Life After Vandy-in-Hollywood
An aspiring screenwriter gets his first job in movies
By Charlie Kesslering, BA’11
If I’ve learned one thing since landing my first job in Hollywood, it’s that it’s nearly impossible to get a dinner reservation at the Hotel Bel Air.
But we’ll get to that. Last July, months before four-course meals ever crossed my mind, I was unemployed and consumed by another impossible task—breaking into the movie business. An internship under my belt and a dream in my back pocket, I had left Nashville for sunny Los Angeles and was in the market for my first paid gig, likely as an assistant in one corner of the industry or another. I had bought enough ramen noodles to stock a respectable bomb shelter and settled into a studio apartment that, on different day, might have ignited a bidding war between Stuart Little and The Borrowers. God bless my mom and dad; while most parents would have been looking for an exorcist, they fronted rent.
“Blame Vanderbilt,” I told them, only half-joking. After all, it was the tightknit network of Commodores in this seaside wonderland—a group that has branded itself Vandy-in-Hollywood—that had enabled my seamless transition from economics and political science double major to starving artist. The previous summer, these powers that be had plucked me and 20 or so other undergrads from obscurity and placed us in internships reserved specifically for Vanderbilt students each year. Mine was at Double Feature Films working for the producers behind such favorites as Garden State, Erin Brockovich and Pulp Fiction. To give some perspective on just how lucky we were, internships in this business are completely unpaid because they are so highly sought after.
The curtain had been pulled back. For an entire summer, between coffee runs and photocopies, I got to watch the wizards of Hollywood conjure movie magic. At the time, they were gearing up for production on Contagion; given that and other projects, I had the pleasure of witnessing every step from script to screen. What had started for me two semesters prior as an elective screenwriting class had quickly become a full-blown career path in an industry that without Vandy-in-Hollywood would still be as fictional to me as the blockbusters it puts out. I was spellbound.
So, after graduation, I let my dreams carry me back to the Promised Land. Three months of unemployment, countless interviews and hundreds of self-deprecating tweets later, my internship—and my parents’ patience—paid off. One fateful September day, my boss from the previous summer, a Vandy alum himself, called me and said, “I know someone looking for an assistant. … How do you feel about talent management?” How did I feel? I felt like the little girl who actually received a pony for Christmas. I felt deliverance.
Now, that was six months ago. Sadly, the glamour has worn off. You can only feel star-struck for so long (trust me). In fact, anyone that actually describes entertainment as “glamorous” is not, and has never been, an assistant. After nearly half a year at the ground floor of a talent management firm that represents numerous A-listers, I’m still immensely thankful for the job. I would hardly describe what I do as glitzy—partly because it’s not, and partly because I wouldn’t be caught dead saying that word out loud. There’s a phrase that people always seem to equate with working in the entertainment industry—“swimming with sharks.” I don’t find that analogy entirely accurate. To me, it’s more like swimming with vampire sharks while wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress.
Don’t believe me? Try going 12 rounds with the hostess at The Polo Lounge. Have a tangle with the maître d’ at The Ivy. Pull yourself off the ropes after having the words “we’re fully booked until 10:30” smacked against your eardrum day after day. Try telling your boss—who has managed to make a queen out of herself and kings out of others—that she’ll have to take her dinner plans elsewhere, because you, a Vanderbilt graduate that forsook lucrative opportunities in investment banking in favor of answering the phone, couldn’t make a dinner reservation.
Simply not an option. So you beg, borrow and steal. “Let me speak to your manager” becomes your catch phrase, name dropping an extreme sport. During an after-hours trip to McDonalds, you have to catch yourself before spouting off the monikers of famous actors and directors. (“You mean I can just have the quiet, secluded booth by the Play Zone?”) You’ll soon search Google for “online carpentry lessons,” hoping that, next time, the girl at Matsuhisa will accept your offer to build her a table for four.
And that’s just dinner—I haven’t even mentioned the tasks that come before and after the day’s other two meals (most of which, in the grand scheme, are much more critical than a good seat for supper). Drafting letters to high-power producers, connecting calls to studio heads, reading scripts and deciding whether to give your (surprisingly influential) seal of approval, booking travel for some clients and securing auditions for others. Oh, and FedEx-ing a birthday gift overnight to London when there’s no such thing as FedEx-ing internationally overnight. That was fun.
So what’s the point? Why do I and so many other well-educated youngsters put ourselves through this menial torture?
A couple weeks before graduation, as I enjoyed some of those last moments on my fraternity’s front lawn, a freshman brother posed a similar, but more pretentious, question. “Why entertainment?” he asked. “Your roommate is doing Teach for America. So-and-so is going to medical school. They’re actually putting their degrees to use and helping people. Don’t you feel like chasing money in Hollywood is kind of insignificant?”
“You’re wrong,” I told him, unfazed by his swipe at my chosen path. “Movies and TV are a form of medicine. For millions, they’re a necessary escape from the economic recession or the simple monotony of their daily lives.”
Needless to say, I had spent one too many hours in the sun. A truthful answer would have begun something like, “One night, after a few episodes of Entourage…” and ended with some anecdotes about my awesome internship the summer before. In all honesty, I came out here to chase an ultimate dream. We all did, I think. Maybe I’m not using my prestigious degree in a way Cornelius Vanderbilt envisioned when he endowed our great university. But don’t be so sure—he never had the pleasure of watching a motion picture.
I’m paying my dues, as steep as they may be, because I want this more than anything. I want to write a movie people pay money to see. I want to write dialogue that makes you laugh so hard you fall out of your seat and hurt yourself. In my pipiest of pipe dreams, people know my name as the one that follows “Created By” in the credits of their favorite sitcom. And at the Emmys, I give a hilarious yet touching acceptance speech in which I thank the good people of Vandy-in-Hollywood for crushing my parents’ hopes for my life, but making my own possible.
I fantasize about Vanderbilt film students, years from now, peering over their horn-rimmed glasses and muttering, “Boy, that Charlie Kesslering wrote some classics. Too bad about that amphibious car accident.” And then they make a movie about my brief but wonderful time here—dinner reservations included.