From studying devised theater in South Africa to HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant”: Louisa Levy’s journey as a writer/producer

Los Angeles native, Louisa Levy is a TV writer/producer who got her start as Tony Phelan and Joan Rater’s assistant when they were co-showrunners of Grey’s Anatomy. Phelan and Rater recognized her undeniable talent and ultimately gave Levy her first job as a staff writer on the CBS show Doubt. This was followed up by a season on the CW show In The Dark and a season on the ABC show Stumptown as a writer/producer. In the past, Levy has sold projects to Fox and Freeform. She is currently working on season two of the smash hit HBO Max show The Flight Attendant as a co-executive producer/writer. Below you’ll find our discussion where we touch upon her entry into the business, how discovering an obscure form of theater in South Africa changed her life, and the “pinch me” moments that make it all worthwhile. 

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Photo by Ronnie Nelson

What initially drew you to writing? Was there a film or TV show that started it all? 

There wasn’t necessarily one book or show, but I did grow up around the industry. My dad used to be a gaffer and my mom used to be an art director. I never thought about it as a career, but I would always write. The first short story I ever wrote was dictated to my babysitter, and there was absolutely no punctuation because I was four. It was about a girl who traveled the world and didn’t need a prince— I was a baby feminist. 

So I always wrote, then I came into my own doing musical theater in high school. But when I went to Columbia for college I wanted to take advantage of the undergraduate education and not study theater. You know, give myself the space to figure out what I wanted to do? I tried a few different things and landed on creative writing for a bit, but ultimately switched back to theater to focus on directing because I thought, ironically, that I’d never make a living as a writer. 

Everything changed though when I studied abroad in South Africa. There I discovered ‘devised theater,’ which is a niche in the US but is a big form of theater in South Africa. It’s where you only start with an idea, no script. It could be love or something more specific. It can also get very political, as a lot of devised theater in South Africa during the ‘80s and ‘90s was very much about apartheid. After you have an idea, an ensemble and a director work together through exercises and oftentimes research to build a narrative around that idea. That’s why it’s called devised, you’re devising a whole play around that rehearsal process without an initial script. Through devised theater, without realizing it, I was stepping into being a writer in a way I hadn’t ever conceived before. I thought I was being a director, but I was really just running my own writers’ room. It was really fun and organic in a way I’d never felt before, because up until that point, writing had always been disappearing into my brain and putting something on the page.

But I had [then] discovered writing can be a collaborative process in the same way theater was, which is what I really loved.

When I returned to the States for senior year, I had a bit of a crisis having no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When I eventually got back to LA, my dad said, “Hey, you know how much TV you watch? And you know how you have always loved writing? I think you should be a TV writer!” I thought [it]  was crazy but he connected me with some TV writers he knew, and after talking with them, I discovered this was actually something I really wanted to do but had no idea how.  So I bought a bunch of books and taught myself. Eventually, I landed a job as the showrunner’s assistant at Grey’s Anatomy under Tony Phelan and Joan Rater

Sounds like your dad is that one in a million parent who says, “Have you ever thought about being a TV writer?” Opposed to most parents who say, “Oh no, this is what you want to do? This is so scary!

The funny thing about my dad is, unlike most other parents, he knows the industry. He would always say “Don’t be below the line.” Which is a terrible thing to say, what if I wanted to be a costume designer? Of course, he would’ve fully supported me if that's what I wanted to do. What he was really saying is that if you want to be in this industry, try to be in a role where you have some control over your own career. I just think like any parent, he wanted more for me than what he had. When you’re a crew member, you’re very much at the whim of the production, right? I watched my dad go [from] seasons and seasons of working [to being] fully unemployed, frantically looking for his next job. Because below the line, with a few exceptions, don’t have agents. So he always had to advocate for himself. 

And even though writers have agents to help advocate for them, because of my experience growing up, I knew this industry can be unstable and you have to be prepared to hustle.

