Working & Writing For Major TV Networks Such As CW & MTV: An Interview with Jen Vestuto & Melissa Marlette

Monday 2 September 2019

Today, we're speaking with two women who are writers, filmmakers, AND best friends -  Jen Vestuto and Melissa Marlette, who have worked together on several projects, some of which I'm sure you're familiar with: Desperate Housewives, 30 Rock, The Vampire Diaries... the list goes on!

Jen and Melissa first met on set during production of Person of Interest, and let me tell you, this duo has seen it all. They'll share their vast experience with us, from the beginning of their careers as production assistants in NYC to their success as screenwriters and filmmakers, and their secrets to co-writing their scrips as a perfect team.

It’s a pleasure to be talking to you! When reading more about you both, I learned that before moving to LA, you both worked as production assistants in many TV shows (Desperate Housewives, 30 Rock, Law and Order, among others). 

How would you describe the process, and how would you say your work as PAs has contributed to your current professional experience?

MM: Thanks so much for having us! And yes, we were both production assistants in New York before we moved to LA. I had actually been in Los Angeles during the WGA Writer’s Strike in 2008 so a lot of shows stopped shooting. 

I moved to New York soon after that because a lot of my friends were getting work out there once work started up again. I got a PA job right away and basically didn’t stop working. I worked on everything - big budget movies, TV, low budget indies. 

It was a great experience and I learned so much for each set I was on. 

JV: For me, after graduating from college, I was able to get on set as a PA, and a few months in, was lucky enough to get a job on Person of Interest, which is where Melissa and I met. 

She was the first team PA and I was hired as her helper, which meant any cast members on the show, whether they were series regulars are guest stars, we were in charge of getting them to their trailers, through the works (hair, makeup and wardrobe) and then getting them to set when the AD was ready for them. 

MM: All that being said, and I know I can speak for both of us here, being a PA on set was probably the most important thing we’ve ever done.

It’s given us incredibly valuable insight, not only in our writing, but in every aspect of filmmaking. When you see how days are scheduled, how scenes are shot and, how that all translates from page to production, there’s no better way to learn it. 

For example, I worked on a lot of sets with the stunts department. I saw first hand how something that plays for maybe 30 seconds on screen can be a day’s worth of work. It really gives you an understanding of how things work better than anything else. 

JV: Also, a huge part of our job was reading people, especially the cast. That’s been huge for us in our jobs as assistants over the years, working with showrunners and other creatives. 

In a lot of situations, you need to know when a good time is to approach people, when to ask questions, when to knock on their door. You learn the nuances of people when you’re working 12+ hour days with them, and since everyone works differently, it makes you a better member of the team if you’re aware of that. 

Not all screenwriters are used to having a writing partner around, but the two of you look like the perfect team. In fact, you’ve both co-written the penultimate episode of The Vampire Diaries, which is incredible! 

Could you please tell us more about co-writing a project, its perks, and about the role of each writer during the process? 

MM: I do think we make a perfect team. Not only are we best friends and have been for almost 10 years, but we’ve found a way to work really well together. 

Granted, it’s not always perfect and there have been times where we’ve had to adjust how we work, but we always know that our work ethic is the same and we’re always working towards the same goal.

JV: Yes, matching work ethic is so important. I love working with Melissa because we really are a yin and yang. We’re very different people, but we speak the same language when it comes to writing. 

We compliment each other really well, there are definitely things that I’m weaker at that Melissa brings to our writing that makes the script ten times better. She’s also a director, so she adds a lot of great visuals in the scene direction that makes the script really sing that I would never come up with. 

MM: A huge perk I would say is that when we write together, a “first draft” really ends up being close to second or third draft once we’re done with it. When we come up with an idea that we’re both excited about, we start really breaking things down - who are our characters, how are we telling the story. 

Then, we go through a beat sheet and an outline that we both sign off on, basically an agreement for where we want scenes to take place, who’s in them and what we want to accomplish in each scene. 

JV: We say it’s like building the foundation for the house. Then usually I’ll go in first and flesh out the scenes, add in dialogue, and basically put up the walls. The Melissa goes through with a fresh pair of eyes, adding the visuals and making tweaks, really putting it through a stress test to see if the script holds up the way we thought it would. 

She’s like the interior decorator, making it pretty and filling in the gaps. 

MM: That’s our normal process, but when we wrote our Vampire Diaries episode, we had the chance to write it with one the Executive Producers, so we broke it up in acts. Jen and I both wrote our acts then swapped them to give them the once over polish that we’d normally do. 

It ended up turning out really great though because a lot of what we wrote stayed in the episode. We couldn’t have asked for a better first experience as professional writers. 

We even were able to produce our episode on set in Atlanta, which was incredible, especially since a few years ago, we were production assistants on set and now we were the writers. 

Huge difference. 

You’ve co-written the short film Mike India Alpha, which was directed by Melissa. Before the movie screened at the Big Bear International Film Festival and the On Location: Memphis Film Festival, you successfully raised a whopping $30K in a Kickstarter campaign to make it happen. 

What’s your advice for filmmakers who want to raise funds for their projects, and which factors do you think increase the probability of reaching budget goals? 

MM: The first piece of advice I would give is to make sure the film is actually ready to be made and isn’t just something you’re thinking about doing. 

The worst thing that can happen is you work really hard to raise money, and then when the time comes to shoot the movie, it’s not ready. 

Have people you trust read it and give you notes, sit on it for a bit, make sure it’s in the best shape possible, because no amount of money can make a bad script a good movie.

