The other day a friend’s nephew who is starting out in the film industry contacted me to chat about my experiences. Since he wrote me via e-mail I replied with my story. I always enjoy recalling the tales of my film and TV experience as much as I do discussing film production in general. So much so that I could not leave this as just an e-mail alone. So here it is for you to read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did recalling it.
I wanted to major in TV/Film in college, but my parents weren’t too keen, so I opted for my other love, English and took classes in communications and drama. Sadly, the school I went to did not have a film/production course, and the head of the faculty at the time felt theory was more important than application. So, when I graduated, having no experience behind the camera, I knew I had to start from scratch. At my parents’ suggestion I signed up with an employment agency, since I had office experience. I figured that if I got into the office end of the industry I could learn what I can and try to find a way to go from that into the production end. I told the agency that I wanted to work in film/TV. Since I am female the only jobs open to a recent college grad like myself with no real specific skills were secretarial, which is a mixed blessing. I do think men have it easier, because they can be hired as assistants/apprentices, but during those years especially, women were always considered secretaries or administrative assistants.
I was placed at an ad agency. Not my dream job, but the boss liked my initiative and within months I was promoted to Account Executive. It meant cold calling radio and TV stations to get them to take our commercials. It was a direct response agency (think infomercials, but the 30, 60 and 90 second spots). I got bored with it pretty quickly (and sick of the rejection), so I decided that after a year I’d go do something else. In the meantime I volunteered at a community access TV station in East Orange, NJ. I learned a lot about the three-camera technique, what a floor manager did, how the control room worked, etc. All the shows were taped “live”, meaning there was no editing. Whatever got taped, whatever camera angles were used was final. There might have been a small amount of tweaking later, but they didn’t have a budget for full-fledged editing. I enjoyed it. The shows were taped once a week on Tuesday nights. We also taped a charity basketball game that involved Giants football players. I was the technical director, which essentially is the person who sits in the truck and switches the camera angles at the bidding of the director. So when the director says, “Take one!” I had to hit the button. “Dissolve to two,” I had to move the lever, etc.
When my year at the ad agency was coming to a close, I found it difficult to find work in New York, which is where I felt I had to take my next step. Most newspaper ads for film production were false ads from employment agencies trying to fill their staff list. I spoke to a friend I knew who was involved in the industry. He worked at BMI, the music licensing company. He told me he had a half-brother, Jeff, who worked at CBS. So he called him and told him about me. Jeff got in touch and told me there happened to be an opening in his department. One thing led to another and I got an interview with CBS and subsequently a job. It was another administrative assistant job, but I was lucky to get it because the salary was about the same as what I was being paid at my previous job, so they didn’t consider me overqualified at the time.
CBS was fun. It was another office job, but it had some variety. I worked in the Affiliate Relations department in mid-town Manhattan. I once shared the elevator with Walter Cronkite, plus I got to go to an Affiliates conference where stars of the fall TV season would mingle with the General Managers of TV stations.
My department was responsible for ensuring that all the CBS affiliates were airing the shows. My area handled the north central time zone, which included stations in Minneapolis and Chicago. CBS doesn’t own all their affiliates, just a small number in the larger markets such as New York and Los Angeles. The remainder have contracts with the network, which afforded them a bit more freedom to choose to not air a show because of a local sporting event. My bosses had to convince the stations to delay our programming, rather than preempt it altogether. It was essentially a public relations job where you did all you could to please the station owner, so that they wouldn’t cancel our shows. My job involved data entry. Every time there was a new show, movie or special, we had to send an announcement to the affiliates and they had to respond back that they were airing them or not. I had to key in the responses for my stations. Depending on the program it was either very quick or in the case of NCAA Basketball March Madness very time consuming. If the station refused to air it, we had to get on the phone and beg or bribe them (with a free tape or a visit from a star) to air it.
As with my previous job, my boss liked my initiative, so when we were short a staff-member, he gave me the responsibility of calling the stations. The job also afforded me some connections in the production end of the industry. I made a friend who worked on Rescue 911, one of the first reality-type shows, which was hosted by William Shatner. It was very popular at the time. I had to call them to coordinate a station promotion, and became friendly with one of the crew who filled me in on her job and responsibilities.
