Maegan Philmore, Television Line Producer for NFL and Production Coordinator and Manager for TV series such as Dance Moms and Naked and Afraid, joins in conversation with Tanya to tell us more about her experiences working on reality TV.
Maegan talks about what it is like to shift from scripted to non-scripted content and its challenges. She also tells us fascinating stories about her experience at the Super Bowl and all the moving parts to live production. Maegan also shares an insight on how she has handled sanitary outbreaks in the past and how COVID has changed this particular side of the entertainment industry. Listen to Maegan's great advice on what to do if you want to get started in this industry.
01:17 — Maegan’s background
03:05 — Shift from scripted to non-scripted content
05:33 — Difference between production coordinator & production manager
08:06 — Reality TV & the Union
11:30 — How to decide between scripted and unscripted TV
15:21 — Working as a producer on the Super Bowl
17:40 — Malaria, Guyana & Naked & Afraid
21:20 — Working in production & handling tropical diseases
22:57 — Her experience with COVID
26:06 — effects of COVID in her industry
29:06 — Advice to people looking for work
30:02 — Roles that have increased their demand
31:14 — Future roles for Maegan 32:30 — Work-life balance
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People talk down about reality or docu-series, but to pull that off is way more complicated than the oil machine of saying, "We're going to shoot one scene at a time and everybody has a particular role when they come together." Whether it's low budget, high budget, scripted, it is a simpler focus than reality, because we still don't know if a cast member is going to fight, if they're going to fall in love. We don't know that.
Welcome to There to Here, an educational podcast where industry professionals talk nuts and bolts and how they got from there to here. A couple of things to note. Until further notice, we'll be a monthly podcast. Firstly, I'm in the throes of finishing up my master's and secondly, we'll be boosting more efforts toward the main There to Here podcast with Ryan Dye. Tune in there for interviews on entrepreneurship, non-profits, real estate and tech.
If you want to keep in touch with film and media specifically, you can follow our new Instagram, @colabincfilm. This is also the place to ask your listener questions now @colabincfilm. From CoLab INC, I'm Tanya Musgrave, and today we have Maegan Philmore, television line producer for the NFL and production coordinator and manager for television series such as Dance Moms, Storage Wars, Naked and Afraid, amidst outbreak in Guyana. Welcome to the show.
Hi, how are you?
Let's start with your background. How did you get from there to here?
I always loved films from when I was little. I would say probably maybe 12 years old, I watched Steel Magnolias and I thought Sally Field's performance was so amazing so I asked my dad, I said, "How can I help those people? Is that a job?" And my dad was like, "Yes," and he showed me all the credits. And the first credit I remember seeing was the unit production manager and I thought that they were amazing. I had no idea what they would do, but I would like ... That's what came on.
And so I went to college and I was a theater major. And of course, also directing and acting, but I really loved stage management. From there, I started stage managing, first in Boston at American Repertory Theater, and then I moved to New York the same year 9/11 happened and start doing stage management.
From there, I took a couple years just trying to just make a living. And then in 2005, moved out to Los Angeles, California. I linked up with some alumn. One was a a first AD in the business and that's what she did for her living, and she helped me along and I start working in production.
Fast forward 2008, the strike happened, so I moved into unscripted programming and moved up the ladder there and became a UPM and I did all sorts of shows in reality television. From that, I went to a network and I worked at a network on the unscripted side as production executive. Then from there, I went to the NFL and I got to work as their financial logistical producer for their teams. Now I am back freelancing, line producer and UPM on various projects.
That must've been quite the shift. I know that it is a completely different mindset, at least in my mind, the difference between scripted and unscripted. Was it that big of a shift for you?
It wasn't a big shift because I was new. For me, I was just excited to be around making content and the chaos around trying to make content to the best of its ability. I noticed, though, once I went to reality, reality people have to do way more jobs than you do in the union-
... or scripted. For instance, I'm planning a COVID plan for an MTV show right now. And when I'm trying to explain to my COVID compliance officers that we're going to be shooting 24 hours a day, that it's a different setup than a scripted project where you'll have to worry about the art department, who's prepping the day before, a couple of days before, and then you're shooting one constant set, where in reality, if we want a resort, which we're trying to get a resort that's like a bubble for this show, but there could be six different shoots going on at the same time, so it's not the same.
