Life after Film School: Ida Yazdi ’22
In this series, we catch up with Columbia filmmakers who have recently graduated to chat about their time in the Film Program, what they’re doing now, and their goals for the future. This week, we spoke with alumna Ida Yazdi ’22.
Ida Yazdi is an Iranian American filmmaker and former architect raised between Isfahan, Iran and Birmingham, Alabama. Her work often explores themes of cultural identity, alienation, and otherness. She builds narratives that examine both the humor and pain that come with starting over in life, specifically through the lens of Muslim and Middle Eastern women.
Her most recent short film, Lessons, premiered at Maryland Film Festival. Her pilot, “Andi, Today,” was featured on the 2021-22 Muslim List, created in partnership with The Black List, Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and Pillars Fund to highlight the best unproduced scripts from Muslim writers. Yazdi was accepted into the Women in Film Mentorship Program and the STARZ #TakeTheLead Writers’ Intensive. She is currently a fellow for the 2022-23 NBC TV Writers Program.
She received an MFA in Screenwriting from Columbia University and has worked as a Writers’ Assistant and Script Coordinator for shows on Apple TV+ and HBOMax.
First of all, congratulations on being selected for the NBC TV Writers Program! You’re in the midst of that program now—what has it been like?
Ida Yazdi [IY]: The program started back in September, so I've been in it now for a bit. It's been sort of surreal. It's so hard breaking into TV, and I feel like sometimes we don't really talk about transitioning from school to working as a writer or a director and what that looks like. I knew that I wanted to work in TV right after I graduated, and I knew that one great avenue into that world would be through labs and programs like this. I started prepping for the NBC program last December and found out in August that I got in, which was really exciting. It's been an amazing experience so far. We have workshops where we’re developing original pilot scripts, and the people who run the program really care about us as writers and about the longevity of our careers. The ultimate goal of the program is to staff us in writers’ rooms, but it doesn't stop there. They want us to be showrunners one day, and they want to be there for us along the way. Having that support system has been amazing.
You’ve also participated in programs like the Women in Film Mentorship Program and the STARZ #TakeTheLead Writers’ Intensive. It seems like you’ve taken a multi-pronged approach to breaking into the TV industry.
IY: That's exactly it. When the pandemic hit in 2020, I was still in the Film Program, and it became a time for me to press pause and ask myself what I was doing—how was I going to transition from being a student to actually working in this industry, and specifically in television? At that point in time, I had a year and a half left. I knew I needed to strategize. Unfortunately, going to graduate school isn't enough. I started looking into fellowships and labs. I knew that getting support staff experience in writers’ rooms is really important. It’s one way of moving up and becoming a staff writer on a TV show. But those [positions] are really hard to come by. Then I found this amazing support staff training program offered through the Writers Guild Foundation. I got into that, which was amazing. Through that program, I was placed in my first writers’ room as a writers’ assistant, which was so incredible.
That opportunity really ignited the path I was on. After I wrapped my first writers’ room, I was recommended to start working in the room that I'm working in right now for The Girls on the Bus, a show on HBOMax. While I was in those initial writers' rooms, I kept applying to these outside opportunities like the Women in Film Mentorship program. Knowing I wanted to work in TV, they matched me with two show runners in the industry, which was amazing. A few months after that, I got into the STARZ program, which was a writers’ intensive that was only a month and a half long. Another amazing experience. I wrote a spec script and had the chance to meet executives and show runners and other writers. The way these programs facilitate networking makes it seem a bit more organic. After that wrapped, I got into the NBC program. It’s been a busy two years [laughs].
It seems like it! What does the day-to-day look like for these support staff positions?
IY: Writers’ assistant and script coordinator are two big main support staff roles for a TV writers’ room. As a writers’ assistant, the day-to-day is a lot of note taking. While the writers are talking in the room, breaking the story, I'm the one taking all the notes. It’s like being the eyes and ears of the whole room, so that at the end of the day, when the writers want to look back at what they covered, it's all in a—very long—organized document that I’ve prepared. I was always the first one in and the last one out. You’re also available for any research that the writers may need, depending on the type of show it is.
It was a really great experience. I wouldn't say you're like a fly on the wall because you are also a very integral part of the room. It’s amazing to see how these writers work together to break the story, understand the hierarchy of the room, and how ideas get filtered through. Writing for TV operates so much faster than what I was used to in school, where we spend a semester or two writing one script. Meanwhile, for this past show I worked on, writers had five days to write a pilot—and not just a "vomit draft" version—a good draft. Just being exposed to the speed with which they write has made me a better writer. Taking notes as an assistant made me a better writer in a different way, because It’s about synthesizing what the writers are saying—you don’t want to transcribe literally everything that is being said. It’s about synthesizing the most meaningful nuggets of the conversations that are happening in the room.
