It’s like the Wild West out there.
Sari Cohen Freelance Journalist
I think everybody has a connection to what they want to do for different reasons, right? When I was a kid, I was going through a really tough time when I was in high school. One of my best friends had committed suicide. I had experienced loss when I was younger — I grew up with my mom being sick — and this shook my world. This was suicide and this was very different than anything I had ever known, and I couldn’t … I was in a bad way. My mom, once a month, used to pull me from school. She would never tell me when, but she would come in on like a Tuesday, I was living in New York, I grew up in New York. So once a month, she would come in and she would randomly just take me out from school and then she would take me into the city and we would go see a Broadway show. Tuesdays were special deals, so we would take a train into New York City and we would go and look at whatever was available and she’d be like “what do you feel like seeing today?” So one day she takes me in and the only thing available is Les Miserables. Which, at the time, is of course an award-winning show AND it’s the most depressing show you could ever imagine, right? So for a kid that’s going through some tumultuous times, taking them to see this horribly depressing show… [laughing] Anyway, we go in to see the show, and for three hours… I think the show was three hours long… but for me, for three hours, I was totally enveloped in this world. I was just so taken with what was happening, so involved with what was happening, that I forgot where I was, I forgot who I was, I didn’t know what was going on, I was so involved in the characters and the story and the journey that they took me on that by the time the show was over and the lights came on, they had transported me somewhere else. It was like I woke up. I was crying, but I wasn’t crying for me, I was crying for what I saw. And that was the moment I knew that was what I wanted to do. I thought that was the greatest gift that I could have received and I was like “I want to do that for other people.” So I knew I wanted to tell stories, I just thought it was through acting.
And then life happened. I worked a bunch of odd jobs and casting and whatever, and then my mom got sick… well, let me back up. When I was 19 or so, I started doing stand-up comedy and when I first started, I was in a troupe… and this was when I was still pursuing the whole acting thing. So I was in a comedy troupe and we had a comedy writer. After doing it for a couple of years, I decided that I wanted to write my own. And that’s what started me on writing. I started writing my own comedy and then doing it on my own away from the troupe. I did it one night, and had a comic come up to me after my set, and was like “Do you think you could write my stuff for me?” And I was like [laughing] “I don’t know… mayyybe? I think so… ok!” So I wrote stand-up comedy and then I wrote for this comic and then after I did that for a little bit, I decided I was going to write a screen play because I read enough of them as an actress and I love writing, so I might as well. That began this journey into filmmaking. So, I began this whole documentary film kind of thing, worked on that for a little bit, and then that was when my mom got sick. Everything just stopped. That was my whole life. The struggle of like two years and what that was like and then coming out of it, and her being alive and all of us having our health and kind of having these new eyes… I knew I wanted to be a writer and I knew I just wanted to go for it.
I was working as a consultant for a while doing writing. I was hired to first do investigative journalism: “I’m looking for a writer and I need somebody to interview my clients for my company. Did you ever do anything like this before?” “Well, no, but I’m a writer so I think I could do it. Sure.” So I did that for a lot of years. And then somebody tapped me to host a show: “Did you ever host a show before?” “No, but I’ve done this before, so why not? Let’s do it.” And then when the jobs fell apart and I was stuck in the “now what am I going to do?”… the only thing I knew to do was write. That was it. I just knew to write and that’s what led me here. I took every opportunity, I wrote every day, and put my work out there. So, I ended up in this world of journalism. And I love it.
For me, when I first started doing interviews… I do it because I love people, I love connecting with people, that’s kind of what it is about for me. We’re all storytellers in our own way. It just depends on how you choose to tell a story and through what eyes you see it. I’m never there for me. I’m not there to do anything other than connect with the person I’m talking to. I love that people want to share their stories and I love that I get to tell their stories through my eyes, but I’m not there to give my opinion. I’m not there to talk about what I think about somebody’s body of work. That’s up to the viewer. That person is their own artist and whoever is taking it in, whoever’s listening to that song or watching that show, it’s up to them to decide whether or not they like it. It’s not my job to say “Oh, I think this about this movie.” Sometimes, if I’m really passionate about it, I might add in some descriptive words but generally, I just want to tell the person’s story and what about them is so incredible and inspiring. It’s not that everybody you meet is so wonderful perfect and amazing, it’s just you have to focus on the things about them that are.
