Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Interview with Scott Towler, writer's assistant to Michelle Nader (100 Questions, Kath & Kim) - Part I

I've been friends with Scott Towler for a couple of years now, and I'd be hard-pressed to think of someone I know who's had more odd jobs in the industry in such a short time. Currently he's enjoying his third year of stability as the assistant to writer Michelle Nader (Kath & Kim, 100 Questions.) However, unlike Amy Baack, the showrunner's assistant I interviewed last month, Scott wasn't lucky enough to land that job until paying a lot of dues in this town.

So what drew you to Hollywood in the first place? When you were in college, what did you want to do with your life?

When I was 11 I told my parents I was going to move to Hollywood someday and be an actor. At the time I was scared shitless of being in front of people, but then I started playing music, and eventually got into theater (both musical and legitimate) and that fear went away. By the time I got to college my decision had already been made: performance acting major, music minor. And the nice part about Denison was that I was able to earn a B.F.A. instead of just a B.A., so I didn't have to take Econ. or any of that nonsense. Instead it was primarily all art or performance related classes: dance, film, music, theater, etc. It was great. So long winded as that was, I guess was drove me out here was the desire to act and leave a lasting imprint on our culture.

What was your first job in Hollywood and what were the most important things it taught you?

My very first job was as a P.A. on Access Hollywood. It taught me a lot, most importantly that I took my work a lot more seriously than most of the other P.A.'s I worked with. It got me noticed quickly. By the end of that summer, this was 2003 I believe, I was promoted to research assistant in the newsroom.

I also learned never to go backwards up a parking garage ramp. Why you ask? My first day on the job (and my 3rd day in LA ever), I was going to make a delivery. Thought I was lost, tried to back up, backed into a $100,000 Porsche. It was terrible. The guy chewed me out, I freaked out and thought my career was over, and to top all that- my delivery was late!

After that you were hired as an NBC Page. Can you explain a little bit about the Page program and what it's designed to do? What's your daily routine, and do you have any memorable incidents from your time there?

The NBC Page program, despite what Regis Philbin says, is a corporate training ground. They try and hire people they think will eventually be a good fit for NBC Universal as an executive someday. And that's exactly what they were grooming me to be. I wound up in television production working for Mark Binke and Todd Sharpe as an assistant (it was shortly thereafter I made the leap into freelance). But before they put you "on assignment" in a department, your job is basically as a tour guide of the NBC Burbank facility. And yes, we wore exactly what Kenneth on 30 Rock wears today (though they did update the uniforms a few years back, making all us old timers really bitter. After all, ours were polyester and most of us were really really poor at the time, so we never got them dry cleaned. And I can tell you, by August, after giving sometimes 6 tours a day, those things stunk to high hell).

The tours were terrible. Anyone who has ever seen that facility can tell you that virtually any other tour in Hollywood is better (including those terrible double decker bus tours). They gave us fake anecdotes about the studio to tell too. So not only was there nothing to see there, but half the stories we told were BS. Beyond that, we were also assigned to load in audiences for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Ellen Degeneres show. That could also be fun. Whenever you were assigned to the Ellen show, that meant 2 things: 1, you had to dance that night. A lot. 2, you might get some free swag. It seems silly now, but that was a real perk back then. They also wouldn't let her audience go to the restroom on their own, so I would have to lead groups of 6 or 7 (mostly women) to a bathroom, stand there and wait for them to finish, and them walk them back. It was all very awkward.

As a Page, one of the jobs we had on Leno was called "CB" or "Client Booth." The job was to wait until each of Leno's guests arrived for the taping and then escort them to their dressing rooms, but there was one major catch: do not talk to talent, do not ask for autographs, just escort them and that's it.

Anyway, one day Jennifer Garner was supposed to be the guest and I was assigned CB. Having attended the same college as Jennifer Garner (and sitting in on a guest lecture she and Scott Foley gave the acting students at my school the year before), I was delighted to see her again when she stepped out of her limo. She recognized me instantly, and we started chatting like it was no big deal. Again, cause I knew her from before. We had a preexisting relationship (which, correct me if I'm wrong, would have been rude for me to ignore. Cause I'm not an asshole. We're all human beings here, regardless of job title), and so we were pleasant to one another.

But the Tonight Show Security guard, I think his name was Tony, but it just as easily could have been "meddling idiot," thought I was a little too friendly with Jennifer Garner, and tattled on me to my boss. What he didn't know was that I was supposed to be working the Golden Globes the following weekend, and because he spoke out against me, the Page department declared me a "loose cannon" and wouldn't let me work the event (my former page friends still won't let me live this down, the bastards).

Anyway, the next day, the band Wilco was on Leno, and I went right up to them and got their autograph. Cause at that point, it's like "fuck it," you know? If I obey the rules and still get in trouble, then clearly the rules are irrelevant. And if some guy wants to feel like a big man by attempting to ruin a kid's career, good for him. Besides, if they're going to openly let Snoop Dogg smoke weed at the studio, I think I can say hello to a former acquaintance.

