“Finally piecing it together:” the tagline for Girls Season 5. For any devout viewer, the line perfectly encapsulates all of our expectations: Are any of the semi-functional characters on the show going to finally get their shit together and create happy lives for themselves?! Because it’s Girls and because the show is such a realistic reflection of millennial life, the answer is probably not. But we still wonder. We wonder because Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shosh are too human for us not to be invested in. That’s Sarah Heyward’s job. Along with the rest of the Girls writing staff she creates the puzzle and chooses how and when the characters can see the big picture. Heyward has been with the show since Season 1. If Girls is the show of our generation, then Heyward is one of the most important voices. We talked back in 2013, when Girls was still young and approaching Season 3. Tonight the penultimate season will premiere at 10pm on HBO. In this interview Heyward tells us how she writes the intelligent, hilarious dialogue that shines on screen through the voices of the characters we love.
We talked a lot about your time at Iowa Writers Workshop last time. Girls made the school a huge part of last season. Were you pretty instrumental in getting that Iowa story line in last season?
Given that Hannah’s a writer, there have been a few paths that we’ve talked about [from the beginning]: “Is she going to give up writing at some point? Is she going to become a teacher?” All these things that every writer goes through. “Is she going to go to grad school?” Grad school was always on the table, nothing to do with me. It was just one of the logical paths a writer could take, so when we started thinking about the next season, my bosses decided that Hannah should definitely go to grad school. The only “famous” one is Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Obviously I had gone there and it was a huge part of my life and I started on Girls only a year after I left Iowa, so I talked about it a lot like anyone who has just graduated from college is still referring to college. Iowa was still part of my life. They decided it would be Iowa. They knew that I would get excited so they didn’t tell me for a month because they thought I’d get overly excited in case it went away or something. Then when it was finally official they told me.
I was a little nervous because my time at Iowa was so precious to me. I also knew we’d have to mine it for comedy: Hannah’s experience at Iowa would probably be very different from my blissful experience. I was a little trepidatious but mostly excited. So I didn’t affect the fact that she went there, but once it was decided she was going to go there, they certainly used my depth of knowledge all the time. I made this giant document about every fun detail I could remember from my time there. Then throughout the Iowa episodes I was definitely the one being asked by costume and set people, “Does this look right. Is this what a party looks like? Is this what a house looks like?
So those parties Hannah went to, you’d seen that?
She goes to two. She goes to an undergrad party which was Jell-O wrestling. I definitely never went to [those], I only heard about the wild undergrad parties. But the poet party was based completely on a party I went to. I got a bunch of emails from my former classmates being like, “Is this based on that party?” Everyone remembered the actual night I was trying to recreate.
That must have been a fun experience for people to watch.
Yeah I think it was mixed experience for people who went there. It’s always hard when something’s on TV. As much as I wanted every detail to be perfect, at the end of the day my bosses had to be like, “We don’t care that it actually would have looked like this, we need to do what’s right for the show.” I think for some [classmates thought], “We never would have said that or done that. That isn’t why someone would leave!”
People can definitely nitpick, and I totally relate to that, but I definitely left lots of little Easter eggs for my friends. If you look at the cubbies there’re names where I combined weird names of my classmates and little tiny references to lots of little Iowa jokes that other people wouldn’t know.
I know we can’t really talk about the newest season, but last time you were able to sum up season by what ill-fitting clothes Hannah is wearing—I believe it was the season of ill-fitting pants. What’s this season?
It’s sort of a continuation of Hannah’s attempt at professional wear because she’s a teacher. I don’t want to give anything away! There are a few outfit choices that are made. I would say clothes or lack thereof plays a crucial role.
What else are you allowed to say about the season?
This is at times a strange and dreamy and surreal season in ways it hasn’t been before. We’re approaching the end now. They just announced that not this season we’re about to air but the next will be our last season. I think knowing we’re in the final years of Girls we’re definitely taking more risks and trying some different things.
Check out the new season of Girls at 10pm tonight on HBO!
What was the biggest challenge the writers faced in coming up with the story arc of Season 5?
I would say, it hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be to continue to find plotlines for these girls. I think it helps that they’re aging at the same rate as Lena is aging. So when I met Lena she was twenty-three and now she’s almost thirty. The girls on the show are going through the same transition. Because of the inevitable fact that the end is approaching, we’re not afraid to dip our toe into more traditional milestones. As you saw at the end of Season 4, Marnie got engaged. It’s the stuff that does tend to happen in your late twenties. I think that even though we’re not a traditional show, we’re not afraid to go down those traditional paths. It will just be in its weird, unique Girls way.