As a script coordinator, I'm the person that handles all the scripts. I track continuity between script drafts for story and character arcs. It’s also a lot of meticulous proofreading. Afterwards, I distribute drafts to the studio and the producers for notes, and then the network before sending it out to production. Something that I learned as a script coordinator is just the sheer amount of notes that you have to absorb and mold the scripts to. Sometimes there are conflicting notes, and you have to find a way to resolve them. Getting to sit in on these calls with the studio and the network has been really fascinating. I’ve learned a lot from it.
You’re simultaneously working in these rooms while managing your own personal creative and professional pursuits. It’s the challenge that everyone faces—how do you balance your personal work with the demands of your job?
IY: It's a struggle. I wish I had a really amazing answer, but the reality of it is that I had to make some sacrifices. It's a lot of weekends spent working, where I may not be working my actual job, but I'm writing for myself and working on my own scripts. I've done a lot of seven day workweeks. I'm still trying to learn that balancing act, because it's really important to have a personal life. When you're just starting out in your career, it's so easy to get burnt out. Forcing yourself to have a day to yourself is really, really important because you can work super hard and then get into all these programs, but be too burnt out by the time you start them. I’m not going to lie, it's really hard balancing having a job with coming home to continue working on your own stuff. But I didn't have a plan B. I had already changed careers in order to pivot towards film and TV. So, I just made it work.
What were you doing before coming to Columbia?
IY: I had studied architecture in undergrad and I was an architect for almost six years. I came to this idea of working in film and TV much later than others. I didn't grow up thinking I was going to be a screenwriter or a director or anything like that. The idea of working in entertainment was just never a viable career option. It's not something we talked about in my family. We had no connections to the industry. So it's not something that I ever really thought about. But I was really creatively unfulfilled doing what I was doing in architecture. I feel like people romanticize what architects do—that we’re just drawing and designing beautiful museums and cultural centers. In reality, I was sitting in a cubicle working on bathroom details.
I always saw myself as a storyteller. I'm a very creative person and I was always a fan of film and TV. It has sort of defined a lot of my identity, especially as an immigrant here. It helped shape who I am and it helped me and my family assimilate. I'm Iranian, and my family moved to the States when I was about seven to a town outside of Birmingham, Alabama. We had no intention of staying there for as long as we did. It was weird, having this Middle Eastern family living in the Bible Belt of America. I did eventually move to New York, where I worked as an architect. I was in my late twenties, and I thought, this isn't working for me, so I might as well do something that I love. It's scary to do such a big career pivot. I decided I was going to apply to film schools and that if I got into one, then maybe this is what I was supposed to be doing. I applied to Columbia. The script I submitted as part of my application was the first one I had ever written. I didn't know what Final Draft [the industry-standard screenwriting software] was, so I literally formatted the script in a Word document. I thought, 'Why is this so hard? There should be a program for this!' [laughs]. I went to the interview on my lunch break. I didn't even tell anyone that I was applying. Months later I found out that I got accepted to the Film Program, and it really changed the course of everything—my career, who I am as a person. While it was super scary at the time, I'm so happy I did it. I'm so happy I took that leap.
How has your time at Columbia informed you as an artist?
IY: Everything that I learned about film and TV, and especially writing, came from Columbia. Some people can dive into this world without school, but I really needed it. That structure really worked for me and it helped me grow as a writer and an artist so much. The workshops helped me intuitively understand what makes a good story work. It feels like a puzzle, putting a story together and making it work. Working through the structure and seeing how you can make it come together. It was so exciting and thrilling for me.
Professor Andy Bienen ’96 was also a really important teacher and mentor for me. Both in the workshop classes I took with him, and also getting the opportunity to work with him as a Mentor for Elements of Dramatic Narrative [a first-year Film MFA class]. He has been an important person throughout my time at Columbia and afterwards.
When you look towards the future, what do you see for yourself?
IY: Opportunities like the NBC Writers’ Program have been very validating in that they affirm that I’m really doing something. And I love TV. There's something really magical about being in a writers’ room and working with others that you don't get when you're alone in your room working on a script. I love how collaborative TV is, even beyond the writers’ room, like when you're in production and getting to work with all the other departments, seeing this story come to life. I love it so much, and it's something that I really want to keep doing. I'd love to work my way up. Hopefully, maybe in 50 years I'll be a showrunner. Who knows? [laughs]