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CCI: “The Office” Writers Panel

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
CCI: “The Office” Writers Panel
The “Office” panelists file in for their presentation at Comic-Con

It was a fun and lighthearted visit with the writing staff of “The Office” this Saturday at Comic-Con International in San Diego, as the panel dove right in to questions from audience members for the run of the hour.

Rainn Wilson, who plays the fan-favorite Dwight Schrute on the show, moderated the panel composed of writers, writer-actors, and a lone editor.

Wilson was immediately asked “How do you feel about being the official sex symbol for the office?,” “I feel great about that. Eat my shorts John Krasinski!” he said with a grin.

The panel spoke at length about where they get ideas for writing the show. Said Daniels “One of the advantages of setting it in an office, it’s really not hard to find offices…to research what they do all day. We just walk out and open our eyes in the room and see stuff.”

Celotta agreed, saying “One day we were watching the queue in a monitor screen and we were asked what are we doing and we said we think it’s going to hit…and that’s where that episode [with the bouncing dot] came from.”

They do have an inside source for information on the city of Scranton, as Daniels explained, “There are two big paper companies there, and before we aired, John Krasinski went there and shot the footage that’s in the intro and interviewed some people there. One woman who works in the Chamber of Commerce there emails us regularly.”

Deciding on how to go about writing the pilot episode was one of the trickier moments in the writing process. When asked why the writers decided to essentially copy the British show’s pilot, Daniels said, “We were thinking when we were pitching it we would go to HBO or something like that, but then when we got to NBC we found a very receptive person there. The reason the pilot is so close to the original is I was testing to see if we could produce something in the same tone and see if they could tolerate it. After that, we never looked at the English series [again] when we were writing it. We’ve certainly been aiming, since ‘Diversity Day,’ to tell an American story all it’s own.”

Concerning that British version, the best advice he was given was from “Ricky Gervais and Steve [Merchant], from the UK version, [said] to make all the actors look great.”

Many of the actors in the show are also writers for it. The panel was asked “How much of the show is written for the actors to improv, versus scripting?”

Wilson raised an eyebrow at that, and said “This is a very delicate topic, lets answer this one carefully…”

Picture: Moderator: Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute)

From right to left: Greg Daniels (showrunner), Jennifer Celotta (writer), Michael Shur (writer and Mo Shrut), Mindy Kaling (writer and actor), B.J. Novak (writer, actor), Anthony Ferrell (writer), Lester Lewis (writer, actor gay boyfriend of Michael Scott’s neighbor), Lee Eisenberg (actor, Geno from Advanced Refrigeration), Gene Stupnitsky (writer), Justin Spitzer (writer, and actor as intern), Ryan Koh (writer, used to work in advertising), David Rogers (editor).

Shur took it on first, answering “Rainn is a magical genius. We script everything lightly, so that anything can be moved around…often times the stuff that gets in to the show is like a Frankenstein version of what we wrote and what the actors and directors added to it. It’s a really great system, it’s good for everyone, it’s good for writers, directors, and actors.”

One example of an improvisational scene was Michael Scott pulling a tray of food away from Toby. Lewis said initially “That moment was not scripted…Paul Lieberstein just looked at [him] and [he] just pulled [the] tray in one take!”

Wilson added “It’s all about giving options to the editors….you know most of the time like Steven and I will be shooting a scene and we ask, you want to do anything different?”

And speaking of editors, Wilson asked Rogers, “Dave how long are first cuts usually?,” to which Rogers replied “35 to 38 minutes, for a show that will be 21 to 24 minutes with credits.”

On which characters the panel enjoys writing about, Kaling said with a grin “I like writing for Ryan. Last season, he turned into the biggest D-bag of all time! Ryan has a character for this season that…that is my favorite character.” Kaling and Novak revealed that the Ryan character would continue to be tortured this upcoming season, to the glee of the writing staff.

Stupnitsky said that he prefers to write for Dwight, while Novak enjoys writing for Michael. “He has such an interesting logical structure that he automates from. The way he sees the world makes such sense on such an interesting character. Its interesting to see a character that is in some ways so innocent, and yet so wrong…” said Novak.

The writers all said that they bring a lot to the scripts from their background. Wilson jokingly said (or was it a joke?) “I killed my girlfriends cat, for one!”

Ferrell revealed “I used to work at Countrywide.”

Shur had similar experience, saying “I was a temp at an advertising firm in New York that was just miserable…we try to write down any kind of boring drudgery work, just to set the tone.”

Daniels explained the origin of the Dundee awards came from his background experience. “We did the Dundee awards, or our version, at an office I worked at,” said Daniels.

The panel had a pretty varied set of experiences prior to coming to the show. Stupnitsky said “Lee and I this was our first show…we wrote a failed pilot for Fox.” Kaling had written off-broadway, while Novak said “I was doing standup.”

One fan asked if the show could come up with a musical episode. After joking that it would be difficult to do that in a documentary-type show, Kaling said “It’s imminent! No, just kidding…that would be my fantasy show where I run the world”

Wilson added “In Jen’s Christmas episode there was almost 15 songs of karaoke. That’s almost a musical!”

Curiously, the panel said they didn’t have much trouble with censorship of language on the show. Daniels said “The interesting thing about the Broadcast and Standards is that, it’s much more about not showing real products or the rights to use songs those things impact the creativity a lot more for the language.”

And finally, when asked the theoretical question of how the Dwight character would respond to a robot invasion, Shur said “He would cross his arms and stand in the middle of the street nodding his head saying I told you so.” Stupnitsky added “He would also quickly become assistant to the manager of the robots.”

Now discuss this story in CBR’s TV/Film forum.

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