I am interested in becoming an assistant to a TV or Film writer. I have experience in the industry as an assistant to a Producer/CEO of a Production company, but I’m not sure what the qualifications are to be a writer’s assistant or how to apply for the job.
I’m passing off the question to my own very capable assistant, Rawson Thurber, who is an aspiring writer/director in his own right. He first started working with me on the TV show DC; and continued on with me since.
The qualifications to be a writer’s assistant are by no means Herculean. As long as you have basic assistant skills (answering the phone without hurting yourself, computer literacy and a working knowledge of the film & TV industry) you’re already there, especially if you’ve already assisted a producer/CEO of a production company.
The more important question you should ask yourself is: why do you want to be a writer’s assistant? Generally speaking, if your answer is anything other than, “Because I want to be a writer myself”, then you shouldn’t be one. There are other Hollywood jobs that pay better and have better chance for advancement.
That said, there is a big difference between being an assistant to a TV writer versus a feature writer. If you work for a TV writer, you’ll usually be working for the show-runner, the main voice/architect behind the show, in addition to doing the research/transcribing/copying for all the other staff writers. You’ll sit in on all the writer’s meetings, taking notes: jokes, storylines, plot points, etc.
Working on a television show, especially a sitcom, can keep you up until all hours of the night. When it’s crunch-time, several of my writer’s assistant friends don’t get home until 2 or 3 in the morning for several days in a row (weekends included). It can be exhausting and exhilarating (you learn how a writer’s room is run and how a television show is produced from politics to post-production). But it is also a great way to break into television – often times, television shows promote from within, and occasionally farm-out an episode or two to promising assistants — you just can’t say that about CAA.
Working as an assistant to a feature writer is generally less demanding, but just as educational. Of course you learn the tricks of the trade: what works and what doesn’t work in a two hour movie, how to deal with studio executives and how to ignore or embrace notes (sometimes contradictory or just plain wrong) given from all sides. This is, of course, on top of the usual assistant duties of research, faxing, and scheduling lunches, meetings, pitches, parties and premieres.
The only words of warning I would offer, before jumping headfirst into this breed of assistant-hood, is to understand that writing is a solitary process. Whomever you work for will spend most of his or her time behind closed doors creating. This leaves you with a lot of time to spend doing what you’re there to do, which is write.
Additionally, working for a writer isn’t like working at a production company. There’s usually only one or two projects going on at a time, not fifteen, and it’s just you and your writer, usually in separate rooms – there isn’t much “office culture” to be had, so if you’re looking for football pools or water cooler gossip, best look elsewhere. Lastly, and this is the most important one, only work for a writer whose writing you respect. There are plenty of millionaire screenwriting hacks out there and life is too short to begrudge your boss his or her success.
Being a writer’s assistant can be a wonderful apprenticeship, just be sure you want the job when you finally earn your stripes.
John would like to add: For the record, not all that many feature screenwriters have assistants. Partly that’s because the workday life of a feature writer is generally less hectic — fewer meetings and less to stay on top of — and partly it’s because many feature writers work in their homes. Rawson’s point about the solitary nature of the craft is important. It’s one thing to be stuck in an office with a maniac boss, and another thing to be trapped in his house. So make sure the personality is the right fit before considering the job.