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Fancastic TV’s ‘Women Who Crush Wednesdays’ Series Q&A w/ Sandra Leviton
The purpose of my women in media series (affectionately known as Women Who Crush Wednesdays) is to highlight the women working in front of and behind the scenes in the film and television industry. Women are often the unsung heroes of the writing and producing world, not getting nearly as much credit as male directors, writers and producers. This series aims to change that.
Last week I have the privilege of connecting with Sandra Leviton, who has a long career of working in the industry. Check out her answers below to questions about working for FX, developing content, and starting her own production company:
1. When did you realize you wanted to work in the television and film industry?
I don’t remember a day in my life where I didn’t want to work in this business. As my mother likes to tell people I “came out of the womb with my bags packed and ready for LA”. What I wanted to do when I grow up was never a question I struggled with – it was always Film & TV.
2. What element of creating a show or film appealed to you at first: writing, directing, acting, producing?
I went through phases as I grew up. When you’re young, you only understand what actors are because you can see them. So up until high school, I wanted to act. Then I realized I am a terrible actor. My teenage years I started discovering directors and caught the directing bug. Then in my senior year in high school, I started producing shows for a cable access network. That’s when the light bulb clicked on – I’m a producer.
3. What was your first job in the industry?
My very first job was an internship at the local cable access channel. I did everything there – producing, directing, editing, even on-camera work. It was an incredible experience. My first paying job in Hollywood was at a small talent agency that handled celebrity endorsements and voiceover work.
I won’t lie – it was a dream job. I had the privilege of working on the best shows on TV with the best team of people. During my time there I worked on over 20 original FX shows. I still glow with pride over each and every one of them. (I’m currently going through a mourning process over the upcoming end of Sons of Anarchy – that show was my baby.) When I started there, it was a real transitional period for the network and the industry. The flagship shows like The Shield, Rescue Me, and Nip/Tuck were heading into their final seasons and the senior staff was trying to figure out the next generation of shows. The industry as a whole began to prepare for a potential strike (which did happen about a year in) and eventual economic upheaval. Then in the later years, I got to see it bounce back louder and fiercer than ever. Cable (and TV in general) went from being a last resort to a first stop for big named talent. Suddenly these huge movie stars, directors, and musicians all wanted to stretch their muscles in TV. We saw blogs and social media sweep in practically overnight and ancillary markets (merchandising, tours, etc.) grow very suddenly. My bosses were incredibly supportive and allowed me to jump into all of it. It was a fascinating time to be there.
5. FX has produced some amazing original content. What was it is like to be a part of the production of original shows?
It’s intense and wonderful. In current programming, We were a small department at the time, so we all did everything. There wasn’t anything that went out to the public that was not approved by development & current programming, including the shows, marketing, merchandising, DVD extras, PR, product integration…everything. Listening to the showrunners pitch their story and character ideas, reading drafts, watching cuts, helping the shows find writing and directing staff, managing talent – it can be exhausting, but so worth it when you get to see it all on air. Everyone thinks working at a network is easy. Truth is, the network “suits” are some of the hardest working people in town. Plus now with the ability to get immediate feedback from fans – it’s really all very exhilarating.
6. Since FX you’ve launched Script Chix—an invaluable resource for screenwriters who are just starting out. It seems like you have a passion to help writers find their voice and fine-tune their scripts. How did this come about?
Script Chix came out of a moment of serendipity. As I was preparing to leave FX to spread my wings as a producer, I knew I had to find a way to stay connected to the world I loved while building Under The Stairs. Working with writers is something that has always come naturally to me and I enjoy tremendously. I did it when I was at Paradigm Talent & Lit Agency – my boss would go sell while I worked with our clients on their scripts. I did it at FX with the shows, particularly with the digital and DVD content. And I did it for friends all the time. It was a natural transition. As I was in my final weeks at FX, I met my partner-in-crime, Miranda Sajdak, when she came in to interview for my job. She was (obviously) leaving her job around the same time and we connected and stayed in touch. A few months later, we were discussing our plans for going out on our own and the lightning struck us at the same time. We got home and both immediately e-mailed each other about teaming up. Script Chix was born.
Again, this had always been my dream – to have my own production company. I knew starting out, I would have to pay my dues and build up my skills and network before taking the proverbial leap. Eventually I hit a point where I knew the time was right and with extensive planning, I finally pulled the trigger.
Those who smartly strive to reach the stars continually inspire me; they just go for it, go big, and have a plan to do it. You wouldn’t jump out of a plane without a parachute and training. Going out on your own is no different. Inspiration is everywhere – especially when there’s such a gorgeous view of the road ahead.
8. What is something you have learned while working in this industry that you wish you knew at the beginning?
I wished I learned the money earlier. Not just how to budget, but all of the various areas of finance you need to deal with in filmmaking; including investing, how project financing works, and even personal finance. As a creative coming up in television, especially at a network, it is the one area that I never really had to deal without outside of budgets. The money is already there and handled by savvy finance people. As an independent filmmaker, it’s all on you to figure out where the money is coming from to finance the projects, the company, and yourself. I had always studied the business itself and took classes in budgeting, but wish I had learned the investing side of things much earlier.
9. Who are some of your favorite industry women?
There are so many amazing women in Hollywood. I love my old bosses Danielle Woodrow (now the Head of TV at Perfect Storm) and Colette Wilson (VP Original Programming at FX). They are supportive of their colleagues, truly understand how to navigate people, and have incredible creative instincts. My producing partner, Miranda Sajdak, is another – incredibly smart and just “gets” filmmakers. There are so many fantastic ladies in this business; I could go on forever…everyone brings something so unique to the table.
10. What projects are you working on now?
The first official project from Under The Stairs is a short horror/ sci-fi/ thriller film entitled ZONE 2. Written by Lydia Mulvey & directed by Anna Elizabeth James, it’s the story of a mother and her teenage son who is disabled fighting for survival in the bleak underworld of Zone 2.
We are currently crowdfunding Zone 2 on Seed&Spark and shoot in mid-December.
Our bigger projects include a horror feature called BUTCHER HOLLER by Daniel Shea that we are in the process of packaging. A TV pilot called MAHOGANY HALL by Ashley Charbonnet that’s being shopped around. We also just optioned another project from Daniel, a low-budget thriller entitled KILLDEER, which we are actively developing. Plus we are writing few features ourselves.
One of our company mandates is that all of our projects must support women and diversity either in front of or behind the cameras. We are proud to say that all of these projects do and we are always on the hunt for more great material.
And pie. We are always on the hunt for good pie.
—– It’s okay Sandra, we’re always on the hunt for good pie too 😉
Sandra, thanks again for your wonderful insight into the television and film industry! It sounds like your time at FX was invaluable! Best of luck on Script Chix and all of your current projects at Under the Stairs!
Enjoy this interview? Have an industry woman you would like to know more about? Leave a comment below or shoot me a tweet 🙂 I would love to hear from you!
– Lauren Gallaway @Lauren_Gallaway