Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Jonny Umansky And Zach Hyatt – Living The Hollywood Dream

Two guys move to Hollywood and get close to grabbing that brass ring. Read More

By / June 10, 2011
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Living the Hollywood dream is the ultimate dreamer’s dream.  For two best friends, it’s an experience they’ve been able to share together, and honestly, is there anything that could be sweeter than that?

After graduating college, Jonny Umansky and Zach Hyatt moved to LA and began writing together.  Their hard work is starting to pay off, having just sold their series, “The Young Turks,” to NBC, their dreams are close to becoming a reality.

We love stories about people who are trying to make it happen, and we asked them a few questions about it.

How did you guys decide you wanted to work in TV, what did you think you were going to do before that?

Zach: I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was 7.  It was either that or play baseball, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that my size and skills weren’t in proportion to my love of the game.  So writing it was.

I loved movies, too, but television always had a special draw to me.  There’s a comfort in sitting down every week to visit these characters that become old friends.  I used to fall asleep every night to syndicated re-runs of Mama’s Family and Night Court.  In middle school, I was addicted to Dawson’s Creek.  I remember watching the original trailer cut to “How’s It Gonna Be” by Third Eye Blind and getting really excited.  Then once it debuted and all the popular kids embraced it, I got annoyed — this was supposed to be my show!

By 17, I was writing half-finished TV scripts.  Later, at NYU, I was kind of waffling back and forth between the three Dramatic Writing concentrations: writing for film, TV, or theater.  Then a playwriting teacher gave me a backhanded compliment: “You write really clean.  You’ll do great in television.”  I decided to prove him right.

Jonny: For years, all I wanted to do was direct movies.  I went to school (Syracuse University) for directing and was fully set on doing just that, until Winter Break sophomore year.  I came home to St. Louis for a month and Zach had just gotten the series of “The O.C.” on DVD.  In about a week, we did a marathon of the first 27 episodes and I was hooked.  I’d never really followed television before that, but seeing the way Josh Schwartz took the audience on such a roller coaster, I knew I wanted to do the same.  I’ll eventually get back to directing, but for now, we’re having a blast writing all kinds of stuff.

How did you start working together?  What do you think is the importance of having a partner when it comes to dramatic writing?

We’ve actually been friends since pre-school.  But it really wasn’t until middle school that we started collaborating creatively.  From shooting short films in Jonny’s backyard to starring in the school’s production of DRACULA (Zach was Van Helsing, Jonny was Dracula), we forged a partnership that we just can’t seem to escape.

As for having a writing partner, it’s the best and worst thing in the world.  There’s nothing worse than coming up with what you think is a genius idea, only to have it shot down two seconds later.  But on the flip side, being able to brainstorm and come up with something that excites us both is a wildly rewarding experience.

Are there specific reasons why you are working in TV instead of movies, what’s your favorite TV (writing wise) right now?

Zach: In television, writer is king.  And while Jonny can circumvent that in film when he gets behind the camera, my ultimate goal is to be running a writer’s room as a runner.

Picking a favorite is hard.  No exaggeration, I follow around 30 scripted shows a year.  I know it’s a boring, expected answer for a writer, but Mad Men has a special place in my heart.  On the other end of the spectrum, Parks & Recreation is the sharpest written comedy, in my opinion.  They wring real emotion out of the most absurd moments.

Jonny: We actually work in both.  Right now, we’re writing a romantic comedy for Zac Efron that’s kind of nontraditional rom-com called “The Ever After Part.”  And we’ve also got “Best Night Ever” about a midnight scavenger hunt in high school which Ashton Kutcher is attached to produce and star.

As for what I’m watching?  Really anything on FX can do no wrong — Justified, Always Sunny, the upcoming Wilfred (produced by the guys we did Turks with).  But my taste really runs the spectrum, I can go from watching Sons of Anarchy (which is one of the best shows out there) to Gossip Girl.

Tell us about your show, “Young Turks.”

Jonny: We we’re fortunate in that the first pilot we ever wrote was the first show we sold to a television network (NBC).  But it wasn’t that easy.  Four years ago, Zach moved out to LA and was living on the pull out in my studio in Beverly Hills.  As he was “unpacking” he pulled out the series DVD set for The West Wing (not unlike him bringing over The O.C. all those years ago).  After watching the first season, I came to him with an idea.  I said “I want to write a show about young people who want to change the world.”  He said “Okay, so what’s the show?” and I said naively “What do you mean?  I just told you.”  He then basically put me through a crash course in TV writing that he extrapolated from his education at NYU.  We spent hours and drank pots of coffee at this little diner in Weho until we had our characters fleshed out.  Then dreamed up a pilot story that introduced all of these ambitious young Americans set in Manhattan.  We finished the first draft in about five days and it was the most exhilarating feeling I’d ever experienced.  I was sure we were going to send it out to our friends, the networks were going to snap it up and we’d be millionaires by the end of the week.

I’ll spare you the details of the next three years that included a handful of agents, managers, producers “almost making it happen” and the heartbreak that came along with hearing “It’s too smart” / “We won’t touch political” / “You can’t have a black lead on a network show.” But we persevered.

On one day alone, we went from CW to NBC to HBO then Fox.  It also fell on the day that Obama was visiting LA so traffic was a nightmare.  I kind of blew the HBO pitch for us when I let my ego fly off the handle and got into a verbal spat

After getting stuck in two hours of Obama traffic, Zach and I were hungry, pissed-off and barely on speaking terms.   We decide to go to a McDonalds and grab a quick bite before calling it a night.  As we pull into the drive-thru, a Porsche cuts us off.  I start rambling about what kind of asshole drives a Porsche through a drive-thru until I realize who’s behind the wheel — Aaron Sorkin.  We pitched our dream political show to NBC that day and now we were pulling up behind our idol.  All of the frustration, doubt, and nerves disappeared.  We were two kids, desperately wanting to walk in this man’s footsteps, having quoted him earlier in the day, pulling up behind him.  We knew it was a sign from Hashem.

The next day, NBC called to let us know they bought the show.

What role if any does Judaism play in your life?

Jonny: Judaism plays a significant role in my life.  I was a NFTY kid growing up.  It was that spirit that always stuck with me and gave me a tremendous confidence in who I was.  Nowadays, we regularly throw Shabbat dinners at our house.  Same for high-holidays.  Last year we hosted a twenty-person seder.  For me, Judaism is about community.  I’m not the most spiritual guy, but I wear a Star of David that I never take off.  I’ve been dating a great Jewish girl, Ingrid, for the past nine months.  I try to get to Friday night services as often as I can.  But I will admit, I do love a good bacon cheeseburger.

What’s next?

We’ve got the two movies and we’ve got three new shows we’re taking out this summer.  That’s kept us pretty busy.  But we always look ahead.  We’ve started talking about a few new film ideas and started working on a short Jonny’s going to direct this summer.

And funny enough, we’re actually in talks to write a Christmas Movie-of-the-Week so that should be interesting.