Interview with TV writer, playwright and songwriter, Matt Schatz

Okay, so Matt Schatz is a super talented writer. And I can use that term "writer" in a general way, because he's nailed down so many different facets of the craft. He's not translating a new version of the Iliad just yet, but other than that, he's covered a lot of bases. So what does he do? Well, he writes screenplays, he writes television pilots, hilarious but romantic songs, and clever music and lyrics for a musical about a robot.  He writes plays about family relationships, and he writes technology-based theatre about the building of the Twin Towers...I could really go on and on. He's versatile. His writing is sharp, quick, fast. This guy can put together lyrics with such deftness and wit that Sondheim might sit up and take note, and Eminem might pass on a Rap Battle with him.

But Matt is not just talented. He has drive. And anyone in the arts knows that you need to have drive in order to make it.  Success is rarely handed to you. You have to submit, apply, submit, apply, sell posters to college students across country, submit, apply, make connections, follow up, make connections, follow up, ring up register sales at Borders, make connections, follow up. Then commit.  Matt has done this and it has paid off. You can check out his full bio here, but in short, he's been the finalist for a host of awards, sold numerous pilots to networks, and won the prestigious Kleban Prize in Musical Theatre (for most promising musical theatre librettist). He's gotten involved in many theatres and groups, and if he hasn't received the award or membership the first time, he is not afraid to apply a second (or tenth) time. Persistence (coupled with talent) pays off.

So Matt has talent and drive, but he has one more thing that makes him a true gift to the dramatic community: He's a great guy. He's as funny as his plays are. He's kind, polite, self-effacing. He's the kind of guy who will help you dig your car out after a snowstorm, the kind of guy who it's fun to play board games with, and the kind of guy who will give you straight up answers when needed (sorry, ladies, he's married, but to another super nice and talented writer). So he gets along well with others, and that is never a bad thing when you're in a field where personal relationships matter a great deal.

Since Matt really has dabbled in several fields, I thought he'd have some interesting points to share with us, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for the world to see. I caught up with Matt at...I'd like to say his favorite dive joint in LA over grilled cheese and blueberry pie, but alas, I actually caught up with him via our 21st Century hotspot--email.

When did you realize that drama was a field you wanted to pursue?

MATT: I was a very creative kid. I drew very well. I wrote and illustrated little books and wrote rhyming poems and songs. Loved music. So I knew I had to do something creative with my life. Partly out of necessity because I struggled in school, particularly early on. When I was a teenager, I got into movies in a pretty serious way. I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I worried that I didn't have quite the right temperament. Thought I was perhaps too shy. But I liked writing and was good at it. I wanted to study something I was interested in and find a way to have a career in writing. I found out about this program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia (a half-hour from where I lived) where you could study screenwriting. A BFA. I liked it because they only looked at your English SATs and I loved the idea of an urban campus. I took to dramatic writing right away and basically haven’t looked back (though I have looked side to side). Theater and musical theater came later, but both I think grew out of my interest in screenwriting.

Do you remember the first movie or play that you saw and what you thought?

MATT: I don’t remember the first movie I saw. Does anyone? As a kid, I loved the Star Wars movies and Back to the Future, and The Karate Kid and Amadeus, and LaBamba and Little Shop of Horrors. The latter is probably why I wanted to write musicals. I saw Starlight Express, a Chorus Line and Cats on the same trip with my family. Loved the first two, and made my family leave Cats at intermission; I was nine.

You have your undergraduate degree in screenwriting. What made you decide to get your graduate degree in playwriting?

Matt speaks at the Film Independent Sloan Summit

Matt speaks at the Film Independent Sloan Summit

MATT: I don’t think I was ready to be out of school. I was living at home and working at a pharmacy in Philadelphia. I saw Tony Kushner on a documentary about the history of New York and under his name it said “playwright.” I liked the idea of calling myself a playwright. I also liked the idea that there was a real history of playwriting. It wasn’t just a hundred years old like screenwriting, it was thousands of years old! And I also liked that people seemed to know playwrights’ names. It was a writer’s medium. I wanted people to know my name. I started buying plays. I would read them on the train to and from the city every day. Act one on the way there, act two on the way home. I wrote a play about a pharmacy and used it to apply to graduate playwriting programs. I got in everywhere I applied except Yale and decided to go to Carnegie Mellon (where I met you!). My only regret is that it cost so much money. I have crippling student loan debt.

You're a playwright and lyricist who lived in NYC for years before moving to LA. Can you tell me about the decision process to move coasts?

MATT: I moved because I wanted to make a living on my writing and that’s almost impossible to do in the theater. If you want to write for TV, LA is where you go. I had taken a couple of trips for meetings out here and liked it much more than I thought I would. At the same time, I had gotten a big musical theater award and a deal to write a pilot for USA so for the first time in my life, I actually had a little money on hand. Moving is expensive, especially if you want to keep all your books. We loved New York, but Jenna (my wife) and I were ready for a change and looking for a new adventure. We’ve been here now for two years. There’s a lot to like about Los Angeles. Doing laundry and buying groceries is easier. It’s nice to have a car. The produce is better. Your shoes last longer out here. It’s harder to live in New York City, but I miss it every day. I miss my friends. I miss being able to see plays. But work has taken me back a fair amount and my family is in New Jersey, so there are always reasons to return.

Can you describe what kinds of projects you're currently working on?

MATT: I am writing a comedy pilot for TBS right now that I could probably say much more about later in the month. I have a couple other TV things in nascent stages. And then some theater things. I wrote a new musical about Quantum Physics that had a reading in New York last November, and a new play about a brother and sister plotting to murder a family member that I had a reading of out here (in LA) in May. Still working on both of those. I have another musical commission from a Broadway producer that is in the very early stages, and also a musical about a nineteenth century American artist having its world premier production at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis this winter.

What is a typical day like in your career?

MATT: On the best days, I write at home after breakfast, and then go to a coffee shop to write more after lunch. On the worst days, I don’t do either of those things.

How do you think the trend of online providers (such as hulu plus, amazon prime and netflix) creating their own scripted shows affects the future of television?

MATT: The best stuff is being done right now on cable and the streaming services. It’s forcing the broadcast networks to be better too. Maybe, at some point there will be too much content, and the bubble will burst. I hope it doesn’t.

What advice or encouragement do you have for those starting out in the world of television?

MATT: I can only speak from my own experience. Move to New York and become a playwright. Work lots of different kinds of jobs so you have stuff to write about.

What did you have for dinner last night?

MATT: Nothing really, which is rare for me. Jenna and I hiked (also rare) up to the Griffith Observatory with some friends (and seemingly all of LA) to look at the “super blood moon” eclipse. It mostly hid behind a cloud, but it was still neat.

Thanks a ton to writer, Matt Schatz, for sharing with us! Keep an eye on this guy, because if you read the Times or credits on your screen, you're bound to see his name up there more and more.