What’s the Best Way to Find a Mentor in Hollywood During Lockdown?

Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Freeform

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

Hi Priyanka! Like others, I’ve been reassessing my nascent writing career and next steps during social isolation. I’ve been feeling a bit stuck and aimless lately, so I thought it would be a good time to look for a mentor in the industry. I thought of someone (who I don’t really know) who could I look up to, who could provide guidance and words of encouragement. I heard that if you want someone to be your mentor, it’s best to be very direct and ask. But I feel a bit uncomfortable about it. What are your thoughts? —Monika P., Los Angeles

I’m so glad you asked this question! I’ve gotten a record number of random emails asking to “pick my brain” in the last few months, and I think people are being misinformed! First of all, of course you’re looking for guidance. I completely understand your desire for a person with any influence to make things easier for you right now. But cold-emailing strangers (and near-strangers!) for career help is not the way, in my opinion.

In this environment, when so much work is being done online and in-boxes are fuller than ever, it’s a lot to expect a showrunner type — who is probably navigating a bizarre professional schedule, kids, the pandemic, and an overdue revolution — to respond to an email asking to pick their brains. They don’t have the time or bandwidth to shepherd your career one-on-one. I promise it’s not personal. On top of that, asking someone to mentor you, when they are already spinning nine plates at once, comes across as a ton of work.

I know you don’t want to hear this, but you can’t rely on some mythical person out there to notice your writing, lift you out of the crowd, and make your entire career. While everyone has their own winding paths to professional writing, the steps are still most often to build a body of work, get that first real job, and from that job seek support from higher-ups who can help promote your work, both within your work space and externally to the industry at large. I wouldn’t call casting about for a mentor right now in your journey misguided exactly, but it’s not the first step.

So back to the actual first step: your body of work and the way you share it. For every writer who seems to get a job off of the right tweet, there are many more who wrote great scripts, made real connections, and ultimately interviewed their way into a good job. Legwork is easier to control than luck. So, how do you move your career forward right now? The slim silver lining of this ordeal is that everyone is trapped at home, including the showrunners you want to work for, and they’re spending record amounts of time on the internet.

If you want some guidance and support, start by strengthening your lateral network. These are the people who are in the exact same spot as you, as well as one or two steps just ahead: writers’ assistants, PAs, just-hired staff writers, or even other smart people just fumbling through their first pilot scripts. Think about all of the shows that you love, and follow all of the writers on Twitter. Not just with the hope of making a connection, but also for opportunities; it’s often the lower-level writers or assistants sharing job openings, information, or events for aspiring writers online. Showrunners aren’t the only people who make great mentors! Some of the most helpful people in this business are those who have just gotten a foot in the door and are holding it open for you as well.

Also, in my experience, mentors are willing to slide into place and help you up when you start to prove yourself useful to their business. I haven’t personally heard of a mentor-mentee relationship that didn’t start in a common workplace, after a period of mutual admiration. Of course, once you do have that first job, you will hopefully be able to identify the higher-ups at work who you respect and whose careers you want. Make yourself useful, telegraphing not “HELP ME!” but “How can I help you do your job?” The more you can anticipate the work needs of the people you want to be, the more indispensable you can make yourself to their work. If they’re good people (important — aim for people who are fundamentally decent human beings), you will get the help you need.

While you’re making connections online, please be very aware of your tone. I had coffee with showrunner Glen Mazzara in March, pre-lockdown, to talk about what aspiring writers can do in the absence of big agencies to get their work out into the world. The overarching theme of his advice was “Your online presence right now is a job interview.” He noted specifically that women will often chime in on Twitter discussions with helpful or supportive information, while men often challenge or “neg” him in the hopes of getting his attention. “Nobody ever got a job interview by insulting the person doing the hiring,” he pointed out, “so why would you do it online?” If you desperately want to work at McDonald’s, but your whole feed is about how much you hate Happy Meals, it conveys not only a disdain for the enterprise, but also a startling lack of common sense. This doesn’t mean you have to suck up! Stay positive, chime in where you can be useful, and you should end up with a rapport with a writer, any working writer at any level, who can share your work.

As for your work, take this time to make sure it’s tight. Glen pointed out that out of the hundreds of samples he reads, he can count on one hand the ones that seem to have a personal connection to the writer. Everyone should be writing the stories they feel compelled to tell, not the stories they think an imaginary showrunner wants to read. In addition to the scripts, he said, consider a short film, podcast, or anything with a beginning, middle, and end that conveys your understanding of how to tell a full story. That story doesn’t have to take place in the Winterfell of your mind. In sum, write to connect, don’t write to the market. You will feel more motivated, and the work will be better.

However, that’s easier said than done. If you’re finding it as hard as I am to write right now because nothing seems important compared to our current sociopolitical backdrop, I’ll double down on the advice I gave during my “Follow Friday” interview: Anything you’re writing, no matter how frothy or silly, hopefully bubbled up as an idea because there’s a real feeling behind it. If you can dig deeper into your idea and think about the feeling that inspired it (heartbreak? loss of any other kind? despair? confusion?), if you can identify the compulsion — I call it “the hole in your soul” — and work that feeling and the emotional journey, you can connect with a reader even if your script is 45 percent fart jokes.

Okay. So now you’re shoring up your lateral network, scrubbing and reworking your online presence, polishing your scripts, and making that short film or podcast. All of these steps will get you closer to being able to have a conversation with the manager/producer/showrunner of your dreams. But if you really want to talk to a high-level writer today who can provide quality guidance, I’ve also just been alerted to the Sidetime accounts of lovely humans and super-talented veteran writers David Iserson and Susanna Fogel (who also directs!). They charge by the minute, and all proceeds go to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Ghetto Film School, respectively. Thirty dollars will buy you some great advice from people who have been writing a heck of a lot longer than me. Break a leg!

How Do I Find a Mentor in Hollywood During Lockdown?