51% #1669: Hollywood's Women In Charge
On today’s 51%, we speak with one of the people responsible for bringing Hollywood to upstate New York. And we meet a producer of HBO’s new series “The Gilded Age,” which was filming this spring in New York’s Capital Region.
Holly Rymon is a producer on HBO’s new series, “The Gilded Age.”
“It's set in 1882,” Rymon said. “It's sort of the beginning of, you know, this sort of amazing time in history, which quite admittedly, I didn't know a whole lot about before I got involved in this project, where, you know, industry and you know, railroads, and all of these businesses are sort of just like taking off and there became people with an enormous amount of wealth. So, there's not a lot of checks and balances yet. And it was just like, insane wealth. So they were building mansions, and they were making homes. And there was new money and old money. Sort of a loose premise of the show is there is a family that has new money and they're ready to be in society and do all the things and then there's a family that's from the old money. And they're very, quite proud of that. And they're not really ready to accept the new folks. So there's a little bit of drama there.”
Rymon and I are sitting in Riverfront Park in Troy, New York. They filmed just a block away, transforming storefronts into hat boutiques and cigar shops from 1800s New York City. Rymon says the scenery was her favorite part of filming.
“It's gorgeous. Oh my god, I can't wait for people to see the show. It's just the costumes, the sets. It's just literally, literally stunning. It's really, really beautiful.”
And the best part?
“The horses were my favorite things,” Rymon said. “They're just beautiful. And I mean, we were really lucky. We've been working with this group of folks, wranglers and horses and carriages from the beginning. And they've been fantastic. And like you get to know their names. And you get to know their personalities. And, you know, they’re our actors too.”
Rymon says Troy was the perfect location to shoot.
“We were scouting different locations, including Albany, but Troy just has a lot of architecture from the period that is largely untouched,” Rymon said. “And that is the main reason. You know, New York City, Brooklyn, those places, it's so hard to navigate through them anymore and there's a lot of modern pieces mixed in and it's just hard to find those chunks of time and space that are controllable, and that look proper. So really here it was, and the city has been amazing. As far as helping us lock down streets so we can run horses and carriages and put dirt down and do all the things we need to do to make everything safe for everybody and still make it look good, like take down signs. I mean, we had to you know, there's a lot of work that went into it. And the city was really fantastic. So definitely happy we came here and got to see all the beautiful houses and you know, they have to be touched up a little bit here and there. But for the most part, though, I mean the structures are just gorgeous.”
Rymon does not have a cameo in “The Gilded Age,” but if you look closely, she does have her own sign in the scenery.
“Sometimes we sneak names into the signs for the crew, like only the crew really knows,” Rymon said.
“So like the names around a town on the signs are a lot of crew members’ last names.”
Rymon is a line producer.
“I'm basically in charge of the budget, overseeing the budget, the schedule, and sort of the management of the people,” Rymon said.
Rymon says the COVID-19 pandemic is a tough time to be running logistics for a major HBO series.
“How to do it, how to do it safely, you know, getting air purifiers, and you know, checking people in, and what different things can we do to make… separating people six feet apart at lunch, so they can take their masks off. And that in and of itself, just the amount of space we needed to get people ready and to feed people was tremendous, we had to have huge tents, like, almost everywhere we went because you would cram people together on a folding table before and it didn't matter how many people were sitting together. And now we had to have thousands of thousands of extra square feet of space, which not only takes time and energy to find, but money to pay for.”
Rymon says the cost of shutting down production is astronomical.
“You know, at any moment, somebody could get knocked out,” Rymon said. “And if it's an actor, you try to shoot anything you can shoot without them. But you know, we have a couple of characters who are in most everything. And so if you lose one of them for two weeks, you would have to shut down. And yeah, it's, you know, millions of dollars.”
Rymon says they went above and beyond CDC recommendations.
“A lot of testing,” Rymon said. “All the cast tested every day they worked and before they worked, and then also any rehearsal, they would wear a mask, like anytime we would travel them in vans they had plastic shields, and we wouldn't let more than two people in the van and like the, you know, the drivers were tested.”
How do you become a producer for HBO?
Rymon says there’s no one conventional way to land this kind of job.
