Screenwriter Heather Upton Makes Her Own Opportunities and Scores Writers’ Assistant Gig on Netflix’s IRON FIST
By Jim Cirile
Heather Upton knows how to work it. After going to a liberal arts college in Philly, she kicked around various jobs in various cities until The Grub Street screenwriting class in Boston changed her life. Moving out to LA with a freelance, work-from-home editing job paying the bills, she cranked out specs, some of which placed highly in contests (such as our own Writers on the Storm, in which she placed third) and hit up everyone she knew, always scrambling to make connections and land jobs. She scored unpaid intern gigs at places like Paul Haggis’ Hwy 61, where she made more connections and landed a manager (Circle of Confusion.) Now she’s joined the Marvel superhero family -- where she fits right in, landing the gig of writers’ assistant on the upcoming 13-episode Netflix show Marvel’s Iron Fist. I talked with Heather about breaking in, working for Marvel, and how one must never stop marketing oneself -- because you are your own best advocate.
Jim Cirile (JC): Are you done? Are you all wrapped?
Heather Upton (HU): Production wraps this week, and then we’ll be in post for months. And we just heard the show drops March 17th 2017!
JC: Awesome. So tell us about working at Hwy 61. That must have been amazing industry experience.
HU: It was phenomenal. Seeing the scripts that come in from the agencies and A-list actors who wanted to work with them was eye-opening… I recommend to all new writers to LA to get a job doing coverage. Having to read a script and then write what is and isn’t working really makes you think about the fundamentals of screenwriting in your own scripts.
JC: Were you surprised by the quality, or lack thereof, of all the scripts you read during that time?
HU: Some were as terrific as you’d expect, and some were shockingly low quality. And these were scripts sent to an A-list director. There was definitely stuff where I was like, I could write something better than this. I know people who could write something better than this. It made me keenly aware that success is not just about talent, but also who you know.
JC: Let’s talk Marvel’s IRON FIST. How did you get the gig?
HU: I actually kind of took a couple years off -- had a kid, renovated a house. And then when I was ready to really go hard again at getting work, I talked to friends about how much I missed working with people. That, to me, is one of the downsides of screenwriting. I had all these friends in TV, and they encouraged me to try it -- there are so many jobs, and it’s so interactive. So two years ago I applied for the Disney/ABC TV Writing Program, and I was one of the finalists for it. That was enough for me to get meetings at Marvel and a few other places through my manager and through personal connections. I called people and was like, hey, I’d really like to try TV, and the Disney/ABC people thought I was decent.
JC: Marketing yourself. So many people think once you’re represented, you can just sit back and sell scripts.
HU: It’s totally about asking people to help you, and that is something I feel like I’m still learning. So many people are willing to, and so many people definitely aren’t, but you won’t know until you ask. So I asked people to make connections for me, and this one at Marvel panned out. They didn’t have anything available when I went in, but the exec I met with said, “We’ll have more and more stuff. Keep in touch.” And I did, because it’s your job to follow up, not theirs. Eventually they had something come up, and asked if I wanted to interview for it, and I did, and I got Iron Fist, which was so fun.
JC: Proving that perseverance is at least as important as talent.
|Finn Jones as Danny Rand in Marvel's IRON FIST, coming 2017 on Netflix.|
JC: Tell us what a writers’ assistant does.
HU: Every writers’ room generally has between six and ten writers, and the writers sit in there from six to ten hours a day and break the story. So they come up with a season-long arc and a sense of who the characters are, and then break down scripts episode by episode. Some rooms even break it down scene by scene. Every single day there are ideas flying and creativity pouring out, and the writers’ assistant has to write down every single important thing that is said in the room, and also to filter out the stuff that isn’t important. At the end of the day, you send them 40 pages, and there’s as much useless stuff as there is useful stuff, it’s too much for them to wade through. It has to make coherent sense.
JC: So you’re taking steno, in a way. And then a couple days later someone will say, “Hey what was that thing I said the other day?,” and you have to go find it?
HU: And then everybody looks at you… (laughs) and you think, “Oh God, I hope I wrote it down.”
JC: Sounds like it could be pretty stressful -- what was the overall vibe?
