As part of our recent series of Film Production BA workshops on the business of the cinema industry, TV screenwriters Ava Tramer, of Central Park, and Daniel McLellan, of Lost in Space, joined their good friend, programme lead Malachi Rempen, and his students for a live Q&A. Here’s how they climbed the career ladder.
Want to be a TV screenwriter? Then be prepared to climb the career ladder – unless you’ve got great connections, a shining portfolio or, like Mickey Fisher, your first-time script is so remarkable that it fast-tracks you from competition entrant to Steven Spielberg collaborator. “If you have the stomach for a lot of gruelling assistant work, that is still the most reliable path in,” argues Daniel McLellan, writer on the epic sci-fi adventure Netflix series Lost in Space. He and wife Ava Tramer, comedy writer on such animated series as Central Park and Duncanville, recently joined our Film Production Bachelor students for an insightful Q&A session, where they shared just how they rose to the high rungs.
Hosted by programme lead Malachi Rempen – one of Dan’s film school roommates – the session was part of ‘The Biz’, a series of 12 workshops which introduced our students to the wider business of the cinema industry, emerging and ancillary technologies, and the peripheral worlds of new media and video art – all the while initiating invaluable professional connections.
Ava’s internship on the wildly popular American sitcom The Office, which she initially saw as nothing more than a fun college summer job, was where she had her epiphany moment. Though she subsequently graduated from sociology and went on to work at a yoghurt company, the culture of the writers’ room was hard to shelf. “I realised you could get paid to sit around and play make believe and make jokes with friends,” she recalls of one of the hottest writers’ rooms of the era.
“To work in this industry, you have to be hopeful, you have to have that blind hope that someday this is going to be worth it.”
As it turned out, cute notes, perpetually sharp pencils and neatly hung laundry were Ava’s tickets to getting noticed. At age 20, she was welcomed back to The Office as a personal assistant, where she traded her extra-mile attitude for the privilege of getting her creative voice heard. When a writer’s assistant role opened up, she was immediately recommended, and thus began her ascent to script coordinator and beyond on a number of acclaimed shows. “To work in this industry, you have to be hopeful,” she said, “you have to have that blind hope that someday this is going to be worth it.”
After film school, Dan worked his way up the production ladder at Fox. Yet, just when he was about to get his name on the door, he realised that the ladder was resting on the wrong wall – a wall that, although much shorter, would never lead him to the peak of his creative potential. His leap of faith to an assistant role at another company paid off: his impressive work acumen and dedication to building relationships earned him a promotion to writer’s assistant, despite not having any relevant experience.
“If you prove yourself as a hard worker at your assistant job and you have a creative mind, eventually you can start pitching ideas verbally, in the [writers’] room, and contributing to the discussion,” Dan explained. “Then if those go over well, a lot of times you will be given the opportunity to write freelance.” In fact, that’s exactly how it panned out for Dan. A freelance opportunity to write one episode of Lost in Space (season two, episode seven) led to his recruitment as a staff writer.
One of the many traits Ava and Dan share is an excellent ability to read the room – sensing when it’s appropriate to put forth ideas to their superiors and when it’s best to zip it. One stellar piece of advice they shared is to never show an unfinished or unpolished script. “Never show a script unless you’re happy with it,” Ava advised. “Opinions are formed so early.” Dan added that “you only get a first read once and you have to protect people’s unvarnished opinion.” He also stressed that you should focus on being the best at your job before you even think about stepping outside of your lane or asking for a promotion. Being the perfect writer’s assistant is not just about being a good writer or a fast note-taker. It’s about taking the initiative to offer an ear to the writers and, above all, making life as easy as possible for the showrunner.
“I wish I had known earlier that the things you don’t get make you available for the things you were meant to get.”
It took each of them a good decade to clamber up to their current positions. Naturally, our students were eager to discover any “cheat codes” that might help them skip a few rungs – or at least make for a smoother ascent. Dan made the point that viewing culture, and culture as a whole, have changed greatly over those ten years. As a result, both the career progression and the challenges encountered may be different. One advantage: toxic behaviour in the film and TV industries is on its way out. One potential drawback: TV shows are more plentiful but do not continue for as many series, meaning writers always have to have their eyes on the next gig.
Dan also shared some brilliant advice that he would give to his younger self. “I wish I had known earlier that the things you don’t get make you available for the things you were meant to get. So much of this job is getting rejected,” he revealed. “You need to navigate rejection and not let it bring you down. A lot of what this job is is finding the right fit for you. Secondly, get good at taking notes and hearing feedback in a positive and productive way and don’t push back against people who are giving you constructive criticism. There is no such thing as a bad or false note...all you can do is either chalk it up to taste or you can take the note and...try to address it…You want to be able to hear it and graciously take it.”
Above: Still from the Central Park episode ‘A Decent Proposal,’ co-written by Ava Tramer
Ava would tell her younger self not to compare herself to other people. “Don’t feel bad and beat yourself up about what other people are doing...the main path is working harder than everyone else.” According to Ava, it really is the difference between hanging up the dry cleaning and leaving the laundry bag on the floor; simply checking a script for errors or offering polite suggestions.
Screen Acting tutor Ariane Mason, who sat in on the discussion, asked the duo for their outlook on the future of the industry: “What do you think are going to be the big trends? What are we going to be watching in five years’ time?” Ava suggested that, due to the pandemic, we can expect more uplifting content for the next couple of years, and that the popularity of movie theatres may continue to decline since ‘Netflix and chill’ became the new normal.
“I think we’re seeing a return to a mid-level, lower budget, lower IP [intellectual property] original feature,” Dan suggested. “If you’re comfortable in that space, you might have a better shot at making an original film. If your goal is to get your work out there and you don’t care about it being a conversation piece [part of an existing movie franchise], it’s a good time for a lot of people.”