Had Me at Hello: Stephanie Tull

After eyeballing different roles on set as an intern, Stephanie Tull talked to enough crew members to realize that the Directors' Guild of America training program was the best path to becoming an assistant director.

After a series of hunt-and-peck internships she found online, Stephanie Tull started paying attention to exactly who does exactly what on film sets, and her observations led straight to realizing her dream job: assistant director (AD). Attracted to the position, she discovered the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) training program, a two-and-a-half-year education in all things AD. Unfortunately, Tull faced years of rejection to the program—once just because her margins were wrong on her papers—before gaining acceptance and thus gaining entry to the sets of a variety of television shows and films including My Name is Earl, The West Wing, Private Practice, Raising Hope, Weeds, Battleship, Katy Perry: Part of Me, and Extreme Measures.

Since graduating from the program, Tull has lived well in Los Angeles, quickly put to work on jobs that came through the guild or through word of mouth. She will tell you that making it as an AD requires a lot of hard work and intense dedication, but she considers herself living proof that the job is worth the journey. Her greatest advice for those looking to break into this industry? Say hello to everyone you meet along the way.

Get In Media: How did you find out about the Director’s Guild of America training program?
Stephanie Tull: I met a girl on set who was in the program, and she recommended that I apply. It’s this program that the DGA developed to train good ADs. It’s roughly two and half years or so, and you just get placed on all these different shows. You run base camp, which means you take care of the actors’ hair, makeup, and costumes, kind of facilitating them in the mornings and everything and getting them ready and getting them to set. You handle the background, which is all the extras and all the paperwork, and then you do all the rest of the paperwork.

The program is informative and a great networking tool. They have seminars on Saturdays where they teach you more stuff about the department and filmmaking. It was kind of like going to film school, but it was more like AD college.

GIM: What happened when you graduated from the program?
ST: When you get out of it, you’re eligible to join the Director’s Guild as a second AD. That’s where I am now. So after 400 working days, you complete observation days. You go and observe different departments, like, you go and observe the camera department on set to see their technology, the lenses, the film stocks, all that. And when you’re done with 400 days, then you’re eligible to join, and the first DGA job you get helps get you into the union, and then they send you all the paperwork to apply.

GIM: What was your first job after you graduated?
ST: The first one I got when I was done was this little independent movie called Kiss Me, and we just filmed it. The director is the host of Survivor, Jeff Probst. And it was with Jenna Fischer, John Corbett, and Rita Wilson. It’s a coming-of-age drama about this 15-year-old girl with scoliosis and how she is dealing with things and this friendship she has with this girl. And it was great. It was three six-day weeks, and I love the independent film vibe because it’s a small crew; it was like we were all there making this little piece of art for someone. After that, I worked on Katy Perry: Part of Me.

GIM: Can you explain the difference between the first AD and the second AD? What is the hierarchy on set?
ST: The hierarchy of it is: there’s second AD, key second AD and then first AD. The second AD is the person who would handle setting all the background on set, being the first AD’s right hand on there, making sure everything’s happening. The key second AD is the person who is always looking a day ahead, getting the next day prepared, so that when we shoot the next day, it’s all set. They make the call sheet, which lists who, what, when, where—what people are working, what time we’re going to be there, what sets we’re shooting, where we’re shooting it, and all that stuff. They take care of calling the actors, making sure everyone has their proper schedule and if there’s any schedule changes. And then the first AD is the one who makes the schedule for the film and breaks down the script and all the elements that are needed. For example, if the scene was two girls sitting in a coffee shop doing an interview, they’d say, “OK. What are the props? Food, so we’d need a food stylist. We need sunglasses, casual clothes, and we need background. They are the person who tells you what you would need for the scene. And then, they arrange for what we’re going to shoot, not necessarily in the script order but what makes the most sense in terms of location, actor availability, how long of a take … They come up with the schedule, and it goes through a series of people looking it over, like the producers and directors. They are the person who sets the pace of the film for the director. The power triangle on set is the director, the first AD and the director of photography, the DP—he’s the person who has the lighting crew and the camera, and he controls all the artistic portions of it. So, we’re like the coordinators of everything. We make sure he has everything he needs, and the DP makes sure it all looks great, and then the director, and then we shoot it.

The program is informative and a great networking tool. They have seminars on Saturdays where they teach you more stuff about the department and filmmaking. It was kind of like going to film school, but it was more like AD college.