So were you originally more drawn to theater? Because I imagine on average, if someone is intrigued by storytelling, they probably default to studying TV or film. But it sounds like you gravitated more towards theater. Is being a theater director where you originally thought you were going?

That’s the funny thing. I don’t think I thought about it that concretely, I was just trying to figure out who I wanted to be and what I loved. For the longest time, the way I framed my life was as a ballet dancer, but I had to give that up early in high school and replace that hole in my life with theater. So I always loved theater but didn’t necessarily think about it seriously as a career. I guess part of me did, but another part also wanted more stability than theater offers. Which is why TV writing became a happy medium, because, under normal circumstances, I get to go to an office every day and be around people with a certain number of hours to work. Obviously, when I’m on a script, I’ll work later hours and through the weekend, but there’s a semblance of structure built around it.

Is TV directing something you want to do in the future? Or is it more the traditional showrunner who has directors they work with but doesn’t step behind the camera?

I love and miss directing. It’s something I’ve always wanted to find my way back to, whether it’s directing theater, TV, or features.

One of the beauties of my first job as an assistant at Grey’s Anatomy was that I got to shadow Tony Phelan when he was directing. He started off as a theater director, then hooked up with Joan, who became his wife and writing partner, and then they got into TV writing. Once he landed Grey’s Anatomy and built a career as a writer and eventually showrunner of the show, he started directing episodes. That feels like a trajectory I’d love to emulate.

Speaking of Grey’s Anatomy, can you tell me more about the big breaks that helped get you to where you are?

My biggest break was working for Tony and Joan. They’re wonderful! What I loved about working with them is they encouraged me to learn, and whenever I wasn’t busy, they encouraged me to sit in the writers’ room and observe. I learned so much watching how the sausage got made of a show in its tenth season. They would have group written episodes where every writer would take a scene, and would often give scenes to assistants. So they gave me my first scene to write, and Joan was surprised that I actually did a pretty decent job. But the thing I like to tell people is that even though I did a great job, the scene still got completely rewritten because that’s what TV is.

Then, I went with them when they left Grey’s for an overall deal at CBS and to consult on season one of Madam Secretary. There, I got to see what a first season show looked like, which was very different from a season ten show. I also saw what pilot development looked like, as they were developing several pilots that season. One of which was shot in New York, and I got to see what shooting a pilot was like, which was very different from shooting a regular episode of TV. 

After a few years, they got a show on the air and staffed me. All of my early big breaks are tied to Tony and Joan.

Did Tony and Joan being so supportive help make the transition from assistant to writer any less bumpy?

I mean it’s always bumpy; you’re going from support staff to suddenly having a lot more responsibility as a writer in the room. I was very lucky in that not only did I have great mentors, I also had been around the show since they first conceived it. I read every draft of the pilot. I was on set when they shot the pilot. I was part of their research process. So I knew what they wanted the show to be, which meant I was the writer, besides Tony and Joan, who knew the most about the show. Having that insight and being brand new into a room was a weird experience.

Being in a writers’ room is exhausting, all I’d done up until that point was observe, but my transition was helped out a lot by one of the writers in the room, Don Roos, who I love so much. The first day, he sat me down and said, “I’m not gonna let you be an assistant in this room. You’re not allowed to do anything even remotely assistant-like, and if you do, I’ll call you on it.” And I definitely tried to do some assistant things because I’m just Type-A that way, and he’d call me on it every time. I appreciated that because it took some time. 

What has it been like as a writer over the past year, whether it’s been pitching and developing or working in a remote room?

Well, I love remote pitching and I hate remote writers’ rooms. Remote pitching is great because I can have my pitch in front of me and have visuals without splitting focus. I’ve always had visuals in every pitch I’ve done, but when you’re in a conference room in a brand new space you have to assess on the fly if they’re helping you or not. Whereas remotely, you can control the environment better. But the downside of not being in the room is not feeling people’s energy in the same way, and that’s a bigger downside in a writers’ room, which is such a delicate alchemy. When someone tosses an idea out, it’s like a balloon we’re all trying to keep in the air.

