Filmmaker Martin Scorsese once said “There’s no such thing as simple. Simple is hard”.
Scorsese was talking about storytelling, but he might have been referring to the whole production process. Sure, you have a script, a director and a budget and it should be simple, but we all know how hard it is to make a film. There are so many moving parts. No other place embodies that organized chaos like the heartbeat of its operation, the film’s production office.
Starting a new film is like creating a start-up business. You need to hire, schedule, secure locations and equipment. It can be overwhelming if you don’t have a solid system in place. And if you’re new, no one hands you a how-to guide on the first day. Except us. Actually, Production Managers Jennifer A. Haire and Gilana Lobel do.
Between them, Jennifer and Gilana have over 40+ combined years of industry experience. While advancing their careers through the production office, their resumes include feature films and episodic television, such as Dan and Eugene Levy’s Schitt’s Creek (Pilot Presentation), seven seasons of Kyra Sedgwick's The Closer, Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, Indie Darlings like I’ll See you in my Dreams, as well as Netflix's Russian Doll series, and the acclaimed film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
While both have filmed nationwide, Haire was based out of Los Angeles, and Lobel New York City. They know the industry from coast to coast. It is clear that these two successful industry professionals were ideally suited to write the book on production office operations, Keys to the Production Office ; Unlocking Success as an Office Production Assistant in Film & Television, which provides a comprehensive overview and “how-to” manual for navigating the production office environment.
In filmmaking, as in any other industry, success begins with a solid foundation. Gilana and Jennifer saw a real need for practical advice and set out to fill it.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with co-author Jennifer Haire who shared professional insight, advice from their book, and a glimpse into the world of production.
Assemble: We’re so thrilled to be talking to you about this. Almost everyone knows what above-the-line players do on a film, but entry-level responsibilities are less clear. There is a lot of pressure to do well on your first gig, but you don’t know what you don’t know. What would be your first advice when coming into a new situation?
Jennifer A. Haire
Jennifer: Attitude is everything. If you want to be here, I want you to be here. If you demonstrate a genuine interest in the work and strive to learn, then that is someone I want on my team.
Always be learning. The best time to ask all the questions is when you are first starting out. People expect you to ask questions. If you are given an assignment, make sure you understand how that assignment needs to be completed but also “why” you are being asked to do what you are doing. As an Office PA, you are expected to learn certain aspects on the job. The book will give you a great head start on exactly what the job requires and how to do the most common tasks you'll encounter.
Opportunity > Amount on paycheck. As much as possible, take advantage of unique opportunities rather than automatically taking the job that is offering the most money. Never worked on a gameshow? Try it! Always wanted to work on location? Pack your bags! You've been offered a better job title / position? Do it! The knowledge you’ll gain from a new experience is worth more than any amount on your paycheck.
Remember content creation is global. When first starting out, it’s good to consider what production city will offer you the most opportunity. It doesn’t have to be Los Angeles or New York. Almost all major cities have a local film community. Do your research and find out where the types of projects you are interested in are shooting and, if possible, relocate so that you are better positioned to pursue what you want.
Assemble: You co-authored an entire book about getting started in the industry. Tell us how you got your start.
Jennifer: My first professional job and the job that led me on my path to production management were actually different.
As a junior at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking I took advantage of an internship offered by the American Pavilion to attend the Cannes International Film Festival. It was a fantastic opportunity to be a part of the festival and market from an educational perspective. They accept about 100 students nationwide to attend each year. When I graduated a year later and moved out to Los Angeles, I reached out to a friend I had made from the program. She was working on Season 2 of “The Bachelor'' and was able to hook me up with a Production Assistant job on the show.
Assemble: There are two things to learn from what you just said. When you take advantage of opportunities and build genuine connections from those opportunities, you will find more work.
Jennifer: Yes. Another thing to keep in mind - make sure you understand what you're supposed to do once you get the opportunity. My first assignment on day one was to get a birthday card for the showrunner. I didn’t know this guy, and to be honest, didn't know what a showrunner was, but how hard could buying a birthday card be? Turns out, harder than I thought. I had to go back to the store three times to get a different card because I kept buying the wrong one. “This one is too cutesy,” “This one has an armadillo on it. Why is there an armadillo on it?” Eventually I came back with a simple, plain, boring card that they were happy with. My friend who had gotten me the job had to take me aside and ask me if she made a mistake in judgment recommending me! I seriously almost got fired over a birthday card! Going forward I asked for more clarification on my assignments and remembered the time I wasted and the embarrassment I suffered by not asking a simple question.
Assemble: Clearly it worked out because you moved on to Season 1 of The Bachelorette and then on Season 3 of The Bachelor you were promoted to date/field coordinator. From that experience, what did you learn most?
