Jessica on the way to becoming a rom-com queen

A love of rom-coms, film and TV is turning into a burgeoning screenwriting career for Jessica Marshall.

It was at Monash where Jessica realised she loved film, and she has since worked on multiple Australian TV productions.

Here is her profile…

Jessica Marshall.

Name: Jessica Marshall

Course: Bachelor of Arts (Honours)

Campus: Clayton

Year graduated: 2012

Current position: Screenwriter

What was it like breaking into the industry? Was it more ‘who you know’ than ‘what you know’?

Absolutely. You are told this constantly as an emerging writer so you have an expectation going forward, but the reality of it is much starker than you might allow yourself to believe in the beginning! Having said that you must be able to quickly prove yourself when opportunities present themselves. There is no use in being a great networker if you can’t immediately back yourself up with great work and a great attitude.

As for breaking into the industry, I don’t think it’s a matter of the one huge break from nobody to somebody that Hollywood likes to peddle. It’s a series of small breaks, opportunities and people that lead into other opportunities, and you must be tenacious and almost shameless in pursuing those to create momentum.

What is a ‘day in the life’ of your current role?

I am currently juggling life between development on my feature film with production company Sense and Centsability and work as a writer’s assistant and note-taker in TV writer’s rooms. I just finished up a fantastic stint on the second season of Channel 10’s The Wrong Girl. If I’m in a TV writer’s room, the days are very long but spent with other incredible writers talking and dreaming another world into reality. My job is to basically write down everyone’s ideas and thoughts during plotting sessions. I need to be across the series history and plot lines to be able to remind the writers of things we have done on previous series or even ideas that were floated and then tossed. At the end of each working day I then write up a working document that covers everything from the day into a legible and clear framework so we can move forward with the story. Some days I can write up documents that are over 20 pages long. I have to be able to juggle a lot of different threads and conversations to be able to produce a coherent document that is then used by everyone: writers, producers, network executives, etc. In a great room there is no ego amongst the writers which means, even though I am there as an assistant and not yet a credited episode writer I can contribute ideas and stories to the room and see those transform along with everyone else’s into making TV!

If I’m writing solo then I structure the day in segments and divide time between writing and things away from the computer/desk. Writing is not only actually writing, but also filling your brain and soul with other nourishing activities like reading, cinema trips, walks, yoga and drawing, so my days are varied. You have to keep your life full to be able to write. It’s kind of like filling your car with petrol. I’m currently writing a romantic comedy so I’m spending a lot of time revisiting the classic rom-coms of the ’90s and reading a lot of cultural memoirs and essays on current ideas and trends of marriage, singledom and relationships.

I also work a lot of odd jobs still to pay the rent. Work as a writer is transitory and cyclical so there can be long periods of unemployment/self employment. And writers aren’t paid particularly well at the best of times, so one must do what they need to survive when following your dream!

What was a key lesson you learnt at Monash that translated into your current work?

Monash was the place that I realised I loved film. I’m not sure that I had any idea before then beyond enjoying watching films on the weekend. I knew I was interested in people and their stories, and so I thought the best use of that interest was psychology and to be a psychologist.  I was pursuing psychology when on a whim decided to do a ‘fun’ subject in the film department and from that first cinema studies class I was absolutely hooked. I realised that the same thing that drew me to psychology – empathy – was the same thing that cinema traded in. The staff of the Film and TV department were absolutely crucial in cultivating my love of cinema and television, and introducing me into worlds of cinema and story telling I probably would never have sought out on my own. And more so than any other subject, film studies taught me the value of critical thinking. The rest, they say, is history.

If you could go back and do your degree again, is there anything you’d change? Subject choice? Time management? Internships?

Honestly, I would love to go back and tell Monash Jessica to just calm down a bit. I was so driven and terrified of failing that it might have been nice to have gone a little bit gentler on myself, and not expected perfection on every assignment and task. I think I would have ultimately learned a few crucial lessons earlier that way. I still struggle with perfectionism with my writing, which is such a wanky thing to say, but perfectionism is the death of all writing. You must be able to fail. And even more importantly be receptive to feedback and criticism – they and the people that deliver them are just as important to your writing as anything else. It would have been nice to have allowed myself that space during my time at Monash, and to have gotten involved in more on-campus activities, to have a bit more fun.

What skill (or skills) would you recommend students touch up on before getting into the industry?

Make films! Write them, direct them, put them together. Try it on iPhones, borrow a camera, do whatever you must to have a go. You quickly learn what looks and sounds good and there’s no better lesson in screenwriting than hearing and seeing your words in the hands and mouths of actors. It becomes exhilaratingly clear what works and what doesn’t when you see it on film.

Further study of your craft is always a good idea, but not always necessary. I completed my Master of Fine Arts in writing at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts), and that was invaluable in terms of working on my craft and meeting like minded and industry people. It also taught me how to meet real world briefs and deadlines.

The (dreaded) networking is also a must. This isn’t as scary as you imagine. It’s good to know and remember early on, that people are just people. If you can approach them with the attitude that no matter how important or high up they are in the industry that they are exactly like you, honestly the worst thing they can do is say no. So say hello at events (not going to lie, that can be terrifying), say something genuine about their work, be friendly, engaged and upfront. Emails and phone calls are another great way to connect with someone, no matter their position. A lot of the opportunities I’ve received have come off the back of a genuine communication to someone that I don’t know to say hey, I like your work, can I buy you a coffee and ask you some advice? You’d be surprised by how often that works.

When you were little, what was your dream job?

I dreamt of being a veterinarian and spending all day every day with animals on a big farm somewhere. Now I have two boisterous cats in a tiny city apartment and just chase cute dogs around the neighbourhood for pats.

What is your dream job now?

To be a successful screenwriter/my generation’s Nora Ephron. I would also settle for Chief Cat Petter. If there was ever such a job to exist.

Who do you look up to most in the industry?

I am lucky to have met and worked with incredible writers such as Samantha Strauss (Dance Academy), Alice Bell (Offspring, The Beautiful Lie), Judi McCrossin (The Wrong Girl, The Time of Our Lives) and producers Leanne Tonkes and Amanda Higgs. These women inspire and encourage me with their sheer passion, talent, generosity and fierceness. I have also long admired the writer Andrew Knight (Sea Change, Rake, Jack Irish, The Water Diviner, Hacksaw Ridge) and I was incredibly lucky to work with him on Jack Irish. He is as amazing as I imagined. He is one of the funniest people I’ve met and has an incredible ability to pull complex ideas and plot threads into riveting stories.

Have you kept in touch with any of your fellow alumni?

I’m still great friends with several of my Honours cohort. There’s nothing like some serious academic pressure to bond people for life. My cohort has gone on to do some truly incredible and interesting things with their lives and I’m immensely proud to know them and to have shared such an intense time of our lives together.

What’s your coffee order?

Long black.