Melanie Roddy is a Location Assistant whose credits include The Gilded Age, The Changeling, and the upcoming thriller The Instigators. She worked for years as a PA on major projects, including Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Greatest Showman. Melanie has also assisted actors, directors, and producers on shows such as Ballers, Escape at Dannemora, and the revival of Will & Grace.
Mel and I met on the set of Sharper, where she was the Line Producer’s Assistant, and I assisted the Director. Instant buddies. We ate a disgusting amount of 3 a.m. tomato soup and, one time, she choked me out at Video Village. She taught me everything I know about the production world and is still my go-to whenever I have a question.
Forget pleasantries; Mel and I always jump right in.
Sommer: Did you go to film school? I forget.
Melanie: I went to film school for a year. I went to the New York Film Academy, which, if you're not from a wealthy family, do not even look in the direction of the New York Film Academy. I think it's a complete sham. I went back in 2012. I did the two-year filmmaking program, but could only afford one year before I ran out of money, because it's $50,000 a year.
Maybe the only beneficial thing was the editing classes. It's always good to learn Final Cut. But everything was taught so half-assed shitty. No real courses either, like, no math or anything. Math is good to know if you decide to go into accounting or development or work at a studio, where you can't just learn by doing.
It was literally a financial ruin for me. Right now, at 28, I'm $100,000 in debt from the interest. It's doubled. And they want me to pay about $800 a month, which I can't.
That's all from the New York Film Academy?
One year from the New York Film Academy is $100,000 worth of debt. I didn't even go into film after I graduated—I went into waitressing. They don't place you, they don't connect you with anybody. The teachers fucking network with you, getting you to buy their book or whatever.
But going to school in comparison to working on a film set? Just work on a film set. Technically, you learn all the same shit. As a PA, if you realize you have an interest in sound, you can just talk to the Sound Mixer. Talk to a Grip. Talk to a Teamster. See what you can learn on set while you're getting paid.
I graduated with a film degree from a four-year school, and the only jobs we ever covered were director, writer, editor, producer. And sound. That's all we did. Props, Costumes, Hair and Makeup, G&E … none of it was ever discussed.
People come up to me a lot and say, "Hey, I have a daughter or son who's interested in film. What’s a way for them to get involved?’' And I always say, "Well, what interests them about film? Do they want to work on set? Do they have more interest in a writer’s room? Are they more interested in the studio side, like the A24 buffs? Because you can get your kid in as a PA on set. Not easily, but it can happen if you know people. However, if they have no interest in working 15 hours a day on their feet with the shooting crew, then they shouldn't waste their time."
A lot of people, for years, go down this one path that they think is right, and don't even realize that the film industry has 100 different paths you can take that will lead you in many different directions. You’re going to be a certain age, realize you’ve gone nowhere close to where you want to be, and then want to leave the film industry and start at square one in a whole new career.
And at that point, even if you want to stay in the industry and make the switch off set into a Production Office or something, that is starting a new career. You can't just laterally jump.
Oh, hands down. Every time you decide you want to be a different position in film, you're at square one again. You’re pressing the restart button, and with the hours you work, time is gonna fly. Then all of a sudden, you’ll think, Is this even what I want to do? And not everyone. Some people find their thing. But I always tell people to narrow it down. You waste your time in certain positions.
Well, you do reach a threshold where you realize you can't just be a PA in every department forever. You have to pick something because you need health insurance or money.
Well, it's like this: you either choose or you're forced to choose. And everybody wants to glorify it, but baby, film is just like any other career. There are things that will be amazing about each position and there are things that are gonna suck about each position.
Quality of life is always forgotten when PAs start out. They don’t mind killing themselves and throwing themselves into work and then after five years, they’re like, "Well, fuck.” You just gotta find which position you like doing that you can live on. And that's Locations for me.
Right, so you’ve done all these jobs; you were a PA on a million different sets, you were an assistant to directors, producers, actors, showrunners, you name it. Was Locations your first actual department?
