Ari Donnelly is a talented and prolific writer hailing from North Hollywood, whose half-hour TV comedy "Power Couple" took our Season 8 comedy crown. More about the man behind the Power Couple behind the accolade below.
1) How long have you been writing?
Since I could hold a pen. The first story I ever wrote was a riff on A Series of Unfortunate Events, about orphans whose parents die in a tragic giraffe-related accident. I scribbled it in my notebook instead of paying attention in class. My teacher caught me and took my notebook away, so I finished writing the story inside my head. I still get some of my best ideas when seemingly focused on another task, like walking, cooking, or filling out Q&As.
2) What screenwriting training have you received?
I have a degree in Film & TV Production from NYU-Tisch. The program had great professors, who stressed the importance of structure, character arcs, and rising stakes. Most of my work in school was designed to be shot on a tiny student film budget. When I left school and started writing just to write, I found that my work improved. I’m grateful to have a background in the realities of production, but I write better when I worry about the story working on the page, first and foremost.
Since moving to LA, I’ve worked as an assistant and professional reader for studios, agencies, and production companies. I love writing script coverage, it’s been a second film school for me, an opportunity to deeply analyze the pros and cons of over two thousand scripts, and get mildly paid for it.
I’d also say the cheapest screenwriting training is to just watch as many movies and shows as you can. Find the flourishes you admire and practice them in your own work. I learned more about punchy act breaks from watching TV shows with commercial breaks than anywhere else. I actually mourn the loss of commercial breaks in the age of streaming, as it’s allowed structure to become more amorphous.
3) How many hours a week do you write? Do you have a day job as well, and how does it influence your writing/projects?
I’ve worked as an executive assistant, with long stints in literary management and television development. But in order to spend more time writing, I’ve transitioned to working temp gigs. I’ll do a week or a month supporting an executive, producer, or literary manager, then use the downtime between assignments to work on my own projects. It helps me stay involved in the industry, while writing nearly full-time.
When I don’t have a temp gig, I spend most of the day in coffee shops, writing as much as I can. If there’s a threshold for too much time spent writing, I haven’t found it yet.
4) What writing habits work for of you? Do you write in short or long shifts, at scheduled times?
I do best with total immersion. I’ll spend as much time researching, outlining, and writing a project, with as few breaks as possible. I’ll also adjust my viewing diet; if I’m writing a mystery, I’ll brush up on mystery films and shows I haven’t seen yet. I believe there are no new ideas, so I’m not afraid of other works influencing me. I’d rather familiarize myself with any given genre, so I can avoid or subvert its cliches.
5) What genres do you lean towards? Are all of your works comedy?
Nearly everything I write has some comedy, even if it’s a depressing, scorched-earth drama. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I agree with Andrew Stanton, who has a TedTalk wherein he proclaims that the purest form of storytelling is joketelling. “It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal…confirming some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings.”
Besides comedy, I enjoy sci-fi and horror. I love using comedy to lure an audience into a false sense of safety, before shocking them with something scary. I’m also drawn to workplace dramas and sitcoms, because they’re very relatable. I also indulge in fantasy, but only if its tempered with something realistic. For example, I have a fantasy pilot about a powerful sorceress who is having trouble paying off her student loan.
6) We loved "Power Couple", how would you describe the project to our readers?
Power Couple is a superhero romantic comedy, starring a supervillain and superhero who have been happily fighting each other since high school. But when their odd, exclusive relationship starts to damage their street cred, they are forced to start fighting other people. As they forge new friendships and face one-fight-stands, they both begin to question the nature of their bond and who they truly are to each other.
7) How did you come up with the premise behind "Power Couple"?
I love comedy, action, and relatable characters inside a ridiculous world. You can incorporate all three flavors into the superhero genre, but it’s a very oversaturated genre. So I wanted to put my own spin on it by using a hero-villain rivalry as a metaphor for a long-term relationship. It’s a popular joke to project sexual tension onto nemeses like Batman and the Joker, because they are the most important people in each other’s lives. I wanted to take that subtext and make it text.
