By Jeane Wong
Pang-Ni Landrum is a writer on Nickelodeon’s The Troop. Previously, she was a writer for Six Degrees and Malcolm in the Middle. She has also served as the Former Co-Chair of the WGA, Asian American Writers Committee. As a mentor, Pang-Ni has provided me with a lot of gems of wisdom over the years and here is some.
JEANE WONG: How did you get your first gig?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I don’t know if it still exists, but at the time, Warner Brothers had a Production Assistants Program. I accidentally discovered it through cold calling production companies on the lot. This woman – let’s call her Chatty Cathy – excitedly told me all about it, who to contact at Human Resources and how to apply. If the HR person thought you were a fit, your name was put into a pool with other applicants. Then, when a Warner Brothers show needed a P.A., they would set up interviews with people in this pool. Luckily, I got accepted into this group, but by then had already secured a receptionist gig elsewhere. Before I could call to tell Warner Bros. to withdraw my name from the program, one of their series had left me a message to come in for an interview. Since I hadn’t officially started my other job, I met with the show and by the end of the day I had my first paying gig in Hollywood: being a production assistant on Friends. Oh, and it turns out, I was replacing their previous P.A. – none other than Chatty Cathy – because she talked too much on the phone.
JEANE WONG: How did you get promoted from PA to Writers’ Assistant?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I was fortunate that the executive producers/creators of the show first looked to promote from within. If they were interested, all the P.A.s had an opportunity to interview for two positions for the following season; one being writers’ assistant. I must’ve done well in the interview because I got the job. It also didn’t hurt that prior to this, when the writers’ room needed someone to fill in for the writers’ assistant for an hour, I volunteered and had the typing skills needed to keep up.
JEANE WONG: What things did you do as a Writers’ Assistant?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: The job is a lot harder than people realize. I’d say it’s one-part similar to being a courtroom stenographer, one-part office manager and one-part business affairs. Oh, and of course, one-part student. For anyone thinking being a writers’ assistant is their way to get a job writing, if you can’t type quickly, don’t even bother applying. Seriously. Go about it a different way. To be good at this job, there has to be a part of you that’s very anal. You not only need to type down what’s being said in the room (and some people speak very, very quickly), but you also have to be on top of and are responsible for putting out drafts and revisions of scripts, as well as sending in deal memos so writers get paid. I’m sure there are other aspects of the job I’m forgetting, but those are the main ones. Now if being a writers’ assistant still sounds like it’s right up your alley, then I can’t think of a better job to prep you for being on staff. Being in the writers’ room is education you can’t buy. It’s like graduate school for writing.
JEANE WONG: How did you get your first staffed job?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: While I was a Writers’ Assistant, my former writing partner and I applied to the Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop. It was a tough time because when we got into the workshop, my mom had terminal cancer and I was flying back and forth to Texas every few weeks. I felt bad for my partner because she essentially had to go through the workshop alone. But it all worked out. Because of our participation in the program, we not only got interest from agents (and eventual representation) but also our first writing staff gig: the short-lived The Brian Benben Show.
JEANE WONG: What questions are asked of you when interviewing for a writing position?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: It depends on the show runner and what she/he is looking for. Sometimes it’s a lot of small talk to see if you’ll fit in the room dynamic, or it could be show/series specific. Keep in mind that the show runner has to have liked your writing enough for you to even get to this stage, so make sure your scripts are solid. They’re your resume.
JEANE WONG: How do you dress for an interview like that?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Definitely casual. Nice shirt and nice jeans. Don’t do the suit, unless that’s you. But if it’s not, it will look like you’re trying too hard.
JEANE WONG: Back to the interview process, what kind of follow up do you do?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I need to improve on this myself, but when I do, it’s an email. Short and sweet.
JEANE WONG: How did you meet your writing partner? Later, when you went solo in your writing career, what did that feel like?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: We met in college and wrote together for almost six years. As for writing alone, I have to admit, in the beginning, I was terrified. One of the benefits of having a partner is being able to bounce ideas off one another. Suddenly, it was just me. Well, me and my dog, but let’s face it, she was going to think everything I did was brilliant as long as she got a treat. So I sucked it up, and did what all writers advise you to do: Write. I even did the “write what you know” thing and jotted down the recent saga of my parents passing (they died less than three weeks apart, I know, brilliant timing.) Thankfully, a friend read my sad attempt at writing this one-woman show and said, “You idiot. You should make these essays.” So I did. Which led to two pilot script deals and the confidence that I could do this on my own.
