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Profiles of Television: Matt Thilenius – TV Literary Assistant (CAA)

Profiles of Television is an ongoing interview series showcasing the variety of professionals in the TV industry, from writers and producers, to those in development, representation, and post-production. These are the many talents involved in television, and the personal journeys behind them.

Our guest today is Matt Thilenius. A great fan of television and the agency life, Matt has quickly risen the ranks of CAA. Over the past year, he has gone from intern and mailroom floater to now being a TV Literary assistant.

The Medium

First things first: why the television calling?
I love the storytelling of it. As a kid, I’ve always been fascinated with cartoons. I used to watch a lot of that kind of TV—I still do on occasion. I now find shows more interesting to watch. How you can tell a story through many episodes. In a movie you only have the span of two hours. In TV, you have a season, or multiple ones, where you can keep going at it, adding to it, developing characters and stories, building the plot and conflict. Television has always had a huge impact on our culture. Back in the day, it was mostly used to share news and important parts of our society. It’s also a fun source of entertainment. It’s evolved so much over the decades, there’s really a lot you can do with it. From the small screen to all the new platforms. I’ll be interested to see where it’s going to evolve. Whether it’s still television of something else. It’s a fun business to be in.

Three words to describe what your work is.
We represent writers. Our client will have an idea, a script, and we’ll make a TV show—or at least try to. We’ll talk to different studios, networks, to see who’s interested. We’ll strategize, brainstorm, see if it’s the type of material they’re looking for. Maybe it’s cable rather than broadcast. Which one are we bringing it to? Is it more premium, something along the lines of AMC/FX rather than Nickelodeon or WGN. Maybe it’s really out there, and we can try to work with the newer platforms. Then there’s the pitching part of it. We’ll call executives, saying: “we’ve got this new script we think you’ll like”. If they like it, they’ll take meetings with the writer and see where it goes. They can pass on it, or take it a step further. That’s the beginning stages of it. A production company may also want to option it for a specific period of time, see if they can bring it to a studio or network themselves.

Three words to describe how you work.
Obsession. There’s always a bit of craziness. Trying to watch all the shows, keeping up on the news, what’s happening in TV, and also MP. Taking it all in, absorbing it all. Literally a lifestyle.
Energetic. You definitely have to be good, working hard obviously. I think it’s also a lot of what you do outside of work. Yes, you have a day job, building relationships is important.
Networking. You have to constantly meet new people. When you’re on a desk, talking to other assistants, integrating with colleagues. It’s a good idea to get to know them outside the workplace. Whether that means lunch, dinner, or attending a networking event. You’re all in the same generation, moving up together. At some point, one will call you up, saying “I’ve got this person with a new spec, do you want to take a look at it?” Everyone is also taking different directions. Casting, producing, representing, directing, etc. That’s what’s cool about being in an agency. Not everyone there necessarily wants to be an agent.

—the television series that has influenced you the most:
Six Feet Under. It’s such a great show. I loved the characters. You feel like you’re on a journey with them. Each are very different, in their own ways. You can sort of relate to all of them. The ending was great, very satisfying.

—the one episode of television that defines you:
Probably the series finale of Six Feet Under. The show was so involved with life and death. Claire going to college—you could look back on those times. When you left your family, starting your own path in high-school or college. She leaves that part behind. I could relate that to my own experience in college, and moving out here. Starting a new journey.

—the television episode that impressed you the most:
I really liked Black Mirror. It was such a different show. There was this one episode, called “White Bear“, where the girl protagonist wakes up, not knowing where she is. There’s all these people outside, all after her or watching. It was intriguing. The ending was also kind of cool. In the end, they sort of brainwash her, and it’s revealed how everything is staged out. That show is so odd. It’s really something I hadn’t seen before.

—the show you wish was still on the air:
The Newsroom. I love the show. There was something about it that hooked me. It’s the characters, the relationships, the idea of running a newspaper. I have no clue how they do it, but being a part of that, seeing their lives—that was really cool, and, again, different. They covered so many things, events, such as wars or elections. They made it their own.

—the show you would never publicly admit to watching, except right now:
I’ll admit to anything I watch. [laughs] I do love Cops. I’ve watched that show for the past three or four years. It’s an amazing source of entertainment. Seeing people get arrested, hit by a Taser, the car chases-it’s all awesome.

—the show you wish you had worked on:
24. What made it so good was its storytelling aspect. You had the clock ticking, everything was condensed into 24 hours. It was trying to beat the clock in a new way. You knew that it would be resolved within those 24 episodes. Sometimes they would have in the first 16 episodes this event and then another twist would bring new stories for the next 8. It was very original.

The Journey

What has been, so far, your journey in the television industry?
I moved out here after graduation. I knew I wanted to work in TV in some kind of capacity, and also the agency route. I had done an internship at an agency in college, loved what I was doing there, the environment.
Luckily enough, I got an internship afterwards at CAA, in their TV lit department. Their internships are all project-based, so you’re actually working on different scripts, helping coordinators out. It’s not just getting coffee. It’s also a great company, great culture, the people there are really awesome. I knew that’s where I wanted to be. For a year after, I did the mailroom. You learn a lot about the operations. You’re constantly walking around, you learn about the different departments. Not just TV, but business, MP lit, MP talent. You get to really learn about CAA as a whole. It also allows you to meet so many people. Not just assistants, but building staff and so on.
I eventually floated for about six weeks. Essentially, that means you‘re covering a desk where the assistant is gone for a bit, filling in for the day. You’d get a different assignment every time. It’s great because you get a better understanding of what you want to do within the company. Maybe there’s a department you weren’t sure of, but now you really like because you covered it. It’s a great way to test things out.
After that, I interviewed for a desk in TV lit. I’ve been there for a few months now. You learn so much every day. Listening on the calls, learning how deals get negotiated, reading a lot of materials. It’s great.