The earliest version of Power Couple had a different name and was a breakup rom-com, like Legally Blonde or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The lead was a supervillain who suffers heartbreak after his superhero archenemy retires. It got a good response for the comedy and central metaphor, but I was unsatisfied with the lead character. His codependency was so obviously wrong that I didn’t relate to him, or write him with compassion. I was making fun of him instead of having fun with him.
I put the story away for awhile, until I had an epiphany about high school sweethearts. They’re a super common archetype. Every Disney Princess meets their prince in their teens. Nearly every named character in Harry Potter marries someone they met when they were 11. Then there’s Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. Joey Potter and Pacey Whitter. Homer and Marge Simpson.
High school sweethearts are everywhere in fiction, yet almost nowhere in real life.
I know only two adult couples who met in school, and they’re unimpressed with themselves. I admire them, but I also don’t regret that none of my own relationships in school lasted after graduation, and God help me if they had. My brain wasn’t done growing! And I find that attitude is very common among my peers. In this stage of our lives, we’re prioritizing our careers and broadening our social networks, rather than building a long-term relationship. Our generation’s romantic ideal has shifted from “find your soulmate” to “get your s*** together, then find your soulmate”.
That disconnect inspired me to expand the hero-villain relationship metaphor, to explore a wider world of relationships and dating. I landed on two new leads: Gal Gadgeteer and Uberman. They are grown-up high school sweethearts, albeit ones who have sublimated their passion for each other into doomsday plots, heroic speeches, and super-powered brawls that destroy city blocks. Their love language is the superhero genre, and in some ways, they are a perfect couple. But they are a little too into each other, and their relationship has isolated them from their peers. They are both blindsided that the world devalues their bond and shuns their deviance.
Gal and Uberman do not want to be outcasts, so they both try being single super-people. The first season will chart their growth as individuals as they explore single life and build up their own rogues gallery, while still holding onto the depth of their connection. Their new allies and foes will form the supporting cast: heroes and villains who are likewise struggling to fit their own quirks within the world at large. The series as a whole explores whether it’s better to have a partner or many friends. Whether it’s better to be yourself or be accepted.
8) If you could magically greenlight "Power Couple" today, would you do so as an animated project or live + FX?
Animated. 100% animated. I love working with live actors, but so much of the action and comedy of Power Couple is built for animation. I’m a huge fan of animated comedies like The Simpsons and Bojack Horseman that pack the frame with as many jokes as possible. I wrote Power Couple to match, with foreground and background jokes in nearly every scene.
9) What are you working on now? What do you plan on writing in the near future?
My current project is a live-action one-hour pilot, an absurdist crime drama set in a dystopia. To combat climate change, the government has outlawed all non-recyclable materials, long-distance travel, and solid food. The police hunt down anyone with a carbon footprint, while criminals foster a black market for gas-guzzling vehicles, cigarettes and red meat. It’s a bit like The Wire meets Brazil, exploring what would happen if tree huggers ruled the world with an iron fist.
10) Are you considering developing any of your own projects?
I love the cast of Power Couple and I want to spend more time with them. So I’m building a series bible for them. I have a few shorts that could be shot with a small budget, but my current focus is building up my writing portfolio.
11) Where would you like to be writing-wise in 3 years?
I’d love to be working as a staffwriter on a television series. I wouldn’t hate having sold a feature or two as well.
12) Any advice for those about to write their first TV Pilot?
My advice is that your first TV Pilot will suck. So will your second and your third. Mine all did. So you should get them out of the way as soon as possible. After you’ve failed enough, focus on the projects you are going to have the most fun with. Power Couple wasn’t the most original or budget-friendly script I could write, but it was a story I had fun telling, and that enthusiasm shows on the page.
Congratulations once again to screenwriter Ari Donnely, our Season 8 Comedy Screenplay Awards Winner. All contact and script requests for Ari will be forwarded to his attention.