GIM: What was your first experience working in the film industry?
ST: When I got to college, I got involved with the campus television shows. My first gig was The Telecasters at Michigan State University—that’s their student run television program. It’s on the student broadcasting channel, and I was on this show called The Show, which is the longest running campus sitcom in the nation. It’s all student-run. We wrote it; we produced it; we edited it. On tape days, we’d have live audience and tape it, just like a multi-camera show. And it was so much fun because you got to be creative, and we were students, and they just let us have the run of the studio.

GIM: So, after establishing an interest in film, what were you thinking in terms of education?
ST: I majored in Telecommunications, and my minor was Film Studies because Michigan State didn’t have a film school, which is not something that I really, necessarily would recommend. For me, it was actually getting the experience and getting your hands dirty and doing it that really prepared me. But, it gave me all the knowledge I needed rather than going to school for four more years for it. You learn so much on a set.

GIM: Did you do any internships behind the camera?
ST: During the summers, I did internships that I found that on entertainmentcareers.net. I found one in New York with Last Call with Carson Daly when they were still there. So, I went for a summer, and I worked with them, and it was an education on how late night talk shows work. I did whatever they needed—make copies, set the dressing rooms wrangled the audience, went out in New York to get people to come to the show. I lived in this one bedroom where the bed was the size of the room, and I shared it. It was a struggle but a great experience.

GIM: And that was while you were still in college?
ST: Yes, then I went to LA, worked at Kopelson Entertainment—he’s the guy who did Platoon and The Fugitive. I helped out with whatever they needed, but it was nice because it was a production company rather than being a gopher for people on Last Call. I was actually like reading stuff, and I would pitch people things, if I thought they were good and would cover for assistants if they had to walk away. I liked the vibe a lot better in LA than in New York, and I got to hold his Oscar.

GIM: What was your next move after graduation?
ST: When I finished school, I packed up my car, and I moved to Los Angeles. I had a bipolar roommate who was upset that I used her vacuum, and then I stayed on the couch of some friends until I found my own apartment in West Hollywood with another guy who was going to film school. I started sending out my résumé, and I landed a job as a producer’s assistant. I did it for a year, and I didn’t like it at all.

GIM: How did you land that first producer’s assistant job?
ST: I got a call from a girl I had met the previous summer working at Kopelson. She was assisting Christopher Misiano, who was one of the producers of West Wing, and she said there was the office P.A. job opening. I went for an interview and got the job. I was an office P.A. on the last season of The West Wing. I would go down to set all the time and observe what was happening and see what the jobs were. I saw the assistant directors kind of being the people who were running the show and telling people what we were shooting. They were the people calling “rolling” and “cut.” They were the ones setting all the background and making all the action behind the actors look good. So, I was like, “What’s that? I would be interested in that,” so I bugged them until one of them was like, “Okay, fine. I’ll try you out. I’ll give you a job on my next show.” And that turned out to be My Name is Earl. So, I was a set PA on My Name is Earl the second season and the beginning of the third season. Then I left to AD some non-union stuff in Sacramento. And within that, I had also, PA’d on a movie. My first big movie was License to Wed.

GIM: So, now you’re a second AD. Are you working your way up to be a first?
ST: Yeah. It’s just like when you’re a trainee, you have to get 400 days to get into the guild, so as a second AD, you need a certain amount of days to be a first AD, and then a first AD, you need a certain amount of days to become a UPM, which is a unit production manager, so that’s the ladder. A UPM is the person who handles the organization of the whole production—where’s the money going—and makes sure things are on schedule. The UPM oversees the entire process, including post—from conception to the finished product. ADs are only for prep and production.

When you apply [to the DGA training program], you send in your college transcripts and your résumé, and you write a series of essays—why you feel you’ll make a good AD, how you overcome adversity at some point … There are a bunch of steps that it walks you through online. When you apply that fall, the next year is when you would probably start.

GIM: What would you like to be doing five, 10 years down the road?
ST: I have a real passion for indie films, so I think I’d really love to transition into producing those, but right now, assistant director is a great job. The pay is really good, and the union is one of the best unions in the nation. It has great health benefits, and there are all these different workshops and everything they offer for the guild screenings. I’m happy here right now. As far as 10 years down the line, who knows? I know filmmaking is just what I want to eventually do. I really love the small stories about people’s lives and the snippets of it and the moments that are intimate that you share with people.

GIM: How do you get most of your job leads?
ST: I’ll send them my résumé, but there will be a point where it’s just phone calls again, like it was when I was a PA because people know who I am and what my skill set is and what my level of knowledge is. They’ll just call me and be, “Hey, are you able to work?” A lot of it is referrals and word of mouth.

