Drake SJMC grads have launched successful careers behind the scenes in Tinseltown.
Drake acting majors aren’t the only Bulldogs creating careers in Tinseltown. Successful screen writer John August, a 1992 School of Journalism and Mass Communication grad and current Drake trustee, went on to pen several films featuring stars from Cameron Diaz to Johnny Depp. Several other recent SJMC alumni have also made the leap from Des Moines to Los Angeles and earned spots in small-screen credits for shows such as “LOST” and “SCRUBS,” and with The Oprah Winfrey Network and MTV.
August and others prove heading for Hollywood might be more practical than it sounds. They offer their advice for current and prospective Drake students looking to land a dream career:
“I packed up the U-Haul and moved cross-country without a job but full of optimism,” says Kelly Nass, JO’99. “It took me about two months,” she adds, “but I got hired as a production assistant on “7th Heaven” and worked my way up to assistant coordinator and then production coordinator for “SCRUBS.”
Nass got her first taste of working in television as an intern with “The Jenny Jones Show” in 1997 while she was a student at Drake. The experience convinced her to shift her career focus away from becoming a talk show host, but it definitely didn’t turn her off to TV. At “Jenny Jones,” Nass learned how shows are produced — knowledge that laid the groundwork for her current job as production coordinator for the ABC medical drama “Off the Map.”
After graduation, Nass joined KCCI, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines, as a tape editor. She worked there for a year, but a quick visit to L.A. inspired her to move to California.
“I had a dream, and I didn’t let anyone talk me out of it,” Nass says. “I told myself it was going to happen, and I kept working hard and applying for jobs and making connections and didn’t give up.”
She found she could apply her broadcast news skills to television and after “7th Heaven” and “SCRUBS,” Nass worked on the crew of “LOST,” which starred fellow Drake graduate Michael Emerson. On “Off the Map,” she serves as the glue that keeps the show’s departments working in sync.
“I literally coordinate with all the departments so we can accomplish our goal to get through a day of shooting and move on to the next,” Nass says.
Treyva Estler, JO’02, another alumna who has found success in L.A., took a similar risk when she moved there in search of a creative career.
Estler built her network from scratch, proving her work ethic along the way. (She spent one six-month period working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on “The Secret Life Of…” for The Food Network and then from 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. editing “The Dog Whisperer.”)
Estler says working as a TV editor is a career path she never expected when she was a student at Drake, pushing for a documentary concentration. Nevertheless, her experience in the TV/radio program at Drake — particularly Professor John Lytle’s public classroom critiques — helped toughen Estler up enough to accept Hollywood criticism. Each episode Estler edits working on MTV’s “I Used to be Fat” is judged in a grueling two-week screening process.
“My creative work is on display for my executives to review, pull apart and judge, while I am in the room to note the necessary changes,” Estler says. “At one time, I was terrified of a classroom of maybe 15 peers watching my assignment. Now, once aired, my work is judged by millions of weekly viewers who tweet, visit chat rooms and post, without any hesitation, exactly how they think or feel about every show. Thank you, Professor Lytle, for preparing me for this very real-world experience!”
Successful screenwriter and film director John August JO’92 confirms that a “pack up and go” attitude is the first step to creating a career in Hollywood. Before writing blockbusters such as “Charlie’s Angels” and “Big Fish,” he also made the journey from Iowa to Los Angeles with not much more than “a rusted Honda and a housing assignment.”
August says that Drake journalism and mass communication students can be confident that they’re learning the kind of skills that translate to screenwriting. Writing a scene, he says, is similar to writing copy for a 30-second spot in the advertising track.
“Drake’s journalism and mass communication program teaches you how to use words and images to tell a story to a mass audience,” he says.” “Those are the fundamental skills of television and movies. So while Drake doesn’t have a major in screenwriting or film production, it gives you a solid background in the tools you’ll use.”
August advocates spending summers in a city where people are doing what you want to do — not only to connect with successful professionals, but to network with motivated peers.
“Mentors are much less important than finding a pack of fellow aspirants,” he says. “Never wait for something to begin. Always be starting your next project.”
Note: August regularly answers questions and posts advice for aspiring screenwriters on his website, http://johnaugust.com.