Could you talk about the transition and differences from mailroom to TV Lit assistant?
Being an assistant is definitely different. That’s when the real work begins. [laughs] When you’re working for someone as an assistant, it’s now a different set of responsibilities. The mailroom is sort of your introduction to everything. Now you’ve defined a department. You’re working for an agent. You’re expected to know all the clients, read all the scripts, materials, watch all the shows. Your client is essentially your boss. It’s about doing whatever it is to support, whatever he or she may need.

What is your day-to-day like?
It’s essentially phones and emails. A lot of it is setting up meeting with clients, producers, whoever the buyers are. It’s also a lot of submissions, sending material to a producer. Let’s say your boss is on the phone with someone they want to send a script to, you’ll create a letter of submission, with a certain kind of format, then send it out.
Keeping track of information and money is also very important. My job is to make sure our checks are coming in, and our clients are getting paid. You may have a file on each client. What kind of projects they have active, where have they submitted, what dates are they travelling, etc. Depending on the desk you’re on, it may vary. You could be involved with department-level projects, such as preparing the upfront party, sending out the invites.
During staffing season, it’s really about submissions to networks. Development season is coming too, so we’ll see which of our clients have, or don’t have jobs. And get them all meetings.

What are your thoughts on the writer/agent relationship?
The writer should always be developing new material, things to sell in case other things don’t pan through. The client will then let us know what it is, what we think of it. The agent will read it. Eventually, the team will get together. Maybe there’s already too much of that material on the market. Maybe we can push it back on the back-burner for now, come back to it later. It’s a bunch of conversations between the agent and client. If the writer is already working, then it’s more about how they’re doing. The agent is always for feedback. Is the show going all right? Are there any issues with the writers’ room? Are you getting your money? [laughs] When they’re booked, they’re usually so busy they don’t call. Discussions are about things in development, not necessarily what they’re on.

What do you look for in scripts you read?
Personally, what I like in a script is something that’s easy to read. A story where I can follow easily what’s going on. High-concept science-fiction is great, but sometimes there are a lot of different elements you have to read again and again to figure all out. I enjoy good plot and a lot of conflict. When each scene has some conflict that contributes to the next scene. I like good characters, and dialogue when it feels natural. You should be able to paint a picture in your mind, and it makes sense.

What is the hardest thing about doing what you do?
The high volume. There’s nothing intrinsically hard about what I do. It’s emails and phones. The hard part of being on top of everything. Having an answer for anything that may come up. Being in the know, constantly up to date. That’s the tricky part.

What is the easiest thing about doing what you do?
The phone sheet? [laughs] What’s nice is that it’s a day job. You know what you’re getting into. Granted, each day is a bit different, but there is stability. You know what to expect. What the next day will be like.

Who do you look up to in the television industry?
I would say every studio head (Les Moonves, Richard Plepler, Alan Horn), anyone who’s basically running a business. I respect what they do. Professionally, I’m not sure I’d want to do that, but I’d love to end up at least on that level.

What is the ideal job you would like to ultimately have?
I’d like to be an agent at CAA and be involved with company-wide work. Be a part of the foundation. Explore different avenues for clients and business opportunities. TV is cool, but ultimately I’d also love to work with MP, talent, digital. It’s all interesting.

When people from outside the industry ask what you do, what do you tell them?
I tell them exactly what I do. They may not understand it though. [laughs] I tell them that I work as an assistant in TV at an agency. We represent creative people, and our job is to get them jobs. Our company is also involved in putting together different elements to creating a TV show.

What is your best professional advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Watch a lot. Read a lot. Be curious. Be open-minded. You never stop learning. Know what is in the marketplace. What shows are on the air, who has them, what types they are. You may not be aware of what networks are specifically looking for, but knowing what they put out is important. You may not be expected to know everything, but you’re expected to have at the very least an interest in the industry. Have an understand of what a writer, a producer, or a network does. It’s really not rocket-science. There’s no craft you need to develop like a writer. It’s a corporate environment. Being interested is important.

What is your best personal advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Budget your money well. You don’t make a lot of it. It’s easy to spend it all. In the first few months, you may not know what you’re doing.
Try to get out there as much as possible, especially if you’re just starting out. You can find a lot of meetup groups, networking things happening around. Explore. Things like JHRTS are great. You get to meet a ton of people there in many different companies. Going to those events is really important, and so is staying in touch-following up. You have to be a little proactive with it.
Get to know people, be curious—passionately so. Keep an open mind. Assume you don’t know everything. Someone is always going to know more than you, and that’s okay.

What is your next step?
I’m going to be doing this for a least another few years. Even if I were to leave, I’d still want to work in representation. At this point, my interest still lies with CAA. I may try to go to a different department, but as of right now, I love where I’m at. I’ll just keep grinding, see where things are a year from now.

Any last words?
Have fun with it. Everyone here is in the industry because they want to be in it. You like entertainment, you like storytelling. If an opportunity opens up, don’t pass on it because you don’t know what it is. It could lead to something you might have never thought of before. Meet everyone. Even if that person is a financier of some random company. You never know. The first step is getting your foot in the door, but once you’re past it, it’s a lot easier to move around.

