Dana Calvo On Making Amazon’s ‘The Good Girls Revolt’

Wanting to be a professional writer didn’t really fly in Dana Calvo’s household growing up, but after a short stint as a paralegal, she knew she had to listen to her inner voice. “The thought of staring down the barrel of a life as a CPA or lawyer was not for me,” she says.

With some tenacity, Dana scored a gig as a copy girl for the Washington bureau of The New York Times and worked her way up in the newspaper industry. She switched papers, moved around the country and covered a variety of stories as a journalist over the next 11 years. Then a mentor introduced her to a Hollywood screenwriter, opening the doors to a career in TV and film writing. With a new baby and desire to break away from the newspaper industry, Dana made the leap to “the dark side.”

She spent the next several years as a writer and producer, before creating her own show on CBS, Made in Jersey. A Sony executive on the show later told her that the studio owned the rights to Lynn Povich’s book, The Good Girls Revolt, which covered the groundbreaking 1970 lawsuit filed by 46 young women at Newsweek who wanted equal opportunity at the magazine. The executive told Dana the project might be right up her alley—and he was right. “I sent my agent an email and said, ‘I want this,’” recalls Dana. And she got it.

The acclaimed Amazon original show, Good Girls Revolt, debuted in 2016. Although it was canceled after one season, Dana remains fiercely proud of the writer’s room and cast. She’s currently working on a number of different projects and talks with I Want Her Job about being present and living life as a creative (although her mom still wishes she took more science classes in school).

You attended Swarthmore College, right outside Philadelphia. What did you study?

I majored in English literature, with a concentration in Shakespeare. I read everything he wrote.

There were four or five of us in that seminar, and we’d go to our professor’s house for four to five hours a week. Studying something so thoroughly and intimately left such an impact on me. I had a great experience at Swarthmore. I loved it.

After school, you pursued a career in journalism and writing. Was that planned?

I feel like using the word “planned” with my life would be incredibly misleading. [She laughs.] I always loved to write and knew I wanted to write. But in my house, to say you were “a writer for a living” didn’t really fly. You needed a trade, or a graduate degree, or a marketable skill. I was under quite a bit of pressure to get a “real” job. I had to be prepared to write for free for myself at night.

One day, my dad said to me, “You don’t have enough life experience to write.” I’m sure other people don’t either, and somehow they’re brilliant enough to come up with these novels out of thin air. But he was right: I did need more experiences, and I did need to become more aware of the world around me.

I moved to Washington D.C. and was a paralegal for six months. That was the path if I wanted to be a lawyer … but I really didn’t like it. Being a lawyer felt like an ill-fitting suit; I knew it wasn’t me, and I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it.

So, I turned my attention back to writing. I kept trying to get in the door at a newspaper as a copy girl, thinking I would write and get all this experience from a thousand different stories a day.

And then you got your break!

I did! I finally got in at the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Once I stepped through those doors, it was like, “I’m home.” It felt so electric.

Truthfully, the only reason I got the job was because I called every Thursday at 10:30 a.m. and begged to come in for free at night and make coffee. Thankfully, the one time I called in late November, they said they had one or two news clerks quit and they were left in the lurch for the holidays. If I could work Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, I got the job.

I was hardly hired for my skills or credentials. I didn’t have a journalism degree—I think I had a few articles from my college paper—and over the course of 23 months, I worked my way up from news clerk to assistant to managing editor and wrote pieces for several sections of the paper.

From there, I moved to The AP [The Associated Press], where I was an editorial assistant for another year. Then I became a reporter on the California/Mexico border.

As a journalist, you have to be prepared to move often. How was that?

It was crazy! For a while, I never lived in one place for more than two years.

My parents were sort of waiting for me to “get serious about my career” because they didn’t understand all of the moving around. My dad worked at the same place for 45 years; they’d lived in the same house for 40 years, etc. I come from a more traditional family in terms of that stuff. But I’d send them resumes or clips from these hugely successful foreign or political correspondents I wanted to emulate whose early years were frenetic. Like, “See, that’s normal. You have to punch your card in different cities.”

