Carley Simpson: Letting the Path Find Me

These days, Carley Simpson (B.A., 2004) is really in the dog house. Or the cat castle. Or in any other of the incredible pet dwellings featured on her newest show, Animal Cribs. An Executive Producer at Punch Drunk Pictures, Simpson is also the showrunner of this fun new Animal Planet series (that films out of Seattle).

A proud UW Communication alumna, Simpson is actively involved in the Career Exploration Los Angeles trips. Below, she tells us how she got to this stage of her career, and how other students can forge their own paths into Hollywood and beyond.

“I do love what I do,” Simpson says, “but looking back I could’ve never planned for the road I took to get where I am now. My advice is to embrace the unexpected and the difficult times, because they do pay off.”

Are there any particular challenges you’ve encountered that you feel have made you a better communicator?

“Absolutely! And I will continue to have experiences that will make me a better communicator. The crazy thing about this world is, we have all sorts of different types of people, and we all communicate differently. That goes for every industry, but I think because the entertainment industry holds a certain amount of superiority in the eyes of some, there are individuals who feel they have power, which is a scary thing when put in the wrong hands.

I’ve worked very hard to stay grounded and remember right from wrong, which seems easy, but when you are constantly surrounded by people that have a skewed sense of reality, you have to stand up for what is right. I have built a great network of colleagues, mentors and friends that I feel hold the right morals and work towards equality and telling true and genuine stories. I’m not afraid to discontinue friendships or even work relationships if I don’t agree with someone’s stance. I have learned to speak up; it’s way better to say something early than have it come back and bite you in the butt later. I’ve also learned when to turn my back and say this fight is not worth it. There is a fine line, but you go with your gut and your gut will guide you to fighting the right fights.”

How do you tackle professional obstacles?

“I have to remember that nothing is beneath me, because it is inevitable in this industry that you are going to always have to get your hands dirty. Sure, maybe I don’t have to go on coffee runs anymore, but the type of dirt changes; I still have to do things that I hate, like talking to the cast about something I can’t give them; that sucks the same amount as going and getting coffee, maybe even worse!

I have to embrace the uncomfortable and the stuff I don’t want to do. Some people LOVE writing script; I HATE it actually! But I still have to do it; I still have to try and get better at it because I will always have to do it. Also, there are certain things I love to do, like direct cameras and my on-camera talent, but sometimes I have to let someone else do that so I can focus on other parts of making the show amazing. It’s a balance, and learning to embrace those likes and dislikes can be challenging but also very rewarding.”

Is there any experience that you recall from your time at the UW that impacted your career?

“Yes! Two big ones that stand out. One was a TA mentor that, to this day, is one of my closest friends. He said to us on the last day of class that we should remember to stay in contact with someone (or a few people) that you really clicked with at the UW; you never know how they will affect your life in the future. I still go to him as a business mentor and whenever I need to talk through a challenge.

The second important experience I had at the UW was my internship with a local production company. I made the most of the opportunity, which ultimately led to my start in TV and introduced me to my future boss; I worked my butt off and they rewarded me by hiring me time and time again until a full-time job came available.”

You’ve produced a variety of projects. What three things do you feel make for compelling storytelling?

“Well, I could name more than three but I will go with these:

  • The first is being GENUINE, and by this, I mean staying true to yourself with your relationships and your own experiences. I’m a big believer in being authentic with my cast (and crew) because ultimately that is what will bring out the best in them. I won’t bring out their best stories if they don’t trust me.
  • Second, is DIGGING DEEP, and by that I mean not just telling the surface story, but more. A good story has many layers and someone has to figure them out; you have to ask questions, sometimes too many questions and obvious questions, in order to peel back the layers. There is a reason why we deliver many cuts of an episode to the network, because we keep peeling back layers on each delivery and making the stories stronger on each cut.
  • The third is something I talked about before, and that is embracing the UNCOMFORTABLE. Even when telling a story, or trying to get someone else to tell a story, there are going to be uncomfortable moments. Whether it’s talking about something emotional, or dealing with how a certain crewmember is behaving, you have to remember what the end goal is; the story will only be authentic if you make choices that will benefit the outcome. You might not always say the right thing, you might make the wrong decision, but that is what makes us grow. We can’t be afraid to make those decisions, because it will ultimately make us better at what we do.”

Are there any moments that have surprised you during your career?

“I think each and every project brings new surprises. I could say: ‘I’ll never be surprised by anything anymore,’ but I think that actually means you WILL keep getting surprised by things! There is no right or wrong way to do something in our industry. There isn’t really a handbook; it’s all subjective, so that means ‘anything goes’ to a certain extent, and you are always going to be confronted with new and surprising challenges!

That in itself really surprised me; there are ways other people have done similar things, but everyone does it the way it works best for them. It took me a while to understand this and realize that even if you haven’t done something before, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to do it the way it works best for you. Sometimes a system that was created before you works well, but you might dig in deep to figure out what could make things better for the overall good of the project.

At the beginning of my current project, someone told me I needed to do something a certain way, and although I really considered doing it that way, I thought ‘no, that isn’t the way I operate and it won’t be right for the greater good of the project, so I have to put my foot down.’ That wasn’t easy to do, but if I had gone down that other path, I would’ve been miserable and I wouldn’t have been able to achieve all of the bigger things I had in mind.”

What constitutes “a good day’s work” for you?

“Asking ‘how many times was I uncomfortable during a day?’ And then, ‘how many times did I feel proud of myself for getting through the uncomfortable and figuring out a solution?’ In this industry all days are challenging, but you make the most of even the lightest or heaviest challenges because you learn something. After I confront a problem, I walk away a better producer because I went through it. If things stop being uncomfortable, I know something is wrong; it means I’m not pushing hard enough and I’m not learning something. Settling is not enough for me.”

What advice would you give students who are interested in working within the entertainment industry?

The first “real” job I landed in TV was a full-time position with a very well-respected company; I had no idea how rare that was when I started. I worked there for three years and then knew I needed to go out on my own and become a freelancer, jumping from show to show, in order to grow. Some were really big name shows with lots of notoriety, while others were smaller. There will always be great days and tough days, no matter what show or project it is.

You have to prepare for those tough days, mentally, physically and financially! Some tough days are just because the job is difficult, or because you’re tackling something brand new and challenging; maybe the people are difficult or it’s a really long day. However, some tough days are because you didn’t prepare financially for a day of no paid work, or a week, or a month! This industry is a really tough one; if you go into it thinking it will only be rewarding, you will be cutting yourself short. I have learned to be realistic, not pessimistic or overly optimistic, just prepared for both the tough and the great days!”

What do you think students need to know before graduating?

“Meet as many people as you can; if you start ‘working’ in areas you enjoy, and show off your skills and work ethic, people will notice. The earlier you can start, the better. However, you don’t need to know exactly what you want to do while you are in school. Instead, it is good to know what you’re passionate about and then let the path find you. I didn’t want to be an Executive Producer/Showrunner when I was at the UW (I don’t think I even knew what that was!), but I knew I loved telling stories and connecting with people on a deeper level through some kind of visual form. Allow the doors to open for you, even if they aren’t exactly the ones you thought you would go through. Also, trust yourself; if a door is opened that doesn’t work for you, then close it and move on. Ask questions, find mentors and pick their brain; keep the people you enjoy close to you and be kind.”

Want to see more of Carley’s work? Check out the video gallery HERE