Monday, December 22, 2014

5 Questions with Mallory Westfall, a Post PA-Turned-Writers' Assistant

1. How did you get your first job in Hollywood? 

Most of us have heard that in Hollywood it’s all about who you know.  But in my case, it’s this -- In Fort Edward it’s all about who your mom knows. My mom grew up in a tiny mill town in upstate New York called Fort Edward. In 1973, she moved into a house down the street from a big Irish Catholic family. One of the six children in that family happened to grow up to become a bigwig at Marvel in New York City. Right around the time I was graduating from film school, Disney bought Marvel and my bigwig family friend made a lot of new contacts at ABC Studios. He generously offered to put me in touch with them and I got my very first general meeting out of it. I arrived in LA in June, however, and there weren’t a lot of entry-level positions to go around. A few months and a couple of dismal side jobs later, I got an email from a producer regarding a post-production PA position on a new pilot called PERCEPTION. We met for what I thought was supposed to be an interview, but I later learned I had been a must-hire, which explained why my new boss was talking to me like I had the job already; another stroke of luck thanks to my mom’s childhood friend.

After the PERCEPTION pilot, I went to work on another pilot in post and continued to learn a lot about the production process, a foundation I’m still very grateful for. Soon, PERCEPTION was picked up to series and I instantly got in contact with the showrunner’s assistant, whom I had come to know while working on the pilot, and asked if there was a writers’ PA position available. There was -- and I was lucky enough to get it. From there, I went back and forth between being a writers’ PA and a post PA on the first two seasons, and was promoted to writers’ assistant in the third season. It was one of the most challenging, exciting, exhausting and wonderful experiences in my career thus far. From all the stories I’ve heard about how people got their start in the business, it’s easy to glean there’s no one right path. Mine has been a mixture of networking, hard work and a lot of luck stemming back to the seventies.

2. While working in Post, did you learn anything that's been useful to you as a writer?

As I mentioned earlier, I was able to work in both the writing and post departments on PERCEPTION.  I got to watch each episode go from initial pitch to final cut, which was enormously beneficial to me as a writer. I was able to see which ideas worked really well on screen and which ideas were better on paper. I was also able to observe how direction, design and performance could enhance what was on the page. I think it’s a great idea for aspiring writers to try their hand in other departments if they get a chance. The more you know about the entire process, the better you’ll be able to write a good, producible script later on down the line.

3. What's something you've learned about writing or the industry from your jobs?

One of the most important things I’ve learned about writing is that you have to be good at more than just writing in order to have a career in it. This is a fact I’ve reluctantly come to accept over the four years I’ve been in LA.  Other than being an actually talented writer, you have to be good at networking, strategizing, pitching, collaborating and my favorite, selling yourself. A lot of these practices can seem downright counter-intuitive to someone with a personality of a writer, but it’s important to figure them out. There are tons of people vying for the same position you want, and the people who are hiring have to sift through them all. You have to figure out a way to cut through the noise.

4. How did you get your manager?

During the handful of general meetings I had when I first moved out to LA, an exec at TNT gave me the contact information for a family friend of his who happened to be a manager. He told me it would be good to sit down with him and talk about what managers do, what they look for, etc. So I did, and it went really well. We clicked over the kind of television we watched and the subjects I wanted to write about, so I gave him my sample scripts.  He told me he’d read them and get back to me. I was stoked. Then a month went by. I politely checked in with him via email as one is told to do during these situations. He wrote back, saying that he hadn’t read my stuff yet, but was planning on taking a look soon. So another month went by. And another. In the meantime, I had gotten my first job, and my second first job, and was really starting to get the hang of this whole TV thing. Then I got a phone call, a voicemail actually. It was Aaron Kogan, the manager. He said that he had finally gotten around to reading my pilot and really liked it. He wanted to get together for coffee and talk about it. This was nine months after our initial meeting. Nine. Months. The full gestation period of a human fetus.  To be fair, the manager and his wife had just welcomed their own human fetus baby into the world when I first met him, and suffice it to say, he was a tad busy.  So we met again, and it was one of the most exciting meetings I’ve ever had. He instantly understood what I was going for with the script, gave really smart notes and our instincts seemed to be completely in sync. After a few more meetings, I signed with him and we’ve been creative partners ever since.

5. What's a piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

The advice I would give to my younger self is just to be patient because everything can turn on a dime.  I was working at a Macy’s cosmetics counter in Beverly Hills, shamelessly pretending to know what I was talking about, when I got an email out of the blue offering me my first job in TV. I often think about that when my career is feeling stagnant or I’m worried about the future. Of course you should always be writing and preparing yourself for when an opportunity comes knocking, but a lot of it is about luck and timing. You never know when that conversation you had with that guy nine months ago is going to come back around and change everything, so just be patient.

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