People kind of talk down about reality or docu-series, but to pull that off is way more complicated than the oil machine of saying, "We're going to shoot one scene at a time and everybody has a particular role when they come together." Whether it's low budget, high budget, scripted, it is simpler focus than reality, because even though we do lightly script, we still don't know if a cast member is going to fight, if they're going to fall in love, if the scene is going to be boring. We don't know that, so different things can take place.
That's the biggest difference I saw, but when I was coming up through it, I was just so excited just to be doing it. It wasn't that difficult. But now that I just finished planning the shooting of this scripted film, there are a lot of differences, but it was a lot easier for me to use my skills in the scripted format, because we're going to shoot three scenes tomorrow. We know where they're going to be. We know all those things.
It's a breeze. It's a breeze compared to [inaudible 00:05:20], like, "Oh wait, you guys know exactly where your actors are going to stand? How convenient for you." You said production coordinator, production manager. For our listeners, what is the actual difference?
Well, the UPM is the first person below the line who once a budget is established, comes in, hires all those bodies, makes sure things are safe and really is the person that lays the groundwork to make the show move. Basically the production manager is the person who informs that call sheet, depending on if you're scripted and non-scripted and how many assistant directors you have to execute what's on the page within a budget that can make it possible. That is what it is. Basically you have a writer, they have an idea. Then you have a producer. That producer buys that idea. That producer sets a budget. The unit production manager looks at that and says, "Okay, we need to have X number of people here on this day to make this happen at this time," and they get X amount of time to get that done.
That is what they are. That's why in the union, they get residuals. They're a highly respected profession, where in reality, a lot of times, they don't take us as serious because they don't understand the work that we do. We do a lot of work people don't want to do. We make sure the permits are done, the insurance is done, people get paid on time, people are fed on time, which is very important. We make sure things are safe. That's who we are.
The coordinator is the person who helps support the PM. All that paperwork that has to go back and forth, that's the coordinator. When certain teams need expendables, [inaudible 00:00:07:13], all those things, that comes through the production coordinator and the production manager. We may never be seen on set, but we're constantly working to make sure that that sort of work is done. It takes a very detailed mind. It takes a very thick skin and somebody who's not looking for applause. It's just someone who likes to make stories and have creative solutions to figure out how productions can be done. Normally, you don't have enough money to do what you want to do, but get it done in a way so people really don't even know you exist. There are certain people on productions, they'll know my name, but they won't know me because we're working very seamlessly behind the scenes.
You've mentioned this a couple of times, union and reality. Is reality television not covered by the union?
Majority not. You may have your editors or you may have your camera operators, but the majority of the time, they are talents because they are real people, like Kim Kardashian is not a member of SAG, and that's probably one of the biggest reality stars there's ever been. No, it would not be union, but the union rules of breaking people for lunch and things like that do fall in, but it's not law.
Our COVID plans that are put in place with the film that I'm doing, the unions had to review our plans, but on reality shows, it's more the network and we hire on outside people with our legal counsel to put that together. It's just a little different-
... rules. And then with unions, you have to pay people differently on the back end, so your payroll company has different requirements for you versus if you're doing non-union.
Well, even crew, so your camera men, if they're in the union, would they be able to transfer easily to reality or would it just be a cold glass of water in the face like, "Oh, this is really different"?
It depends, because we're at this stage in society, and I'll use a much broader example to explain. It's like explaining to a baby boomer, especially a baby boomer at the top of the baby boomer age range, how to do Instagram Reels, you know what I'm saying? If you have people that have been camera opping since, I don't know, the '70s, and if they wanted to step on a reality TV set, it's going to be way drastically different. But if you're someone like my friends, us people that are Gen X-ers but that understand how the millennials are living their lives, because I'm one of those people, I'm a Gen X-er technically, but technology is not hard for me. I've been able to work in both, scripted and unscripted, union and non-union and being able to meld.
