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Veteran Screenwriter Eric Rogers on Perseverance, Getting Unstuck, and the Notorious Cuisine of His Hometown

ROBERT IRVINE MAGAZINE: You grew up near Cincinnati. What inspired your move to Hollywood?

ERIC ROGERS: I was inspired by the indie films of the nineties—Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson and all that stuff. The great writer-directors. I never really wanted to direct, but those films were hugely inspirational to pushing me into wanting to be a screenwriter.

RI: You had been a PA and script coordinator on a few shows like NYPD Blue, but then you were out of work and planned on leaving LA before you got a call from FOX asking you to work on a new Matt Groening animated project, which turned out to be Futurama. If that call didn’t come, where would you be today?

ER: Well, there was a lot of talk about going back home to Ohio. I grew up in Southwestern Ohio, near Cincinnati, and I was thinking of pursuing a master’s degree in either creative writing or literature, and then becoming an academic.

I went back home to my sister’s college graduation in May of 97 and I was pretty much feeling like I was going to cash out. We’re sitting there, post-graduation at this place called Bob Evans, having lunch, and I’m just telling my parents that I’m not having a lot of luck finding jobs and maybe it just makes sense for me to say, “Hey, good try,” and come back home. And my mom was just all for it. She was like, “Yeah, come home. My baby will come home.” And my dad, who, I never got a lot from him in life, we had an estranged relationship, let’s put it that way… he wasn’t the most advice-type father figure, but the one thing he said that really stuck to me and gave me the backbone to keep going was he said, “If you quit now, you’ll never go back. That’ll be it.”

I knew in my gut he was right. So I went back to LA and took a training course to teach English to special needs kids, and was just about ready to graduate from that. It was just a six-week deal, and that’s when the person from FOX called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to do this?” And I apologize to those special needs kids that I was on track to help out. I selfishly chose myself.

RI: Everyone loves a story like that. But there is survivorship bias in telling people to stick it out right? Almost like a Lottery winner telling people to keep buying tickets. You see it a lot on Restaurant: Impossible; people are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and because we have stigmatized quitting—I think for good reasons—they buy into the sunk cost fallacy. They hang onto bad businesses, bad marriages, whatever. What is the line of demarcation for you? At what point would you tell someone who keeps trying and failing, “Hey, there’s no shame in trying something else.”?

ER: In the writer community on Twitter I see people talking about that very thing all the time. “I’m doing my thing and I’m going to keep grinding and one of these days I’ll break through, and it’s just going to take that one script.” And that’s all true. It does just take one script to get someone’s attention, get optioned, get sold, get made. All those steps put you on that path, but they’re all minor miracles. Maybe not so minor sometimes. They’re miracles that happen along your career. They’re big moments. But I never want to tell anyone, “This is when you should pack it in.” I’d hate to be that person.

RI: Take the writing out of it, what do you learn from observing a guy like Matt Groening, who you worked for on Futurama? What made you sit back and say, “I understand why this guy has had the life and career he has had”?

ER: The biggest thing with Matt was when he wanted to stick to his guns about something not working, you weren’t going to change his mind. And Matt was pretty pliable in the Futurama writers’ room, he was pretty pliable with most of everything that we wanted to try. There were very few instances of him really putting his foot down, but when he did, you sat up and you took notice because you’re like, “Okay, Matt doesn’t say no to things a lot. Why is he saying no to this so vehemently?” And I actually had a personal experience with that. Not me personally like it was me versus Matt, but it was an episode I wrote of Futurama that had a musical number at the end.

And Matt, he was pulled in a lot of directions and in and out of the room in those days, he came in for the animatic of that one, and here we go, show’s going along great, here’s this musical number thing, which was just like this Beach Boys send up.

And I remember at the end, the air got sucked out of the room because Matt was like, “We are not doing that musical number for this show.” And everybody was like, “What?” And he explained it in a perfectly intellectual and reasonable way, but it was just so funny to be so far down the road with that episode and then him go, “Nope.”