I originated as a Set PA, and then I actually worked as a Construction Shop PA, which I loved, man. What a great group of people.
I see that for you.
Yeah, totally. You know, it’s a woodshop. It was a very set schedule. I'd be there from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. When you work as a Construction Shop PA, you speak with the Production Office a lot because you're constantly turning in receipts. And accident reports, of course. So, I ended up working as an Office PA. Then from there I bounced to assisting. I just started telling people I was interested in it. Key Second ADs, Production Coordinators, everybody. And that's how I got my first Director’s Assistant position.
That’s how it happened for me, too. You just have to put it out there.
You just have to put it out there. A lot of people don't realize that, though. A lot of people will only tell other PAs or they'll only talk about it when they're upset that they're not getting called for jobs. But that's how you do it. You gotta talk to people about what you want to do. You gotta work together to get where you want to get. That's how the film industry works.
It's all word of mouth. Nobody's out here looking at your resume to see if you'd be a good assistant. They're saying "Hey, is she cool? Is she gonna piss me off for a year or can I work with her?"
No. I mean, some people get lucky if they’re doing First Team and can switch over. But an actor doesn't see you on fucking set and go, "Wow, I love this guy. Look at him locking up that doorway. Assist me."
When I actually did assist, I realized, "Oh, this is a path to nowhere." I thought this was the beginning of my new career. You know? "Ooh, I'm a Director's Assistant!" Okay, well, that doesn't mean the next job you get is going to be a Director. It just means that now you know what goes on behind the scenes, which is just more of the same shit, but different.
I try to tell a lot of people that. There are some people I do know who were assisting a Director or a Showrunner and got bumped up to Associate Producer.
But that has to do with interpersonal skills more than anything.
Yeah, it's not something that you just get from being around or bringing people coffee. But on top of that, a lot of people don't realize that ‘Associate Producer’ is a title. It does not get you into any union. It does not get you health insurance. It doesn't even get you a much better rate. It's a credit that you're getting. And I do know some people where, yes, they worked for big name directors and now they’re powerhouses in the industry. I don't want people to think it's not possible. But the rarity of it? And the reality of you being somebody who can push your agenda into their world and make sure it's known that you want to be a producer for them? Nine times out of ten, that's not going to fucking work. They’re still going to treat you like their assistant, even if they bumped you.
Even with those now-powerhouses in the industry … that definitely wasn't their first assisting job. Do you know how vetted you have to be to assist Tarantino, let’s say?
But yeah, I assisted back and forth. Actors, Directors, Line Producers. Line Producers and Directors don't pay shit. I mean, I had a few who did go to bat for me and pay me an actual livable wage, and I felt respected by that. However, when you work for a normal director or producer, it's minimum wage. It's PA rate. When you work for actors, you can get paid a lot more money because the cast makes a lot more money. But also, sometimes it’s a seven-day-a-week position with actors. There are absolutely no boundaries.
Assisting is a good path sometimes. I have friends who’ve worked for musical artists with labels and endorsement deals. They got to sit in on meetings and learn the business side of stuff, which is massively important. That can open a whole new door for people.
After you assisted, you went back to PAing. Did you just miss set or was that the result of a particularly hateful job?
I was having a miserable time assisting someone in L.A. I really missed set and the set personalities. I also missed the boundaries of being only called about work. So, I moved back to New York and went back into PAing.
I got a job on this late-night show that was a terrible time. Nightmare fuel. So, I called around looking for assistant positions and somebody offered me my first Location Assistant job. I was really lucky. But I had been in the film industry for, like, six years at that point. When I was assisting, I’d done location deals and gotten them signed, I'd gotten contracts signed. So, it was something that I semi-knew. I went into that union and just loved everything about it, really.
Well, the coolest people work in Locations, for sure.
I love members from every department, but the best personalities, I think, are in Locations and Transpo. Those are my two heavy hitters. It’s the best of both worlds for me because Locations works extremely closely with Transportation. Same union.
Title aside, money aside. What's the work you like doing the best?