So that learning curve is on the individual. For instance, Movie Magic is a program, especially budgeting, that is used a lot. They recently, at the beginning of the pandemic, beginning of March, released their brand new version, which is so user-friendly. It's like the difference between an Android phone and an Apple phone, but the Apple phone version, the new version comes out formatted totally different. My bosses can't handle that, the new format. And so I have to take it into the archaic system to change it for them. That's how it is. Saying that reality is archaic. It's more certain people who've been doing these jobs for a long time, it's harder.
At NFL Network, none of the people are crew because the NFL doesn't do union. NFL just doesn't do it, but they are very accustomed to their breaks, their time, their benefits. And for me, it was a hard adjustment because I had to adjust to 10 hour days versus 12 hours, which I'm used to in television and film. It's just, you always have to be nimble, especially in this way of making money. Now that I've done sports, I've done scripted, I've done unscripted, I can do doc, and then I've done it all different platforms, it just helps.
You've done both scripted, non-scripted, union, non-union, indie film and broadcast, I guess you would say. Was it live broadcast?
I've done some live shows, but majority of them have been taped, and then they went into full out whole post-production and became series.
Okay. Okay. Okay. For the people who are trying to decide which direction to go, particularly those who went to more of a traditional film school and feel like they might be just limited to narrative, what are some attractive characteristics, a pro con list, if you will, of unscripted television, that would make it a good direction to head professionally?
That's a big question. I think that people should find out what they want to do by just going on set, being a production assistant and seeing ... Unless you know in your heart of hearts you want to be the person that's around to make a Superbowl show, which was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen come together, that I knew if I would stay at the NFL, that would be something I would want to move into because that was very enthralling, especially having a theater background and all of that. And there are some people that have that joy. A lot of my coworkers at the NFL, they love sports and they love making ... and that's one thing. If you know that that's your passion, that's great.
But if not, if you don't know exactly where you want to go, if you want to be creative or if you want to work in logistics like myself, I would say go on set as a PA and really just see how all the departments work. In unscripted, the best way that I have found is [inaudible 00:12:58]. You may have to fudge some credits that you've worked on such and such shows, but just the PA. Get on Facebook groups. And they're like, "I need a PA, I need this." And just really just get your feet wet and see what it is and just know that just because you're not treated well on your first couple sets, that doesn't mean that's how it is all the time. I've worked on some really rough sets where people are not nice. The conversation I had before with my first AD, it was very heated, but we basically came out of it like we want to have each other's back.
And so long, long story short, having that thick skin comes with time. I did not start out ... There's a song by Sade where she says, "I came in like a lamb and I want to leave like a lion." That is what has happened to me. I was a very sensitive person, but now I can stand my ground and I can speak my mind. I can listen to what someone else says, because I don't have that big of the ego, and then I can go forward. And I think by being a PA on set and reaching out to staffing of our Facebook groups just saying you're available, reaching out, and then also realizing, because I do deal with some young people who think they should come in and automatically be running set. Don't have that attitude.
There are people in this business who are 40 year old PAs because they want to change their lives. And I've seen those people be 40 year old PAs and then go off and produce a great film themselves later because that's the best way you see it. You see it in action once that's happening, and just talking to people because once somebody knows you have the belly to work these long hours, to adjust to whatever happens, to have a thick skin, they'll continue to hire you. And then you will move up if that's what you want.
There are some people, like I met one woman, she's been an assistant to a creative for over 15 years. And that's what she likes. Good for her. And she bought a house. I still don't own a house, you know what I mean? And she learned early on she wanted to assist the big creatives in television. She liked being around it, but that's what she does and she's happy in it. Me on the other hand, I love making my money logistically, but I eventually want to move into creative producing my own projects, which I'm slowly in that move towards.
One of the things that I want to hear about is the Superbowl. What was that like?
It was fantastic because I've only seen the Superbowl at home, but I got to see the Superbowl in Miami this year. I got to see it in the greatest thing was what happened when the teams left the field, how fast the teams left the field at halftime to you saw Shakira at onstage. I was in a suite because I worked with the influencer marketing team, so we had a lot of influencers in our suite. When that happened, I moved down and what I noticed was less than a minute, security had the team off the field. It's like an army descended onto the field, bringing four quadrants, holding four quadrants, and then Shakira standing there.
