Booked and Busy

So many Santa Clara women have found success in the male-dominated film and TV industry. We talked to five of them, at various stages in their career, on how they “made it” in Hollywood.

Booked and Busy

Hollywood is a man’s world, they say.

Who is “they”? Anyone looking at the numbers. For example, only seven of the directors behind the 51 highest- grossing films of 2021 were women. Those numbers aren’t great. But Santa Clarans have worked to change them. Santa Clara women, specifically.

Bronco women made their way from the Bay to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming directors, writers, producers, actors—anything to get their hands on a good story. Many were told to do something more sensible. But they don’t regret ignoring naysayers. Nearly 24/7, they’re on the job—working on a new pilot, meeting executives about a distributing deal, or in the writers’ room.

We’ve identified nearly 30 Bronco women from the past four decades who currently work in entertainment. Here are five of their stories. Although they navigated Hollywood in unique ways, what is constant is their boldness in knowing what they want and the belief that they can make it happen.

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Blye Pagon Faust ’97 had just finished up a basketball and theater career at Santa Clara when she set her sights on Hollywood to act. In one late-1990s television commercial, she guarded a life-sized Barbie—yes, the impossibly long-legged doll—in a basketball game.

What won Faust an Oscar wasn’t her performance on camera, but behind it. Two decades after her face-off with Barbie, Faust won the Academy Award for Best Picture for Spotlight, the film she produced about The Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Faust would actually undergo a few career shifts before she stepped onto that famous Dolby Theatre stage. When she first moved to L.A. after graduating from SCU, she appeared in several commercials and student films made by friends at the University of Southern California. While acting was fun, it wasn’t fulfilling—at least not in the way it seemed to fulfill her actor friends. “I learned quickly that I didn’t want to be an actor for the rest of my life,” Faust says.

What do so many young people do when their creative aspirations seem a little too aspirational? Law school, of course. Faust earned her J.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, with hopes of practicing entertainment law.

Alas, Faust faced a similar dilemma as she had with acting. Law school she loved; actually practicing law, not so much. What never waned, though, was a desire to be in the entertainment industry. On her off hours from her regular 9 to 5, she returned to her friends’ short films. “When I saw what my friends from USC were doing—working for agents and producers and directors and writers—I knew that was much more what I wanted to be doing,” Faust says. When she wasn’t in front of the camera, she was involving herself more in film production. She even served as location manager for one friend’s shoot.

She finally took the producing plunge. Faust partnered with Nicole Rocklin, who, like Faust, had a background in entertainment law, to develop the film that would become Spotlight. Just like that, Faust had dismissed working as a lawyer (with prejudice, if you will).

Faust knew Spotlight, about a team of Boston Globe investigative reporters exposing systemic child sex abuse by Catholic priests, was a story that could make a difference. But it was a hard sell. “The biggest challenge is being told ‘no’ on the daily, and choosing not to be beaten down by them,” she says. “You have to forge ahead.”

Six years after she and Rocklin began working on the film, Spotlight premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival to thunderous applause. It earned six Academy Award nominations and won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay in 2016.

Not one to slow down, Faust founded Story Force Entertainment in 2019, just three years after the Oscar win. Story Force, launched with Emmy-winning producer Cori Shepherd Stern, is responsible for such TV shows as Amazon Prime’s LuLaRich.

Not everything has to happen now, Faust learned. Sometimes you have to shoot hoops with Barbie. Sometimes you take a quick detour through law school. You’ll find your way eventually. “It’s not about instant gratification,” Faust says. “There will be many frustrations along the way. But that’s OK, because I’m in this for the long haul.”

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For four years, Mariah Chappell ’16 spent her days and nights working the desks of Hollywood executives in Los Angeles and New York. It had worn down her enthusiasm for entertainment. “You didn’t get into this industry to just be a great assistant who schedules calls and answers the phone,” she’d tell herself. But then, why did she?

Everyone had told her being an assistant was the key to Hollywood. But for Chappell, the key wasn’t fitting. It was time for a break, to rediscover her passion. Then the pandemic hit, leaving her with unused airline miles and loads of time. Like a lot of people, she moved in with her parents.