You were a journalist for 11 years. How did you make the jump to screenwriting?

My mentor in journalism, NYT columnist and best-selling author Maureen Dowd, introduced me to Aaron Sorkin socially. He was so charismatic and bright and we became friends.

After living and working in Los Angeles, I moved to Houston with my husband. My daughter was six weeks old when I got a call from Aaron. He asked, “Are you ready to come to the dark side yet?” Aaron was working on the screenplay for Charlie Wilson’s War and hiring a few researchers to help him adapt it.

I had worked in D.C. as a journalist for years, but had absolutely no experience in Hollywood. Aaron was trying to get the story right based on a great book, and I came along for the ride. It was a wonderful first experience for me.

That’s amazing! Did you plan on leaving journalism behind for this new career opportunity?

At this point, the newspaper business had started to disintegrate. My husband (who also worked in newspapers) and I started thinking we had to diversify the household income. Plus, I had a newborn baby. I didn’t want to hop on a plane if news broke, and I didn’t want to keep moving around. I wanted a more family-friendly career—and one-hour dramas are pretty family-friendly.

After Charlie Wilson’s War, Aaron hired me to be on his staff for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It was a super-smart, intellectual room of writers. With this new career shift, my family moved back to Los Angeles after three years in Houston.

You’re from New Jersey and later used your home state as inspiration for a show called Made in Jersey. It was the first show with you at the helm. Can you talk about that?

In 2012, I pitched a family drama to CBS. They bought it, and I had officially sold my first show. It was so fun! It was conceived more as Moonstruck meets Working Girl. It went through the CBS machine and turned into more a law procedural. They were lovely about it, and I learned a ton. I was really grateful.

That experience was sort of a blur. It was my first show and both of my parents were quite sick at the time. I had many out-of-body experiences thinking, “What am I doing here?” Creating your first show, you really earn your stripes. Even though everything was new with Made in Jersey, you kind of go, “Oh, I get it,” and see the forest through the trees as you go on. And it’s not as sloppy or messy the next time.

With Good Girls Revolt, I definitely felt more confident. More aware of what was happening, what was coming down the pike and what I had to continue to cultivate it. Good Girls Revolt was an exciting, rewarding show. I didn’t feel lost by the process.

Speaking of, Good Girls Revolt is what introduced me to your work. I loved it! How did the show come into your life?

I was running the writer’s room on a Netflix show called Narcos. I received an email from a great Sony executive who had been the executive on Made in Jersey. Because we spent so much time on set, we had gotten to know each other and he knew I wanted to get a journalism show off the ground.

He told me, “We just got the rights to this book called The Good Girls Revolt and it would be perfect for you.” He sent me the Newsweek article on Lynn Povich’s book and other articles about it—and he was right. I sent my agent an email and said, “I want this.”

Three days later, I was meeting with Lynda Obst, the non-writing executive producer on the project. It worked out beautifully.

I loved the show and was so invested in it. I knew we had something great to say. I was so inspired by our writer’s room and cast; they really raised the bar. [Editor’s Note: The show unfortunately—so very unfortunately—was cancelled and won’t appear on any other network.]

What does a day in your life entail?

It really depends which day you catch me on. If I’m on a show or running a writer’s room, it’s incredibly different from what I’ve been doing for the past few months, which is developing projects from my home office.

When I was on Good Girls Revolt, I would put my phone down—dinner and tuck-in-time with my daughter is sacred—but I was back at it after she went to sleep. There were a 100 things to do during the day: I’d have teleconferences on the way to work, review casting, look at dailies, try to fix a problem in a script that’s on deck, put out fires … It was non-stop. And then as things gear up, you’re also doing promotional interviews and appearances, as well as participating in the marketing roll-out of the show. That’s a break-neck speed when you’re running a show.

That is a lot to keep track of! How do you stay organized?

It’s a little like being a journalist—which is, you’re working on your daily news stories, you’re squirreling away something for a thoughtful weekend piece and maybe gathering strings for an eventual Sunday magazine article.

