Life Outside of Poker: Matt Salsberg – Screenwriter

Life Outside of Poker: Matt Salsberg - Screenwriter

The first time I cast eyes on Matt Salsberg was in 2012 when I reported on him playing in the World Poker Tour (WPT) Grand Prix de Paris Main Event in the Aviation Club de France.

Life Outside of Poker: Matt Salsberg - ScreenwriterHe went on to win the event – for the biggest score in his live tournament career – before going on a run that ended with him being crowned the Season XI Player of the Year, after making no fewer than three final tables, and a whole host of close calls.

He is now one of the most popular players on the tour, but in between hands, Salsberg has a day job as a writer and TV producer where his previous work history includes penning a story line or two on hit shows such as Weeds and Entourage, and it’s his writing that we are going to talk about today.

When it comes to writing what are your earliest memories?

“The earliest memories were in grade school when I had to do compositions in class. They were always absurd. I never took anything seriously and everything I wrote was infused with comedy.”

Did you always want to be a writer?

“I didn’t even know you could be a TV writer. I knew you could be a novelist, but not a television writer. I grew up in Montreal, in the pre Internet era, so I was about as far away from the business as you could get. I was a TV addict when I was younger, but to think that I could find a job writing about the shows – that wasn’t within the realms of possibility for me.”

How did things change for you?

“When I was younger I was a golfing nut. I went to school in Montreal where I studied Urban Planning and I quickly discovered that I had no interest in doing that for a career. So I decided I just wanted to get away from Montreal and pursue my obsession with golf.

“At this time my parents would spend their winters in San Diego and bought a condo there, which was empty for the months leading up to the winter. So I decided in September of 1994 to just move there and figure out what I was going to do with my life whilst continuing to play golf.

“They came down 4-5 months later and told me to get a job. So I enrolled in a screenwriting course in the University of California, San Diego. It was nighttime – once a week course – and it was called: ‘How to write a screenplay in nine weeks.’

“I took the class, bought a few books on screenwriting and just fell in love with it. I loved TV when I was growing up and it started to make sense to me that this is what I should do.

“I also got some really good feedback from the instructor on the course who was a long time Hollywood screenwriter. She reeled me in, looked at the work I had been doing and said I could sell it for a million dollars, and she would hook me up with agents and everything, so I was also tempted by the money behind it too, but I loved it and had a lot of fun doing it.”

What were the important learning points early in your career?

“Understanding structure was the most important concept I learned in the early days. This was a film course so I learned that there is an underlying structure to the movies, that movies have various numbers of acts, inciting incidents – generally the whole formula behind it, and the course has templates and models of successful shows to show how the structure underpinned everything.”

It sounds so scary?

“It’s not that scary because the course breaks it down for you. The scariest part is when you are starting from scratch. I knew so little about it back then and so I had very little anxiety. I have way more anxiety about starting a new program now than I did when I started writing 15-20 years ago because I know so much more now. I know all of the mistakes and back then I didn’t know any of the mistakes so I just wrote. Back then I was writing movies in 6 weeks and these days I would be shocked if I could write a movie in 4 months.”

What were your biggest breakthroughs?

“My first credit was a TV show called The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo which was on Nickelodeon and I wrote an episode for that show. It was about a 15-yr Asian girl who solved crimes, and lived with her grandfather played by Pat Morita. They were looking for a writer and I had written some sample TV specs – a Frasier spec – that the Executive Producer had read, liked it and hired me to write an episode. I only did one episode before it went off the air.

“Then I got my first staff job which was a regular employed gig for two years where I actually made money. It was a show called Big Wolf on Campus and that was two years of 22 episodes per year, and suddenly I went from having no money to making good money before that show was cancelled.

“But the real break was Weeds. That was an eight-year run. I have a house because of Weeds. Weeds was special because creatively it was such a cool fun show to work on. It was on cable and about a subject matter that had not really been covered on TV before, and we had carte blanche to do what we wanted to, and that was special.”

How did you get the weeds gig?

