Adventures of A Production Assistant con’t.: Beyond Trek to – Ellen!!
This is the third and last part of my interview with Kerry who worked as a Production Assistant in Hollywood. In Parts 1 & 2, I asked Kerry about how she got her job and what it was like working on Star Trek, both TV and movie. You can read Parts 1 & 2 here: http://www.startrekmagic.com/2013/07/06/adventures-of-a-production-assistant
I asked Kerry about working on productions other than Star Trek. You’d think that would be a hard act to follow, but she ended up on a project that helped change our world! Here’s what happened in Kerry’s own words:
“After the Star Treks, I did a one day gig over at Disney as a Production Assistant. I got the job through a friend of a friend, which is how you usually find work. It was working with Ellen DeGeneres on her sitcom, Ellen. I arrived at a time when the atmosphere was very hush-hush and full of fear, because the very next episode was ‘The Puppy Episode’, in which Ellen’s character came out as a lesbian. In 1997 that was a very scary and brave thing to do.
“They liked my work so I got a call a few months later offering me a job. They offered me an Office PA job, but I told them I wanted the Set PA job – I KNEW what the next season was going to be like! I myself had just come out about six months before that, and I wanted in on it all.
“What a season! It was a media circus. The Disney Studio was freaking out. The industry magazines made dire proclamations: ‘Ellen DeGeneres Will Never Work In This Town Again!’ ‘Anne Heche Has Thrown Her Career Away!’ ‘Look Out For The Queers Invading Hollywood!’ We had to evacuate the stage twice for bomb threats. Anne was mysteriously presented with a live scorpion instead of fakes while making Six Days And Seven Nights with Harrison Ford in Hawaii. Ellen and Anne had to replace the picture window on the front of their house a half dozen times because some homophobes threw bricks with hate mail through their window. It was crazy, the atmosphere of hate and fear that swirled around us all. But supporting Ellen just felt right and honest. As Ellen’s girlfriend at the time, Anne Heche, said, ‘It’s not what’s between your legs that matters when you fall in love, but what’s between your ears’.
“My job as a Set PA on Ellen wasn’t complicated. I delivered scripts and pages to the cast and crew on set. I escorted guest cast around. I did some of Ellen’s personal errands. My most important job was to babysit the stage phone. One day I answered the phone while everyone was at lunch. It was a lovely sounding British gent who asked to speak with Ellen. I’m a sucker for Brits, so I humored him – people and fans occasionally found out the Set phone number and called because they were ‘close personal friends of Ellen’. Well, around the stage you have to prove it to the doorkeeper, me! So, I put him on hold after asking who was calling and went to find Ellen. I knew she was on the patio smoking, so I walked out and asked her, ‘Hey, El, do you know some guy named Ian McKellen?’ Ellen leapt out of her chair and said, ‘Oh my god! Do you KNOW who that is???’ Bewildered at her alarming behavior, I answered no. Rolling her eyes, she proclaimed I was the worst lesbian EVER, and dragged me by the front of my shirt back with her to the stage phone. ‘Hello, sir.’ ‘Yes, sir’, ‘Thank you, sir,’ followed. Who the heck was ELLEN ‘yes, sir-ing?’ Hanging up the phone and looking a bit boggled, she again shook her head at my ignorance and demanded I go find out who he is. I did. My son is named Ian in his honor.
“Ellen DeGeneres is one of the smartest actresses I’ve had the pleasure of working with. People always ask me if she is really as nice and personable as she seems to be. She is.
“Another dream come true to work with was Emma Thompson, who guest-starred in the episode conveniently titled ‘Emma’. Again, it’s the accent… or maybe that Emma is wickedly intelligent, emphatically professional, remarkably down-to-earth and prodigiously talented. She is also unusually supportive of her friends, and jumped at the chance to be able to support Ellen in that difficult year by being on her show. Also supporting Ellen were Sarah McLaughlin and the Indigo Girls in the episode ‘Womyn Fest’ and talented actress Lisa Darr, who bravely played the character Ellen’s girlfriend. Not to mention Laura Dern, who co-starred in ‘The Puppy Episode’.
“By the end of the season, many more Hollywood names were on that same wavelength of support after seeing how the media and our own Studio treated her. Our final episode featured a plethora of Hollywood talent who came out in support of Ellen – Linda Ellerbee, Bea Arthur, Orson Bean, Glenn Close, Tim Conway (OMG, this was funny http://www.youtube.com/watch?
“It was an interesting experience for so many reasons. One, it was the first time I worked at another Studio. They moved the Ellen show from its original stage to a stage far away in the corner… we joked that if we blew up, we wouldn’t interrupt the filming of Home Improvement with Tim Allen, Disney’s darling at the time. Second, it gave me the opportunity to work with a whole new group of people. Ellen was amazing – we’d get the scripts out on Friday night and she’d have them memorized by the time she came in on Monday morning for the Table Read. The rest of the cast struggled to keep up with her. Filming our show Friday nights was fast… it usually took only a few hours to shoot because Ellen and our two Directors, Gil Junger and Gail Mancuso, ran a tight ship and everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing. It was also my first audience live show. I also got screen credit on every-other episode… yeah, me! I am actually in two episodes – once as an audience member at the music festival and then in the final episode – I’m – wait for it – the Set P.A. on the telephone! Do not ask me why I chose to wear OVERALLS that day. Look here http://www.youtube.com/watch?
