By Nicole Torres AB '11
In the #HWire blog's "Where Are They Now?" series, we check in with Harvardwood program alums to find out what they've been up to and to showcase their accomplishments since participating with Harvardwood!
Ava Tramer AB '09 was a participant in the Harvardwood Writers Program - TV Modules, and her credits include TROPHY WIFE and ANGIE TRIBECA. Most recently, she developed her single-cam spec comedy MY FRIEND 50 at Fox with executive producers Will Packer (Truth Be Told, Uncle Buck) and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson (Power), and is currently staffed on an upcoming Netflix comedy.
Q. Can you tell us how you got started in writing? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do or was it something you gradually fell into?
A. When I was young, I was interested in historical costume design and the hotel industry, like most kids. Which was a good thing, because growing up in LA my parents discouraged me and my brother from careers in Hollywood. They’re extremely supportive of us, but they also knew how unstable and stressful it can be and wanted us to avoid that heartache.
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I didn’t have a job lined up. I got Greg Daniels’ email address from a family friend and wrote him the most embarrassing email ever explaining why I’d be the perfect intern on The Office, listing every random skill I had that might possibly come in handy. A highlight (and very desperate) sentence includes “I used to work at Angelina’s Frozen Yogurt, so if you need someone to serve you frozen yogurt in a beautifully swirled way, I’m your girl!” Miraculously it worked, and I spent my summer there as an intern with the writers. Everyone was so welcoming and I loved every single second of it. I returned the following summer as a PA in the production office.
But, I still had it in my head that a career in Hollywood was a bad idea, so after graduation I worked at Wallaby Yogurt Company in Napa as the junior manager of purchasing. I was responsible for ordering all the supplies, ranging from cups and fruit to the bacterial cultures that we kept in a -70 degree freezer. I learned a lot about business and manufacturing, but my favorite day out of the year I spent there was when I got to write the 80 words of copy on the side of our new sour cream container. That was a wake-up call for me: I loved writing, I missed the amazing people at The Office, and I knew it was time to finally take the leap towards a career writing in TV. (And besides, by that time my parents were fully on board, ‘cause they loved The Office.) I reached out to the people who had been kind to me at The Office, and soon I moved back to Los Angeles to work as a shared personal assistant to some of the writers.
Q. What was your first writing job?
Back in high school, I used to write weather reports for my local Santa Monica Mirror newspaper. I didn’t know the first thing about meteorology, so I relied exclusively on weather.com for my insights. The weather in Santa Monica was so boring – always mid 60s to mid 70s and partly sunny – that I tried to make the reports more interesting. I would write plays, haikus, pick themes – anything to make our weather less boring. I think the first script I ever wrote was a scene for Mr. Sun and Ms. Clouds.
Q. You were a participant in the Harvardwood Writers Program – TV modules, how did your involvement with Harvardwood help you in your writing career?
The Harvardwood Writers Program TV module helped me to stay on deadline and finish my first ever script. Without those deadlines I would probably not be a writer today, because I never would have felt like I could actually finish a script. And it was my first experience going through the stages of crafting a script, from conceptualizing a story, to expanding it into an outline, to writing a draft, and then revising and polishing it.
It also introduced me to a community of like-minded people, so that I didn’t feel alone in this pursuit. It was great knowing I could turn to my peers for advice or to commiserate. I’m still friends with some of the people from my module today!
Q. You’ve worked on some pretty amazing shows, what would you say was your first big “break”?
I would say my first big break was ABC’s Trophy Wife (RIP). Even though I was an assistant (script coordinator), the writing staff encouraged me to pitch jokes and contribute to story discussions in the room. I was even given an episode to write, which was an incredible experience. The showrunners treated me like any other writer and let me be the supervising writer on set (which became even more exciting when Bachelor host Chris Harrison stopped by for a cameo – and don’t worry, I made sure we had lots of red roses on set that day for photo ops).
Q. What would you say is something you’ve learned, or an experience you’ve had, from your work in television that has really stuck with you?
I remember walking into the writers room at The Office for the first time, on my second day as an intern, and being absolutely blown away by what I witnessed. I think it was the closest thing I’ve ever had to an epiphany. People are sitting around a table telling jokes and playing make believe with their friends, and it’s considered a real job?? I know TV writing can be a lot of work, but it still feels like the biggest scam in the world to me and I’m so lucky I get to do it.
Q. Congratulations on your pilot in development My Friend 50! How did that come together, from your initial inspiration to its ultimate development?
