Confessions of a Production Secretary

Film, as both an art form and a commercial industry, is filled with flashy, star-powered jobs that serve as the major touchstones for us common moviegoers. But anyone who follows film with any amount of enthusiasm is most likely aware of how much of an Industry it really is, and how deeply involved many of the logistics can be. Even if we don’t know much about the nuts and bolts of the industry, we know there are many parts in the grand machinery of film production. Those parts, whether we recognize them or not, are just as essential to production as directing or writing or acting. One such role is that of the production secretary, who is an important linchpin in the production organization.

With that in mind, I reached out to Daniel D’Amico, an old friend of mine who has worked in the industry for the past three years. As a production secretary, he works to coordinate important details in what he refers to as “the central nervous system of a film shoot” — the production office. In talking to D’Amico, I got a perspective on the industry that you’re not likely to get from the more visible elements of production, and one I thought was worth sharing with my fellow film buffs.

While D’Amico came to New York to study screenwriting, and got into production work as a result of that (like many of his peers), it’s become clear to him that there’s a difference between the creative side and the logistical side of filmmaking. “If I’m being honest, it’s pretty irrelevant,” says D’Amico. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled, as a film student, that I get to work in film and TV. And there’s no rush like seeing your name in the credits, in any capacity. But is the job I work now advancing my career as a writer? Do I see a path to this that leads to me getting paid to write? No. That’s something I’m going to have to do myself.” And like many in his position, he’s diligently continuing in this fashion, with several scripts in the works right now. But that work has become secondary to the grind of the shoot.

In the three-plus years since his senior semester at NYU, D’Amico has worked on 8 different productions, both on film and television. And despite averaging almost three different jobs a year, he says that the transition is less difficult than you’d think. “I wouldn’t say it feels like one job, but definitely a continuation of the previous job. I’ve also been lucky enough to have a lot of continuity in the crews I work with, though.” That aspect of D’Amico’s experience, more than anything, demonstrates the tightly-knit overlap of the New York production world, and how much the industry adapts to the same basic system. “I’d say it’s most like when you start a new year of school in August – the teachers and classes are different, and it takes you a week or two to find your legs, but it’s all sort of contained within the same structure.”

Over the years he’s spent working within the industry, D’Amico has developed some strong opinions about what the industry can do to improve itself. The most prominent of these is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a Millennial: more computers. “I think the biggest thing on the horizon for film production, how I see it, is the advent of the Paperless Office,” he says. “People carry about a wealth of technology these days – laptops, smart phones, tablets – and between all these devices the need for dead-trees versions of script and schedules is gradually diminishing. [But] it’s a matter of breaking traditional mindsets; some people will always want a physical copy to hold in their hands.”

D’Amico’s varied experiences have also opened his eyes to the major distinctions of the industry, specifically between film and television productions. As D’Amico boils it down: “A film is a sprint – you go hard the entire time; you pull out all the stops every day. Comparatively, TV is a marathon – you need to be able to pace yourself, otherwise you get to episode 6 or 7 and find yourself burnt out.” And between the two formats, D’Amico’s ultimate preference suits an industry professional in New York, where television is the bread and butter. “Given a choice, I’d probably go with TV simply because the result is much more tangible – most movies you’ll work on won’t come out for at least another year after you wrap. TV has a much more immediate effect. I can walk down the street and see billboards for the project I’m currently working on.”

In his time working on both tiny independent productions to major studio/network efforts, D’Amico recognizes their pros and cons. “Obviously, studio backing and the resources that it brings is a huge and extremely tangible benefit when working on a project,” he says. “[And] there’s an element of prestige that goes along with it – being able to namedrop something like NBC or CBS goes a long way in securing a vendor and easing a location’s worries.” However, he also admits that there are some downsides to working under the studio’s lash. “At the same time, it can be a bit stifling at times. There’s a whole ethos to indie filmmaking[…]the idea that art is the true goal, not some company’s bottom line. It’s why a lot of people, myself included, were attracted to this business in the first place, so it’s hard to give up on.”

And in the end, that is D’Amico’s ultimate advice to aspiring filmmakers who find themselves toiling away in the bowels of the production world: don’t lose sight of why you got there in the first place. “It’s very easy to just see the nitty gritty, day to day stuff that goes on, and lose sight of the fact that you’re making art. Commercial art, but art nonetheless,” D’Amico says. His perspective is a refreshing one, especially in an industry that seems to try harder and harder to monetize storytelling and culture. “That would probably be my biggest piece of advice to somebody just starting: Read the scripts, know the story, have an opinion on the characters and what’s happening with them.  Because if you don’t have that, if you can’t see that, you might as well just be working a 9-to-5 cubicle job.  That’s what separates the business from anything else, that’s what makes it interesting and brings the joy into it.”

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