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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really cool post, very interesting, and I just saw all of American Dreams this past summer, by the way, and loved it, I wish I knew about the show when it was on! :D Anyway so it's pretty cool you got to work with people on that show... ;) Thanks for all the tips on getting into the industry. I am considering it myself (I am a sophomore undergrad at Boston University right now - so your college's rival LOL) and will definitely keep your tips in the back of my mind. :D

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