Many thanks to Matt Thilenius for this insightful interview!
You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

Profiles of Television: Jill Weinberger – TV Writer/Story Editor (Chicago Fire)

Profiles of Television is an ongoing interview series showcasing the variety of professionals in the TV industry, from writers and producers, to those in development, representation, and post-production. These are the many talents involved in television, and the personal journeys behind them.

Our guest today is Jill Weinberger. A hard-working TV drama writer, she got her first staffing job last year on the third season of NBC’s Chicago Fire.
Since this interview, Jill has written three of the most memorable episodes from the current Chicago Fire season: Nobody Touches Anything (3×07), Three Bells (3×13), and Forgiving, Relentless, Unconditional (3×18). She also got her contract not only renewed, but upped to story editor. (Massive congratulations!)

The Medium

First things first: why the television calling?
I was writing TV before I knew that it was even a thing. When I was little—maybe six years old—I was lying awake in bed at night writing episodes of my favorite TV shows in my head, going back every night and re-writing the scenes. I did not know that that wasn’t something all children did. Then I did kind of go the route of trying to seek out something with more security—maybe a lawyer. It wasn’t until part way through college—I had been writing specs for fun—that I kind of figured it out. My parents were also fortunately very supportive. That’s when I decided it was what I was going to actually try to do.

What kind of specs did you write?
All kinds. I did shows that were on and off the air. I did both comedy and drama. I wasn’t aware at the time that you were supposed to do one or the other. When I was in high school, I remember writing a Wonder Years spec which was awful. Then, going into college, I did Northern Exposure, a Buffy and an X-Files. Later I actually did two Friends. One was absolutely terrible, but the other wasn’t bad.
When I was starting, I was ordering hard copies of scripts off the internet from Script City and the like. In my mind, it wasn’t actually something I was seriously pursuing. I didn’t really think a lot about structure or the difference between comedy and drama or anything like that.

Three words to describe what you write.
Small human truths.

Three words to describe how you write.
Like a demon. Not in the sense that I’m evil, but in the sense that once I have a grasp on what I’m writing, I’m fast, and I tear through it. People tell me: “Well, you don’t really need to turn it over that fast. We have nothing to do with it. We have a schedule and we’re fairly far along in the season.” I’m like—well, it came out.

—the television series that has influenced you the most:
Both Northern Exposure and Buffy. They struck me as very mold-breaking shows in which you could tell the exact story you wanted, in the exact words you wanted. It wasn’t until I became more educated in the depth and breadth of TV that I found series from much earlier that were also very groundbreaking. When I was even younger, and I was watching TV with my parents, the first things that were really brought to my attention by them were—even though I was too young to really watch them when they were on—Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. It was television you would watch because it was really good and something worth watching, as opposed to just—this is how we end the day by entertaining ourselves. This was something that was respected and had artistic merit and had intellectual merit.

—the one episode of television that defines you:
The episode of television that I think about the most in terms of just really getting to me—because it’s so small—is an episode of Mad About You. It’s interesting because the episode is nothing like anything I’ve written. The entire episode [The Conversation] is the two of them sitting outside the closed door while the baby cries. I don’t know if it defines me as a person or a writer, but it’s always been very profound in that they’re taking their own personal journey. Their relationship is being discussed, and them as parents being discussed. It’s also funny because it’s a comedy. In the end, the baby stops crying, so in a sense, they’ve won—they’ve trained the baby and themselves. One of them, I think it’s Jamie, says, “We’ve just taught her we won’t always be there when she needs us.” To me, it’s just that tiniest of storytelling being so rich and profound, and all of it on a multi-cam sitcom.

—the television episode that impressed you the most:
It’s also kind of a small episode, this one of HomicideSubway, with Vincent D’Onofrio. We were just talking about this the other day [in the room]. It’s so intense, but it’s so small. It’s closed, it’s claustrophobic. Vincent D’Onofrio is not necessarily the most likeable character, but he’s in the most vulnerable position. It’s just a great episode of television for me.

—the show you wish was still on the air:
I wish there were more West Wing, if there were more Aaron Sorkin West Wing. Kind of starting from when Aaron Sorkin left. And I didn’t have as much of a problem with the last three seasons as other people—it was just a completely different show. It just wasn’t my show that I fell in love with. If I could get more those characters and that world, I would eat it with a spoon. [laughs]

—the show you would never publicly admit to watching, except right now:
Does it have to be a scripted show? [laughs] I love Mob Wives on VH1. It’s like a documentary of this insane world, this entire mindset that is so different to ours. Plus they share all these weird common experiences. All of them know the experience of having your house raided in the morning at 5AM by the Feds—because 5AM is when the Feds come. And they know this. The very first episode, one of the women had been away, and her father had turned evidence, putting someone else’s dad away. She was kind of coming back into the community years after that happened. There’s a lot of hostility towards her. And at the same time, two of them are off talking at one point, and they go, “You know, we are more hostile towards her because her dad was a rat than because her dad killed 13 people. That’s kind of fucked up.” [laughs] It just fascinates me. I can’t look away.

