Interview with a Showrunner’s Assistant: Erin Conley

Erin Conley is an east coast transplant living and writing in Los Angeles. After graduating from Boston University, she moved out west to work her way up in the entertainment industry. Now the showrunner’s assistant on FOX’s Sleepy Hollow, Erin shares some of her best insight and insider information from navigating the industry as an aspiring television writer to what it’s like to work for some of the biggest shows on TV.

Tune in if you’re interested in…

  • Learning about what it takes to be an entertainment industry assistant
  • A glimpse into the typical day and duties of a showrunner’s assistant
  • Tips and tidbits about creating your path and being prepared for opportunity

So let’s dive right in with Erin:

Tell me all about being a showrunner’s assistant on Sleepy Hollow.

Well, I just started around the end of 2015 as the showrunner’s assistant on Sleepy Hollow, which is in its third season on Fox. I’m really excited because it’s a step up for me career-wise (I was a writer’s PA previously), and also because I want to be a TV writer and this is the closest I’ve gotten to that goal so far. Assisting the showrunner is really helpful because I get to kind of see the entire process from start to finish and really learn a lot about the making of a show.

What’s the day-to-day like?

The day-to-day is basically managing my boss’s needs and also everything that everyone else involved in the show needs from him. His time is very important, and there are a lot of requests that are constantly coming in for him to approve things, to look at things, to read things. I have to make sure that he’s getting to everything he’s supposed to be getting to.

There’s also typical assistant stuff that translates to any position. There’s answering phones, scheduling and calendars, and making sure the office knows what meetings are happening when we’re prepping an episode. I also take notes on ‘notes calls’ that we have with the studio and network.

How many hours a day are you at the office?

My typical day is from 9:30-7:30.

Does the work come home with you?

So far it hasn’t really. I try to always be checking my email just to make sure something doesn’t come up. For example: (because our production is on the east coast and they are three hours ahead) yesterday, I woke up to an email at 7:30 in the morning that was like “surprise there’s an important meeting happening at 10:30 your time.” So, sometimes you need to be checking and be on top of it to make sure you’re not missing anything. Other than that, it mostly stays at the office.

You talked about how it was a long road to get where you are. How did you get your start in L.A.?

My start in L.A. was with an internship program that I did. I went to Boston University, and they have an L.A. program that’s a semester long. My junior year in the spring, I came out here for a whole semester and I did two internships. I was at FOX in current programing and development and also at the soap opera The Young and the Restless. Also we took classes at night as part of the program. That was a great introduction. My friends and I like to call it “L.A. with training wheels” in a way. Because you still have housing. You have mandatory events and field trips and that kind of stuff. But also, the way they do it, you’re not placed in an internship. You have to apply for them and interview for them, which is a really great experience because it mimics the process of applying for jobs and going on interviews. So, that was my real introduction. And then I kind of learned about the industry and about living here in the city. So then when I graduated a year later, I moved out here pretty much immediately. It took me about three months to find my first job in entertainment.

What was your first job in entertainment?

I was a logger at a reality TV production company. A logger basically looks at all the raw footage.  You type up what is happening so that they have a record when they go to put together that episode. It’s not very interesting work. It’s kind of tedious, but it was a job in entertainment. It was a standard 9am-6pm day.

How did you transition from that into being an assistant?

The logging position I got was temporary. They hired me for a three-month period. And then at the end of that they invited me to come back and do another show, but it was a night shift, which I was not very excited about. To work from 6pm-3am is not a very appealing thing. But I took it because it was only going to be about a 6 week job and I thought this is my chance to really spend my days interviewing and really go back to applying to jobs full-time, so I can use this to my advantage having my days free. So I kind of renewed my efforts to apply for everything I saw. And it was in about week two of that night job that I interviewed for an assistant job and I got it.

That was at Rebel Entertainment. How long did you work at Rebel?

I was there for about a year and eight months or so. It was a little over a year and a half.

What skills did you get from that job?

The skills that I’ve learned as an agency assistant have been really beneficial in every job I’ve done moving forward. I think that even though the offices and what they do are different, you really learn the basics of phones, emails, and scheduling. And kind of learning the players of the industry. I have never had to do phones as intense as I’ve had to do at that job, and I think that’s been really helpful moving forward.

How did you transition from Rebel, which is a reality based company, into the scripted world? And into television, which I feel is a big jump and a hard jump to make.

It’s definitely a hard jump to make. When I was hired at the agency, my boss told me upfront, these positions are typically designed for a year to a year and a half because after that there’s nothing more that you can really learn or take away from it. So when I reached that point of about a year and a half, I really started reaching out to everyone I knew from college and who I’d met in L.A. so far, who worked on a scripted TV show, which was where I wanted to be. That’s where I started, just saying “Hey, I’ve been doing this. I’m ready to leave. I’m looking for that.” And it took a while. It was probably February when I first started reaching out to people. And it wasn’t until May that I got an interview for a post PA position on Person of Interest because a friend of mine from college had been working on the show and was able to get my resume in front of the right people. So really, it came down to that connection I had all the way back from college. Also the fact that I had been working in the industry for, at that point, almost two years. Even if it wasn’t exactly what the new job was going to be. I think that did help me nail the interview.

You went from internship to logging in L.A. to a reality based agency to a post PA in television. So now, how did you get from post PA to showrunner’s assistant. What was that trajectory like?

The reason that I took the job in post was that I wanted any foot in the door that I could get to be closer to a writers’ office, which was my goal. But I know that writers’ PA positions are extremely hard to come by – I felt so far away from it at least, working at a reality agency – so I was open to taking anything I could get to get into that world and meeting the right people to help me get to the next step. I stayed on that show for two seasons as a post PA. Then I made the decision to leave, to really devote myself to finding a writers’ office position.