“I worked with the show’s creator who had hired me on another show two years before Weeds – called The Stones – which was on CBS but it was cancelled after we had filmed 12 episodes and they shut down production, aired three of them and pulled it. But she hired me for that and we had a good relationship and when Weeds came along she asked me to join the staff.”

Another case of who you know right?

“You form relationships and some you gel with and others you don’t. If you are putting a writing team together it’s kind of like a basketball team. You don’t just want a team of centers you need people to fill different roles. Sometimes the more people you work with the more opportunities you have.”

What did a typical day in the Weeds office look like?

“We would get there around 10am and had three months of pre-production which means breaking stories for three months. We would do that collectively and that show would have 6 – 9 writers on any given season, and we would sit in a room for 6hrs a day (10am to 4pm), which is quite a short working day in the business.

“We would break stories for the season, talk out arcs for the characters and plot lines, and try and formulate as much as we could before any writing was done. We would collectively outline the whole season episode by episode, talking for a month about generalities, then when you get into specifics you break down each episode. You have writing assistants that are there taking notes on everything you say, then organizing those notes; then you outline as a group, there is a head writer who has the final say and spearheads everything.

“Everyone is chiming in, pitching ideas and producing ideas whilst you are breaking out episodes. Once they are outlined every writer on the staff is given an episode to go and write a draft, this takes around two weeks; you bring it back and give it to the executive producer to read it, he will then give the writers notes and either take over the draft themselves and do the rewrite, or give it to someone else to rewrite, or do a group rewrite.”

“That takes a few months of work and covers half of the season. Then we start filming and those first batches of episodes are filmed while we write the second batch, and we have to edit too. So you are doing triple duties, sometimes, where you are breaking the final episodes of the season, making tweaks then filming and editing the ones you have just filmed.”

It sounds like you have to be interested in what you write about?

“It’s really tough if you don’t. If you are creating a show then you really want to hire writers who have a good grasp of the material otherwise it’s going to be difficult.”

Where do you get your ideas?

“Usually from my own life. The pilots that I have sold have been based on autobiographical things. You have to write what you know and it helps tremendously when pitching to people who are going to buy something, because you are able to show them a personal connection to your material. This creates belief in you and your connection with the work.”

Have you based any of your characters on poker players?

“I have a new show in development and the characters that I am creating for that show are sort of versions of people on the tour, because I want to make it authentic. I don’t want to write about a particular person, but they are all archetypes, there are the stoner types, the former athletes and the middle aged men who support their wives.

“What’s funny about the poker world, and their individual characters, is that a lot of people are so young and their personalities are just starting to form. People like Will The Thrill and Micah Raskin are great characters because they have more life experiences.”

It must be easier to write if you are more experienced in life?

“Definitely. The thing about being a TV writer is the hours are really demanding. It’s almost like poker as it’s a young man’s game. You put in so many hours you need the stamina to do it. But yeah the older you are the more interesting things you have to write about – but do you have the stamina?”

Why are we watching the best shows that have ever been created? What has changed?

“It’s the way the shows are distributed. The past 6-7 years has seen entities like Netflix, Amazon, and other direct streaming services behave in the way that the Indie films of the 90s did. Personal stories where people are not so concerned about mass markets because they have smaller audiences that they can create great stories for.

“The indie films of the 90s that have left the theatres have now found their place in television. Smaller stories, personal stories, unique worlds, dark execution, niche programming, all because people are paying for premium service subscriptions instead of advertising driving something. The networks are still doing the same sorts of things as before, but it’s the cable outlets and Netflix, and Amazon – that’s where all the great programming has been coming from.”

What are you working on right now?

“I have just closed a deal with Amazon for a poker show that used to be called ‘Whales’ that was at Showtime originally, and I have resold to Amazon, and we are going to start getting cracking on that.

“It sort of has an autobiographical twist on it now which is cool. Originally it was based on a perspective of the tour from a 20 year old, but now I have the perspective of a 40 year old – and I have two years of stories to tell so I am excited and I feel like Amazon could be real cool place for it.

“But It doesn’t matter what network you are on anymore as long as you can do the show you want to do – people will find it if its good enough.”