GIM: Could other people become assistant directors without going through the DGA program?
ST: Yeah, absolutely. The training program is one way, not the fast track because it does take roughly two years. There’s a New York program as well. Another way you could get in is if you did 400 non-union AD days, you could then submit your book and all your paperwork—your call sheets, your production reports, your pay stubs and your daily memos—to the guild, and they look it over.

GIM: How would someone get into the program if they wanted to?
ST: You go online and download the application. When you apply, you send in your college transcripts and your résumé, and you write a series of essays—why you feel you’ll make a good AD, how you overcome adversity at some point … There are a bunch of steps that it walks you through online. When you apply that fall, the next year is when you would probably start. It takes about a year for the entire application process to happen. So if you applied in 2012, you wouldn’t get in feasibly until 2013. If your application is accepted, then you go to the assessment center where applicants that were accepted come to the training program location, and they sit in a room, and Janet Dyer, our administrator on the West Coast, talks to everybody about what the program is like. Then, they usually have a past trainee come in and talk to the group. This year it was actually me. You go in, and they ask you questions, and you tell them about your experience, and then you can ask them questions about the program. Then, they break you into smaller groups, and there are three administrators observing you as you problem solve. If you make it past that phase, there are a bunch of individual interviews.

GIM: What happens after you are accepted?
ST: Once you’re accepted, you go to an orientation and wait for them to assign you to your first job. They also give you a huge book of papers about being a trainee and everything that it’s about.

GIM: How many people get accepted into the program each year?
ST: My class happened right when the writers’ strike happened a few years ago, so they weren’t even going to take a class my year, but they decided to last minute. My class only had eight people, but usually, they take around 15. For people out of state, I’d recommend applying to both programs to better your chances of making it into the program. If you don’t make it, you can apply again the following year.

GIM: Did you get in right away when you applied?
ST: I applied three times. The first time I applied, I really didn’t have any experience. It was within the first year and a half that I lived here … And I was mostly in the office, so I was kind of flying blind on about what they wanted. I didn’t get in because I didn’t pass the test. And the second time, I didn’t get in because my essays didn’t have one-inch margins. They’re really particular about all that because it’s attention to detail. The third time, I got in.

The Mechanic: M. Ryan Traylor

You don’t have to go through the DGA training program to become a second assistant director. Find out how M. Ryan Traylor rose to the position through networking.

GIM: And that led to work on a range of different sets, what are some of your favorite films or shows that you’ve been involved with?
ST: I went to Hawaii to work on Battleship. That was really fun. We shot on the USS Missouri, on the actual ship. And I got to wander around and hold the huge guns and go places pedestrians weren’t normally allowed. I think the best TV show I have done was getting back together with the My Name is Earl people for the pilot of Raising Hope. So, they’re such a great group. Greg Garcia’s crew is just one of the most family-oriented, wonderful crews to work with. I worked on Weeds, which was really fun. Showtime and HBO shows are always really fun to get on because it’s such a high caliber of people you’re working with. All those shows are now becoming more like “featured TV” is what they’re calling it—shot like a film, but they make it a TV program.

GIM: What’s the best part about your job?
ST: I think the best part is being able to just make movies and good TV. I enjoy being around people that are artistic and creative and getting to go fun places.

GIM: What about the worst part?
ST: Production is a really hard job. You’re on your feet all day, and it can be hard on your knees. A lot people in our business develop back and knee problems, so you just have to take care of yourself. The hours are long. There have been many days where I’ve had to wake up at 3 [a.m.] to be at work 30 or 40 miles away from Los Angeles to be there at 6 [a.m.]. I remember doing that on Private Practice because the girls on the show take a certain amount of time to get ready in the morning, to be camera-ready. I would have to get there at 4:30 in the morning, and they would be there at 5, and we would start shooting at 7. You don’t think about that when you’re watching the show.

GIM: What would your advice be for someone looking into being an AD?
ST: Get your hands on a camera or get yourself work on anything like a commercial—magazine crew, anything—just to be able to have it be hands-on experience. Ask questions, and always ask for more responsibility, and say hello to everyone. You never know where you’re next job will come from. I got a job in Portland on a Harrison Ford movie called Extreme Measures because a transportation guy recommended me to the ADs. You never know where your job is going to come from.

Related Content

Have some feedback for our editors? Contact Us