It was difficult at first. It took me about 3 months. I had been prepared for that possibility. But I did get a writers’ PA position through the connection of another friend from college. It all seems to come back to that.

Seriously, networking and your alumni association have been incredibly important.

Networking has been very important. But also, I wouldn’t have gotten the writers’ PA job without the post PA job because they wanted someone that had been on a show before. So even though the experience was different, it was beneficial and helpful in getting me that next job.

So you went from post PA to writers’ PA. And then writers’ PA to showrunner’s assistant. How did that work out?

It worked out great. I was working as a writers’ PA for a while. Another friend, not a friend from college, someone I had met through a friend from college, who had been sending my resume around a few months prior when I was looking for the writers’ PA position, heard of a showrunner’s assistant position opening on the show that she was working on. And I think by that point, I had built up enough experience between my agency assistant experience and my PA on a show experience that combined nicely into the skills needed for a showrunner’s assistant. Because I had the show experience and the experience being an assistant for a boss. So I think that helped me get the job. Because they hired me on the spot. I think it worked out well.

When you got the writers’ PA job on Blood & Oil, what ended up happening – so often it does – was that the pilot got picked up, went into production, went out to the world, and then it got cancelled. That happened to you. So there is a great deal of job uncertainty. How do you deal with that?

That was an interesting learning experience for me because I was so excited to finally get the writers’ PA job. At that point, it had been four years that I had been working to get a job like that. Then to be on a show that premiered to a disappointing start and have everyone immediately start to wondering how much longer we would be around was kind of discouraging at first. I was thinking, “I finally got here,” and now is this going to ruin it for me? Or kind of put another road block in my way? I learned to look at it like, no matter how long it lasted, I still got to meet an entirely new group of people, a group of really fantastic writers, who I knew would go on to do bigger and better things if the show did end. So I think that was reassuring because I think with every show you work on, your network gets that much bigger. Even though it’s definitely a little scary and discouraging, there’s also a bright side. You still met a group of people. And the way this industry works is people will bounce back. They’ll land somewhere else, and now those people might be able to bring you with them.

Can you talk a little bit about the duties of a post PA and a writers PA? Are they very similar?

I think there are many ways in which any PA position on a scripted show are similar, no matter what department you are in. There are few things that are different. I think for post, it’s a lot more of running around and picking up dailies, delivering cuts. That kind of stuff. But also, what they have in common is that you’re helping to manage the office, you’re making sure the supplies are fully stocked, that the kitchen is fully stocked. You’re handling getting lunches and dinners for everyone. Coffee. But, I think being a post PA, there are a lot more specific post related things and some more running around because there are so many moving parts in post.

What does a writers’ PA do?

You’re kind of the first cover for the writers’ assistant and the showrunner’s assistant. So I got to cover both of those positions in a way. I got to have my first experience taking notes on calls with the studio and network. So I think, I always say the benefit is that you’re closer to the writers’ room, so you might get some more opportunities, whereas post PA for a writer, still feels a little far removed. Even if you’re in the same office.

Is this the path you always knew you wanted to take to being a writer?

I think it’s hard to really envision what your path will be because there are so many different paths that people take to become writers. I think I did envision myself working my way up through a show. So in some ways that has been what has ended up happening. But also I think I’ve taken more detours along the way than I ever really expected, just kind of out of necessity and out of what was the opportunity that presented itself at the time.

How often are you writing?

When I was working as an agency assistant and my first year as a post PA, I was kind of disappointed by how little I was writing on my own because the jobs – especially when I was a post PA – the job was so tiring that I would find that I would come home and I would not have any energy left to write. So that’s that when I decided to start a blog as kind of a motivation for myself. And I set a goal of updating it once a week, which has been so beneficial because it forced me to write. Because I see this goal, and I think I don’t want this to be the week that I don’t post a new entry. That got me back into writing on a steady schedule and then from there, TV and script writing followed. Because once you’re in that disciplined routine, I think it’s a lot easier. Your creativity is flowing more. I think it’s just generally easier to be motivated.

How are you getting people to look at your work?

I think, especially when you meet a new group of writers on a show, you’re always kind of thinking… okay well the ultimate goal is for one day one of them will want to read my work. And I think that’s been something I’ve been able to make happen on the shows the I’ve worked on so far. It takes time. You have to build the relationship, get to know the person. Once they know that you are a writer, people who are interested in helping and who like you as a person – you’ve developed a rapport – I’ve found that they will eventually ask.

Which is a weird/tough thing thing to navigate, right? Because you don’t want to be the one that’s like, “Hey! Read my stuff!” You want the other person to ask.

Yes. But, I’ve found that after a while it comes up naturally because people are always going to ask, “What kind of stuff do you write? What are you working on?” And then it just kind of follows from there.

What advice do you have for anyone who’s just starting out in the industry and wants to do what you do?

Like I kind of said before, I think that there are a lot of different paths to get to where you want to be. So if you end up in a job that isn’t exactly what you imagined or that you feel isn’t exactly on what you see as the “right path”, don’t be discouraged. And don’t feel like that’s it or you have to adjust accordingly. I think that you’ll get there and any experience, especially when you’re starting out, is really good experience. Like I said, I never saw myself as an agency assistant to a reality agent, but I still used the skills I learned at that job in every job I’ve had since. So I think that everything is beneficial, and I also think you should keep up your connections. You never know who will be the person to help you get the next thing. Try to be meeting people because it really is often about who you know and also about being prepared for when someone you know has that opportunity for you.