Q&A with The Blacklist’s Dave Metzger on Music, Writing & Breaking Down Episodes
Dave Metzger is a Writer’s Assistant on The Blacklist, he recently wrote the much debated “Drexel” episode Season 3 – ep 15. In my interview with Dave, he breaks down very clearly, the process of creating an episode from start to finish and talks about the kind of music he counts as being amongst his favourites.
Dave Metzger Q&A with Paula Courtney
PC: After you finishing school, to getting your big break, can you walk us through the path you took, that led you to becoming a writer?
DM: When I first moved out to Los Angeles, I had a series of great internships that helped me ‘get my bearings’ and start to understand how the Film and TV business works. Eventually, a close friend from school encouraged me to apply for a job working as an assistant to a prominent film producer, John Davis. I got that job, and ended up working as John’s assistant for about two years.
In that time, John’s company, Davis Entertainment, began developing The Blacklist as a TV series, so I had a front row seat as the pilot was being conceived, written, filmed and edited. When the show was picked up to series by NBC, I interviewed for and got the job as the Writers Assistant on The Blacklist, an incredible opportunity. Then, in the show’s third season, I pitched an idea for an episode that was approved, and with great guidance and mentorship from the other writers on staff, I wrote that episode, #315 “Drexel.”
PC: When creating an episode of The Blacklist, beginning with how the thoughts and ideas are hashed out, to the actual airing of the episode, can you describe the process you would follow as a writer?
DM: I’ve shared an album (URL below) of captioned images that document some of the process. It’s very collaborative. We start with a small germ of an idea, maybe just one sentence, an image, or an intriguing article in the news. And then we start to discuss some ideas of how it might become an episode of the show. The trick is to find a criminal or situation that feels big and consequential, but also would make sense as something Red would have a unique insight into that the FBI would be unaware of, or have the wrong understanding of. So we go through many ideas that might seem great on the surface, but don’t ultimately make sense when we get down to the details.
For the ideas that do withstand that scrutiny, we eventually start to talk about the structure the episode would take, what the scenes would be and what order they’d come in. (TV writers refer to this as “breaking” the episode). We sit in a big room with a whiteboard, and we write a summary of each scene, constantly revising and updating. The trick there is, how do we lay out the investigation, so it’s both unexpected and exciting, but also makes logical sense moment-to-moment and overall? And, how do we make the episode exactly 44 minutes, not 40 minutes or 48 minutes, but exactly the right length?
Finally, we have all the beats figured out, and we turn that into an outline that the studio, network, and other producers can read. When the outline is approved, we start to flesh it out into the script. At that point, we’ve been talking about the story in detail, full-time, for at least a few weeks – often longer. So actually writing the first draft of the script can go quickly, often in less than two weeks. Then the showrunners and other executive producers (including James Spader) read the draft and give feedback, so it can be revised.
After a series of drafts and polishes, the episode is ready for production. The team in New York gets the script, and gives us feedback on what challenges they’ll face having to shoot the episode over just 8 or 9 busy days. We make adjustments if needed, and they prepare everything from locations to props, costumes, set dressing, video playback – the prep goes on and on. The actors read the script and sometimes give us feedback. Then they bring it to life, shooting the episode in a mad dash for 8 days.
Next, the footage from the shoot is sent back to LA, where the postproduction team edits the episode and puts together the visual effects. They go through several “cuts” or drafts of the episode, usually trimming more and more each time until it’s the exact length to air on TV, perfectly timed for the commercials etc. Then, on Thursday nights, the writers and editors get together to celebrate with each-other and watch the episode live on the East Coast (and Live Tweet!)
PC: What’s next for Dave Metzger? Where do you hope to be with regards to your career as a writer in say two years or even five years?
DM: My short- and medium-term goals are the same: to keep writing TV that is fun and challenging, and to always get better at my craft, day-after-day, year-after-year. In two years, five years or fifteen years, I hope I’m either working on the writing staff of a show I love, hopefully for one of my awesome friends; or running the writing staff of a show I created. Either would be terrific, as far as I’m concerned.
PC: There are a lot of people trying to make their way as writers. What is the most helpful piece of advice from your own personal experiences you could share to help them achieve their goals?
DM: A take on the old adage, in my experience it’s both It’s both what you know and who you know. What you know, meaning: you have to work hard to become the best writer you can possibly become. A big part of that is writing every day, and doing a large volume of work to really “close the gap” between your potential talent and your actual ability.
Who you know, meaning: you optimize your chances for success by creating a strong professional network of contacts. That’s why becoming an assistant is a better day-job for writers than waiting tables or driving an uber. There are so many talented writers trying to get their foot in the door, and it’s incredibly helpful to be in a position to demonstrate that you are hardworking and easy to get along with. To get a good assistant job, you can start at the mailroom at an agency or big management company; or do as many internships as you can find, and work your way up.
Moving onto the music questions.
PC: Thinking back to the first album or single that you acquired, why did it appeal to you?
DM: The first album I ever bought on my own was, I think, Rush’s Power Windows (1985). I think a lot of teenagers, maybe some of the nerdier ones, were, like me, super into Rush. And my The musicianship, the thought-provoking lyrics, and just the sheer volume of sound put out by these three Canadian guys – it’s a pretty attractive package to a teenager growing up in the suburbs.
