One of the hidden truths about working in the film and television industry is that you really have to love being in the film and television industry. Sixteen-hour days, a fickle job market and lack of recognition by the outside world are just some of the biggest drawbacks of being able to say you worked on a hit show or movie (or straight-to-video movie, for that matter).
It was no different for John Hampian ’05 (Cinema and Television Arts), who worked his way up from an unpaid assistant on Entertainment Tonight to production coordinator for one of the most acclaimed shows in recent American TV history, Mad Men.
The San Luis Obispo native came south to California State University, Northridge with a dream: get into “the industry” by any means necessary. But the main question remained — which school? It was important to study at a university that could provide him the best education and opportunity to start out. In a sea of colleges that could fit that mold, he found CSUN — which the Hollywood Reporter named one of the nation’s top 25 film schools. When asked why he chose CSUN’s Department of Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA), Hampian didn’t hesitate.
“The attitude,” Hampian answered. “Film schools can breed snobbery and entitlement, both of which do not exist at CSUN. The teachers and students presented themselves to me as hard-working individuals, so when it came time to select a school, CSUN was at the top of my list.”
Hard work never fazed him, something his professors quickly noticed.
“John is one of those rare students that embodied both academic and creative excellence,” said Cinema and Television Arts professor Thelma Vickory, who taught Hampian’s TV-centered courses. “When I think of John and his fellow classmates, I always smile because they were just so darn creative and funny. They pushed the envelope creatively while they were students. John and his classmates actually helped me lobby to change the curriculum in the TV option to better fit the skills and knowledge they needed to work after graduation.”
It was those instincts that would guide Hampian as he worked his way up the Hollywood ladder. He began as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight, but he quickly moved to Paramount before finding himself pink-slipped in 2006. After getting laid off, he found it hard to find work, or even an interview. Then, to his surprise, an old friend from the past opened a new door.
“Out of the blue, a good friend I went to CSUN with got in touch with me,” Hampian said. “She was working at Fremantle Media and arranged a meet-and-greet [with] the head of HR at Fremantle. The idea was this person could help me navigate through this tough time — and potentially point me in the right direction.
“I arrive in the HR person’s office, sit down and wait to introduce myself, as she is in the midst of an animated phone call and combing through the massive amount of files on her desk. This goes on for what feels like an eternity. When she finally hangs up, the first words out of her mouth are, ‘I’m sorry honey, did you need start paperwork?’ I didn’t hesitate for a minute; I just said ‘Yes!’ To this day, I still don’t know why she thought someone had hired me at the company.”
Slight subterfuge aside, Hampian found himself working for the company — for no one in particular! He took refuge in the kitchen on a daily basis, sitting at a table with a cup of coffee, writing notes on a legal pad to look busy until a company executive, who eventually would make him her assistant, found him out. With enough story to fill a screenplay, Hampian made his way onto an actual film set when another former Matador found him a production assistant position (“A real job!”) on an independent film, shooting in his hometown of San Luis Obispo.
When that filming was over, he bounced around jobs when he noticed a job posting for an assistant production coordinator.
“It was February, and the thought of a seven-month job was something to drool over. I sent my resume in right away,” he said. “Soon thereafter, I received a phone call from the (production coordinator), who set up an interview. At that point, I found out it was for Mad Men. I couldn’t believe it!
“The interview itself went quite well. However, at one point, I nearly passed out. I don’t think anyone noticed, because by Monday of the next week, I was working at Mad Men!”
All of Hampian’s hard work had paid off. He started work during the AMC channel show’s second season in 2008, and he stayed with the mega-hit until the series wrapped in 2014. Working on the set of one of the most lauded dramas in TV history was as amazing as it sounds, according to this Matador.
“From day one, I knew I was home,” he recalled. “Mad Men was the most organized, well thought-out, welcoming and professional production I have ever been a part of. Well before we won the Emmys for season one, there was this feeling in the air that we were doing something extraordinary. It was like our special secret.
“When we started winning, we were all so very excited for each other, and from that, a strong family environment was created. I made some of my best friends on that show and truly looked up to the leadership. We were always firing on all cylinders.”
The heat from those cylinders reached all the way to Northridge. As someone who really believes in the CSUN mission, Hampian decided to give back to the department he helped shape.
“While working on Mad Men, John never forgot CSUN CTVA students and provided opportunities for TV students to intern,” Vickory said. “I was proud of the way he handled students applying for this prestigious internship working for Mad Men by telling them frankly what they had to do and be, to be a contender for this position.”
John Hampian knew what he had to do to prepare Matadors to make that leap into the world of film and TV production. He’s suffered the highs and lows and understands what it takes. He’s been working on more films since Mad Men wrapped last year — and even proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Kate. And rescued a dog … but we digress. Knowing how much the film industry takes out of him and his peers, Hampian realized 2015 would be the best time to jump back into the fray — far up the ladder of a career built on his time at CSUN. It’s something he happily acknowledges.
“At CSUN, I was taught that those in my class made up my professional network, and without them, I had no connections,” he said. “It was with their help that I was able to get my start. And when you combine that with the hard-working CSUN mentality, you can have a career in this crazy business.”