April 2020 - Maria Escobedo
Maria is a first generation Cuban-American raised in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Yes, that Washington Heights. The one that Lin-Manuel Miranda sang about: In The Heights! — complete with abuelas spying over the neighborhood from their windowsill; Bodega owners chasing graffiti artists; and Latino kids with big dreams.
Maria spent her summers in Miami and Puerto Rico, with family, food, music, and politics. It wasn’t really a summer vacation — it was full-on immersion of the language and culture. And, although she didn’t quite appreciate it as a kid, she does now, which is why she sends her teenaged daughter to Miami every summer! She hopes she’s alive to see her daughter start appreciating this circle-of-life thing.
Maria has been writing for animated kids TV for years and loving it. Her credits include, Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer, Go Diego Go, and the upcoming Santiago Of The Seas; Disney Jr’s Elena of Avalor, and Special Agent Oso; Universal Kids’ Nina’s World, which earned Maria a Humanitas Award nomination; Amazon’s If You Give A Mouse A Cookie; Netflix’s upcoming What-To-Doodles! and Madagascar: A Little Wild for Dreamworks. In addition, she has also developed original pilots for Amazon Kids, FableVision, and Mundo Lanugo.
Maria has live action experience, too, with credits including Grey’s Anatomy, HULU’s East Los High and the indie film Rum and Coke, which she also directed. She’s developed movies and pilots for Lifetime, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and recently a dramedy pilot for ABC.
Maria has a degree in film from NY’s School of Visual Arts, studied screenwriting at NYU, playwriting at The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, and earned a TV Writing Fellowship from ABC/Disney. She served as Chair of the Latino Writers Committee at the WGA for 5 years, and teaches writing at USC.
We are honored to feature television writer Maria Escobedo as our LXiA Spotlight this month. Maria, thank you for taking time to do this interview. Can you tell us more about yourself and the path that led you to where you are today?
I did not have a direct path. I envy people, like my sister, who at 14 knew she wanted to be a nurse. Not me. My creative brain was all over the place. I was raised in NYC’s Washington Heights – way before Lin Manuel Miranda sang about it! My mom, who was a single mom raising three kids, would put me in front of any “muñequito” (cartoon) to keep me entertained. So, like many kids in my situation, TV was my babysitter. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who worked in entertainment, except my uncle who owned a nightclub in Puerto Rico, where he sang and played his guitar. (I spent many, many summers in PR.) But, I certainly didn’t know anyone who wrote for TV. I discovered writing at the High School of Art & Design, where an English teacher assigned us to write an original TV episode. I wasn’t doing all that great in that class, because there were other things I was discovering in high school, wink, wink! BUT, I got an A+ on that assignment and it was the first time I ever thought of myself as a writer. I didn’t pursue it right away, but I did eventually end up as a film major at the School of Visual Arts.
When I graduated, I started a production company with my husband, who I met at SVA. We shot mainly commercials. Then we wanted to make something longer than 30 seconds, so we went to NYU and took a screenwriting course. The first script we wrote was optioned, but never got made. So with the next script, Rum and Coke, we said: let’s put our film school experience to use and make this sucker! Which is what we did. I eventually took a TV writing workshop with the NHMC (National Hispanic Media Coalition) and used one of the scripts I wrote there to apply for the Disney/ABC TV writing fellowship. When I got in, I realized I had to move from New York to LA. Then I got the gig on Grey’s Anatomy — my very first TV job! It was an incredible experience to watch an episode of a show that you already loved and hear the characters say the words that you wrote! BUT THEN… the writers’ strike hit and that kinda hit me: the uncertainty of working in this business and me still feeling like a newbie. I certainly wasn’t going to cross a picket line, but I had to work. So I had a friend working on Dora the Explorer who asked me if I wanted to write on the team. (That’s when I learned that animation writers were covered in the Animation Guild, which was different from the Writers Guild.) And that’s what got me started on writing for TV animation – Phew! Told ya it was a long and winding road!
“Character is character. Theme is theme. Age doesn’t matter. There are definitely restrictions that come with writing for kids. Sometimes there is a curriculum involved and sometimes not.”
Although you started your television-writing career in live-action, you eventually transitioned into writing for animation including for Emmy Award winners Dora the Explorer and Elena of Avalor. How has the experience of writing in both live-action and animation developed you as a writer and do you find one more challenging over the other?
