Welcome to the Chockalife podcast. My guest today is Joelle who’s a writer in Hollywood. You often hear that everyone’s got a script in development, but how do you actually get from script to screen for real. Joelle tells us what it’s like to be a writer in Hollywood and how she got from dream to reality. Welcome.
Joelle: Thank you. Happy to be here.
You’re working in Hollywood right now. Have you always lived in LA or did you move from somewhere else?
Joelle: Yeah, I was born and raised here. I’m actually very rare in that my grandparents were born and raised in LA, so I’m third generation. My family doesn’t do anything with entertainment. I’m the only one, but from an early age I always loved writing and I was shy as a kid, so my parents did the whole – let’s break her out of her shell and see if she’s wants to do acting classes – thing. I loved the combination of those two things. My grandma, she had told me, she’s like, “You know there are people that write movies and television,” so at ten years old I was like okay that’s what I want to do.
You knew very early on?
Joelle: I knew yeah early on and then I would write plays for my friends to perform which I’m sure drove them crazy. Then when it came time to go into college, I figured since I wanted to stay in the business I should probably stay here for school. I went to Cal State Northridge which had a really great screen writing program and just stayed here throughout.
Since you went to college specifically to work later in Hollywood do you think that that was extremely valuable now that you’ve been working in the business?
Joelle: Yeah. I think that for me the biggest thing was not so much being taught how to write because I think that and for any skill in entertainment it’s either you’re going to gain from experience or you’re going … it’s just going to be innate, but the contacts that I made in college, the friends that I had we still help each other get jobs and everything, so that was extremely valuable.
The biggest thing for me with Northridge was because it was a school in the Valley right in heart where all the studios were part of their curriculum your senior year was – you had to have an internship. That was what lead to me getting my first paid job. I actually got my first job in the industry two weeks after I graduated because of those internships. That part of it was the most valuable and I’m really glad that I did that.
What was your internship?
Joelle: I had great ones. I actually worked for the Mark Gordon Company right when Gray’s Anatomy was at its height. I remember it was the day after they had gone up against CSI for the first time which was like the big juggernaut on TV and they beat CSI, so that was a really big deal. That was such a great company to work for because they did film and television and I got to kind of see both sides.
Then, I also worked for Tollin/Robbins and their internship was really great because you got to work for the production company for part of the time and then the other part they sent you to one of their writer’s offices, so I got to work on Smallville and work in the writers’ office and be around all the writers and that’s when I first fell in love with “the (writer’s) room” and seeing that process and everything. I had really great internships.
You hit the big time right out of the box. That’s amazing! Then what kinds of things did they give you – real responsibility – and if someone doesn’t know what are those two companies? What do they do?
Joelle: Tollin/Robbins and Mark Gordon, they are production companies – they are independent producers that have started their own production company. They hire writers, directors, and then produce shows for, both of them were both film and television. Yeah, my duties included getting a lot of coffee for the executives and stuff.
Mark Gordon Company – they let the interns sit in on story meetings which was really exciting. Every Monday morning the whole office, and it was a smaller office, would get together and pitch ideas that they had read or heard about or writers that have sent them scripts. Mark would go through and be like, “No that’s not going to work,” or “Yeah, let’s bring this writer in,” or “Let’s read that book and see if we can get the rights to it.”
I did a lot of reading at the Mark Gordon Company. I probably read three books every week and between ten and twenty scripts and I’m a quick reader, so they gave me a lot of stuff to do. I definitely felt very involved and they were really, really great about having their interns be involved and feel like they’re part of the process.
When you say reader, does that mean you were doing coverage for them?
Joelle: Yeah, so you would read the book or the script and then you would give kind of a synopsis of what the material was and then your analysis if you thought it would make a good submission based on the characters, the story, and kind of it’s potential.
When I did that – they sort of had a formula for your coverage and you wrote it out. You presented what the story was in a few paragraphs, what the potential was, that kind of thing. Is that still what you do?
