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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1 comment:

Jared Reise said...

Love the "Hung"! Good advice, great interview.