Monday, October 25, 2010

Stuck as a writer's assistant?

Zachary Pincus-Roth has written an interesting - and potentially depressing - article for LA Magazine about getting stuck as a writer's assistant, script coordinator, etc. Here's a snippet:
For every aspiring writer whose Twitter feed becomes a sitcom, there are thousands of others toiling away at the assistant level, striving to one day be promoted to a full-fledged staff writer. Ideally that job is like a golden chairlift that carries them up the writer hierarchy, through mysterious titles like “coproducer” and “executive story editor,” before all of a sudden they’re running a show, creating other shows, and flipping through the Tesla catalog.
That’s the fantasy. Here’s the reality: Shows get canceled. The people in charge don’t always promote from within. Or a fledgling writer’s spec scripts—intended as writing samples, not for production—just aren’t good enough. So why keep the faith? The cyclical nature of television means that there’s always next season. Which is why some assistants remain assistants for years or even decades, always praying they’ll move up the ladder.
I blogged a little about this last year. Basically, getting an industry job can be an invaluable learning experience and great way to make connections - but it's not a guarantee that you'll land a writing job (or at least a writing job that lasts). Sometimes, quitting your job and finding another way to keep beer in the fridge is the best decision you could make.

It's important to remember, though, that plenty of current TV writers got their jobs by being assistants first. Ask them.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald

Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald explores the subtle reasons why good stories work. Dialogue is overt, but writers make a lot of a lot of other choices in their writing that many audience members would never think about. The book contains short, easy-to-digest segments with a variety of interactive exercises and real-life examples. If you want to hone your setups and payoffs, jokes, characters and dialogue, take a read! There are also interesting sections about subplots, handling critique and killing your protagonist. Andrew Stanton and Paul Feig are among Brian's supporters.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

5 Questions with a Writer's Assistant on HUNG

Drew is a Writer's Assistant on HBO's Hung. I asked him 5 Questions about his job:

1. How did you get your job/what experience did you already have?

A Production Coordinator I had worked very hard for on a movie got the call to work on a new HBO pilot, and offered to bring me along to work in the Production Office (this is like working in any administrative office, only it happens that the company you work for manufactures movies and tv shows). As a struggling writer looking for a way into a Writer's Assistant position (very tough to find without knowing someone connected), I knew that starting on the ground floor of a brand new series was my only way in.

I spent the first season on HBO's HUNG (a comedy about a broke, middle aged teacher who becomes a gigolo to make ends meet) working in the Production Office, doing administrative work. It was in that office that I was able to get to know the writers and assistants in the Writers Room.

When season 2 rolled around, I had made enough of an impression for them to bring me on as a Writer's Assistant.

Being dependable is key. Sure, I let the writer’s assistants know that I wanted to work in the room with them, but spending a season demonstrating that I was dependable and helpful is what let the Senior Assistant (Kyle Peck, thank you) know that I had what it took to back him up the following season.

2. What is a typical day like?

My job consists of assisting the writers with whatever they need; notes, lunch orders, research, supplies, etc. The other Writer's Assistant and I get in about an hour before the writers arrive to clean up and get the office organized (hint: writers never find the room the way they left it -- it's not magic, it's us. We fix it.) If we have a Writer's PA on staff, they handle taking the lunch and dinner orders and picking them up for everyone

(Dear PA's and Assistants of all faiths and creeds: Yes, you should always check the lunch/dinner order before you leave the restaurant. Without food, writers of any civilization will cease to communicate and resort to chants, screams and human sacrifices.)

Most importantly, I'm in charge of transcribing their story ideas, pitches and scenes and then organizing them in a way that makes it possible for the staff to write scripts based on what is generated in the room. Ideas are pitched, rejected, replaced, repitched, modified, and then scrawled on little index cards that are placed on a cork board with a corresponding episode. These scenes will sometimes move from episode to episode, being picked apart, re-jiggered, surgically altered, abandoned, re-discovered, and sometimes: dropped altogether onto the Writing Room floor. If they're lucky, they're later reincarnated into a new scene with a different spin.

All of that gets written down.

We're here an hour or two after the writers finish. This is when we go back over the index cards, clean up the notes, send out the emails and catch up on anything that slipped through the cracks during the day.