I consider myself a family drama writer that finds humor in everyday situations. That’s why I can hop back and forth from live-action to animation. I was writing on Hulu’s teen drama East Los High then jumping to Nina’s World, which is preschool animation. Character is character. Theme is theme. Age doesn’t matter. There are definitely restrictions that come with writing for kids. Sometimes there is a curriculum involved and sometimes not. The rules can be arbitrary: I mean, Diego from Go, Diego, Go!, was 8 years-old, driving a jeep through the jungle and that was okay. But I couldn’t have the kids in Special Agent Oso put tamales into a pot of water. Their grandma had to do it. In fact, I’m not sure they were even allowed in the kitchen while that pot was on the stove. But, hey, when you write on any show, you’re always following the rules of the show. That goes for both animation and live action.
“There’s nothing more humbling than reading a storybook version of your script to a bunch of preschoolers, who say things like: that’s not funny. Or: Dora wouldn’t do that! They know their favorite show and characters inside and out and are not afraid to call you out when you mess up.”
Talk to us more about writing for two of the most influential women, in this case Grey’s Anatomy creator and writer, Shonda Rhimes and Nickelodeon’s, Dora the Explorer, created by Valerie Walsh Valdes & Chris Gifford. How did those opportunities come about and what was your takeaway from each of those experiences?
Writing on Grey’s was like a dream come true. This girl from Washington Heights, that never thought of writing for TV as a career, was now in a room, not only seeing how the sausage was made, but being part of the process. It was a mindblowing, out of body experience. Dora, however, was way more intimidating than Shonda, and Shonda is no pushover. But Dora had been around for so long that it was a well-oiled machine, and everything I pitched felt like it had been done already. (Probably what Grey’s feels like now!) Dora ended up being way more challenging than I anticipated. You had notes from educational and cultural consultants, as well as network execs. Plus, there was the focus groups with the kids. There’s nothing more humbling than reading a storybook version of your script to a bunch of preschoolers, who say things like: that’s not funny. Or: Dora wouldn’t do that! They know their favorite show and characters inside and out and are not afraid to call you out when you mess up.
We know you are an amazing writer, but what some people may not know is that you are also an educator. Can you talk to us a little bit more about teaching screenwriting and what that experience has meant to you?
Students today are so much more aware of the industry than I was. They are creators of their own content as soon as they own a phone. And they have easy access to share their stories with one another. Just look at YouTube and TikTok. So, it’s fun for me to help them develop their voice, their talent, and their skill to be the next generation of storytellers.
“Latinx writers have a voice and a POV that is beyond just being Latinx. For example: I’m a woman, an artist, a mother, wife, sister, teacher. I’m a New Yorker raised by a single mom.”
We are hearing a lot about the push for diversity in the industry, including stories about LatinX characters. What is your approach to that type of demand as a writer and how important is representation to you?
I hope to get to the place where Latinx writers aren’t only hired when there are Latinx characters to write for. I mean, look, if you have Latinx characters in your show then yes, you should have Latinx writers bringing authenticity to those characters. But Latinx writers have a voice and a POV that is beyond just being Latinx. For example: I’m a woman, an artist, a mother, wife, sister, teacher. I’m a New Yorker raised by a single mom. I was a mathlete and skipped a grade in middle school. I tend to be at my most calm when all hell’s breaking loose. But if you push me too far, I’ll pull off my earrings and flex my claws. So… when someone hires me they get all that, plus my Latinx, specifically, Cuban-American roots.
Where do you get your stories from?
I like to record myself talking on my phone while I drive. I always have a project in mind that I’m brainstorming and I ramble on about it. Eventually, I get to a point. Then I listen back to it later and take notes. Mostly, I get my stories from living my life. Everything that happens to me – good or bad – has a story behind it. So, I share it and hope that it might just be exactly what someone needed to hear.
“I hope to get to the place where Latinx writers aren’t only hired when there are Latinx characters to write for.”
When you are not writing on a current series, you are busy developing and pitching your own content. What is on the horizon for Maria Escobedo? Anything you can tell us about?
I sold an hour-long dramedy pilot with my partner to ABC this season — which didn’t get picked up. But we’re looking to set it up elsewhere, plus we’re taking another project out to pitch this season. I also have a half-hour pitch with an actress attached and 2 animated projects I’m working on.
Thank you for interviewing with us, Maria!
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