Baby Steps: Amanda Avanzino
My name is Amanda Lynn Avanzino. I graduated from San Francisco State University in 2009 and I currently reside in Studio City, CA – a 10-minute walk to Universal Studios which is good given that I hope to someday work (and/or rule) there.
Where I’m at
The bottom haha. No but seriously, I am a Set PA working my way up the very thorny, obstacle-ridden, seemingly endless ladder of this business. As far as pecking orders go, I am certainly not green yet still on the bottom rung. Though I’m higher on the food chain than the average intern or office PA.
Where I want to be in the future
I love this question because it seems that very few people living in La La Land are where they hope to be. Most have delusions of grandeur, fame and fortune. “I’m a waitress but I really want to act, I’m a barista but I really want to write, I’m a stripper but I can really sing,” – you hear this a lot in just about every restaurant, coffee shop, or nightclub in town. Frankly I am really no different though I’d like to think I’ve mapped out a somewhat attainable goal with a somewhat realistic route to achieve such recognition.
I am where I am at in my career for several reasons. The first is that I wish someday to write and direct (I know, I know, delusions of grandeur but hear me out) and I feel that a responsible writer/director knows the set very well. He/she knows what they are asking for from a crew with each scene they write, how much time and money and labor and creativity they are extracting from experienced DPs, and Gaffers, and Key Grips, and Prop Masters, Make-up Artists, Hair Stylists, Sound Mixers, etc.
And so I fight in the trenches day after day, ever observing what it takes to transform the written word into a visual story. I am always absorbing as much information as I can about every department, every intricate piece that goes into the creation of a film or television show, in the hopes that one day I will be a respected, responsible and informed writer/director, (don’t say it, it’s just too easy and you’re better than that). Needless to say, there’s no better department to be in to really get up close and personal with it all quite like the AD department.
Has this ambition changed since your college days? If so, how and why?
Not even close. If anything it’s made me hungrier, more passionate about film and what I hope to do in the medium someday – hopefully sooner rather than later.
My first Baby Step
I have to say this is probably one of the most unexciting, just a case of dumb luck stories that may ever be written on this blog so I’ll attempt to make it intriguing. It was a year after I graduated and my boyfriend (now fiancé) and I were visiting my mother and stepfather in Oahu when I saw the Black Pearl from the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise just sitting in the harbor. After a little investigating I discovered that they were renovating it for filming to commence that summer. I returned to San Francisco dreaming of what it would be like to work on a film of that magnitude and couldn’t shake the feeling.
It didn’t occur to me that it was even remotely possible ‘til my mother sent me a news clipping of how many jobs Pirates would create for the Hawaiian film community. So I mustered some courage and applied with an ever depressing, and paltry resume and waited with baited breath to hear that I’d gotten the job.
Meanwhile, circumstances amassed on the home front which forced us to make a decision, move to Hawaii where the chances of breaking in grew as overall competition diminishes, or move to Los Angeles where I may as well be eaten alive by the overwhelming amount of people (broke and starving hence the cannibalism) trying to get their foot in the door. We chose the former and a month later we were in Oahu and I was still waiting for that call from Pirates.
Unfortunately, it never came and I sunk into a serious funk of depression and regret for a couple weeks until rumors spread that several productions were moving into town, one of which was Universal Pictures’ Battleship. I combed the local internet listings in search of any contact info for the production office and when I finally found it, I applied for nearly every PA position I could think of.
A week passed and, yet again, nothing until I was on Craigslist and saw an ad for an unlisted company seeking an assistant to start immediately through October with a pay of $650 a week plus lunches. I put two and two together that it had to be Battleship given the rate, and the duration of time and I applied within fifteen minutes of the posting .
Forty minutes later I received the call that changed my life. I was interviewed by the Extras Casting Associate and hired by the Extras Casting Director within minutes. These two amazing women took care of me and taught me so much in my first month with them. It was a huge film with upwards of 500 extras some days and the experience was incredible.
I learned how to find and book the background to fit the scripts needs and I learned the types of problems and circumstances that arise while having that many background on set. It was invaluable experience but still I didn’t want to be in the office anymore and when I confessed my desire to go to set and join the AD department they offered me solid advice, “Don’t do it!” They gave it to me straight and told me how difficult and brutal it would be but nonetheless they helped me transition from the office to the set.
My first week was far more chaotic, exciting, deeply depressing, emotionally damaging, and educationally challenging than I ever anticipated. Nothing could have properly prepared me for any of it. I was the newest member of the crew and while some embraced me, others made damn sure that I felt the sting and alienation of being a fish out of water. So, long story short, my baby step was more of a leap from recent graduate, Border’s bookseller to a production assistant on a multi million dollar tentpole with a major studio.
My answer offers further evidence to the saying, “it’s all about who you know in this town.” For example, as Battleship came to a close in Hawaii, much of first unit was gearing up to move the production to Louisiana so I started to look at the other productions moving into town. When First Unit left I was moved to Second Unit and met a 2nd 2nd AD by the name of Nate and we quickly became friends.
He mentioned that he was starting on a new film, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island the week after 2nd unit wrapped and asked if I was available. I leapt at the opportunity. When all was said and done I needed to find work once more. By that point I was confident enough to make the move to Los Angeles so we packed up once again and moved that November.
What lessons did you learn from your ‘baby steps’?
Too many! But I won’t bore you with all of them as I hope to let whoever reads this learn ‘em themselves ;-), however I will share a few. Always pay attention and learn quickly – you have to learn quickly in this business because second chances are not easily afforded to those of us lesser-known creatures and you must be ever vigilant because every experience is an opportunity to learn more about this business and the more you know, the more likely you’ll appear confident and capable.
Also, check your ego at the door – there are too many egos already in this town (some more deserved than others) and when you’re small potatoes, you’ll be shown the door real fast with a bad attitude. Be humble, be grateful, and be respectful. Never disrespect another’s work because someday, they may be your boss – it’s a small town and everyone knows everyone.
How do you keep your foot in the door?
See the aforementioned lessens learned. As far as keeping your foot in the door? Hell, I can barely keep my own foot in the door, I’m hanging on by a pinkytoe, but if I had to offer any advice I’d say networking is the absolute best bet. Keep in touch with those who’ve helped you along the way.
The latter was a rather sticky step for me as I consider myself an introvert, a nerd, a perpetual homebody who’s idea of a good time on a Friday night is curling up with a good book or playing Mario Kart with my fiancé (and no, before you ask, I don’t have cats). But it’s unavoidable. You must learn to be social to stay relevant. Say yes to new people and industry events and stay connected because when you’re looking for work, you’ll be glad you can count on your new-found friends to give you a job.