Joelle: Yeah, that was how it was at least when I had done it six or seven years ago – you gave a three paragraph synopsis and then gave your thoughts on character, story, structure, and everything, so it was a set formula that you got to fill in each time.
Now, just curious, so did they pay you during your internship?
Joelle: They didn’t. It was unpaid but you did get lunches and gas mileage. I think the greatest day for me at Mark Gordon was sometimes they would have their interns fill in for assistants if the assistant was out sick or had something, and it was such a rare honor because they had several, they probably had between ten and twelve interns and so when I was asked to fill in a few days before Christmas and when I filled in to be Mark’s assistant and when I filled in I got paid for that. That was a really, really exciting thing.
Absolutely. Then did they take just interns that were enrolled in college or was it open?
Joelle: I believe for Tollin/Robbins it was for college credit. I think for both of them actually you had to do it for college and I had found out about both of them on this website called entertainmentcareers.net which was like my biggest resource for internships. They post really great ones and a lot of legitimate companies and stuff, so I had gotten both of those through that. I had friends in college that the school had provided some, but I think that only because I went through that website I ended up getting a little bit better of an internship, but yeah it was for college credit.
Doing a bit of your own research and really going after it is what got you these great jobs basically?
Joelle: Yeah. I mean I remember before I got those internships I actually, I don’t remember where I found this one from, but there was this internship that was an independent producer and it was at his house. I ended up working there for two weeks and it didn’t feel right. It was just him and his wife. They wanted me to do usual intern things like fetching coffee, but then they also wanted me to pitch my own ideas and something didn’t feel right about it. There were a lot of internships like that that friends had where it was an independent producer working out of his house and they basically just wanted an unpaid assistant.
There were definitely ones to watch out for, but the ones that …
No comparison to working in a large production office where you get so much exposure to all different types of things and actually can run into people in the halls.
Joelle: Yeah, it was really exciting and the Smallville writers’ office was on the Warner Brothers lot so it was very exciting to actually be working on a lot and going down to the Starbucks there you would see everyone on different shows and stuff. It was great.
After the internship did that set you up for your first job and what did you do?
Joelle: Yeah, so what had happened was my very, very first job was actually a friend of mine from college, he was working for a game show and they were looking for a production secretary, so he put my name into the pile and I ended up working as a production secretary for a week. Literally I graduated winter of ’06 and then I had gone on a graduation trip and while I was on the trip I got a call asking if I could start the day after I got back from my trip. It was really great. That was fun and very hectic.
Then while I was there one of the assistants from one of my internships he had found out about a job opening up as a post PA for a show and so I sent my resume in. It was funny, the guy that was hiring he was actually an intern at Tollin/Robbins, that was his first job, so we made that connection and he hired me.
Describe what a production secretary is first.
Joelle: A production secretary is the one that answers the phones for whatever production and so you’re the first one in the office, the last one to leave. You’re kind of like the liaison for the entire office and people that are coming in. Because it was a game show and so reality there were a lot of submissions. That was probably the biggest thing was that people were constantly calling to try and submit to be a contestant on the show.
The other PAs that were the office PAs they did more of stocking office supplies, getting lunches, doing errands, but I was really just the one that was in charge of the phones.
It sounds like your main goal was really not to work on set but to be the behind the scenes and then work your way into writing?
Joelle: Yeah, I mean my ultimate goal was to be a TV writer, but when you’re just starting out you take any job that you can get because it’s all very valuable. The thing about being a post PA was I probably knew coming out of college the least about post production because when you’re doing student films you get production experience because you’re on set and I knew the pre-production process really well, but I knew very, very little about post so it was probably the job that I was least suited for, but I gained the most experience from doing it.
What kind of experience would you say was most important with the post job?
Joelle: They say that the editing is the last rewrite and it really is. I mean you would see stuff that – because maybe it wasn’t shot the best – because of budget constraints – or whatever, and the editors would just work magic and you would see stuff that wasn’t quite working in the script, the way that they would edit it would be able to just completely transform the show. I think also it’s just very valuable to know the little things of what it means to online something or what color and the effects can add and stuff. I learned a lot from that.
