For years, David Hoffman ’05 would step onto the Metro-North train at the Chappaqua stop in Westchester each morning and settle into his seat for the hour-long commute to his Midtown office. Rather than doze off or gaze out the window, Hoffman used his commute to explore a subject he’d always felt drawn to: screenwriting.
What started as a project existing only within the confines of his commute quickly became much more, and ultimately led Hoffman to make the leap to writing full time. He is now a writer for the NBC series Timeless, which recently completed its second season, about a team of time travelers racing to stop a villain who is trying to undo key moments in history.
Hoffman transformed himself from finance professional to entertainment writer—an uncommon path he had to forge on his own. Leaving a lucrative, stable job was a true leap of faith for Hoffman, but lucky for him, he stuck the landing. Here’s how he did it.
How did the transition from working in finance to writing for television come about?
After business school I went to Lehman Brothers for two years, then made a move to iShares, a startup in the early stages of building the ETF industry. They got acquired around the same time that my wife was pregnant with our second child and we decided to move to the suburbs. The longer commute provided a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my career and I realized that while I loved my job, I was missing the ability to think creatively. So, after some urging from my wife, I thought about picking up an old hobby: writing.
At first it was just a way to flex my creative muscles. I spent six months learning how to write a screenplay, reading books—just digesting as much information as I could find. Then I decided it was time to take the plunge and try to write something myself. I was also traveling a lot, so I would write whenever I was on planes or sitting in a hotel room.
Columbia prepared me not only for finance, but also for writing. TV writing really is a collaborative process and so in some ways it felt like I was back in my cluster with people from different backgrounds working together to solve a problem.
I submitted my first screenplay to writing contests and got enough positive feedback that I thought, well, I guess I should write another one. It happened like that for a few years until one of the contests got me not yet on the radar, but closer to the radar. At this point, my wife got a job offer in LA, and my company let me transfer to their LA office. Once in LA, I wrote a feature script set in the 1960s and a pilot set at a hedge fund, and each would go on to win awards that finally earned me recognition. I started to get calls from people who wanted to read my work, which lead to a manager and ultimately an agent.
The first few months were exciting but surreal: I was still working in investment management but was now also trying to fit in time to do meetings with production companies about my scripts. Then my agent called and told me that NBC had a new show and it was looking for a writer with expertise in history. That show was Timeless. When they offered me a job, it was one of those don’t-sleep-for-two-nights decisions. My wife and I had to ask ourselves, “Can we afford this?” and, “I love this as a hobby, but do I want to do it for life?” We went through all the pros and cons and decided we could take the risk for a little while, and if it didn’t work out I would go back to finance.
Here we are two years later. Fortunately, things worked out well and I never had to look back.
Hoffman on the set of episode 207, which he wrote, about the Suffragette movement.
Was the career transition difficult for you?
I had just gotten promoted at my job and was back at a smaller company that I really loved, so telling them that I was leaving on such short notice was brutal. I gave my notice on a Thursday and found myself in the Timeless offices the following Monday.
A lot of writing for TV is spent in a room with other writers surrounded by whiteboards, talking through different ideas. Coming from the corporate world I felt comfortable in that setting. Columbia prepared me not only for finance, but also for writing. TV writing really is a collaborative process and so in some ways it felt like I was back in my cluster with people from different backgrounds working together to solve a problem.
Do you have any advice for other people who are looking to make a drastic career change?
If there is a way you can explore your passion without forfeiting your day job, that’s an ideal first step. Because I had a family, I started by just dipping my toe into the pool and writing as a hobby.
Second, you should talk to people who already do whatever it is you want to do. I learned that writing as a hobby and writing professionally are two very different things in terms of the pressure and the expectations.
My last thought is: I realized that it was better to take the chance than to be left wondering if it’s something you should have tried. I 100 percent made the right choice and am glad I had the opportunity to make that change.
Hoffman poses with Timeless actors and writers behind the scenes.
What does a typical day as a Timeless writer look like?
We have a writer’s room with about 10 writers in it, and, to keep the math simple, 10 episodes per season. That generally means every writer in the room gets to write one episode (I wrote episode 207 in season 2). We collaborate on the outlines for each episode in the season – historical period, guest character, love story, what the characters are going through –then one individual is tasked with turning that outline into a script.
So, each time an episode outline gets approved by the showrunners, the writer assigned to that episode will go off for about a week and write the first draft. Meanwhile, the other writers will move on to the next episode and restart that same process. When you get assigned to your episode, there is a really stressful period of trying to turn an outline into a 50-page draft. You turn that draft in to your bosses and they give you notes back, and you have another two or three days to address those notes. From there it’s a collaborative process where you address their feedback and they input their own stamp on things as well. Then you very quickly move to making casting decisions or working with the props team to turn the script into something that can be shot within a certain timeframe and budget.
Producing my own episode meant being on set when the actors have questions, discussing the props, talking to the director about changing the scene, being the one who makes sure the episode translates from paper to screen, and it was such a thrill for me.
Press on Timeless refers to you as the show’s historian, did you complete additional degrees for that expertise?
I was a history major at the University of Pennsylvania and I grew up reading history, so when I started writing, it was natural for me to lean on that for stories. One thing that business school teaches you is how to filter through information and sort out what is relevant and what is just noise and I actually think that helped me find the nugget within a historical text that might be a fit for an interesting movie or TV show.
If you’re an equity analyst or a stock picker or fund manager, so much of your job is trying to understand what information is relevant and what is not. I would say a lot of my role as the historian for Timeless is the same thing.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Timeless are available to stream on Hulu.