Assisting A Famous Screenwriter is A Lot Like Being a Butler

Refinery29’s Assistant Living asks assistants to talk about themselves for once — offering truthful, no-frills insight into the time before fame and fortune. What’s it like working next to the dream job? They talk, we listen.

For our fifth installment, we sit down with K, 30, assistant to a famed New York City screenwriter, to talk about the spotlight — growing up around it, nurturing the egos of those inside of it, and fulfilling unusually outrageous requests (i.e., recreating the life of 1930s Rome in objects — all in less than an hour.) Oh, and to get the gig? This assistant had to make sure he had approval from his boss-to-be’s pet dog.


Any memories of your initial interview?

“Yes. G was very anxious about why I wanted the job. He told me I was too old — he was very honest about why and how he usually took on younger people — and that actually ended up ultimately being a bit of a problem. He was worried I was overqualified. And I told him that I thought that was true, but that I really wanted a solid job and that I knew I’d be good at it and that he should let me do it for a little while. And I stayed for a year — not a day more.”

Did he explain why he gravitated towards younger assistants?


“I think he wanted someone young and impressionable — someone wide-eyed and naive. Someone he could mentor and nurture. I was not that. I was doing my job and I was doing it really well, but I was not fulfilling that particular need of his.”

Was it a typical 9-to-5?

“No. But unlike a lot of people of that caliber, G was very clear in my interview that this would be as close to a 9-to-5 as he could swing. Occasionally, he would need me to work hours outside of that, but I was getting paid — and it was always overtime. He was very fair in that way. He made it clear that I wasn’t signing over my whole life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that at 6 p.m. you stop worrying about someone else.”

Did your first impression of him shift as time passed?


“No — I felt just as uncomfortable on my first day as I did on my last. When he said he needed me to be inside his head, he meant it — and I came to realize that it was a sort of scary head to be inside of. I had a work phone and every time I got a text, I’d have a panic attack — I was so concerned, because he was so pedantic about how everything was done, so even if I knew I’d done everything right, I was always worried.”

I had a work phone and every time I got a text, I’d have a panic attack — I was so concerned, because he was so pedantic about how everything was done, so even if I knew I’d done everything right, I was always worried.

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Was he neurotic?

“That’s an understatement. His whole thing is procrastination and he’s very open about that. And he’s obsessive about everything — partly because he’d just had a really bad experience with an assistant, so he wanted me to anticipate, to see the problem before it arises. But ironically, as soon as you brought something up to him that was coming up on the horizon — and he had a LOT of deadlines, he’s known in the industry to take 5-to-10 years to finish a project — he’d brush you off.”

Were you afraid of him?


“Yeah. He was never wholly satisfied with my performance as assistant. And I think that goes back to his inclination that I felt beyond the role. I wasn’t impressionable enough, I didn’t boost his ego enough. I think a part of his feeling good is having a person to slightly nurture — I grew up in this industry, I’m fully jaded at this point — I just was not interested. I was interested in a paycheck and doing my job well. He wanted an apprentice. I wasn’t that!”

Did you have to sign an NDA before taking the job?

“No. There was just a mutual agreement that I would exercise discretion — that I guess I’m sort of throwing out the window currently — kidding. No, but my discretion was really meant to go toward the projects that he was working on during my tenure.”

What was your salary?

“It started at $48,000 and went up to $55k after six months. Plus health care. It was agreed upon at the start. I was pretty excited about the health care, because a lot of assistant jobs these days don’t come with benefits and full salary. G was really good about that kind of thing.”

Most outrageous request?


“He was going to a wedding and I had already arranged his gift to the couple: A week in Rome, flights, hotels, spending money, everything — a pretty amazing gift to begin with. But it wasn’t enough apparently, because at 11 a.m. on the morning of the wedding, G calls me. He was leaving in an hour to drive upstate, but said he needed a few extra items and that he would text me the list: A red balloon tied with white yarn, two pairs of matching gladiator sandals (made in Italy, which is actually a very difficult ask), a wheel of Parmesan cheese, a very specific and expensive bottle of Barolo, a pack of Parodis, which, by the way, is a practically defunct brand of Italian cigars, a classic glass ashtray, and an old copy of The Aeneid. Oh, and all of this wrapped in a presentable way.

The list: A red balloon tied with white yarn, two pairs of matching gladiator sandals (made in Italy, which is actually a very difficult ask), a wheel of parmesan cheese, a very specific and expensive bottle of Barolo, a pack of Parodis, which, by the way, is a practically defunct brand of Italian cigars, a classic glass ashtray, and an old copy of 'The Aeneid'.


"I was on my way to get the helium balloon, one of the last remaining items, when I got a call from him. He told me to abort mission. Apparently, his wife told him he was being over the top. He told me to keep all the stuff. So I went home, drank the bottle of Barolo and did my best to chain-smoke the Parodis.”

