Alumni Blog: Jen Vestuto
Screenwriter Jen Vestuto (BFA Screenwriting 2010) and writing partner, Melissa Marlette, have written the shattering final episode of The Vampire Diaries. HINT: Jen won’t be the only one with a broken heart…
A year ago, to the day, I was juggling Starbucks orders for a room full of TV writers. On Friday March 3rd, an episode I co-wrote is airing on TV. In a few weeks, I’ll be looking for a new job when a show of 8 years comes to an end. That’s how much of a rollercoaster this business can be. I’ve only been out of school a few years, but the things I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve had in that short time are essential to where I am today. If you are a writer trying to make it in this business, these are the words of wisdom I can give to you:
- Know there isn’t a secret to success. It’s something everyone wants to ask when they meet someone successful… what did you do and how did you do it? The truth is there is no sure path to success. I took the route of starting as a production assistant and moved my way up. Others have been lucky enough to get their opportunities without being an assistant. There is no right or wrong way.
- You need to be ready to work hard. Especially if you’re starting as an assistant, you have to remember that everything you do and everything you say could affect your future. Your reputation will be what gets you from one job to the next. If you’re lazy for one boss, your odds of getting a good recommendation for your next job are slim. There are of course special circumstances, but if you work hard, no matter the task, you can’t go wrong.
- Don’t. Stop. Writing. I meet fellow “writers” all the time, and when I ask them what they’re writing, sometimes they say they haven’t written anything in a long time. No matter how busy you are, no matter what your day job is, no matter what… find the time to write. Even if it’s a morsel of an idea, write it down. And if you don’t love doing it, perhaps consider another plan, because it never gets any easier.
- Read and watch as much as possible. With technology the way it is today, you can download thousands of scripts. Find a script to a movie you’ve watched a million times and read it while watching. See how writers describe your favorite scenes. See what lines actors tweaked so they flowed better. You’ll absorb all of that so that when you sit down to write, it comes out naturally. This takes time, but reading as many scripts as possible is never a bad thing.
- Work on set as a PA. Being on set teaches you so many things as a writer. Seeing how things go from page to screen is an invaluable experience. Not only will you know what it takes for words come to life, but you’ll see how each department comes together to literally make magic happen. You’ll have a new appreciation for the process, and you’ll also learn how to function on 3 hours of sleep.
- Move to Los Angeles if you want to be a writer. Sorry. I didn’t want to, either, but I don’t regret it for a second. I still love New York more than I probably will ever love Los Angeles, but if you want to be a writer, this is where the bulk of writing happens. It’s also where a lot of the agencies, management companies, studios, network, etc. have their main headquarters. This means the bulk of assistant jobs are here as well. This town is tough and can eat you alive if you’re not careful, but if you survive a year, you’re like a unicorn.
Jen and her writing partner Melissa Marlette
- Find collaborators and network like crazy. This business is a collaborative medium, whether you like it or not. Yes, the majority of writing can be done alone in dark room, but once you’re done with your masterpiece, then what? Who’s going to read it? Who’s going to get it in the right hands? Who’s going to help you shoot it? You can’t do these things on your own. I was extremely lucky; I found my collaborator before I set foot in LA. We actually met and bonded quickly on set as PAs in New York. We’ve been writing partners for 6 years, and this year, we got an agent and wrote our first episode of TV together. If you can find someone who thinks like you and who works as hard as you, never let them go.
- Know your competition. My writing partner has a theory about the competition in this town that I’ve come to understand and agree with. Out of everyone who wants to do exactly what you want to do, 50% of them will put in the work. Out of that 50%, only half of them will have the talent and the skills necessary to succeed. So really, in the grand scheme of things, you’re only competing with 25% of the population, as long as you work harder than anyone and have the necessary talent. Luck plays a factor, as it does with everything, but the opportunities arise more than you think. You just have to be ready for them.
- Never settle. My first job in Los Angeles was working at a commercial agency as an assistant. I learned a lot about working with different kinds of people, but one valuable piece of information I learned was that I did not want to be an agent or work in representation. I continued working as an assistant, knowing I had to do my best, but also knowing that if an opportunity in a writer’s room opened up, I had to jump on it. 4 years in, it happened, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The point is, even if you’re comfortable and safe in your job, be willing to take risks and keep your eye on what you want.
- Don’t forget to love it. There will be plenty of times where you wonder why you’re still working towards something that you may never get. Writing on spec is thankless and only semi satisfying. You may need to take a job outside of the industry to pay rent, while you slave away on your scripts. The thing that’ll keep you going is how much you love to sit down and pour your soul onto paper. Don’t forget to love it, especially in the hardest times. Never forget that if you don’t love it, no one else will.