Thursday, February 25, 2010

Getting My Start - part 3: Crossing Jordan

I left my story two weeks ago having just gotten the writers P.A. job at Crossing Jordan. Here's what happened while I was there.

The duties of a writers P.A. are similar to those of a Production P.A. -- copying scripts, getting lunches and coffee etc. The key difference, is that you're now looking after the needs of up to a dozen writers. It's more important than ever at this point to make yourself stand out as a dependable person. It's sometimes hard to remember this when you're doing things like picking up a breast milk pump, delivering it to a producer's wife at a hospital 40 miles away where she waits for news about her elderly dying mother, sit awkwardly in the waiting room with her practically grieving family while she creates a bottle, then take said bottle, on ice, back to L.A. for her infant child who is with the family nanny (this is a true story, though it didn't happen to me at Crossing Jordan). The lesson here is to do all of it with a smile and think "It's okay, I'll blog about it one day."

It sounds stupid, and maybe it is, but being able to correctly order and deliver a dozen coffees can make or break you in the minds of the writers and your other bosses. If they start thinking of you as someone they can rely on, you'll start getting more responsibilities -- ones that might interest you, or maybe even be related to writing. I remember being thrilled as a writers P.A. that I got to proof read the scripts. I was only looking for typos, but it was key in my mind that I was actually headed in the direction of "writing".

I must have done okay because the Script Coordinator at Crossing Jordan, Mike Daley, offered to train me how to do his job. It's not a super difficult job but there are a number of technical and procedural steps to follow. There aren't any books that I know of and every show does it slightly differently, so it's definitely one of those jobs that is only learned through an old master/apprentice type of relationship. The benefit of this for me was that I was taking on more responsibility and it also meant Mike had someone he could depend on should he ever need to take a day off. Eventually, Mike decided to take a job on another show and recommended me to the writers as the person who should take over. It was a no-brainer for them; I knew the job, and more importantly, I knew the show. Writers are typically introverted people, we don't like conflict or change, so whenever there's a smooth transition available, that's what we opt for.

I was now a Script Coordinator, working directly with the writers and having them depend on me. A script coordinator is responsible for handling every draft of the script before it is distributed to the cast and crew. It means making sure scene and page numbers are correct, coordinating who gets the different drafts, and a number of other things. It sounds simple, but it can quickly become complicated. Once a script is "locked" you can't change the scene or page numbers otherwise production gets confused. Once they begin prepping an episode, they'll refer to "scene 10" and everyone will know that's the one where the car explodes. If later on the writer decides to add a scene immediately before it, the car exploding scene has to remain "scene 10" so the new scene gets labeled "A10". Page numbers function in a similar but slightly different fashion. Now imagine you're moving a scene from the front to the back... and adding one... and removing another... you get the picture. Writers don't want to be bothered with this crap, that's what a script coordinator is for. Making a writer's life easier is always a good thing.

As an added bonus if you fuck it up, 200 people are going to see it, including the Studio and Network executives. And worse, it's going to have the writer's name on the front so they're going to feel embarrassed and it's going to be your fault. Am I making this job sound fun yet? The benefit to all of this, is that every time you do it well you're building more of those valuable psychological points in the writers minds as a "dependable person".

I did this well enough that when Tim Kring created Heroes he asked me to handle the script coordinating duties for the pilot, and then for the show once it got picked up for series.

I should note that during my time as a writers' P.A. the writers assistant job became available. I was eager to have it but it was given to the other writers' P.A. who had started a few weeks before me (we had two writers PAs at Crossing Jordan, most shows have one). It made sense as he was slightly more senior but was nonetheless disappointing. I mention this for two reasons. The first is that even if you're not "more senior" you should still put yourself out there and express interest. If the writers think of you as more dependable than the "more senior" person, there's a chance they'll take you instead. That wasn't the case in this instance but it needs to be stated: There is no real hierarchy in this business.