She planned to be back at work by that August, but with the entire industry on hiatus for most of 2020, Chappell couldn’t start over as an assistant. Back home in D.C., working in government seemed exciting, if not more stable than Hollywood. Plus, she figured it was the most important election year of her life, so she gave it a shot. But working in the Office of Elections and witnessing the thrill of election night only made her miss the highs of entertainment.

It reminded her of her first job in the industry. As an intern at the production company Rocklin/Faust, where one of her bosses was Blye Pagon Faust ’97, she pitched stories and watched them evolve. “I love those really early phases, where there’s limitless potential,” Chappell says. “That job made me realize, ‘Oh, I could actually do this—it isn’t a crazy pipe dream.’”

With her spark reignited, Chappell knew she wanted to reenter Hollywood. So, when Faust reached out, this time through her latest production company, Story Force Entertainment, it was almost like she had manifested it.

Story Force, which produces scripted and unscripted content based on true stories, was facing an influx of new projects. It wanted Chappell, whose hard work and creative initiative had left a lasting impression, to do some research. Was she available to dive into some of its upcoming documentary projects? Perhaps for an investigative series about reality TV and a controversial fundamentalist organization? Chappell jumped at the opportunity and began work part-time from the East Coast.

Now, over a year since she returned to the industry, she’s been promoted to creative executive at Story Force, where she helps organize the development of scripted and unscripted projects. “It’s the happiest I’ve ever been in my career,” she says. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself.” And it’s all because she had the gumption to stick with what she knew she was passionate about. As Chappell sees it: “Anyone can do anything if they stick with it. Keep hammering away at it, and you’ll be able to go where you want to go.”

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WHEN MALARIE HOWARD ’14 was born, her mother worked as a showrunner’s assistant at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles. Howard fondly remembers how her mom would bring her passion for telling stories home, writing little picture books for her and her sister. It inspired Howard to do some writing of her own. She dreamed of being a storyteller one day.

Despite her love for stories, the industry was unkind to Howard’s mom. She left the entertainment industry scared that Hollywood would do to her daughter what it did to her. So Howard saw a creative career in L.A. as a nonstarter with her parents. But when she took a screenwriting class at Santa Clara, she couldn’t help but fall in love.

“I had tried every way to write—novel writing, journalism—but it was so hard for me,” she says. “When I’m writing screenplays, my brain TV is on, and I can see everything. It clicks.”

Still, Howard—her mom’s warnings echoing in her head—was skeptical she could actually cut it as a writer in Hollywood. So she decided to compromise: She’d start in the tech industry as a copywriter. But she hated it. A serious mental breakdown a year in forced her to reevaluate. In recovery, she kept coming back to her love for writing for the screen. L.A. called her name.

But she had to be practical, so to pay the bills, she worked as an assistant at the Gersh Agency for nine months, making the usual coffee runs and scheduling meetings, networking when she could. In her off hours, Howard kept writing, working on her first TV pilot.

When Howard met who would become her manager, she was touched that he had actually read her work—a rarity in the industry. But going with an independent manager was a risky choice, as was going with a newly promoted agent. “I felt so supported that I didn’t care,” Howard says. “That’s when I started to learn that trusting your gut is the best way forward.”

The leap of faith paid off. Soon, Howard was pitching to big names and studios, like Jason Bateman’s production company Aggregate Films and Paramount, where her mom worked all those years ago. She sold her first project, a dark comedy called Spiraling, while she was a staff writer for the CW crime drama In the Dark. These days, she’s developing an animated show and a fantasy young adult drama.

“I just kind of stumbled my way into Hollywood,” she says, humbly ignoring the six years of grit, determination, and countless hours spent writing that put her on that path. To her, the only thing that matters is that she followed her gut. When you do that, she says, “you’ll always make the right decisions.”

It wouldn’t have mattered if Hollywood had chewed her up and spit her out. Heck, she says, “It wouldn’t matter if Hollywood existed or not. I’ve always loved telling stories and I was always going to wind up doing that.”

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THE FIRST THING Veronica Rodriguez ’13 ever directed was a short film for a senior capstone project at Santa Clara. It was love at first “lights, camera, action

“It was the best thing ever,” she says. “That’s when I knew I wanted to go to film school.” It didn’t matter that she barely had any projects to list on her application, she took her shot anyway. Rodriguez was accepted to the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California, where she learned how to be a producer.