PC: Certain songs just have to absolutely be played at full volume, do you agree? Do you have a song that you must blast out?
DM: Man, yes, absolutely. But not just one song specifically. When the mood strikes, I’ll listen to anything I really love at a high volume. Especially, I’d say, really driving indie rock, like The Hold Steady or The War On Drugs, or contemporary hip hop like along the lines of Run The Jewels, Big Boi’s solo stuff, and Chance The Rapper. Or something a little more alt-country, like Wilco or Band Of Horses.
PC: Music can be a great healer. Which song or album helps sooth your troubled mind or heart?
DM: I have a playlist that’s called “In Case Of Emergency Break Glass.” It’s not necessarily happy songs or sad songs. It’s mostly hip-hop that is so beautifully written, it makes me happy that I exist and get to listen to it. MF Doom, Mos Def, The Roots, Tribe Called Quest, and ‘Graduation’-era Kanye.
PC: This year I finally began taking piano lessons, do you play an instrument? If not, which instrument would you like to learn?
DM: I played trombone in the high school Jazz Band and orchestra. I actually played a lot in those days. I was no good as a soloing, but I was an okay section player. I think it’s really helped me to understand music, and of course especially Jazz, to have played it live for so many years.
PC: Which song or piece of music would you like to be played at your own funeral?
DM: There’s a great tune by Brett Dennen called “Dancing At A Funeral,” which is all about positivity and celebration in the face of death. The chorus goes “Now’s not the time to be so sad and mournful / We are going to the funeral and we’ll be dancing the night away.” That’s what I want people to feel when I go!
PC: Which concert have you been to that you would consider to be the best? What was the most recent one you attended?
DM: The most recent concert was Brett Dennen at the El Rey, where he and the band played “Dancing At A Funeral,” and I thought: “wow! This is the perfect answer to Paula’s question!”
My first concert was Rush, and it was an incredible show. At that point they’d been together for about twenty five years, so they could have phoned it in if they’d felt like it, and we’d have been happy. They played for four hours, doing two long encores, and it changed my life.
I can’t say what the best concert I ever attended was. I’ll give you a top five, in no particular order. Tame Impala and The Flaming Lips at The Greek in LA. Arcade Fire and The National at the Atlanta Civic Center. Wilco at The Moon in Tallahassee. The Hold Steady, at Club Downunder in Tallahassee. Father John Misty in the tiny, intimate El Rey in L.A.
PC: Do you enjoy a particular movie soundtrack? Is the movie as appealing as the music?
DM: Probably the soundtrack that had the biggest impact, both on me, and on my circle of friends, is for the film Hackers (1995). It has tracks from the big names in early 90s Electronica that were big in the UK but were not being played on domestic radio stations, at least in my hometown. Listening to that soundtrack obsessively connected me and my friends to that whole genre of music that was exploding at the time. Acts like Orbital, Underworld, The Prodigy and Leftfield were all new to us, and opened the door to a lifelong love of/obsession with that kind of music.
Other soundtracks I’ve loved, and these are all kind of obvious, but Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, both of which heavily feature French pop from Air and Phoenix. The soundtrack to Pulp Fiction. The soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Finally, not to be ridiculous, but of course Magical Mystery Tour, Help!, and A Hard Day’s Night are technically “soundtracks” and are, of course, incredible records.
PC: Three pieces of music you adore or three styles of music you are drawn to?
DM: The styles of music that I listen to most are probably Hip-Hop (defined as broadly as possible), “Indie” rock and folk/rock, and classic rock.
PC: Is there a song that you think particularly compliments a certain episode or scene in The Blacklist that we have heard in the series so far? If you were given the opportunity to choose a song to be included in an episode of The Blacklist, what would you choose?
DM: I’ll answer these questions together. We had an early cut of one episode (I won’t say which) where we used the song “Lost in the Dream” by The War On Drugs. I love that song, and was really excited to see it in the cut. But eventually, we decided it wasn’t emotionally right for that moment. I hope we can find another moment to use that track someday, though. It’s a great song, and it “feels” like our show to me.
I also loved the use of “No Comprende” by Low in episode 312, “Can’t Leave the Night” by Badbadnotgood (one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands) in 304, “I Will Be There” by Odessa in 205, “Somebody Sweet to Talk To” by She & Him all the way back in 107.
And of course, all the Johnny Cash songs for when Red is on a warpath, especially “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” when we took down the Director, and especially “The Man Comes Around” back in 110 (a classic tune in an episode that is near and dear to my heart overall).
Final two questions I ask everyone I interview.
PC: How would you describe your perfect day?
DM: The morning is quiet time with people I love, drinking coffee and listening to music. The afternoon is a long hike somewhere beautiful. The evening is filled with friends, great food, great beer and spirits, and a lot of laughter until the wee hours of the night.
PC: Finish this sentence “I cannot possibly live without…”
DM: I don’t think there’s anything I can’t live without. But I’m very glad I don’t have to live without family, friends, music, stories, and the ability to make things I’m proud of.