I think there's a closeness with the crews that you get in Locations. When you work as a Set PA, there's a lot of hostility to you being alive and you speaking and you breathing and you looking in someone's direction and you having a pulse and you wanting to just make a living.
[laughs] It's true. Why? Why is that?
I just think a lot of crew members take out their anger on the messenger. Set PAs aren’t calling the shots. They’re just repeating them like a parrot, and they get fucking screamed at. When you're a Set PA, it feels like you have to work really hard to win a crew member’s kindness.
When you go into Locations, the crew needs your cooperation to get things done for their department. When we find a location, there are lists of requests that every department makes so they can make the set look as best as possible. So, now they’re asking you, they’re not demanding, and it’s much more of a calm environment.
Listen, there are people who are always gonna meet you with hostility. But I do think that if you're good at your job, and you really listen to what they're asking for, you can have a great bond with a lot of departments that usually wouldn’t pay you the time of day. I get to be there with the rigging crews, I get to be there with the wrap crews. It’s such a fun group of weirdos, in the best way.
I get to see a set go from its original state to what we make it, and then I get to watch it be restored. We repaint people's apartments. We add walls. We drill into things. We transform whole buildings, sometimes. And it can be amazing! I really love that. Even the neighbors can be cool. Or extremely difficult and make your life harder. But let me tell you, it is so nice to talk to civilians, sometimes. Sometimes it's not, but really, even with the quirky ones, it’s humbling.
I love instilling the magic in people. We get so numb to the crazy cool things that we do. And I get this really lucky opportunity to see the process through the residents’ eyes. I get to explain it and watch them gasp and be like, ‘That's so cool!” They genuinely get excited. It's such a nice feeling.
And we forget that that's why we do it. We're making things for people to watch.
Yeah. And some people don't want to be involved, but some people love being a part of it. We're putting money into the community. Good Location Managers go out of their way to make the neighborhood feel aware and welcome and comfortable. And it makes the experience so much more fun because if you make a neighborhood feel good about you being there, they’ll be willing and excited to help. Neighbors have saved the day with last-minute requests. We’ll park trailers in their driveways, we’ll use their houses for cast green rooms. Locations is the best bridge between the fools on the shoot crew, who I love, and the humans of the neighborhood.
When someone on crew comes up upset, usually their first reaction is that the resident or business owner is the problem. But most times, it's that they just don't understand. What we do is not simple to describe to somebody. All those people in your house? In your neighborhood? We hold up traffic, we shut down roads. The police and fire departments are there. You've got trucks, you've got horses, sometimes. I worked on a job where we had snakes and baby zebras. It's overwhelming! We just get it. We're desensitized. You have to take the time to make sure everybody feels comfortable. Have a calm demeanor. Let them ask questions. Taking your time and over-communicating just really makes your life so much better in Locations.
Between New York and L.A., in terms of civilians, who’s easier to deal with?
We've had upset people on both coasts, but L.A., to me, is definitely more controlled. When they're filming the streets, a lot of them are a little bit more desolate or they're properly closed. L.A. has more lots, too. There’re just too many human people in New York.
You can't really shut down roads in New York.
If you're shutting down a street in Manhattan, it's usually only at night, and it's rare. And the shit you have to go through to make that happen ...
Look at us on Sharper. The whole crew on Fifth Avenue waiting for the light to turn, running out in the middle of the street to shoot for 20 seconds, and then running back before we all got smushed.
It's insane. It's guerilla-style. In L.A., you also don't have to deal with the foot traffic as much. Bicyclists, to me, are the most dangerous thing on any film shoot. You try to tell them we're doing a stunt in the middle of the fucking road in Chinatown and some delivery guy's got his headphones full blast and won't even look at our PA. People die on film sets more often than you’d think. We’re out there in the open with a lot of moving parts. We're like a circus. And if it's not done with utmost caution, somebody is gonna get hurt or die. I mean, it sounds dramatic, but it's legit.
