Parker Neff '11: Getting an Internship Without Losing Your Mind
For about six weeks this summer I lived in a Los Angeles Ramada, and, when I would leave, I would leave to go work at Disney Studios. Not Disney “Land” or “The Disney Store,” Disney, Disney, where they work in buildings that look like this:
For a guy who would otherwise spend his summer watching Stargate SG-1 on hulu, delivering mail to buildings suspended by impossibly tall dwarves seems like a pretty nice gig. Though this is not to say I didn’t have my obstacles, or that the stars weren’t aligned against me and, in fact, were using their combined gravity to crush me into nothing with newer obstacles. In one way or another, they were. Getting an internship is hard. Having an internship is hard. But it’s worth it, and, at Wittenberg, it’s doable.
Despite the fact that “writer” was absolute dead last on my Meyers-Briggs “career suggestions” page, it’s something I want to explore—television writing especially. Television writing is cooperative and argumentative, and all the things the little extrovert maniac pulling levers inside me loves to gobble up. It’s curious and unusual and still a pretty young form of writing. There’s incredible potential in Television, and ever since I’ve been old enough to make Batman fight my Dragonzord, it’s a pool I’ve wanted to play in. To accomplish this, I came to Wittenberg, a school with no Film major, met two likeminded geniuses, and with them made my own Film major. This and my English major would make me unstoppable. Taking the Summer Screenwriting Institute two summers ago with television professionals would make me even more unstoppable. Double unstoppable.
The process feels good until—oh—about the time you reach the immovable object of Internship, and then it becomes torturous. It doesn’t start out that way. Last January I pulled together some glowing letters of recommendation and a polished resume and a list of about one hundred places I could apply, and I went down the list, mailing and emailing, until everything, including my typing finger and sense of smell, was exhausted. And so I waited. And I waited.
And one time (!) I got a rejection letter, but then I waited some more. I applied for some real jobs. And waited. And soon it was late April, and I told my family that I guessed I was going to be unemployed for the summer, so I would at least do my community service. So everyone graduated and I did my community service. My application for Best Buy expired.
And then on July 16th, after a series of freak phone calls, I got an email telling me that I had an internship in LA starting July 21st. For those of you not counting, that’s five days (or three business days) to plan a cross-country flight and return flight, find a place to live, figure out transportation, fax several rounds of paperwork, settle all my scores in Springfield, and shave off my beard which I find endearingly vagrant but most others just find homeless. Here begins the first lesson: you work at the allowance and mercy of everyone around you. No one owes you anything. In fact, they owe you so much nothing, that you need to do everything in a very small amount of time. Do you plot and/or rebel? No. You smile and have mini-heart attacks and forget what you said to the executive on the phone seconds after you take the call because, well, you’re just so full of joy and nervousness at great big scary horizons like that.
I found the money and the flight and the Ramada and soon I was in LA. Careful study taught me that LA public transportation was hard to handle, so I ended up renting a car from Rent-A-Wreck. That’s what you do when you’re under 25. You rent something someone else has ruined. Also, in my experience, what you’ll be driving is green 100% of the time, a Buick 100% of the time, and there’s a 100% chance that it will have at least two major functional problems. These are not cosmetic “my car has three or four unrecognizable international hate symbols carved into the side” problems. These are “my car shuts off while I’m driving on highways” problems. Not to worry. You can call AAA a lot of times before they don’t help. After all, it’s not the journey.
…It’s the end of your journey where you coast up to security and try to explain why, when everyone else rolls down their windows to hand the armed guard identification, you are opening your door and climbing out of your car. There are ways to feel homeless even when you shave.
Only now, after all of this, could I park on the roof of the garage, find my way to the studio, go up to the fifth floor, and start my internship. From my imagination, internships seem like a lot of grunt work, necessary and unnecessary. A lot of copying and faxing and taking coffee orders. That’s probably pretty accurate across the board, and it’s exactly what I was anticipating. And sometimes, that was the case. Technically, I was an intern with the Production Office of Brothers & Sisters, and that was definitely copyfaxcoffee central. I was only there for six weeks, though, and anything I was doing was already someone’s real job. Much of the time for the first week, I had nothing to do—and I asked.
