Many of your favourite flicks and shows owe much to the talent and tenacity of Irish female producers. But what does a producer do, exactly? A lot, as it turns out. Executive producer Zoë Rocha describes a day in her life…
One of the set PAs to my left is speaking at a frenetic pace in absolute blind panic. Something about the parrot going over its regulated working hours for the day, and its handler demanding it leaves set immediately, mid-take. I quickly assure her that it’s all going to be fine. I’ll speak to the director, explain the situation and we’ll work on a plan to help him shoot around it.
I would normally be more focused on this aviary crisis if it were not for one of our lead cast members having just stepped out of the hair and make-up truck with trepidation and orange-tinged hair. “Do I really look ok?” she whispers.
I glance at her brassy mane that’s been freshly bleached in an old jalopy of a caravan, in the middle of a rain-soaked field in Romania, the night before her big romantic close-up. Without missing a beat, I reply, “It’ll be fine.”
We walk to craft services. I order her an extra-hot chai latte to help alleviate the anxiety. I have all my cast members’ preferred beverages catalogued in my mind for immediate recall in moments exactly like these. Once she’s seated calmly in the back of a car and on route to her hotel, I hike back to my Winnebago, speak to the hair and make-up designer, the second assistant director (AD), the production manager, and my assistant to find out exactly what went wrong and to ensure that we have charmed the best hair salon in all of Bucharest into opening at 6am the next day – a Sunday – to fix it. By the time her agent inevitably calls me to say his client is a tad upset, I can with absolute confidence say that everything is completely and utterly under control. Then I head back to set to deal with the escalating parrot situation which I’ve been listening to the entire time on my headset anyway. Never work with animals they say. Or indeed attempt to dye hair on location, it would seem.
That was just one typical hour on set for our upcoming series Flowers in the Attic: The Origin, a prequel based on the 1979 gothic horror novel by VC Andrews, which I produced in Romania earlier this year. Overseeing the ethical working environment for some highly paid and incredibly truculent parrots, approving hair looks to send to an American studio and simultaneously ensuring the director had everything they needed to achieve their “vision” was just the tip of the iceberg.
Rocha, outside her office, on set in Romania.
You see, I’m an executive producer. The CEO of a TV show or, as I like to call it, the “Jack of all trades and master of none”. I have produced the directorial debuts of Idris Elba and Matt Smith. I’ve produced my own comedy show Borderline for Netflix via my own production company, RubyRock Pictures. I’ve hunted down and obtained the rights to adapt Donnie Darko into a returning drama series, attached Jake Gyllenhaal and set it up at an American network. I’m currently producer/showrunner of a horror anthology shooting in Ireland in the spring for the people who make The Walking Dead, and I still don’t really know exactly what a producer is supposed to do.
And nor, it would appear, do most people. Even my own mother at a recent dinner, turning to my new partner to make small talk about his exciting glittering career as a director, as the following exchange illustrates:
“So, you hire all of the people to design the costumes and create the sets?”
“No, that’s what Zoë does.”
“But you are the one who comes up with the initial premise and finds the money to make it?”
“No, that’s also what Zoë does.”
“Ah, but you are the …”
He was being entirely too modest, but he’s not totally wrong. In essence, the producer initiates, supervises and manages the creation and production of the whole show. And sometimes, she is even the person who holds the rights to the underlying property. She is the head of the entire operation, even above the director in some cases. As a producer, no two days are ever the same and the work can vary hugely, depending on the scope, scale and stage of the project – development, production, marketing or selling.
“Being female in the world of film and TV production is a strength.”
But if there is one unifying, unequivocal skill a producer needs to always have in the pocket of their North Face jacket, it’s the ability to multitask. And let’s be honest, that’s something naturally ingrained in most women. Perhaps that’s why there are so many strong female producers emerging in film and TV. From comedy to factual, from films to drama, while the working environment still has its fair share of dinosaurs kicking the ladder away, it’s becoming more and more apparent that being female in the world of film and TV production is a strength. The ability to be empathetic and collaborative, warm yet firm has seen a plethora of Irish female producers develop and produce internationally acclaimed work.
From Martina Niland who won an Academy Award for Once and a Golden Globe for Sing Street, to Ailish McElmeel of Deadpan Pictures who consistently promotes edgy femalefronted shows like Women on the Verge and Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, it’s evident that there is a generation of women making their mark. Many female producers have also established their own companies to allow them develop and produce projects within a supportive environment. That’s at the heart of why I set up RubyRock Pictures – to work from a female perspective and to enable more female voices to be heard. We need to champion each other.