JV: I totally agree. Long before we started our kickstarter campaign, we got notes on the script, built out a schedule so we knew it was producible and already started location scouting to see if it was possible to shoot the film in LA. 

Obviously, all of that will allow to you create a reasonable budget. I’ll be honest, at first we thought we didn’t need as much as $30k, but after going through the process and really crunching the numbers, we knew the only way to shoot it right, to get it through post and to actually get it seen at festivals, $30k was the number we needed to hit.

MM: We knew it was going to be tough. Raising money for anything is hard and we knew we were asking for a lot. We went through our years of contacts, in the film business and out, and we compiled a huge list of people we were going to reach out to. 

As soon as the kickstarter launched, we made sure everyone knew about it without becoming overwhelming. There’s a fine line between letting people know and bugging them to the point where they don’t want to help you. 

We spoke passionately about the project and stressed that every little bit helps, and it’s true. I think we ended up with over 350 individual backers, which was incredible.

JV: Running a kickstarter campaign really does become a full time job. You really have to be committed during those 30 days and really be able to speak about the project and get people excited about what they’ll be able to see if they contribute. 

We also really wanted to make sure that we came through on the perks we were offering people. Personally, I’ve contributed to kickstarter campaigns where I never received the perk and some I don’t think they even made the film. 

I think that makes people a bit more skeptical when they’re asked to donate. We just made sure to update our backers and show our potential backers what they could be a part of. 

We shared casting news, we took videos of potential locations, we really wanted people to feel like their hard earned money was going to go towards something that they’d be able to see in a few weeks time and be proud to be a part of. 

Here at Into The Script, we always mention the importance of branding and marketing oneself as a filmmaker. Together, you’ve created Fina L’eau films, which boasts several of your feature scripts, TV pilots, short films, and web series. 

As a team, what is the importance of starting your own production company, and documenting your work on a professional website?

MM: When I was in college, I went to the Cannes Film Festival for an internship and that really taught me how important marketing your work can be. 

When people meet you or hear about your film, or even watch your film, you want to make sure that they are able to connect with you after the fact. So when we got to networking events, we want to make sure that we have business cards ready that also point people to a website that shows our complete body of work. 

We also find it’s helpful to have a website because there’s already so much pressure to talk to people when you have them for a short period of time. Rather than telling them everything you’ve ever done, you’re able to actually connect with them and then if they want to learn more about you, it’s all there for them to read. 

JV: Yes agreed, and networking is hard enough as it is. It makes it a lot easier to talk to people when you have something to back it up. We also always talk about networking vs actually getting the work done. 

We’ve had experiences with other writers at mixers who tell us they’re writers and then when we offer to read some of their stuff, they either say they don’t have anything ready or they just never follow up. 

We’re both big believers in having something ready to go when you’re out networking, that way when people ask you what you have, you not only have an answer, but send it to them the next day. I’d say it’s definitely a waste of time to network without having something to show people. 

MM: Exactly. When we’re at a mixer and we have a great conversation with someone, we want them to walk away with something about us that piques their interest so later on, they look us up and they see all the work we’ve put in. I think that goes a long way for people. 

The most interesting thing about the whole trajectory is that you’ve both experimented with many areas in the filmmaking industry, from set work to writing to directing, and you have often worked on them concurrently. 

Could you please elaborate on the importance of getting to know different fields, and how it may help novice and experienced filmmakers to find their real passion?

MM: First and foremost, no matter what your position is, filmmaking is a collaborative medium. None of us can do this by ourselves, and when you get a cast and crew together, everyone has honed their specific craft, learning specific skills that make them a valuable member of the team. 

However, if you’re able to learn the basics, either by taking a class or reading a book or, if you’re lucky, shadowing someone on set, you can learn the basics of everyone’s job. That will help you understand what their role is and the specific pressures they’re under and you can actually ask questions that are realistic and clear. 

Understanding the basics makes you a better teammate, collaborator and leader. 

JV: I also think that helps gain respect, when someone can recognize that you’ve tried at least to understand what they do. And I will say, watching Melissa direct was pretty incredible. 

We’ve made 2 short films together, vastly different, but she was such an incredible leader and collaborator, and I think a lot of that is a testament to what she’s learned and experienced working as a PA and as an assistant. 

She also knows what she wants and was able to communicate that with her crew. There was a scene in MIA that we were planning to shoot later in the day, but we were losing the light. Melissa didn’t panic, she knew the right questions to ask each crew member, and we got it done. 

MM: I think it’s also helped with our current jobs that we have. Jen is a script coordinator and I’m working for a very busy showrunner. Our experience in TV writers’ rooms has made us better writers, but also gives us a real look into the very beginning of the process. We also get to be on prep calls, hearing the questions that department heads are asking, as well as in post where we see how that process works. 

All of those things have benefited us as filmmakers. 

JV: Since we’ve been on so many professional sets, we really try hard to maintain a level of professionalism on our own sets. We’ve witnessed first hand that leadership sets the tone on a set, and no matter how low budget our sets are, we know how important it is to set the tone we want and to treat our cast and crew with the same respect that we would with a huge budget. 

Again, collaboration is so important and that all starts with respecting each other and what each other’s strengths are. That’s how we’ve worked so well together over the years.
Laila Resende is a 20-year-old freelance copywriter and a Feature Writer and Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. Her insatiable passion for movies and blogging is perfect for her role as Feature Writer & Social Media Assistant at Into The Script. 

Laila shares all of Into The Script's news on her Instagram page (@lailarsnde) and Facebook.

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