After Jesse Harris left Emerson in 2012 with an MFA in Media Art, he packed all of his belongings in a U-Haul and drove to Harlan, Kentucky, to spend a couple of months with his family. Then he drove west for that “slow grind up the mountain” as he put it, looking for work as a film and TV writer in Los Angeles.
He did find work—as a clerk in the J. Crew at the Century City Mall.
Six years later, Harris is going back home for the Kentucky Playwrights and Screenwriters Conference, where he’s a featured speaker as a staff writer for the Netflix show Jessica Jones.
The first episode he co-wrote for the series is now streaming on Netflix and a second episode with a sole writing credit will air next year during the show’s third season. And though it’s difficult to claim any show on Netflix is a hit, since Netflix doesn’t release ratings information, Jessica Jones, a private detective with super powers, is increasingly popular in the Marvel cinematic universe, with the character also featured in another Netflix crossover series, The Defenders.
How did Harris go from J. Crew to Jessica Jones?
When he arrived in LA six years ago, he wasn’t a complete neophyte. He wrote and produced the independent feature-length film Surviving Guthrie and a short film, Sour Notes. He said both did well on the festival circuit but didn’t lead to any job offers. He ended up applying for production assistant (PA) jobs and other assistant positions within the entertainment industry.
After almost a year working at the mall, he landed his first PA job, working on a Hot Wheels movie where he answered phones, typed up correspondence, and ran the office for one of the producers. The movie remained stuck in development purgatory, he said, and the office eventually was shut down.
He met another Emerson graduate, Liz Alper ’08, at an alumni gathering. At the time, Alper was working as assistant to David Shore, the creator and executive producer of the FOX series House. Alper recommended Harris for another office PA position on a different Shore series, Battle Creek.
After a season at the CBS show, Harris credits Alper for one more career boost. At the time, Alper was transitioning to her own staff writing job on the NBC series Chicago Fire. She recommended Harris to Liz Friedman, a House alumna and one of the executive producers of Jessica Jones. Harris landed a job as a writers’ PA with that series.
A writers’ PA is essentially a gofer, but for Harris, it led to other positions on the series: executive assistant, script coordinator, and finally, in the spring of 2015, the most coveted spot for any aspiring TV writer, writers’ assistant.
That’s not an easy gig, he said.
“As a writers’ assistant, you take notes all day involving the writers’ room discussions,” Harris said, “and each night, you have to turn those notes into a comprehensive document.
“You have to be diligent, doing your best to weed through the nonsense and still get down every legitimate idea that’s pitched,” Harris explained.
And if a writers’ assistant is allowed to contribute to the discussion, “you can’t go off half-cocked.…You have to make the most of the opportunity when pitching an idea and give it your best shot.”
Harris served as a writers’ assistant for a season and a half. Then, at the end of Season 2, he learned he’d be getting his first credit. As the writers met to break down the last three episodes, Melissa Rosenberg—creator, executive producer, and showrunner for the series—casually announced that she and Harris would write the final episode together. He didn’t know that was in the works.
“And yeah,” he laughed, “it was a pleasant surprise.”
Harris said he took the lead in the writers’ room in breaking down his episode scene by scene. He then crafted a detailed outline for the episode and was involved in pitching the story to Marvel and Netflix executives for their notes. He said he worked on one of the drafts of the script, but that Rosenberg did most of the heavy lifting. The episode, “AKA Playland” is streaming now as part of the second season. Harris received the “story by” credit, with Rosenberg credited with the teleplay.
Though he saw the episode in post-production, it wasn’t until it first streamed on Netflix that he was able to “process” what he accomplished, he said.
The official pickup order for Jessica Jones’ Season 3 came on April 12. Harris was promoted to staff writer and soon was writing the sixth episode of the 13-episode season. The script has since been approved for production, and when it airs next year, Harris will receive the lone writing credit.
“There was the standard writer’s anxiety,” Harris said of his first solo flight, but that was “offset with the excitement of ownership, of getting sole credit.”
Harris said no decision has been made on bringing Jessica Jones back for a fourth season, but if it does return, he hopes to stay on as a writer. In the meantime, he has landed an agent: Emerson alumnus Sean Barclay ’99, senior vice president of television for The Gersh Agency.
Alper, the fellow Emersonian whom Harris credits with much of his success, also has had a good season. She and her writing partner, Ally Seibert, wrote two episodes for the CBS reboot of Hawaii Five-O, and after one year with the series, Alper and Seibert are moving on to the new ABC series The Rookie, where they’ve been promoted to co-producers.
“We’re both beyond excited,” Alper said.
The Rookie, based on true events, stars Nathan Fillion as a 40-year-old who becomes the oldest rookie in the Los Angeles Police Department.
Submitted by Associate Professor James Macak