Here’s a snapshot of what a day in my life as a producer looked like this summer: 5am Alarm goes off but I’m already awake. Despite getting to sleep at 2am after a casting Zoom with about 20,000 pearly-teethed Angelinos, me bleary-eyed and shattered in a hoodie, I’m out of bed fast, thanks to a mix of nerves and adrenaline. 5.30am Downstairs and into a car. I open my emails and scan through almost 300 that have arrived since 2am. One of our A-listers needs to see a minimum of three potential five-star hotels before we can close his deal. There are only two in the vicinity of our location so that’s a problem. Can we urgently rewrite a scene this morning as we don’t have the budget for monkeys anymore? Oh no, that’s going to send our writer into an absolute tailspin – he was utterly adamant that the story couldn’t work without those monkeys. The parrot handler has Covid so can’t come to work.
The set of Flowers in The Attic: The Origin, in Romania.
6am It’s still dark. I’m sitting in a tent having a Covid test. I go and sit in my trailer waiting for my result before I can enter the unit base. It’s negative. Only another 274 tests to all come back negative to ensure I don’t have to shut the show down for two weeks. 7.30am One of our actors has “missed his alarm” so is irritable and very late. I gently escort him to wardrobe, where his double-shot, extra-hot oat milk flat white is waiting, so we can get back on schedule. Feeling entirely on top of things, I’m just about to tuck into my breakfast roll when I get a call to say one of the extras is sauntering around the set taking snaps of the vintage cars, the rain tower, and begging one of our actors (who’s incredibly hungover) for a selfie. 8am The extra has been asked to leave the set and the camera has turned over. We are on time! Filming begins. I sit by the monitor watching the action unfold take after take, simultaneously checking my emails. My office in London needs approval on promo shots for our last show which is being launched in Rome. My manager in New York asks me to join a Zoom that night for the remake for Borderline in America. Scheduling a Zoom between Hawaii, LA, New York and Bucharest is not easy! I find out that one of our female-fronted passion projects has just been greenlit. I’m excited. I’m also immediately overcome with the niggling feeling that I’m letting people down. I’m not around enough, I’m too distracted, I’m too busy. I check myself and realise this is entirely symptomatic of being a woman in this industry. I make sure all my company emails are replied to while intermittently running through the positioning for the rain bars needed for after lunch with the first AD. 1pm The unit medic is called during filming – one of the crew has been bitten by a snake. The idea that snakes are slithering around our set isn’t the highlight of my day, but I’m assured they are non-poisonous. 4pm The phone won’t stop ringing. We’ve had a tip-off: Romania is going back on the red list imminently. Our big star is due to fly in the next day (he’s satisfied with the accommodation options). Can he get into Romania? Will he need to quarantine? Will this ruin our schedule? I slip into one of the fake shops on our backlot to take the calls. Filming is still going on outside and the rain bars are about to start spouting. For a moment, as I look out through Remann’s Electrical storefront window and see the 1920s cars and the monsoon-like weather, I smile. This is why I got into producing. This is what I thought being a producer was.
Rocha, far right, with Kate Mulgrew and Jemima Rooper, celebrating the wrap of Flowers In The Attic: The Origin.
7pm And CUT. Our director has somehow, miraculously, completed another impossible day. Our A-lister managed to get the last seat on the last flight possible that night. I’ve spoken to the writer and have assured him that nobody is going to notice the absence of monkeys in the ballroom scene. I check in with the studio and they are happy with the daily footage, so I approve the strike and breakdown of the street set. 9pm Back at my hotel, I have a well-earned glass of wine with the team. We prep for the next day to try to pre-empt what might possibly be thrown at us. Poor weather while moving our unit base into another snake-infested field? A drone operator who can’t actually operate a drone? An action vehicle with no workable engine? Or perhaps just something simple and straightforward like trying to split a cast member in four so that she can be simultaneously at her riding lesson, learning the Charleston, on set shooting an emotionally draining scene and having her publicity stills taken? Not every day is like the above. Trust me, some days can be so much worse. But when all is said and done, when you see the magic unfold between action and cut, when you see a show that you have helped bring to life from initial idea to screen, it’s worth it. I have arguably the best job in the world.
Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.