3. Have you learned anything about writing or Hollywood from your job?

The past year of being in the writers room with such a talented group of storytellers has completely changed the way I write. I used to be obsessed with being clever. I felt it was the only way to stand out in a sea of hacks.

I didn't realize I was writing from intellect without any emotional marrow... which explains why so many of my scripts got stuck in the land of ideas.

I'm learning to ground my scenes in conflict and objectives that I can directly connect to emotionally. Without that link, the work will feel hollow and forced. I've found mentors on this show, who continue to teach me how to tap into a scene with the most energy and truth. I've written three plays this year, one of which we had a live reading in the room with the actors and writers from the show participating.

I feel like I'm learning the difference between how to write a scene that's good and how to write a scene that's alive.

The atmosphere of artistic growth and learning on this show has been unlike anything I've ever experienced. It comes as no surprise that many of the staff are former NY Playwrights who became television writers. That artistic spirit and sensibility always shines through in the room (I do not work for divas, I am happy to announce.)

A writer's worst fear is that they have nothing to offer, nothing to say in a world that doesn't want what they create. It's a rare gift to have people push you to make discoveries about your work and about yourself. I have so many more stories in me than I ever imagined. I feel like I've completely thrown out what I used to understand about writing prior to this job. The only thing I've kept is my taste.

4. What advice would you give someone who's trying to get a job as a writers PA?

We've actually been doing some interviews lately to find a replacement for the Senior Assistant, who co-wrote a script last year and is now moving up to Staff Writer. Having sat on the opposite side of that interview desk, here are a few tips.

a) Be the hardest worker in the room. Get it done. Be proactive. Anticipate what they need. Follow thru. You don’t want them to have to remind you of anything. That’s your job. To remind them.

b) Attitude. Have a good one. You don't want to be the person who makes it clear how difficult it is to do the task handed to you. The answer is always YES. You want them to WANT to ask for your help. Take every opportunity to show off your work ethic. It matters.

c) Don't be creepy. Creepy comes in all kinds of colorful flavors and spices, but if you're sweating bullets, trying to shove your script in their face, trying to be best friends without probable cause, or just feeling like you're three seconds from a nervous breakdown, it freaks people out. They do not want your nervous energy polluting their air space. Somehow you have to be really damn good at all of this while remaining cool, calm and collected.

I know. It's not easy. But that's what they want nowadays.

5. What's something you didn't know or that surprised you about your job?

I didn't understand the difference between a good pitch and a bad pitch: confidence.

I know. It should be a good idea or a bad idea. Unfortunately a good idea can sound awful if you pitch it poorly; like you're begging for love and acceptance. But a bad idea can sound funny if you deliver it like it's no skin off your back if they say "No."

Maybe I'm wrong. But I think I'm at least half right: Get comfortable pitching. If you don't believe in your pitch, neither will they.

One other thing I'd like to impart to my generation of aspiring-overnight-successes:

When I first got to LA, I was in some sort of imaginary race to be the first one in my class to succeed. What I've learned from the professionals around me, however, is that the race is long, and finding success early does not guarantee you will be here tomorrow. It is important to continue learning and improving on your craft so that when the opportunities come your way, you're ready for them. I'm not the same artist or writer I was when I moved out here, and thank god, because it is important to keep developing your voice so you actually have something to say.

Anything else?

Follow our writers room on Twitter @HungWriters . We say dirty things, and occasionally talk about writing...mostly dirty things.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

KCRW Podcast: Franklin Leonard & Darlene Hunt

Check out this cool KCRW podcast with Franklin Leonard, creator of the Black List, and Darlene Hunt, creator of Showtime's The Big C.

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Things I Love: TERRIERS

One of the new shows flying under the radar this fall is FX's TERRIERS, a quirky tale of two misfit private investigators. It's part drama, part comedy, part episodic, part serial - and completely awesome. I love its scrappy protagonist, Hank. He's flawed but likable, constantly making mistakes but trying to do the right thing. Take a look at this fun behind-the-scenes clip:

You can also click here to watch the pilot online. If you're not convinced, check out 5 Reasons to Watch Terriers from TVSquad!

