What It’s Really Like to Work as a Production Manager

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Sticking to a budget, making sure things get done, keeping people on track—all in a day’s work for Aimee Whelan, a U.K.-based production manager. Whelan, who started out in the industry as an actor, soon realized she had a “flair” for production and decided to pivot, gaining experience in various entry-level jobs before landing in the production office. 
 
In an interview with Backstage, Whelan explains how she got her first job (a crew database!), the importance of building and maintaining your professional network, the art of crafting a call sheet, and what her days look like.

What does a production manager do? 
To start, the production office in high-end TV drama and features is basically the facilitator of the entire production, the cogs that keep everything rolling. They’re typically on a project for the longest amount of time: setting up the shoot and then packing it all in. 

Within the production office, the production manager finds the actual workspace, manages the deals that get a project up and running, hires the crew, gathers resumes and names for the heads of department so they can pick their teams. They work with the line producer to keep the show on budget. They hire facilities and do equipment deals.

As principal photography gets closer, the production manager focuses on the health and safety of the shot, making sure all the risk assessments are done and agreements have been signed. Throughout the shoot, they will hire any necessary additional equipment plus daily crew depending on what is needed.

Also within the production office is the production coordinator, who manages the production calendar and cast and crew contracts. They also handle all necessary clearances, working wit the art department and script editor to ensure the project doesn’t use something that could lead to a legal issue. They also distribute scripts and sides, and put together daily call sheet with the 2nd AD. 
 
How did you get into this line of work? 
I spent 10 years in New York City working as an actor and as the general manager for a theater company where I also assistant produced. I also did some independent features and shorts, where I discovered my flair for production and realized that was where I wanted to focus my energy.
 
When I moved back to the U.K. four years ago, I started to concentrate on getting into high-end TV drama by gaining experience as a daily runner (or a PA as they’re called in America). I followed several workgroups on Facebook and would apply for any role I was appropriate for. They were mostly day roles on entertainment and factual shows, but they gave me good insight into what’s required, basic lingo, etc.
 
After a couple of months of this, I found out about the Creative England crew database
and uploaded my CV. A few weeks later, I got a call from a production coordinator working on a four-part drama from BBC2 called “The City and The City.” I went in for an interview and was hired as production coordinator. From there, I got jobs through recommendations of people I’d worked with, either working with them again or going to a new production with a new team. Networking is important, but so is your reliability and skill; people want to work with someone that comes recommended. We work long hours so it’s important to have a team that works well together and supports one another. 
 
What training do you need to be a production manager? 
I would recommend gaining as much experience as possible on set. Don’t be scared to ask questions. If you’re new to the industry, you aren’t expected to know everything so it’s best to ask and do it right then guess and do it wrong.
 
What does a day in the life of a production manager look like?
The last project I worked on was a comic drama for a new app-based platform. It was something new for me and for the production company, and it came with its own unique challenges (as every show does). This was a small-scale production, so the first part of my job was setting up hotel accommodations for the cast and any crew that weren’t local. I also worked on the risk assessments, clearances, contracts, crew deals, and was the liaison for the facilities and equipment companies. 
 
While shooting, a general day would consist of arriving during breakfast, checking in with each department to make sure that had all the necessary equipment for the day, ensuring there wouldn’t be anything slowing down the first turnover, and alerting the necessary people if additional equipment was coming in that day. 
 
Then I’d get back to planning, looking ahead in the schedule, ensuring additional equipment or crew had been booked and would arrive on time. Just before lunch, I’d receive the first draft of the next day’s call sheet from the 2nd AD and add any notes or additional information so it was ready for the 1st AD to look over during lunch. 
 
In the afternoon, I’d check that all risk assessments were in order for the next day and deal with any issues that might have cropped up. In the production office, there are a lot of things that come up that need to be fixed quickly, so some days were spent organizing logistics, like unit moves and communicating changes to affected departments. 
 
My day typically ended 20-30 minutes after wrap, unless there was an issue with filming or last-minute rescheduling needed for the following day. 
 
How do you choose who to hire? What do you look for in a potential hire?
It’s best to be as clear and simple as possible on your resume. I will look at your credits and who you’ve worked with. If I know someone who has worked on that job, I might check in with them to see if they’d recommend you. For a daily hire, I look for someone with similar credits. If it’s for a whole production, I tend to read the cover letter and look for enthusiasm and someone I think I would get along with on my team. We work long hours and it makes the job a whole lot easier if you all get along and enjoy your surroundings.
 
What advice would you give an aspiring production manager that you wish you’d had when you were first starting out?
Get as much experience as you can. Do short films, apply for daily runner/PA jobs in all genres—it’s all great experience. Listen and watch when on set. If you don’t know something or if something stands out, make a note of it and ask questions during downtime. The best way to learn is to ask. 

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!