This month, we spoke to screenwriter and AFI Alum Wei-Ning Yu (AFI Class of 2010) who first broke into writing for television on the neo-noir murder mystery BRIARPATCH. This year, she served as a writer on the critically acclaimed true-crime series THE DROPOUT from Liz Meriwether that charted the course of disgraced Theranos CEO and Founder Elizabeth Holmes. Shortly after, Wei-Ning joined the writing staff for the much-anticipated season 2 of SEVERANCE – a high-concept, Kafka and Kaufman-esque series, created by Dan Erickson and executive produced by Ben Stiller.
AFI spoke with Wei-Ning about how she gained a foothold in the industry after writing scripts for many years, what advice she’d give to screenwriters starting out and what drew her to write for such bold and distinct shows as THE DROPOUT and SEVERANCE.
AFI: What initially made you want to become a screenwriter? What kinds of storytelling are you drawn to as an artist?
Wei-Ning: Growing up, my parents told me a lot of stories about immigrating to the U.S. Their stories were often heightened and wildly entertaining. As a child, I took them at face value. But as I grew up, I began to realize that these stories were just that – stories. It was a way for my parents to mask the hard reality of coming to this country and to forget things they’d rather not remember. The fact that there is so much I don’t know about them has always stayed with me – and the reason I turned to writing. Not just to explore the mystery of my parents’ past – but to explore the mysteries people hold within themselves and all the questions they are afraid to ask.
As an artist, I’m attracted to stories that take big creative risks and are often polarizing to viewers. This usually means it has something to say. Commerce has a way of sanding everything down. So, I’m always searching for stories that break the mold – stories that show me something I’ve never seen before.
AFI: Why did you decide to apply to the AFI Conservatory, and are there any lessons or tools you learned from the Screenwriting program that you still use in your career today?
Wei-Ning: I had been working crazy hours at a production company and writing screenplays at night. The hours were untenable. At one point, my boss offered me a promotion. I knew if I accepted it, that would be my life. I’d have to put writing on the back, back, back burner. I wasn’t ready to give it up. So, I applied to AFI. I owed it to myself to chase down this dream and to give my writing a real chance to grow.
AFI changed the way I thought about storytelling. Up until grad school, I am embarrassed to admit I had a fairly limited scope of cinema. In many ways, it exposed me to the beauty of nuanced and personal storytelling. I learned that specificity isn’t something to shy away from, but where the power of your story resides.
AFI: How did you get a foothold in the industry, particularly in your first writers’ room on BRIARPATCH? What did you take away from your experience working with creator Andy Greenwald and the other writers on the show?
Wei-Ning: I had written a dozen or more scripts after AFI. None of which felt like me. I think I was still too afraid to embrace the weirdness of my own voice. I was chasing what I believed was palatable to the industry. But the moment I stopped writing for them and wrote for me, doors began to open. Within a few months, I met with a prolific television producer. He set me up with a manager and an agent. They sent out my pilot, and shortly thereafter, I staffed on BRIARPATCH.
BRIARPATCH remains a fairytale of a staffing job. Not only did Andy have a distinct vision for the show, but he also had a keen sense of what the writers needed to thrive. He created an environment where we could deliver our best work. From him, I learned that the showrunner’s job isn’t just to tell people what to do. It’s important to listen and really hear what other writers are trying to say.
AFI: You recently worked as a Story Editor on THE DROPOUT. What about Elizabeth Holmes’ story really resonated with you and what was it like mapping out the first season, especially as her trial was still unfolding?
Wei-Ning: I first learned about Elizabeth Holmes when I came across the ABC news podcast, THE DROPOUT, which the show is based on. It’s an awesome piece of journalism if you haven’t already listened to it. A big bulk of the podcast are interviews with past employees. So many of them were still grappling with their time at Theranos, and you get the feeling that it changed the course of their lives and who they became in the wake of working for Elizabeth. And so I came to the show as someone who was deeply interested in the ramifications – both to people who worked at the company and those who were exposed to its practices.
With respect to the trial, it was extremely tricky to map out the season. But Liz Meriwether, our showrunner, smartly incorporated new information as the trial progressed. I think what also helped us tremendously was the fact that our focus wasn’t squarely on “what happened” but rather how did this happen? And what does it say about us as a country? We wanted to ask larger questions about women in business and the bar for success. And we tried to approach those questions from a deeply human place and tried to connect those answers to who Elizabeth was at different points along her journey.
AFI: Congratulations on SEVERANCE being picked up for a second season by Apple TV+. What were some of the challenges and rewards of working on such a high-concept series with so much talent involved onscreen and off?
Wei-Ning: Ben and Dan have built such an extraordinary series. It was quite intimidating to join the show in the second season. But I had really sparked to the characters, the mysteries and the unique poetry of the show. A big part of the challenge was figuring out how we can top a stunning first season and continue pushing the premise in interesting and unexpected ways. To do that, I had to fully immerse myself in the language of the show and familiarize myself with vast layers of information and history which Ben and Dan had so carefully constructed. It was quite a feat, but it was also creatively exhilarating.
AFI: If you could give advice to someone just starting out in the industry, what would it be? What do you wish you had known earlier in your career that you know now?
Wei-Ning: I read a piece of writing advice early on that said: cleave to your voice. At that time, it seemed like a simple edict to follow. What I found is that it takes courage and stamina to stay true to yourself and the work you want to put out into the world. The industry will test you a million different ways. You have to determine what success looks like to you – which pieces of yourself you’re willing to give and which pieces you need to hold onto. If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself that.
AFI: Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited to work on that you can share more about?
Wei-Ning: I have two television projects in development that I’m madly in love with. I’m working with Hulu on a tragicomic family drama, set against the collapse of an iconic American company. I’m also working on a modern retelling of “The Brothers Karamazov” through the lens of a Chinese American family.