Episode 188: Relaunching in Film and TV Writing/Directing/Producing, with Caytha Jentis
Caytha Jentis is a successful, independent comedy writer/producer/director who started filmmaking in-between driving carpools in suburban New Jersey as a mother of two. Her stories are character-driven, heightened-reality comedies. Caytha has an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. She has many credits to her name, including Bad Parents which is currently running on HBO, Apple TV and other platforms. Her most recent film, Pooling to Paradise, is what we discuss, among many other topics. Caytha put her dream career, the one she has now, aside for 10 years when her children were younger. Hear Caytha discuss everything to do with writing, directing, and producing after taking a career break. In this episode, special shoutouts to Lesley Jane Seymour at 21:20 and Lisa Heffernan & Mary Dell Harrington of Grown & Flown at 25:09.
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Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today we welcome Caytha Jentis. Caytha is a successful independent comedy writer, producer, director, who started filmmaking in between driving carpools in suburban New Jersey as a mother of two. Her stories are character driven, heightened reality comedies. Caytha has an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. She has many credits to her name, including Bad Parents, which is currently running on HBO, Apple TV, and other platforms. And her most recent film Pooling to Paradise is what we will talk about in part today among many other topics.
Caytha put her dream career, the one that she has now, aside for ten years when her children were younger. So, very excited to be speaking with Caytha today about everything to do with writing, directing, producing, and having to do that after taking a career break.
Caytha, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Caytha Jentis: Hello, Carol. It is amazing to be here with you today. Thank you for giving me this platform.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow, you're very modest and I want to make sure that we don't downplay any of your accomplishments in the conversation, but Caytha and I were just reminiscing that we actually have known each other for many years now.
And, through all the phases I've watched Caytha build her career back up again, and it's been really fascinating and inspiring. So Caytha, can you start for our audience to give everyone some background, walk us through your early career path up until you took your career break.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah. So I actually went to Syracuse undergrad and was in Newhouse School of Communication and always considered myself a storyteller.
So when I came out of college, especially back then, as you know of the go-go eighties, it wasn't like, "Oh, I'm going to be an artist." It felt like, "Oh, a great job would be to sell writers," because I have an extroverted personality, which perhaps we mentioned, and I liked sales because that is storytelling.
So I started in New York working in a literary agency and very quickly started selling film rights and representing journalists, and really understood the salesmanship of screenwriting. Then we moved to Los Angeles. I met my husband in college and he went to business school, and I worked as an agent out there.
And then I worked in development, and then I went to UCLA because I felt in my late twenties it was time to really engage in screenwriting. I got an MFA at UCLA, which at the time was an incredibly inexpensive experience, and a great environment, and wrote a whole bunch of scripts, got a literary agent, and had a little bit of success selling a project to ABC.
And then I said, "Huh, perhaps it's time to have children," which I think for many of us there is a naivete to that from how we were raised. In my education, it wasn't like you really were educated how motherhood was going to change your life. I had a child, and then I jokingly or not jokingly thought my creativity flowed out of me with the amniotic fluid. I was like, "Oh my God." I got offered jobs back, because I had a career, and I felt like if I returned, especially in Los Angeles to the intensity of the movie business which is so 24/7, it really would impact my marriage and my family. And I didn't have the means to just screenwrite in between breastfeeding and sleepless nights.
So that's when I paused my film career. And as I told you, I did work in sales. I was able to find a job that was more of a part-time, flexible, outside sales job. So I was able to continue to work at some level, but I put that career which was what I had always I had planned for, on hold.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Right. And, I think it's really interesting that you started on the business side as an agent and learned everything about that piece of it before you then came around and really developed your creative roots, which you always knew that you had. Okay. So you're on career break, you're doing the sales role on the side, you're completely out of your main field, your dream field. And can you talk about, was there some moment when you woke up one day and thought, "Okay, this is the moment and I'm going back to this," or did that sort of build up over time?
Caytha Jentis: Oh, I would call it what I described as my mommy midlife crisis. I had already moved back east, it was more of an earthquake because I did stop working in sales since it was really hard to manage that too, and I hit the plateau of where the part-time work really was satisfying, and my kid was in elementary school. It was just too much, which a lot of the women that you run into come to grips with, "How do I do all of this, and can I do it all well at the same time?" I was fortunate and I do feel like we were very fortunate to have choices, but it does create an existential crisis because if you have to work, you're just like, "This is what I have to do." But if it's a choice, I think, like I said, it creates a little bit of a crisis. And I did spiral to a very bad place of who I am, how did I become this, feminism let me down, I'm nothing but a womb, I went through all that stuff.
