“Don’t sleep in, don’t turn on the TV, and stay off of Facebook,” are just a few writing discipline tips from showrunner’s assistant-turned-TV writer Amanda Alpert Muscat. Alpert Muscat, who wrote two episodes of the recent Hellcats, worked many an industry job before deciding to focus on TV. “In college, I worked at a video store about 20 hours a week, which provided me (with) an invaluable education in crap cinema,” she says. She also worked in the newsroom and research department at the ABC affiliate in Chicago, did a “weird” cable access show, and helped out at the Democratic National Convention before moving to L.A. in 1999 right after college – “literally three days after graduation.”
“I didn’t really have specific plans to be a TV writer until I was in my late twenties,” Alpert Muscat says. “I think I was afraid to belly flop, so I just stood by the edge of the pool, wondering how to jump in. Eventually, I realized if I wanted to do this, I’d have to just jump.”
Alpert Muscat did –- and dove into working on several TV shows (Army Wives, Reaper, and Caprica, among others), assisting various showrunners as well as working as a writers’ assistant. All the while, in her off-hours, she worked on her spec scripts. Her perseverance and persistence paid off — as her Hellcats freelance episodes demonstrate. Alpert Muscat adds, “It’s probably not going to happen overnight, or in a year, or even two years. If you really want to do this, it’s gonna be a long haul, so you better love it…”
TSL: So between watching all those bad video store movies and writing your Hellcats episodes, what did you do?
AAM: My first real job out here was in publicity in CBS’s syndication division. I think I did a mass mailing of my resume right after I moved (to L.A.) and they happened to call me. I wasn’t very discriminating about what job I took; I just needed a job. The pay was terrible, but I met Chuck Norris on my second day.
TSL: Nice. Must have been hard to top that. What next?
AAM: After my stint in publicity, I worked at an agency, in TV lit, and was talking to writers every day, reading pilots constantly, just educating myself about the landscape of the business. They paid me well and I liked the job, so I wasn’t that itchy to leave right away.
TSL: Did you know you wanted to write TV at this point?
AAM: I knew I wanted to work in television in some creative way, but honestly, I was very intimidated by the craft of writing for a long time. One of the clients at the agency had just gotten a job running a show, so I begged him to take me on as his assistant. It meant a big pay cut, but it got me in the writers’ room.
TSL: How valuable do you think that was — or is?
AAM: Unless you are independently wealthy, you probably need a day job. So, why not use (working in a writers’ room) as an opportunity to learn the ropes, meet other writers at all different levels, see the process in action?
TSL: Hence, it is safe to say that you think being an assistant in TV pays off? I know there are plenty of assistants who are never given freelance episodes or chances to show their writerly sides…
AAM: I think it can pay off if you’re working with the right people. (Being a) good writer is obviously invaluable. However, I think the relationships you’ll build working on a show are just as important. This business is brutal, and it will often make you wonder why you bother, so it’s important to have the support and friendship of other writers in the workplace. I am very fortunate to have worked with a few executive producers who believed in me and are still willing to act as mentors.
TSL: What do you think is the best approach for letting the showrunner know you want to be a “real,” paid writer and get a chance at a script without being pushy about it? We’ve all seen those pushy types…
AAM: No one will step up and give you an opportunity if you don’t ask for it. You can’t be afraid to speak up. Early on, I think you need to let the showrunner know – and other writers on staff – that you are a writer and you’re eager for the opportunity to learn from the room. If there are research projects to be done, offer to help out with those. If there are opportunities to work on writing projects outside of the actual scripts – such as the (show’s) website, promotional materials, etc. – offer to help with those things. If you have free time, ask if you can sit with the showrunner in post-production, as this is an integral part of the storytelling process, too. Make yourself useful and others will see you as such.
TSL: And how important a role does luck and timing play in this equation?
AAM: Luck and timing do have a lot to do with it. I lucked out because I was working with a great boss, Kevin Murphy (Caprica, Reaper, Desperate Housewives), at a time when he happened to have a series, Hellcats, picked up. I wrote two episodes this past year.
TSL: And, before Hellcats, you had worked with Murphy on a couple of other shows, too…?
AAM: Yes. (And) I had done a lot of work with him on the Hellcats pilot script. By the time the show was ordered to series, I think I knew the characters and where the show was going as well as he did. Thus, I was able to write those two episodes.
TSL: After having worked in several writers’ rooms, what do you think makes one more optimal and productive than another? As you and I both know, the hours can vary from a six-hour work days to a twenty-hour one…
AAM: At some point in the day, the room reaches a burnout point where nothing productive is going to be done anymore. I think if the showrunner can recognize when the room has reached that point and not push beyond that, they’re going to end up with a much happier and more efficient staff.
TSL: And outside of the room, how do you maintain your non-writing life if there’s a late-night rewrite?
AAM: Much of it depends on the situation. Any show is going to have periods of time where you get in a major crunch and need to scramble to have material ready. In those times, you need to be willing to be flexible and sometimes that means late nights, or obsessively checking emails during your friend’s birthday party, whatever.
TSL: Ah, I remember those nights… I think I’m still catching up on all that lost sleep.
AAM: (Smiles.)You need to recognize when your flexibility and good work ethic is being abused. You need to find the backbone to say “No” or “I’m exhausted and need to go home and sleep.” Yes, you need to be a good team player, but you also cannot kill yourself for a job. Know that you can say “No” when necessary; otherwise, you’ll really grow to resent your job and your boss.
TSL: I could not agree more. I have seen a lot of those middle-of-the-night rewrites get rewritten first thing in the morning, anyway… What if you’re an aspiring writer, new to L.A., but can’t find an assistant job on a show to save your life? What other way would you recommend one start out and/or get his or her specs read?
AAM: The whole business is referral-based. You’re not going to get your spec read out-of-the-blue. Writing can be lonely and solitary… it can feel like you’re writing into a void. Other writers can give you feedback on material and advice on how to get read. It’s important to have people who can give you brutally honest notes on your material. I have a couple people whose opinions I really trust, and whom I know will tell me if I’m way off base on something…You need to get out and make contacts.
TSL: This seems easier said than done. How did you meet industry people when you moved here?
AAM: Mostly at my job – which was not on a show. I’ve found that the line between business and social lives is very blurry in this town; you often end up hanging out with the people you work with. I even married a former co-worker!
TSL: So that answers my question about whether you recommend dating or marrying someone in or out of the industry.
AAM: We met while working together. I was the showrunner’s assistant, and he was the script coordinator. No one could understand why he loitered around the bullpen all the time — my desk was there. We actually started dating during the Writers’ Strike. We went back to work and decided to keep it a secret from the co-workers. Apparently, we weren’t very good at the clandestine routine, because everyone and their dog knew about it.
TSL: How is it going — especially when you are both on hiatus and writing in the same house…?
AAM: He keeps me disciplined. He writes more in a week than most writers do in a year, so he’s a very good influence. I think he has elves that live in his computer. We have two desks that face one another and it’s barf-ably adorable.
TSL: Speaking of writing, should one write every day?
AAM: Probably. But I don’t. I think you should aim to write as much as you can, but it can be difficult if you’re working another job. You can’t beat yourself up if there’s just not enough time in the day.
TSL: Anything else you would like to add…?
AAM: Support 52 Weeks, 52 Couches! It’s gonna be the hottest book of 2012!
TSL: Aw, thanks, Amanda. Any final advice you would give someone who wants to be a TV writer?
AAM: It’s probably not going to happen overnight, or in a year, or even two years. If you really want to do this, it’s gonna be a long haul, so you better love it…