One of the great things about this blog is that I've had the opportunity to get to know several blog readers who also happen to work in the industry. Aside from the obvious benefit of networking, there's also the fact that many of them can be a great source of information about their positions in the industry and how one goes about those jobs.
One such reader is Amy Baack, whom I came to know last year when she participated in Project Wilson Phillips. Amy's currently the assistant to Scott Rosenbaum, the show-runner on ABC's sci-fi series V this season. As being a writer's assistant is one of the more common stepping stones to becoming a TV writer, I pursued Amy with a few questions via email and she was generous enough to reply.
At the risk of making you the target of voodoo dolls everywhere, I understand you accomplished the rare feat of landing the job of show-runner's assistant right out of college. That's an accomplishment with about the same odds as buying the winning Mega Millions ticket for a $290 million jackpot. How'd you pull this off?
Landing this position was a huge surprise for me; I certainly didn't expect to advance this far up the industry ladder so quickly. During the first couple of weeks after I graduated from college, I experienced a great deal of panic over my future, as I'm sure everyone who has tried to break in to entertainment work has, as well. I went to film school at the University of Southern California, where I had made some amazing friends. One of them went on to work at an agency, and she gave me the heads-up about the open position at V. I submitted my resume, went in for an interview, and landed the job!
It helped that at the time I was interning for Mad Men and my amazing supervisor there was able to give me a good reference. I wish I could offer up a formula for how to get a job like mine, but I'm afraid a lot of it is luck and knowing the right people. Your goal should really be "making friends" instead of "networking," a term that I think implies you're just meeting people to get a job out of them. It's important to prove that you are able to get along with others and have a good work ethic as well, since television is a very collaborative process.
What had you done prior to getting hired as Scott's assistant that made your resume a strong contender?
As I mentioned above, I was interning in the production department on Mad Men when I got the job for V. Before that I'd had a lot of internships in various fields of the entertainment industry; I did one almost every semester and summer during college. I worked at E!, Spyglass Entertainment, and Fox Television Studios, to name a few. I also did well in school and held outside jobs; I made sure to constantly keep busy, do my very best, and meet as many people as I could. I think going to a wonderful film school like USC definitely helped me out, as well, because I learned an incredible amount there that helped prepare me for my future career.
When did your writing aspirations begin? Had you done much writing in college?
My writing aspirations seem to have started when I was fairly young... I actually recently found the beginning of a script I had written when I was maybe 10 years old. It was a fairy-tale movie that contained instructions for camera movements and everything! (It was also incredibly bad.) So as ridiculous as that is, it's proof that screenwriting has always been in my blood. I didn't do a lot of extra writing during college, since I was always pretty busy, but I wrote whenever I could. I wrote the required scripts for classes, including my first spec (30 Rock), and I wrote a couple of short films on the side, as well. I also enjoy writing in other mediums; I was a columnist for the Daily Trojan, USC's school newspaper, for a couple of years.
Since you work in TV what are some of your all-time favorite shows and how have they influenced your writing? Can you point to any specific show or episode that really blew you away?
My all-times favorite shows would probably be Lost, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don't know if I can target a specific episode from any of those shows that blew me away - rather, I'm impressed by consistent strong writing. All those shows have interesting, complex characters, which I think is the heart of really good television.
What is a typical day like for a writer's assistant on a network series? And how LONG is the typical day for you?
My job is a little different than the writers assistants'. As the showrunner's assistant, my duties are primarily based on the needs of my boss, though I am involved in many of the creative sides of the show as well. I manage my boss's personal schedule and contacts, transcribe notes calls with our studio and network, edit outlines/scripts, along with a whole bunch of other random tasks. My work hours during the writing period were 9:00AM - 7:00PM (sometimes a little later). The writers' assistants would start their day with the writers at 10:00AM. Their job was in the writers' room: they took detailed notes, got lunch every day, bought groceries, helped write up outlines, and did research. They usually worked until much later than I did, but it depended on how many notes they had to type up and edit, as well as how late the writers stayed that day.
Was there a big learning curve for the job?
There was a huge learning curve for my job! I had never worked on a television show before, so this was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn the ropes in-depth. I was blessed with an excellent boss who would let me sit in the writers’ room whenever I had any down time, so I got to really observe the writing process. I've learned a lot more about writing for television, as well as navigating the entertainment industry in general, in this job than I did in any of my college classes.
Those who've worked in TV often compare it to a freight train that doesn't stop. What would you say is the biggest challenge most writers' assistants have to deal with?
Working in TV is truly a time-intensive career choice, whether you're on the writing, production, or post-production side. You need to be very committed to the job and willing to give up your social/personal life for a good chunk of time. It can be very stressful, both emotionally and physically, to be working on a computer in an office for 12 hours straight, which is a challenge most writers' assistants usually have to tackle. However, because you are so completely absorbed in the writing process, assistants are essentially forced to be at their top level of performance all the time. This work ethic inevitably helps when you get promoted to writing on a staff, where you need to be consistently alert and always thinking creatively. And there's always the relief of knowing that the period of madness won't last forever; either your show will go on hiatus for a couple months, which is like a very nice elementary school summer vacation, or the show will get canceled, in which case you get to sign up for unemployment checks (which is an entirely different world of stress).
Back when I interviewed Rob Levine (Jericho, Human Target) he talked about how he got his first writing credit when he was an assistant on Judging Amy, and then later was hired by that show-runner for the staff of Jericho. Assuming such an opportunity would eventually exist for you, are you preparing for it now? Do you find yourself trying to come up with V pitches in the event that an offer comes your way?
You absolutely have to make yourself known as a valuable asset when you're working as an assistant on a show, since that's probably the easiest way to work your way up to a staff position. I obviously hope to work on staff someday, so I had a conversation with my boss during the middle of the writing season about how I wanted to do more creative work on the show to help prove my writing abilities.
As a result, he let me be in charge of writing a weekly series that's posted on the official V ABC website called "The Fifth Column Journal." I also wrote a few lines of dialogue during post-production, managed the V Twitter feed, and pitched ideas for various directions the show could take during the writing stage. I'd love to be able to work my way up to staff in the near future, but for now I'm just incredibly grateful for having so many opportunities to learn about TV writing by observing some incredibly talented people.
What has working in TV taught you about writing for episodic television and writing in general?
I've learned that the most important part about episodic television writing is the intense collaboration that's involved in putting a season together. A TV writer really has to be able to work well with the other writers on a staff. You quickly become a sort of family, since you spend all day in a room with a small handful of people. You have to learn to build off of other people's ideas and allow the rest of the staff to help strengthen your writing. You can't take anything personally, and you can't hold any of your ideas too close. I've also learned that it's important to keep throwing out ideas, even if you're worried they might sound a little stupid. Sometimes the best stories come out of the worst suggestions. Finally, writing is about making choices. There's always a different route you can take; you just have to choose the one that best suits the story you're trying to tell.
Thanks again to Amy for her time. I'm hoping to get a few more writers' assistant interviews up as I get friends to cooperate and meet new assistants through the blog!
V airs Tuesdays at 9pm on ABC.