Thursday, March 24, 2011

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

We continue our talk with writer's assistant Scott Towler.

Part I

What led to Maria hooking you up with Bill Callahan, then on Scrubs?

Funny story actually, Bill was Maria's agent's assistant way back in the day. And Maria had wanted these tickets to a Broadway show or something, like day-of show. It was one of those requests you get as an assistant where you're like "shit, this is impossible!" Somehow, Bill made it happen, and as a thank you, Maria bought him a Directv and the NFL package. Maria didn't get me the interview though, it was just the presence of her name on my resume that did it. Bill saw it and wanted to pick my brain. And after we met and shared a few stories, I was offered the job to be his assistant as part of his term deal with Touchstone TV.

What was it like finally working on a long-running series? What sort of things did Bill ask of you and what did you learn from him?

I was welcomed with open arms, but that being said, I kind of felt like the party had already started and I was the latecomer, you know? A lot of the departments already had their teams and made their friends, so it was hard to get to know many of them outside of the writing team. Plus that hospital was so sprawling, the writers had their own little enclave, and unless you had business elsewhere, you didn't stray too far. Unless it was to the kitchen. We had the sickest kitchen on that show.

As far as my tasks's where the great debate of being an in-room writers' assistant vs. being an executive assistant attached to a deal really comes into play. On the one hand, in-room writers' assistants are so close to the action, chances are good that if the show succeeds, they will too. They might even get a script out of it or be promoted to staff writer. Being an executive assistant is different. You manage that writer (or team of writers) lives. Their work, their homes, everything else they have no time for during TV season. And you hope that when they have down time, they give you the 1-on-1 training and guidance you need to really succeed and grow. Also, the hope is that you get to know the studio/network brass better so that when the time comes they'll read your stuff (like actually read it all the way through, not just say they did).

In this case, I did a lot of home management and things like that. I walked his dog every day. But I also finished a script and got some great feedback from Bill. He taught me that pilots have to be complete in every way. Mini-movies if you will. There can be no later-episode pay offs unless you have later episodes! This was a revelation for me. I would write all these things I planned on making work later and he helped me dial in my story a lot. Make it small and make it work.

Your dismissal from Bill's employ was rather unceremonious, as I understand it. During the writers strike, his deal was canceled. Was it hard not to get frustrated with the industry at that point?

Unceremonious to say the least. He lost his job too! We all did. The writers' strike was not a fun time employment-wise, especially considering it happened right before the holidays (boy, studios/networks sure know how to ruin the holidays). Luckily, I had some roots in reality tv as I mentioned, so I found my footing pretty quickly on The Two Coreys Season 2. And I was frustrated with the industry, but I also realized the writers were fighting for my livelihood as well. It wasn't selfishly motivated, it was what they were and are due. I'm sure there will be another one in the future. And I'm sure it will be equally if not more justified than that one was.

Plus the time off presented a unique opportunity for me to put my production experience to good work. I was hired as a producer on a micro-budget indie documentary and was able to use the time off to help plan the shoot, coordinate with our team and set up travel, rentals, etc. So it was almost a blessing in disguise cause it gave me a chance- no, it forced me to have the chance to do something I wouldn't have had time to do otherwise.

So what's it like to go from working on Scrubs to working on The Two Coreys? (Is there anything you can say about that job that isn't covered by non-disclosure agreements.)

Ha, I appreciate the footnote there. It's tough for me to speak too intimately about my experiences with Corey Haim, but I will say this: I did spend a great deal of time with him, and beyond being misunderstood in almost every way, he was also suffering a crippling addiction to virtually anything he could get his hands on. And it was almost like the show was encouraging it. They didn't go so far as to enable him, but they also didn't mind when he got messed up. It made for better TV. And it made me realize that Corey Haim might have been more of a victim than anything else. His death was really sad. I'm still pissed at the Academy for leaving him off the In Memoriam list at the Oscars this year. Just cause he had a bad stretch at the end of his career didn't make him any less of a part of the business. ... I think I've digressed a bit.

As far as cut and dry differences go, Scrubs was already running smoothly, Two Coreys had just moved from Vancouver to L.A. and revamped the entire concept. The first season of that show was really painstakingly bad. Not that my season was any better, but it was certainly closer to the American model of "reality tv" than it's predecessor.

Also, I was a PA on Two Coreys, and it was unlike any PA gig I've ever had. Not only did I manage a camera team, producer, and whomever else fit in our van, but I also had to drive the van! Nerve racking when you have 10 people who outrank you riding in the back seat. You feel like your every move is being scrutinized.

