Sometimes it only takes one hot property to propel you to the tipping point in Hollywood. For Erica Oyama, this project involved putting Ken Jeong in a dress to play a bachelorette named "Ballerina."
Oyama had been a faithful viewer of The Bachelor for years before it occurred to her that the genre this show belonged to was a lush, practically untouched creative landscape for parody. After a particularly goofy season finale in 2010, in which bachelor Jake Pavelka proposed to the clear-cut villain of the show, Vienna Girardi, inspiration struck. The next day, Oyama sat down and began hammering out an idea whose impact would last way longer than Pavelka and Girardi, who inevitably split up three months later.
That idea became Burning Love, a Bachelor-iffic satire Oyama wrote and produced, and which her husband, Ken Marino, directed and starred in. After an initial run as a Yahoo web series, the show eventually got picked up by E! and ran for two more televised seasons. Despite having worked for years as a writer on shows like Children’s Hospital, and adding jokes and polish to Marino vehicles like Role Models and Wanderlust, Oyama instantly became a known quantity because of Burning Love. It was her calling card, and with it came a lot of offers.
As of now, Oyama has five screenplays in development. Some are collaborations with Marino, like the adaptation of profanity-based children’s book, Go the Fuck to Sleep, and some are solo endeavors, like the forthcoming White Girl Problems. With a full slate of projects in various stages, Oyama talked to Co.Create recently about writing with a partner, handling multiple scripts at once, and making choices much more difficult than which bachelorette should get the rose.
A web series is a good place to express every weird thought you have, and some of the work is similar to writing a movie. I wrote Burning Love’s first season almost all at once, so it ended up being over 140 pages. It sort of felt like a movie-length script, even though it was episodic. Structurally, it doesn’t hit the same beats in the same places as a movie would, but it wasn’t such a difficult transition.
We first wrote and pitched a Burning Love treatment, and I had a script for the final episode. But then we also shot what’s called a sizzle reel. We spent a day with friends and people we thought were really funny, and I scripted a sort of trailer for what the series could be—little snippets of dates, and catfights, and testimonials and stuff like that. At that point, we were lucky enough that [Ben Stiller’s company] Red Hour was excited about it and Ben Stiller personally agreed to do a cameo, so we were able to put him in the sizzle reel, which obviously helped us sell it to Yahoo.
[Ken Marino and I] try to break the story together in the same room, with note cards, and brainstorm and pitch things out. Then when it’s time to write the actual screenplay, I’ll usually go and knock out a first draft, because I type way faster than he does. I’ll do the first draft, then we’ll pass it back and forth. And once we get notes back from producers, we’ll sit down and share a screen and address those notes together. But yeah, we do have to divide and conquer a bit or we go crazy.
We have to be really diligent about scheduling, like saying for these hours of the day, it’s going to be this script and we have to get to a finishing point, then get to a draft on that other thing before jumping into this one. It can be hectic, though, when there’s multiple phone calls for notes and outlines and everything. Some days feel like four-job days and some feel like one-job days. It’s just trying to take a breath and keep it all organized.
With Go the Fuck to Sleep, the studio was kind of clear about what they didn’t want it to be. They wanted it to be something that all people could relate to, not just new parents. So we came up with our short version of that. We thought about it and realized there was a movie there, and also we have a couple kids so we’ve lived through that. We pitched our idea and wrote it, though, and you never know what something’s going to be until you put it down on paper. Then, with so many people involved, your take may not really be what somebody’s vision for the project was, so it takes a while to go back and forth and take notes and everything. It’s changed a lot since the original pitch, but I think we still captured the spirit of that book and what was so funny about it.
It’s important to write whatever you think is the funniest thing to you. When I was writing Burning Love, I didn’t know that other people would like it as much as they ended up liking it. You have to trust yourself. When I was writing on other people’s show’s, I liked trying to give them the best version of what I thought it should be, but with Burning Love, there wasn’t another person telling me it should be different, so I was able to control it a little bit more and express it the way that I saw it fully.