If we're holding you up, sometimes it's for a walk-and-talk. But we have live cars in the street all the time. If someone's not listening, and they just blow by? I worked on a job where the Showrunner’s leg got severed off during a stunt.
Wow. People who work in stunts never get enough recognition in this industry. Some poor Stunt Coordinator has to read a script where a car flips off a bridge and explodes in mid-air, and it’s his job to deliver that.
"Let's go for one."
Yeah, failure is literally not an option. And a lot of what they do has never been done before. That’s why stunts are written into movies—to show something new and incredible. People put their life on the line.
I've been on jobs where we were trying to do a safety meeting, and it was like pulling teeth to get the lead cast to walk over. They felt like they didn't need to listen, or they were too good for it. There are reasons we do this, like, nobody should be exempt.
One of the reasons why I didn't want to stay in the AD department was because as an AD, a lot of it falls on you when it comes to safety. And I think that's a lot to put on people who don’t get listened to.
And who might be young and new and don't have the experience to know that they can stand up for themselves and their crew.
A lot of times, too, numbers are severely cut. When we do a Tech Scout, the Key PA on some jobs isn't even allowed to come. Which is insane. The Second Second and the Key PA, I think, should always be there to help voice what manpower they're going to need for the day. Unfortunately, one of the first roles that gets cut for budget is Additional PA. That’s where safety falls through the cracks.
Oh, you don't have the money to pay somebody $16 an hour? Oh, interesting.
As you're flipping a car in the middle of Soho, in the middle of the day? Oh, sorry. Excuse me.
So, when you make a deal for a location, do you always block off a chunk of time? What if something changes last minute, or you go to weather cover?
Rain cover is prepared in advance, usually. The preference is to have it fall on a stage day. That way, we aren’t holding a business or home for longer than we need to, and we’re not changing our parking grids at the last minute.
We always block off a chunk of time at a location because of prep and wrap days. Once we have a schedule, we'll give the location an estimate. As the schedule changes, we have to keep them updated because sometimes we're shooting in active businesses. If we’re shutting down a restaurant or coffee shop, let's say, they base their rate upon revenue they would have made for the day. Obviously, they can’t just give us an estimate out of thin air; we need to see proof. But that’s why we need to know about schedule changes as soon as possible.
Talk about the track in the Locations department. From Unit PA to Location Manager.
So, a bulk crew would be: A Location Manager, one Location Coordinator, sometimes an Assistant Location Coordinator, if it’s a large job, anywhere from two to four ALMs [Assistant Location Managers], about two to four Location Assistants, and two to three Unit PAs. On rare occasions, there’s only one Unit PA opening and closing set, but I think it’s safer to split that role up, especially on bigger jobs. And, of course, day players, who get brought in to help core crew if a job is really big and crazy.
I just want to state that I’m only summarizing a small amount of work done by each member of the Location group. There are a multitude of tasks they’re working on that most people don’t realize—even myself, since I haven’t worked as an ALM, Location Coordinator or Location Manager yet. You would fall asleep if I listed every single task each member handled. We’re the ones who usually coordinate helicopter landings, and we work with our marine units for boat permissions. We are literally the department for land, air, and sea.
So, first you Unit PA, which is non-union. They usually do the most hours on set. They have such an important role. They set up holding spaces for Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe. They provide the chairs, tables, mirrors, lights, every single extension cord that HMU plugs into. The Unit PA also carries their own package of tables and chairs in their van in case we need extras. They deal with all the trash from catering, crafty, set. Unit PAs set up all the bathrooms. Paper towels, toilet paper, hand soap. They do the road signs in the morning, zip-tied to trees or poles, pointing your tired little butts to crew parking or breakfast. They are one of the first ones in and last ones out.
Then there are Location Assistants, which I am. We usually help scout support spaces; crew parking lots, holding for background and catering for lunch. We build the contracts and get them executed, making deals based upon what the Location Manager and ALM have budgeted for. We’re the onsite location reps with the rigging crews. If the riggers ask to drill into a wall, I’m the one who goes to the contact with the request. I make sure fire alarms and smoke alarms get turned off, refrigerators get unplugged … anything that might interfere with Sound on the day.