Now at home, you don't see that. When the commercial comes back, all you see is Shakira there, but it was so organized and perfect. It was unbelievable. And I was just like ... the organization, the year long practice that it takes to put that on. I mean, it was amazing because the Superbowl has the strictest security. It's higher security than an inauguration, the presidential inauguration actually. And the reason why it has to have-
You've got to be kidding me. What?
Yeah. It has to have that ... All levels of law enforcement are there, because just imagine what would happen if someone did some sort of [inaudible 00:16:48] on the Superbowl. It's the biggest watched sports event in the United States if something would happen, so you have to go through tons of security protocols just to get in and then there's quadrants or credentials that you have to get certain places at certain times.
Until you've been through it, you won't understand and everybody told me that, but it was hard, you know what I mean? It was really, really hard. To get my team on the field, it was a lot of work to do that, to get through all the security protocols. I just can't even imagine the person who was in my seat planning that. And because of the way my brain works, that excited me. Most people would be like, "I don't want all that headache," dealing with a level one security event like the Super bowl and also having to go live. The Superbowl doesn't go dark. It's always on, you know what I mean? To have all the technicians and all the technology, it ... yeah.
Guyana. Let's talk outbreak, shall we? What was the outbreak?
I was on the show Naked and Afraid. I was in the country in Guyana for four months. Let me just give you a little background on Guyana because a lot of people confuse it with Ghana in South America. Its neighbor is Brazil. It is a part of the Caribbean. They speak English primarily. It's the second poorest country, at least when I was there, in South America, so very underdeveloped, but beautiful, super gorgeous, untouched rainforest. Where when we go to our forest in the United States, we can step on the ground in most places, and it's the actual ground. There, you would just bounce because of all of the trees that have fallen, the leaves that fallen for years and centuries. It's that sort of place where there are not roads and things like that.
Being in Guyana, Georgetown is their main hub. Malaria is common just because we're in the Amazon, we're two degrees north of the equator. You are truly in tropical paradise. They have some of the best waterfalls in the world. And so we were there and we heard chikungunya, and it was in the news. Lindsay Lohan actually contracted it when she was somewhere in the Caribbean.
But it is a stronger form of malaria. Malaria, especially malaria has been in the news lately with the president recommending that we use malaria drugs for COVID, what I learned about malaria is it feels like you have extreme body aches. At least the two people I knew who got it in our village, it's like extreme body aches and you can't get out of bed. That's what it is, because your immune system is fighting it off.
The one man that had it, this was his fourth time having it. None of my crew or cast got it on Naked and Afraid, but we just had to be a little more cautious if people had symptoms. And when you have your cast or talent out there with no clothing on fighting the elements for their lives, which Naked and Afraid, it's something you pay attention to. But we had our doctors who would just keep abreast of how they were.
And there's really nothing you can do to prevent it. If mosquito bites you with this, you just have it. We all did get a flu when we were out there, but none of us got chikungunya besides the owner of the one lodge we were at and then one of the farmers. And so we were all on edge, especially when all of us start taking ill, but then we start realizing we were having chest congestion that was coming up and that's way different than the chikungunya symptoms.
The thing for me in my role is I was the one who got to travel back and forth to Georgetown to drop off talent, to get talent. I had to go into Georgetown and Georgetown was flooded. Flooding causes more mosquitoes and bugs and so that was the scary thing. But just working with ... I found in an outbreak, especially tropical diseases, because western medicine, they don't understand tropical diseases really well. You can see we've handled COVID as a western society versus my favorite country, Taiwan. I want to go visit now.
I'm from Taiwan.
Awesome. Taiwan had a great plan to fight COVID and they kept the cases so low. And so with that, tropical doctors believed the same thing. The US doctors can't treat chikungunya well because they don't know how to handle these sort of cases. Us having doctors on set helped us to just monitor [inaudible 00:21:19] because they're used to these sort of tropical diseases.
And so if you're in production and you're up against COVID or any sort of outbreak, go to the local medical professionals to tell you how to handle it, because Discovery Networks definitely sent me out for Naked and Afraid with a packet of how to do it, but when I called them and said, "This and this and this is happening," they don't have any medical basis to ward off something. And so that's how I feel I was able to keep us all safe.
