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Sneha Koorse: ‘I excel at writing torture scenes’
Nikhil Taneja  31st Jan 2015

Sneha Koorse has written for The Americans and other hit shows.

rom Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory to Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, Indian-American actors are making a splash on American TV. But over the past few years, some Indian writers have slowly climbed to the top of the Hollywood ladder, and it's not an uncommon sight today to see Indian names in the 'written by' credits of a TV series. From Luvh Rakhe (The New Girl) to Vali Chandrasekaran (Modern Family), Indian origin writers are becoming a familiar part of the U.S. TV scene.

One of the youngest on the lot, 29-year-old Sneha Koorse has a CV that's probably the envy of many an older writer. In the few years since she graduated from the University of Southern California, she's won the prestigious Slamdance Film Festival Writing Competition, worked with legendary writer-directors like J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) on the show Believe; written for the critically acclaimed FX show The Americans; and is currently working with The Dark Knight's writer, David S. Goyer, on a D.C. Comics show, Constantine.

Q. How do you get a job on a D.C. Comics show? One would imagine you'd have to pass a geek test before getting hired.

A. We are all geeks in our own way. It wasn't so much about being a comic book geek but being able to appreciate the character and what stories of our own we could tell with this particular character. We have a good mix of people, some of whom read all the Hellblazers [the basis for Constantine] back when they came out, others who were just being introduced to the character and comics. It's good to have a variety of perspectives.

Q. Is it easy to adapt a fan-favourite comic book like Hellblazer?

A. Some of the issues are really best suited for the comic book format. Some issues are so fantastical, like tripping through different dimensions and all that. But the issues are all incredibly imaginative, and the writers have created this great character that you just want to spend time with.

Q. You've worked on Constantine with writing legend David S. Goyer. You have also worked with J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron. What have you picked up from these greats?

A. They are all legends and so different from one another! What they all have are strong points of view. I think that's the biggest thing: having a vision and being able to communicate that vision with confidence. The idea-generating part of their brain is also very strong. It's like a muscle that has been strengthened with years of practice.

Q. You've worked on a lot of gritty shows. What's the fascination with the darker side of things?

A. [Laughs] I am a very happy person, so I wouldn't say that's come from anything I have experienced. But I've always been fascinated by why human beings are bad and what are the emotions behind them doing something "evil". I have always been attracted to things where the stakes are raised to life or death. For example, in The Americans, the fact that any decision the lead characters take could lead to death is more interesting to me than a break-up.

Q. The Americans was the first major TV series you were hired for. How was it starting your career with a niche cable series like this?

A. I had written a bunch of stuff — some feature-length scripts, some TV pilots, episodes of Homeland and Breaking Bad — that I applied to the showrunners with. But I think it all comes down to being in a room with them and connecting with them as a writer. Although my interview with them was over the phone, I think that when you are speaking to another writer, and if you are passionate about the subject matter, they can see that.

I think what worked for me was the fact that I was an immigrant and that my parents had an arranged marriage, just like the Russian spies in The Americans. In the show, the lead characters fall in love after 17 years of arranged marriage. And the fact that I wasn't from this culture really helped me. Funnily, I have contributed more in terms of the action on the show, because I love writing action. I also excel at writing torture scenes, which has kind of become a joke now.

Q. As a female writer of Indian origin in an industry largely dominated by white males, did you have a tough time breaking through before The Americans?

A. For Believe, the room was about 50% female because the show's creator, Mark Friedman, wanted a strong female perspective for our young female lead. And on Constantine, there are several diverse writers, regardless of quota or subject matter. It seems to be about the writing. Every show is different. And you just hope that your showrunner is smart, socially aware and seeking perspectives other than his or her own. I've been very lucky in that respect.

Q. Would you say that Hollywood is now embracing change when it comes to diversity in the writers' room?

A. I would say, yes and no. You know, you can count the number of female showrunners in Hollywood — Meredith Stiehm on The Bridge, Ann Biderman on Ray Donovan, Jenji Kohan on Orange is the New Black, Mindy Kaling. There's still some time to go before there is balance between white, male-dominated rooms and diverse rooms. The thing is that white writers have traditionally tried to work with friends, so they can sort of have a room where they can be unapologetic and don't have to be politically correct or be aware of women in the room. It's been a boys' club, so they are just more comfortable making jokes and not having to be diplomatic. But that's changing because there is now a drive to hire more female writers and more writers of colour. Of course, if you are not a good writer you will not be able to stand the test of time.

Q. Are diversity quotas a good sign for writers?

A. It's complicated. I think quotas exist because they're still needed in a predominantly white male industry. People tend to hire [individuals] who they know. However, people are also more accepting of how diversity provides the kind of perspective needed for complex writing. The great thing about television right now is that there are so many niche markets that these diverse perspectives can take centrestage.

Q. Do you ever plan on writing or making anything in India?

A. Definitely. India is a rich setting for stories. I have some stories set there, but with some American characters as well. A clash between the two cultures, or any story that involves an interweaving of the two cultures, would best represent me, since I've grown up in the U.S. but am still connected to my Indian heritage.

Q. What has been your biggest "Hollywood moment" so far?

A. I'm not sure I would call it a "Hollywood moment" because it wasn't this big glamorous thing, but it was a very proud moment — when my first episode of television aired, a group of my close writer friends in Los Angeles gathered at a friend's place to watch it. When my "written by" credit appeared on screen, we paused the show and they snapped photos of me standing next to my credit, a big smile on my face. It was a special moment for all of us, because it's a challenging thing to achieve, that first credit. But we're all in the fight together, so when one of us "makes it", it's a victory for the team. We all root for each other and look forward to those moments in all our careers.

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