Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth. A powerful lesson from Russel Friend of HOUSE, GLEE, and now BATTLE CREEK writing fame:
by Cary Tusan
Every working writer has their unique story about how they broke into the film and television industry. Russel Friend, Executive Producer/Writer ofHouse (Fox), Executive Producer/Writer of Glee(Fox), Executive Producer/Writer of Battle Creek(CBS), shared his story with us.
Q: How did you get your first job as a working writer?
Friend: We were out pitching a feature based on the real life exploits of a private investigator who specialized in insurance fraud. Our agent had paired us with a much more experienced writer/producer who had optioned the guy’s life rights, and we collaborated with him on the pitch, and then took it out to “the town”. That was the first time we had ever pitched something, and it was truly nerve wracking. It became clear by around the third pitch that things weren’t going well. This wasn’t a “big idea” that you could pitch in one line; it had no special effects; no big trailer moments. It was more of a character piece, a dark comedy about a quirky private eye and his strange cases. Anyway, we ended up pitching it to a producer at Paramount, and he had a great insight: this wasn’t a movie. It was actually a television show. He’d be happy to attach himself if we were willing to reshape the pitch for TV. We regrouped and thought about this, quickly realizing it actually made a lot of sense. So with the help of our producers, we reformed the pitch and managed to sell it to CBS as a pilot.
Q: How did you get representation? What is key to know about finding that first rep?
Friend: I met my writing partner at the USC Peter Stark Program, and we started writing together towards the end of our second year. I was working as an assistant to a producer on the Fox lot when we finished that script and first started looking for an agent. We were fortunate in that we had a friend from USC who had gone on to work at William Morris and was at that time just promoted to coordinator – which is kind of like a junior agent. We had stayed in touch and sent him the script when we were finished. And the great thing was, he actually read it. And the even better thing was, he really liked it and wanted to bring us to meet his boss – who ended up signing us.
Q: For those who want to get on a show as a writer’s assistant, what tips (do’s and don’ts) do you have for interviewing? What have you or your show looked for in the past when hiring someone?
Friend: That’s a really great question. I think a great way to get hired as a staff writer – or get a job writing a freelance episode – is to first become a writer’s assistant. (As well as writing spec scripts, obviously). If you’re interviewing on an established show (as opposed to a new pilot), I think it’s smart to really get to know that show. If you aren’t familiar with the show, go back and stream as many episodes as you can. Also, try to get a hold of the show’s scripts and read them; get a feel for how the show is written. It’s also probably a good idea to find out what the job is going to entail. For example, will the assistant be in the writer’s room taking notes? Will there even be a writer’s room? Or will your job mostly entail getting lunch? Either way, these jobs can be really valuable because they give you the chance to be around working writers who can help you towards your goal of actually getting paid to write….