How did you end up going from the Page program to working on Arrested Development? What sort of things did you do on AD and was there anything that surprised you while seeing the show's production from the inside?

As I mentioned earlier, I was working for 2 production execs at Universal. One offered me a job as his assistant, but I didn't want to do that. Will & Grace was hiring a PA, and so was Arrested Development, and working at the Studio allowed me a unique opportunity to interview before many many other candidates. And I did what I will always do after I was offered both jobs: I chose passion over paycheck. I never watched Will & Grace, but I was an AD die hard. The choice was easy.

So I started on Arrested as a PA, but then after 2 weeks they promoted their writers' PA to writers' assistant, and they offered me the writers' PA gig. I promptly took it. The job was the hardest I've ever had since I've lived here, and to be honest, it almost swallowed me whole. 7 day weeks, 16 hour days, no signs of that pattern ever changing. It was brutal. And it made me weak. I was only 23 at the time and I wondered if I had made the wrong choice. But I stuck with it and eventually we were canceled. So that took care of that one pretty quickly. Right before Christmas too! Thanks again, Fox!

Regarding the production though, the coolest part for me was seeing how detail oriented the writing room was. Every line, every reference, every single thing they put in there paid off. Even if it took an entire season to do so. And because we were distributing scripts for the first time on shooting days, the mood was very hectic yet relaxed all at once. After all, how stressed can you be when you are handed your lines 5 minutes before shooting? It was very loose, very casual. I even did a day as a Bluth Company Employee (311, titled "Family Ties"), and while on set Jason Bateman tried to throw me a line, but it was already promised to his stand in. But that's the kind of place it was- shit like that happened all the time. The whole experience was Hollywood in a nutshell for me: right place, right time, stars aligned.

After AD you ended up with a series of "odd jobs." Can you tell us what it was like doing this sort of "nomad work?" Did you have a larger plan you were working towards or at this point was it a matter of building up connections and trying to stay afloat?

It was tough. I was on unemployment for almost 8 months doing whatever work I could take. I didn't have much of a plan then, to be honest. I had felt like I lost my way a bit. I had moved here to act, and yes, I did some small parts here and there, but it wasn't my "job" at that point. It was just something else I did in addition to working. And since I didn't yet understand how to make acting a full time job, I took anything I could get.

I was a camera logger on a house flipping show. That was brutal. Show up at the crack of dawn, chase a camera around while listening to the feed so I can log the timecode of what was said and what room they were in-- all the while avoiding stepping on broken glass or boards or nails. Then they cut my days in half. So I walked. That kind of stuff happened a lot. I was hired, I would be recognized as helpful or efficient, and I would be taken advantage of. And the problem was that in my mind, I was just happy to work, so I let it happen. For too long.

Did doing so much different work give you a fuller insight into working in Hollywood?

Absolutely. I would say it gave me the industry "street smarts" that I possess today. It was also an integral part of understanding the production process. Cause I had only really done theater in HS/college. Film and TV were new for me. So there was a whole new vernacular to learn with it.

It also taught me to know my own self worth. As this period of my life was coming to a close, I was offered a writer PA gig on Family Guy and American Dad (they shared a writers' room at the time. They still might). The gig paid $400/week no mileage reimbursement. I turned it down as quickly as they offered it. They were like "plenty of people will work for this, you know." I said, "good, go hire them. I won't work for that little."

Bad decision? Who knows. More importantly: who cares. I did what was right for me, and I didn't sacrifice my own ethics or standards to do it. That's all we really have when it's all said and done.

Somewhere in all of this, you ended up as a writer's assistant with Arrested Development's Maria Semple. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer, and how did Maria end up taking you under her wing? What sort of things did you learn?

I've always been a joke maker, I just never had any desire to be a stand up. And I've been keeping a blog since 2004, so writing has always been a part of me. Heck, I even wrote a spec of "Friends" in HS before I even knew what a spec script was(we read it aloud in class and assigned parts. It was so perfectly lame). But as a 'talent,' I thought I was better if I could hide behind a character. Then I realized- screw the acting, I want to create the character from scratch. That way I held all the power in my hands, and was not just assigned a role that fit me best.

I had time to write while on Arrested Development, but I wasn't focused, I had no idea what I was doing, and I lacked the follow through I have today. To be honest, I wasn't even sure I wanted to be a writer then, but everyone else in my office was doing it, so I gave it a shot. Turns out I loved it. Maria recognized my drive, and she took me under her wing while I was unemployed.

Most of what I did was personal assisting work, but eventually she asked me about my writing and helped me work through a 30Rock spec I was working on at the time. Anyone who has worked with Maria will tell you that she is no-nonsense about story. If the story works, the jokes will follow. I had always viewed it the other way around. But she really clued me in to exactly what makes good TV work. And I grew from there. She hired me to be her writers' assistant on her first novel, and has always been an open ear for me, even to this day.

Tomorrow - More with Scott in Part II

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff! I especially liked his 'no regrets' attitude after turning down the low-paying gig. Can't wait to read part two.