Right now, I’m writing a cable script for MRC [the studio that produces House of Cards for Netflix], and I’m pitching a one-hour cable drama with Plan B [Brad Pitt’s production company]. There are very different venues and stages for each project. I have a lot going on, but compared to the Good Girls Revolt and the Made in Jersey heyday, my days are chill.

You’ve written and produced TV shows, and had other roles in between. Is there a role you enjoy or gravitate toward more?

I love the newness of being a producer, and I adore casting. But I have to say, if I’m going to be a purist, there’s nothing more exciting or fun for me than sitting in my home office in front of a blank screen. That’s fun for me; not stressful. Anything can happen, and no one needs to know unless I want them to.

What challenges keep you awake at night?

I think women have a unique cross to bear when it comes to this stuff. What keeps you awake at night has very little to do with work. I carry guilt about being a good enough mom, being present enough.

Especially when work is near constant, I’d find myself in bed reviewing the day: “I drove my daughter to school, what was that conversation like? Did I miss anything? Did she eat well?” I walk myself through the day to make sure I didn’t just live through it and my daughter wasn’t a casualty.

But these days are slower for me. I have the luxury of time, so what keeps me awake at night are thoughts about my craft: “Can I be more thoughtful about my writing? Can I do what’s not expected? Am I really pushing myself?”

So, it reflects my days. When my job is hectic, my nights are a little bit of damage control. And when my days are calmer, my lying awake, staring-at-the-ceiling stuff is, “How can I keep growing as an artist?”

What helps you be a better artist?

Reading. I read a ton. I didn’t have much time to read when I was working six days a week on my own show. But for the past eight months, I probably read a book a week, along with newspapers and The New Yorker religiously. I’m also catching up on TV shows. Just replenishing, creatively: reading, going to movies and plays. Enriching that creative side and being inspired by other people’s work.

From a practical standpoint, I’m a fiend about taking care of myself physically. I try to work out or hike four or five days a week.

Going back to your dad’s advice about “learning more about the world,” do you feel like that helped you?

Oh gosh, yeah. At Good Girls Revolt, four out of six of us had been journalists. When you bring people into writing rooms who are geographically diverse, culturally diverse … That’s when you get a great melting pot to pull from.

I’ve lived all over—New Jersey, Florida, D.C., Texas, California, Latin America—and there’s so much of this wonderful world to see and appreciate. We’re selling entertainment that needs to speak to a lot of people. I want writers who’ve been exposed to a wide range of experiences and different types of people.

What career advice do you have for others?

I’ll give advice I never got: Surround yourself with sane and supportive people who are working hard at keeping themselves healthy.

The narcissists and rage-a-holics … That’s a time hole. It’s never going to help you. And don’t be fooled into thinking you’re going to change those people. I’d much rather surround myself with people who are going to teach me something and help keep my life a little more wholesome, calm and satisfying over a destructive “genius.”

What advice do you have for other creatives who struggle with pursuing their dream?

I didn’t know if I’d be able to “make it” or survive, in terms of being a creative. I did know that the thought of staring down the barrel of a life as a CPA or lawyer was not for me. It filled me with dread and discomfort.

You have to listen to that voice. My mom just prodded me today that she wishes I took more science classes in college. [She laughs.] It never stops. But I do believe their concern comes from a place of fear; they love you so much and don’t want to worry about how you’re going to pay your bills. But if someone else’s dream for you fills you with dread, then it’s not your dream.

As far as writing and creating, I want to do this as long as they’ll have me.

After Hours graphic

I’d love to grab a beer with:

Nelson Mandela

My favorite quote:

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” -Joseph Campbell

If I could tell my 30-year-old-self one thing, it would be:

It’s the carbs that are making you tired.

My favorite show to binge-watch is:

Veep and Glow

I can’t live without:

Eye cream

My favorite way to unwind:

Get outside.

I feel my best when:

It’s magic hour and, after a day outdoors, my daughter and I are figuring out what to have for dinner.

I think women have a unique cross to bear when it comes to this stuff. What keeps you awake at night has very little to do with work. I carry guilt about being a good enough mom, being present enough.