The first location we were at, we all got bit by sand fleas and it looked rough. We looked rough, but our local doctors said, "That's normal. You guys aren't immune to sand fleas yet." Once we all got bit, we all pull up, after that, we were fine. But if we would have went to an American doctor, they probably would've been like, "Oh my God, what's happening to you?"
Yeah, yeah, you know what I mean? It's one of those sorts of things. I took the protocols that Discovery sent me, I made a safety plan and then I went and I talked to our doctor that we had. Anyone who's planning or hears the outbreak, I would suggest you talk to your local medical professionals in your largest hub, where we got all our doctors from Georgetown, just to be able to keep everybody safe, as well as relying on your home country protocols.
You've had some health safety supervising going on in a variety of different hubs already. With COVID now, how do things look for you these days?
Because I do international TV and I'm traveling internationally and I do regular, I got World Health Organization certified and I got safe set. Both of those are free. Just so anyone knows, they're free and they're courses you take. They're about two to three hours to just brief you on the best ways to protect people. Now, of course, information changes and you have to get up, but after this call and want to speak to my set medic, who's also our COVID compliance officer about how he wants to do thermometer checks in the morning, what sort of PPE is he going to be giving, what sort of disinfectants he's going to have, all those things.
I would suggest one, just taking some time for you to get educated. Even though I'm not the health safety officer on set, still, a big part of my job is to keep people safe. If I know going ahead, besides reading the white papers or the safer way forward papers that [inaudible 00:23:57] have put out, taking those extra courses helps, and every show that I do, I want all of my production staff to also take one of the two courses, just so they know what they're up against so if they see something being done with hand hygiene that could cause an outbreak amongst us ... One thing that's important is people who come out with symptoms now. Going into flu season, you can think you're sick, which can cause a production to go down in the same way that it would if you actually had COVID.
Keeping hand hygiene first and foremost is important. And I think that once you take those sort of courses, you understand the importance of washing for 20 seconds. For instance, I never would really wash my forearm, but surgeons always do that, [crosstalk 00:24:45] and now when I wear a tank top ... I have one today ... If I go somewhere to get a prescription, I normally lay my arm down.
Oh my word, yeah, so true.
All of that, you know what I mean? We're testing for sure. We get our results, but then hand hygiene as you go along, just because someone can get gas on the way to set, run into someone, that could then pass it on to us. And so to just keep us off base, just keeping hand hygiene first and foremost in people's minds is definitely important because after two or three days, you come to set, you're kind of used to it, people fall back into old habits, but no, noses need to be covered at all times, unless you're a cast member that can take it down or unless you're in an enclosed office space where it's just you.
Things do pass and they're passing a lot more rapidly with something like a COVID where flus are contagious, but they're not contagious at the rate that we're seeing COVID can be if one person gets it, how it can be spread amongst the groups. It's just a little extra work, but it's a little extra work to keep people safe, and I think that's very important.
For so many people, it screeched everything to a halt. They had nothing. With your particular role, how has COVID affected your role?
The second time Gavin Newsome shut down the state of California, which I never thought he should open it to begin with, but he has many interests he has to get, I, one, was thinking about becoming a COVID compliance officer, because the scripted world needs people who know production that can also execute COVID rules. I had applied and I was on the list to do that at Disney, but then Disney shut it down.
Also, the MTV show that I was on, we were about to go into production, but when they saw the COVID costs, it shut us down. Those are the type of things that has changed. The other thing is a lot of my work that I would do to prep, I have added work. For instance, today there's a call sheet that needs to go out. The call sheets, I didn't have a list of everyone who was tested. I'm not going to worry about who's on the call sheet until I know who's tested because those are the people who can be on my set. That's a different way of working for me where typically everybody we've hired is on set, no problem. And then you also have to have pre-planning, but we have to know beforehand who's coming on the set that's tested and yada yada yada.
Are the sets that you're part of now, are they fairly low budget? Are they the ones that have been able to kind of eat through? Are they indie? Have you seen a trend of what kind of sets are actually able to carry forward?