The second reason, is that if I had gotten that job, I might not have ended up at Heroes. This sort of thing has happened to me a few times in my career -- missing out on one job but then seeing it turn into a better opportunity down the road. In short, I guess I'm saying don't get disheartened when you get passed up, there are a lot of different paths to get where you're going. Oh, and the other writers' P.A. -- missed out on a job at Heroes, but went on to become a writer on Pushing Daisies. Like I said, lots of different paths.

Next week I'll talk about my time at Heroes and where me next opportunities came from. Keep the questions coming, either in the comments or via email and I'll answer them as best I can. If you're hungry for more information on being/becoming a writer, here are a few other resources by people far more knowledgeable than me... or is it,"far more knowledgeable than I"? See what I mean. Anyway:

Amanda the Aspiring Writer - Amanda covers a ton of topics including many of the different avenues to becoming a writer other than just the assistant-route.

John August
- Besides being an awesome person, John is an extremely talented and experienced screenwriter (Charlie's Angels, Big Fish). He has a lot of great advice about the craft of writing.

The Pen is Mightier than the Spork
- The blog of UK writer James Moran (Doctor Who, Torchwood) is no longer active, but his "Big Writing FAQ" has some excellent advice for any writer on either side of the pond.

All of the above people are also active on twitter if, like me, you're into that sort of thing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Getting My Start - part 2

Thanks for the great response to my previous post, I'm glad people are getting some useful information out of it. Before I continue I need to pause and answer a couple of great questions I got from readers that relate to the previous post.

Melissa, a Junior Boston College (my alma mater), took a recent interest in film and only has enough time to get a film minor, not the full major. She wondered whether that would hurt her chances of getting a job after graduation.

I often hear people asking whether they need a film major or whether they should go to film school after college. For the entry-level jobs I'm talking about, a film major isn't going to make or break you. It certainly won't hurt, but in no means is it a "requirement". I majored in English and minored in film and made it through the ranks okay. And I've seen plenty of people hired with no film classes or background. However, where you do benefit from taking those classes (besides learning something) is in the "skills" you can list on your resume. If you want to go into editing and are looking for a job as P.A. in post-production or an assistant at a post production house, being able to list that you're well versed in AVID and Final Cut Pro is certainly going to help. Likewise, a familiarity with Movie Magic Screenwriter and Final Draft might help when you're trying to work your way into a writers office. One of things I forgot to mention about P.A. work is that you'll be doing a lot of tech support. Sure you can call the NBC support center in India or wait for a tech to drive halfway across town in traffic to help out your irate Executive Producer, but if you can fix the problem right then and there you'll look like a superstar -- and more importantly, you'll stick in his or her mind as "helpful".

The other benefit of taking film classes (and especially going to film school) are the contacts you'll make. You never know who's going to get a break and can help you out on their way up or at the very least pass on job opportunities they hear about. Which brings me to my next question...

Phil in Seattle (I think) asked "How does one go from working as a PA on indie projects they find on Craigslist to interviewing for a PA position on a "real" project?"

It's an excellent question and I apologize for skipping over this. In essence it's all about the contacts you make. More than likely, there'll be a few people on an indie set who also work on industry projects. Working on an indie often gives them the chance to work slightly higher up on the position-scale -- for instance, a set P.A. or a 2nd 2nd A.D. on a Network show might take the time to work on an indie film as a 1st A.D. or some other position they wouldn't normally have the opportunity to do. These are the people that can help you out down the line. If they remember you were eager and helpful to them on set, they might recommend you to their bosses when they go back to their "day job", or let you know about other jobs they hear about. Unless you happen to end up working on a student film or some guys with a flip-cam, my bet is there will at least be a few people with some contacts in the industry.

Another thing you can do is to call around to the production offices, even if they're not hiring most places will put your resume on file. Admittedly it's pretty rare that someone will then pull your resume out of that file -- almost all interviews come from recommendations or referrals -- but it's certainly better than not being in there. And if you're able to put that little bit of experience you have on there, all the better.

Many of the production houses/networks/studios etc. offer internships or have something akin to the NBC page program. They're not easy to get, but don't let that deter you from trying. Put yourself in for all of them and increase your chances. Many internships are only offered to students in exchange for college credit, so if you're in college, now may be the best time to get your foot in the door.