I’ve long been delusionally convinced that me and rappers would be the best of friends. They would add so much to my life, I would add so much to theirs – it’s just a match made in heaven. I initially planned to make a documentary of me trying to befriend one of my favorite rappers. But then I remembered I didn’t know how to make a documentary. So instead, I wrote a pilot imagining what it would be like if a character like me tried to befriend 50 Cent and join his entourage.
And lo and behold, my amazing agent worked magic and got 50 Cent and the wonderful Will Packer interested in the script, and before I knew it I was meeting 50 Cent in person to drop off the script at networks. (Though sadly I am still not in his entourage for some reason.) I had a great experience developing the script with UTV and FOX, but ultimately the show is more of a cable project so now we’re in the process of taking it to cable networks.
I think the bottom line is that 50 Cent should have better security, because I basically stalked him and got to live out a daydream by writing a script.
Q. What current or upcoming projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently writing on an as yet unannounced Netflix dramedy about a teenager with special needs. It’s gonna be a great show, so moving and funny, and I’m really excited to be a part of it. I’m also rewriting a movie for Sony Pictures Animation, which has been an amazing process. I don’t have much experience in animation, so it’s been incredible to sit in on meetings with the director and the art team and see everything come to life before my eyes. Plus, it’s given me a great excuse to rewatch all my favorite animated movies for “research.” (Actually, I said “rewatch my favorite animated movies” because I wanted you to think I was cool. Truth be told, I just watched The Lion King and Beauty and The Beast for the first time last week.)
Q. As an aspiring writer it can be difficult to just get started writing. One might have so many ideas or not know where to start. What advice do you have for tackling this roadblock?
I try several methods to get around this roadblock. I keep a note in my phone filled with random ideas – stories, characters, random lines of dialogue, articles that have intrigued me. If I don’t know what to write next, I take a look at this note and see if anything leaps out at me. If not, I try to examine my life and think about the things that are on my mind or that have always fascinated me. Because it’s not much fun to write something that doesn’t interest you. That’s how my 50 Cent project came about – befriending a rapper was something I’d dreamed about for a long time.
Once I pick an area I’m interested in for my next writing project, I sit down and try to write a list of 50 ideas about it (a trick I learned from Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky). The ideas can be anything that comes to mind, big or small: scenes, characters, lines of dialogue, etc. If it’s hard to come up with 50 ideas, then maybe this isn’t a project to pursue right now. But if the ideas are flowing and I have trouble stopping at 50, then it tells me this is going to be a fun project to work on. I also think forming a writers group can be a lot of fun, and very helpful as you’re trying to figure out what to write. I meet in a group with my boyfriend, best friend, and brother every now and then, and it’s been great for all of us to flesh out our ideas and get outside perspectives.
When it comes to the actual writing, the thing I’ve found most useful is advice from my parents (both writers themselves of various kinds). They taught me not to worry about the first draft, because you can always revise it. Just get something down, even if it’s horrible, and then you can go back and make it better. It takes the pressure off so I can get something down on the page. Even though sometimes I worry my computer will crash in protest because the first drafts can be so painful.
And if you ever feel discouraged, I recommend reading something you wrote a couple years ago. I think a lot of writing lessons are intangible and slowly absorbed, so I often don’t feel like I’m learning anything concrete. But when I go back and read my old writing, that’s when I really see how much I’ve learned and it’s a real confidence boost.
Q. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to writers who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
I worked my way up the ladder, from intern to personal assistant to writers assistant to script coordinator to writer, so I can speak to the assistant path. I think it goes without saying, but go above and beyond whenever possible. Spend that extra 20 minutes organizing your notes by episode, instead of having them just reflect the natural flow of conversation. Try to anticipate when someone will want a print out of something and have it all ready to go before they even ask. Be a dork and sharpen every pencil in the writers room. These might sound like silly things, but people usually note a job well done and they’ll want to help you out in your career.
All along the way, I tried to be present in the rooms I was in – it’s so easy to zone out or get distracted by the internet when you have a computer sitting right in front of you and you’re aching to know which Duggar sister just got engaged. Being present really helped me to absorb everything that was happening around me and I found myself internalizing intangible writing lessons. In rooms that didn’t encourage assistants to pitch, I would write down all the pitches I wanted to say, so that I was still exercising that muscle even though they were never said aloud. And I know it isn’t always possible, but try to find a boss who is sensitive to the plight of assistants and recognizes that you don’t want to be an assistant forever. This can make all the difference in a career.
Stay in touch with all the people you’ve liked working with. It’s great to have those friendships and relationships, and plus you never know when that connection might be useful for a future job opportunity. And above all, keep writing. You never know when your next script might be the one that changes your life.