The Mechanic: M. Ryan Traylor
As second assistant director, M. Ryan Traylor compares his job to a logic puzzle. Juggling the needs of cast and crew, he shifts the pieces around on set until they fall into place, leading crews through the necessary steps to keep the production moving forward on time.
Successful film and TV crews function like an intricate clock—if one cog breaks, the whole operation shuts down. It’s M. Ryan Traylor’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. A second assistant director with extensive production experience, Traylor’s background includes production work on television shows ranging from Monk to Big Love, as well as film projects like Transformers, Pineapple Express and the latest installment of Indiana Jones on his resume. Right now, he’s tired. After weeks of working 14-hour days, Traylor is finally wrapping work on the fourth season of the Cartoon Network series, Children’s Hospital and will once again begin waiting and hoping that another gig is just around the corner. Battling fatigue, an unsteady paycheck, and an ever-changing set of on-the-job problems, Traylor rarely faces the same challenges two days in a row. Good thing he loves his work.
Get In Media: What exactly is the scope of a second assistant director (AD)?
M. Ryan Traylor: …We run the day-to-day activities of the production. The first assistant director will generate the schedule, what we’re going to shoot, when, and with who, and all this stuff. It’s all based on varying factors from what’s scripted to what you have in the budget, and actor availability, and the weather, and all sorts of other various elements. As a second AD, we assist in that scheduling … we generate a call sheet every day, so that at the end of the day, everybody knows what time to come into work, where they’re going to come into work, what we’re going to be shooting, and what is necessary to shoot for it to work the following day. We’re a link in the chain of communication, so that everyone is constantly aware of what’s going on as things are constantly changing in the run of the show. Specifically, we can deal with actors, getting them through hair and makeup in the morning, getting them over to the set for rehearsals and for shooting; we deal with the background talent, getting them through wardrobe, hair and makeup, and giving them their specific direction that they need on the set.
GIM: You graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts with a degree in film production. How did you break into actual film work from there?
MRT: While [in school], I worked on a short film called Two Soldiers and during that project, met and kind of became friends with the producer Andy Sacks. When I moved to Los Angeles, I stayed in contact with him and was able to get my first job in L.A. within three or four months of moving. Basically, I worked as an office [production assistant] with him on a TV show, and from the people that I met on that show [Monk], that pulled me to the next show [Threshold], to the next show [Pepper Dennis] … These are shows that usually didn’t last very long. Then I did a season on Big Love where I was working with an AD that I had met on Monk. From that point on, I’ve kind of stayed with her, as a set production assistant for quite a while, then as an assistant director … I became an official Directors Guild of America second assistant director in the fall of 2009. Last year, I did a movie in Shreveport, La., called Butter where I was the second AD, and Rob Corddry [current Children’s Hospital star and former correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart] was on that movie. Apparently, he enjoyed the entire AD staff and wanted us to come work on Children’s Hospital.
GIM: What first attracted you to this line of work?
MRT: … I like the challenge of being there with the director, in the midst of everything, and trying to solve the puzzle of making the movie or television show. It’s an always-fluctuating project. We’ll make a schedule for a show, and halfway through, things just change. We’re constantly trying to figure out “OK, here’s 120 pages of a script, and you’ve got 45 days to put it together.” It was that idea, of it being like a logic puzzle, that really attracted me to wanting to be in the midst of solving the problems.
GIM: What are the highs and lows of the job?
MRT: Working in the film and television industry, people think that there’s all this glitz, and there’s all this glamour. I love what I do, but it is a job. We’re not all on the red carpet. We’re not all wearing fancy dresses and tuxedos all the time … . One of my favorite moments was when I was still working as a set PA, and I worked on the second unit of Indiana Jones Four. I walked into the studio one day for filming, and I walked into the giant warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As a kid, you see a movie, and the movie sticks with you, the images stick with you, and then all of a sudden 20 years later, there you are seeing it in real life. It brought back a lot of emotions and made me feel like I had reached a point of achievement and success, being in a place that 20 years ago I thought was really, really amazing but had no idea that I could ever step in that same spot… .