“I personally came up through the production office,” Rymon said. “So I came up more from, by chance, but I came up that way and sort of became learn how to manage the office. And then I became a production manager, which was really more of a, you know, day to day detail of managing the crew and the money and the equipment and things like that, and then went into producing from there.”
Rymon went to college at George Washington University in D.C. in 1990.
“I got a theater degree,” Rymon said. “And then a couple years in theater was just sort of a rough go financially, like waitressing during the day doing, you know, theater at night, and I decided to maybe get into something else in entertainment. And I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I did take a continuing education program at NYU, in film, I did that for three months. And I thought I want to be a director of photography. So I started working low budget, no budget shows, as a camera assistant.”
From there, Rymon got an internship at Castle Rock in an office for a Rob Reiner movie called “North” in 1993. She says she started to appreciate the business side of show biz.
“They hired me on halfway through, they started paying me as a production assistant,” Rymon said. “And I just kind of looked down every path that could possibly be, and the only place I wanted to wind up was producer. So it wasn't a straight shot. But you know, I knew that. So I kind of enjoyed and learned from everything I ever did.”
Rymon says back in those days interns were unpaid.
“So I worked for like lunch,” Rymon said. “And, you know, I worked in the office, production office, and I, you know, answered phones and I took messages and I copied papers and I made coffee and I organized you know, I mean I did all the menial things that you do when you start out in our business.”
Rymon has been involved in a lot of productions.
“I worked on things like, “North” and “IQ” and “Legend of Bagger Vance.” And, you know, sort of some of the larger sort of movies back in the 90s that were based in New York,” Rymon said. “And then segue slightly, I took a couple years off, I have two children. I took a couple years off to have my kids. And then I came back and I started kind of managing more at that point. Going into more in the kind of movies I did things like “The Funeral” and I did “It's Kind of a Funny Story” and I did sort of like lower budget projects to kind of build my way back up to be trusted with money. And then I started getting into stunt stuff and I started doing Second Unit, big stunt movies. I did something called “Premium Rush” and I did Second Unit, which is all the stuff and action stuff for “Amazing Spider Man II,” and then I started doing the “John Wick” movies. I did “John Wick I” and “John Wick II.” So it was all the stunt stuff.”
Just before coming to Troy, Rymon was working with Marvel. She started in 2017, the year Marvel released “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Thor: Ragnarok.”
“I came to Marvel Television in New York,” Rymon said. “And they had a whole system here where they were making five different shows: “Luke Cage,” “Jessica Jones,” “Iron Fist,” “Daredevil,” and “The Punisher.” And they were just doing one after the other. They always doing like two at once, it was quite the machine.”
Rymon also worked on “The Defenders” as the production manager and went on to become the VP of production at Marvel, now part of Disney, for two years.
“So I went from sort of managing one to like, overseeing all five of them at once,” Rymon said. “So that was a good two years, and then they kind of dissolved the TV unit and became part of the film unit and went out to LA. But that was a great experience.”
#MeToo On Set
With Hollywood directors and producers being accused of sexual harassment in the workplace in recent years and the uprising of the #MeToo movement, I ask Rymon if she ever felt uncomfortable at work because of a man’s advances or comments.
“A little bit,” Rymon said. “You know, I've always been sort of headstrong as far as like not putting much stock in that. Wearing what I want to wear, doing what I want to do, not worrying about looking feminine, or trying to be like a man, I just kind of always have sort of a strange sense of confidence. But yeah, of course you do. But up against it, you see it happen to other people you try to and once you get into management, you have the added sort of responsibility sometimes of getting into HR conversations with people and trying to make sure that doesn't happen on your set, or how to solve it. And I'm sure there's been instances, especially on some of these larger, you know, sort of stunt-driven shows, they're very… a lot of men in the room. I mean, there were instances where there were 12 of us all making decisions, and I was the only female, and that's fine. You know, but it, it sometimes feels a little lopsided, and but honestly, you know, for whatever reason, I just, I just never let it get to my head. And I was fortunate enough not to have any sort of bad interactions personally, with anyone. There’s always a little bit of that underlying.”
Rymon says the instances of inappropriate behavior she’s witnessed were less often on set and usually in the office.
