How do I get into a Netflix Writers Room? And how do you adapt YA novels for television? We spoke to screenwriter Leah Fong to find out.
I’m a Mike Flanagan fan. A Flani-stan, if you will. So getting new entries into Flanagan’s horror universe every year on Netflix has been a dream come true. His latest project, The Midnight Clubwas co-created with writer Leah Fong and released on Friday.
Based on a novel of the same name by Christopher Pike, the show follows teenagers in hospice care who meet every night to scare each other with made-up stories. Meanwhile, young Ilonka (Iman Benson) searches for a miracle cure for her illness, uncovering a creepy cult in the process.
The show features all the dark looks at mortality, tragic love, and creepy settings a Flanigan fan could want, though they feel a bit tempered by the younger characters featured here. All of our favorite Flanigan players reappear here, including Samantha Sloyan in another fantastic role. (And, side note… director Axelle Carolyn directed one of the episodes. Check out our interview with Carolyn here!)
No Film School spoke with Fong via Zoom about how she got started, what their (online) writers room was like, and tips for writing horror. Sit down… if you dare.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No film school: you basically have a lot of people’s dream job. How did you get into TV?
Lea Fong: Well, I did film school at USC, but that’s not where I learned my thing, I must say. So being in LA I feel like that was one of the great things about going to school there because you had an early introduction to the industry and you have everything understood. But right out of school, I started working as an assistant to a producer developing feature films, and I read a ton of scripts.
In school I was a production major so the overview was a lot of everything but not depth into anything. And so after college, I just feel like I honestly learned to write by reading a lot and watching a lot of TV. Honestly, I wasn’t a big viewer before Netflix, which is fun. I’ve always been a movie buff, and there’s a few shows I’ve watched, but I think that just opened the floodgates on the TV side for me, which is funny because now I’m working with them .
But yeah, watch and read – while you’re an assistant, trying to pay your bills and stay in LA and build relationships, you also have to hustle like crazy next door, which means working on your own material . So next, I started writing drivers. I’ve also produced micro-budget feature films from various friends, and my current husband is one of them. I was writing on the side, and I wrote a pilot and was able to put it in front of some agents.
And a WME agent said, “Write another one because this one is awesome, but I want to see if you can do two. You’re not a one trick pony”, basically. I mean, she didn’t say that, but that was the vibe. And so I wrote a second one. And then from there, I sold my first pilot, the first one that I wrote. And the second allowed me to work on all the shows I worked on.
My representatives signed me. And then at that time, I was no longer an assistant. I was producing commercials, music videos, just a bunch of short stuff. And then from there, after developing a pilot with Uni TV, I ended up being assigned to a Uni TV show. And then from there I was gifted like crazy, which is awesome. So I got so much experience working on different shows, meeting some really great people along the way. And I’d say I’m actually calling Once upon a time my grad school because moving on to such a big show in its later seasons it’s just great people that had amazing muscles to break the story because then you have to do the old network format of 22 episodes per season. You’re just turning it and you really have to work those muscles. So yes, I call that my doctoral school. And from there, it’s the first time I’ve jumped into the driver’s seat, or not entirely by myself. So obviously I have the full support of Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy. And that made it a little less scary.
NFS: After writing about Bly Manor and now Nightclubwhat are your strategies for writing strong horror?
Fung: I think anchoring it in a place of existential horror, which is a horrible, horrible place. I think it brings something in instead of just keeping it in the pop horror elements, which is fun with The Midnight Club, because we had those two things. We had this kind of crazy pop horror B story, and then the A story, which is obviously very, very rooted in very real existential themes, confronting mortality. So I think that’s definitely one of them.
NFS: I know developing this was a bit of a process, with Mike having his eye on the property for a long time. But when it finally happened to all of you, what was the development like in terms of the writers room and the combination of these stories that you were pulling from, other books and things like that?
Fung: Oh, that was great. We were one of the first Zoom rooms to go live in April 2020, so it was very new for all of us. Fortunately, I had already worked with all the screenwriters, either on Bly Manor or other shows I’ve worked on in the past, so it was nice to have that shortcut. But yes, we were our own little Midnight Club. We were meeting every day on Zoom to tell each other stories and process what was going on in the world at large, and also our very inner lives which had suddenly been very minimized. Because people had been working on Midnight Mass, all of a sudden they were on set, and then they had to go back. And it was like all that.
But with books, there are so many, and we actually had a lot. And so what we did was we did this thing that we called book reviews, where we divided the books among the writers, and they had to tell these stories orally, like a Midnight story Club, in the Writers’ Room. And that’s how we started to refine the ones that made sense for the format. And before we even got into it, Mike and I had outlined a few that we absolutely wanted to use, and then the rest came together organically as the writers contributed their perspective on the various books .
NFS: I’ve heard other writers talk about writing specifically for Netflix and the binge model. Do you have any tips for adapting to that style of viewership, where you know people are going to potentially skip five episodes?
Fung: Well, the only good thing is that you don’t have to continually remind people of what happened last week, which I think is great. But I think serialized storytelling naturally lends things to that. You don’t have traditional act breaks because there’s no commercials – right now.
But I think these things help you understand. I mean, we’re still tracking all of these things. I think in every Netflix show I’ve worked on, there’s always some sort of pause act where, “Okay, this is a moment we know.” And even features, they have that too. You don’t notice them as much, but they’re definitely there. And so I would say it’s not really different. I think it’s just more streamlined in a good way.
NFS: I know you got your contract earlier this year at Netflix. What stories do you want to develop there?
Fung: I’m a big fan of the genre, so a continuation of what I’ve done before. But I’m working for the first time on something that doesn’t have any supernatural elements, but there’s a murder. So you see what I mean. I feel like it’s snowballing. But yeah, I’m super excited to work with Netflix. It’s been a great house for a few years, and I’m excited to continue doing fun stuff with them.
NFS: What other advice do you have for writers?
Fung: I mean, I’ve said this before, but you just have to read and watch and take things in. And I think that’s really the best way to learn. You can’t find a better film school than that because I myself feel like that’s where I got it all. You can’t do things without watching and reading. It’s super important. So watch stuff on Netflix and go to the movies. I will keep pushing this. I think watching something with an audience is also really… it was educational for me, but it was just super educational. It was so awesome last night at Comic-Con, to be able to watch it in a room with a group of people, because you usually can’t do it on TV, so that was awesome.