Then I started writing again, and to make it short, I was on vacation and met a woman who was a donor-inseminated, single mom, and I thought, "Oh, that would make a really interesting story," because she knew everything about the donor. And I thought there's a really interesting story there.
So, I had finished a script and it had been ten years since I was in the movie business, and in Hollywood I consider a ten year break equivalent to dog years. So it was more like seventy years where all my contacts and the people who were my buddies that I palled around with were now running studios and had higher level jobs. But I was just kind of somebody from the past.
Carol Fishman Cohen: What you're describing could be applicable to pretty much any industry where you've taken a long career break. You're talking about the whole film industry, which I'm not in myself, but my perception is that it is totally unforgiving. Anyway, that was especially intimidating, but just the way you describe it now, I feel that's how a lot of people feel when they read the alumni notes of their school and find that people are in very senior roles while they've been on career break for the last ten years.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah, and it's really hard. And again, it’s universal that there was a time when you were working that you were peers with all these people. They were at your level, and then while I was off driving carpools, which has value, and I knew I needed to do it, I thought,"Look at them, climbing the ladder," and now all of a sudden they're really not your friends.
There's this inequity. And that's what I think is challenging. What we all face is being someone that says, "Hey, I'm not asking you for a favor, we're friends." And now all of a sudden you feel the balance of power has completely shifted, and it's a real thing we all have to navigate.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So can you walk us through what happened after that? Did you keep writing and writing, and then there was like something that turned into more than that? And how long did it take? What was the progression?
Caytha Jentis: I had finished the script, and at the time, like I said, I had a background in sales, I was very active in youth sports and, I was working with a writing consultant, and I just said, "What do I do? Do I just put this script in the drawer?" She said, "No, this script is too good." And it was the time that independent films were really starting to take off, and Napoleon Dynamite was all the news.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wait, what year was this roughly?
Caytha Jentis: Let's see, I don't even know what year it was. I remember it was around fifteen years ago. So, you do the math, you're a numbers person.
Carol Fishman Cohen: It was around 2005, 2006?
Caytha Jentis: Yes, around that time. I don't even know what year it is, I don't know what day it is. But anyway, so in that time and yeah, it was around 2007. And I said to my writing teacher, "You know what? I actually think I could pull this off. Just tell me it's not in vain that the script is worth it."
So that's when I decided to become a producer and I think it's that entrepreneurial spirit that disenfranchised people adopt. It's,"If I can't go in through the front door, I'm going to go into the back door. I'm going to start a business," which many relaunchers including yourself have done. It's, “Okay, I'll just do it. If I can't find somebody that'll hire me, I'll hire me." So I went to a ‘how to make a movie’ seminar, because I really only knew a small part of how to make a film, and I embarked on independent filmmaking.
It was the scariest and most thrilling thing I'd ever done because I took my sales background, and my creative stuff and I raised the money to make a film. And I thought it would be a lot less than it ultimately ended up being. I had a mutual friend who knew Vanessa Williams, and Vanessa Williams and I had gone to Syracuse. That's the whole thing as you know from all these careers, it's finding people you know. And she said, "Oh, I love this script. Let's make it."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah, but I went to her agent and he said, "Yeah you got Vanessa, not Jennifer Anniston, good luck with it." When the script got a great review, ICM was like, "This is an amazing script, but you don't have the right actress."
And so I took the coverage, which is the reader's report, the recommendation, I put it in a business plan and I said, "I'm going to make a movie."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. So can you talk us through what movie did that turn into? How long did it ultimately take to make?
Caytha Jentis: It went really fast and, like I said, it was scary. It's like any business thing or renovation in your home. And by the way, that's how I demystified it. One, I'd run a town soccer tournament and I'm like, "Okay, if I can run a soccer tournament, I can make a movie." And I said, "Okay, it's like a home renovation. You have all these people who do these jobs, it always goes over budget." And I tried to demystify it.
Well, to back track, the film is called And Then Came Love. It took a year to make it, well, we made it and then it was released in a year. It happened at lightning speed. I got a deal with Warner Brothers, with colorblind casting before anybody else did. I told the story about a donor-inseminated mom before anybody else did, and had incredible beginner's luck.
And as I was starting to say, I wanted to keep the budget low. I wanted to make it something that I could share with my world. So a lot of my friends in suburbia were the people who invested in it, and they only knew me as a soccer mom. Nobody knew I had any career before, and again, these are not super wealthy people, but they were willing to take a shot on me, which was shocking. And I made the money in the end too, which was even more shocking.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's incredible all the way around, the speed, the contract with Warner Brothers, the groundbreaking nature of what you were doing, and then to have it be a business success on top of that for you and your investors is pretty astounding.