—the show you wish you had worked on:
I would love to have worked on Buffy. Not only was it a great show, but you see most of the people coming out of that show had great success. People seemed to come out of it feeling that it was a good learning and working environment. Nobody’s saying: “Yeah, it looked great, but it was a nightmare to work on.” You do hear about shows like that. Buffy just seems like it was a really good—it made fantastic television, and it gave us a lot of fantastic television writers who gave us even more fantastic television.
jilll weinberger landscape

The Journey

What has been, so far, your journey in the television industry?
I took a long time, but I went a fairly traditional route that almost nobody takes. I wasn’t an assistant, I didn’t go through a program, and I just got hired as a staff writer. This doesn’t happen for most people anymore, but that’s what happened to me.
I came out intending to write television; spent a couple of years writing by myself, not showing it to anybody—not the best way to advance your career. Then I won the spec teleplay competition at the Austin Film Festival with a House. One of the judges in my category was my now-manager, and she really liked that spec. I didn’t have a pilot, and she didn’t think my other specs were as strong, so basically she said: “when you have the material, just keep sending me stuff”. I then spent another year writing scripts. I wrote three pilots and two specs in those twelve months. And I kept sending her everything. She sent the one pilot she really loved to an agent friend of hers—she had been an agent before she was a manager—and he loved it, gave me notes. Then when I turned around really quickly the re-write on his notes, he was like: “OK. Now you’ve got an agent.” I now had both an agent and manager. And then the writers’ strike happened a month later. Halfway through it, my agent left the agenting business. I was still thankful that my manager stuck with me—I was with my manager basically without an agent for several years.

A couple years ago, again through my manager, I met my current agent. My manager has worked crazy hard for me for years now, for no money. Now I had this one-two punch of this crazy team of these really brilliant and active and involved women. They’re very good at communicating with each other; I’m very lucky in that way. That’s when I started getting more showrunner meetings, then generals. Still, I was a three-time finalist in the Warner Bros. Workshop. I was a finalist for Writers on the Verge. I was a semi-finalist for Disney. Never got in. I had several jobs where I thought: “This is going to be my job.” I would get comments afterwards like: “They thought you were great. They like this, this, and this about you.” And then they went another way, or they ended up not hiring at the staff level.

My manager got super excited once I got the meeting for Chicago Fire—she’s a really huge fan of the show. She told me: “This is my favorite show! No pressure.” [laughs] I went in, met with Matt Olmstead, Derek Haas, and Wolf Films’ Danielle Gelber. I had a good meeting with them, but I really sold myself. The thing is that I learned the way to sell myself honestly—not trying to tell people what they want to hear. I learned to say, without sounding crazy desperate: “Look. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m ready to do the work. I’ve put in the pre-work time, and I’m ready to hustle my ass off for you.” I think that may have made a difference. I wouldn’t recommend going in and being scary intense, because I wasn’t. Also, have humor! [laughs]

How was the process of getting hired on Chicago Fire?
I had the showrunner meeting with the guys [Matt, Derek and Michael Brandt] and Danielle on a Monday. Before I even had that one, I also got the call to set up the network and studio meeting on Thursday—which is fairly unusual. It can go in either direction, but usually you need one and then they give you kind of the stamp, then you go onto the other. When I came home Monday and nobody had said, “It’s OK, you don’t need to come in on Thursday,” I knew that meeting had gone pretty well.
I had the network and studio meeting on Thursday. It was good because I had a little time to reflect. Think about anything that I might have wanted to say in the other meeting but hadn’t gotten in. Also talk more in detail about some of the story lines on both Chicago Fire and Chicago PD. Can you describe the differences between the various meetings (general, showrunner, development, etc.)?
I’ve had a bunch of experiences and they’re definitely different. I actually also have had some development meetings, thanks to a pilot that people really liked. Last summer, I was pitching a network on that pilot, but it didn’t get sold—pitching is a whole other beast.
General meetings, network studio meetings—those are by and large very similar. A lot of the general meetings I’ve had, you’re meeting really early in the pilot season. You’re meeting with the person who’s covering all the new ones. The pilots haven’t been picked yet, so they don’t even know what they’re not hiring for. They’re just reading scripts, building up an arsenal of writers they might like. Those are very casual meetings, like a first date. “Tell me about yourself,” and, “Please don’t be insane.” Nine out ten of those, you do well, but nothing comes of them because half of those pilots don’t go. The huge part is sitting around, talking with somebody else who loves TV about how much you both love TV.
Then I’ve had showrunner meetings where we meet at a restaurant instead of in their office, or things like that. Those are very much different and specific according to their personality and style. Those meetings are a little more intense. [laughs]

How was the development of your pilot?
We had gotten a lot of staffing meetings off of this one pilot I wrote. Even though I hadn’t gotten hired, my reps told me: “Wow, people seem to really love this script. Let’s see if we can package it.” They sent it out to production companies and studios to see if anybody wanted to come on board. I teamed up with a couple of producers who had a great track record of developing new writers. One of them was friends with Angela Bassett, and my script called for an African-American female lead. They had already decided to package with me to pitch it, so I pitched Angela Bassett over the phone while she was in her car—she was getting ready to shoot American Horror Story. We already had meetings set up based on the relationships and reputations of these producers, but once we had Angela attached, everything got moved up. More and more important people started getting folded into the meeting up until they told me: “And Nina Tassler will be there!” I was like—“Wait, what?”

