Young Alumnus of the Month

By Alexander Bernard

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Will O’Donnell, ’15, has worked as a production assistant on two Woody Allen films, Showtime’s new series “Billions,” and Hulu’s new comedy “Difficult People.” Find out what it is like to work 14-hour days, keeping track of everything from walkie-talkies to Woody’s whereabouts.

So, what have you been up to since graduation? Living? Traveling? Work? Give me all the details.

After graduation, I went backpacking in Europe for two months, where I spent literally all my money. Then I moved to one of the most expensive cities in the country, New York, to work as a production assistant on film sets and TV shows. Basically, I’m a part of the department that occupies the bottom of the totem pole on set. Production assistants do all of the miscellaneous tasks most people don’t think of when it comes to filmmaking — paperwork, distributing and keeping track of walkie-talkies, navigating the actors to and from set, managing extras. And while the hours are unhealthy 90 percent of the time (14 hours is a standard day), I really do love what I do and consider myself lucky to be a part of so many great productions. I’ve worked on a Woody Allen movie, Showtime’s new series “Billions,” and am now on “Difficult People” — Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner’s Hulu show. I even live in gentrifying Harlem, like a real uptown girl! My life is so glamorous!

What’s a regular day look like for you then?

The rhythms of each day change with each job, which is part of what keeps my life so fun and fresh (jk it’s incredibly stressful). Whether I’m sitting next to a literal pile of s___ on a subway at 4 a.m. or heading to an overnight shoot at 4 p.m., when everyone else in the world is beginning to go home, I’m always one of the first and last people on set. On the Woody movie, I would spend most of my day assisting the assistant director on set, whether that meant running a much-needed coffee to her as quick as humanly possible or hiding behind a door frame and cueing an actor to walk into a scene. On “Billions,” I worked paperwork, so I spent all day talking to the various department heads (camera, wardrobe, sound, hair, and makeup) about who would be working in their departments tomorrow. I assisted the second assistant director in planning the next day and writing up the production report for the day. On “Difficult People,” I’m a first team (actors) production assistant and driver, so I’m the leads’ personal chauffeur and go-to guy on set. Usually, by the time I get home (whether that’s 11 p.m. or 4 a.m.), I pass out across my couch to the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” theme song. It’s a ritual.

What’s it like working on a Woody Allen set? Was it different from other sets?

Working on the Woody Allen movie was incredible. He has always been one of my favorite directors and writers, so I still can’t quite believe that it happened. I had worked briefly on “Irrational Man” the previous summer, and his New York-area crew really is one giant family, always returning to work on the next movie every summer. Not only does Woody like to keep his days no longer then eight hours, but he stays away from night shoots whenever he can. Because the movie took place in the ’30s, I saw some of the most beautiful production design, costumes, hair, and makeup trotted out day after day as we transformed blocks in Chinatown, the Upper West Side, and Brooklyn into the early 20th century. Back when I was at Michigan, I boldly declared that my film career would be a success if I worked on one Woody Allen movie. Before I even turned 23, I had worked on two. I’m so grateful to the assistant directors and fellow production assistants who brought me on and tolerated me as I learned more and more every day.

So what’s coming up for you in the next few months?

I’ll be on “Difficult People” for the next two months. After that … LOL. Sometimes part of being a production assistant is that you don’t know what your next gig is until your current one ends. Sometimes you don’t even know where you’ll be working on Friday. You just have to do your best work, maintain all of your connections, and figure it out. It keeps me on my toes.

And what do you miss most about U-of-M? Don’t be afraid to be specific and don’t be afraid to say “Rick’s.”

You know the answer is literally Rick’s! Why would you ask that!

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