“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