Monday, November 22, 2010

Marsha Greene on showrunning

Looking for a career in television? Itching to get into the writers room?

We all have to pay our dues, as Marsha Greene so clearly demonstrates. Find out what this aspiring showrunner has learned from her experience as a showrunner's assistant.

The Basics-

Show: Wingin' It (Season 2)

Network: Family Channel

Production Company: Temple Street Productions

Episodes: 28 (it started as 13, then got an order for 15 more)

Showrunner: Frank van Keeken

What were your expectations before you started working as a showrunner's assistant?

During my interview with Frank, he told me there would be a fair amount of so-called menial tasks like getting him coffee and running errands, so I was prepared to check my ego on those counts. But we had also agreed in the interview that I would be able to spend time on set and in the writers room when I had down time. So in general, I went into the experience thinking it would be a great education on how a television show gets made from a creative and production standpoint. I also had the thought that it was really important for me to impress Frank and get him to see me as a potential writer.

Did the outcome match your expectations?

In some ways, the experience exceeded my expectations. Shortly after I started, Frank told me that I was welcome to pitch story ideas in the room, which I eventually did. Near the end of production, the writer’s assistant and I co-wrote one of the webisodes for the show. I was blown away to get those opportunities, as I had anticipated just being a fly in the room. By the end of the show, I really felt like I belonged in the writers room and became very close with the writers, which was far beyond what I expected. At the same time, Frank was very busy and not in the room as much as I thought he would be, so he never really saw my potential as a writer, which was disappointing.

I did not anticipate the long hours I was going to work. As Frank’s assistant, I was expected to be wherever he was, for however long. There were days when there was less than an 8-hour turnaround from when I left work to when I had to be back. There were weeks that we worked late every day. There were days I literally felt like a zombie. It’s exhausting, and it also pretty much isolates you from having a life outside of work. So I did not see that coming. Also, I had a lot of down time, which was hard, because there’s nothing worse than being exhausted and having nothing to do. Time moves very slowly on set – there’s a lot of stopping, resetting, wardrobe changing, etc. So if you’re just an observer, it is not always fast-paced and exciting. Even in the room, there were times when the writers were working independently, so there really wasn’t any way for me to participate.

Also, while I was prepared to check my ego at the door, I was not prepared for how hard that would be sometimes! There were times that I got yelled at or blamed for things that I didn’t feel were my fault, but I also felt like I had to take it and keep my mouth shut. So I really had to have a thick skin and not take it personally, which I had anticipated to a certain extent, but it does take its toll.

What is a typical day like for a showrunner's assistant?

I arrived at work at 7:30 am, unless call time was later. I brought Frank breakfast or coffee. I went to our office (Frank and I shared an office) and checked the inbox to see if there was anything that needed to be filed (deal memos, clearance forms, updated cast/crew lists, etc). I checked the Prep Schedule to see if Frank had any meetings at lunch. I checked my email. Sometimes Frank would have emailed me the day before with a list of things to do, which could be anything from calling Bell to find out about his charges, to doing research on chickens. I also checked the writers room email, which was not a requirement, but something that I liked to do because it gave me a chance to see the notes that had come in from Frank, the studio or the networks.

At 9:15 am, I left to pick up some of the writers at the subway station to have them back at work by 10 am (which was their start time). The rest of the day varied a little. I checked on Frank every few hours to see if he needed anything (he spent the entire day on set). I was in charge of petty cash for Frank and the writers, so I would sometimes have to submit expenses. Other than that, I would spend time in the writers room, sometimes just observing, sometimes pitching if they were doing a pass on a script on-screen. I would also hang out on set, talk to people, observe the different directors to see how they worked and how they interacted with Frank. Every day I ate lunch in the writers room and we watched dailies. We also watched audition tapes for guest roles on the show and I would follow up with the casting agent to confirm who Frank wanted for the role or if he wanted to organize another casting session. If Frank and the writers were working late, I would arrange for/pick up dinner for Frank.

I should explain “working late”: Because Frank spent all day on set, but he also had to read and approve each script, we had to wait for shooting to be wrapped before Frank would come into the writers room to go over the scripts. Frank, all of the writers, the writer’s assistant and I would sit in the room and “do a pass” on a script – the pass could be to make sure the stories tracked or to punch-up the jokes. So if shooting wrapped at 8 pm, the room might be going over a script until midnight, 1 am, 2 am, once it was 4 am (that was my birthday, actually!). The writers would sometimes come in later the next day, or still be expected to come at 10, whereas Frank and I would return for call time the next day.

