Marty Lang interviews The Anonymous Production Assistant, a pay-it-forward writer sharing advice and information about the film industry.
Way back when I wrote my first column, one of the things I stressed in building a screenwriting or filmmaking career is the importance of helping others before asking for help yourself. Offering assistance first endears people to you, and helps you “build an army” that you can one day ask for help on something you want to do.
Thankfully, there is a kindred spirit in Hollywood, who's offered help, advice and information to film business newbies for years. And though I don't know exactly who this person is, their alter ego has been a beacon to the entry-level Hollywood worker for a long time: The Anonymous Production Assistant.
If you go to the TAPA site, its slogan will make you smile: "A view of Hollywood from the bottom." The first thing you'll notice is what the site's become known for: its job list. TAPA has access to the mythical “UTA Job List," a periodical listing of entry-level positions in film and television, including internships, assistant positions, and sometimes higher-level jobs, too. There's also a glossary of terms that Production Assistants use on the job, and a blog that includes lots of helpful tips, like how to work with walkie-talkies, how to balance different titles on your resume, and how to handle a boss giving you work that's not your job. There's even TAPA-sponsored networking events, where new filmmakers can meet for drinks around Los Angeles. (These are all the more impressive when you realize to this day, no one knows who TAPA is.) The site is kind of like a living therapy session for film rookies.
I was fortunate enough to talk via email with The Anonymous Production Assistant, and find out a little bit about her/his life in the business, how s/he wants to give back to new people in the industry, and her/his own writing aspirations. If you're looking for an angel over the shoulder of the inexperienced in this business, TAPA is that angel.
Alternate Routes: What was the spark that made you want to get into the film business?
The Anonymous Production Assistant: One of my earliest memories is watching Sesame Street, until the end, when the credits rolled. I was too young to read, so I asked my mom what all those tiny words moving quickly up the screen said. She told me it didn't matter, "It's just the credits." But I knew these "credits,” whatever that meant, couldn't be totally unimportant if they took the time to put them on the screen.
Years later, I learned that these were the people who made the show. It blew me away how many people it took to make just one show. I needed to find out what they did all day, and that led me down the path to film school and, eventually, Hollywood.
AR: You say on the site that you want to be a professional writer. What are the pros and cons of working as a Production Assistant in the business as a way to further your writing career?
TAPA: As an office PA, you spend a lot of time at your computer. Too much time, if you're easily distracted by the Internet. But if you're disciplined, you can get some real work done between the work that pays the bills.
Obviously, becoming a professional writer requires a lot of hard work and talent. But there's a certain element of luck involved, at least insofar as how opportunities present themselves. You have to be in the right place at the right time. The production office is typically across the hall from the right place – the writers' room. You never know when the right time will be, so sticking to it is the best course of action. When a writer's assistant gets staffed, the writers' PA often gets promoted. And where do you think they find a replacement for the writers' PA?
AR: What posts of yours have gotten the most attention on the site?
TAPA: The most comments I ever received was on a post about a company offering... dubious services to PA's. I pointed out the suspicious nature of their claims, and a flood of comments replied that the service was great. Despite using different names and email addresses, most of these replies came from the same IP address. Which pretty much confirmed their sketchiness.
In terms of actual, human replies, the most engaged posts are ones about how to get started. It seems that's the most difficult thing to do in this business, finding your first job. Once you get the ball rolling on your career, momentum (in terms of both credits and contacts) can carry you a long way. But getting started is always a challenge.
AR: How did you get the idea to do networking events? Has it been a challenge keeping your identity secret while going to them?
TAPA: Honestly, it was because I wanted to go to a networking event. It's pretty easy to attend if you're the one who creates it! They're pretty informal, though, so no one tends to realize who's "in charge." I've never been noticed.
AR: What is your biggest bit of advice for people who want to get into screenwriting, whether networking, job advice or something else?
TAPA: I think the most important thing is to write a lot. But the second thing every aspiring writer ought to do is join a writers' group. Screenwriting books can only take you so far (and some do more harm than good), but you really need someone reading your particular script to tell you what's working and what isn't. A diverse group of writers is better than any screenplay manual.
AR: What's your ultimate screenwriting goal in the business? Do you feel running the site has helped you toward that goal?
TAPA: I just want to be paid to write. I think in this day and age, there's not much of a difference between TV, features, and the web. It's all stories told with pictures. I've had some success under this broad definition, but it's not a career, yet.
All of that is tangential to TAPA, though. The main goal of TAPA is to help people who are just starting out in the industry. If it continues to do that, I'd say it's a success, regardless of my own writing career.