I feel like the key is in the moment. The key is when you’re talking to them and what you feel for them and how you see their story. It’s amazing when you are able to connect with somebody that you don’t know. Especially on the carpets, because those interviews are so quick. You’ve got maybe three minutes max to get something that you can use to help tell your story. And you don’t know when you’re talking to, say, a cast of people, who’s going to give you what. You have to start piecing something together that’s going to be cohesive. My job only begins when I initiate the conversation. And as I’m talking to them, it’s more about the connection that we have that ends up telling the story itself.
For carpets, that’s a whole press thing, right? You’ll get called in for whatever event, and then … it depends on the carpet and it depends on the event and it depends on the talent and who’s going to give what interview. You just never know what you’re going to get coming down the carpet. Every time is different. Every event is different. Whether it’s an awards show, or whether it’s a premier, or whether it’s something very specific like a charity event, everything is very different. So you kind of have to find your story in that.
The first couple of carpets that I ever did, I would be on the carpet and I kept waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and go “Honey, are you sure you’re supposed to be here?” And I’d be like “How did I get here? Who the fuck let me in here? Who credentialed me?? This is nuts!” And then after a while, it was like, not only do I belong here, this is everything. The people that I’ve met and connected with and the stories that they’ve given me and the moments that we’ve shared… part of the beauty of this is that every day is different. So, whether I’m interviewing someone in person, whether I’m interviewing someone on the phone, whether I’m doing a red carpet, whether I’m doing a festival, whether I’m at a concert, everything is different. Every day is different, every person is different. And a lot of it is surprising. You really never know what you’re going to get from anybody. You never know the connection you’re going to make, you never know the story you’re going to get; it’s all a surprise.
A lot of people ask me “What’s the worst interview you’ve ever had?” and I say I’ve never had one. I haven’t. Sometimes I’m super excited but the connection’s not there or sometimes I’ll meet somebody I didn’t know I was going to have a connection with and then I will, and all of a sudden I’m a fan. Like “Oh, I always liked you… but now I love you.” But the day that changed everything… I will tell you the interview that changed my life. Stephen Marley.
The first festival that I ever covered – actually, it was just over a year ago – one of my first big interviews was Stephen Marley. And I grew up listening to Bob Marley like most people did, and being influenced by his music and his impact and his message his life, all of it. And of course going to a million festivals when I was a kid and listening to Ziggy or Stephen, or you know.
So, I had this very weird moment being at this festival as a member of the press and watching Stephen Marley perform. I first remember getting OKed for the interview. Once you get credentialed, then the whole thing comes after it, the list of contacts to start the interview process. And Stephen Marley said yes. “Yeah, we’d love to have you interview Stephen.” I get there and I’m watching him on stage and his presence is, of course, larger than life and he’s singing every Bob Marley song and he’s just … there was something about him that was magic. I remember thinking while he’s on stage: after his performance, I get to go back and meet in his tour bus. I couldn’t believe I was getting that opportunity. Well, by the time I got onto the tour bus, and sat across from him like you and I are sitting right now… I’m pretty sure the interview was only like three minutes long … I was so… I didn’t even know… I wasn’t even prepared with what to ask him, I just… I mean, I knew what to ask him but I was so taken aback by his own incredible spirit and he was so real! He was just so real. There was nothing forced, it was just a beautiful conversation about life and music and his dad. So, it was an amazing moment for me. It was powerful beyond words. I’ve interviewed a lot of people and I’ve met a lot of people and been a lot of places and had experiences that a lot of times I need to pinch myself. Where I’m like “Is this real life?” [laughing] I find myself asking that a lot. It’s just that I’m really grateful for all of it. That was the one that changed it all, though. That was the moment that affected me body, mind, and soul. I knew that was what I was supposed to do. I didn’t want to do anything else at that point.