Yeah, it’s a lot of magic and then blood, sweat, and tears because they put the shows together at the end.
Joelle: The thing about post is because you’re right up against the deadline, it’s like you’re basically just putting out fires all the time. You don’t have the luxury of time and you’re just correcting mistakes constantly, so it’s working in post production is probably the toughest job, I think, and the most thankless because the hours are long. There’s just so much that you’re just constantly doing, but for me as a post PA the thing that was really great especially more so than being, I think, an office PA or a set PA, is that the creators of the show are constantly in your offices looking at the cuts so you get the most exposure to the executive producers and the show runners because you’re constantly around them.
For someone that their ultimate goal is to be in the writer’s office, being a post PA is actually a really great job because you get that one on one time with the show runners.
Right and all the executives are right there because they want that finished product, so you get to meet all the powerful people.
Joelle: Exactly. Yeah, so I got to be around so many people as a post PA and that’s actually what led to my first writer’s assistant job. I had worked in post for several years and actually after that first job an editor that worked on that show referred me to a post supervisor and I ended up working with her for the next several years because anything she got hired on she brought me along and that was wonderful.
We worked on several shows together and one of them I got particularly close with the executive producers enough to the point that I was able to say, “Hey, so you know I kind of want to be a writer and you know maybe if the show gets a season two I can come on board as a writer’s PA.” He had me send him my spec script and he liked it and so sure enough when the show got a season two they brought me in for an interview and I ended up getting the writer’s assistant job.
Do you think it was important that you actually had something to show them that you had written?
Joelle: Absolutely, I mean because it’s very easy to say I want to be a writer but unless you have the material to back it up people aren’t going to take it seriously. You need to be able to have that material to show them that you’re serious about it.
What do you do as a writer’s assistant? Does it involve writing?
Joelle: A writer’s assistant, it’s a really, really interesting job that involves really specific skill sets. A lot of friends that want to be writers think that being a writer’s assistant is the most logical step to being a writer. It’s very different than writing. It’s a lot of organization. It’s a lot of … You’re basically a court stenographer, so a writer’s assistant sits in the writers’ room with all the writers and they’re in charge of the notes, so you’re just writing down everything that is being said in that room.
It’s tough because sometimes people will go into tangents and it’s hard to break apart if it’s something meaningful or if people are just talking about their date from the night before and how that will impact the story. Then at the end of the day you have between twenty, thirty pages worth of notes that you have to organize into something logical for the writers to read and then try and make sense of.
Yeah, it’s a tough job and the plus side of it is you are in the writers’ room so you do get to be exposed to the story process and story breakdown process but oftentimes your job is not to pitch stories or write, it’s to organize their thoughts.
That’s not something you ordinarily think about a writer being very good at, so you can imagine that you probably have a lot of writers’ assistants that may not, like you, graduate into actually writing, they might end up going a different route because that is a skill set to be able to organize someone who sort of has that mind – although, I think you can have both. There’s absolutely no doubt.
Joelle: Yeah, there are people. I always joke that I’m a left-handed Virgo so that I have both sides of being the creative side, but the Virgo side of me is very organized, very particular and stuff, but it is it’s a tough skill that most writers don’t have that being organized and stuff and that’s why they need a writer’s assistant. I think that it’s also tough. I’ve seen writers’ assistants and been in other rooms where their focus is on being a writer and so a lot of times they’ll try and pitch ideas or get their stuff heard and then they’re not able to organize the notes and that’s not going to benefit anybody.
It almost makes me wonder if a lot of those writers’ assistants end up going on to be producers rather than writers, but writing is definitely sort of the redheaded stepchild because they don’t get a lot of appreciation often, but if you don’t have a good story, you don’t have anything.
Joelle: Yeah, it all starts with the story
Joelle: Yeah, a writers job is a very … It’s funny because it’s so coveted but yet it’s a really tough job. I know a lot of staff that actually try and hire more, like you said, people that want to be producers and stuff just because it’s such a different skill set but because people that want to be writers want to be in that room they end up getting that job and wanting that job.
