Marie Claire: We are sitting in the Santa Monica, California, offices of Star Wars producer J.J. Abrams' production company, Bad Robot. Impressive! Let's talk about how you got your start.
Michelle Rejwan: My path was nontraditional. I went to UCLA for a year, transferred to USC, then decided to take a leave of absence. School always mattered to me, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to study, so it felt like the right decision. Through a friend of my sister's, I got a job as assistant to Allison Jones, a casting director who did a lot of Judd Apatow's films. She was an absolute genius, and I got to be a small, teeny part of all these great films and shows I admired. Through her, I met Jeff Garlin, executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and became his assistant.
MC: What did you do for Jeff?
MR: Jeff likes to encourage young talent. He let me read scripts, brought me into the cutting room, and asked for my feedback. He became a real mentor and opened my eyes to what I wanted to do. It all evolved so naturally.
MC: You worked for Jeff for almost two years before deciding to go back to school. Why was that the right time?
MR: I was always honest with Jeff that I had a yearning to go back to school; it felt like unfinished business. Of course, a voice in my head said, "You can't leave the business; you'll never get back in." But I never listened to it. Jeff was so supportive and said, "You should definitely go." So I applied to Columbia University and got a degree in literature and writing. It was such a different college experience than I'd had before; I wanted to take advantage of every minute of it.
MC: After graduating, you landed a job as an assistant to J.J. Abrams. How did that happen?
MR: I heard through Jeff that J.J. was looking for an assistant. I interviewed, though it took eight months to get an offer because he was in the middle of making the first Star Trek film.
My job was to run his office, doing administrative tasks like handling phones and scheduling, and securing approvals for materials that were waiting for his feedback. He had a lot of TV and film projects, so he had to get to quite a lot. One of the first things he asked was to make sure I stayed on him constantly, reminding him of what he needed to do. And I did!
MC: What do you think made you a great assistant?
MR: Being able to anticipate things was a big help. I might say, "I know we're making this decision, but can I offer my point of view?" In this business, things come at you constantly that you're not prepared for, so you have to learn how to figure things out on your own. I always felt it was important not to just dump a problem at my boss's feet. What J.J. valued most was having me take initiative on my own.
MC: The million-dollar question—how did you parlay the assistant position into a job coproducing Star Wars, one of the top-grossing film franchises in history?
MR: I had been working as J.J.'s assistant for three years. We were making Super 8 and started working together in a slightly different way. We would talk about scenes and performances, and when we came back from shooting, I was more involved in postproduction. One day, he said, "I'm giving you an associate producer credit on the film." From there, we worked on Star Trek Into Darkness and right into Star Wars. It all happened very organically and became the greatest thing I ever could have hoped for.
MC: What are your hours like?
MR: A normal day at the office is 9 a.m. or so to 7:30 p.m. But when you're working on a film, which I've been doing for the past three years, the hours can be anywhere from 10- to 14-hour days.
MC: What is the most important piece of career advice you've ever received?
MR: Never settle for good when something can be great. When numerous pressures are coming at you, it can be seductive to think you've done all you can do. But if J.J. hears an idea that makes something better— no matter who it comes from—he'll fight to do it. That's become a core value in my approach to my job.
MC: Hollywood is still, notoriously, a boys' club. What's your advice for women who want to make it in this business?
MR: One of the greatest things women can do is support other women. Hire them, collaborate with them, mentor them. Working incredibly hard and doing great work is what wins in the end, but that goes hand in hand with getting the opportunity in the first place. We need more of that in this business—and many others.
This article appears in the December issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.
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