Saturday, January 18, 2014

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.


Dave said...

Had an interview this week that I thought went really well. I followed up with a thank you email to the showrunners in which I made a really stupid joke that I'm worried didn't come across.

Been obsessing about it for two days. Still haven't heard back. I like to break the rules and screw up AFTER the interview.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, this is a great question and answer. Absolutely fascinating -- I never really stopped to think about what the "does he wear pants" interview should entail. (Not that I've been in a position to consider it.) But that's some pretty insightful stuff to ruminate on should I ever be in that position.


Canda said...

Be quietly confident and calm, but not overconfident and overbearing. If you have questions, ask them. They want to see some personality, because as a show runner, you will have to show some leadership in the writers room.

Be enthusiastic about the show, but also be genuine, and not overly complimentary. It will seem false.

Never criticize the show, unless they ask if there's anything you would do to improve it. In that case, it's better to have an idea that will build on what they've done, rather than tell them what you would have done differently.

Stick to your ideas for the show, and don't ask if they're are good restaurants in the area to order from.

If they ask how you enjoyed working on a previous show, try to find something complimentary or what was a positive element of the experience. Don't complain about how they did things. No one wants a grouser. If they hate the star of the show you worked on or the head writers, don't see that as an opportunity to complain about them also. They may be testing you.

Be honest. Don't anticipate what they want, or say something you think they want to hear. They'll see through it.

Be early, not just on time, for the appointment. And be professional and polite to the people like the Receptionist and Production Assistants you come in contact with first. Don't flirt with a great looking secretary, and don't be dismissive of them. The Producers may ask them what they thought of you.

If you were well-raised, relax. It will show. If you weren't, heed the above advice, and act accordingly when you get the job.

jbryant said...

Canda: I know the question could have been worded better, but I don't think Josh meant he was interviewing for a showrunner position -- but rather that he was taking interviews WITH showrunners for a staff writing job. If Josh has showrunning experience, he probably wouldn't have to ask the question.

Jan Stanton said...

Hey Ken,

I love Natalie Wood (and remember the exact moment I heard about her suspicious "accident").

Richard Simmons has always kinda creeped me out (he tried to sell me jewelry when I was a buyer for department stores).

I wash my hair every day!

How would I do in a meeting?

Mike said...

For what it's worth, Canda's is good advice for any job interview in any industry. I've seen all those points play out in my own interviews.
Hiring decisions are actually based on precious little real information and a lot of perception. That's where the probation period comes in.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mike. Even in engineering I always said "facts are negotiable - perceptions are cast in concrete"

jillybobww said...

I would add: take the water, when offered. The few times I've declined the water when the assistant offered it, it seemed to cause great consternation with the person interviewing me, and I started to worry that my refusal to hydrate was going to get the assistant fired. (Not quite. But it really can derail the conversation while they make sure that you really were offered water and really did not want it.) And, once you've taken the water, hold it in your left hand, so your right hand isn't cold and clammy for shaking.

These are my brilliant insider tips.

VP81955 said...

Blogger jillybobww said...
I would add: take the water, when offered. The few times I've declined the water when the assistant offered it, it seemed to cause great consternation with the person interviewing me, and I started to worry that my refusal to hydrate was going to get the assistant fired.

In the midst of California's most severe drought in a century, this may end up being moot...although declining the water for that very reason may make you appear more environmentally conscious.

Johnny Walker said...

As Mike indicated, I think interviews do come down to your basic personality (and how compatible it is with the person asking the questions).

I think you can get lost down the neurotic rabbit hole worrying about stuff like whether you took the water or not! At the end of the day, I'm sure if you're polite, conscientious, eager, while displaying a degree of intelligence and aptitude, they won't care that you were sufficiently hydrated before the interview started.

That said, if knowing your hand isn't clammy, or that you didn't insult the assistant, gives you that extra bit of self-confidence, freeing up your brain from being overly self-conscious, I guess that's worth something :)

Larry said...

although declining the water for that very reason may make you appear more environmentally conscious.

Or a pretentious prat. If the water they're offering is already in the bottle, not drinking it isn't going to a bit of good to the crops. What'd they gonna do, send an intern outside to water the lawn with it? Someone will drink it, so why not you?

Seriously, if I saw someone turning down water because of the drought, my first thought would be, "How long until this dink is giving me crap for not driving a hybrid (or not composting my own poop to fertilize my garden which I can only water with my White Man's Guilt Tears)?"

DyHrdMET said...

What are your thoughts on some of the basic cable comedies (I only know one, GROUND FLOOR on TBS) where some light swearing is allowed? I've heard "shit" almost every week and "dick" once or twice. Would it make you uncomfortable as a writer to be forced to add a "bullshit" to the script when you've more or less been trained to stay away from it, or does it bring you more freedom in some cases? Have you ever had a case where the best line to use was censored and you had to rewrite it or cut it?

W. Keith Sewell said...

DyHrdMET, Have you heard the things they are saying and implying these days on Network comedies - let alone cable. "Two and a half Men" - every other line is full of sexual innuendo - and/or toilet humor. It's just not as funny w/o Charlie saying it.

jillybobww - take the damn water.

Ken, I'm a big fan of Natalie Wood - always have been since I first saw 'Gypsy Rose Lee" some 'umpteen years ago. 'WSS', 'Rebel', I really enjoyed her in "Brainstorm." too.

Steven Tylor O'Connor said...

Thank you for this. Now I just need to figure out how to get that initial interview.