The World Famous Intern
There's something terrifying and maybe a little clinically concerning about having Snoopy as a career role model. Here he is: the World Famous WWI flying ace who, without leaving the roof of his red dog house, became a towering novelist, attorney, orthopedic surgeon, and occasional weekly advice columnist. And here I was: the recently broken up with intern, deftly seasoned fridge-stocker, and puffy-haired post-production assistant. I had fallen into Sixteen19 (the name of the post house before Company 3 acquired them) a bit by chance, a bit through networking, and a bit in an attempt to escape the stunting pain of heartbreak.
Sometime about a month or two after graduation, my film professor, mentor, and advisor (Scott MacDonald, whom I recommend everyone, regardless of major, take a class with, if only to receive a challenging, world-breaking view of film and writing) was kind enough to reach out to a Hamilton grad and previous student of his who worked as an assistant editor on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which was in post-production at Sixteen19 at the time). I was invited to his office for lunch, and on kind of a whim, he called the front desk to see if they needed summer interns. I was interviewed pretty much on the spot, in a t-shirt and black jeans most likely from Marshall’s. They called me back the next week for a follow-up interview and I began working one day a week thereafter. Eventually, after I became more comfortable with the job and front desk duties, this became three days a week. Then when Company 3 acquired them, I went from an unpaid intern to a full-time paid temp, five days a week.
My career plan was to become an esteemed, world famous writer/director, and my path to get there, unknown. My creative roadmap was to try and take the experimental and avant-garde influences I so loved, and use them to create imaginatively fun,compelling, and slightly different, Pixar-like things. Immediately post-grad, I was writing in fleeting moments from procrastination and unemployed fear. I had a freshly made senior thesis film as a kind of resume, but didn’t particularly enjoy or want to do production assistant (PA) work––even though, as it turned out, breaking down boxes, taking the subway to B&H for hard drives and cables, and learning how to use Slack, were pretty healthy mind-numbing distractions.
So here I was: a somewhat aggressively shy, self-proclaimed filmmaker, who now fortunately was in service of a NYC Hollywood post-production house, where some rooms had bold colorful Disney NDAs scotch taped on the walls, and there was a chance I’d silently see Charlie Kaufman or Ron Howard in the kitchen. Though, make no mistake––this still felt like slipping off the very close ledge of my happiest year. With graduation, we were off to work, one here and the other there, and I lost someone I really loved, who was always across the study room table, whom I could write and film and fail with, and whom I didn't want to start a career without. As I came to discover, this was not an uncommon situation for the everyday PA, and was actually almost like a hidden, unspoken requirement.
What Company 3 didn't realize was that their front desk had become a sort of breakup row, our grief concealed, but often loud and raw, between all of us, rambling and hidden beneath the overhead speakers, which we gladly had cathartic control over. If I was in the commander’s seat, we usually listened to Radiohead, which was a delightfully melancholic way to welcome the visiting likes of Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carrell. The heartbroken three of us: one, a 24-year-old musician filling in for a recently vacant client services position, the other a 20-year-old flip flopping editor/director taking a break from school, and me, a James-Joyce-loving prose writer turned wannabe filmmaker. We had all had breakups within the past month or so. The fourth, our leader, was the receptionist, an actress and NYU graduate, whose greatest and hardest decision so far she told us, was leaving a near decade-long relationship.
Behind the desk, we all carried with us a kind of depressive resistance to letting go and a longing that had gently led and left us here. And from phone calls, to guest check-ins, to coffee and candy refills, there was a certain understanding that the jobs we were doing were temporary; that these were the necessary, well-trodden steps towards the more creatively fulfilling positions we had studied for. This was our time to learn in a Mr. Miyagi-like way: through menial tasks, and to move towards our futures with an accepted, employed submissivity. We focused on excelling as assistants, and much like the confusion and pulling hope and pain and back-and-forth movement when you try to move on from yet stay near someone you miss, our hopes were perhaps illusive and misstepped, our focus just slightly off target.
I remember believing that this was our med school. These were the required early years, and we still had a while to go before moving up. Beneath this belief was a kind of restlessness, a stunted lack of momentum, that even though I enjoyed who I was working with at Sixteen19 ( everyone there was extremely kind and mentoring), I still wasn’t getting any closer to making my own stuff. A really good assistant was just a really good assistant. My success as a writer or director also felt seemingly tied to timing, luck, and a kind of salesman-like ability to turn every passing conversation into a jumping off point (something I was very much not trained for).
I talked with a previous coworker a few months ago, who’s just a few years older than me. She was working as an assistant to Ron Howard on a Netflix film. She told me about a crew dinner they had, where she sat directly across from the director. And when he asked her what her favorite films were, she kind of stumbled and couldn’t remember many titles at all, and worried so much afterwards that if she had just said the right Criterion or art-house films, maybe he would’ve asked to see her short films then, and would no longer be an assistant.
Of course, her worries were misfounded. It didn’t matter what titles she said. And it also didn’t really matter who she knew or worked with in the industry. Anybody that high up was already intensely focused on making,perfecting, and continuing to be allowed to create their own stuff. It’s not that they don’t want to help, but that most of the time that help comes in smaller forms. The industry myth of finding the right person––of showing them your script and having your career made in a near finger-snapping instant––was seldom true. She realized that her creative success depended on her own ability to independently create films and projects, ones that would exist regardless of who she knew. And those she knew already were more than happy to watch and advise her on creating these films, but they couldn’t be the ones to place her where she wanted to be.
It took me a long time to realize that the film industry didn’t have a clear, well-paved path from degree to director. And my concealed grief had just as much an impact on my career prospects, motivations, and overall proclivity as my actual talent,skill, and ability. The trap for me was letting the pain I felt after the breakup intertwine and anchor with the yearning I felt to write and direct. My resilience to let go became a resistance to leaving the traditional path I was taking through the industry. This was my Snoopy trap, imagining myself where I wanted to be, in a place of creative success and happiness, sitting safely atop my red dog house or behind my white-walled front desk, too afraid and insecure to leave or venture away, too impatient and stubborn to mentally stay put.
The result was a freeze-response of indecision, wishfulness, and utter loneliness. I allowed myself to cling to the PA path, 1) because it was the most common, read about route to creative success and building connections, and 2) because I didn’t want to write alone, and live with the brimming vulnerability and fear that I could lose the other thing I loved and identified with. It seemed much too terrifying to rest my career on what I could and so wanted to create. But eventually, I became kind of paralyzed between hitting my head against the assistant path I knew I no longer wanted to take, and the pressing guilt, shame, and loneliness and disappointment that came with choosing temporary unemployment to focus instead on writing and building a better creative resume.
I want to emphasize that the paralysis and pressure here is of my own rumination. I felt like I was walking away from supposed opportunity and connection. And perhaps the most difficult part about trying to embrace my own path through this industry was realizing that it required me to have a certain amount of gentle trust in and care for myself. This is all to say: there is no single, synonymous path out of heartbreak and towards creative fulfillment; they are too often dependent on and reinforcing of each other, both crying and clawing through that loss. And if you realize you aren’t meshing too well with where you are, it’s perfectly okay to step away from that well-established, well-advised path. I’m not really sure what exactly this new direction is for me now, only that I have begun to treat myself gently and kindly, and with this grounded trust, I am that much closer to finding it.