Making Herself Heard
NAACP Image Award winner Davita Scarlett reflects on how far she has come since graduating from TFT
By Noela Hueso
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Davita Scarlett was an avid watcher of network television; ABC’s TGIF lineup was a favorite in her early years; when she was in high school, the network’s Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Lost were on rotation. “It was the heyday of some great primetime soaps that had a lot of great chapters,” she says. “I was always drawn by all the character work.”
It seems fitting that Scarlett, who received her screenwriting MFA from UCLA TFT in 2013, is now a co-executive producer on the character-driven Paramount+ series The Good Fight and Evil, created by Michelle and Robert King.
Her talent isn’t going unnoticed. She recently won her first NAACP Image Award for one of her Good Fight episodes (“It’s nice validation that I chose the right profession,” she says of the win) and last year signed a multi-year, overall deal with CBS Studios to develop new projects for the studio. She’s currently working on the pilot for her first project under the deal, Construction, which she says has a “really complicated and interesting Black woman at the center.”
Living in New York once again and working on the sixth season of The Good Fight, Scarlett recently took a break from writing to chat about her journey thus far.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What kinds of stories do you like to tell?
I’m very interested in the small ways people relate to each other and how the underpinnings of our psyche contribute to the things we do. I’m also focused on writing about people of color and more specifically, finding ways to bring the interior lives of Black women to the screen.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I didn't really figure it out until college. I was an English major at Yale and my plan had been to get a job in publishing because I wanted to stay in New York. I took a screenwriting class and a TV pilot writing class in my junior year that fulfilled some English credits. My teacher in the TV writing class took me aside one day and said, ‘You’re really good at this. You might want to think about pursuing this as a career.’ That was a lovely moment. Her saying that made me think that I could try to pursue a career in television.
What was your next step?
I started doing a lot of research and the consensus was that I had to go to Los Angeles to work in entertainment. I got a script coverage internship at a production company in L.A. that summer and rented an apartment with a couple of friends. We had a great time, and I loved my internship. When I started my senior year, I had a lightbulb moment: Maybe I’ll go to film school! It seemed like a smart way to get to L.A, and the idea was easier to sell to my family. My parents are Jamaican immigrants; working in entertainment was not anything they had been thinking about for me. I remember my mom saying, “Oh, at least you’ll get a master’s degree, and you can teach.”
So, then you got into UCLA?
Well, I applied to several film schools, including UCLA, but didn't get in anywhere, so my first job out of college was as a mailroom floater at William Morris Endeavor. I did that for a year. I learned a lot about the business, but I knew I didn't want to be an agent, so I reapplied to film school and then I got into UCLA!
Did you have a favorite class at TFT?
Neil Landau’s Writing the Drama Pilot class. He was definitely one of my mentors; he pushed you, but he was very supportive.
What was the best lesson you learned?
When I was at TFT you had to write a new script every quarter. Rewriting in class was not encouraged. It helped me be a little less precious with my writing and I learned to just push through.
How did you land your first gig post-graduation?
During my last year at UCLA, I had a seven-month internship at ABC in drama development. One of the assistants there was leaving just as I was graduating, and I got the job. During that time, I was accepted into NBCUniversal’s Writers on the Verge program. I met my manager through that and by the end of that year, I got my first staff writing job on NBC’s Constantine.
Why do you like working in TV?
It’s fast moving: You come up with an idea and then in a couple of weeks you have an episode; in a couple of months, the episode is shot; a couple of months after that, it’s usually on TV. Of course, that means there are always deadlines, and the train must stay on the tracks in terms of getting episodes done and moving forward. It can be a lot of pressure, but I think everyone who gravitates toward TV also loves that.
How did you come to meet and eventually work with Michelle and Robert King?
They were looking for writers for Season 3, and I got put up for it. I was working on another show called Truth Be Told and we were wrapping up our season. My boss on Truth Be Told had worked on the Kings’ series The Good Wife for many years, so I think it helped that I had a good relationship with her, and she had a good relationship with the Kings.
What is a typical day in the writers’ room like?
We’re always working on an episode. There are 10 writers on The Good Fight, including the Kings. We’re still on Zoom, so we sign in at 11 a.m. We debate and pitch most of the day, talking about what we think should happen in the episode. Once we decide an area for an episode, we get into the nitty-gritty of figuring out the story arc and the scenes. We usually go character by character and figure out their threads. Then we weave them together and that makes the episode.
How is it decided who will write the episode?
Every episode contains ideas that every writer has contributed. We usually just go down the list in order of seniority in the room. If there’s an episode topic that really speaks to someone, maybe because they pitched the idea or they’re passionate about it, that person may write it.
When you’re writing an episode, how much time do you have?
It’s not always the same. It depends on the schedule, but it can be anywhere from three to five days on an episode. In the early days of the pandemic when we weren’t quite sure when we were going to be shooting, we had lots of time!
As a woman of color in Hollywood, what has been your experience?
It has differed over the course of my career. My first show, Constantine, had an amazingly supportive writers’ room. I will also say that I’ve changed a lot since I moved to L.A. when I was 23. As I mentioned, I’m the child of immigrants. The American Dream for a lot of immigrants is about assimilation. When I was growing up, I learned to defer and demur. Starting out in the industry, I was afraid to speak in a group setting. It’s ironic that I was drawn to TV writing where there’s 10 other people in the room, but I was frightened because I heard stories about people of color being hired for one season and then not getting hired back. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing or offend anyone. It was a lot of tiptoeing around the people I thought were in power. It got to a point where I was like, 'I can’t go on like this. The job is to talk.' I had a come-to-Jesus moment after my third show. I knew I wanted to be in this industry and that my point of view is valuable. I started taking public speaking classes and going to therapy and on my next show, I just decided that I was going to say everything. It was a little scary at first, but the more I started speaking, the more comfortable I became. Now I’m really seeing my life and career blossom because I made that choice to use my voice and decide that it was OK.
Posted: May 23, 2022