Spotlight: Gwen Sigan
As the new showrunner on Chicago P.D., Gwen Sigan understands a good character arc.
Having started at Wolf Entertainment in 2014 as the initial P.D. showrunner Matt Olmstead’s assistant, it’s not lost on Sigan that this promotion brings her own story full circle.
We sat down with the new head writer to learn more about her journey, the creative process involved with Chicago P.D. ‘s production, and advice she’d give to television’s future generation of talent.
Q: You started as an assistant on Chicago P.D. Now you’re showrunning the series. Take us back to 2014 when you first got involved with the show.
A: It was the second season of Chicago P.D., and I was hired on as Matt Olmstead’s assistant.
In addition to working at Matt’s desk, I was simultaneously rotating as the writer’s assistant on Chicago Fire. It was pure coincidence that they didn’t have one designated for Chicago Fire at the time and since there were three personal assistants assigned to two shows, we got to switch off being in Chicago Fire’s writer’s room.
Looking back, that’s a pretty rare job to get at an entry-level.
From my first day on set, I always loved Chicago P.D., and it was the best experience I could’ve had ahead of being staffed on the show. Matt was such a mentor and so willing to let me see every single draft of the script, observe the actors, and really see what worked and didn’t work.
Q: Before working at Wolf Entertainment, did you have previous writing experience?
A: I went to film school at Columbia College Chicago and finished my degree in Los Angeles. From there I was doing what everyone does- trying to find any way possible to stay in LA and get my foot in the door.
After working at CCC for a while, writing as much as I could, and working on a few pilots, I ended up getting an agent. People tried to convince me to pursue other avenues, but I was looking for a way to be around writers as much as possible. Getting that face-time was really important to me.
The showrunner’s assistant gig was one of the first jobs I went out for, so Wolf was my first job in the television industry.
I got incredibly lucky, and I’m very grateful that’s where I landed. My track is rare because there aren’t many shows that run for so long, where it’d even be possible to return in the 9th season. Wolf Entertainment is a place that’s happy to give opportunities if you’re right for the environment.
Q: Your promotion comes at a time when the season is already in full swing. Does taking over the position at this point in time change any storylines that may have been planned? How far in advance do the writers map out a season?
A: Usually we will get in the room at the beginning of a season and plot it out in three chunks by episode. We also start with big overarching themes. What are some arcs for our characters at large that take them from here and bring them to there?
This year we did episodes 1-7. Sometimes it’ll be 1-8 or 9 depending on how many writers we have and also where midseason finale falls. We do that, then we come back, and we’ll do the next installment. So this year we did episodes 8-15 and, right now, we’re going back to figure out what we want for 16-22.
Coming in when I came in, the transition was really smooth because we already had the themes and the staff set. There was already momentum going, so it was a matter of keeping that moving.
Q: Can you walk us through a day in the life of a showrunner?
A: The fun thing is that every day looks a little different. It’s a lot of managing time between the writing and production processes since they’re going on simultaneously. Overall I’m ‘in story.’
On the writing side, that looks like responding to new sections of script by giving notes and editing. I like to write in the mornings and then do the rest of the work in the afternoon.
When we’re in production, it’s making sure notes we take during shooting get added. We’re always in production, so we’ve got meetings all day, and there is a lot of touching base with the crew that’s in Chicago. We have the best cast with great ideas, so we incorporate their feedback and block cuts. It’s all about keeping it moving, keeping everyone on course, and just making sure we’re coming up with great stories. At the end of the day, it is all about the story.
Q: When it comes to creating an episode, what is the process from coming up with the story to the finished product we see on screen?
A: We start with hearing pitches at the start of a season or midseason. Oftentimes, those ideas surround a great character dilemma, ‘what’s the perfect crime that could fit and tell this story for us?’
From there, the [episodic] writer will break off and write the story themselves in the form of a slim beat sheet. We look at it, we talk about it, we do edits, we reorder. We’ll kind of live in the beat sheet process for a bit. What’s the best way we can tell this story? What are we feeling? What aren’t we feeling? We’ll keep playing within that loose framework until we nail the structure we want.
After that it becomes an outline, and once we get notes back from the studio, network, and Wolf Entertainment, we write the script. If everything’s going great, that writer will have up to two weeks. The whole process evolves pretty naturally to the point of a table read. It’s so collaborative, and there are always little details that come up, so it really reaches every department by the time we have the final script you see on air.
Q: What about Chicago P.D. do you think resonates so much with audiences?
A: I think it’s probably that we are able to tell character stories within the format of a police show.
Our characters are real human beings with flaws. It’s very human storytelling, and when you pair that with the very muscular vehicle of a crime story, you get something really entertaining to watch.
I think that’s why audiences respond to it. It’s because of the characters. We have such a good cast that portray these people: They just feel real. You feel their struggles and their dilemmas. When you get to add that to a case that has dynamics and stakes, it brings up a lot of emotion.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A: Find time to write and find a way to get access. Those are the two things you need.
I personally believe it will always come down to the writing. If you have the ability to write, and you’ve got the craft and the talent, writers will want to hire you. It’s invaluable. It’s the most important thing in a room to have that skill set. There are innumerable ways to find access, but number one is the writing. Secondly, find a way for people to see you have it.