Location Assistants will work with the Assistant Location Manager, who is in between them and the Location Manager. Each ALM is assigned to a certain amount of specific locations, while Location Assistants are usually spread across the whole production. The ALM and Location Manager will produce an estimated budget for each location. There are lines specifically for permits, residents, everything. If we need to dress a house, ask people to turn off their lights, put something in a window or use a green room space, we know how much we can maximally offer.
Location Coordinators are the ones who get the payments and contracts pushed through and filed. They handle all things involving permits, streets, hydrants, and any signs that need to be removed for filming. They make the beautiful maps we use throughout prep and shooting. The Coordinator and Location Manager are the two main reps who work with the city to ensure everything is signed off on properly.
And then you have the Location Manager. The captain of our ship. The Location Manager not only works with the Director and DP on their original vision, but also has a close relationship with the Set Designer. The Art Department comes to them with set lists and all requests from Construction, Set Dressing, and Scenic. The Location Manager also works directly with city or town officials to ensure awareness of all required parameters and to make them feel comfortable with the idea of us shooting. They are the ones who perform walkthroughs with the local police and fire departments in regards to road closures, fire lanes, and all other safety measures. They’re the head communicators when handling difficult locations. If we’re filming on the water, or if we’re landing a helicopter in the street, you’ll see the Location Manager onsite as the liaison. They don’t usually have the time to be on set every day because there are so many moving parts to production, and they always have to think ahead. They do so much that people don’t see and deserve so much more praise.
Oh, and there are Location Scouts. For our filming locations, the Location Manager and the Scouts will scout for months; before the Production Office even really starts. On movies, they usually finish by a certain point because our stuff will be locked.
Once you’re positioned on a union job as a Location Assistant, you have to join the union within 30 days. If you don't, you will be not allowed to work. They do it so old school in Local 817, which, I love you guys—Shout out to 817! But old school. Snail-mail style.
In 764, we’re still operating on fax machines, so I get it.
Yeah, you get it. Initiation fee for an Assistant is $200 and then you pay $20 a month in dues. You are required to work a certain number of hours a quarter to qualify for health insurance. You'll get dental, health, and vision. First quarter, you must work 700 hours. Then, to maintain your insurance, you must work 400 hours a quarter. Any additional hours are banked, so if you have time off you can use those to continue your insurance.
It’s great. But honestly, the Locations Department is one of the lowest-paid departments on set. It used to be that Location Assistants got paid as much as Set PAs (who are severely underpaid). All rates are shown on the Local 817 website, if anyone’s interested.
I'll put it this way: we deserve to be getting more. If we fuck something up, if we piss off one person, if we don't communicate one thing to the city or to a homeowner, we will lose a location we're filming at and lose a shoot day.
Yeah, the consequences for you guys are way more extreme than the consequences for an Additional Costumer, let's say, who didn't catch a continuity error.
Our consequences literally could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We could entirely lose a shoot day. If a location doesn't open, if a crew parking or holding deal falls through the night before ... there are times when we have to fight for our lives to try to figure something out.
Locations is the good cop of set. We don't get to have a bad cop. We want the crew happy, we want the town happy, we want the residents happy, we want the contact happy. No matter how wrong someone is or cruel someone is, we have to de-escalate the situation so we don't lose a set. Some crazy person wants to play their music loud? We're the ones who have to go talk to them and rectify the situation.
Anytime anybody has a real fundamental, unfixable problem on set, they’re immediately on the walkie. "Locations, go to 2."
[laughs] The most haunting words on set are "Locations, go to 2."
I want to say that we're very blessed in the Teamster Union, I don't want to downplay that. How grateful I am. I know that Location Managers are actually in the DGA, they are not in 817. They can negotiate a really fantastic deal for themselves. Every position can always negotiate based on experience. However, the baseline rate is trash for what we do. I just think we deserve the respect to be met with pay equal to the rest of production.