Right – in the end though what type of writing do you want to do?
Joelle: I love writing anything but I want to be a TV writer, so I’ve mainly wrote one hour drama so I guess that’s what I’m focusing on. Yeah, so being in the writers’ room really is great because it is something that it was aligned with what I want to do. From there, you do get to meet so many wonderful people. The first staff that I was on I’m still really close with all those writers and one of them – or actually two of them – they ended up being able to run a show a couple of years after that writing staff and they hired me to be their assistant.
Then, from there – I was one of their development assistants for a while because he got an overall deal and that to me if you want to be a writer, being a development assistant with a writer that has an overall deal – that is the best job in the world.
You get to see what people have written, what’s written well, what’s not written well and how the process moves along.
Joelle: Yeah, you get to see the process of what it is like to be a working writer and you get to see it from both developing pilots in your own material and working on a show. In some ways, it’s like grad school because you’re working one on one with someone that kind of becomes this teacher and you get exposed to all of their contacts, all of their talent but it’s also because you’re not caught up with a lot of the minutia of being a writer’s assistant and taking notes you get so much time to work on your own material. You get a pair of eyes if you’re fortunate to look at your own material and help you with that, so my writing has just improved immensely since I’ve been working as a development assistant.
Are you pitching your scripts to people now?
Joelle: Yeah, actually last year I had a very prolific year and wrote a lot of material and one of the scripts that I wrote ended up almost getting sold to a French production company and so that was a very surreal thing because it was a script that I had written with a friend of mine in Israel. He and I literally wrote the script through Skype and everyone that read it really loved it, but nothing really came from it.
He’s created a few shows over in Israel so he’s a little bit more established and he called me one day and he’s like, “We need to talk because I pitched our script to a producer and they want to buy it.” I was like, “Okay, yeah that sounds made up, but sure, you know let me know what I need to do.” A couple of days later he’s like, “Okay they’re really serious. They want to talk to your agent about negotiating the deal.”
At that point, I started to freak out because I didn’t have an agent and so I called one of my writer friends and my boss and they both talked to their agents and within a few hours someone had called me and he was like, “Okay, I know everything about the deal and I’m going to call the producers tomorrow and tell them you have people,” and stuff. It was such a surreal experience because I had for the past few years been knocking my brains out to try and get a manager, an agent, anybody to even read my material and then it literally just took a phone call.
From the agent?
Is that still your agent?
Joelle: Yeah. The deal ended up not going through but he sat down with me and stuff and talked with me about other projects. Then around the same time friends of mine started a production company and ended up buying a pilot from me to make into a web series, so my agent helped me with that deal and then we ended up shooting that web series back in May and now we’re going through post production and all that stuff.
A lot of doors started opening but it was because I put the time in and wrote like crazy last year.
The agent pretty much makes you legit, right?
To get the agent though you had to actually have something – have either the contacts get you that agent or something that was in action being pitched, right?
Joelle: Exactly. Yeah, I think that the agent kind of gives you more so than being legit, at least for me kind of gives you a security blanket that you’re like okay, I’m headed in the right direction but yeah it wasn’t me submitting anything – it was I had to get my first job on my own for them to come out and help me.
Yeah, it’s a little bit chicken and the egg, right, because an agent is not going to rep you if you have nothing and then they don’t want to work with you if you don’t have an agent so you kind of had that great timing and the scramble there. The contacts that you made that could get you to exactly where you needed to be from both sides.
Joelle: Exactly. Yeah, so it’s tough and I have friends that are looking for agents and managers and stuff and you really have to put the work in first and then people will come to you. Like you said it’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg, but when it’s meant to work out it often does. I had another friend that was in a similar situation where he was scrambling looking for an agent and no one would read his stuff. He even had managers and then it was a friend of his that was an agent’s assistant got promoted and signed him and so that’s another way that it ends up working out.