Have you gotten an especially good piece of advice that’s helped you navigate the industry?

It’s so important to learn everything you can. There are so many jobs that go into putting anything onto a screen. Get to know everything you can about all the different departments, their jobs, responsibilities, how they work, etc., that way you know who and how you should be talking to someone.

It’s easy to put pen to page and write something, just trusting it’ll come into being. But with TV, we’re not just writers, we’re writer-producers. So we have to give ourselves the freedom to dream big but at the same time we also have to think, “What is practically possible, and what am I asking people to do?” It’s easy to be like, “It’s just a prop. Who cares which one it is? Who cares which notepad is on her desk?” or “Who cares which sweater she’s wearing?” But that prop, that costume, that’s someone’s job. It’s important to respect each and every department and the fact that this is their entire job—one that’s helping bring this project to life. 

How have your responsibilities evolved from a staff writer to now being a writer/co-executive producer on The Flight Attendant?

At the end of the day, it’s all the same job, until you become a showrunner. If you’re a writer in the room, you’re showing up, generating story, breaking story, and eventually writing a script. Having “producer” in your title is important, because it’s all about hierarchy, right?

The more experience you have, the faster you can make decisions. When I was a staff writer, I had to take more time and do more mental math to figure out if a script was a producible episode. I’ve been fortunate to be on set for every episode I’ve written, which means I know firsthand what we were able to make happen from what I put on the page.

As a flipside to the industry question, is there any piece of advice or a storytelling tip that’s been especially helpful to you as a writer?

Another mentor I was lucky enough to work with is Michael Seitzman. The most important thing I learned from him were “the five questions” to make something a character-driven story. They are: 

  1. Who am I? 
  • This grounds the scene in a particular perspective, so you clearly know whose story you’re telling.
  1. What do I want?
  • While this is writing 101, it’s also the easiest question to not answer as it can be surprisingly difficult.
  1. How am I going to get it?
  • This helps give your character agency and have some sort of a plan, whether or not it’s going to work. This is actually a two-fold question because you also need to ask, “What’s preventing them from getting it?” as well.
  1. What’s it about?
  • This and the last question are most important. This focuses on the surface with things like plot. What is driving a scene, and what does the scene seem to be about?
  1. And what’s it really about?
  • This is what makes it a character-driven scene, something that may or may not be clear at first glance. You may need the whole narrative in order for this to become clear. This is what makes something interesting and has dimension. You think the story or scene is about one thing, but it’s really about something much deeper and more nuanced.

Those five questions, none of which were things I didn’t know, put in this formula has changed the way I look at writing. 

Have you had any especially exciting “pinch me” moments, where you were like, “Holy cow, look how far I’ve come?” 

My first one was working in the writers’ room as a writer, and having my computer in front of me, which I was glued to as an assistant, and thinking “I don’t have to open this.”  The training wheels were off and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m doing this for real.”

Then, my most recent one was when I sold my first pilot. It was to Fox and I didn’t fully believe it, I was like, “Okay… I guess I sold a pilot.”

Since entertainment can be an exhausting business, do you have any self-care routines to treat yourself after an especially hard day?

Before the pandemic, it was always a massage. I love my massages. I also really like reading a book that’s not something I’m trying to develop. Something bubblegum to get me away from a screen and enjoy the outside. I also enjoy listening to a podcast and going on a hike. At the end of the day whatever it may be, it’s just important to make sure there is some sort of self-care where you can turn off your brain for a little bit.

Finally, [is] there anything you’ve watched or read recently, old or new, that stuck out as especially well-written?

I mean, there are always so many things. Mare of Easttown is obviously written so well. I’m currently on the last season of Call My Agent, which I’m loving. It’s a nice departure because the subtitles force me to look at the screen. It’s also so different from what I write; there’s something nice about that departure. I’m also in love with the book I’m currently reading, it’s a Cold War espionage, and I’m trying to get my agent to get the rights for me 

That sounds really exciting, I hope I get to interview you about it one day soon!

Great, done!

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