My boss was terrific. He understood my desire to work in production and got me in touch with a friend who worked on the soap As the World Turns, so that I could watch what it was like to tape a soap opera. I used to watch it in college, so it was a nice experience seeing how things were done on the other side of the camera. Guests weren’t allowed, so I had to keep quiet and basically disappear into the background. The director did notice me at one point and was mildly annoyed, so I wound up in the control room for a while, but I did see enough of the filming to get a good grasp of it, and the perk of being in the control room for a while was that’s where the actors would wait until they were needed. They had gotten their 5-minute warning and were standing by. The room wasn’t being used for anything other than a waiting area. I chatted briefly with one or two of the actors. They were very nice and down-to-earth. The taping reminded me a little of what I did at the community access station, as they tended to tape the scenes live, but they did allow for some pick-up shots and editing later on, because they had the budget. Episodes were filmed a few weeks in advance, so they didn’t have a huge window to work with.
A week’s vacation was included in my benefits, so I decided to go to Los Angeles, since that’s where I wanted to live and work. While I was there I was in the audience of a couple of TV shows including The Price is Right and Major Dad. So I got to see how those shows were filmed/taped and what was involved. I also did the requisite studio tours. If you have the desire I recommend Warner Brothers and Paramount. Universal is fine for the amusement park experience, but you really get a good taste of behind the scenes production at the others, especially at Warner Brothers. I’ve been there a few times and was able to catch some filming.
I took two trips to LA during my two years at CBS. My boss knew someone working for Lauren Shuler Donner Productions, so I got to go to Warner Brothers and walk freely to their office. It felt great just walking around there like I belonged. I saw Richard Donner walking around as well. This friend of my boss was the first person to tell me that you had to know someone in the business. He told me that when he first arrived in LA he called Martin Scorsese’s office repeatedly asking for work. Then one day he got a job working for Lauren Shuler Donner Productions and sometime later met Martin Scorsese at a party. He told Scorsese about how he had called his office several times asking for a job. Martin’s reply to him was, “See? Persistence pays off.”
I probably should have taken the hint and started calling him repeatedly, but I didn’t. At the time I thought his persistence didn’t pay off, since it wasn’t Scorsese who gave him the job. He never told me how he got his job with Shuler Donner.
I decided after two years at CBS that it was time to move on. The Human Resources department wasn’t helpful when I asked them if I could transfer to CBS in Los Angeles. They asked, “Does your boss know?” My reply, “Yes, and he’s behind me one hundred percent.” They didn’t believe me. In fact, my boss was also frustrated with his job. He wanted to transfer to sales, but HR wouldn’t help him either. He wound up quitting long after I left and going into sales in another industry altogether.
I spoke to HR in LA and they said I could quit my job in New York, apply for a job in LA and if they hired me they’d reinstate me and count the time off as a leave-of-absence. So I decided to do just that. My friend from Rescue 911 had told me that if I came to LA in January, I’d have a better chance finding work, because of pilot season. So I packed up my car and drove out to LA.
I got settled and applied at CBS only to be told I didn’t type fast enough and that there wasn’t enough turnaround to guarantee an opening. My friend from Rescue 911 was shocked to see me. I think she didn’t believe I’d actually take the plunge. Sadly, we lost touch.
Jeff (the man who got me the job at CBS) put me in touch with another half or step-brother who was a TV writer. He also had some good information, but he couldn’t help me either. His advice was also, “You have to know someone.”
So the next step was cold calling. I bought the Tuesday issues of The Hollywood Reporter, because they had extensive production listings. I cold called several production offices. I knew I was one in a million with no on-set experience to speak of, but it was my only option at the time, since I didn’t know anyone and since those I thought could help me land the job were telling me the same mantra, “You have to know someone.”
Meanwhile, I did temp work in LA for a few weeks until my mother put me in touch with a friend of her’s. This woman knew someone named Nelson who was working as a producer in the industry and who had done a film. He was a man who understood what it meant to struggle. He told me he had plenty of connections and that he would get me work, but I would be expected to return the favor. I agreed.
My first production job was for a film titled The Stoned Age. It was a low-budget film that – if it had been first released today – would probably do marginally well. Sadly, back then it went straight to video, although it does have a cult following. I’m often surprised at how many people I’ve met through the years who say it was their favorite film. The movie was co-produced by David Heyman, now famous for the Harry Potter films. Sadly, I never met him. Co-producer, Neil Moritz, was running the show. He also became very successful, but I never really had a chance to talk to him. He intimidated me mainly because he was the producer and I was a lowly Production Assistant (PA).
The film was in pre-production when I arrived, so they put me to work as an office PA. I helped out the storyboard artist. He would sketch things in pencil first, then went over it again in ink. I had to erase the pencil. Fun.