“There's someone who's making comments to someone else that might feel inappropriate, or, yeah, there are, you know, in a couple instances, there were older men and younger women and there were comments made to people that the younger woman didn't feel comfortable with and how you delicately go in there and try to stop that from happening and educating honestly,” Rymon said. “People who have maybe grown up in a time where these things weren't as… something that you talked about as much or tried to solve, it was just like, ‘Oh, that's just, you know, whoever doing whatever they do,’ you know? And now, there's a lot more consciousness, thankfully, as a mother of two young ladies, you know, that's just not acceptable. And so, those conversations aren't enjoyable, but I think they're important.”
Rymon says the industry is improving, there are more women in the room now.
“When I first started, I would say the women who had any sort of sense of power had devoted their lives and didn't have families, like couldn't,” Rymon said. “I think there's been a lot of shift over the past 20-30 years of like, a little more equality with what the expectations are of men and women, you know?”
Rymon says when she “educates” crew members, they take it seriously.
“When someone in positions of power and employment, comes to you, and tells you your behavior has been noticed, and is not appropriate, and this can affect whether or not you continue to work with us, or what our opinion is of you and that you need to work on this… people take it seriously,” Rymon said.
Who’s who on set?
If you’re like me and have no idea how a film set is laid out, Rymon breaks it down.
“The first person you probably run into is production assistant, with a walkie and looking very worried, and we'll be doing what they call a “lock up” and that is basically the job to keep people who aren't on the show, sort of, out of the shot, away from the drama, you know, stay safe and away from the project trying to control the perimeter,” Rymon said. “There's a lot of people then on the inside, the very core, right around camera, right around the actors, the director, sometimes the producer, it'll be the ADs, the assistant directors who are really sort of keeping the cadence of the day going and sort of calling the shots and you know, moving on from one shot to the other, surrounded by technicians. Cameramen, video men, sound men, recording all of this. And then this sort of middle layer of all of that is your “grips electrics,” it's all the people who are moving, controlling the light and moving the lights around and sort of making each shot beautiful. So there's a sort of a flurry of activity in between setups, where everybody's scrambling around, and then while we're shooting, dead silent, we're recording, nobody's moving. We're all just waiting for the next thing.”
Of all those positions, Rymon says not many are filled by women.
“It's getting better,” Rymon said. “I would say, our camera department on our show has 30% women. Whereas when I first started in this business, it was rare to have anyone really honestly, in something like the camera department, or the grip department, and if you don't know grip basically lifts all the heavy stuff. And so, you know, traditionally that's been more of a male role, electricians, we have probably have maybe, I don't know, 15% to 20% women in those departments on our show, that's sort of indicative of the business in general, the ceiling is being broken, things are happening. But it's still not where it should be.”
Rymon says female producers are on the rise, but not everywhere.
“I would say in New York, more so than someplace like LA. I don't know 100% why that is, but I feel like that's certainly gotten better than when I first started,” Rymon said. “There were a fair amount of women who were production managers who were like, managing money but weren't like the “Boss, boss,” you know, and now that has definitely started to change. Like it was always the men who were the “Boss Boss,” who were the producers, they were typically male. But that is definitely changing.”
Rymon says more women entered the scene in the early 2000s.
“The tax incentive started and the stages started being built,” Rymon said. “And there started being more and more shows. In New York, you know, the demand was higher, and so became more opportunity for people to take that next step and to fill roles they might not have been offered before. So it was really about volume of work. So it became opportunities for some women who might not have had it before. Because they needed capable people. And I think studios started realizing, ‘Oh, there they are.’
Rymon has mainly worked in New York City for the past 20 years and lives on Long Island. She says most producers and crew are freelance. “Hired guns” she calls it. She says she’s already planning on working on season two of “The Gilded Age” though, because she says HBO is fantastic to work with.
To find out how someone like Rymon ends up in Troy to film a major HBO series, I sat down with the Film Commissioner for neighboring Albany County, Deb Goedeke, who coordinated it.
“Basically, I market our city, our destination to production companies to come here and film,” Goedeke said. “And then once they come here, and they decide they want to film here, I connect them with all the services, the resources and the community partners they would need to move forward with their project.”
Goedeke says she’s brought in film productions like Angelina Jolie’s “Salt” and Will Ferrell’s “The Other Guys.” She says unlike other cities, production companies like filming here because there is a single point of contact for everything they might want: Goedeke.
