X-Files, Chicago Hope, House writer shares wisdom in Hollywood North

Sara B. Cooper guides Vancouver Film School writing hopefuls.

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Veteran TV/film writer and Vancouver Film School (VFS) instructor Sara B. Cooper’s first piece of advice to those wanting a similar career is to have something else to fall back on.

Cooper says when students ask her about the business, she doesn’t downplay the downsides of pursuing a career in TV or film.

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“Writing is a hard business,” said Cooper, who has been teaching a variety of writing and producing courses at VFS since January. “I recommend diversifying, not having writing be their only creative outlet because there are going to be times when there are slumps. There’s going to be times when they need something to fall back on. Whether it is a very exciting hobby, or a second job, or a different skill.”

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Cooper kicked off her writing career in 1991 with Star Trek: The Next Generation and has collected dozens of bold-type credits including the X-Files, Chicago Hope, Homicide: Life on the Street, House, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Sanctuary and Continuum. During her 20-plus years in Hollywood, there have been times when she has had to follow her own advice.

“During the writer’s strike of 2008 I was doing medical transcription,” said Cooper, whose main residence is in Portland, Ore. “Anything to pay the bills.”

Gillian anderson and David Duchovny in the X-Files 041624-M~_p02eb01files/65p_colour
The X-Files TV show was one of Vancouver Film School instructor Sara B. Cooper’s first big gigs. Since then, she has amassed a large resume including many jobs on Hollywood North productions. Photo by Merlin Archive /Merlin Archive

Teaching has also been one of those other gigs that Cooper has kept in her back pocket, turning to teaching when writing jobs slowed down. Over the years, the American writer has taught a wide variety of things including yoga, massage and tai chi.

“When I was an undergraduate, I was in a teacher education program and did a lot of tutoring. I love to teach. I love to be in the milieu of education,” said Cooper.

So, when her friend and former writing partner Kat Montagu, the head of the Writing Film, TV and Games Department at VFS, offered her a teaching position at the school, Cooper said yes and locked up her Portland home and moved north to Vancouver.

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“I was lucky enough to co-write with Sara on two TV pilot scripts over the last few years, so I knew firsthand what a supportive collaborator she is,” said Montagu. “With over 100 hours of amazing film and TV credits, and a genuine love of teaching, we couldn’t do better.”

Sara B. Cooper
Sara B. Cooper has been teaching TV/film writing courses at the Vancouver Film School since January. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

While being able to diversify is an important financial safety net, it also leads to a worldliness that comes in handy when it’s time to make things up.

“Everything I look at and everything a writer looks at is like, ‘Oooh, that might be an interesting story,’ ” said Cooper. “The broader your experiences, the more you can pull from.

“When you do experience what it’s like to be out in the world, that brings something to what you write and to your voice, that helps make it unique.”

Just over a year ago, a lot of writers were forced to diversify as work stopped when the Writers Guild of America went out on strike and stayed out until early October. The Screen Actors Guild was also on strike and remained so until Nov. 8. That, combined with large studios scaling back projects, has left the business currently in a rebuilding phase.

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“I’ve seen so many ups-and-downs and, even if we are in a slump right now, I feel pretty confident it will upswing,” said Cooper, who has a few projects in development right now. “Every time we’re in a slump, everyone feels like this is it, it’s the end. I remember 15 years ago, there was no more drama, there will never be any more drama on TV because game shows, you know like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then it shifted.

“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, but I like to be optimistic.”

When asked about weathering tough times and her staying power in a notoriously tough business, Cooper, whose last writing gig was the Canadian show Our Big Punjabi Family, laughed and said: “I don’t know. I guess luck, persistence and maybe talent. But not just talent as a writer, but talent in learning how to get along with people.

“When I started, it was difficult as a female writer to work in the business and I was known for being able to work with difficult men. I think that was a big part of it,” Cooper added. “I took a lot of communication courses to learn how to be in difficult situations and I think that served me really, really well. That, and having a thick, thick skin.”

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Cooper says writing is just part of the game and suggests those with designs on being a member of a TV series’ writing room should learn how to work with others and suggests taking management and negotiation courses.

“You are going to be working with lots of different people with lots of different personalities … It’s getting better, but a large amount of the people do not have good people skills and so you need to be able to navigate in a world where there is a lot of competition and a lot of pressure,” said Cooper. “If you can be as balanced and grounded as possible, people will remember you. People will go, ‘Oh yeah, I remember them. They were good in the room — plays well with others.’ ”

While Cooper has a lot of wisdom to share, she remembers vividly the first bit of good advice she received when she started in the industry.

“It’s not about you,” said Cooper. “There will be situations where people will be incredibly rude, angry, disrespectful, dismissive and you just have to remember — it’s not about you.”

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