By Sarah-Kate Fenelon
Originally from Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, with no previous connection to the film industry, I have filmed all over the world, from South Africa to Morocco, the Hamptons to Los Angles, Iceland, Colombia and at home in Ireland. I suppose you could say I moved to America to pursue a “dream,” a word which, in my experience, had always been preceded by the word “pipe.” I don’t know whether it was fearlessness or stupidity, but years later I now live and work in Los Angeles for one of the world’s leading filmmakers on the biggest TV shows in production. I dipped my toes in the proverbial and literal water of Hollywood and learned to swim.
But the journey to producer has not been an easy one. From censored stories and the police showing up on set, to producing nightmares – like the Istanbul terrorist airport attack where I had to call a crew member’s parents to make sure they were alive or collaborators grieving their family members in the middle of production – I have seen some difficult situations and these were just the things outside of my control.
I have hired and fired, worked with immigration and boarder control, filmed entire movies on moving buses and Olympic-sized swimming pools, and shot in some of the most dangerous countries in the world. It’s safe to say film has made me work at problem-solving and learn to stay calm in increasingly stressful situations. Even when you think you’ve got it all covered, there are always bees to distract your stunt baboon (yes, you read that correctly) in your period film shot in the bush in South Africa. Producing is relentless.
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Being a producer is at the best of times an invisible job, and often a thankless one as a result, but working with writers and world builders to create stories that make audiences feel something or challenge their mindset is a privilege that is not lost on me. I find myself at work, thinking about what kind of stories the world needs now in this chapter of history we are living in, and it’s just that, a need, as if stories are an antidote to the crisis in which we live, or a mirror as Shakespeare would say, the world our stage.
When you go to film school, they like to warn you early on to avoid filming with children, old people and animals. Why? Because they often take more time, and therefore cost you more money. However, none of the stories I wanted to tell featured young 20-somethings in apartments in New York. And I couldn’t be more grateful. Needless to say I broke the above rule within the first year.
A film set on Long Island.
One piece of advice I’ll never forget is to “only worry about things within your control.” Things will always go wrong on set, things break, plans change, and well people are just people. Producers become very comfortable with Murphy’s Law, what can go wrong will. So compartmentalizing worry and stress is one of the most important things you can learn. This allows you to choose what to prioritize and what to put the most amount of your energy into, because despite my best efforts to prove otherwise, there are only 24 hours in a day.
The second greatest skill (which is arguably two skills) is knowing the length of a minute and the value of a dollar. If problem solving is the parachute of a film, minutes and dollars are the chord, and are as crucial to the success of your film and safety as getting out of your situation. If you can manage that, and remain kind, you’ve got the makings of being a fine producer. That advice, had I been told it many years ago, might have helped me out of a hairy situation or two.
And yet, the Hollywood machine is a different beast altogether and one that I am getting to know as a production specialist for Neil Gaiman’s production company. Known for his award-winning novels and comic books, Gaiman is a film and TV producer as well as a showrunner who is in the luxurious position of having a library of source material at his fingertips. I have been able to work on some of the biggest TV shows of 2018, 2019 and 2020 and have seen them come into fruition (“Good Omens,” “Sandman,” “Anansi Boys,” “American Gods”) starting from the pitch meetings, to greenlight, to production through post, and finally to their launch across the world.
“Look Out for the Cows,” which was shot in Iceland.
A long way from the Arts Block in Trinity College, it’s hard to say whether I would have made it without leaving Ireland, certainly it would have been at an older age. Nevertheless, studying English at Trinity gave me a strong foundation in storytelling, which combined with my masters in film producing at Columbia University in New York allowed me access to the American film industry. So I suppose, if I had any wisdom to relay to a budding filmmaker with a dream at home, or anywhere for that matter, whether director, screenwriter or producer, it would be: go for it, dream big, because anything is possible, but never forget – there will always be bees.
Sarah-Kate Fenelon is a production specialist at the Blank Corporation in Los Angeles