It really is just the combination of hard work and timing and luck.
Right and also keeping up with every single person that you meet and keeping those relationships going. Along those lines what do you do? You’ve kind of had a nice ride from college, but what would you say are the most important things to do to keep up with what’s going on in Hollywood? Who you need to know? How to plan your next move? That type of thing.
Joelle: I mean I think that’s really important to like you said stay in touch with your contacts. I also am a big advocate of kind of paying stuff forward because Hollywood is such a cycle, so the people that you may be helping out yesterday could be hiring you the next day. People that are graduating and stuff or just moving to Hollywood, I’ll meet for coffee and try to help them out and give them advice and introduce them to my contacts.
I think that it’s just important to stay in touch and work hard, Deadline Hollywood and The Wrap they’re such good sources for what is going on in terms of the deals and stuff like that and what shows are being sold and what the interest is in. I think it’s important to stay on top of those things.
You have to read all the trades and know who’s making deals and what types of genres are being pushed right now because it seems like it’s very cyclical in Hollywood. One time everyone wants westerns. One time everyone’s looking for dramas or whatever it is and then you can sort of go with the trend or buck the trend but at least know what the trends are.
Joelle: Yeah. It’s important to know that. It’s also important to know what companies are the big companies in play because it’s like now with Netflix and Amazon and Hulu all creating content that opens up a whole new world, so it is I think really important to stay on top of not only the creative trends of what’s being bought and sold but also the business trends too because at the end of the day this is a business and you need to be as educated as you can be.
Well and just something for you that you’ve probably haven’t done in a while but say there’s someone out there that you’ve just seen make a deal and you think your script would be great for it but you don’t know this person at all. How would you go about trying to make contact with them and getting in front of them?
Joelle: I think that it depends. You try and play like the six degrees of separation game and see who you know that may know them and reach out to them that way. You could also look at who their representation is and try to reach out to them through that, but it’s tough because you don’t want to be overly pushy and be reaching out to a complete stranger because at the end of the day they’re not going to read your material that way. You need to see if there’s a connection there.
Are still a lot of them not taking unsolicited scripts, so you can’t just drop it off? You actually have to have a representative, right?
Joelle: Yeah. I think even the small boutique agencies and the production companies are not taking unsolicited scripts. The other great resource though if you don’t have any connections and you’re just starting out is there’s so many screen writing and production contests now that you can submit to and that’s a really great way of getting exposure and making contacts. There’s so many resources for that. I’ve had friends that have gotten into festivals and have gotten deals because of that and then friends that have won screen writing contests or gotten to the finals for screen writing contests and have gotten into meetings because of that.
There are a ton of resources for people that are just starting out and don’t necessarily know anybody.
What are a couple of the top contests that you would say?
Joelle: I know a big one right now for TV is I believe it’s the New York TV Film Festival but I’ll have to double check that. I don’t know if that’s exactly what it’s called. There’s also a screen writing lab which is great and there’s the blacklist which now has like a monthly thing where you can submit to. There’s a bunch of them. I can send you some links.
That would be great. That’s interesting because they are always looking for new talent in Hollywood yet they are also very protective of themselves. It’s kind of an interesting juggling match on how to get yourself seen through that sort of gauntlet that they put out there.
Joelle: I think also now is a really, really great time in terms of the business because there are so many outlets and new channels and stuff. There’s more channels on cable than there’s ever been before. There’s the web streaming services. There’s independent movies. People can go out there and make their own stuff now whereas ten years ago that wasn’t necessarily an option. My boyfriend, he’s a cinematographer and he is working everyday on people that are making their own things.
It’s a really, really exciting time. You don’t need to wait around and have someone buy something. You can start a fund or you can make something really cheap and do it yourself. I think that that’s something I’ve been focusing on this past year is trying to make my own stuff because there’s such a gratification to see it no matter how small it is, but to see something that you created come to life.
