- 10th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- Schaal Prize: “Forecast," Beth Spesia Muench ’15
- 2nd Place: “Tomato Season," Megan Valley ’18
- 2nd Place: “The View from Apartment 206," Amy Teske ’19
- Honorable Mention: “Joyful Mysteries," Mary-Kate Burns Corry ’16
- Honorable Mention: “Subjective Cycle of Disturbance,” Jacqueline Cassidy '15, '16MSM
- Honorable Mention: “Call Time,” Gretchen Hopkirk ’20
- Honorable Mention: “The Southern Tragedy,” Catherine Truluck ’20
- Honorable Mention: “Empty on Purpose,” Natalia Yepez Frias ’19
The sunset was actually quite beautiful at the pet cemetery. It looked much more serene than the map in my email inbox made it appear to be.
I snapped a quick photo of the film set to send to my mom and friends back home before I began my graveyard shift. The proof of a burgeoning Hollywood career may have been morbid, but it was mine.
That afternoon had been a whirlwind. I stumbled upon a desperate Facebook post entitled “PRODUCTION ASSISTANT NEEDED TONIGHT” and, after responding, spent the next few hours driving to a COVID-19 testing site and taking the scenic route to set because I was still afraid of driving on Los Angeles highways.
The pseudo-reality show I would be working for that night centered on two guys challenging each other to last the night in a cemetery. My challenge was to finally put my degree in television studies to use.
I was fresh from a year-long stint back home in Amish Country, where I had been working remotely in my mom’s basement for a public policy company. I was beyond fortunate to have landed a job during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and to have worked for a company filled with passionate people dedicating their careers to shaping our country’s education and workforce landscape.
While working with that company, I realized that, at 22, my proudest accomplishments were behind me. I would work film into conversations with clients whenever I could (which took a lot of linguistic maneuvering) and jumped at any chance to discuss the documentaries I created while in school. When I would talk about these projects, it was in a way that seemed somehow more removed than the past tense. It was as if I had shed my most favorite and passionate layer of myself. The butterfly had become a caterpillar.
A year out of college, I was measuring the quality of my days by whether I was able to watch a movie after work. The stakes of my life had become incredibly low. I spent my weekends submitting blind job applications to any position that would get me a foot in the entertainment industry.
I willed myself to land a job in New York. It was an Amtrak ride away from home, and, despite my inability to name the five boroughs, it was the practical move to make. I debated moving on the phone with friends who were also ready to migrate, maybe to New York, maybe to London, maybe to Los Angeles.
“It’s sunny all the time.”
“You really can’t beat the amount of opportunity.”
“It’s the pulse of the industry.”
I never was good at being practical, anyways.
On July 4th, I flew to the City of Angels, with no return trip planned.
“Like Thoreau, I will claim my independence,” I obnoxiously told my family. The cheapest flight luckily coincided with an opportunity to demonstrate my dramatic flair.
Unlike Thoreau, however, I had to navigate the Los Angeles public transit system. I got lost on the bus in my first week (and ended up with my most expensive Uber purchase to date).
I pierced my ears three times on my first weekend in an effort to convince myself that I was edgy enough for the west coast.
I did whatever I could to tell myself that I belonged, that I was a part of this city. I swore that I would be better than those movie characters who just can’t get a piece of the success they’ve desperately craved their entire lives.
I held onto the dream ever so tightly, especially since I was sharing a room with two other girls and had to keep my belongings within an arm’s reach of my twin bed.
I had funded my adventure by staying on part-time at the public policy company that was kind enough to continue my employment after I shared my silver screen dreams. I worked east coast hours and would crash at 2 p.m. every afternoon, exhausted from talking policy over the sounds of our landlord’s renovations next door and the screams of my roommate when she found out our water had been shut off (unannounced) once again.
It was a sweaty, exhausting, lonely and exhilarating time.
I was crawling into bed after a full day’s work when I happened upon the Facebook post. My impulsive decision to jump on the job was humbling. I had to navigate COVID-19 protocols, loading equipment onto a truck and staying far enough from the talent while being close enough to anyone who needed help.
Upon returning from a coffee run, I found out that we had inadvertently been filming in someone’s backyard. The family of skunks were ready to reclaim their property, and I was needed to keep tabs on them. The majority of my night was spent on skunk patrol.
The shift ended around 3 a.m., which allowed me to fit in a REM cycle or two before waking up for my Friday staff meeting. I was eager to share my escapades from a few hours before with my coworkers over Zoom. I could tell that they were happy for me, but had absolutely no desire to trade places with me.
My experience, however brief or bizarre, was mine. I somehow was paid to help produce a story on camera and experienced a wacky story to send back home. I didn’t need anything else (other than some furniture, but that was a minor concern).
That job did not end up leading to any magical connections or a ticket to the Oscars. It did, however, give me a little extra cash and the little push I needed to know that I could make it in California.
If a skunk could find its home in a graveyard, I could find a home in the entertainment industry.
Gretchen Hopkirk’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2022 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She lives in West Los Angeles, where she works as an assistant for a documentary director. She spends her free time exploring the city's comedy scene, listening to podcasts and trying out for game shows.