Andrea Zevallos, MFA in Screenwriting Candidate at CSUN, Talks Perseverance, Pedagogy, and the Writing Process

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“I've always loved film and television — TV has been my dream job ever since I was pretty young,” Andrea Zevallos (FilmSchool.org Member @itsallhappening) says, leaning back in her desk chair. Behind her is a wall-sized bookshelf, and beneath it is a tiny replica taco truck labeled El Gato. “Years ago, I obviously envisioned things going very differently.”

Andrea is one of thousands of film school graduate students who are studying remotely during COVID-19. As an MFA in Screenwriting student at California State University, Northridge in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts, she's part of a cohort of 13 students who regularly meet on Zoom. “We've got a lot of people who are just excited about making things and want to support each other,” she adds. “There's a sense of camaraderie and support within that group, which is fantastic.”

After graduating from Berkley with an undergraduate degree in Media Studies and Communications, Andrea moved back to Los Angeles. Relocating became the tipping point for her to follow her dreams.

“I worked some industry adjacent jobs in the couple of years, and one day, I realized that the career path I was on was taking me further and further away from TV,” Andrea explains. “I live really close to all the movie studios -- it's like driving by Willy Wonka's chocolate factory every day, you know? Always seeing it was like, “You have to go here, you have to go there!” I wanted to enroll in a full time screenwriting program to force myself to build a portfolio, to double down on getting my foot in the door.”

Determined to see through her ambitions, Andrea says that she “knew what she was getting into” by the time she received her acceptance letters. “CSUN was very proactive. They were one of the first schools to say, “Hey, we're shifting online now and into the fall.” The other programs I was accepted to were not as forthcoming, so I appreciated that. And I think screenwriting is a little more flexible than production, in terms of learning online.”

Andrea was working as an analyst at a theme park through November of her first semester. Unlike many film school programs, CSUN allows students to work during the day; classes are from 7 to 10 p.m. on weeknights. Then, Andrea was laid off due to COVID-19. After months of searching, Andrea is ready to transition into her new part-time job as a student assistant that helps register students in the CSUN Department of Cinema and Television Arts.

So far, working with film industry experts has been hugely beneficial for Andrea. Most recently, her class spoke to BAFTA-nominated writer Stuart Beattie, who developed the original screenplay for Collateral.

“All my professors have worked in the industry — they're happy to introduce you to someone who can help you, and we have a lot of guest speakers. For example, I had a professor who was like, “Oh, we're learning about Kung Fu Panda, I'll call in Ethan Rife, one of the writers." That sort of thing. My one-hour drama professor currently works on The Good Doctor, so she’s dealing with her writers’ room as she teaches us.”

Andrea reaches down to pet her cat; a minute later, a ball of brown fluff obscures the camera. This is Ravioli saying hi,” Andrea says around Ravioli’s tail. "The taco truck is hers."

As Ravioli walks back and forth across the top of her desk, Andrea continues, “I wasn't expecting to get my masters with my cat on my computer. Ravioli will show up all the time and just press random buttons on the keyboard and open commands. Like, she somehow enabled dictation the other day, and then she started blasting a track from a musical in the middle of class…you know, all sorts of fun things.”

Between Ravioli’s interruptions and being stuck in quarantine, some days are more difficult to write than others. “My boyfriend and I are lucky to live in a two bedroom in Los Angeles,” Andrea says. “But he works full time in the same room as I do, and he’s usually on the phone.”

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Andrea and her boyfriend’s desks are about three feet apart. To create space, she listens to classical music (“loudly,” she stresses) or works out of their living room. They’re in the process of setting up a second desk in the living room. “Despite that,” she continues, “I'm really glad we've been able to find ways to keep our desks out of our bedroom. We’ve made it a strict No Zoom Zone.”

The quality of instruction at CSUN has helped Andrea get through tough work days. “I'm loving all the classes in the program so far,” she says. “They give us a macro view of screenwriting and the industry with each class having its own micro focus. This semester, I'm taking an advanced screenwriting workshop. We're writing a feature, and the class will take us to the first end of the first act; next semester, we'll finish the script. The story I'm writing is a teen discovers she can time travel and has to decide whether to go back in time and save her parents or not. I'm going for an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind vibe.”

Professors in the CSUN Department of Cinema and Television Arts meet one to one with students each week, which has boosted Andrea’s confidence. “It’s a story I would normally be scared to work on. Time travel is obnoxiously difficult to write. But having someone sit with me once a week to check the logic and make sure that the world makes sense is really helpful,” she explains.