I think there was a stigma with that [being a woman in the industry] when I was writing for TV. That was a bit of a different process. I know other people that I’ve interviewed and other women writers and screenwriters and television writers that I’ve interviewed… that’s been a struggle. And there’s been a very big movement for – especially in writers’ rooms – for women to come in. I don’t think it’s a huge issue when it comes to getting work and especially I think as a writer, you just write. There’s enough out there now, especially with the age of digital media that we’re in – I think it was very different 20 years ago. I could have never – I can’t stress it enough – even 10 years ago, I could have never done this. I would have had to have gone to school for journalism. I would have had to have gotten an internship somewhere. And it would have had to have been journalism. I couldn’t have gone in for drama or theater. And so it was very very different.
Yeah, there might be some road blocks if you’re looking to be a host or you’re trying to get up from online journalist to network TV, there might be some of that. And competition when it comes to age or women or what they’re looking for, but there’s enough out there now between everything that’s going on online that I feel like you just have to do you and figure it out and don’t let anyone tell you what’s right or what’s wrong or this is the norm or this is what it should be. There are no rules. It’s like the Wild West out there. I know people that have started their own media company. They just started a website that ended up getting really popular and now they’re considered press. It’s a whole other world. At this point, I don’t personally see anything about women that’s negative or positive per se … everybody’s kind of equal. Especially on the carpet. I see male hosts. I see male journalists. I see female journalists. I see female hosts. So it’s kind of cool and maybe it’s just the way that things are because everybody works remotely now. Nobody has an office. You go and you cover events or you go and do interviews and everything else is done at home and you just submit everything online. I think it really is based more on your skill and your talent and what you do and what you’ve done as opposed to … I was going to say unless you’re going to be on camera, but even still! [laughing] It just doesn’t matter like it used to.
One of the things that I love about where I’m at is the creative control that I have over it. I have editors, I have producers, but as long as I get things cleared with them, I’m good to run with it. Some other places will shift your stories and they’ll rewrite it for you or they’ll … you hear it all the time with screenplays and I’ve done it with other outlets where I’ll write something and then it’ll get published and I’m like “But that’s not… that’s not my joke, that’s not what I wrote! What did you guys do? That’s so fucked up!” [laughing] But it’s fine, because it’s what they do and that’s their thing. I get it. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. And it’s just a black hole of content. There’s so much content turning over all the time that you just have to be done with it and let it go. You can only do so much with a story when you meet a deadline.
Every once in a while, I will get something from someone that will quote me on something that I wrote or something that influenced them in a positive way. They’re really excited about something and they’ll be like “The Savvy Scribbler…” (my Instagram) “…the Savvy Scribbler’s interview” or on Twitter “@ask_sari said blah blah blah…” and they are so excited because they’re getting a story about somebody that they love and it’s made their day. Whether it’s about new music or whether it’s about something inspiring, or something beautiful that that person went through that I picked up on and I was able to just write it. It’s a medium. That, to me, you know, that’s what influenced me when I was a kid. Who knows, I mean, someone could be having a horrible day and then read something about whatever, and that changes everything.
What I’m doing now, I’m so grateful that people let me do it. I’m so grateful that people want to talk to me. I don’t apply for things anymore. When it comes to covering events, people reach out to me, and they’re like “Do you want to come cover this? Oh, we’d love to have you here. Oh, we’d love if you could join us here.” And the fact that people want to share their stories with me, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. Yeah, it’s hard work. I wish I could clone myself and do everything and be in a million places at once. You get handed an opportunity, and it’s not like “Oh, here, have this” … no. It’s like “Here, this is yours, now bust your ass at it.”