Ultimately, I did very well there. Had I stayed with them instead of going back to scripted, I would have gotten 3 months in NY and 3 months in Paris for their next show (whatever that was, I can't remember anymore). And I never would have had an opportunity like that at Scrubs. It's too expensive to move a scripted show all the time. That's why it's such a big deal when "Modern Family" goes to Hawaii. It's a sign that the show is doing very well. One Tree Hill was in Aruba this year too. Say what you will about the show, Bitter, but they're a bonafide success if they're getting approved for production travel.

Luck finally smiled upon you when Michelle Nader needed an assistant. How did you hear about that posting and how did you convince Michelle you were the man for the job?

She was one of the first writers to come out of the strike with a new term deal. And my old coworker and former Page Jen (Mark Binke and Todd Sharpe's assistant that I shadowed), called me and said she thought of me the instant she heard about the job. I took a long lunch one day from Two Coreys and met with her. It only took us about 10 minutes to realize that we were both no nonsense.

That being said, I was still pretty timid when it came to working with someone at her level. But I had at least realized by that point that TV writing was what I wanted to do for my career. And given her track record and prolific career, she seemed like a perfect fit. Plus she had worked with Bill Callahan on Spin City many years ago. He was quick to give a good recommendation on my behalf.

And before I even heard if I got the gig, I quit the 2 Coreys and crossed my fingers. I started work 2 weeks later.

Is working for Michelle similar or different from working for the previous writers you worked for? What sort of things have you been responsible for while working on her shows?

Working for Michelle has been the most career defining and unique job I have ever had. Because she has the best of everything in my mind: she's supportive and nuturing to almost everyone around her, but at the same time, she's as cut throat and "take no prisoners" as anyone I have ever met. It's a great balance, and one that has helped me learn how to be confident and assertive with my work.

My duties for her are pretty broad. When we're in development, I do a lot of her proofreading and editing (or at least I help!), and manage her personal life as best I can. When we're on a show (we've done two since I've been with her: Kath & Kim and 100 Questions), it's much much more. She let me co-write the webisodes for 100 Questions, and she gave me my first speaking role as an actor on Kath & Kim.

I tend to work as the liason between the writers and standards/legal as well. All the facades and fake names of products, companies, etc.-- I pitch as many as I can and hope the writing team (and ultimately Michelle) likes them. If they do, I go to legal and try and get one cleared, then I go to the art department and work on signage/logos/labeling. I also help with music from time to time, and even get to pitch some jokes for scripts when I really have something worth sharing. Occasionally I get to weigh in on casting as well. So I wear a lot of hats when we're in production. And that's partially because she can't do it all herself (no one can), but it's also because over time we have developed a great relationship and she trusts me when it comes to her "artistic vision."

Someone comes to you and says "Tell me what it takes to get your job." What do you say?

I'd say be willing to do any and everything you can to get noticed, but never seek attention. Good work always speaks for itself, and if you're good, the promotions and jobs will come with them naturally. Establish connections with any and everyone you can. Treat every single person you meet the same way: with respect. You have no idea how often I hear that I am "very pleasant to work with," or "am always positive despite whatever else is going on" for that exact reason. And I'm not bragging here, I'm just a nice guy. People remember that.

And you never know who will be the next JJ Abrams, so don't be an asshole like the rest of the lot. Be genuine, be good, be thankful, and it will happen. I'd go into some diatribe about karma, but I think I've said enough.

That same person then says, "Tell me what it takes to DO your job." How do you answer that?

It takes an indomitable spirit. Because 9 days out of 10 you won't be doing exactly what you love. But it's all with a means to an end. Its your job to be the backbone for your boss. Unchanged, immovable. Cause they have a heck of a lot on their plate. And if you can help relieve even just a little bit of that for them, it gets noticed in a major way. Also, you need a car and a smart phone cause the notion of "being in the office" does not exist (even when you have one collecting dust on the WB lot!)

Are you pursuing your own writing projects? Do you feel that you have a leg up on other aspirings due to your job and experience?

I am pursuing my own writing projects, yes. Aside from my blog, which is really just a hobby at this point, I try and match Michelle's pace as best I can. If she starts writing a pilot, I do too. And I can honestly say it has improved my craft immensely. When I look at my first spec and compare it to my work today, I am amazed at how far I've come. I'm also enthralled with how much I still have to learn.

And in answer to part two, this goes back to the in-room assistant vs. exec assistant debate. In my mind I feel like I do have a great leg up because I basically work for the CEO. And who better to lend you an ear than the boss, right? The real question becomes if my material will be good enough to market and sell. Because even if you have all the help in the world, if your work sucks, that's pretty much the end of the line. That's what makes creative endeavors so difficult yet so fulfilling all at once. Sure, I have great connections, but until I have a spec that is sold after one read and made into a headline on deadline, I'd say I've got just as good a chance as anyone else.

Thanks to Scott for all his time, and you can check out more of his writing at his blog, Great Scott!

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