The most challenging part of my job is just keeping up with the pace. We work very long hours. A general shoot day is 12 hours, and I usually come in and work for an hour before and an hour after, so anywhere from 14 to 16 hours is a general workday for me. Trying to balance the work hours and being able to maintain that pace for several months is one of the most challenging things. On the flip side, that’s also why I don’t mind having a month off when I finish three or four months of work, just to relax and decompress.
GIM: Does it get scary when you don’t know when your next paycheck is coming in?
MRT: I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a freelancer. At any given point, I’ll be unemployed, and then you start looking for the next thing. When a show starts winding down, you start looking to see what else is out there, what productions are available to work on, but financially, you tuck away in savings, you use the benefits of California unemployment insurance … I don’t quite know what project I’ll be doing next. Sometimes you can work six months straight, and other times you can be unemployed for six months.
GIM: How do you find jobs?
MRT: Looking through the Directors Guild of America website. There’s access of seeing what productions are running [and] what productions are upcoming, and I can send out resumes. I can also put myself on availability lists, so if anyone is looking for people, they can check these availability lists. I have never actually received a phone call from placing myself on that. The other thing is word of mouth. If a friend of a friend is like, “Hey, someone is doing this low budget feature for three weeks, would you be interested?” Yeah sure, send me information. It’s very much phone calls and handshakes and that sort of thing.
GIM: It sounds like what you do is very relationship-driven. How did you establish the contacts to begin with? What do you recommend for someone who’s brand new?
MRT: … The very difficult thing, unfortunately, in trying to break in and get a job is that you have to be in the right place at the right time and seize a moment that’s given to you.
GIM: How crucial is it, in your profession, to join a group like the Directors Guild of America?
MRT: There are non-union movies where everybody on the crew is non-union, and there are non-union ADs that do the exact same work we do; they’re just not members of the Directors Guild. How necessary is it? If you want to work on productions that are big, tent-pole blockbuster movies, you’ll need to join the Directors Guild of America if you want to be an assistant director. As far as I know, most non-union movies are going to be very small, independent productions. That’s not to say that they’re of lesser quality, but they tend to fall more towards the side of not having as much money. Being a member of a guild or a union also comes with its advantages of having certain protections, too, like the hours that you work and the rest periods that you’re required to have.
GIM: How did you go about joining?
MRT: There are several paths to become a DGA AD. One is by completing 400 days of non-union AD work. Then, you can turn in paperwork that shows that you have the knowledge of being an AD, and the Directors Guild will allow you to join. The route that I went was doing 600 PA days, turning it in, and being placed on a certain qualification list of which I now have to work another round of like 400 days … . We have to keep call sheets, production reports and pay stubs. We have to hold onto all of that paperwork and then basically send a giant box full of binders to the DGA displaying all 600 days of work.
GIM: Has the second assistant director position evolved since you’ve been on the job?
MRT: There has been a large push in the last, I would say, five to 10 years for everybody going green … a lot of communication happens over e-mail. We’ve been using Dropbox to distribute scripts and schedules, as opposed to printing out everything and making multiple copies on thousands and thousands of reams of paper … . The software that we use to do our scheduling on has created an iPad app within the last year … It makes the pace of things a lot faster. We all carry around smartphones. I can get a phone call, I can get a text message, I can get an e-mail, all in one spot. The ability to answer a question can happen right away. It’s not like, say, 80 years ago or even 50 years ago when everything was handwritten. The schedule was made with physical strip boards. You actually had to get people together in a room and have discussions about things, whereas now you can send out a group e-mail, and people can just be where they are, whether they’re in the office, on set, on the road, or they’re halfway around the globe. They can all be a part of the discussion without being in the same room. It has upped the pace at which projects can get made.
GIM: What advice would you have for someone who’s just coming out of film school?
MRT: This is a tough one. Find a way to get yourself on set as a PA. Pay attention, listen, make sure you understand how to read all the paperwork regarding the call sheets and the schedules, and be prepared to work long hours and put in a lot of time. The key thing is it’s going to take a while to become an assistant director. It’s not going to be something that’s going to happen overnight.
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