Shawn Wilt is a Line Producer who has logged over a decade in production on shows such as 10 Things I Hate About You, Grounded For Life, and The Tracy Morgan Show. She called me from the set of her latest project, ABC Family’s Switched At Birth, to discuss all the twists and turns she took to get to where she is today, and how television really gets made.
Usually when I do these interviews, I have somewhat of an idea of what the person does from their job title. But I have no idea what a Line Producer does. Do you make lines?
I make order out of chaos, that’s what I always say. I manage the budget, the schedule and hire the staff & crew. I’m responsible for the physical production & execution of every script, from pre production through post production (editing). I oversee all the departments (with the exception of the writers). My office also acts as the hub for talent relations, business affairs, publicity and just about any issue you can imagine.
How do you assign responsibilities?
A lot of it is organic. You give a script to the department heads – props, wardrobe, locations, etc – so they know what it is they need to bring to the table. Where I come in is interacting with different departments when something’s not working, or if a script is a little too ambitious. For example, if they want to do a big prom scene – we could go to one location and get a great look, but it might be a small space and we wouldn’t be able to have a lot of extras. Or, maybe, the producers want a larger room with more extras that we might not be able to decorate to the same level as the smaller space. It all depends on what tone the Executive Producers are trying to convey in a particular scene.
Do you ever get totally overwhelmed?
It would be weird if I didn’t — it’s the nature of the job to experience a sense of overwhelm from time to time. There’s a challenge to every show and every project. So much of it comes down to who you have surrounding you while you’re responding and reacting to whatever’s coming at you. I put so much thought and energy into hiring a staff & crew that will the grounding force when I’m spinning a bit. You really need that to have that cohesive team spirit for a show to run smoothly. If someone’s off on their own island, the rest of the departments really feel it.
You’re in charge of so many things. How does one even attempt to start on a career path to becoming a Line Producer?
I took a different path than most people. I grew up in LA, in the world of entertainment. From a pretty young age, I was always interested in what went on behind the scenes. I wasn’t a very school-oriented person; I knew college was not for me — I’m someone who learns by “doing” as opposed to studying about it.
Wait, rewind – you didn’t go to college? That’s a bold move. Did you ever worry that would hurt your changes at getting a job?
No – because I always got them. If I had been more intrigued with the corporate side of business, maybe I would have needed a degree to propel me forward – but I can’t think of a job that I tried to get or would have wanted to get that I didn’t because I didn’t go to college. At the end of the day, so much of this business is about who you want to be in the trenches with for fifteen hours a day — who are you going to gel with?
I think it’s awesome you had that much confidence at such a young age.
It’s funny — I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying. I was someone that would jump into an environment and make things happen, which is a very useful skill for a freelance producer – you’re constantly starting from scratch and building a new project over and over again.
So, you’re out in the real world: what’s your first move?
I knew a guy who worked at a small talent agency, and I started as his assistant. From that moment, I knew entertainment was going to be my path; I just needed to find the right position.
A lot of my friends were still in college, and I felt like I was missing out on the experience of living away from home, so I decided to move to New York for a while. I got hired as a temp at HBO and within a few weeks I was working for Sheila Nevins, who ran Documentary & Family Programming. It was an extraordinary education in development and production – but it was becoming clear I was better suited for production. The head of production at the HBO office in Los Angeles needed an assistant, and we clicked – neither of us had gone to college, so that was a common thing we shared.
In his office, I started meeting producers that were working on projects we were developing. I sought one out and asked him how he got involved in producing, and he said if I ever wanted to learn physical production, I should call him. A couple years later, I was ready to leave the corporate side, so I gave him a call to see if the offer still stood.
Another bold move.
He actually needed a Production Coordinator on this NBC show called Earth2, which was a big deal at the time – Amblin Entertainment (Steven Spielberg’s company) was involved, and it was big budget, shooting on location in Santa Fe. It was a sink or swim moment, and I definitely sank a bit at first. I had never been on a show before, and I had to figure it out – which I did with the help of some fantastic co-workers and mentors.
You found awesome mentors at a lot of key moments in your career. Did they appear magically out of sweat and tears like Fairy Jobmothers? Or did you have to do some (totally legal) stalking?
It was a little of both — a few of them did seem like they magically appeared when I needed them. The others were definitely people that struck me as “experts” in their craft. Since I didn’t go to college, it was sort of a tool I used — to get coached by and learn first hand from people that were willing to offer guidance.
How did you land your first production gig?
I was the Production Manager at Carsey Warner — they gave me my first job as a producer, on The Tracy Morgan Show.
Tracy Morgan! Is he as funny in real life as he is on 30 Rock?
He was hilarious and an absolute blast. It was one of his first TV shows aside from doing standup. It was so fun to be at our run-throughs – everyone was just busting a gut.