I did learn quite a bit in that office. They had the storyboards taped to the walls of the producer’s office where he and the director would go over which scenes they would use, and which they wouldn’t, where they would film, etc. The Line Producer was working on the budget, the Production Coordinators were checking the weather forecasts and renting the equipment and the trucks, and the Second Assistant Director was working on the schedule for the entire shoot using a plastic chart that folded up that allowed for scenes to be slid in and out of it so that last minute changes were easily captured. We didn’t have the technology back then (1993), so while we did use computers for some things like typing up call sheets and printing updated scripts and sides, other things were all done by hand. I’m not sure if that book is still used today.
Since I had secretarial and cold-calling experience, I helped the Production Coordinator make calls, copy sides and do other office related work. Soon production started and they kept me at the office. Then, the second day of the shoot one of the set PAs had a meltdown. He was assigned Craft Service and hated it. The film had no budget to hire a craft service person, so a PA had to do it. They were at a loss. I was dying to get on set so I offered to do it. They agreed. So myself and the other PA swapped places.
I don’t regret the decision at all, although I doubt I’d volunteer to be a Craft Service person again. It is a thankless job (providing snacks and beverages to the cast and crew). However, I was often told I made the best coffee they ever had. Ironically, I don’t drink coffee, and I was terrified as I had never made a cup in my life up to that point. But I read the instructions on the can (hint: Folgers is the best! Always go with Folgers) and it was a success.
On set I got to learn everything and every position involved from the ADs to the gaffers, grips and electrical. I learned how they film a scene using a car, and how to fake nighttime. We did most of the filming at a house up in the San Fernando Valley. I watched in amazement as the grips covered all the windows of the house, since it took place at night. We soon switched to overnight shoots, so those covers were soon removed, but it was interesting to see the house transform and all the equipment involved.
I chatted with members of the crew who explained their jobs to me. I watched the filming and learned. I had no idea what I wanted to do at that point to be honest, and I think that’s why I was apprehensive about pestering people for work. I wanted to have a definitive idea of what I wanted to do and I didn’t have a clue. I always loved photography, so I watched the camera crew. I thought about becoming a Director of Photography (DP) at some point. I naively thought I had to work up to that role and take classes in film school, but Paul Holihan (the DP) told me I didn’t need to. I just needed to watch and learn and experience it.
Side note: Paul Holihan went on to direct and produce Without a Trace. I’m sorry I didn’t keep in touch. That was my biggest flaw. I didn’t keep in touch with the important people of the shoot. I should have made friends with Paul, who was a really nice guy and who did chat with me on occasion. I should have tried to talk to Neil. I should have chatted with the director. Most people did talk to me when they came by my table. Some of the cast and crew avoided me though. I guess they were just not used to me. I was female, and a bit of a tomboy, but I didn’t look it. I have an innocent, naive face. I don’t think they thought I could hack it, and in some ways they were right. I didn’t understand how hard it was to get in and stay in. I think I probably would have survived if I knew what was involved, but back then I was self conscious of my lack of knowledge and felt I needed to know what went on before I went in.
At the time I didn’t think I wanted to be a director. There was so much pre-work and I wasn’t ready. These days I think differently because I have a better understanding of what’s involved. I also entertained the thought of becoming an editor. I probably would have liked it, but I never got a chance to learn. I did observe some editing at one point later on in my career, but it was brief.
After The Stoned Age it was back to square one. Only this time I had a movie on my resume. So when I made calls to production offices, I also sent my resume. I got a couple of calls, but sadly, I was unable to work on the films due to conflicts. In one instance I was offered a PA position on a National Lampoon film. I asked them if I could take a few days off because I was in a wedding. Of course they never called back. Again, I was one in a million. Another film called me back, asking if I would be available to drive Kelly Preston (John Travolta’s wife) to pick out wardrobe for her next film. I was eager, but I had missed the call (and didn’t have a beeper – I couldn’t afford one. It was a necessity in the age before cell-phones became mainstream), so I missed my chance to chauffeur Kelly Preston for a day.
So I got back in touch with Nelson, who got me another job. This time as a set PA for Leprechaun 2, starring Warwick Davis. This was another learning experience, seeing how they did special effects on a low budget. I also learned about stunt-work, not that I ever would do any, but I was really impressed with the care and teamwork involved. I made friends with a Best Boy on second unit who lived in my apartment complex. When Leprechaun 2 wrapped he put me in touch with an AD who was working on a very low-budget film called Casa Hollywood. They needed people to work for free, and since I needed the experience I jumped at the chance to work as a loader on a camera crew. This was my first job working with the film camera.