Caytha Jentis: I did write them a letter, because I got a minimum guarantee in advance from Warner Brothers and my sales agent said,"This is probably the only money you're going to see." So I'm the person that wrote them,"I'm sorry, you're going to probably end up having to take a loss on the rest of your money."
And then every year we kept getting money and they're like, "Caytha, that is like the best form of commitment."
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow.
Caytha Jentis: So what I did was, I wanted to find ways to keep the budget low. And that's what I feel as a sales person, you're not asking people for something, you're finding an opportunity. You're finding, “How can I help you and you help me?” So, I had friends that had skills, I needed somebody to find locations and lock locations, I had friends who'd done event planning and things like that. So, I thought, “Okay, that's not that hard.” I made a friend a location scout, another became my wardrobe supervisor because they had a similar background. And I was able to then have female friends who had been actors that I gave background roles to, or we needed somebody to do background casting, and we knew thousands of people in our town and they all showed up to be on set. So I was able to keep the budget down and create opportunities and kind of create belonging, community, as well as giving women this feeling of empowerment through, especially that first one, but I've always done that.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you just talk a little bit more about some of these behind the scenes roles that you had women in on your sets over time? Because I remember when you were telling me about this the first time I thought it was just so unusual, and you were talking about the benefit to them of being in those roles.
Caytha Jentis: First of all, what I do think as mothers or relaunchers or parents, that our network grows beyond just mothers, as somebody who's multitasking skills are one of our gifts. You cannot get a kid to school if you're not good at multitasking. And that's really what a lot of work requires, is to be able to be doing ten things at one time. And like I said, I had people who were in the food business that could provide the craft services or the food on sets, there's so many jobs within film, as I learned them, that I could give these women that I knew in particular and men as well, opportunities to pivot.
And that's really what it was. It was like, "Okay, you have these skills and I'm going to give you the opportunity to pivot it into a job that you'll get on a movie." And that's what I said to my investors. I said, "Look, I can't guarantee that I will make you money, but I will guarantee, one, that I will try my hardest, and that I will give you a really positive experience."
And again, I also did this with young people. My "interns'' who were either college aged or right out of college, it was the same thing. I truly did not make them people who got me coffee or picked up dry cleaning. I mentored them, I brought them to meetings so I could really help them launch their careers and help make introductions to people I knew. And, I jokingly say, "Yeah, someday hopefully you'll hire me," because more people wanted them than me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm thinking about, I'm remembering you saying something about when people have these roles you're giving them, whether they're grips or catering or anything, that it's really important for them to be there because then they're there in the infrastructure, and meeting all these other people, and that's how they move from one project to another.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah, that's basically it. It's showing up and it's also I think the magic word is empowerment. And I think women, as we've seen, I've seen on TED talks and whatever, this need for permission and the fear that they can't do something they haven't already done.
And that's where I just tried to dispel that fear that not everybody can succeed and not everybody has that ability, but I could see in them from other things they did, let's say it's being very active in their home and school association, that if they're running those kinds of organizations, that certainly they have the ability to do something on one of my projects. And the good thing about film for us is that it's a project. Because I think a lot of times what we grapple with is the full-time job. This was something that, okay, first of all, production is the small shortest amount of time. We're talking like three weeks a month in mind, like 21 days of shooting.
So you're really just pausing your life for a very short period of time. But then you get to have something to talk about, which is I think what's important about going on any interview is just having something interesting to talk about.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah, you're absolutely right. it's almost like it's transactional. And so I think that's really important and the opportunity to do that on a project basis, as you're pointing out could be like a key stepping stone for people who are on the way to relaunching. And you're exactly right, they have something to talk about. It was a real endeavor that they were involved in and they have all these anecdotes from it and they have all this experience from it now.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah. And that's what I feel like in interviewing, it's about passion. I think people that hire people want to just see you be excited about something. And that's why I feel even with kids coming out of college, don't force them into majors they don't want, english or philosophy. If you're in a job, and again, I don't know for sure, in finance, and you come in there and you're excited and they hear this, and that's what people want to see is people with passion. Nobody wants to hire a dolt.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. So Caytha, I know this is hard for you to do, but you have been very prolific over the last ten years and you've made films and you've won awards.
And I want to know if you can brag about yourself for a few minutes or pretend you're talking about someone else, but you're talking about yourself. And just give us a sense of a few of the projects that you've worked on and where they've gone.
Caytha Jentis: I'm happy to, just look at my Facebook, no, just kidding. That was a joke. And actually I'm doing that in the Covey Club, how to brag about yourself today.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, great! I was just on the Covey Club. Lesley Seymour is a wonderful supporter of many mentors and work that a whole network of women do. So that's awesome.