And it’s one of those things, and I’ve learned this lesson the hard way too, that if you think something works and it makes you laugh or gives you joy in this creative process, just because one person who might be above you or up here says, “Nah, that’s not working. I’m going to take it out,” you should stick to your guns. You should fight for what you want.

There were a few instances on Skylanders Academy (which Rogers created and served as showrunner for) where I look back now and I really regret that I did not dig in harder on some of these things that I wanted. I acquiesced because I was a first-time showrunner on that one, and a lot of first time showrunners are just trying to keep their jobs. You’re trying to create a show and not get fired at the same time. So you learn to get some backbone along the way.

RI: Take the flip side of that now. What have you observed in that town—which is so notorious for tyrants and other folks who just lack self-awareness or empathy—some behavior that you observed that said, “Oh, wow, I will never be like that”?

ER: When somebody, a creative, is trying to get a response on a thing that they’ve written or they’ve directed or whatever, and they send it out and the people they’ve sent it to that have shown initial interest don’t reply. Instead of just saying, “I don’t like the thing you did,” or, “It’s not for me,” they don’t reply. The whole ghosting thing, it drives me absolutely insane. I think it’s the most disrespectful move someone can pull. And it all comes from a place of people being afraid to have negative conflict, and have a negative interaction.

And what I would love for any person in power going forward to understand is we’re all adults, and it’s so much better for you to tell us no so we can move on and take our thing to the next place and take our talents to the next place and see what’s going to happen there, as opposed to just leaving us hanging and going, “Oh, maybe they just haven’t read it yet.”

I always take that very seriously when somebody asks me to read their script and put some effort into it. I don’t want to disrespect you, and you going, “Hey, I’m really looking for some feedback,” or, “I want to know if I’m on the right path here.” And I do this with any writer, I try with any writer that reaches out to me, I try to honor the bravery and the guts it takes to reach out to somebody and go, “Hey, can you check this thing out for me?”

And if you don’t like it, it’s okay. It’s all right if it’s not for you. Not everything I do, everybody’s going to like. And I understand that, but I think that our social media society that we’re in, too, there’s been this creation of just nastiness as far as people, how they react to creative things and things that are put out into the universe. And I wish that would go away. There’s a way to say, “I don’t like the thing you did,” without the readers’ comments section just being an attack on your person or whatever.

RI: You approach this very methodically every day, I’m sure. What are your work habits like? And what’s something people need to understand about a creative pursuit like that, how consistent you need to be?

ER: I think that you figure out what’s the most productive time for you. For me, my go time part of the day is always late afternoon. So I have figured out over the years, especially because the last couple years it’s been all at home writing. I haven’t been in a room since 2019, and that’s a bit of a different beast. When you’re in a room, you’re in a room and you got to be on no matter what your process is like. But when I’m at home and in my space, I understand that mornings are just a wash for me. That mornings are, I’ll answer emails and I’ll exercise, and I will get all the clutter that’s not associated with my job and writing out of the way before lunchtime.

And then after lunch is when the slow rev up of, okay, what is the thing I have to achieve today? So lately it’s been, okay, I need to address notes that were given to me on an outline. And then I need to take this premise and I need to turn that into an outline. And I need to have a four o’clock catch-up call with my reps. And so it’s just knowing, what part of the day, what time of the day is when you’re going to get the most achieved. And then sticking to that methodically, because that’s how you get the pages done. That’s how you get the scripts done. If you’re all over the map with your routine, I don’t want to speak for other people, but I feel like that’s just kind of chaos. And maybe that works for some, but I feel like you need to stick to a time like it’s any other job.

And I have a nine year old here, so I usually try to call it a day between five and six. I’m done at six so I can spend some time with him and take him to soccer practice or Taekwondo or whatever. And I think that’s an important part of it too, is to make sure you are carving out time for your life so you can actually go out and experience things, so that can influence your writing and make you a better writer and make you a better storyteller. It shouldn’t be, “I got to write all day every day.” I don’t feel like that’s a good use of your time at all.