I was a day-player. They managed to get three cameras to shoot a nightclub scene. I loaded the film for all the cameras, and used a clapper for one of them. It was fun watching this scene unfold using the 3 cameras. It was a great learning experience.
A couple of days after that shoot the 1994 Northridge earthquake hit. I lived very close to the fault line. It scared me enough to decide to leave LA. It was the worst decision I ever made and regret it to this day. At the time I thought I didn’t like not knowing when an earthquake was coming. At least you can predict snow storms. I’ve since been shown that I was wrong about that too. You can’t predict nature, no matter how hard you try.
When I moved back east I thought I could try out for production jobs in New York. That’s a lot harder to do. There was the issue of commuting from New Jersey. I had no money, spending it all in LA, so I had to live with my parents for a while. Plus there weren’t the studios as there are today. Also, most filming in the mid 1990’s was happening in Toronto or Vancouver. I did entertain the thought of moving to Canada, and would have loved to, but I didn’t want to take the big step again after I went broke in LA. I wanted to be financially secure before I made a move like that again. It was just too big of a risk after LA. Looking back I should have taken it.
I got a job working in the marketing department of a video distributor. I was assigned to represent Warner Brother’s (there they are again) off-shoots AVID, Live Entertainment and Rhino Video in promoting their VHS and DVDs to retailers like Blockbuster video. Sadly, I had no budget, but it allowed me to be creative. My boss was a pain in the neck and after six months I got fed up and left.
Then I touched base with my old boss at CBS who was still working there at the time. He was friendly with Steve Kroft at 60 Minutes and knew of an opening there. So he put me in touch and I went to the 60 Minutes offices for an interview. I am proud to say I was interviewed by Steve Kroft. As with others I’ve interacted with, he saw my initiative and told me I was overqualified for the job. He said I’d be bored. Oh well. It was such a shame. I didn’t want to work for the news division anyway. I still appreciated the interview and the time spent there.
In between every industry job I’ve ever held, I would do temp work. I had a few temp jobs in LA between the films. I taught myself computers at one or two of them. And back in NJ I did the same thing. I got assigned to work at a major pharmaceutical company as, yes, an admin assistant.
I did sign up for the New Jersey Film Commission and I got a call in 1995 to work on a low-budget short film in Beach Haven. The film was called Boulevard Cafe. Again, there was no pay, but they were looking for a camera assistant, so I jumped at it. The DP was great. He owned the camera, so he was apprehensive about people handling it. He wouldn’t let me load it or use it at first, because he didn’t know me well enough. All I could do was carry the equipment and pull-focus. However after a while, he trusted me enough to show me some finer points. At the end of the shoot he said I was the best focus puller he worked with.
Sadly, that was the last production job I had. I got an offer from the pharmaceutical company to become a permanent employee and decided to make film a hobby. That might rank up there will my other bad decision, but I got to the point where I felt I was too old to work entry level. I didn’t think I had enough experience to be hired as a full-fledged camera assistant, so I decided if I could learn it on the side or do some films as a hobby I might be able to get back into it one day. Sadly, that hasn’t really happened. Thankfully, the internet affords me a lot of information and access to feed my interest as a hobby, but I haven’t explored any other worthwhile jobs in the industry. Lately I’ve been attending film screenings and festivals and joining sites and pages to learn more and be more involved.
Here’s a link to my site where I talk about my film experiences working on The Stoned Age, Leprechaun 2 and the others. It’s still a work in progress:
You’ve got an advantage over me as there are so many outlets and resources these days. Back when I was starting out everything came out of Hollywood and everyone was very protective of their job. No one was open to helping people. These days more is shared. It’s not so closed-in as it used to be. And now that there is new technology, its more affordable to make decent low-budget films at the very least. Now you can live and work anywhere and make a film. There’s also so many websites like Stage 32, and programs like Project Greenlight and Hit REcord. I envy you and all of that.
When I was a kid I wanted to be an actress, but I listened when my parents talked me out of it. So that’s why I went into production. I had thought it would be easier. It wasn’t. While I realize there are so many people in the world who want to be actors, I felt it was easier to be seen at an audition, than for someone who’s trying for a position on the crew. Auditions are everywhere.
It’s a difficult business, whatever you pursue, but at least the opportunities are better for crew these days than when I was starting out.