Caytha Jentis: But the thing I have to say is, I did that in And Then Came Love, I got a deal with Warner Brothers, I literally did everything from beginning to end. I touched everything. When you talk about the grips, that stuff, the under the hood stuff, I'm not so good at, I'm like, "What's the grip and what's the gaffer?"
But anything from the funds to the K-1s, I've learned how to do all that. I've worked with the distributors and the agents. I got a deal with Warner Brothers and then I thought, "Oh, my phone is going to be ringing off the hook." It did not, which was another crisis. But then, as I was saying to somebody else, "If you think anybody cares about you in this movie business, they don't, no matter who you are."
As artists, I feel like we keep persevering. So I made another film. I made a little gay, romantic drama as my second film, which was all about finding, living, being your authentic self, which, in many ways I was hiding out because I was struggling with who I was in suburbia and whether I fit in and I found a metaphor.
Then I did a play called It's All About the Kids, which was about a very Beckettesque, existential look at suburban sports parenting through an under eight girls soccer team. And everybody who it was about came. Because usually I ran away and I'm like, "Oh my God, these people are going to see themselves in there." And it was an indictment. But everybody was blown away.
Because the thing is, like I said, most of my stories deal with motherhood, parenthood, but from the point of view of somebody who's lived that. Many people in LA, their experiences are not the same as ours or they're written by men. And I really felt like I'm looking at this as somebody who's part of that world, and I was willing to look at my own behavior, as well as my friends', "Why does this mean so much to us? What is this? Why are we living vicariously through our kids?" It became a child centric world, as opposed to a parent centric world, which was what our parents were like, "Go out and play."
So that became Bad Parents and that's now on HBO. And then when I did that, just similarly with And Then Came Love, I was ahead of the curve where everybody's like, "Wait, this is a dark edgy look at parenting." I'm like, "Yeah." They're like, "Wait, we want nice and happy." Now it's Evergreen, because I was talking with my distributor and it's on HBO, it'll be on Starz soon. This I made five or six years ago and it's also an Apple TV. I do other kinds of things as well, producing a storytelling event.
And then I did The Other F-Word, which is where I met you because I looked at, "Oh, this is when we're living our lives for our kids, what happens when they are gone?" And that's how I connected with the Grown and Flown people, because I was like, "Am I the only one struggling with this re-invention?" And I really thought that midlife was a true coming of age time. Like I feel as women, it's the first time we give ourselves permission to put ourselves first, when we're no longer taking care of our kids, and we've taken care of our spouses long enough.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And hold on, just a shout out to Grown and Flown and we need to have Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington on, who are the founders of what is now become an enormous community of parents of teens and college students and beyond, and there's a book and it's like a whole media company.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah. It's amazing to me because they were new when I started The Other F -Word. And that's where I met you was during the research stage because somebody had said, "Oh, there's iRelaunch." Because I said, "If you're somebody who's fully taken a break, how do you get back to work?" And that's how I met you.
And I have to say The Other F-Word, which I did as a web series, because sadly, I ran into extreme age-ism in the film business, and especially in television at that time. It's changed slowly. And they're like, "Nobody cares about your age group. You're not in the advertising world that they want, we want millennials." And I'm like, "We're the parents of the millennials."
Anyways, The Other F-Word, I had Judy Gold and I had Alicia Rainer and Steve Gutenberg, and they're all like,"This is an amazing story. We want to be part of this." And again, it was done for next to nothing, the audience so connected with it, I had an amazing following. It's not quite dead yet, but I could never just make that jump because I'm not who they want to put in a writer's room. And that's also for relaunchers, there's some things you can't change and you have to just find a way to pivot differently. And that's just the types of stories I'm telling.
So anyway, then I said, "I'll give you something for the millennials." And that's Pooling to Paradise, which is my latest film, which I wrapped in December right before the pandemic hit. And I wanted to tell, it's also a coming of age story of people in their thirties, inspired by a night that I went out with an Uber driver in Los Angeles till two in the morning.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I saw the trailer, I know now the reference.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah. So, even though it's about four people, disconnected people, coming to, a little bit like the ice storm was, these four people in their thirties coming to terms with adulthood. Because we adulted a little bit earlier than this generation has.
But I really wanted to look at the female experience, because I was like, "These millennials are looking at a very different feminism that we did." And I wanted to put that under the microscope a little bit, but as well as look at men too, because our story doesn't exclude them.