Andrea’s classes have also helped her overcome one of her biggest fears as a screenwriter: sketch comedy. “Before I took my half hour comedy class, I was really scared of comedy. I still find it to be the most difficult (genre). Now, I feel a lot better about writing jokes than I used to.”

When asked about the types of TV shows and films that inspire her, Andrea is adamant that early-to mid-90s TV series are king — “I’ll defend my love of Felicity and Dawson’s Creek to the grave,” she laughs. “As a kid in the 90s, the WB was life changing, which I watched way too young. I was pretty lonely as a kid--I didn't really fit in anywhere. [These characters] felt like my friends.”

The writing process is rarely easy, even for the most seasoned creatives in film. Andrea considers that to be a positive. “Not everything you write is good, but everything you write will get you to that one script that’s good. Even if you write 30 scripts that don't go anywhere, if it gets you to that one that you can show off, if it gets you that one important phone call -- it's worth it. You learn what works for you in the process.”

Being a screenwriter has made it easier for Andrea to work in a 100% online film school program, she says. But not interacting with her classmates face-to-face is challenging. “My classmates and I get along well, so it's hard not seeing them in person. And when people are muted on Zoom in a comedy class, it's different from taking an in-person class and seeing people laugh and react differently around you," she says.

Besides working constantly out of a small space, the biggest adjustment for Andrea has been creating on demand. “You don't really have a choice when you're in school and on a deadline,” she explains. “But it’s also forced me to be more productive than I would have been otherwise. When I'm having a good creative day, I push as hard as I can to get as much done as possible.”

While we’re on the subject, Andrea mentions that she’s taking a pedagogy class. Teaching is a common career path for screenwriting MFA graduates, she says. “It's also like I'm teaching a class on being creative on demand, tricks to force yourself to make something. But like I said earlier, even if it's not good, that might help inspire something better.”

For screenwriters who are hitting the pandemic wall and seeing their work suffer, Andrea suggests taking a step back. “It seems like when I'm frustrated, it's because I'm right here,” she says, holding her palm an inch from her face, “with whatever I'm working on. I know I need to get perspective, right? When you're so deep in it, you can't tell what's good anymore. Taking a moment to back up and not think about it lets your brain relax into thinking about things differently."

The pandemic has incited radical changes in the film industry. Andrea acknowledges that she doesn’t know what it might be like when she graduates in the spring of 2022. “The goal is to be a paid TV writer,” she says, “but the industry has been shifting. There’s a lot of conversation about how there are a lot of TV shows with shorter seasons, which gives less time for things like assistance to get an episode on the show. I don't know what it’s going to look like by the time I graduate, but I still have my eye on TV.”

The Department of Cinema and Television Arts consistently sends out opportunities for internships and jobs. Graduate students are required to do an internship in the last semester of their second year, and the program uses their connections to help students get hired. According to Andrea, they've had a 100% success rate.

Despite her program going above and beyond to help students find footholds into better jobs, Andrea says aspiring filmmakers need to weigh the costs of student debt. “I think that any program that requires its students to start their career in the arts with a massive amount of debt are setting you up for a level of failure.” In 2021-2022, the cost of tuition for CSUN graduate film programs comes out to around $20,000.

CSUN ranks 21 out of the top 50 film school programs in America, according to The Wrap. Even though her program isn’t in the top 20, Andrea is happy with her choice. “The fact that my cohort has only 13 people and I get so much personalized attention from my professors makes CSUN as good as any other film school.”

From factoring in financial aid to location, choosing the right film school program is a decision that she calls “big” — and it calls for plenty of digging. ”When I was looking for CSUN reviews, there was just one review. After I got in, I sent a message to the program coordinator asking, “Hey, can I speak to some students? Within a day, he me up with an alum and a student to talk to about the program.

Andrea urges students to take advantage of forums like FilmSchool.org, but to not be scared off by sparse reviews. “I think (FilmSchool.org) is the best place to find these reviews,” she says, “but if there aren’t many, don't assume that means something bad. Make an effort to reach out (to your program). There might be someone willing to talk to you about it.”

Visit the CSUN Department of Cinema and Television Arts FAQ page for more information. To learn about Andrea, follow her on LinkedIn. You can also contact her at her FilmSchool.org profile @itsallhappening.

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Alexa P.
Alexa has 5+ years of experience developing content for purpose-driven brands. Alexa credits watching movies for inspiring her as a poet and an artist. You can follow her latest projects on alexapellegrini.contently.com. To work with Alexa, connect with her over LinkedIn or email.

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