A year out of grad school, Rodriguez was an assistant at Funny Or Die. On her off hours, she was moonlighting as a writer/director. Rodriguez made sure her bosses knew what she was capable of, too—she always threw her name out when she heard that a project needed a director.

After proving herself on and off the job—her independent work had earned her a spot in the 2018 Sundance/ YouTube New Voices Lab—Rodriguez was promoted to producer. But she kept hitting a wall. Although she was surrounded by developing projects all the time at work, she only got to direct when she hired herself to do the job. Six months afterward, her department was shut down. But it was a blessing in disguise. It allowed her to pursue writing and directing full time. The instability of freelancing was scary, Rodriguez says, but she felt free. “No one else was dictating my ceiling. I didn’t even see the ceiling.” Her work caught the eye of the Disney Channel, which enlisted Rodriguez to write for the young adult comedy Gabby Duran & the Unsittables. It was a perfect fit.

Rodriguez, who is Mexican American, has always loved telling stories that combat stereotypes. The Unsittables’ main character is the headstrong Latina, Gabby. No, she’s not mean, “she just knows what she wants and isn’t accommodating.

Rodriguez—you guessed it—set her sights on directing the show. In February 2020, her pestering paid off, and Disney asked her to direct an episode of the second season. COVID, though, would put those plans on pause. But not even the pandemic—or her first pregnancy—would get between Rodriguez and her goals. When production picked back up in late 2020, Rodriguez moved to Canada to direct two episodes of The Unsittables. “If I could direct these episodes and make the showrunners happy, while eight months pregnant and during a pandemic, I can do it whenever and for whatever,” Rodriguez says.

She would use that confidence just months later on the set of her feature film directorial debut Let’s Get Merried, which premiered on VH1 in December 2021 and was executive produced by Eva Longoria. Now, Rodriguez is a co-producer on Netflix’s On My Block spinoff, Freeridge, which tells a tale of four Southern California teens fighting a deadly curse. Of course, Rodriguez, fearless as ever, is campaigning to direct an episode or two.

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“You’re watching a ton of people come together and make it happen,” Emily Alonso ’18 says about being on the set of the Batwoman episode she wrote. “I wasn’t expecting so many people to ask me questions—I was like, what do I know?” she says. “But I do know. I thought so hard about these characters and put a lot of myself into it.”

After she graduated, Alonso hit the ground running. She moved to L.A. with her sights set on a career in editing, starting out as a post-production coordinator for a YouTube production company. The work was steady, the pace predictable. She knew she was playing it safe, and she didn’t like it.

So, she was proactive, seeking out an editor to shadow and learn from. Alonso knew that in this industry, you get the job by getting your resume on the desk of someone who knows someone who needs someone like you. That’s how it works in Hollywood, and that’s how it worked for Alonso. Her next gig was as a post-production assistant on the CW sports drama, All American.

She quickly learned that editing was not for her. Sure, it was hard to change her mind after she had told others (and herself) that she had wanted to be an editor. But she knew she had done her best, so there was no point in staying somewhere where she didn’t fit.

She was honest with herself and her bosses. And to her immense relief, they weren’t angry—they were supportive. They even helped Alonso get an interview to be a writers’ production assistant on Batwoman, a gig she landed.

On Batwoman, Alonso was in the writers’ room, watching and learning how the writers hammered out story details and character beats and crafted several-season arcs while balancing jokes and high-impact drama. It felt like the pieces were finally falling into place.

After a year, Alonso was promoted to script coordinator, where she was responsible for knowing the rules of the Batwoman universe like the back of her hand. Part of the show since its pilot, she was already on an intimate, first-name basis with the characters. So, it was only natural when her bosses tapped her and another assistant to write an episode together.

“The most rewarding part when I wrote my episode was getting to go to set and having a sense of ownership over my words,” Alonso says. For once, she wasn’t shipping off the script through an email and washing her hands of it. She was getting down and dirty, hyping up the actors and giving notes to the director. “It makes me want to write more.” She’s currently pursuing that passion as script coordinator on the Apple TV+ Godzilla series

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