A Day in the Life of a Unit Production Manager

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Photo Source: Daniel Smith/Universal Pictures

A day in the life of a unit production manager is an incredibly busy one. The main issue when thinking of a typical day is that every day is different. Sure, there’s always some form of structure: there are purchase orders, float requests, NDAs, invoices, and the never-ending, ever-growing amount of signing will always be there. But in truth, every day on every film can throw a challenge at you that you’ve never encountered before.

The most important thing to remember is that there are many different periods in the production of a movie and not all of them involve all the members of a crew. The two periods that mostly apply to the unit production manager (UPM) are pre-production and the shoot. What nobody ever really tells you is that pre-production—especially for a UPM—can really make the movie. A well-prepped movie will ensure a much smoother shoot. Sure, a director can change their minds and everything you’ve talked about for the last 20 weeks can go out the window but in general, prep is where you get things done.  

Normally, a UPM is put in place by the line producer (sometimes referred to as an executive producer), the person who’s been hired by the studio to physically produce the movie. A UPM will generally be one of the first members of the team to come on board and in the early days of prep will help the line producer build the skeleton for the movie. You’ll start to put crew hires in place, engage location managers to seek out locations, first assistant directors to help build the shooting schedule, and construction managers to build sets. You work with the financial controller (key accountant) and line producer to build the budget, hire safety people to ascertain risks and implement safety programs, the list goes on and on endlessly.

When it comes to budgets, a studio or financier will have an idea of how much they want to spend on a particular project before you break down the script and schedule. You’ll probably have a target figure you’re aiming for and during prep, it’s your job—in collaboration with the line producer and financial controller—to manage and shape the budget whilst also allowing the director everything they want to make the film. It’s a delicate process and a fine line to tread. You need to know what your director wants to achieve their vision, what equipment the director of photography and crew will want to use, and make sure you allow enough to pay for it all while not making the film so expensive the studio doesn’t want to proceed with it!

As for production, UPMs and members of a crew are always looking well beyond the shoot day in terms of organization. You’re always involved in the actual day and that can throw a multitude of issues your way from last-minute additions to equipment repairs. If you’ve done your job well, it’s like dropping the kids off to school: you leave them on the set and hopefully, they won’t bother you until wrap! I jest, but in all honesty, a producer friend of mine once stated that for us, the most crucial part of the filming day is the first and last 10 minutes. That’s when you can get the attention of the director, DP, and 1st AD, and get them to concentrate on any questions you may need answers to later down the line. Once they get into the actual day, then rightly their concentration is about what is in front of them and getting the day in the can.

A typical day for me is like this.

5:30 a.m.
Wake up, check emails, and most importantly, look out for the lab report, which will tell me if there were any issues with the previous day’s shooting material.

7 a.m.
Head into the office or unit base for emailing and signing.

7:50 a.m.
Head to set for 8:00 a.m. call time. I used to get to set very early but experience has taught me that the people you employ to get the sets in order don’t really want you breathing down their necks while they iron out things. They’ll call you if they need you. If your phone rings between 5:30 and 8:00 a.m., it will never be good news! 

8:009:30 a.m.
Talking to the director, 1st AD, DP, VFX, and tech crew, gathering as much forward info as possible.

9:3011 a.m.
Walk around future sets and departments, relaying as much info as I can and listening to issues. To use another analogy, a film is like a train chugging along to its final destination but not every piece of track has been laid to the station. Crew members need information in order to keep moving forward. You become the glue that holds them all together. You need to get in there, ask the questions they aren’t able to, get the answers they need, and prioritize and gauge the right time to ask those questions. Keep laying those pieces of missing track and eventually, the train will come home.

11 a.m.5 p.m.
Back in the office making deals, booking crew and equipment, attending meetings, approving progress reports, and oh, did I mention the signing? You may also have to go back to set a multitude of times depending what the day throws at you.

5–6 p.m.
On set for the final part of the day. You may have to approve overtime and be around for wrap to have last-minute meetings or walk around future sets, stages, or locations.

7–7:30 p.m.
Back in the office waiting for the day’s rushes to come in, more signing, emails, and last-minute checks with ADs to make sure everything is in place for the following day. 

7:30 p.m.
Home. In my earlier days, I used to stay at work until very late but honestly, I could stay at my desk until two in the morning and wouldn’t finish everything. You need to learn to prioritize or the job will send you to an early grave. Now, we have phones and email, so go home, see the family, and check your emails regularly. Hopefully, your family is understanding enough to realize they’re sharing you with a movie for six months. 

Want to learn more about working on a film crew? Visit Backstage’s crew hub!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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David Cain
David Cain is a third-generation filmmaker who has been working in the film industry for 25 years. He has worked his way up from floor runner through all the assistant directors’ grades before making the move into the production office and holding the title of unit production manager. Credits include “Fury,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Christopher Robin,” “Hobbs and Shaw” as well as the upcoming “Fast & Furious 9” movie.
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