Finally, there's something called the UTA job list. This is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
"One of the things UTA is famous for is the elusive "UTA Job List". The list includes many assistant position job listings for agent/publicist/manager hopefuls. UTA will not confirm the existence of such a list, but it does indeed exist and is only available to those with connections to people within Hollywood to be able to obtain it."
Makes Hollywood sound like a secret society doesn't it? I can confirm its existence as it has passed through my inbox from time-to-time. From what I remember most of the jobs required some sort of industry experience so it might not be all that useful for people trying to break in, but some odd things do appear on there so it doesn't hurt to look. As for how to get it? I'm not too sure, but I'd suggest at least starting with a google search.

In short, while it's certainly not easy to break into the industry, there are ways to do it. I know it's tough starting out and can seem daunting -- you're lonely; you don't know anyone or even anyone who knows anyone, the whole process is completely unorthodox and there are absolutely no guarantees. But don't give up. My advice is to use brute force. Keep trying and eventually you'll find a door that you can shove yourself through. There's a saying out here that no one "fails" in Hollywood, they just stop trying. I'd venture the same can be said for trying to break in.

And before I forget to say it, "move to L.A." -- no one's going to hire you out here unless they can meet you in person and you live in the city (and have car). There are some jobs available in New York, Vancouver and other places that film productions travel to, but at the end of the day, Los Angeles is where you need to be if you're serious about it.

Good luck and keep the questions coming! I'll resume my story soon with my time at Crossing Jordan and getting started at Heroes.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Getting My Start

One of the most frequent questions I get about being a writer is how to break into the business. Unfortunately there's no sure-fire method, no "management track". All I can tell you is how I became a writer. Maybe it'll work for you, maybe it won't. I've seen others follow a similar path but keep in mind it's just one way to (maybe) get there. There are lots of other stories out there, this is just how I happened to do it.

One of the hardest things is landing your first job in showbiz. People always want to hire someone with previous experience so breaking in may feel like a catch 22. I was supremely lucky in that I benefited from nepotism to get my first gig. My father is a Producer and has worked on a number of television shows. One summer (when I was about 21) I begged him for a job on the show he was about to start; NBC's Las Vegas. I started out as a Production Assistant ("PA"), AKA the lowest totem pole on the entire crew. Duties included answering phones, making copies, picking up lunch orders, going on coffee runs and making deliveries around town.

So, how do you get around the catch 22 if you can't rely on nepotism? My advice is to find some job, any job, in film or television, even if it's only vaguely related. Find an independent film that is looking for PAs and paying peanuts -- and it might literally be peanuts. Sometimes all an indie production can offer is a meal. But more importantly, they provide experience. Craigslist can be a good place to start. Getting a few of those gigs on your resume can be a big help. I remember one person who got hired and the only experience he had was logging tapes for Survivor. It doesn't matter that much what the experience was, it just matters that it was there. More than anything else it shows a dedication to the craft. It shows in spite of your college degree you're willing to put up with long, exhausting hours, crappy pay, menial tasks. It shows that you won't let them down. Because once you get that first job, nothing is more important than proving yourself.

This advice applies mostly to a job as PA on a TV show because that's what I know, but I'm sure a lot of it applies to similar jobs. So you've successfully landed yourself a job as a PA, now what? Be patient. And prove yourself. Nepotism hires are frequent in the industry -- for a while my nickname in the office was "political hire". But I took it as a challenge. I did the best job I could. Went above and beyond. Learned everything I could from anyone who had time to talk. In short, I proved myself. I impressed my bosses and made contacts because I didn't want to rely on my father forever. That would get me nowhere. I had to begin trading on my own name. And sure enough, the following year, after I had graduated from college and went looking for jobs I got a recommendation from the Production Manager I worked with on Las Vegas. The Production Coordinator who hired me had no idea who my father was. I had begun trading on my own name. The show was called American Dreams and I should mention that the Production Coordinator's name was Brenda Pulos. I mention Brenda because it's the perfect example of what a small industry it is. Brenda and I would end up working together again several years later on Heroes. This is also where I first met fellow PA, aspiring writer, and future Heroes scribe, Chris Zatta. I can't stress enough what a small industry it is and why it's so important to always be making a good impression. You never know when a good (or bad) recommendation can make or break you.

