Friday, January 22, 2010

Interviewing for writing jobs

Here’s a Saturday question. It’s like a Friday question except the question itself is longer than the answer. As always, when I can't find an appropriate picture I feature Natalie Wood.

From Josh:

I'm writing to you because I've started to take some showrunner meetings/interviews for TV comedies and I find them perplexing. In the past, when you've given a young writer or writing team their first gig, what did you feel constituted a successful meeting? Do the ideas they have about the show matter? Is there any way to compensate for being totally green?

I guess I'm wondering what's expected of me in these meetings. They've read my scripts...liked them. I've met with the studio...the network. That's all fine, but I don't feel comfortable yet with the executive producers. Maybe there's an intimidation factor.

It’s much tougher for showrunners these days because generally they’re interviewing the newbie writer for a staff position. Back in the old days when dinosaurs ruled the earth (the 1980s and 90s) you could give a baby writer a freelance assignment and use that to determine whether they’re worthy of joining your staff. Now, the decision is based on a decent spec SCRUBS and interview.

Try not to be intimidated. Showrunners are just like regular people but luckier and more neurotic.

The first thing I look for is this: is this writer fucking strange? Does he creep me out? Does he have an Olsen Twins obsession? Does she dress like Lady Gaga?

Grooming is important. Remember, you’re going to spend a million hours locked in a room with this person. Has their hair been washed since New Year’s?

And then I just try to get a feel for who they are. Obviously, they’re a little nervous. Anything I can do to put them at ease helps us both. They’re less likely to have a stroke and I get a better idea of their real personality.

Just be yourself. Don’t try to dazzle by coming on like Mel Brooks on Red Bull. Be prepared. Know as much as you can about the show and the showrunner. Is he a huge Lakers fan? Maybe you talk a little hoops. If you were meeting with me you might slip into the conversation that you love Natalie Wood.

Be enthusiastic but not Richard Simmons. The showrunner will probably ask if you have any questions. Don’t ask about money. Don’t ask how late they usually work. Don’t ask what snacks they have. Ask thoughtful questions about the show, where it’s going, what their process is. And like I said, be yourself as best you can.

It’s an inexact science. You don’t know what to answer and they don’t know what to ask. Best of luck.

Oh… and show up on time.


MissBumptious said...

I had a conference call with producer types off a TV spec script I submitted to a contest-y situation once. Pretty sure they only called me because they didn't believe my state actually existed and had money riding on that. They also asked me about my favorite books and seemed pissy that they'd never heard of any of them (and they were not - I repeat, not - obscure by any stretch to any well-educated individual).

Didn't get the trainee gig but, coincidentally as all hell, most of my ideas actually made their way into the show. Yay, me.

Matt Patton said...

A picture of Natalie Wood is ALWAYS appropriate.

Richard Y said...

My words exactly Matt.

RDaggle said...

Maybe I'm dense, but why is "how would you define poignancy" a ridiculous question?

If it's decided that a script needs more 'poignancy', and my idea of that is, oh, the scene where the cherished red car crashes through the plate glass window into a canyon, and your idea is the scene where she thinks he is making a joke when he proposes marriage -- shouldn't we know about that in advance?

At the very least it means that when it's time to work on the 'poignancy angle', Joe Newhire should just sit there quietly.

Unknown said...

MissBumptious has a good point and as a result I'm careful in various Craigslist ads I come across looking for ideas. Moreso as I learn more. I post enough on my MySpace page so that people get the general idea of what the story is about, but deliberately leave out key information-some of which is on InkTip.

For people not to know a certain state existed and to blatantly use her ideas without permission exemplifies a really low level of class that is detrimental in general to anybody who wishes to make a career out of artistry of any type. It's a shame such people exist in the business, but clearly they do. That they would be people in key positions is worrisome.

The interview advice given by Ken is good, solid common sense. You may be the most brilliant writer in the world but if you can't work with the team and you can't take constructive criticism then there's a potential for someone to be a liability and people who really want their shows to succeed don't want that. And a certain degree of being eccentric is fine-I certainly am as are a lot of uniquely talented people but basic common courtesy and civility are always important on the job or not. If I'm a writer for Conan O'Brien, let's say, it goes without saying that it is my job to represent the show in as professional a manner to everybody I deal with at all times on and off the job. And clearly the same goes for my own projects or anything anyone hires me for.

I wouldn't go out of my way to impress a certain person by pretending to have a deep interest in something I know they do, but I would talk about any such interests like a normal person and expect that the relationship between employer and fellow employees will develop on its own. And also not to give unsolicited negative opinions about other shows, writers, people or the like. It's one thing to comment about Jay Leno in a column in which the topic is partly based on his behavior and another to just spout my opinion off about the guy to anyone who will listen.

As I go through life, I try to do the very best I can and grow as a person-I think the best thing I can do is pay attention to others around me and take my cues from them-I don't have to be a social worry wart like Larry David (or perhaps just his characters) but I do need to treat every one with respect if possible. Even a failed interview is an opportunity to grow if a person has the ability to look deep within themselves and ask how can I improve on what I've already done. I think that's a very important part of self marketing which is essentially a lot of what being a writer or show runner is.

Cutting Confessions-One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest meets Slumdog Millionaire:

micheal said...

Thanks for the post.