was a fangirl and he really respected me as a writer.”

Rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A-listers can be as fun and glamorous as it sounds. “There are definitely fancy lunches and dinners,” she says. “And I do still love those moments when I’m at a movie premiere or I’m on the red carpet. I have friends who are well-known. What they are not seeing is me in my cargo pants and sweatshirt with my hair in a mommy clip, like today. For every fancy dinner, there is a month and a half of blood, sweat and tears.”

One celeb friend who does see Kayla in sweatshirts and cargo pants is Sarah Rafferty, who plays Donna on Suits. Ironically, the Riverside native didn’t meet Kayla in Greenwich or even in the Hollywood spotlight.

“We didn’t meet on a set in Burbank, but in the maternity ward at Cedars in 2007,” Sarah says. “Our firstborns share the same birthday and we became fast friends. I marvel at the way she does it all—family, work, political activism and our four-hour coffee dates—with such grace and humor. Kayla’s my first stop for advice on everything from schools, to scripts, to interior design. She’s smart, savvy and generous with her time. Honestly, I’m not really sure what I ever did without her.”

Even with all of her success, Kayla faces the uncertainty all writers face—even those with a successful track record. “Every time you finish a project, you start back at square one,” Kayla says. “It’s like pushing a boulder up a hill. When my fingers leave the keyboard, my work stops. When you are not doing the work, the work is not getting done. It’s like living under a constant term-paper deadline. You have to be super disciplined.”

Fortunately, she’s been at it long enough that she’s learned to take the ups and downs in stride. “It’s like a muscle you build over the years,” she says. “When it’s going well, it’s a great process. But you hear a lot of ‘nos’ before you hear ‘yes.’” It can reach levels of absurdity that are almost unbelievable. Kayla recalls the time she was working for Miramax on a movie (Project A), and doing a rewrite on another movie (Project B). At the same time, she was getting fired off Project A while the people whose movie she was rewriting (Project B) were meeting to rewrite the movie she’d been fired from (Project A). “We were all on set together in Toronto having a laugh about it,” she says.

The bottom line: “I’ve probably written forty or fifty scripts—fifteen to twenty features, thirty TV pilots. It’s not necessarily the credits but the continuity of employment that counts. It’s much more about playing a long game.”

That’s something she tries to get through to people who come to her with ideas for scripts. “Literally everyone believes they have a great idea for a movie. I get the call at least seventeen times a week—my friend’s niece’s son or my insurance agent or my plumber—and they say, ‘I have a great idea for a screenplay’; I say ‘Terrific. Turn your idea into a 115-page script, then rewrite it twenty times. Then come up with twenty more ideas, and write and rewrite those screenplays. Then you’ll understand what it takes to be a professional screenwriter.’”

 

 

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