When did you find out Season 6 would be the show’s last?
Yeah it’s something that we talked about from the beginning. It was always Lena’s vision for the show that it not be more than five or six seasons. And for HBO in the past…they generally don’t go beyond six seasons. I think in the past years we’ve been shaping the plotlines in our minds in such a way that they could be wrapped up…
When you get that kind of news, do you just start writing vigorously?
It’s not really changing anything for us because we were already writing toward that and Lena was very much a part of the decision to make it end after six seasons. It’s not a surprise to anyone within the staff. We already took a day last year when we were already writing Season 5, which is about to air, we took a day and sort of wrote out what we thought was going to happen in all of Season 6 and how the show was going to end. We were already preparing for that and now, other than the sadness of knowing it’s ending, workwise, it will probably feel like it’s any other season. We’re going to be writing at the same pace and using the same techniques.
What about in your personal life, knowing that you’re not going to have the show anymore, do you start writing other projects?
Yeah that’s something I have to contend with because this has been my only and first written paid writing job. It’s been my life for almost six years. I have definitely had to think about what I want to do next. Would my dream be to work on another show that I love or would it be to try to create my own show, which is obviously beyond easier said than done! It’s like next to impossible to create your own show. On my hiatuses from Girls every year I usually try to write. I usually try and get a paid job writing a feature or if I don’t have a job I write on my own, so I’ve been doing that and I want to continue to do that so there’s a world where I would focus on writing movies, but once you experience the fast paced world of TV writing, it’s a little harder to just go back to features which is a much slower process. You can get hired to write a movie. It can be three months, six months before you’re even officially supposed to start writing it because of legal contract stuff. It could be another six months when you’re writing and rewriting it. That means it’s been like a year, a year and a half and then the movie could just disappear and never get made. More likely than not, it will disappear and never get made. So, it’s a choice between that, which for me is an easier lifestyle, in that I’m not going to a day job and I’m sitting at home in sweatpants all day. But you don’t get paid as much or as often and it’s not steady work and you don’t have the gratification of seeing what you write on screen a few months later.
You were initially a fiction writer. Do you have any interest in returning to that and writing a book?
I do, but it’s so hard for me. It’s insanely hard for me to imagine taking a break from what I now consider my career. I sort of feel I’m on a track and I can’t veer too far off of it. I would do it if it wasn’t at the expense of building my screenwriting career and it’s hard to imagine it not being at the expense because the amount of time I’d want to pour into at most writing a novel and even revising and working on my short stories, I don’t know how I’d also have the time to be writing a movie.
What skills have you developed since starting on Girls?
I think that the ability to capture different characters’ voices and to trust you will learn the voices enough that it won’t feel grueling to sit down and try to channel them. I learned a lot from Lena: the way she talks and writes and how realistic she makes her dialogue and how she’ll let the scenes go long and how she’ll let the characters have funny side conversations. That’s a luxury we have because we’re writing for cable. If we were writing for a network, we’d have a strict twenty-two minutes. We just wouldn’t have the freedom to have the girls talk about a TV show they watched for two pages. You just can’t do that on network. Even though I know that’s a luxury, it helped me. I learned that early on, maybe a season of two into Girls, I went back and looked at a screenplay I had written before I had ever written for Girls and I wanted to change, like all of the dialogue. I wanted to make it more realistic. This was back when I first started writing, Diablo Cody was very [popular], Juno had just come out. I feel I used to write a lot of pithy little pop culture laden sentences which are sharp and fun in their own way, but it’s not the way we write on Girls. Girls just feels more like they’re having a conversation that you might actually have. So I’ve definitely gone more in that direction, which I love. It feels more comfortable. You feel like you’re writing something that you could have talked about that morning with your friends.
The Hello Giggles team is producing a movie you wrote. Any development on that project?
No, that one was my first paid movie writing job and it was a really, really, good experience. It was going to be produced by Hello Giggles and this company Good Universe—that used to be called Mandate. That was awesome because it was a script about two young women and Hello Giggles, that’s totally their thing. It was very fun to work with them on that. I wrote it and did a rewrite for them for it and then it just got put in a drawer. I don’t know if it will ever emerge from the drawer or not. I do know Hello Giggles is getting more serious about producing TV and movies so there’s a chance they’ll resurrect it. I’ve talked to them about some other projects and they have some good ideas up their sleeves, so I would love to work with them again if it ever comes up.
What are you watching on TV right now?