The film is indie, but the television show, the two television shows that I've been a part of since this started are larger budgets backed by major networks. But none of them are the large studio pictures or the large television shows. Those are far and few between coming back, especially in Los Angeles, just because if it's not a quarantine or isolated show where nobody's going to home, it's so hard to keep everybody safe.
It's like the first week in the NFL, they've have more cases in their first week than the NBA had, because they're not leaving, but the NBA is, so it's that same mentality. In LA, they don't really want us to shoot because it's so hard, but something that I can create a bubble and say, "Hey, we're going to go up to Oregon and shoot like this," the network is saying, "I think I'll do that."
I was helping with the PPE kits for one of my girlfriends doing a show in Croatia. Basically they sent all the PPE to me, I made the kits and I mailed it out to cast and producers as they would start to hit, but her and production had to go 14, or they actually went 21 days before to Croatia to get everything set and safe for everyone. But that's backed by a big network, and it's not in Los Angeles either.
Interesting. Are you finding that international places might be the way to go for some crew members who can't find work here?
I don't know, because many countries don't want us.
Yeah, that's true.
I had a line producer friend of mine who couldn't even fly to Germany. Germany stopped him and said, "You must go back to England," and then he had to catch a flight out. That's difficult. What I would say for people who are looking for work is really hit up people that are working in sports because they are still filming. I would definitely look at looking at reality shows that are shot away. See if you can get on a production that is being able to be shot in Canada, because I do know Canada is allowing certain companies to bring certain people in, or shows in Atlanta.
It's far and few between out there, but in LA County, it is difficult. And if that's the case, you have to figure out how you can help. Normally, I wouldn't be the person to send PPE kits out, but I didn't have money, so that's how I got involved in helping. My girlfriend was having the show and she was like, "I need someone who's not just a production assistant that can take this thing seriously and do this." And so it was another way for me to make money, especially when the extra stimulus money left from unemployment.
Yeah. Yeah. That's what one of our previous guests, Jill Maxcy, she was the first AD for Glee and American Horror Story. Once this whole thing hit, she had nothing. And she ended up going into health safety supervising and coming up with those safety plans as well. Are there any particular roles that you see more people gravitating to or needing?
I definitely think COVID PAs or sanitation staff are something that people need more of. You definitely need a company that you can trust. You definitely need a safety company that can work with you to build your plan. I know WorkCare worked well for my girlfriend in Croatia, helped them turn around testing and set it up pretty well. That's the only one that I suggest at this moment because the others, I'm still feeling them out, but there are some out there. And then if you work with a network or you're part of a union, they also have recommended lists as well, but WorkCare is the one that my girlfriend has liked the most. And I have a meeting with them tomorrow for one of my shows.
All right, last question. What questions should I have asked you?
I don't know. I guess, how long do I want to stay in this business, I guess? I'm 42 now. I'm about to turn 43 in November. And I've given myself 50, to 50, the age of 50 to be actively on set in a logistical point person. I'm hoping in the next two years or so, I can move into more creative producing because it lends a different sense of work, a different sense of sanity, but it is a high burnout position. It's not that ... I don't know too many women in my position that actually have kids and are married because it is full on. I always tell people, my crews have been my kids. It's just the truth. There are some men who do it, but it's still hard for them because you have to invest 15 hours a day or so actively in something, so you can't pay attention to other things.
It's an interesting conversation that we've had on this podcast before, that balance between such a lucrative industry that in some ways demands this of a life, when in reality, if the industry itself changed its tune, I feel like there could be more balance. We've talked about you have to work 18 hours a day and there's a generation coming up these days that are just like, "No, no, we want to have a family. We want to do this. We want to be able to have a home." It's a very, very interesting time right now coming up with a new generation of crew members who aren't sinking their life into that. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.
Well, thank you very much. I enjoyed myself. I normally am not the person who talks about things. Most people don't want to know what I do for a living. I'm glad I got to be a part.
Thank you for joining us. If you enjoyed this interview, follow us right here and check out more episodes at media.colabinc.org. If you have comments or know someone who would be a great guest on our show, sending your suggestions to email@example.com. Be well and God bless. We'll see you next time on There to Here.