Creative Screenwriting sat down with Showrunner’s Assistant, Zimran Jacob, to discuss his haphazard path from various production assistant roles to his current position at Netflix. There is no clear career trajectory in the film and TV industry, so you should stay connected, network like crazy and grab opportunities as they come to you.
Showrunner’s assistant Zimran Jacob is known for his work on the popular Netflix series Narcos, The Punisher, Hannibal, F is For Family and Hemlock Grove. Jacob started as a Production Assistant (PA) on films.
How It Began
Working 15-hours a day, Jacob knew he wanted more out of his career [not hours on set]. The PA job wasn’t productive for his long-term goals, but it was informative about the film business. After a few years, he felt like he had plateaued, so he branched off and started to write his own movie scripts and joined networking groups for novice screenwriters.
In another low-risk environment, Jacob worked in finance and operations for a production house. “All of those experiences, while they didn’t help me become a writer, they did help me get my foot into other doors that got me closer,” said Zimran Jacob. During this time “off,” he wrote his feature film, ‘Swag’ which is currently in pre-production.
The spec script, which sounds like a scene out of Rules of the Game by Neil Strauss, is described as, “A group of college virgins struggles to conquer their insecurities when it comes to girls, so they enlist the help of a bonafide player in their searches for love.”
The non-linear path taught Jacob to push forward in a series of career paths until something that suited his aspirations essentially fell into his lap. The corporate mentality of quitting a job at his happiest point pushed him to search for difficult, yet more meaningful work in the film and TV world.
“I left a lot of things I was happy with and a lot of better things fell into my lap afterward. But there’s no screenwriting career straight line…” For novice screenwriters, he advises for people to write a sample pilot and a spec of an existing TV show, in order to reveal their writing range and maybe even their brand. This label also helps an agent sell a particular screenwriter in a quick pitch.
“I think there is value in a screenwriter saying, ‘I’m a genre writer,’” said Jacob. Focusing material on one element can create a brand. The screenwriter insisted this is hard in the beginning, as it comes off as imitation, but it creates a fingerprint that is useful for a lifetime. Even film giants like Quentin Tarantino still need to bring their brand to a project to create value for everyone involved.
For Jacob, the grinding years eventually led him to his plum showrunner’s assistant gig at Netflix’s Marvel franchise.
Creating Memorable Heroes & Villains
Zimran was asked about the tremendous attraction of complex heroes and villains. Why do they resonate so strongly with film and TV audiences?
“There is something psychologically pleasing about someone living a double life,” said Jacob about the Marvel universe. “I think we tend to live, what we think of as, mundane lives.” Peter Parker / Spider-Man is a nerdy high schooler who is also a superhero. Tom Stark / Iron Man is a loner billionaire, but he also saves the planet. The everyman/ everywoman nature of heroes makes these characters, replete with flaws, fears, and concerns, accessible and engaging to audiences.
Superheroes provide comfort and protection. Especially with contemporary issues. “When the first Avengers movie came out, it was about avoiding a nuclear disaster and that’s what we were dealing with politically at the time,” continued Jacob. “There haven’t been many superheroes that have ended with the devastation of the planet…”
The familiarity and likelihood of a happy ending, in addition to the “clashing of Alpha personalities” make these types of TV shows and films more interesting. Netflix fans wanted to see the Punisher and Daredevil fight equally opposing forces. Heroes need a formidable adversary that knows and exploits their weaknesses. Jacob added this is also true of the last Fast and Furious, with The Rock and Jason Statham in conflict.
Likewise, the villains also represent the darkness of humanity. “The villains tend to be misunderstood good guys,” mused Jacob. “They, in some ways, are a reflection of our dark side. But, with the Punisher—who is a villain but also the protagonist—a lot of the times a villain has a plan and people aren’t on board with the plan.” Loki, brother of Thor, is an example of a charismatic villain.
“They’re usually people you can sympathize with, but the story is not told from their perspective. We have less time to understand them and less set-up to completely appreciate what they’re doing and why,” he added. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, for example, implied his villainous character Negan believes he’s the good guy on AMC’s The Walking Dead.
In-Depth Research To Reveal The Character
Apart from scheduling, taking phone calls and answering emails, a significant portion of Jacob’s day includes researching the series he’s working on.
With Marvel, Jacob read every comic that he could get his hands on. By getting familiar with the characters and the history and mythology of the characters, he made sure he understood the ins and outs of the Marvel-verse. The other type of research involved military research on The Punisher. It had a military consultant and a CIA consultant,
By developing this in-depth knowledge, he knew he could later pitch story ideas in the writers’ room. By understanding how things usually happened in the Marvel-verse and within the military, he could describe real events for the character to get wrapped up in. This might even just be a throwaway line to change the character’s mindset.
As a showrunner’s assistant, he would then write up research papers to present to the writers’ room. This way, he condenses the real world (and comics) into potential scenarios for the series. This involved a great deal of reading and intimacy, which played off in the TV show for additional realism.
