“It started out as a rock’n’roll rewrite…”: Serial Eyes Interview with Alumni Jana Burbach and Nikolaus Schulz-Dornburg

The new ARD primetime show Die Heiland—Wir sind Anwalt about a blind lawyer and her assistant is currently airing on Tuesdays at 8:15 pm. The Serial Eyes participants of 2018/19 interviewed the head writer Jana Burbach and staff writer Niko Schulz-Dornburg (SE 2014/15) about the making of the show.

Q: How did Die Heiland come about?

Jana: Die Heiland is based on the autobiographical book by a Berlin-based and born-blind lawyer, Pamela Pabst. The book was published about 6 years ago. Viola Jäger from Olgafilm optioned the film rights to that book and then started to develop it. [The adaptation] was originally meant to be a TV-movie; then the RBB, the Berlin-Brandenburg broadcaster, decided to turn it into a long-running series. I took over from existing material by Silke Zertz. By the time Viola approached me, three scripts and three exposes were ready, but they didn’t get through to the final approval by the ARD commissioning board. That was when I took over with Niko and the author Christoph Callenberg. It was the summer of 2016, I think.

Niko: We worked [on the project] and developed the scripts with the commissioner from the RBB in Berlin. Actually, we never saw the ARD commissioning board – it’s like in a Bond movie! [That is to say] that there was an entity at a higher level, which gave the final ok.

Q: You said that it was based on a book by a real lawyer. She also had an assistant in real life? Were they both part of the creative process?

Jana: Yes, we all met Pamela Pabst. I actually ended up spending a lot of time with her, because for me [this project] represented a particular challenge. As a seeing person, I think it is impossible to really get [what it means to be blind], but I could start to empathize and could put that into the story and try to understand what it might mean for her assistant as well. We actually went together on a journey to Bochum, where she had a court case. I accompanied her all day – on the train, in the hotel, the next morning, while eating… it was through all these that I got first-hand experience.

Niko: You became her assistant!

Jana: Yes, and then the blindness started coming to life in the scripts. Of course, I also consulted her for legal stuff and I ended up reading to her all the scripts. She was like “Jana, it’s really not necessary, the computer can read me the script.” I thought this would have been nicer, so I continued. At the end, she asked me to keep on coming. I thought, “What have I got myself into?” [laughs], but actually we became friends.

Q: How was it for the actress, Lisa Martinek [who plays the blind lawyer]? Was she talking to her a lot as well?

Jana: Yes. I have to say Pamela is a really winning person, she’s charming and she definitely won me and Lisa over. Lisa spent quite a lot of time with her as well. I think that this is one of the reasons why the show has been very positively received. Her blindness is represented in a very authentic and respectful way; it’s neither depressing nor a „superhero-thing“.  She’s represented like a person with a strong character dealing with her disability. I think that has to do with the fact that we had a lot of contact with Pamela Pabst.

Niko: We didn’t want to let her blindness become a major problem [in the show]. We wanted it to be casual and authentic, that was the kind of trick. It took us a lot of research. None of us was particularly familiar with the legal aspects. Luckily, our third writer, Christoph Callenberg has a law background. It was really helpful, he is great to work with anyway, but he would always say what is possible or realistic in this context. You know, to be honest, I wasn’t sure about doing this legal show. I mean, it’s not that I could have done this just because I have seen The Good Wife

Jana: My advice to any of you: if you’re doing a show in a very specific professional setting, it’s very important to have a good adviser. In our case, Christoph was even a member of the writers’ room…

Q: How did you work in the writers’ room? Did you only discuss the serialized aspects of the series, and then everyone had to come up with their own ideas for the case of the week?

Jana: We had a writers’ room for about three weeks at the very beginning of the process, but it was not a condition set by ARD. I wanted to work in a writers’ room and I wanted the time for it. So, we spent three weeks together, talked about the characters, specifically about the relationship of the blind lawyer and her assistant. [The show] for me is essentially a female-buddy-movie, more important than the legal drama aspect. [That is why we discussed a lot] their relationship and what fun and downsides there could be in it. We also talked about the cases, initially only for the first three episodes. We tried to develop three cases together, with all the major turning points and then we separated and wrote the scripts [individually].

Niko: I remember that [initially] we used maps of characters and of the universe. We completely re-booted [the old scripts], so we needed to draw a universe to see what [supporting] characters would explain or shine a different light on our [main] characters. Once we got that universe [figured out], we tried to understand what could be the horizontal storyline. In the next step, we discussed the cases for each episode and then we started to fill in the blanks. It then became clear who would be more inclined to do which episode.

That’s how we got closer and closer, eventually everyone had his/her episode. We would then brainstorm and write, take that episode to the writers’ room and pitch it to each other. It worked really well.

Jana: We sat together for three weeks in a row only in the beginning, but we stayed in touch afterwards. Whenever there was a feedback for the script, we would also sit together again or at least get on the phone and re-discuss the feedback. There was an ongoing communication between the writing team.

Q: When you were done with the writing, did you just hand it in and that was it?

Jana: The development was done very closely with the broadcaster RBB, from the moment we started [writing] until the shoot and even into the shooting process. I also worked with the directors and the actresses, for example. Once Lisa Martinek got on board, she had a lot of her own ideas about the character. All in all, I re-wrote the scripts more or less until the last shooting day!