I loved Master of None. I cracked up at every episode. Girls is one view of what it’s like to be in your twenties and dating in New York, this was this totally other view of it that I loved watching. My boyfriend and I marathoned Making of a Murderer. We did that in one weekend. We couldn’t stop and now I’m in a wormhole of reading everyday whatever new theories come out about the whole case. I’m waiting for my non-guilty pleasures, my genuine pleasures, of Switched At Birth on ABC Family. I also watch The Grinder, which I would say is an underrated network sitcom. I don’t watch a lot of network sitcoms, but it’s one that I really, really like…
Transparent Season 2, I also blew through. Everyone around me who watched it even quicker than I did was telling me how beautiful it was. I was saying, “We’ll see if I think it’s so beautiful.” And I totally found it beautiful and loved it. That’s the thing with these shows that get released all at once. It feels like there’s nothing on TV right now even though I just watched an entire season of Transparent in the past few weeks. I’m waiting for Girls to come back and I’m really excited for [Love]. One of my best friends has a show on Netflix called Love that Judd Apatow also produced, [it just came out on Friday]. I can’t wait for that. It stars Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust who is a really cool actor who I hope becomes really famous from the show.
You can watch Love on Netflix now
If you could write for any show currently on TV what would it be?
Because I’m so tied into Girls I’m rarely watching TV and thinking that I wished I wrote for something. But actually the first time it happened in a while was watching Master of None. I thought it would be fun to write for. I have only seen a little bit of Love because my friend showed me a couple of clips, but I definitely could see writing for a show like that. There’re a bunch of shows in the works that I know are being produced right now for HBO and Netflix that I’m definitely curious to see to see how they are because if I moved on to another show, cross my fingers, I’d want it to be on another cable show like that. So probably it would have to be something that hasn’t come out yet—unless they would miraculously want me on Master of None.
I’m sure you know someone on the show you could call and just be like, “Yo…give me a job!”
[Sarah laughs] I definitely do know people—I know the creators of it. It’s a huge balancing act of who hires whom on what. It will also depend what my life is looking like when Girls is finally over. The other thing is, because these shows are in production so much before they air, like I think Love, they’re already working on Season 2 and I’m not going to be done with Girls for six more months. It’s definitely exciting every time these new shows come out and I love them, I feel more hope for the TV that’s going to be in the future.
I can’t imagine going from Cable or a streaming platform to Network. That would be such a hard transition creatively.
Yeah, I think it would be. The money is better in network and that’s about it [Sarah laughs]. It’s a more steady job because there’re more episodes and you’re working every day, but for me, the way I think and work, I feel spoiled, I’d definitely would want to stick with cable or streaming.
How do you get past writer’s block?
It’s definitely hard. I try to build in routines that make it more enjoyable. I have a lot of dread when it comes to writing. In short of being like, “You should pop an Adderall,” sometimes you’ve just got to sit down and make yourself do it. [Sarah laughs] I don’t want to rely too much on any crutch so I try little things like: I’m going to sit on my couch and make a giant ice coffee and have little moments, “Okay, I’m in writing mode now.”
I live in a studio apartment so moving from my bed to my couch is a big transition! [Sarah laughs] I have my ice coffee sitting here right now. After this, I’ll go exercise and come back and put up my computer and set up all the trappings of going to write even if I don’t end up writing for two more hours, it’s just a better feeling to sit on the couch with the computer in front of you then watching TV. There are different levels of procrastination so I try to do that. I’m not very hard on myself about, “You can’t use the internet!” If I want to take a minute and I’m doing research and I’m Googling something for theoretically what I am writing, I end up in a wormhole reading something else, that’s fine. I’m not very hard on myself.
The biggest thing that I do that really works for me, it helps when I have a real deadline, but you could definitely do it for a fake deadline that you just give yourself is I get very, very practical about it where, right now I’m writing a movie. I have a list of all the scenes that I want to put in the movie, obviously it will change, it’s not like I have a perfect outline, but right now there’s a list of let’s say, 53 scenes that are going to be in the movie. I know I have to turn in the movie in let’s say, twelve weeks. I literally take the number of days I have and divide the number of scenes by the number of days I have and make a schedule. Like, on Monday, I have to write three scenes—I didn’t do the math—I know I have to do that on Monday, if I finish at 1:00 PM, I don’t have to do any more work that day. If it takes me the whole day, it takes the whole day. And then at least you know that if you can stick to it, you’ll be done by a certain date. Even if it’s a total vomit draft, whatever. For me, that’s the way to do it because the luxury of some days finishing at 1:00 or 2:00 PM and not feeling pressure to keep going toward some vague goal: “I did what I had to do today and tomorrow I’ll do what I have to do tomorrow.” It makes it feel much less daunting then write as much as you can every single day. ♦