Despite knowing something inside and out, it’s still vital to have that extra insight to turn the information into a story. “When you’re pitching it, you want to make sure you pitch the beginning, middle, and an end. The harder part is coming up with the actual stories” he said.
Jacob is currently working on a new Netflix series (which has not been announced), where he spoke with additional military personnel for new research.
“I was able to take all of those experiences and package them in a way that was meaningful for the team as a whole.” Despite his expert research, he also makes sure to provide privacy for those who do not want to reveal personal information or give away details about names or situations.
“With military personnel, you might be talking to someone who doesn’t agree morally with everything he or she has done, so you want to be sensitive to not only that, but to differing opinions. Also, you’re talking to somebody who has put their life on the line in a very real way.”
Similarly, nearly every plot in Narcos was presented in a way that Jacob compared the TV show to a documentary. “I think every fact presented in Narcos was the result of research performed by the amazing writing staff and by the studio. They started with what actually happened and built a story around that.”
Depending on the series, of course, there is some poetic license for every TV show. However, this really depends on the tone and overall story. If research fits into the story, they will try to make it work. Paradoxically, the most intense facts tend to make it to the screen, depending on the graphic nature of the research.
Keeping Up With Industry Trends For Young & Old
Jacob spends a lot of time reading books, reviews, researching social movements, watching television, and listening to those people on the pulse of the media zeitgeist, in order to stay with current trends. He also follows or befriends “social justice warriors” who are trying to make a difference in the world.
“Obviously, I talk to a lot of industry people that are really connected.” As such, Jacob has an optimistic look of the future. Specifically, he believes the industry is moving away from smaller projects to focus on long-form television shows. These series are more open for discussion and more readily available for audiences.
“TV is different from film because it’s built to keep going as long as it can. If people have something to discuss, it’s free marketing. The tastemakers [audiences and critics] will build up your TV show without you having to do as much direct marketing.” New technologies are also on the way, but Jacob thinks it will be a few years for this to happen.
Millennial and post-millennial age groups are less and less connected with traditional old-school media. Instead, they gravitate toward 5-10 minute videos on YouTube.
“If you’re interested in something, you’ll find the time to do it, regardless of how busy your schedule might be otherwise. I think if you’re not writing, you may just be making excuses,” said Jacob. “The most important thing is to write. The second most important thing is to tell people that you are a writer. Third, learn and find good mentors—somebody in the industry.”
As for ageism in the industry, it exists, but not in the ways you might expect. TV writers’ rooms can consume most of your waking hours, so it may be difficult to balance work and family life. Or, it may be impractical for older people to pay their mortgages while working as a writers’ assistant.
Despite the rumors of screenwriting being for the youth, most writers are aged thirty or above, as quality writing comes from accruing life experiences.
Mentoring Works Both Ways
“I think every part of my job is the best part of my job. I get to work with people I really like. People are coming up with stories. I get to learn a lot. You’re paid to discuss stories and come up with interesting scenarios that might come up and play out over a season,” he reinforced. “I love learning as much as possible and growing as a writer.”
As a rising screenwriter, Jacob also thinks of himself as a mentor. He works to help others in his office, even if this means a quick email or a short phone call. Whatever information he gets, he wants to pay it forward to the next generation of writers. “Nobody gets anywhere by themselves,” he added. “Pay it forward.” Start by offering something useful to your mentor rather than asking for it first.
That said, individuals should make sure to respect the time of a potential mentor and mentee. What does each want to get out of the relationship?
“If you’re a twenty-two-year-old screenwriter, understand that people don’t solely exist just to make your screenwriting careers come true. They have their own agendas and you have to be respectful of their time. You have to approach them in a way that is respectful of their time and yours. You can’t be too desperate and approach them where you ask for too much, too soon.”
In one example, a new friend approached Jacob after a few months and came clean about introducing himself to hire him as a screenwriter. Because he handled it in a calm, collected way, they ended up working together and becoming good friends. “We were seeing each other almost everyday before we started working together.”
“Sometimes I like the long hours. Sometimes I like the short hours,” added Jacob. He enjoys thinking of film and television as a business rather than a leisure activity. This makes him feel like the kid in the room, constantly introduced to wonder and awe in the creative working environment.
“When you’re in a good creative environment, the goodness of humanity tends to present itself,” he quipped. The long hours and the proper environment are then rewarded when an individual sees their name in the credits.
“I think this is a value business. If you give value, people will give value back. A lot of it comes from maturity. Newcomers want everything quickly and tend to think it’s all about them. Until you’re an executive, it’s never about you. It’s about the market and the people are you. Try not to make things about yourself. Don’t stop learning about the business and the art of filmmaking.”
“You can be the best writer, sitting in your basement, but if you’re not exposed, one way or another, then you might not find the mentorship or the people that can take you to the next level,” added Zimran Jacob. “The people that I know have got me everywhere.”