But another great part of Locations is you get to see, inside and out, some of the coolest places you've ever been. I know the ins and outs of Grand Central. I have visited every market. I have visited every underground area that I never knew about. Previously, I’d go there just to get the train and leave.
So, you're staying. Are you going to try to make the move to UPM [Unit Production Manager] at some point?
When I first started out in the industry, I was in a rush to get where I thought I wanted to be. I'm someone who doesn't come from money, and I wanted to have my name plastered around. I wanted the money. I wanted to be that person, and I wanted to rush there, and I was impatient.
Money is not everything. And I know, listen, this is coming from the brokest bitch who cries about money. It's just a different problem. I think a lot of people in the film industry chase the money. They chase the title. But after COVID-19 happened, and I was nervous about my health and my mental health.
I realized that quality of life is way more important than money will ever be.
I love that in Locations I have a ladder to climb, I have a union to protect me, and I have amazing people I love working for who respect me and help me in times of need. I would love to move up. I would love to be a Location Manager one day. But I am in no hurry to get there.
I don't make a ton of money, as I said before, but I make enough to live in my one-bedroom apartment. Barely. But I can live. I can live, and I can buy myself dinner when I'm working, and that's all that matters. People sometimes lose time because they're chasing a title and upset that they’re somewhere they’re not. I've done it. But, you know, you miss out on all the good stuff.
Would I like to UPM one day? I don't know anymore, to be honest with you. I want to see where the rest of the positions take me before I jump to that. Through Line Producer assisting, I saw what it consists of. It’s something that I might like to do one day. But I think that it's more important to me to enjoy my work and not become a bitter bitch. Going the Location route one step at a time brings me enough peace.
That's great. I agree—I don’t even know what a career means anymore. What is success? We’re doing it now. Enjoy it. 10 years ago, little New York Film Academy Mel would have creamed her jeans to see where you are now.
It's crazy how, as individuals, we constantly beat ourselves up for where we aren't. For what we don't have or what we don't look like or what we haven't accomplished. We could look at a scenario and only look at the things we did wrong. And it's wild because Young Mel and Young Sommer would be like, "Holy fuck, dude, what are you talking about?!" Like, you would shake yourself.
I used to live in a two-bedroom in Bed-Stuy in 2014 with about seven people. I ate one Chinese food meal a day. I couldn't afford the subway. Sometimes I would have to walk to far places to sell my clothes. And then I sit here, and I'm sad in my one-bedroom apartment in Greenpoint.
I have to fight to keep what I have, and I'm always sad that, you know, I'm someone who hasn't traveled the world yet. I haven't. My parents have never left the U.S.—I beat myself up for stuff like that. I beat myself up for people my age who are Producers, sometimes. People will say to me, "You’ve done all this ... Why aren't you up here?" And I used to shit on myself and be like, "Why aren't I there? Am I doing it wrong? Am I one of those people?"
But dude, I made it so far. And I feel like I saved my mental health by doing it this way and taking a breath and remembering to celebrate what I have and the people I have right now. Because who the fuck knows? People are dropping like flies left and right, the older you get. You know? You get more hemorrhoids with each waking moment.
I do think COVID taught me to stop and look at what I've done for myself. The film industry is one of those places where it's really easy to get sucked into the names. Because you can party with those people. If anybody ever reads about our business, I hope people take away that quality of life is the most important. You make enough to live and you get with good people. That's the important shit. Not that you're accredited on a Fincher movie, which, slay! I would be so proud of myself! But the name alone does not make a good, healthy situation. It's learning how to not get caught up in the image of what you think is cool, and learning what is mentally and physically satisfying towards a good fuckin’ life. Not what looks like a good life; what actually is.
That’s beautiful, Mel. I think that’s a wrap on us. Do you have anything else to add?
Don't join the film industry.
No, I’m just kidding. Um ....
Don't join the film industry.
*Feature Photo: Melanie Roddy