Jerome Schwartz, a 2003 Whitman College graduate, wanted a writing career in Hollywood so much that in 2007 he moved to Los Angeles, Calif., where he knew almost nobody, then made hundreds of phone calls, wrote thousands of pages of scripts between tasks as a writer’s assistant, and worked countless hours. Now the reward: He recently got his big break.
One of TV’s hottest shows, CBS’ police drama, “Cold Case,” is using his script for a show that airs Dec. 6.
“It’s an episode about a murder on a high school debate team, which actually was my main activity when I was in high school,” said Schwartz, who is now employed as a “Cold Case” staff researcher. “I knew that it was a unique, specific world, and “Cold Case” episodes are all about looking for new worlds and subcultures to explore as part of the murder investigation.”
Schwartz said he had no idea what a move to Los Angeles would do for him. He left Portland, Ore. for Hollywood without knowing more than one person in the area.
“I had been planning the L.A. move for a long time, but sort of dreaded it,” he said. “I knew I would move down there eventually for my job.”
Schwartz’s road to Hollywood had its pitfalls. “Hollywood careers have their own weird combination of factors – luck, skill, circumstance, and the flow of the industry,” Schwartz once wrote in a blog. His career was to be no exception.
Shortly after graduating from Whitman with a double major in theatre and English literature, he moved to Portland with fellow 2003 alumnus Cullen Hoback and ran his own production company, now defunct, for more than two years. He spent time afterward traveling the world before breaking away from Portland and moving to Los Angeles.
“The first thing I did in California was call literally every agency in town,” he said. “I made hundreds and hundreds of cold calls trying to get my scripts read.” Schwartz later summarized this attempt at breaking into Hollywood as going nowhere. After a separate, but no less elaborate, attempt at getting a day job relevant to his skills, Schwartz finally “landed a job at the Writer’s Guild, which allowed me to network with the people who got me future jobs.”
As an aspiring writer, though, he suddenly found himself struggling in the middle of a writer’s strike running errands, and, one would think, his timing couldn’t have been worse.
“Surprisingly, it worked out great,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I was able to associate daily with some really amazing writers who wouldn’t normally have given me the time of day. I found myself at the very nerve-center of the entire strike.”
Once the strike ended, all of the contacts Schwartz had made while loading vans and getting coffee turned out to be particularly useful. He ended up working for the Emmy-Award-winning NBC sitcom “The Office” as an assistant running errands and doing clerical tasks. He wasn’t able to do what he really wanted to do: write. But soon he found his niche, however, working at “Cold Case.”
”My girlfriend passed my resume along at ‘Cold Case,’ where they were looking for a writers’ P.A.,” he said. “This was much closer to what I wanted. I jumped at the chance. At first it was a process of putting in hours and hours of work – first making coffee and making copies, all while doing your own writing in every spare moment,” he said. “I had to learn to write in little bursts, between job responsibilities.”
Schwartz said writing on the side turned out to be a good way to get the writers’ attention. “The writers were glad to see I was doing the work necessary to actually get a job down the line. I made clear that I was hungry to take the next step.”
When Schwartz would finish some writing he’d “slip it onto someone’s desk and ask what they thought … It kept them all knowing that what I really wanted to do was write,” he said.
And for those efforts, writing was exactly what Schwartz got to do. He was soon promoted from “the coffee guy” to “researcher” for the show’s writing staff. His new position, however, got him more than just script-writing opportunities.
“The coolest thing about the job is the level of involvement in production. Not only do I get to write the script, I get to input on all levels of production: hair, makeup, props, locations, costumes, etc.”
Schwartz said his interest in movies and writing started in childhood: “I just got more and more serious so that by the time I got to Whitman I knew that it was exactly what I wanted to do.”
He said Whitman was a breeding ground for his creativity and artistic growth and gave him a focus. “Pursuing film-making at Whitman allowed me to realize that I didn’t want to do the film-making part of it anymore, and to focus more on the writing aspects,” he said.
Within four years at Whitman he won three one-act-play contests, and wrote and produced a feature film. He even got to see a full-length play he had written actually performed. He also was involved in intramural sports, acting, and leading Scrambles, which is Whitman’s wilderness orientation programs for first-year students. In 2003 he was given the honor of being one of two speakers at his graduation ceremony.
His willingness to go the extra mile in his academic and professional career was a key quality that his friends and colleagues associated with Schwartz’s overall success.
“Whitman provided a space for Jerome to develop his talents, but his career was shaped through years of perseverance, thousands of pages of writing – and his dashing good looks,” said a joking Hoback, a friend of Schwartz since their first year at Whitman. Hoback is also leading a successful Hollywood career as a director who has made independent films such as “Freedom State” (2006) and “Monster Camp” (2007).
“He came with all that talent,” said Craig Gunsul, a professor Schwartz worked frequently with in the theater department. “We just continued to let him grow.”
Harvey Schwartz, Jerome Schwartz’s father, said he thinks that “many schools are all about regurgitating information, but the thing I’ve always said about Whitman is that it really taught both of my kids how to think on their feet and to keep their eyes open for opportunities.”
That alertness to opportunities resulted in Schwartz’s finding additional ones at Whitman. Schwartz pointed out that Whitman’s current film studies program wasn’t available when he was a student, but that he found endless support and opportunity for development, including getting a $5,000 grant to make films.
“All of the critical thinking and participatory skills, all of the thinking on your feet I learned have really been helpful out in the world,” he said. “It’s amazing how much they truly come into play, especially being on the “Cold Case” writing staff … I have to use these skills all the time.”
And even at the end of the telephone interview, when Schwartz excused himself to go cast actors for his show, he noted how his diligence, underpinned by Whitman’s support of his interests, seems to have paid off. Schwartz was already well prepared:
“The general studies at Whitman really prepare you for the general studies of life,” Schwartz said.
– Dylan J. Plung ’11