What was the workspace like?


“He has this big beautiful office in Tribeca — and it was a strange part of the job, being in that space. I was always there alone, for one. Which was weird and isolating. And I never felt totally comfortable — it lacked the comfort of home. And it was confusing when he wanted me there versus when he didn’t. Like when he was there writing, he’d need me to leave, because he needed to be alone. But then when there would script meetings there, he liked having me around, which made doing my job difficult, because it was distracting! Plus, I always felt like I was on the outskirts (the office was one large room) looking in.

"One of the weird things about the job was how little time I’d spend in a room with him. Apart from the script meetings, I was very rarely with him. It was all over the phone. I never saw him write.”

Were you involved in his personal life?


“You had to know and be liked by his dog. The dog liked me — I actually really liked the dog. Nice dog. And his wife had to approve — you dealt with her a bit. I mean, I had keys to the apartment, so I was involved in their space. In terms of personal tasks, there was no coffee-fetching or laundry-getting.”

You had to know and be liked by his dog.

Perks?

“He was constantly booking theater tickets and changing his mind — so I would often get tickets to things. And during the summer (unless he had an active project), G would go to Martha’s Vineyard to relax and disconnect. The one thing he’d ask of me was to forward him his mail once a week. So I was getting paid a full salary, plus health care, to do very little.

"This is a sort of depressing admission, but one of my favorite parts of the job was booking travel. It’s kind of sad — but I would embark upon these fantasy holidays. There was a clear objective, you know — booking a trip to Mongolia, finding lodging, booking yurts, etc. A dream!

"Also, at first, I thought that having my own office would be a perk, but it just became too isolating. I imagined that I’d be able to do my own screenwriting work there — it’s this cavernous, bright beautiful room filled with books, plants, and coffee in Manhattan, the perfect backdrop to producing your best work — but as soon as the phone rang, I’d take a full dive back into my panic attack.”

You said you grew up in this industry
how did that affect the way that you see celebrity?

“I think the reason that I’ve been hired and hired again has to do with with the fact that the notion of celebrity doesn’t totally faze me. I’m used to it and the circus that surrounds it. When I was 12, I went on tour with my dad (he’s a musician). It was the first time I’d ever been alone with him for an extended period of time. And I remember before I left, my mom told me to make sure to look after my dad. Take care of him, essentially. I remember making him peanut butter sandwiches — always making sure he had eaten.
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I think the reason that I’ve been hired and hired again has to do with with the fact that the notion of celebrity doesn’t totally faze me.

"Come to think of it, actually, on some deeper psychological level, I might have some issues with servitude? Ha. This resentment that’s become sort of ingrained — like, why am I making you a sandwich? Why aren’t you making it for me?”

Did you want his job?

“I was really surprised by how little work, as I understood work, seemed to get done. I mean in terms of writing, maybe I just didn’t see it. When you’re at that level of celebrity, the scale of the projects you do is so large. And with that, comes all of these bureaucratic headaches — big Hollywood films with a lot of money behind them need the right people attached to it. And in order to get the right people, you need to sacrifice certain elements, spend hours on the phone, work with so many tiers of management and producers. Anyway, the producing becomes very unromantic. It made me feel like I’d like to work in a realm that’s a lot less commercial.”

What’s your dream job?

“To be the artistic director of the Avignon Festival.”

What was your departure like?

“So about nine months in, I got an offer for a job in L.A. It was an opportunity I could not pass up. I had two weeks to tell him, but every day there seemed to be some cosmic flare-up that got in my way of telling him. There was a press nightmare we were dealing with, something was wrong with his apartment, he was having a really rough week. Next thing I knew, I’d run out of time. That’s when I made one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made.

"When I got home, I sent him an email. Oh, the regret. I told him that something had come up, and that I wanted to talk to him about it. And oh, boy. I got this epic stream of text messages. The most vitriolic messages I’ve ever received. Nothing like, 'Fuck you.' Like way worse. If you read his most famous script, every single character is brilliant at arguing — and you realize it’s because they’re all him. He’s fantastic in a fight — he just destroyed my character. He wanted to take me down. And he did.”

I got this epic stream of text messages. The most vitriolic messages I’ve ever received. Nothing like, 'Fuck you.' Like way worse.


How is your relationship now?

“He asked to hug at the end of our chat in the office that day. And I continued working for him for a week afterwards. He felt so guilty about the explosion afterward — he ended up paying me up until I left and I had paid three weeks off. So that was nice!”

Final takeaway?

“Towards the end of my time with him, I was given the task of proofing a new edition of his most famous script. It was just pure joy. The play is just genius. I remember reading it and thinking, This is it. And whatever it takes to get to this point, to be able to produce something like this is worth it. It’s such a brave play and so unlike anything I’ve ever read.”
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