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.

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