So what's it like to be a PA? Crappy. You work a 12-14 hour day, five days a week. And sometimes weekends. You likely have a college degree and yet you'll be making copies, answering phones, taking coffee orders and driving around town delivering scripts and picking up lunches. But here's the thing, if you want to keep working your way up, you really have to make a good impression. In the face of all that you're doing, it's really easy to get bogged down, think that no-one's noticing you at the bottom of the totem pole and get disheartened. But the thing about being a PA is that you have contact with everyone on the crew. That's what makes this such a great opportunity. If you want to be a writer, then get to know the writers and their assistants. Prove to them that you're not a dimwit -- and that this crappy job isn't getting you down. Because when a job opens up in their department they want to hire someone who's smart and who they'd like to work with. Someone they could stand spending 12 hours a day with. The same holds true for whatever department you're hoping to break into -- editing, on-set production, art department etc.

A few tips on interviewing for PA positions. Be firm. Don't let any doubt creep into their mind about whether you'd be right for the job. You'll be asked if you have a car and know the city. Riding a motorcycle isn't going to cut it, you need to be able to fit approximately ten bags filled with lunches for important people, a large box of scripts and a mysterious brown envelope you've been instructed not to open. You need a car. If you've just moved to L.A., don't lie and say you know it like the back of your hand, instead point out that you have GPS and you're getting to know your way around etc. Be positive. Working long hours is NOT a problem -- tell them how in college you went to class, studied, worked a job and wrote for the newspaper. Don't mention the writing class you take on Thursday nights and is it okay if you leave early for that since you've already paid for it? It's admirable, but it's not what they're looking for. They need someone who is dedicated 24/7 to this job and won't let them down. And if you're not 100% that person, they can find someone else who is.

I remember when I first started out. I came home completely exhausted, with barely enough time and energy to make some instant noodles and watch an hour of television. The only thing that got me through it is that I knew I was working towards a goal. It's an important thing to note because if you're not truly serious about reaching your ultimate goal, you'll wash out. Don't get a P.A. job because you think it might be fun or you're not sure what you want to do with your life. It will be fun for a few months, but it'll wear on you pretty quickly and you need that ray of light at the end of that tunnel to keep you motivated.

The first "promotion" isn't so much a promotion as it is a lateral movement. You're moving from "Production Assistant" to "Writer's P.A." -- it's doing the same menial tasks for the same minimum pay, but specifically for the writers rather than the whole crew (likewise with editing, art dept. etc.) The good news is that you've found your focus and will have more hands-on experience with the people you can learn from -- direct contact with those who are doing what you one day hope to. Hopefully you've met a couple of the writers, but more importantly you've gotten to know the Writers Assistant and the Script Coordinator -- these are the people who will likely be hiring you. They have a lot of contact with the PAs and they get to know pretty quickly who the competent ones are. This is why you've been working your ass off and proving yourself.

In my case, I was hired from a different show but more often than not the writers office will pick someone from the production office on the show they're working on. That's why it's important to get to make a good impression. It's okay to let them know you want to be in the writer's office. Don't be pushy, just get to know them. You want to be in there mind as one of the competent ones when the time rolls around.

I got my break when a show called Crossing Jordan (created by Tim Kring) was looking for a writer's PA. A friend of mine on American Dreams knew the guys that were hiring (the Script Coordinator and Writers PA) and handed on my resume. Again, this came from a good recommendation -- she wouldn't have done so if I was awful at my job. I had an interview, it went well, but I got passed up for the job. I was crushed. However, I got lucky when several months later another position opened up and they asked me to take it. Did I mention that luck is another essential part in all this?

That was around 2005 (I think) when the show was in its 4th season. I was about 23. The Writers' P.A. position opened up because (future Heroes scribe) Joe Pokaski was taking over as Tim Kring's personal assistant. The other future Heroes scribbler in the house was Aron Coleite, Crossing Jordan's Researcher at the time, but the guy I was primarily working for was Mike Daley, the Script Coordinator. He would teach me everything he knew and give me my next big break.