I think that is probably the most frustrating thing especially when you’re first starting out is the waiting and we’re in such a great time where you don’t need to wait anymore. You could just do it and you aren’t going to be making millions of dollars but it doesn’t mean that you won’t down the line.
Right and you can have some control over it as well – whereas when you sell your script you have basically just given it over. It’s a rare writer that actually gets to participate in either the production or post production of whatever they wrote.
Joelle: Yeah and I think even the best writers are going to be getting notes from some producer, some studio, some network, so even if you are involved it is going to be shaped in a way that is not fully yours, but creating something yourself you do have that complete control.
Going back can you tell me a typical fun Hollywood story or encounter or something that happened to you along the way that is kind of one of the reasons you get in the business in the first place?
Joelle: Yeah. I think for me being a writer it’s always been something that I wanted to do and so I mentioned it briefly but getting to do this web series, it was the very first pilot that I ever wrote. It was something I wrote when I was twenty-two and I sent it to a writer friend of mine and he read the script and he was like, this is such a great idea. Somebody is going to make it someday, but you are not a strong enough writer yet.
He was very point blank with me and I knew that. He said, “keep at it – this is going to be the script that teaches you to write.” I did – and every year I revised it and there was a version of it – there was the dark and seedy HBO version, there was the CW version, there was a very straight up network sitcom version, and it taught me. It really did teach me how to write and take notes and revise but the heart of the story stayed the same.
That same writer that gave me that advice, he and his wife had started a production company and they were looking for scripts and I said I’m like, “Oh you know I still have that one script,” and I sent it to them and that was the script that they ended up making. To have that experience of having someone say someone will make this someday and it actually be him was a very surreal and wonderful experience.
We shot forty-two pages in six days, had a real crew. It looked like a real set and everything and then on the last day the casting crew all gathered around and stuff and he had directed it so he had thanked everybody and I had told them that story that he was the one that read the script so long ago and what a wonderful experience that it was actually being made and being made with him. That is definitely a highlight for me and something I will treasure for a very, very long time.
Yes that is a pinnacle of the whole process there, so do you have anything that you would have done differently looking back?
Joelle: Yeah, honestly the thing that I would do differently is give myself a little bit more slack. Because I think that I put so much pressure on myself especially coming right out of college that if I’m not a working writer by this age then I need to reconsider my career or – if I’m not doing this by this age or making this amount of money and I think that this is a really funny business and there’s no straight line to success. Everyone has a different story, a different way that they’ve gotten there and everyone is going to be … Some people are going to be further along than where you would want to be and some people are going to be not as far along as you want to be.
You just have to pave your own road and be patient, but the only thing that you can do is work hard and if you’re a writer write scripts. If you are a producer, find productions that you can be involved in. If you’re a director, direct your own stuff. Do the things that you do have control over and the rest of everything will fall into place, so yeah if I could do one thing differently I think I would tell my younger self to relax a little bit and not …
Enjoy the process. It’s all good.
Joelle: Yeah and not compare myself with others because that’s also a really hard part when you see friends that are achieving different things at different rates. It can be a little daunting but you can’t compare because there are no comparisons in Hollywood. Everyone has their own path.
If you just look at it as an outsider you can see that someone’s who’s hot one minute just nobody will talk to them the next time and then, like you said, your friend had someone who was an assistant suddenly became an agent and got him in. I mean that’s the kind of crazy stuff that keeps you hanging on there even if things aren’t working out exactly as you planned and like you said no straight line.
You have to keep plugging away and just keep doing it. I like how you said if you want to direct, direct, make sure that you anoint yourself whatever it is. Say you’re a writer, say you’re a director, just make it happen. Make sure you get a lot of experience doing it in any way you can and don’t wait for someone else to tell you that that’s what you are.
Joelle: Absolutely. Yeah, you need to go out and do what you’re going to do and what you have control over doing.
Well that was great advice and good to hear your story. I wish you the best of luck.
Joelle: Thank you.
More of those great moments where you make that script into a produced product. That’s fantastic.
Joelle: Yeah. Thank you..
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