And you have these women that came of age where they put themselves first. And I wanted to look at that. So I have a 30-something mom and a 30-something single person, both just coming to terms with, as a woman, being judged either way. And one of the questions which isn't in the trailer, which was a meaningful one, is when the mother says, "Can you be a stay at home mom and still be a feminist?"
And again, it's not something I answer in the movie. It was just something I presented, especially for this new generation, we're all dealing with, "What does it mean?" Because I think we're always grappling with that issue.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. just seeing the trailer, one of the characters was dealing with an issue that is age old for relaunchers. She is going to a mommy blogging conference but she used to be an Emmy award winning writer. And then she's obviously on career break now. She's downplaying and saying, “I'm going to this mommy blogging conference,” and it was actually probably something significant, but the other people were making judgements about it in the car.
And then she was self judging and we've seen that in our generation, we've seen that before. And I thought it was really interesting to have that come up again, fresh, for this current generation.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah. And I think they're blindsided differently the way we were. Because I think they've put off, many are getting married later and considering family later, but we can't. My brother had his first child at 51 or 52 with a mid-thirties wife, women don't have that luxury.
And so that's where I thought, and again, there's a lot more going on and the men have their own struggles they're dealing with in my movie. It's comedic, but I just really did want to look at it being a very contained story for people in the car and it's the sort of peeling away of the onion.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. It's so relevant right now. We have this whole COVID related a wave of women who are leaving and going home, and there's a lot of dialogue right now about how many years women have lost in the job market. And are they going back to these traditional roles? And what does that mean?
So it's very relevant. So Caytha, we're running out of time right now, and I wanted to ask you two last questions before we wrap up. And one of them is, in everything you've talked about so far, you just demonstrate so much resilience and how you pick yourself back up and you try it again and you try it from a different angle.
And I want to know if you have recommendations for relaunchers who want to do what you're doing, create and direct and produce series and shows and films, any industry and job specific advice for people who want to do what you have done?
Caytha Jentis: Yeah, and just quickly, I met Christina Starbuck at your conference, and I ended up casting her.
She came up to me after the panel that I was on with Lisa and she said, "I came to this and I'm looking to get back more into the film business." And we became friends and I cast her.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow! I didn't know that. There was a speaker at our iRelaunch Return to Work conference, which we used to do in person, and it was our New York conference, which is our biggest conference, we have hundreds of relaunchers there.
And there are amazing connections that get made, some with the employers that are there specifically to recruit for their return to work programs, but also informal connections. I just love hearing this particular one and what it resulted in.
Caytha Jentis: Yeah, but to quickly answer that, the thing is what I would say very specifically is, right now you can just, you can shoot and create content. Everything is very direct to consumer and you just do it. You find your allies, you find your audience, you make the content, you write, you share. Like I said, I'm doing a storytelling event, I'm creating a YouTube channel for it, you just do it. And your question is a whole lecture in itself, but I'm happy if anybody within your audience wants to reach out to me specifically, I would give them the long answer.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. and you are on LinkedIn. So everyone now in the audience knows that. But you're right, the technology we have today is, you can actually just start filming, and it's a very different world in that way. Now what happens after that? And, there are all these platforms that are instantly available to you. Of course, that means there are many more people doing it. And how do you raise above the crowd?
And that's part of a longer lecture, but anyway, very interesting. So Caytha, I just want to end by asking you the question we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience even if it's something we've already talked about today?
Caytha Jentis: No fear, no regrets. Everything is a no until you ask the question. You need to be prepared, you only get one chance with most people. Do your homework, but don't ask permission. You just have to figure out what it is, and you can throw a whole bunch of things against the wall and just go for it. Because, my whole thing is when you get super old, you don't want to have regrets for things you wished you had done, so now's the time. And again, even if you are unprepared, you learn from your mistakes, and so if you go in and somebody shames you, then you know what your homework is.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Caytha, that is such excellent advice for all relaunchers. So many of us are 35 to 55 or older, we're men and women, people who take career breaks for a whole range of reasons. And what you said applies, I think in every case, thank you so much. And Caytha, thanks for joining us today.
Caytha Jentis: Thank you. And I will see you around I can tell right now.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So also let me ask you this. How can people find out more about your work?
Caytha Jentis: You can go to my website, which is FoxMeadowFilms.com, or like you mentioned LinkedIn, and I'm on Instagram and Facebook as my name Caytha, it's one of the benefits of having a weird name.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you spell that so people know how to find you?
Caytha Jentis: C A Y T H A, and I'm very accessible.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Excellent. Thank you so much. Thanks Caytha.
Caytha Jentis: Thank you.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for a job board, and access our return to work tools and resources, go to iRelaunch.com.
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