Have you been watching The Bridge, FX’s new border-set crime drama? I have. The episodes are often heart-pounding, chest clutchers and the cliffhangers infuriating. The show follows two homicide detectives who work on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Played by Oscar-nominated Demián Bichir (A Better Life) and Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) the two cops join together to track down a serial killer.
A few weeks ago while watching “Vendetta,” an episode written by Fernanda Coppel, I found myself sitting at the edge of my seat (about to fall off of it) when in the middle of a pivotal reveal, it just ended. I literally screamed at my TV, “Noooooooo!! I can’t wait a week to find out what happens!!!”
Coppel, an NYC-based playwright, is part of a team of writers who work on “The Bridge.” I met up with Fernanda to pick her brain. How did a Latina playwright end up writing for a hit cable TV show?
When did you first begin to consider writing as a career?
I didn’t realize that writing was an actual career until my first year at NYU. I was doing an MFA in Dramatic Writing at Tisch and all of my professors were working writers. I thought, “Wow, this is possible.”
Where and what did you study? After college, did you enroll in any other writing programs?
I attended UC Santa Cruz for undergrad, where I majored in Literature with the intention of going to law school after graduation. But my freshman year I went to see a play for the first time and was bitten by the theater bug. After being encouraged by my mentor, professor, and now friend Alma Martinez, I applied to MFA programs (in playwriting) my senior year of college. I went to NYU because they gave me a full scholarship, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. At 21, I moved to NYC a month after my college graduation and started the two year masters program. My last year at NYU, I took a class with Marsha Norman, who encouraged me to apply to her fellowship program at The Juilliard School. I was a resident playwright there for three years where I continued to study with Marsha and Christopher Durang.
What sorts of jobs did you have while pursuing writing?
I’ve been supporting myself since I was 16, so I’ve worked a lot of crazy jobs. I’ve done everything from wash boats, work in maintenance, box office/house managing, telemarketing, front desk/receptionist, writing direction manuals, busing tables, various retail gigs, filing papers for hours upon hours….the list goes on.
How did the opportunity to write for “The Bridge” come to you?
Through my agents. They had been submitting me for TV work since I signed with them. I was interviewing for a couple of shows last winter, two of which went well so I was waiting to hear back when my agents called about “The Bridge.” The executive producers, Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, set up a Skype session with me. They really responded to one of my plays and we had a great chat about the show. I honestly thought nothing would come of it, until I got an email later that night from them saying “We want you for the show, can you start next Monday in LA?”
Did you have any reservations about writing for TV or did you say yes right away?
I said yes right away. I had a couple of years to think about it and talk it over the possibility with my partner. The big question you really have to answer when going into TV is, do you want to move to LA or spend half of the year there? But for an opportunity like this I would have moved to Fiji.
Can you talk about the process of writing the episodes. Is there a story arc already decided upon? Does everyone pitch ideas for all the episodes or do you work on them separately?
We basically sit in a room and hash it out daily. It’s a 10-6pm, Monday-Friday type of schedule where the writers and showrunners (when they can, their schedule is usually very hectic) sit at a board room type table, in a room filled with eraser boards and we just pitch things, talk it out, until the each episode is structured into acts and ready to be written.
Our show is based on a Swedish show called Bron, so we had a blueprint of the serial killer plot that the showrunners wanted to follow but they also wanted to make the series specific to the Texas-Mexico border so there was a lot of room for new material.
As a Latina writer do you feel any special responsibility when telling stories about the Mexican side of the border?
Although I was the only Latina on the writing staff, I wasn’t the only Latina/o working for the show. We had two Mexican tech advisers, one of which was on set at all times. Their job was to make the Mexican side of the show authentic. It was handled with care and attention to detail.
As a writer my job was to pitch compelling stories in the writers room. As a Latina I’m hyper aware of all the Latino/a stereotypes on TV and in film, so I was constantly trying to pitch story lines that went against the popular narrative. I would stalk my bosses around the office and via email (probably annoying them at times) with my reasoning and impassioned pleas. Sometimes I won and those things made it into the show and sometimes I lost. It can be difficult. But you learn to savor the small victories.
Since the show is set in Juarez which does happen to be a dangerous city with a high crime rate, it’s difficult to shy away from stereotypes of organized crime and violence towards women because of the current reality in Juarez, Mexico. I can say that on “The Bridge” the writers did diligent research on that specific area and did base characters and storylines on actual events. There are some heartbreaking moments to come in the last two episodes.
What’s your favorite aspect of the show?
I love the cast. It’s rare to be able to work for a show that was able to cast so many talented Latino/a actors. Although the roles varied, some were rich and compelling characters that haven’t been on television before like Adriana (played by Emily Rios). I loved that character and her arc throughout the show, I hope more strong Latina women like her are presented in film and television.
Were you present during the shooting? Did you help with rewrites on the set?
Yes. I was onset for the episodes that I wrote, in every creative meeting for my episodes (costume, props, etc., even tech scouts), and I was involved in post (editing and even sound mixing). Being on set felt very natural to me. It’s very much like being in rehearsal for a play, except the hours on a set are very grueling. In some instances I did rewrite on set, which happens.
Any funny or memorable stories from your experience working on “The Bridge”?
While filming episode 8, Demian Bichir had a scene where he vomits. Demian is an extremely brilliant actor who is very dedicated so he insisted on actually throwing up every single take. He was given salt and a juice that smelled like old pig guts and every take he literally blew chunks. We did like four or five takes. It was insane!
The Bridge airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.