I'll pause here to a) create a little glossary and b) prevent this from becoming too long. I'll pick up next week with more promotions and when Heroes came to life. I'm sure I've probably skipped over things, please feel free to leave questions in the comments below.


Production Office:

Production Assistant (P.A.) - Lowest rung on the ladder. Works in the Production Office doing everything and anything that is needed -- answering phones, making copies, making deliveries (primarily scripts), ordering lunch and coffee, picking up lunches and coffees, ordering supplies, keeping things organized etc. etc. etc.

Production Office Coordinator - The PA's immediate supervisor. Reports to the Production Manager and Producer. Coordinates the PAs in distributing information, ordering and renting equipment, keeps the entire crew supplied, schedules meetings, and 1000 other things that I don't even know about.

Production Manager (UPM) - Along with the Producer, handles department budgets, hiring of crew members, shooting and pre-production schedules and a lot more.

Writers Office:

Writers' PA - Similar to a Production Assistant, but does those tasks specifically for the 10-15 people in the writers office. Lunch orders, copying scripts, assisting the Script Coordinator with proof reading and whatever else needs doing.

Personal Assistant - Sometimes called an Executive Assistant, this is an assistant to a specific person who typically has "Executive Producer" in their title. ie. "Tim Kring's Assistant" -- This person is usually chained to their desk, and handles all of the calls, scheduling and personal requests of the Executive they work for.

Writers Assistant - Not to be confused with "Writers PA". This person sits in the writers conference room as they break story for episodes. Their job is to take notes on everything that is said and help generate an outline as story details are worked out.

Script Coordinator - Once a script is ready to be distributed, the Script Coordinator formats it, proofs it, generates title pages, cast and set lists and hands it off to be copied and distributed. They keep track of what changes with each new draft. Sometimes they will be responsible for tracking legal clearances. They also attend meetings during pre-production so they are aware of any major changes and can help remind the writer on the (rare) occasion that he or she might forget.

Researcher - Typically found only on procedural shows (crime, medical, military, etc.) This person assists the writers when they have questions that might require extensive research -- How long does it take a body to be drained of all its blood? What would the rate of decay look like for a body left in the sun vs. one left in the shade for the same amount of time? etc.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Clearly, I'm not the best at maintaining any sort of blogging schedule. I suspect that this blog will be one of those that's updated from time-to-time. That said, I'm certainly going to try and post a little more frequently. Here's what's been going on lately:
  • My second episode of Heroes, "Pass/Fail" aired last month. You can watch it for free on Hulu and if you're so inclined, can read some behind-the-scenes tidbits on the blog I write for the Heroes fansite
  • Heroes has wrapped filming for the season and is anxiously awaiting an announcement from NBC about whether there will be a 5th season. Unfortunately NBC is a little in flux at the moment, so it may be another month or two before we find out. I think this isn't so much an indication that Heroes' fate hangs in the balance as it is that the Network is... dealing with a lot of issues at the moment. Regardless, fingers crossed.
  • Since Heroes wrapped, I have some time off. It's refreshing and I've been working on some of my own writing. I recently finished a one act play that I'm very proud of and will potentially be using as a writing sample to get more work in the future. The #1 piece of advice I can give to new writers trying to break in, is to get working on an original writing sample (play, pilot, feature) -- these days, people want to read original material not a spec script for House. That said, writing a spec script for an established show can really help you understand good structure. So I guess my advice is write both. Easy, right?
So as I said, I'm planning to use my time off to try and blog a little more. I have a number of emails with questions about writing process which I'll try to get to. The #1 question I get, is how I broke into the business and became a writer so that will be the focus of my next few posts here.

If you have any questions about me or the writing process (or anything not specifically about Heroes), send me an email or post in the comments and I'll try to answer them. Heroes related questions are best posed to me on twitter or via my 9th Wonders blog (note that while the comments section is on the fritz over there, you can post in this thread on the message boards).