How is your pitching process?
People pitch very differently. I only pitch the one way because I was basically coached the whole way through. Some people pitch with cards. The way I did it—it’s basically like a book report. [laughs] You just talk for about 20 minutes straight. There’s like four to six people just all sitting in a semi-circle, staring at you, possibly taking notes, hopefully occasionally laughing at the jokes. The way we pitched was: paragraph setting up the world; set up all the main characters—again, like a paragraph each; a brief synopsis of the pilot; and then a little bit about where things are going to be at the end of the first season and where ideally things will be at the end of the show. It works out to be, maybe, ten printed pages. Like I said, a 20-minute essentially non-stop speech. It’s a freaky process. [laughs]

Can you talk about your experience with your first script on Chicago Fire?
I’m still in the process, so there’s stuff that’s not for open discussion. We have a very specific process here. Traditionally, new writers on staff get paired with one of the showrunners to write our first episode or our first few episodes. We have three guys here, which is unusual, but I’ve been on my script paired with Matt Olmstead, who is fantastic. The way our process works overall is: first we meet in the writers’ room and we beat out the basic ideas of the first half of the season. Once it’s your turn to develop your script, you sketch it out on a white board; you work on the white board with the rest of the writers; then you pitch it to the guys. They suggest their changes, and then you go from that board to outline. If the changes are major, you may have to re-pitch the board again. That’s not usually like you’ve done anything wrong—it’s just due to the course of the season changing as other things develop.
So you write your outline—in my case, working with your co-writing showrunner—and then it goes up the chain of command. It goes past the show runners, past Wolf films, past network and studio, and then gets revised according to people’s comments. Once that gets cleared at the final level, you go to script, and go through the same process again.

How is your writing room?
Our room is a great room. It’s very open, diplomatic and supportive. There’s a lot of give and take, every idea is heard—it’s not “competitive” at all. That’s part of drama VS. comedy. I think comedy is a little bit more competitive in getting your jokes on the board. You kind of go in knowing 80%-90% of what you throw out there isn’t going to work, so you don’t feel like, “Everybody thinks I suck.” You think: “Hey look, I got that thing on the board!” We have a grid for the first half of the season, with the episodes across the top and the characters down the side. Everyone has a little square in the grid for each episode. That’s where you put up the little beats—the little arcs.
And when we’re in the room, it’s just us. Talking and talking and talking. 10AM to 6PM with a break for lunch. What people would maybe not realize on our show is a giant percentage of it is about character, about story, about emotion. We always want to have our fire fighters and our paramedics go on interesting calls. It’s got to be visual because it’s a TV show, but number one rule of thumb is: there’s a reason we have gone with these people on this call today. They go on dozens of runs in a day, maybe. If you’re in an ambulance, half the time you don’t even come back to the house. You run for 10 hours straight. So why are we following them on this?  And it’s not because it looks cool. It’s because it has an emotional impact for one of the characters or it’s significant. We absolutely work to show interest, and we also spend a lot of work on making it authentic and respectful. Sure, we condense for time and take some artistic liberties. But we have our working consultants who we run everything by. It’s very important to us. At the end of it though, it always comes down to character and who these people are. What this journey is for these or the next three episodes.

What is your day-to-day like?
When the season started out, we were all in the room. People then individually peel off to work on their episodes. We’ve been on our own offices for the most part because we’re in production right now. For the past few weeks, we haven’t really been in the room, but we’re going back in. We’re starting to spend some time looking at the seconf half of the season. It’s all about keeping everything going.
For actual production, most people go out for their own episode. Usually as a writer you go out for part of the shooting, not all. That’s at the discretion of the director and what the director feels they need. If things are going to explode, they don’t need me there. But if it’s going to be an emotional scene, and all of a sudden they need to film in another place because of production issues, that might need a last-minute rewrite to address the different physical circumstances.

What is the hardest thing about being a TV writer?
Personally, I want to make sure that I am contributing and being valuable. I want to stay. [laughs] In addition to the fact that I really like the job, I really like it here. I don’t think I could have landed anywhere better for my first gig. It’s a fantastic education and a fantastic environment. It’s just amazing.
For our show, the hard thing is keeping it fresh. Keeping on producing stories that are really significant. By season 3, we do want new viewers, but we have people who are really loyal to the characters at this point. They really care what happens to them. They really want to see something that reflects the two years we’ve been following them. They want all of that to pay off. They don’t want to see someone knocked down for no reason, just for drama or something like that. Of course, we’ve also taken them on a lot of these adventures in terms of the rescue or fire calls they go on. It’s really just a question of giving that audience that same show they have an appetite for, but, at the same level, with some “newness” that pays off what they’ve already invested in.

What is the easiest thing about being a TV writer?
Coming to work every day. I love it. I get up, I get here half an hour early every day. My favorite thing—I was just thinking about this—walking from the garage to the office every day. It’s a very short walk, but I am so happy every day to be making that walk. I’m not going for a meeting, I’m not going to impress somebody, I’m going to my job. I belong here. I get to come and I get to make TV, which is all I ever wanted to do. Just the fact that it is as good as, if not better than I imagined it—I’m still high on it, even a few months in.

Who do you look up to in the television industry?
We already discussed Buffy. I think Joss Whedon is a great creator. I think the pilot for West Wing is one of the best pilots ever. Also we talked about David Milch, Steven Bochco. Actually, since we were discussing St. Elsewhere—I got to meet Mark Tinker just in the hallway here. It just blew my mind. I’m still crazy about St. Elsewhere. I’ve now gone back and watched all of it. If it were not literally for the quality of the film that tells you that’s in the 80s and the fact that people are smoking in their hospital rooms, you could think that was filmed today. It’s amazing. Of course, I also love a lot of the female creators. Julie Plec, Jane Espenson, Amy Berg, Marti Noxon. People who are not only great writers, but also people who really make an effort to be accessible to up-and-coming writers, sharing their knowledge. That’s a really big deal for me.

What is the ideal job you would like to ultimately have?
It would be fantastic to be creating. I definitely do want to be developing. Eventually. I’m happy to be working on someone else’s show for a good few years, just because I feel like I have so much to learn. I spent a lot of time getting as good as I could in the vacuum of my own space. I worked hard and I got good enough to get the job. Now, it’s like the whole learning of how thought turns into television. The process. I literally learn something new every day. Obviously I haven’t been here very long, but I feel like I have no problem being part of somebody else’s team or somebody else’s vision.

