She road-tripped with an aspiring surfer cross country for six weeks. She filmed a girl mucking up manure in a horse stall. She conducted 12-hour interviews in a blackened room. And should the life of Jen Gsell ’04 eventually make its way to the silver screen, the scripted comedy would follow this television producer’s treks from bustling New York City to rural Oregon filming for series like MTV’s MADE or Animal Planet’s The Haunted.
For Gsell, the move from English major to TV producer wasn’t so much a jump as a natural segue.
“Storytelling is such a big part of what I do,” she says. “In my last project, I was writing 30- to 40-page scripts. My strong English background from Lafayette absolutely helped me with that. Fleshing out a story and ‘arcing’ it out is second nature to me as a result of all the writing classes I had taken at the College.”
Gsell intended to pursue print journalism until a sophomore summer internship at Good Morning America swayed her to television news. After graduation, Liz Scott ’03 helped her land a publicity assistant gig at ABC Sports, another Lafayette alum later set her up at Fox News, and her career “snowballed” from there.
“You work somewhere, the people at that show pass you on to somebody else,” she says of the freelance-like profession of television production. “Fortuitously I got an interview with MTV for a job that lasted 10 months, High School Stories: Scandals, Pranks, and Controversies. That was my first foray into the entertainment side. It felt like a great fit — creative, and fun, hard work.”
The hard work ranges from transcribing hours of interviews to casting characters, writing scripts, shooting footage, directing scenes, and calling libraries in the “middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma trying to track down a newspaper article for fact-checking.”
However, the most challenging aspect of the job is not splicing scenes or pulling late nights editing film.
“Sometimes the content is really moving, and it’s hard to keep it together,” Gsell says. “When your interviewee is crying about something difficult they’ve gone through, you have to maintain that professionalism and not get emotional yourself.”
Her favorite part is asking the right questions to learn more about a person. She fondly recalls the interviews she conducted for an HBO project about the lives of New York City’s female elite, and the lasting connections she made with teenagers during the filming of MADE episodes.
Gsell hopes to have her own shows on television one day soon. The concept she developed and shot a demo reel for focuses on rocker/jewelry designer Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons, whom she befriended while filming him as a MADE rock star coach. While Lady Gaga used to open for his shows, in a twist, he has signed to open for her tour. Coupling her own production company with Picture Shack Entertainment, Gsell has shot and produced a demo reel about the rocker, with representation by William Morris Agency.
Should the concept air, Gsell hopes it smacks of the elements of good television. “Dynamic, interesting characters. Content that’s going to hold attention. And cutting edge,” she says. “The thing about TV is that it’s always evolving. It’s all about trying to stay cutting edge.”
It’s a quality that harkens back to the classroom.
“I will always love Professor [Bryan] Washington’s classes. He was always cutting edge,” she says of the associate professor of English. “He was never afraid to push the boundaries and make you think. That definitely comes up in making television. You’re pushing boundaries, making people think and feel.”