JEANE WONG: What’s your writing process?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Rough idea, beat sheet, outline, then script.
JEANE WONG: Generally speaking, what can you control in this business?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: What’s on the page. Before getting hired or having anything bought, the main thing you can control is what you write. Then, if you’re staffed on a show, it’s your behavior in the room. Realize that most writers are insecure and it’s normal to worry about how you’re doing, but when you get in a room, it’s about putting on a show. Not about you and your insecurities. If you’re on a show and it’s not one you’ve created, then your job is to make the show runner’s life easier – to get his/her vision onto the screen.
JEANE WONG: What was the notes process for you like in the room?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Know that you will be rewritten and if you’re not able to handle that, you shouldn’t write for television. Everyone gets notes. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t disagree. Just make sure they’re the ones you really want to go to the mat for and you better have sound reasons to back you up. Sometimes the writer in charge of the rewrite will agree with you, oftentimes, not. And that’s okay. You have to be smart with your battles. While it’s good to know when to fight for something, it’s even better to know when to let go.
JEANE WONG: How did you transition from a comedy writer to a drama writer while working on the show SIX DEGREES?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Writing a one-hour spec helped tremendously in my case. If you’re looking to make the transition, then you have to have a sample that shows you can pull off a longer narrative. I think it also helped that Six Degrees had a writers’ room. Some dramas don’t. So for me, the jump from comedy to drama wasn’t that jarring. Aside from meeting some pretty phenomenal writers, the best part about working on Six Degrees was getting the chance to live in New York. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
JEANE WONG: As a young writer can I learn as much on a successful show as an unsuccessful show?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Absolutely. Use your first years to absorb anything and everything you can – especially, if you want to run your own show one day. If a show runs well, ask yourself why? If a show seems to be going off the rails, again, why? Being aware of what works and what doesn’t will come in handy when it’s your turn to take the helm.
JEANE WONG: Did you have any mentors?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I don’t think they knew it at the time, but I’d have to say David Crane and Marta Kauffman at Friends and Linwood Boomer at Malcolm in the Middle.
JEANE WONG: And the answer everyone wants to know, getting jobs?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: I know some of my writer friends feel it’s up to you to get you’re your own job, but I feel it’s a mix of both. While I know I’ve gotten gigs through recommendations from friends or friends of friends, I’ve also gotten many assignments through my reps. I say use whatever and all resources you can.
JEANE WONG: Do you have any thoughts on the economy and if it has affected the room?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: Word around town is that this year was the worst staffing season. But people have been saying that for years. I do know that writing staffs are smaller and many friends, including myself, have been affected.
JEANE WONG: For EPs or lower level writers?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: For everyone. My friends and I joke that whatever level you are, is exactly the level no one’s looking for. At least that what it feels like. Every show is different with different needs. Some will be top heavy with few staff writers or vice versa. Just know that if you’re on a show, consider yourself to be one of the lucky ones.
JEANE WONG: After being in the business for so long, how do you stay positive especially with everyone saying how dismal the TV industry is?
PANG-NI LANDRUM: As cheesy as it sounds, I believe things will work out. The beauty of being writers (versus actors or directors) is that at the end of the day, all we need are a pen, paper and our ideas. We don’t have to rely on others to show our abilities. We just have to rely on ourselves. Ourselves and the page. And if it turns out no one likes an idea, no problem, you’ll have another one. And another, and another. Does it hurt getting rejected? Of, course. But this is Hollywood, people get rejected every second. So take a moment, go lick your wounds, then come back with an even better idea or an even more amazing script. I heard a writer say this at a seminar and I firmly believe it’s true: “No matter what, talent will win out.” So keep writing. Don’t listen to or get caught up on how so and so successful writer just landed a seven figure deal. Focus on your work. Because one day that seven figure deal writer will be you. You just have to believe in yourself (told you it was cheesy).