Jennifer: Season 3 I traveled with the production crew around the country. This is where I learned to hone my skills as a “local resource” and to problem solve on the fly. I was in unfamiliar territory and had to help assemble what we needed to film the dates in each locale. I use these skills to this day every time I film in a new production city. Most recently was when I was Production Supervising a unit for Season 4 of Yellowstone in Arizona and Texas, and then earlier this year Line Produced an independent feature film starring Lily Rabe and directed by her and husband Hamish Linklater, filming in Minnesota. Each production offers unique challenges and matching the resources to the need is a skill set.
In the book, we discuss the advantage of being a local resource to productions that come to town. Where can you rent office machines? What part of town is the safest and most easily accessible to freeways? Are there any local caterers or will we need to source one through a restaurant? What kind of equipment is available in the region? This is all research that has to be done for each production and if a PA or Production Coordinator already has their finger on these answers they are an invaluable resource to an out of town production.
Assemble: In the film industry, there is always a debate over whether it's necessary to go to film school or just start working. For you, school provided opportunities and connections that were invaluable. The internship at Cannes led to The Bachelor opportunity, but another internship also led to your work on The Closer.
Jennifer: Whether it’s through school or not, it’s important to make strong and lasting impressions. That became apparent in what would lead to both how I built my production management career and what informed a lot of my contributions to the book.
My senior year of college a couple producers from California decided that Winston-Salem, NC was the perfect location to film their short film. Many students from the School of Filmmaking, myself included, were given internships on it. This film would go on to win the 2004 Academy Award for Live Action Short Film.
Once I was out in Los Angeles, the Producer hired me onto the pilot for a show called “The Closer.” In the time it took the pilot to be picked up for its first season, I had worked on the pilot presentation for “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and been building my Production Coordinator skills on shows like the “World Poker Tour,” feature documentaries such as Roger Nygard’s “Trekkies 2” and an indie feature film starring Paris Hilton and Jason Mewes called “Bottoms Up.” I was hired onto Season 1 of “The Closer,” first as a Set PA, but when the Assistant Production Coordinator had to leave for a family emergency, I was asked to fill in. She never returned to the show and I continued on the series as Assistant Production Coordinator and eventually Production Coordinator.
I had some really great, experienced Production Coordinators teach me the ropes of episodic television on that show and on subsequent pilots (State of Mind, Trust Me, Rizzoli and Isles, and others that never saw the light of day!). It was there I learned just how vital the production office is on a project and how each member of the team keeps the office and the production afloat. And when you are working with A list talent like Kyra Sedgwick, Kevin Bacon (who would often guest direct) and Executive Producers and Showrunners like James Duff, Michael Robin and Greer Shephard, you make sure your production office is running at the top of its game!
Assemble: Why was it important to write this book? What was the inspiration?
Jennifer: Essentially this book is designed to make the industry accessible to anyone.
Gilana and I both worked as Production Coordinators earlier in our careers, Gilana in NYC and me in Los Angeles. Each of us independently had generated a working document of “Office PA ‘how-to’s” that we would use to train our new office staff every upcoming show or season. It was when Gilana self-published her guide that I discovered she was doing the same thing as me. I let her know how excited I was that she had put this into the world. We agreed in order to support the work required in the production office, an accessible resource for Office PA’s should be available. However, one didn’t exist, so we decided to collaborate. In one afternoon, from a hotel lobby in Brooklyn, NY we drafted the first outline of the book and about a year and a half later began writing.
Assemble: The book is really a life raft for anyone tasked with setting up or supporting a production office as a Production Assistant. Why is a well-run office so important to you as a Production Manager?
Jennifer: The Production Office is the “hub” or “home base” on any production. Everything begins and ends with the Production Office. The Art Department needs a functioning office space starting Monday? Call the PO. The Costume Department needs to rent a steamer? Call the PO. The Executive Producer needs a direct dial landline phone number? Call the PO. A cast member needs a script? Call the PO!
The Production Office supports all of the departments on a show so that they can focus on delivering the creative scope. A well run office will anticipate needs and react with quick solutions to new requests. The Office PA is the foundation for the entire Production Office. They help facilitate all of the requests and are a crucial asset to the team. Most tasks they are assigned are time sensitive, require extreme attention to detail and active cognition.
As a Production Manager, I am entrusting that office operations are being handled by the Production Coordinator and their office staff. They are the “face” of the production.The seamlessness with which they perform their work may represent the level of professionalism that can be expected on the show and that reflects on me as the production manager.
Assemble: From geography to getting a job, your book takes the reader on a working journey through the Production Office. What experiences led to deciding the content?
Jennifer: The content for the book came relatively easy. We knew it needed to have some foundational production information such as the phases a project goes through from development to exhibition as well as things like production paperwork and crew structure. What was fun was trying to approach each topic fresh so that we were presenting the information as if we were learning it for the first time. We asked ourselves all the questions so we could be sure to include the answers.