When people from outside the industry ask what you do, what do you tell them?
I tell them that I work for a TV show. [laughs] I think a lot of people don’t really understand how the writers’ room works. Some people think that—I guess there are some comedy rooms like this—but some people think that we all kind of sit in a room and write all the shows together. I do kind of explain what I just explained here. We figure out the basics of the season, and then we’re on our own writing our script.

What is your best professional advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
One of the most important things I say to people is: it’s going to take longer than you think. Even though a tiny fraction of the people who think they can do this can do this, there are still way more of those people than there are jobs. Once you are on the playing field, just with all the other people who can actually do it, and who are good enough, then it’s just waiting until the odds play out in your favor. It’s going to be somebody else’s yes, and you’ve got to wait through your no’s. You have to practically make sure that you can support yourself financially, not go into debt. Really support yourself, don’t just stay afloat while you wait for your chance. Don’t be the person who gets so, so close, and then has to move out of LA because you can’t afford to live there anymore. I feel like I had a lot of near-misses and a lot of bad luck. It was somebody else’s day for a long time for me. I did however have good luck in that I was able to financially support myself.
Ultimately, you either can write or you can’t. Once you can write, you either put the work in to get good enough or you don’t. That’s just the basics of it. But if you are good enough, and you’re going to be the person who works hard enough, then you have to be the person who can make it past the odds.

What is your best personal advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Have a life. If you spend your whole time thinking of your life until your break as kind of the meantime, you miss out on a lot of life. Life is what makes you a good writer.
Have people and have different sorts of experiences. We live—especially as aspiring writers in LA—very insular lives. We sit around and watch TV together—which I love to do—but we need to get out. Get some experiences, do some volunteering, join some adult sports league, spend time with people who have nothing to do with the industry, or activities that have nothing to do with the industry. You don’t want to stay, emotionally and experience-wise, 22. Because then what are you going to write about?

What is your next step?
Getting hired for the rest of the season. [laughs] Getting my contract picked up, that’s the next step.

Any last words?
Take in as much as you can. Read all the scripts you can. Read all the books you can. Read non-fiction. Watch television and film and documentaries and things that you might not think would be interesting. Everything makes you a better writer and a better human being. And being a better human being makes you a better writer. Empathy is at the core of great TV writing. You have to get people to empathize with the characters.
I said small human truths earlier—you have to be able to see the connections between all kinds of life experiences, and all kinds of people’s stories. So for that, again, you kind of have to live. You have to be open to all sorts of stories. It will translate to a completely unrelated story in your writing. It will be that emotion, that human experience, that truth which helps you make it real for someone watching.

Many thanks to the super awesome Jill Weinberger for this great interview!
You can follow her on Twitter.
Watch Season 3 of Chicago Fire, Tuesdays at 10PM on NBC.

Profiles of Television: Meghan Pleticha – TV Writer’s Assistant & Script Coordinator (Silicon Valley/Married)

Profiles of Television is an ongoing interview series showcasing the variety of professionals in the TV industry, from writers and producers, to those in development, representation, and post-production. These are the many talents involved in television, and the personal journeys behind them.

Today’s guest is Meghan Pleticha. A very talented comedy writer, she started as both writer’s assistant and script coordinator on a freshman show (season 1 of FX’s Married). Meghan is currently working in the same capacity on another cable series, this one in its second year: HBO’s Silicon Valley.

The Medium

First things first: why the television calling?
I love TV more than most other things in the world. I was really into poetry in college. Yeah, I was “that girl”. I remember that writing my first script felt a lot like writing a sonnet. I loved how structural it was. I’ve never been a film person but I’ve watched probably more television than is healthy.
Pursuing television as a career is now a no-brainer. The writer is in charge. I like how fast it is. I like constant deadlines. I like the visual medium. I like making people laugh quickly. I like that you’re generating something constantly, versus a film which can take years. I want to be forced to generate as much material as I can. It might not be all amazing, but percentage-wise, you end up with a larger “good” chunk. It’s a numbers game.

Three words to describe what you write.
Sweet dick jokes. Like dick jokes with heart, not like “Dude, sweet dick joke!”

Three words to describe how you write.
The ideal way would be: Early. A game-changer in my life was getting up and writing before I go to work. Often. That’s the only way I can write and keep doing it. If you stop you’ll never start again. And to steal a phrase from Parks & Rec—“full-assedly”. You can’t half-ass it. You have to try, fully. Sometimes I do write crap but when my writing is good, I did not bullshit it.
On a bad writing day, I’m writing: Rushed. Never. And only transcribing whatever I wrote in an outline or something. “Hi. Hi! How are you? I’m good, you? I’m fine.”

—the television series that has influenced you the most:
It’s got to be something before I was aware of television writing as a career. Everything I’ve watched since then is tainted by the “how would I do this” question. It would probably have to be something I grew up with.
I think it has to be The Simpsons. It started airing when I was a kid, and watched it all the way through adolescence. It’s funny looking back, because I’m not sure how I understood it as a child. There are so many levels. There were things I remember about it that really connected with me. Maybe I wanted to be Lisa Simpson and maybe wanted to play the saxophone—which I did for like two months. And it was the first time I saw a television show that was very funny, but about things that applied to the real world we lived in.
It’s probably that or Full House. I can vaguely tell you some plotlines but I know I watched it constantly, so it must have influenced me. Pete & Pete was another big one I watched. Or Hey Dude. I’m just giving you a list at this point. [laughs] It’s hard to say just the one thing influenced you. Whatever was on SNICK. Clarissa Explains It All. What a role model. She used computers in the 90s. Ahead of her time!