How can a showrunner's assistant impress the writers?

I asked one of the writers this question and he said: pitch. I think it’s important to pitch and participate, but at the same time not be too aggressive. Sometimes it’s better to just observe and offer suggestions when needed, rather than just imposing your ideas on the script. Other times, it’s important to show them that you do have ambition. Ask for their help or advice, not just because they will likely help you, but also because it will show them that you are serious about writing.

I think one thing that really impressed the writers in regard to me was my attitude. I was always upbeat, happy to be there, smiling, and that can be important when everyone is tired and cranky.

What are you aspiring to be? Has your ultimate goal of becoming showrunner changed after working this gig?

I want to be a showrunner and that goal has not changed, but it has been clarified. This experience really showed me everything you need to know and do to be a good showrunner, so while I still have that as an end goal in my mind, I am prepared to take my time and learn as much as possible before I get there. Right now, I am setting my sights on being in the writers room.

What have you learned from your position?

Re: Being a showrunner

There is so much you need to know and understand to be a showrunner on set, because if you have the power to make the final decision, you need to know what you’re talking about. You need to understand how much things cost, in terms of money and in terms of time. You can’t always just think from a creative point of view – ideally, you can marry the creative to the practical and get the effect you want.

A showrunner has to be decisive and yet flexible. You have to be willing to take the reigns, lead the troops, make the tough decisions. At the same time, you can’t let that go to your head to the point that you won’t let anyone else make a decision, you only trust your own judgment, and you are closed off to other people’s ideas or opinions.

A showrunner needs to motivate his writers and his crew. When everyone is working long, hard hours, the showrunner has to keep everyone striving for the very best product by doing their best work. It’s not an easy task.

Re: Being a writer

You need to know yourself as a writer. Some people are really good at pitching or making jokes. Others are great at structure. Some understand emotionality. Knowing what your strength is will help you find a place in the room and contribute to the best of your ability. It’s important to know/do all of those things, but it’s only natural that you will be better at some than others.

What are some tips you can provide for other aspiring showrunners/writers who land their first gig as a showrunner's assistant?

I think it’s most important to know that the experience I had is not necessarily the bible on being a showrunner’s assistant. Different showrunners have different expectations, different schedules, different ways of working. There was a writer on the show who was astonished at the hours we worked – on her previous show, they usually finished at 6, and a late night was 8. Also, some showrunners might give their assistant more responsibility. In most ways, I was Frank’s personal assistant, in charge of doing things he wasn’t able to because of his demanding schedule. So it’s important that the person ask in the interview what the job will entail, because I am certain it will vary depending on the show and the showrunner.

Other tips

Don’t take it personally. This job is not for the faint of heart. If you’re an assistant, you’re probably going to get shit on sometimes. There is definitely a hierarchy in television and status means a lot. So don’t complain and don’t cry. If you do either of those things, people will probably remember and may not ask you to come back. Take the hits and keep on smiling, because some people will notice that and commend you on your strength. Don’t let other people define you – you may be an assistant today, but next year you could be a coordinator, or a junior writer, or have created your own show.

Make as many contacts as you can. Unlike the writers, who are holed up in a room for most of the time, I had the freedom to move around and get to know people. So a lot of the crew knew who I was and I developed relationships with people like the production coordinator, the trainee A.D., even the locations manager. You never know when that will come in handy. I also have great relationships with the writers, and I know that will be useful in the future as well.

It’s up to you to get what you want out of the job. Though I said that Frank was much busier than I thought, I still think there were opportunities to connect with him that I missed. The job was so much more exhausting than I thought, so I often chose sleep over ambition. But I could have come to work earlier to spend one-on-one time with him, I could have been more aggressive with him to read my writing, I could have spent more of my down time at work writing.

Finally, if you want to be a writer, this is probably one of the best jobs you can get outside of… well, being a writer. As I saw it, only the writer’s assistant and I had unlimited access to the room. Though other people on set might approach Frank or one of the writers with “a great idea for a show,” the writer’s assistant and I were really the only “outsiders” whose ideas were welcome. For me, that outweighed the not-so-great aspects of the job. And really, I left the job with a writing credit for the webisode, so any person wanting to be a writer should be happy to take the job if only for that possibility.