And I advise youngsters on Twitter, or not youngsters, but new writers on Twitter as well. When you finish a thing, you don’t have to immediately jump into the next thing that’s burning a hole in your brain. Give yourself some time to chill and go do things that are fun for you. That regeneration process is going to help you so much. So I understand you want this career, you’re going to fight tooth and nail to make it happen. But rushing to get script after script after script made, or done, written, it’s not the best use of your time. And I think it just makes you a worse storyteller. That’s just my two cents.

RI: Now let’s say you sit down at 1 o’clock to write and it’s just not coming. You’re stuck. People write into Robert all the time saying, “I feel stuck with my fitness goals,” or in their business, whatever it is. So how do you get unstuck?

ER: I walk away. Honestly, I walk away from it or I turn my attention to something that’s… Let’s say if I’m writing a script and I’m on a scene that just isn’t working for me, I give myself a certain amount of time to try to work through it and think it through. But if it’s not happening, it’s time to walk away. Go watch something that you love and inspires you, or watch something new.

I think people would be shocked how often either the things that you love already, or something new will provide that fire that you’ve been missing, for the thing that you’re stuck on. I also think just getting the hell out of your house and getting some fresh air and going for a walk or a run or drive, getting away from your work space and allowing yourself the opportunity to not be beating your head against the wall to try to make a thing happen.

I feel like that’s when the worst creativity happens is when somebody’s just, “I got to push through, I got to push through.” It’s like, well, okay, but just don’t beat yourself up and be kinder to yourself, really.

Allow yourself to understand that not every day is home run day, and it’ll get done when it gets done. Now when you’re on a deadline, that’s certainly tougher to do. But I think I find that even on a deadline, if I’m stuck on something, as long as I force my myself to walk away, usually something good comes out of that.

RI: Being from the Cincinnati area, do you eat spaghetti with chili on it? I don’t know what they call it…

ER: Ah, love it. Love it. Don’t get it often. It’s fast food, but it’s so weird, man. You grow up eating it and then you try to describe to people who have never had it. Like, “No, no, you put the chili on the spaghetti,” and people are just like, “What are you doing?” To me, having some perspective and being away from home all this time now, I’ve been living in LA now longer than I was in Ohio. It’s such a weird thing like, I’m going to make dinner out of just random stuff and throw it together. And then suddenly you have these two franchises in Cincinnati, Gold Star and Skyline that are crushing it. But it feels like it just was born out of, “Man, I got chili and I got some spaghetti. And whoa. Like peanut butter and chocolate, let’s see if this goes together,” and boom.

RI: Do you make it?

ER: Oh, no. I tried to make it once here on my own, man, and I destroyed it. Because there’s a chocolate element to it, believe it or not. And yeah, the only time I tried to make it myself, it just turned into chocolate soup on spaghetti, man. So I save eating that for the pros who know what they’re doing.

RI: There’s chocolate involved?

ER: There is.

RI: This sounds like a nightmare.

ER: It’s so bizarre. It’s not a lot, but like you see the recipe and you’re like, “Are we sure about this?” And people are like, “Yeah, it’s just a tiny bit, but you got to careful with it.” Like, what? Okay, man. And you can’t taste it in it in a Skyline or a Gold Star. You cannot. It’s a little sweet, but you can’t taste chocolate. So… it’s bizarre, man.

RI: What’s next for you?

ER: So the thing I’m working on right now, which I cannot wait to tell people about, is for Amazon. And the only thing I can tease is that it’s an IP that everybody knows.

And I have been very fortunate to have been brought along to play in this universe and create some new characters that hopefully push this universe into a new direction.

And it’s for kids, for the six to eleven set, but I’m definitely trying to infuse my weird Futurama-born style of comedy into this. I think that’s one of the reasons why they hired me. They wanted it to feel kind of edgy enough for kids, but it’s been a lot of fun so far and all signs point to yes for this thing to come out in 2023. So we’re moving along.

Then I did a show for Hasbro, another IP-driven property, a project that is in the can and we’ve got 52 episodes done and it’s all finished, and I don’t know when they’re going to release it.

Follow Eric Rogers on Twitter and Instagram. He also creates EDM as a hobby. Check out his Mix Cloud HERE.

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