interview: Sam Miller, Writers’ Assistant

EDIT 10/22/13:

Sam and some other writers are making a multicamera web series pilot, and are raising money on kickstarter. Check it out.

The video is here:


Ten writers met through an email group and formed a writers room. They produced a 22-minute pilot episode which they are distributing as the web’s first multicamera web series. They’re trying to raise funding to shoot five more television-length episodes. They are the largest crowd-sourced writers room of its kind and many of its members have professional credits working with writers in both television and features.

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Sam worked as a Writers’ Assistant on Desperate Housewives, and is now on the Nickelodeon live action show Supah Ninjas. Before that, he worked in comedy development at ABC Studios, and is a writer who got to the phone interview stage in the ABC Disney Writing Program. I met him through the yahoo tv writers group.

What is your background, and how did you break in with your first industry job when you got to LA?

I started screenwriting in high school with some short films. I went to college at Vanderbilt which had a small film program so I was able to take three screenwriting courses, ending with two feature scripts. The year I graduated, a Vanderbilt alum, Chad Gervich, started a program called “Vandy-in-Hollywood” which got students internships in Hollywood. Chad got me an internship at ABC Studios in creative affairs. He also wrote a business guide for TV writers called SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE which I cannot recommend highly enough. You know how they say there’s no manual for becoming a TV writer? Chad actually wrote a manual. It’s been my Bible.

Writers’ Assistant jobs are super competitive. How did you first get that job?

After working at the studio for three years, I met with my boss’ boss’ boss’ who referred me to a production executive that set me up for an interview on Desperate Housewives for a Writers PA gig. I interviewed with three people, including a friend I met through a studio co-worker, and was offered the job in the room because they knew I’d already done food runs as an intern.

What was the interview process like? What do they look for? Do they ask to read any writing samples?

The interview process was with three people, ultimately ending with meeting an executive producer. It was as much about my personality as my attitude about the job, which translates to make them laugh, don’t creep them out, and prove a willingness to do anything. They didn’t ask to read any samples, though I’ve heard of places that have.

What do you do as a Writers’ Assistant? What are your responsibilities? What’s a normal day like?

My main responsibilities are taking notes in the room and editing the script while it’s on a screen with the writers pitching changes. That means the best skills I can bring to the table are computer knowledge and typing speed (thank you, instant messenger). A normal day can involve breaking a story in the room in the morning and punching up a script in the afternoon, or all day breaking or all day revising the script. There are other things, like lists and grids and story bibles, which are clerical tasks alongside the in-room work. There’s also a script coordinator who’s technically my boss and I try to help fill in as I can.

You used to work as a Writers’ Assistant on Desperate Housewives, and now you’re on Supah Ninjas. How do the two compare?

Desperate was a network hit, so there’s a lot of money, which translated to a really high-level writers room. There were eight different writers with show running experience, which is just unbelievable. On Supah Ninjas, the pyramid is more typical, with a majority of writers at the lower levels. The Desperate room used cork boards with index cards to break stories, which I hear is atypical. Supah Ninjas uses a white board to write out story breaking, which I think is more typical. Desperate had to cater to four lead actresses, each with basically their own A story, while Supah Ninjas typically focuses on one of the three characters each week in the A story while having an emotional B story with the other characters. Theme is used by both to unify the stories.

One obvious thing the two have in common is an ADJECTIVE NOUN title, which I think I’m going to try and figure out for my next pilot.

What’s the etiquette when you’re in the room? Do you ever get to pitch ideas?

There are very specific room rules. The first two are don’t shoot down other people’s ideas (that’s the executive producer’s job) and don’t pitch the same thing twice (if they didn’t respond, it’s not that they didn’t hear it, it’s that they didn’t like it). Higher level writers talk more than lower level ones, which just makes sense. I was told when I got the job as Writers’ Assistant that the executive producers have been writing professionally for twenty years and have likely thought of anything I’ll think of and have thought through it more. That was fairly true. I do pitch ideas, but I’ve been told by both shows to be less vocal (and rightly so). I just get so excited about ideas, it’s really hard for me to keep them inside. I find that it can help to have a notepad or something to write ideas down on so at least I get them out of my system. And then you secretly cheer when someone pitches the idea you had five minutes later. But you then hear how they pitched it so much better and more well developed than you had. It’s really not about the ideas in TV – it’s the execution.

Based on what you’ve observed, what advice would you have to a new Staff Writer? How should they navigate being in the room?

