Chantelle Wells’ (WPTV – M.F.A. ’15) journey from her youth to advertising to staff writer on the CW hit comedy-drama Jane the Virgin is an unconventional one. As the recent grad prepared for commencement, she spoke to LogLines about her humble beginnings and what it has taken for her to get where she is today.
You landed a staff writing job just before completing your M.F.A. How? That was all the CBS Diversity Writers Fellowship. We’re assigned mentors in the fellowship who are CBS executives. One of my mentors was the director of current programming for the network and the studio, and one of the shows he covered was Jane the Virgin. With the relationship we’d built over the course of the fellowship, he felt confident and comfortable enough with me to mention my name to Jennie, the show runner for Jane. He gave her my pilot to read and made no promises! The chips would just fall where they may. Jennie read my pilot, really liked it, and I was asked to come in to meet with her for a staff writing position on the show. We had been training all throughout the program on how to take a meeting with a show runner, so even though I was nervous, I felt prepared. I guess I was prepared, because exactly a week after I met with Jennie, I found out I got the job!
How did you hear about the fellowship? It’s funny, I almost didn’t apply. You have to submit a spec of an existing show and an original pilot. I felt great about my pilot. My spec… I felt like maybe I should work on it a little more and just apply next year. But I changed my mind and just went for it. I have to actually thank my third year WPTV cohort for that. I wouldn’t have even known about this fellowship or any other if my peers hadn’t been discussing their applications. I asked someone what it was, they told me, and the rest is history.
Many of the professionals you met through the CBS Diversity Writers Fellowship, from your mentors to the executives to the program director, really took you under their wings to make this dream come true. Getting into the fellowship has been a life-changing experience. The program taught me so many things. Most of all it teaches you how to be “staffable.” It teaches you the skill of taking a meeting with a show runner–this is not the kind of thing you just walk into; it actually is a skill you don’t learn in school. There is prep, and there is a very intricate dance that takes place when you’re in a meeting, and I wouldn’t have learned any of it without the program. It also demystified the writer’s room as it gave all of us the opportunity to sit in and shadow a real TV writer’s room. To be able to watch working writers in the industry breaking a story is invaluable. We also had “manager night” and “agent night” where it is set up like a speed date and we basically pitch ourselves in order to get representation. That’s how I got my manager. And I met an agent in that session who helped facilitate a meeting with the agent I have now. I cannot encourage writers enough to get out there and apply to these programs. Some of them are diversity programs, some of them are not and are open to everyone. But, the most important lesson is to be your own advocate for your future. Don’t depend on your education alone. It’s not enough. You have to find the avenues that will help you get to where you want to go and, for me, that was the CBS Fellowship.
That’s great advice. You also persevered through some early life challenges…living in the back of your family’s car for a while, being the only African American girl at an all white high school. How have these experiences shaped you as a writer? It’s given me a voice and a perspective that no one else has. That’s true for anybody with a unique background. Your experiences inform your writing, and no two people share exactly the same experience in the same way. So, I’m the only one who can speak to those particular issues in the way I experienced them. I channel a lot of what I was feeling back then into my characters. It’s never the same situations, but it’s always emotionally honest. I put my characters through a lot of crap! But I pull from where I’ve been and I put it all into the writing. It’s a whole lot cheaper than therapy!
You earned your B.S. in marketing in Boston and worked in advertising for eight years. What was the catalyst to change your entire career from writing for commercials to writing for television? I had always loved television. Growing up, I set my schedule by the TV schedule. So, I knew that I wanted to get into something that had to do with TV. Growing up the way I did, having a steady income was really important to me, so I tried to think of a career that was stable and still in TV – commercials. I did that for a long time until my mom got sick and I left my career to move back home to help take care of her. Getting away from the hustle and daily grind of my career, I was able to sit in some peace and really evaluate my life – who I was, and what I wanted. And I realized that advertising just wasn’t fulfilling for me. There were stories I wanted to tell that could never get serviced by a 30-second spot. I began to write a whole lot during that time and the light bulb finally went off. I can be a TV writer! So, after a three year journey, I became one.
As you embark on this new journey writing for Jane the Virgin, do you have a favorite SFTV memory? Having class with Jack Orman. He has taught me more in one semester than I’ve learned in three years. I’m a better writer because of him.