HU: I definitely lucked out and got a roomful of people who were really nice and super supportive. It wasn’t so much stressful as it was just focused, hard work. Mostly it was really fun. I love the Marvel stuff. I love the story that we wrote, and I just loved being in the room and getting to experience how the story gets told and how it changes and gets shaped by different ideas. You know, you write one episode, and then you get down to episode four and you realize, oh, well, if we do this here, we’ll have to go back and revise everything that came before, because this new thing has a cascade effect on everything else that happens. It was really cool to see how things evolved over time, too. And then once we started shooting, it was interesting to see how the actors on screen actually changed the story.
JC: How did you guys interface with the other Marvel Netflix shows? Obviously, there’s this big, internal continuity. You have to be aware of everything everyone else is doing too, right?]
HU: Everybody had watched Daredevil and (Jessica) Jones before we got there, and then they let us have the scripts for (Luke) Cage, and then they actually gave us the rough cuts of Cage, too. There are Marvel execs who, every time we pitch an episode, part of what they do is to give us continuity notes. There are a couple of Marvel execs who hold the entire TV world in their heads, and they’re constantly moving the pieces around to make sure that all the characters’ stories make sense and that something that happens on Iron Fist won’t affect a different show.
JC: Right, because there are other shows being planned in the future as well, which will all be affected by what you do.
HU: Exactly. Sometimes we would have meetings with the Marvel execs, and it was just extraordinary, to see how deeply and thoroughly some of them know the universe. It’s amazing.
JC: So how do you do it, what with being a mom and writing specs on the side? How do you pay the bills, raise a kid, work a demanding job and try to further your career all at the same time?
HU: You’ve got to be really organized (laughs.) It makes for some long days. I would be in the office for Marvel and then go home to my daughter, and it’s just me and her, and that’s a lot of work. I also have my freelance gig, because a writers’ assistant pay is crap. And then I’m writing my own specs on the side. Being in the room all day was exhausting, but it was also really inspiring. It was like being in a master class. I would come home with a head full of creative ideas. That really helped me sit down and say to myself, Okay, I need to do 30 minutes on my spec tonight. That was good motivation, constantly being around people who were coming up with stories. That, being organized… and wanting it, maybe? (laughs)
JC: Definitely wanting it, because it would be real easy to just come home and collapse. So where does this all lead? Any chance for advancement?
HU: One of the nice things about having worked at Marvel is that they have so many projects going, the ones we’ve heard of and the ones I imagine are in the pipeline. So now being in the Marvel machine, I think it makes it easier for me to pitch myself in the future Marvel jobs. It’s not only fun work, but my experience thus far is that Marvel is filled with really nice people, which is wonderful and sort of unusual in this industry. One of the challenges with working on a Marvel show, though, is that because they have so many, nobody really knows what’s going to happen with ours. Will there be a season two? When will it be? I have all this great experience now under my belt, but I still have to go back out on the job market.
JC: Hence you’ve been cranking out specs, and you have an additional level of legitimacy now.
HU: For sure. So what I’m doing now is what I did before -- getting in touch with people who work on shows, and telling them now I have experience under my belt and I loved it, so if you know anybody… And then my manager has me writing specs because he wants to put me up for staff writer jobs.
JC: That’s definitely the next step. Okay, last question -- and you may not be able to answer, so feel free to be as cagey as necessary. In the comic books, Iron Fist’s costume was really silly…
HU: (laughs) I can’t tell you anything!
JC: He wore a silly thing on his head with the Spider-Man white eye holes, a skin-tight green leotard with a plunging boob window and these little yellow footie-things… Luke is just walking around in street clothes. Is our guy going to have any sort of costume at all?
HU: I’m pretty sure that I can’t answer that at all. I can tell you that the traditional costume in the comics was the subject of much discussion for exactly those reasons.
JC: I mean, I grew up reading Power Man and Iron Fist in the ‘70s, and the idea of them not wearing their traditional costumes, that’s sacrilege. But then, could you actually see anyone wearing the Iron Fist costume in real life? It would be laughable.
HU: Right, especially when you consider Luke Cage, a black man in Harlem with a tiara.
JC: Heather, you’re a shining example of hustle and muscle. May others learn well from your example. I expect a big, shiny spec sale soon.
HU: Thank you!