Here are three things might want to know about the new NBC show, About a Boy: 1. It premieres February 22 after the Olympics. 2. It’s based on a Nick Hornby book (and a Hugh Grant movie). 3. The first episode is directed by Jon Favreau. Yep, Iron Man/Swingers Jon Favreau.
But here’s the thing you should definitely know about it: it was adapted for TV by a really smart guy named Jason Katims. He’s the same guy who served as head writer and showrunner for both Parenthood and Friday Night Lights—in other words, a guy who’s been shaping the way we think about men, fathers and parenting in this country (not to mention clear eyes and full hearts) for nearly 10 years. (Oh, and he also co-wrote The Pallbearer, for better or worse.)
We grabbed a few minutes with Jason at the Dove Men+Care Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans to talk about turning movies into TV shows, the future of fatherhood and breaking into Hollywood as a writer.
“We’re in a world where men are feeling more comfortable talking about themselves and their feelings, and I think that translates to who they are as fathers.”
You seem to be the based-on-a-movie TV show guy. What’s the key to turning a movie into a TV show?
A lot of times, when I think about writing a pilot, I try to think a little bit about the pilot, but I try to think a lot about what’s going to happen in season 3 or season 4. Not breaking stories or anything, but just asking, will I still be interested in these characters in episode 73? And so, in the case of About a Boy, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, that’s what I felt. I felt there was so much potential in terms of what they could be as shows. And that there was a larger tale to tell. It’s not just about something that’s going to be interesting for a few episodes and then over. Because what I love most about television is that you get to tell stories over a longer period of time, that you get to watch and live with characters as they evolve. Those are the things that really excite me.
You also write about parent-child relationships a lot. And we’re speaking to you from a dad convention. How is the current dad different from the dad of the 1980s?
I think he’s very different. If you look at Parenthood, Zeek Braverman, played by Craig T. Nelson, is a good example of the old-school father who was not, especially when the kids were younger, a touchy-feely type of dad. He didn’t hug his kids a lot and tell them he loved them. He was a guy who, I don’t think anybody would have doubted that he loved them, but it just wasn’t what he would be talking about every day. And I think we’re in a world where men are feeling more comfortable talking about themselves and their feelings and who they are and what they think, and I think that translates to who they are as fathers. And obviously everybody has a different style and everybody is always constantly developing their style, and it changes over the course of being a parent, but I think overall, the picture of what dads are like now compared to what they were a generation ago is very different. It’s why, on Parenthood, I wanted to have a stay-at-home dad because that was something that was increasingly part of our world, but it was something that I didn’t see on the landscape of television.
Katims, left, with stars Minnie Driver, Benjamin Stockham, David Walton and Al Madrigal.
Where do you think fatherhood is headed? Will fathers continue to open up even more to their kids?
I think we react a lot to what our parents did. And obviously you try to do better, but sometimes you’re just doing different. Hopefully what we’re doing is going two steps forward and one step back. Because it’s complicated. There are challenges to a more contemporary way of parenting, where you’re sort of overly attentive to your kid or overprotective. I think that’s what I’m sort of grappling with now. Of course, you want to show them you’re going to protect them, you love them, you care about them, but you’re also preparing them for the world. I feel like Zeek was a little bit like my dad, that sort of World War II, Depression-era mentality of, like, you gotta be tough. And I think a lot of us reacted to that as fathers and wanted to be a different type of role model for our kids and be more available to them. But on the other hand, there’s something important about making sure your kid is able to learn for himself and be independent and know that he can fall and get back up again. So I think it’s a balancing act and it always will be.
Finally, you’ve written, co-written or ghostwritten more TV episodes than most people have watched. Any advice for the aspiring screenwriter?
Oh man. Well, I think there are two different types of advice. There’s advice of, like, how do I get a job? And then there’s advice about how to be a better writer. In terms of craft and being a writer, I think there’s nothing better than continuing to write, continuing to do it. For me, I started with playwriting. I got rejected so many times before anything got accepted. I think you have to keep doing it and have that tenacity. And also, one thing I learned a lot on Parenthood is, if you’re willing to write about something that’s very personal to you, you’re going to have a perspective that’s unique, which will help that stuff pop off the page.
Great. And in terms of the more practical advice?
The one thing I would say is, having a writing sample that’s a really effective calling card is crucial. Because if you do the work of making contacts and getting to show your work to somebody, it won’t get you anywhere unless you have the goods to back it up. So you have to have that really strong piece to show people, and it doesn’t have to be a spec script or a screenplay. It can be a short story or a 10-minute play or whatever. People really want new voices. That’s really what they want. Craftsmen, there’s plenty of craftsmen out there. What people are looking for is that inspiration from somebody, that unique expression of a different perspective.