The landscape of storytelling is changing in Hollywood. This change is powerfully impacting narratives about people of color. One person contributing to that change is Pilar Golden. Golden is a talented up-and-coming showrunner whose writing credits include SyFy’s Defiance, Hawaii Five-0, God Friended Me, and HBO Max’s Gossip Girl.
BGN had a video chat with Golden about choosing film and television school, the challenges she faces as a Black female screenwriter, and her advice for aspiring screenwriters.
What interested you in screenwriting. How did you determine you wanted to go to school for it?
My mother is a TV writer. She was the kind of mom who said, “Before you turn in your book report, before you turn in your essays, have you rewritten them?” She taught me how to write while simultaneously telling me, “Do not follow me in this industry.”
When I went to school, I was meandering, as I think most college students do. I wanted to go into politics and journalism, then I discovered that there was a school of film and television. Then I realized that really what I wanted to do was tell stories. I applied to the school behind her back. [Laughs]
Why do you think your mother wanted to discourage you from this industry?
My mom is a drama and comedy writer. In the 90s, there were so few Black people in writer’s rooms and very few Black women. This industry gives you so much joy. However, simultaneously will tear you down, and there’s a lot of heartbreak that comes with it.
This is especially true for marginalized writers, writers of color, Black women. A part of my mom was just like, “I’m not entirely sure if this is a business that I want you in simply because I want to protect your heart.” My mom and I are two very different personalities, so her little baby who’s naturally soft, she’s like, “this industry is not for you.”
What challenges have you faced as a Black female screenwriter?
The 90s are no different than the present day. I’ve been in the industry now for 16 years and still am was the only one in the room. I still was only going up for jobs that were deemed diversity hires.
I was still looked at as a Black writer instead of just a writer. I’ve been staffed on many shows. For every show that I’ve been staffed on, my boss has been a white male. As a writer of color, as with most writers of color, I had to repeat lower-level multiple times before I could propel up the ladder.
As you step into becoming a showrunner, how do you see yourself shifting how marginalized writers are treated?
I recently finished a writer’s room, and I was thinking about the lessons that I’ve learned. One of my writers is disabled, and it’s not something that I knew about her until we talked about a particular storyline. She started to use her voice, and even though my room was very safe, I could feel her discomfort.
We talked about it privately, and she said, “You know, being the only one in the room, sometimes it’s hard to advocate for yourself because you don’t know how someone will respond.” I completely understood what she meant. So, for me, it’s my goal when I have another room in the future to continue to create a safe space for people to feel like they can be an advocate for their own narrative.
How did you land your first role as a staff writer?
My agents put me up for a show called Defiance. It was days after I signed with them. I went in and met with the showrunner, Rockne O’Bannon. He liked me, and it was lovely because I didn’t expect to sign on a Friday, meet with a showrunner on a Tuesday, get hired on a Wednesday, and start on a Thursday. Truthfully, it was like, “Oh, wait, is this how it happens?”
The answer is no. During my first week there, one of the writers asked me, “Are you excited? It’s your first staffing experience.” I answered yes. He told me, “Yeah, my friend was up for the job, but you know, they were looking for a diversity hire.”
I had to take a step back. Nowhere in my week of joy did I consider myself a diversity hire. In fact, Rockne made it a point to say I’m hiring you because of your voice. I need someone who understands family in my room. He never once mentioned my race or my gender.
What types of stories do you want to create? What’s at the heart of who you are as a writer?
Now that there is more space for diverse voices and inclusivity is seemingly at the forefront of the industry, I want to always create complicated relationships, no matter what the world looks like.
I’m a big fan of, “Yes, and…” It was a big term in my room because two things can be true. If we have a villain, yes, and what else is there about that villain? It’s the same with a protagonist. In my room, there were four Black writers. I love that our commonality is our Blackness, but that’s it.
It’s important to me to illustrate in my stories that Blackness is not a monolith. My Blackness is different from your Blackness, is different from my three other writer’s Blackness, and to keep telling stories where Black voices are different and unique and beautiful and painful and all the things.
What can you share with us about the project on which you are currently working?
I can’t share 90% of it, but it’s a really cool project with Sinking Ship Entertainment. My producing partners reached out to me last year. I was fortunate enough that this company saw in me the ability to put family at the forefront and really tell complex stories. Somehow they thought I could lead a room and lead a show.
This show highlights what I just said: Blackness is beautiful, unique, complicated, and inspiring. We get to tell a myriad of Black narratives that I don’t know that we’ve seen before. I don’t want to say I did something new, but what will be nice about it is that it will feel both comforting and unique.
What is your biggest piece of advice for aspiring screenwriters of color?
Remember that not every writer’s path is the same. Getting to the seat at the table is your own journey. Many writers will tell you to read and write like that’s all you need to be doing. I always tell writers to live. If you’re always stuck in front of your computer, you’re not experiencing what’s happening around you. Then, your observations become so singularly focused. The more you live, the more you experience, then the better your writing is.
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Celestial Holmes is passionate about the power of prose, and she uses it to uplift her people for various Afrocentric outlets. She is also a published author, writing under the pseudonym Mbinguni.