—the one episode of television that defines you:
Off the cuff, the one episode of television that defines me is probably Triangle, from X-Files. It’s just an episode I remember very well. It defines me because it was very fun with interesting storytelling methods. It also has playfulness.
That was around the time people started complaining on the Internet. People bitched that it wasn’t a “real” X-Files episode. I remember reading those reviews and being confused because I enjoyed it. So I was like: “Am I dumb?” [laughs]

—the television episode that impressed you the most:
It has to be the Archer pilot. It genuinely surprised me, which can be hard for a TV show to do once you start trying to write for the medium. It’s especially impressive with a comedy because part of what makes it good is the surprise. Good storytelling involves a believable surprise. Pilots are so hard to write. Archer is very well done in terms of establishing relationship and character while telling a story that I couldn’t see where it was going.
The moment that impressed me the most was when Archer got a boner. I didn’t see it coming—but even better, I didn’t see his mother’s reaction to it! Everything about it was amazing.

—the show you wish was still on the air:
I was recently disappointed that Surviving Jack and Enlisted got cancelled. Sometimes it’s better than things do end. This is horrible for jobs but if it goes too long—I didn’t enjoy for example the last season of The X-Files. Season 8 was a clear resolution in terms of the existence of that story.

—the show you would never publicly admit to watching, except right now:
I’m trying to think of what I watch on Hulu. Sometimes you go down holes… The other day, I accidentally got sucked into some Korean reality show. It auto-played after something so I dove right in. I was curious at first, and then wanted to see how the rest of the episode played out. I have no idea what it’s called. There were these girls in schoolgirl outfits—it felt very pervy. I think they were some sort of pop group. Weirdly, they also had to go through these challenges—like photoshoots, pretending they were paparazzi. So are they pop singers? It was just very confusing.

—the show you wish you had worked on:
Buffy. But more because everyone who worked on it says how great it was to be on it. By the way, one of my favorite things in interviews is when people talk to writers who worked with Joss Whedon, asking them: “what’s it like working with him?” And the answer is always just: “Oh, it’s great.” It’s the funniest thing. In general, when something is really good, you can’t always describe why it is.
Parks & Rec would also be an amazing show. It had a good combination of things I’m interested in. Bureaucracy, feminism, being nice to people. [laughs] meghan pleticha landscape

The Journey

What has been, so far, your journey in the television industry?
In high-school, I thought I’d be a theater actress. In college, I studied English while doing Shakespearean performances. I also got involved in student sketch comedy. Towards the end of school, I thought I would end up writing for magazines. I knew I was a “writer” but not necessarily a novelist, and since magazines are shorter than novels it seemed more doable. [laughs] I moved out to New York to pursue that. When I graduated, my dad [who is not in the industry] told me he’d hire me as a PA, but I rebuffed him. “I don’t want to work in entertainment. Dad, that’s dumb!”
Since print is a dying industry, that path didn’t exactly work out. Then the recession hit. I also reached a point in my freelance career where I wouldn’t meet the editors in person. They would just e-mail me. I had this moment where I asked myself: “Why am I living in New York to e-mail people?” I could literally do that anywhere with Internet access. One of my friends suggested I take a writing class to meet other writers, and reconnect with New York.
I ended up taking a television writing class. The very first one, the teacher said to move to Los Angeles if we really meant to write for TV. I ended up coming back to LA. After that, I tried to get assistant gigs but no interviews. Months of unemployment later, I eventually took an internship at a boutique talent agency. You do so much free work when you first get to LA—but it usually leads to paid work if people aren’t assholes. So I did free work, then temp work, then got a full time office gig at BAFTA LA. Bounced around a little bit.
Eventually, someone offered a job to a friend working as script coordinator. She couldn’t take it, so she recommended me. And it worked out. Ultimately, I’d only say I’ve worked in TV (production) for six months. So uh, take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt.

How did you get hired as a writer’s assistant?
Being a writer’s assistant is something I actually did not believe was going part of my path in the industry. When I started out, I was trying to get low-level jobs on shows to work my way up. But I wasn’t even getting those interviews. Looking back, I’m sure I could have done things differently, but I’m not sure what. Working at BAFTA, I figured I’d just have the day job and could write my scripts.
For both writer’s assistant gigs, someone recommended me. In this industry, you need people to vouch for you but you need to earn that. And the thing with being hired at the assistant level is that it’s the last thing they’re figuring out. It’s really a roll of the dice, numbers-game. You know someone who knows someone who at that exact moment needs someone.

Can you talk about your experience being in the room?
That’s probably the best part of being a writer’s assistant. Getting that experience without having the same pressure of being in the room as a writer. You learn a lot about how to pitch things. Just seeing how people do it is really useful. Seeing how people interact. The etiquette. There is a hierarchy in the room that’s very helpful. Obviously the showrunner is calling the shots. When they say they like an idea, follow that train. It’s exciting seeing people pitch on the path that’s being created.
It’s also interesting because people have this idea that a writer’s assistant position is going to be their ticket in. “You’re going to get a script” or “you’re going to get bumped to staff”. There’s no guarantee of that, and it’s not even appropriate to expect it. I’m learning so much about production, being in the room, how different writers work. But it’s not the golden ticket people believe it is. It’s a job.

