The Interview: TrackingB TV Finalists Thomas Aguilar & Michael Ballin

Writing partners don’t always see eye to eye. They don’t always find their creative rhythm. And sometimes they even go their separate ways. But when writing partners Michael Ballin and Thomas Aguilar have a disagreement they can only go so far. That’s because they’re brothers. Mike and Tom grew up in the community of Pico Rivera near Los Angeles. Being siblings helped them develop a shorthand that they employ in their creative process and one they employed while tackling a new teleplay called “Alternative Medicine.”

“Alternative Medicine” recently made the finals in TrackingB’s TV script contest. The procedural’s deathly ill protagonist rails against what he sees as a corrupt system by taking his medical treatment, and the treatment of others, into his own hands. In an interview via email the brothers talk about the near-death experience that became the genesis of the script, finding time to write, and “fighting it out.”

Synoptic Media: This script is an indictment of the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries. From where did the idea come?

Tom: About 5 years ago we had a simple idea to do a different type of doctor show from someone who didn’t actually go through training or was licensed, but was brilliant like a "Good Will Hunting"-type character. But we didn’t have much else. Mike dealt with an illness where he had a serious procedure and nearly died on the table. He survived and went through a whole year of going to different doctors. And his understandable resentment from that experience helped form this rebellious idea of "underground medicine."

Mike: Once you've gone through many different doctors with few results, you get the idea that nobody really knows what they’re doing. Medicine is a trained practice. Now I had a great surgeon, who totally went above and beyond for me, but the healing process was tough and many times other doctors couldn’t help. I started reading journals myself [and] tried some healing medications from online and they worked! Then eventually we broke story on this and wanted it to reflect the “real side” of the medical industry that you don’t really see on TV.

Excerpt from the teleplay "Alternative Medicine"

Tom: Exactly. A broken healthcare system affects everyone. Like how doctors can make mistakes, insurance companies can be ruthless, and how the pharmaceutical side operates as a profit-based enterprise. It was a new way into the medical procedural that felt fresh.  

Synoptic Media: Your main character, Victor, narrates his story. How did you decide to use that particular storytelling device?

Mike: Honestly, it came out of scouring the web when I was sick and going to these dark corners of the internet where people would give advice, criticize, and document their own treatment in the most honest way... little forums that I consumed daily in hopes of getting better. 

Tom: We felt like having our VO be a version of these would give it a different feel—like if Victor had a blog, this would be on it. And that’s still very much a possibility that he’ll make one, but we felt to get through his background and to believe this, VO was vital. 

Mike: And people say don’t use VO, it’s a crutch and we felt that too, but when it works for your story and there’s good reason for it, use it. Like in “Dexter,” where without VO it would be hard to root for a vigilante serial killer, but if you're privy to Dexter's thoughts and rationalization it makes it easier. VO was our way to comment on the world, Victor’s thoughts, and his current situation while letting us empathize with him. 

TrackingB contest finalists Thomas Aguilar and Michael Ballin

Synoptic Media: What’s your process like?

Mike:  It usually starts with coffee and a game of ping pong or a game of Madden. We honestly make it like a music studio environment where it's relaxed. We put on music and then start bouncing ideas off each other. We approach outlines a little differently. We like to use Google Slides and make interactive outlines with GIFS, pictures, videos, and links. It's a really fun to lay out our story and create the tone of our script. We pass that "outline" back and forth for a few weeks, while diving into heavy research until it's ready. Then we'll break into writing it out, which takes about a week. After that we just take anywhere from 5-15 passes on it. One of the most essential parts of the process is the "page by page," where we really go through the script line by line to find its rhythm and accent our big story beats. We'll do a few reads with trusted friends and refine some more. We both know our own personal strengths and weaknesses so that's good. Sometimes I'll focus on structure and Tom will get dialogue. We joke and say "I lace the track you lock the flow" because it has that collaborative feel. Plus we grew up in a noisy, busy house, so we like our atmosphere to be open as well. 

Synoptic Media:  A lot of writing collaborations fizzle out fast. But it sounds like being brothers has a lot of upside in your partnership and process. How do you handle disputes or disagreements?

Tom: Usually we prefer to fight it out like an epic scene from “Step Brothers” and early on we had quite a few arguments. I mean, we’re siblings… we'll fight about anything. But we have grown to really trust the process and make it about telling the best story possible. 

Mike: One of us will usually take a stand for something and they’ll usually win. Sometimes Tom will tell me something and I'll disagree (but secretly think he’s probably right). A day will go by and I think, yeah, let’s do it. Now it's really “best idea wins” and you know it when you see it. That really guides us home. And honestly the partnership is cool because we just like hanging out together. 

We have grown to really trust the process and make it about telling the best story possible.
— Thomas Aguilar, Screenwriter

Synoptic Media:  How many scripts have you written? 

Tom & Mike: We write everything together. We’ve written four drama pilots and nine feature film specs. And some other specs/pilots that haven’t escaped Final Draft, for good reason!

Synoptic Media: Have you had any scripts produced?

Tom & Mike: Nothing produced yet, but we have a script, “Skateland” at Imagine Entertainment. We also got a feature, “The Golden Gate,” based on the designing and building of the landmark, which placed in quarterfinals at Nicholl.

Synoptic Media:  Do you have representation?

Tom & Mike: Yes, we’re repped by Mike Goldberg and Kyle Loftus at APA. They're great agents! They give amazing feedback and guidance, plus they're really exceptional at what they do. 

Excerpt from the teleplay "Alternative Medicine"

Synoptic Media: What kinds of doors have contests like TrackingB’s opened for you?

Tom & Mike: TrackingB has opened doors in many ways including: getting great people to read our material, helping us out there in the world as writers, and helping secure some great meetings. The site’s founder introduced us to our agents and really helped us navigate this crazy time. 

Synoptic Media: What do each of you do to support your writing habits?  

Tom: I think working in the business is a great form of exposure and experience. I started my career in TV working at Sony Television. Afterwards, I then went on to work in Features at Imagine Entertainment, which was a true building block in my career. I currently work for Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz at “Once Upon A Time,” which has been a phenomenal learning experience, plus they're really great guys. Working in this town equals long hours. Finding the balance between writing and working is always tough, but you gotta make the time. Having a robust social life isn't easy and my weekends are basically non-existent. 

Mike: I read and did coverage on a ton of scripts as a development intern at places like New Line Cinema and Fox. I've also PA'd at a number of production companies, but for the past two years I’ve been teaching and writing. The schedule helps with writing every single day. Also, it allows us to stack projects and keep churning out work in a productive manner. It's hard to break into this industry as one person, but we figured out a way that works great for both of us. Honestly, we feel lucky because we’re a team with individual strengths that we utilize.