Spec Spotlight: The Stefanie Leder, Writer of “Real Love”
As if selling a TV pilot weren’t challenging enough, Stefanie Leder pitched her series Real Love while she was eight months pregnant. In the hospital. In labor.
But more on that later. Real Love, picked up by The CW, follows a disillusioned software developer who codes the perfect boyfriend for a dating company and then falls for him when he unexpectedly becomes self-aware. “She’s not crazy,” Stefanie assures us. “She doesn’t literally think this being will come alive.” She’s simply writing a piece of software—sort of like Amazon’s Alexa, but several years down the road.
The romantic-dramedy idea arose out of a dry spell after the end of Stefanie’s last show, Faking It, and a newfound fascination with artificial intelligence. Researching extensively into AI, Stefanie became more and more taken with the realization that scientists cannot truly explain why we ourselves are conscious. “If we don’t know if we are, how are we going to know if they are?”
If her name rings a bell, it’s because Stefanie is no stranger to Hollywood. Her father Reuben is a writer, her Aunt Mimi a director, her Aunt Geraldine a casting director. And grandfather Paul was a longtime B-movie filmmaker, co-writing with Reuben. Mimi would do camera, Geraldine the editing. “I was five or six or seven years old on these sets, and I would have these fake jobs like assistant to the assistant costumer. I would bring a button or a needle to the costumer.”
Yet Stefanie had no desire to follow in their footsteps, majoring instead in sociology and traveling to Costa Rica and Argentina with dreams of emulating revolutionary Che Guevara. It wasn’t until her stepfather pushed her to explore those experiences through writing that she put pen to paper. Even later, Geraldine prodded her to try TV. “I said no because I was this total snob,” Stefanie laughs. “Like, ‘I don’t have a TV. I only listen to NPR.’” Still, she heeded her aunt and observed on a multicam. “I’d never had so much fun before. And that’s when I realized I do want to be a TV writer.” Six months later, Stefanie landed a writer’s assistant gig on the show.
She’s held a slew of titles on shows like 10 Things I Hate About You, Men at Work, and Melissa & Joey. The array of titles in the television world, from script coordinator to story editor to supervising producer, can be dizzying. But “They’re just title bumps,” explains Stefanie. “Theoretically, as you go up the ladder, you learn more skills and do more things. But the titles don’t directly correlate to that.”
Her vast production history and her family have both influenced her writing. Working with actors has given her new perspective on approaching story. “A writer tends to think on a global level about all of your characters, whereas an actor is really going to key in on their character, obviously. So it helps me to think about going into each character’s mind in a really specific way.” Of course, when you’re actually making a show, she says, you learn to incorporate budgetary concerns into your writing. And she writes more visually now, something that her director aunt, Mimi, has also encouraged.
Her father, with whom she swaps scripts and notes, played an unforeseen role in the sale of Real Love as well. Stefanie was, in her words, “super-pregnant” by the end of pitch season, talking to The CW when she was eight months along. Interested, The CW scheduled a follow-up phone call for a Monday. The day before the meeting, six weeks early, Stefanie went into labor.
So she did the only thing she could: make her notes readable and send them to her producer to pitch. Her writer father “was sitting there with me having contractions and, like, ‘What’s a synonym for struggle?’ He was helping me, I was in horrible pain, and my dad’s, like, ‘You want me to read it?’ ‘No, there’s no time! I have to send this before I totally lose it!’” She got her notes sent off, then gave birth to a premature little boy. After a couple more phone meetings, with her son still in the neonatal ICU and Stefanie herself barely discharged from the hospital, The CW bought her show.
Like most writers, Stefanie is juggling multiple projects in development, including a feature she co-wrote with her father and her aunt. “I’ve written some dramas as well, just straight-out dramas. I tend to make stuff funny even when it’s serious subject matter. My socialist and sociology background lead me to political stories.” Her process is less formal than that of a TV writers room, though still similar. She uses a whiteboard and maps out a beat sheet, but doesn’t necessarily outline with the same level of detail. The biggest difference? “When you’re on a TV show, you’ve got 10 other people to help you figure stuff out.”
Stefanie has emphatic advice for aspiring screenwriters. “Move to L.A. This business is super relationship-based, and you have to have a lot of relationships.” Her own abundant familial connections opened the door only to a writer’s assistant position, and Stefanie has amassed plenty of connections on her own. Regarding writing with production in mind: “Go wild. Do whatever you want to do creatively. There’s no reason to limit yourself when you’re trying to break in, because you’re not trying to prove that you know how make a show on budget. You’re trying to prove that you’re a great writer.”
She reminds those with small-screen dreams that, in television, “You have to work with other people. You have to take other people’s notes. You have to find a way to collaborate. It’s not my way or the highway.” Also, in this world of specific TV staffing, don’t rely on having just one fantastic script. A family drama won’t fly at a cop show, or a cop drama at a medical show. “They’re just not even going to read you … you have to have a lot of variety, a lot of scripts.”
Real Love is proof. Stefanie had just finished pitching a different show to Tiffany Grant at Solar Drive Productions. When she realized at the end of that meeting that Grant needed a CW show, she pitched Real Love. Grant loved it and is now co-executive producer.
For those struggling to balance, say, a newborn and a Hollywood writing career, “It’s insane and I don’t recommend it,” Stefanie chuckles. She says the incredible support of her family after the birth made finishing the pilot on deadline possible. And she did worry during pitch season, wondering, “Who would buy something from a pregnant person who’s going to deliver while the script is due? But it was cheering to see how supportive people were. Because I have experienced tons of sexism—I think every woman in TV and film has—and so I was really pleasantly surprised to see how, in this case, it didn’t affect anything in the negative way at all.
“The good news is, there are a lot of awesome women in decision-making, powerful positions. There are also some really great men involved. It wasn’t all women. Things are changing.” And they’re changing, it seems, in a positive way for everyone.
Screenwriter / Playwright
Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. Check out her website at dickflicks.net or tweet her at @hotpinkstreak.