What is your day-to-day like?
I get to the office about an hour before the writers and make sure to take care of anything needed then. It also helps if you can organize on the go. Most of the day is taking notes on what the writers are saying. You might also be asked to pull videos—whatever is being referenced (casting videos, etc.). My computer is usually directly connected to the TV. We’re not in production yet, which should be a little more hectic. Since I also work as a script coordinator, it’ll be different then. More about making sure script stuff is there. Putting out pages and revisions as required, proofreading, making sure everything makes sense.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer’s assistant?
For me personally, it’s not panicking every day that I’ve screwed up my career forever. Which is also a general thing I worry about in my life. I used to not care about the jobs that I had. But now the day job has such weight—as if it could matter to your career.
The main challenge to being a writer’s assistant though is staying focused. Even when you’re tired. Even when someone’s pitching something you’ve heard a bunch. You need to make sure to capture any nuances to it.
The same can be said for being a script coordinator. The hardest thing is that the scripts you receive needed to go out ten minutes ago. Whatever changes are happening, they need to go out ASAP, while being perfect. Keeping your wits about you is the hardest thing.

What is the easiest thing about being a writer’s assistant?
Eating. [laughs] Lunch just arrives for me since the writers production assistant gets it. I don’t have to make lunch in the morning. Which is a lifesaver. You’re not rolling in the dough as an assistant, so being fed is a huge money-saver. That’s probably the biggest change between working a random day job and this one.

Who do you look up to in the television industry?
I am impressed by anyone in Hollywood who seems normal. “You’re a nice, normal human being and you’ve lived in LA for 30 years?!” [laughs] That’s impressive because I feel like I’ve only become crazier since moving to Los Angeles.

What is the ideal job you would like to ultimately have?
Showrunner. But not for a long time. My ideal career would be me working as a staff writer and up. Preferably on multiple hit shows and pleasant working situations. Renewed with long terms, so when I leave I know I’ll come back to a job. [laughs] Ultimately, I’d like to a run show. Mostly because I like being in charge of things.

When people from outside the industry ask what you do, what do you tell them?
I tell them I’m a writer’s assistant because no one outside the industry knows what a script coordinator is. I then usually explain that most television shows are written by a group of writers sitting in a room together. And it’s my job to write down everything they say and take notes.

What is your best professional advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
A big thing about being a writer’s assistant: practice your typing. Transcribe episodes of TV that you like. Most people in my generation are pretty good typists because of IM so it’s not something to freak out about. But you can always be better.
If you’re trying to get a job in Los Angeles, take the meeting even if it’s not exactly what you want. You never know who you’re going to meet there. Especially when you’re starting out with no contacts. It’s a lot of baby steps.
If it’s not the right position, be okay with walking away if you can avoid burning bridges.
Work for free. Again, only as long as it benefits you. You’re definitely benefiting them more than you. I got opportunities off of doing a few gigs. You then have something on your resume and know some people who can vouch for you.
Be clear about what you do want. Even for random assistant interviews I used to go to, unrelated to writing for television, I’d still say I wanted to write for TV. That said, I would also be clear, “I’d love to work here for XYZ valid reasons.”
Also, don’t be a dick. Most of life is don’t be a dick. Although in comedy rooms you can kind of be a dick if it’s funny. I think. I’m still learning that one.

What is your best personal advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Maintaining friendships in Los Angeles is harder than other places. Maintaining relationships in Los Angeles is harder than other places. Relationships and friendships are the things that are going to last, regardless of where you work or what you’re doing. It’s really important, especially if you’re working on a show or a place with non-regular hours, that you make the effort to see your friends and loved ones. Eventually, the show will be over, and no one will have heard from you in four months. They’re not going to invite you to anything. It’s such an effort, but your real friends will understand that you don’t want to go to the movies but they can come over on your couch (watching TV with a bottle of wine).
This is a marathon. You can’t get too down on yourself if things aren’t going the way you’d expect or you didn’t get the recommendation you wanted.
Writing, relationships, work, sleep. You can only pick two. Maybe three of those. Choose wisely.

What is your next step?
It’s very similar to when I was working an office job. I’m very grateful and happy to be a writer’s assistant and script coordinator. These positions have been amazing opportunities, but they could be stepping stones just as they could not. There’s no guarantee. There are always unseen obstacles and ones you don’t even know about. TV is so hard to make that getting that first writing gig is such a crazy random thing.
That all said, my immediate next step is to finish the pilot that I’m so close to finishing—hopefully tomorrow. It just needs a punch-up! [laughs] The next creative step is probably working on a web-series I’ve been talking about with a few friends. It’s nice to have a finished product. It feels like you’ve accomplished something.
After that, probably another pilot. Everyone wants pilots. Although my theory is that within the next few years, the transition that happened between spec scripts to pilots, is going to happen with pilots to web-series. It’s an easy way for people to see someone’s voice. They don’t have to read anything. Five years from now, we can talk and find out if I was right.

Any last words?
There’s always more opportunities. I’ve definitely missed out on many jobs. Maybe some agent read my stuff and didn’t like it. There’s always going to be more people. You grow up being taught you only have so many chances in life, but that’s not true. Hollywood has the shortest memory of any city I know. I’ve messed up interviews, typos on my resume– You fuck up sometimes, but just keep at it, don’t fall over.
Just stand up. Look at what you did wrong, figure out why it happened, figure out why it’ll never happen again. And then when it happens again, have a mild heart-attack, drink a bottle of wine, and get up again—this time with a hangover. Drink some coffee. It’s going to be fine.

Many thanks to the amazingly talented (and awesome) Meghan Pleticha!
You can follow her on Twitter.
Season 2 of Silicon Valley airs Sundays at 10PM on HBO.