“Even funnier was the episode that had Ellen in a chicken costume. The crew on stage was in tears laughing so hard, we could hardly see. I just couldn’t look at her for more than two seconds. When she walked, the duck costume butt swished from side to side and she couldn’t walk straight. Every time I did look at her, she’d turn around really fast and glare at me and I’d collapse laughing. That episode took longer to shoot than most.
“The final scene we shot was a scene where the characters Ellen, Paige, Spence are grinding coffee by foot in an I Love Lucy spoof. Check out this from 2:54 until 3:58 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?
“The pay at Disney was dismal. Since I was the Set P.A., I only got paid when we shot – which was two weeks out of every three. So, some months I only worked 2 weeks on Ellen. So like many in the entertainment business I had to find other work. When I wasn’t working at Disney, I worked full time weeks at a book store and back at Paramount in the Estimating Department, doing file work for the Accountants on Frasier and Jenny McCarthy to pay the bills. In ten months, I had three entire days off. It was tough, it was worth it and it – barely – paid the bills. Such is the life of a Production Assistant!
“From Disney, I had a couple quiet years working as a P.A. back at Paramount Pictures, which I consider home. I worked in Network Television and on a sitcom called ‘DiResta’ as a Producer’s Assistant to Line Producer Mark Ovitz. From there, I got my break into the administrative end of film making, and began working as an Executive Assistant to a Production Executive in the Feature Production Department at Paramount.
“I worked in the Paramount’s Feature Production Administration Department for nearly five years. At Paramount, there were around 25 movies made each year – large and small budget films. There were four Production Executives and a Vice President, and all those movies were divided between them. My boss was the newest Exec, so we got the ‘not so important’ movies! Oh, well. It was educational and I loved working for my boss; he is a great guy. Now, he’s also the President of Feature Production at Paramount and was the Exec on the new Trek movies, the Indiana Jones movies and Transformers. Some days it kills me that I left.
“On each movie there is an Executive Producer who oversees production. My boss at the Studio is that guy’s boss. A movie gets its start – at the Studio level – with a script and the Exec cracks out a rough budget – what the movie is estimated to cost to make – and it goes to The Powers That Be who decide if they want to make it or not. If they decide to green light it, the search is on for people to attach to the project – cast, Director, Producer, Director of Photography, Costume Designer, Editor etc. Then you have to find a location – so you send out location scouts, who send back pictures – and decision is made as to where the movie will be shot. Then you send out a partial crew on a Location Scout adventure with a Location Manager. They pave the way to get permission for the production company to shoot at that location. They make deals and contracts and generally get it all ready for the production to come in and shoot. My job in the Pre-Production phase of a movie was to make all those travel and hotel arrangements and type up the deals as my Exec and the agents representing the important crew members negotiated their wages and perks. Once the location is secured and everyone is happy, then a true budget is hammered out and the hiring begins. Once the Production Coordinator is hired and she’s completed her paperwork with me, she (and it’s usually a ‘she’) takes over the start-paperwork and on-boarding process. Then the cast, casting directors, crew, caterers, and everyone else is hired and a preliminary shooting schedule is published – this will be what shoots where and when, basically, followed by a cast list and a first draft script. When the start date is determined, that is the start of production.
“There’s so much involved in physical production I can’t even describe it, except that it HAS to run like a well-oiled machine or it’s torture. Hopefully the crew and cast and execs all know what they are doing. Call sheets tell everyone what is happening and Production Reports reflect what actually happened. Schedules are to be maintained and budgets are to be met and not exceeded – in a perfect world. When I was at Paramount, none of the movies we were in charge of actually shot in LA. They all shot elsewhere. It made for a nice office job – only 9 -10 hours a day or so instead of 12 to 16 hours a day on a film crew. I worked on Hardball, Rat Race, Against the Ropes, Down to Earth, the Perfect Score, the Fighting Temptations, Manchurian Candidate and Paycheck. But I was also becoming increasingly frustrated with what I was doing. I needed to feel like I was making a difference. While working on Star Trek and Ellen, I did feel I was contributing to making the world a better place in a small way by doing my part to the best of my ability. Things I did, mattered. But the films I was working on now were not making the world a better place. So I left film and television production.
“I never meant to get into film and television production, it just happened and I fell in love with the process. It was a wonderful experience that I was blessed to fall into. But when it was done, I wanted to have a baby – so I did. Eventually I left L.A. and Hollywood – hard to live there as a single mother with a special needs child! My life now is a far cry from my days as a single Paramount Pictures employee making good money and living the dream. But as my son’s mother and an advocate for families with special needs children, I still seek to make a difference in that special Star Trek kind of way, and make the world a better place.”
Wow! Thanks, Kerry. You certainly worked on some iconic productions. Rich – and exhausting – experiences.
Kerry’s interest in Things Trek continues. This interview has inspired her to launch her own blog at http://startrekintorelevance.blogspot.com/. Her plan is to showcase thoughtful and enlightening articles, interviews and other media by actors associated with all the various Star Treks and give fans a place to discuss profound, philosophical topics infrequently covered elsewhere online. Check it out!
How about you, fellow enthusiast? Have you yearned to work behind the scenes or in front of the camera? Or have you done so? I’d love to hear from you!