Note (in case you didn’t have a mom who defined “chores” as loosely as mine did): always ask what more you can do. It’s impressive and becoming.
As you are currently enrolled in or at least interested in college life, I assume you’ve mastered the skill of “looking busy,” and will not waste your time explaining its importance here.
On my second day, Script Supervisor Margery Kimbrough invited me down to the set to get a feel for her job. She’s the reason I was in Los Angeles at all, being that she was the friend of the sister of someone my dad worked with, who passed my resume up to some producers (never be ashamed of family contacts—positions usually have more than enough qualified applicants), and she thought she should meet me. Or something. Things like this, if you can’t tell, make me endlessly nervous. Nevertheless, swaggering hero that I am, I went unweepingly to set and sat quietly behind Margery, the Director, the Director of Photography and the First Assistant Director, asking questions when I managed to think of them and smiling and nodding like “yeah! I feel that way too! It must be because we’re in the same exclusive club!” more than I should have.
At the end of the day, when new computer programs and digital video technology had everyone with an actual job, you know, actually doing something, I was asked if I could fill out some paperwork. I was told it would require math. Despite my absolute disinterest in math that has, since the fifth grade, caused me to learn next to nothing about numbers, I accepted. Unless someone’s wearing a strange outfit or smelling faintly of car trunk, always always accept. Turns out the math was fractions, which, being a third grade skill, was one I could handle. So I did it, and I did it correctly. And after that, I didn’t spend much time in the office. Almost every day I arrived at the studio to work on set. Most days, I would hang out with Margery and the directors and department heads in video village. Those days, my view would be something like this:
Margery called these weeks (and my time with one seasoned director in particular) “grad school in a box.” I learned more in those three weeks than I could’ve imagined. I have pages and pages of notes and anecdotes and a book from an electrician on set and this incredible volume of information in my head. You have to listen and you have to observe. You simply have to if you want to get anything meaningful out of an internship (or anything). The ways I look at writing and leadership and teamwork have all been fundamentally changed. And that was just from my time at video village.
Soon, Margery loaned me out to departments—and THEN I got the real education. I learned what electricians think about scripts. I learned how to set up a bunch of grip equipment (and what to do when you drop it on a light that costs more than your rented wreck). Props taught me how to properly dress a night club. They also taught me how to clean up exploding sinks. The PAs helped me to be respectful and invisible, even when I have to tell a bunch of suits “Sorry, you can’t leave this stairwell right now—they’re filming outside.” Waiting in a stairwell with fuming executives is kind of a blast. Set Dec took me all around seedy LA in the back of a moving van to collect one specific piece of furniture from one massive warehouse at a time. Grad school in a box and in a jar and on my head and in my hands and, occasionally, when the sink explodes, consuming me.
Every single day of these six weeks was full of experience and education more real than I think I can process. I have never felt so blessed or energized as I felt this summer—and it almost didn’t happen at all. Don’t give up. People always need people. Even when you’re supposed to be invisible it’s easy to see. And if you’re exhausted at the end of the day, you get to drive home, have a drink, and watch a few more catch-up episodes of Brothers & Sisters, you know, in case you just want more. The ride home after standing upright and being at full attention all day and night long is a great, wonderful ride. The guys and girl guys in the army know what I’m talking about.
One especially late night I went into the garage and found my car dead. There was no getting AAA at that point—security had left for the night. So, I called a cab, and walked to the entrance. And once more, I waited. Even on your busiest days, when you’re alone in a city thousands of miles away from your family or friends, there’s a lot of time to wait. I made friends with the bartender at the hotel. I ate alone at Outback. I read by the pool while families came in and out. Starting a life is a lonely exploration. There’s no right way to do it, even among so many wrong ways. But if you do, and you wait like there’s something to wait for, then once or twice, when you’re exhausted, when it’s dark and your phone’s dead and it starts to rain, you’ll look over and realize that you’re sitting in the mulch next to a giant ivy sculpture of Mickey Mouse. You’re waiting, but now you’re waiting outside Disney Studios, and you have no idea how you got there.
Not all days as an intern are that powerful. Most of the time your car works, and you just get this:
And that, were it not taken with my phone, would be a beautiful sunset.
Parker Neff, ‘11