When I started out, learning the production hierarchy was so important. Everyone has their specific job to do and it’s a delicate balance between wanting to help and stepping on someone’s toes. We have an intense “how to” section that provides step by step instruction on the most common tasks assigned to an Office PA. The reason we decided to go so involved with it is because we both had experiences that would have benefited from more detailed instruction! That time we came back from a lunch run and the boss’s lunch was missing. Or when we made 60 copies of the schedule on the wrong color paper, or when the meeting time moved but the producer didn’t get a call about the change. Yes, we’ve made mistakes, and the book will hopefully help others from making the same ones we did!
Obviously a book about the Production Office and the role of an Office PA needed to include an overview of what the production office does (everything) and what an Office PA does (also everything). We wanted to include things like career success case studies, how to navigate working freelance, being a professional in the workplace, production safety, where and how to look for work and a unique chapter that provides a look into episodic television filming types and patterns and how that can affect the work of an Office PA.
I’ve let slip my share of F-bombs in the office, dropped a paper box on my toe, messed up my start paperwork and blindly sent resumes hoping for a call. Everything we’ve included in the book is based on something we’ve done, seen, tried to prevent or tried to implement. It is a no BS practical guide on everything someone needs to know about getting started in the industry and we truly want to see people succeed.
It’s important to note that production assistants can be assigned to work in a variety of departments and the work may be in the office or on set, but as an Office PA, you’ll be based at the office and not on set, where the cameras are rolling. If you’re someone that is itching to be on set, the production office might not be the best fit. However don’t mistake being in the office as away from the action, the production office IS the hub of production.
Assemble: The book is filled with incredible visuals, from graphics to cartoon drawings, templates, diagrams and sample production documents. Talk about how they came about and how you determined what to include.
Jennifer: We are extremely proud of our images. Not everyone absorbs information the same, having a visual representation of the content helps to reinforce the message. We had fun with all of them. The production documents all align with sample scenes from a script Gilana drafted so that there is continuity when reading them. My dad is an amazing artist, so he drew all of our ten section keys as well as a couple other images in the book.
We really love our “Treasure Map”, “Day in the Life of a PA” that follows an Office PA from the start of their day to the end. Gilana created that gem. And our main graphics were done by Samantha Osborne Designs. She was extremely skilled at interpreting our vision for how we wanted information presented. One of our favorites is inspired by MC Escher’s Relativity. It diagrams how the job of an Office PA can lead to any industry career path. We’ve seen it happen! Visuals were extremely important to us. It was always part of the design to step away from text when we could and offer a different perspective.
Assemble: What do you enjoy most about your work?
Jennifer: I really like the creative problem solving aspect. Putting a production plan together as elements are locked in during pre-production. The production plan will never go exactly as intended, but if I've done my job well, I've planned for contingencies. Then during principal photography I am putting out fires of the ones I didn't think of. Sometimes that means figuring out how to keep the water hose to the portable bathrooms from freezing overnight!
I also really enjoy that the job allows me to be fluid between the office and the set. Even on the cold, windy, rainy or sweltering hot days, I'd prefer to be out in the trenches with the crew. But at the same time, sometimes you just need a quiet place with a desk and internet to get some work done! As a production coordinator you are entirely office based because that is the work area you are managing.
My first production supervisor job was on a Chris Evans, Michelle Monaghan feature. That role traditionally is the right hand of the UPM and often works from set and liaises between the production crew and production manager. It can be tough being the “middle man.” I once had a crew member throw a chair because he didn't like a piece of information the UPM asked me to give him!
Assemble: One last thing. One aspect that you talk about in the book that feels worth emphasizing is the importance of networking. You’ve worked extensively in episodic Television (all seven seasons on The Closer, plus countless pilots) and in independent film. But recently, you worked on Killers of the Flower Moon, a high budget, high profile Martin Scorsee film. I love how honest personal connections brought you to this project in a roundabout way. Could you tell us your path to this latest gig?
Jennifer: Sure. It was definitely a great example of the power of networking combined with my hard work, competence, and a little bit of luck!
I am an active member of the Producers Guild of America, and around 2007 I met a member who was producing a workshop for the membership. We hit it off and not long after he invited me to be a part of his production team for a feature that was filming in Jordan. We’ve remained friends and colleagues and he recommends me for jobs often. A couple years ago, he suggested me to an industry veteran UPM who was looking for a supervisor for a traveling unit on Season 4 of Yellowstone.
While in Montana, I met the main unit Production Supervisor. She appreciated my work on Yellowstone and mentioned that I should join a specific social media group. I joined and maybe two months later I applied to a very vague job post for a Production Supervisor position. It seems like most hiring comes through a referral or someone they know, but this individual took a chance on an unknown with a scrappy resume and asked me to interview. Two weeks later I was in Oklahoma on one of the biggest movies ever made for one of the most acclaimed directors in the world!
Sometimes it’s who you know, sometimes it’s who knows you, and sometimes timing is the key.