Q: Were you involved in what is classically the job of the director? Were you involved on a macro level conceptualizing how it would look and feel?

Jana: Only very slightly. I requested to be present at the first meeting with the heads of all departments: the set designer, the costume designer, the director, the cameraman, producers, the broadcaster. We all sat together and discussed the look and feel, down to the colors and the basic costumes. We asked ourselves: How should they look? How should we portrait the blindness visually? Should we find a special storytelling technic or a special POV? They said that it was quite unusual for the writer to be present. But again, there’s not a standard, and if you want to sit at that table you need to remind people about that.

Q: Would it have been different if that was your own show?

Jana: Probably.

Niko: I think that it also depends on the producer and on his/her mentality. There are producers, who are more defensive and anxious that people might invade [their field]. There are other producers, who are more open and want to see what everyone can bring in. The latter [type] generally creates a better vibe.

Jana: I think that writers spend so much time coming up with stuff and researching, they just have a lot to give. In the case of Die Heiland, I had something to share with the rest of the production team, I wanted to have a dialogue with them. All in all, it revealed itself as very fruitful! I think it was good for them as well because they hadn’t spent months and months wondering about past stories [about the characters].

Q: So the participation at the big [production] meeting was due to a good relationship with the producer or was it contractual?

Jana: It wasn’t contractual, it was more depending on [good] will… and luckily there was a really good will! In the future, it could be made contractual, though. That’s actually what Kontrakt 18 [1]  is all about. [The signatories of Kontrakt 18] hope to establish industry standards that are more favorable and more inclusive of writers. Part of it is about raising awareness, and part of it is about including the rights in a contract. What’s even more important, in my opinion, is to change the culture and see [the close collaboration with] writers as an enrichment [for the project].

Q: When the producer asked you to get on to the show, did she know that you would bring in two other writers? Or rather, did she think you would work on your own for the six episodes?

Jana:  I said very early that I would have wanted to work with a team. Viola Jäger knew that [I was trained to work in a team] through my participation at Serial Eyes. She was very interested in that, so that was a clear point from the beginning.

Niko: It started out as a rock ’n’roll rewrite, actually. We had about two months from the first meeting [to rewrite] because they already had a deadline for the submission of the new scripts [when we joined]…

Jana: After that submission, they wanted us to rewrite only one of the episodes, and then almost another half year passed until we submitted one of the episodes. This is due to the fact that the ARD board of commissioners didn’t give the final green-light to production until all six episodes were written. The project was on a “maybe” until then. It took a lot of determination, patience or madness – depending on how you want to see it. I believed in the show.

To give you a sense of the timeline, last summer they gave the green-light for the shooting. We started the casting process, the shooting schedule and so forth. We shot from November 2017 to May 2018. In the meantime they were editing. I was impressed at how fast it went.

Q: How did you work at the writing of the episodes? Did you rewrite everything as a head writer or you took notes all together reading the scripts?

Jana: At the beginning we all went to meetings for the feedback and every writer was responsible for his/her own episode. Towards the end and during the shooting I ended up doing the final rewrites on my own. It was a matter of convenience.  I would also take short phone calls from the set and make necessary changes at short notice, for instance when we realized some of the episodes were a little too short.

Niko: When you’re a head-writer you have more responsibilities, you are more active, it is more your voice. But there’s also a downside, exactly this kind of things…

Jana: I have to say, though, that it was very interesting to create those final scenes. They are not so plot-driven. Suddenly, through these add-ons, I could dig deeper into the characters and think about how they would react to something that happened in the plot, and how that would affect the story or the relationship of the two characters. I’m really glad in the end that we did have to [include them]. The scenes were really fresh and the two actresses were happy with it. It is nice to see how last-minute stuff could also add some value.

Q: Were you scared that you couldn’t get any ideas?

Jana: Oh dude, yeah! But fear management is very important in every career! [laughs] It was the first time that I had so much responsibility.

Niko: There’s always a lot at stake when you put on a new show. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, so there is necessarily a bit more anxiety or fear involved. We were also relatively new names; all that adds up. We were not established writers; we were more or less coming out of Serial Eyes to this project…

Q: So, why do you think that they chose to work with you instead of an established writer? 

Jana: I think it was partly because of our background training. Viola Jäger was very intrigued by the writers’ room approach when I first met her.

Niko: We knew that this might be a really good chance to get a name and credits, which is not an easy process. But we got there.

Q: So, how was it straight after Serial Eyes?

Jana: Well, once I finished Serial Eyes, I started working on Bad Banks quite quickly. A producer from Letterbox came to the [dffb focus pitch] where we pitched Just Push Abuba, which he liked, and later told me a colleague of his was looking for another staff writer for Bad Banks, so I sent them writing samples. The experience at Serial Eyes was very important, because now many producers are interested in the writers’ room model. In general, I think networking is also vital. You need to talk to a lot of people and stay in touch, because then they might think of you, when they are looking for a writer for a project.

Niko: You realize, it’s not that much project-based, but more about the good collaboration with a producer. You don’t always sell a project, you sell yourself.

[1] Kontrakt 18 is a declaration signed by many established German screenwriters to guarantee fundamental rights when entering a project. For more information, please visit: http://kontrakt18.org/index-en.html