Foot in the door is a four-part interview series where Alistair Baldwin speaks with early-career screenwriters about breaking into the industry, what entry-level jobs looks like and where (ideally) they might lead.
In this part Alistair speaks with Shonty Fisher, the writer behind recent sci-fi short Interface, who works as a notetaker in the television industry.
Alistair Baldwin: What’s your job – and, more importantly, what does that actually entail?
Shonty Fisher: I’m a notetaker, or sometimes more ostentatiously referred to as a ‘script assistant’. I have the great joy of sitting in TV writers’ rooms at various stages of development – brainstorming, development, plotting and redrafting. While writers pour their hearts and minds out, and producers restrain them with budgetary discipline, I record the tug of war.
It’s not an exact science like courtroom stenography – there are some things that are very much ‘what’s said in the room, stays in the room’. There are some drug-hazed bender anecdotes that are better not recorded… but great for story material. Sorting out what is relevant is key.
But mostly it is about collating and representing the ideas that emerge in a way that helps the next stage of development. And listening! Always listening.
AB: How did you come to be a notetaker? Would you describe it as an ‘entry-level’ job?
SF: Notetaking is the best kind of entry-level job for writers! You get to see where the magic happens – in the writers’ room. Watching ideas be pitched, ditched and developed can be a crash course in industry standards.
I wasn’t some industry insider with leg ups waiting in my phone contact list. But everyone I knew was getting jobs through people they knew. So I decided to get to know people! I asked anyone who would listen if they knew any writers working in TV and then emailed them requesting a coffee date. It can seem sycophantic, but most writers (especially in Australia) feel underappreciated and unknown. Having some film school grad ask to pick their industry brain can be flattering and actually not that weird. It’s a collaborative industry and writers are happy to help out newcomers.
It was on one such occasion where a writer I took for coffee said they needed a notetaker next week and would I be interested? Once you get one gig, your name gets passed around.
Notetaking is the best kind of entry-level job for writers! Watching ideas be pitched, ditched and developed can be a crash course in industry standards.
AB: Is notetaking the kind of job you ultimately want to do in the industry?
SF: Ultimately, I want to be working as a television screenwriter. Getting experience in a writers’ room, even if not as a writer, is a great way to get a sense of what you’re in for – and what the industry is after. Sort of like the waterboy with dreams of being a football star. But with better-articulated angst.
AB: Do you think your perspective as a young person is valued?
SF: Sometimes. It depends what kind of show you’re working on. Target audiences for free-to-air TV in Australia are pretty ‘one size fits all’. Mostly the under 35s are considered lost to international streaming competitors and not worth appealing to. There is a safe and reliable middle-aged audience which doesn't encourage the industry to experiment.
Working on shows with international distributors is a different story. There is a desire and ability to target niche audiences who are often younger and demanding diverse content. In the context of Australian TV, young people’s perspectives are often not valued because they aren’t valuable to networks.
Unfortunately, most young people in the industry look to international industries for opportunities since their ideas are better valued and hence, represented there.
AB: Now that you’re in the industry, what was the biggest misconception you had about working in film and television?
SF: The biggest misconception was that work would be secure. It’s incredibly precarious and keeping your hospitality job is a necessity (unless you’ve got parents able and willing to support your struggling artist existence). The work is mostly contract-based, so having the ability to self-organise/schedule shifts around TV work is part of the struggle.
It’s not the ‘work your way up the ladder’ process that we’re often told about. Getting a full-time gig being the coffee bitch is a coveted luxury nowadays! Finding a flexible job that can work around TV is a quickly learned reality.
AB: What advice would you give to someone aiming to get their foot in the door of the industry?
SF: Talk to people! Almost nobody gets an entry-level job based on the virtues of their writing. It’s a small industry and people will remember you if you’re nice or funny or a complete prick. Make sure you aren’t the latter, unless you’re incredibly witty whilst doing so. Go to every industry event and keep on top of Aussie content. Knowing what people are working on is the ultimate show of respect. No need to brown-nose (it’s not America). Ask questions. Ask people for coffee.
Alistair Baldwin is a screenwriter and comedian based in Naarm/Melbourne. He has written for The Weekly, Hard Quiz and Get Krack!n (which he also appears in as a very tired P.A.). Follow him on Twitter: @baldwinalistair.