TERRIERS airs Wednesdays @10 on FX.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More on romcoms, and THE BIG C

I thought this LA Times interview with Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk-Robinson, writers of Life as We Know It, added an interesting take on the comedy vs. drama issue in constructing a romcom.

Also check out TheWrap's interview with Darlene Hunt, creator of Showtime's The Big C. Darlene talks about where stories come from, and how to find the angle that will make networks want to buy your pitch.

"The most important part of pitching a comedy is to make your audience laugh," Darlene says. "...cancer was never and will never be the punchline in this show. Instead, I looked in other areas...dialogue, character quirks, outrageous choices made by a desperate woman...and so I revamped the pitch and made myself laugh."

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Monday, October 11, 2010

5 Questions with a Feature Director's Assistant

Before, I featured 5 Questions With a Writer's PA. Today's interview is with Lee, who works as a director's assistant on an upcoming studio comedy.

1. What exactly does a Director's Assistant do?

A director's assistant mainly holds all the duties that typical assistants do, especially during pre and post production. You handle the schedule (as all the department heads and studio departments will be vying for time), answer phones and maintain the office. However, there are also some duties that are unique to the position. I was lucky that my boss was very receptive and interested in my thoughts and notes, so I was able to weigh in on the script, casting choices and various other creative decisions throughout all the stages of production. On set my main job was keeping the director happy, making sure he was well fed and hydrated. I was keeper of the official version of the script and was in charge of making sure that changes were distributed by the AD department the following day. I also managed set visits for the studio and guests of the director.

2. How did you get the job?

Before I held this position I worked for a couple of years as a development assistant to a producer. When I first started working for him, he was weeks away from a greenlight on a film that was to be directed by my current boss. Unfortunately that film was never made, but the director and I had a good relationship and in the following years he would call me up and ask me to help out on various things, filming casting sessions, taking notes at a table reads etc. Recently, he knew I was looking for a new job and it just happened he had a film that was about to start pre-production and offered me the job as his assistant. I was excited to finally work on a film after years of living in development.

3. What are your career aspirations and how is this helping you get there?

My goal is to eventually produce films and this job has helped in a lot of ways. It has allowed me to see first hand a film go from pre to post production, something I had never seen before. I was able to see how producers, directors and the studio work with and against each. Also, seeing how the film changes over time from script to screen has given me a good lesson in developing films. What can sometimes play better once it is performed versus on the page, what story lines ended up working or not working, etc. Luckily, everyone on the film has been incredibly kind and I have become friendly with a lot of the studio executives, the writer and the producers of the film, which will hopefully go a long way to finding my next position.

4. What other kinds of things have you learned on the job?

I have learned a lot about the other departments involved in making a movie. I was able to interact with the DP, AD, Production Designer, Locations Manager, Prop Master and other department heads who gave me insight into what their jobs involve, some of the challenges they face and what can help make their jobs easier. To me this is very is important when it comes thinking about producing my own films. The producers also put stress on defining the tone/style/story of the film for the studio's marketing department so they don't f--- up trying to sell the movie. I have learned the importance of making sure everyone is on the same page creatively so the studio knows what they are getting/selling and the filmmakers maintain a vision of the film that they want.

5. What is your favorite thing about your job?

I have so many favorite things about this job - it has been an awesome experience overall. I love being on set especially and I miss it a lot now that it's over. I have really enjoyed working and becoming friendly with the cast and crew. I was lucky to be working on a film with very minimal egos and one that was small enough that everyone developed a family feel. I would have to say though, that because my boss was so open and actually cared to hear my ideas, that my favorite thing about this job was the ability to actually have input into the final film. I know that there are lines, character actions, edits and other small pieces of the film that are only there because I opened my big mouth and that is very exciting to me.

Anything else you would like to share?

I would say that it's important to realize that being a director's assistant is an education in many more aspects of filmmaking than just directing and I would recommend it for anyone looking to be in film as a creative of any kind. It wasn't a job I ever planned on having or even wanted really, but now that I have done it, I realize how valuable it is, especially if you aren't working for a big ego-ed tyrant. Also, post production is really boring until you finally are allowed to see a cut of the film. Then it gets really cool.

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