I heard the advice that staff writers should pitch one thing a day. I think that’s a really great place to start (and something I have to work more on). I recently heard the advice to speak less than the quietest writer in the room, so that’s another way to look at it. Body language is a key skill to develop as you’ll quickly learn when people are receptive to something and when they’re not – timing is very important. Also, take improv classes as it’s said it’s not the best idea that wins in the room, but the best pitched so performance is really important. The big thing to do is “yes, and” everything – add to the ideas, don’t try to take it in a completely different direction, though notice how if people do that, they’ll qualify their pitch by saying something like “this is completely different, but what if…” or “this is a dumb pitch, but…” Also, find something to be an expert on – the show’s history, or a profession, or a character’s hobby, or whatever – as it  provides a clear way to participate in the discussion and can really help the process.

Do you get a chance to befriend the writers? What kind of relationships were you able to build? Do any writers offer to read your scripts?

It’s a very team-based business, so it’s important to be friendly with everyone. It’s kind of easy, because you relate to a lot of the same things – you watch the same shows, you have similar humor sensibilities, it all kind of fits together. The hiring process is really about figuring out if people can be friends with you. Some writers become better friends with assistants than others – a lot of it is based on personality compatibility, just like all friendships. I’ve been able to build some sort of relationship with everyone, though some are better than others. I asked one executive producer on Desperate to read my script which was very kind of him and he had some good thoughts for a rewrite, and a story editor on Desperate offered, though I didn’t have anything that was really ready and good for him. I think it’s key for a writer to have a script that matches the sensibility of the reader, so asking someone to read a spec of a show they don’t watch isn’t the best way to use that favor I don’t think.

How long do people usually work as a Writers’ Assistant? What’s the career trajectory? What’s the likelihood of getting hired as Staff Writer, or given a freelance script?

There’s no set time limit. There was an article in a local LA publication a few years ago about people who got stuck at the writers assistant or script coordinator level. I think it’s a real risk. Some writers have said how it’s hard to look at an assistant as anything but an assistant, even after they’ve become staffed writers in their own right. There’s a certain stigma that can come with the job. Having said that, two writers assistants were promoted in the seventh season of Desperate and a story editor there used to be Marc Cherry’s assistant (as was one of the assistants promoted). So if you’re on a hit show there’s a better chance than if you’re not and there are “Writers’ Assistants” and “Writer’s Assistants” that do get staffed. The other writers’ assistant on Desperate got one and half freelance scripts and the script coordinator got one as well. The script coordinator on Supah Ninjas has a freelance this year and had one last year. If you put in the time, and really make an effort, I think executive producers tend want to reward it.

What advice would you give to someone who was trying to become a Writers’ Assistant?

Get an industry job (it’s Chad’s biggest advice in his book). Work really hard at it for a few years. Network with everyone you can (I was co-president of a group called JHRTS which has been a great resource). Not only did I know someone when I went to interview on Desperate, I knew the executive producers’ assistant on Supah Ninjas. It really puts you ahead of the application process. Plus you have industry professionals able to give you personal referrals. So start preparing today for an opportunity years down the road which you can go all in for when the time comes. And just know that if you’re not working or networking, you’re competing with all the people who are.

What have you learned as a Writers’ Assistant that’ll help you once you get staffed as a writer?

Staff writers have put in a lot of work to get where they are. They’re constantly writing and working on the next thing while hustling to meetings with executives and drinks with friends. Breaking in doesn’t stop with breaking in. Every staff writer wants to become a producer-level writer. The spec and pilot writing process doesn’t end with a credit. Also, it’s a lot easier to get an agent when you can prove you’re able to get employment. A lot of writers have said they’ve gotten most (if not all) of their gigs on their own. I think too many writers make the mistake of thinking if they just get representation, representation will get them a job. It really doesn’t work that way. Everyone has to get their own work. But I think if you can build the network and experience to get a Writers’ Assistant position, you’ll be able to do the same to get staffed.

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Wow, so much great information! Thanks to Sam for taking the time to share his experiences. If you have any questions for Sam, leave a comment below and he’ll try to follow up. Also, you can follow him on twitter @thesammiller.

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    1. Very cool, they’re the best! I interviewed first with the script coordinator, then was called in to interview with Eric and Leo. They went over my resume and we talked about favorite shows. I mentioned that I practice martial arts which I think helped. Now I can say I’m a ninja!

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