“My special event individual that I work with, with the Albany Police Department, actually oversees the entire magnitude of the project,” Goedeke said. “So whether there is a request for the Department of General Services in the city or requests for the water department, this gentleman that I work with, he makes that all happen. I know that in a lot of other cities, there isn't one point of contact. A good example of that is we're currently working with HBO, “White House Plumbers.” And they came last Friday, and they were talking to our police department. And they said, ‘Well, we need this, we need the parking meter covered, we need the bus stop covered -- and the Albany PD contact was like, ‘I can take care of all of that.’ And the gentlemen turned around to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so much easier. Usually we have to go to 20 different departments.’ I think that's a huge selling point for our destination. And also we're very cost effective. They're all about time and money. And so we really adhere to our timeline into whatever their budget is.”
“The city's help with the streets, and, you know, controlling, and the police and everybody in this town were so accommodating, that it made our lives so much easier,” Rymon said. “And it made it possible to do what we needed to do. So that was a huge, I mean, you know, huge bonus. And I would say, you know, when we tried to work with the local businesses and not shut them down, covered up their windows, but we tried to make sure everybody knew they were still open. But I think ultimately, it's the partnership with the government agencies that were really key in making it work as well as it did.”
Rymon says the experience was so good, they want to come back for season two.
“I would say that is a very good bet,” Rymon said.
According to the Association of Film Commissioners International, a TV series or film production can bring in $125,000 to $165,000 per day. New York state has also continued generous tax credits for film productions.
Goedeke says “The Gilded Age” was in Troy for about 7 weeks and consumed over 5,000 sleeping room nights in Albany County alone.
“So with this pandemic, and all of our hotels being empty, you can imagine the boost that that's going to give when in their downtime, they'll be shopping, they'll be dining at restaurants,” Goedeke said. “I know they have strict COVID regulations too with regard to our film crews. So they'll be working around that as well. But it's a massive economic impact to any region when they come and film.”
Goedeke says it’s not just the hospitality industry that gets a boost from film crews. She says productions hire locally for many positions on set -- with her encouragement and referrals.
“PAs, production assistants, makeup, hair, lighting, key, grip -- they want to try to hire as many locals as they can because they know, again, that benefits the community, and they want to come back,” Goedeke said.
Rymon says they took Goedeke’s advice.
“We hired a lot of sort of production assistants, obviously, the background artists, we hired, you know, security, all the people that we could hire and could find,” Rymon said. “I would love to have hired more sort of, you know, union labor, there just isn't a huge group here existing. Just because I don't know if there's year-around employment. But yeah, whenever we could, we did. But yeah, I think we definitely tried to tap into as much local labor as we could.”
Rymon says it felt like they booked up the whole town for a month.
“Maybe 150 people in prep, another 150 on a regular crew,” Rymon said. “Plus, on our big days, we probably had about another 100 people. And then the background, our bigger days with background artists was probably 200. So you know, 750 on their big big days, but a lot… a lot. And we I think we're spread out over 10 different hotels between Troy and Albany. So we had in fact, we got we maxed out all the hotels we could get in Troy. And then we had a couple hotels, more like sort of long term stays type hotels along the way. And then we had a couple of ones in Albany proper, but Albany, so close, it's really 15 minutes, it's fine to shuttle back and forth.
Rymon says the background actors — extras — for “The Gilded Age” were almost all local.
“So those were hundreds of people over the course of the month,” Rymon said. “And then what we did logistically, because of the costumes and fittings, and how complicated it is to get people tailored exactly to their outfits, we use the same people for two, three different looks. So you know, you've got someone who's like a, someone on the street selling a newspaper one day, it could be the next day in a top hat. So the numbers would have been higher for us to hire different people for all of that, but it's about logistics, and, you know, sanity sort of dictated that we use several people over and over again. But all, like mostly local musicians, you know, which was pretty fantastic. And then the local crew. And, you know, maybe 50.”
Goedeke says she receives up to 50 filming inquiries a month, and she’s worked with about 15 different companies now including FX, The History Channel, Discovery Channel, and HBO. But she says when she’s on the job, she isn’t vying for favor with the stars.
“I'm kind of like the worker bee,” Goedeke said. “I stay behind the scenes. I don't ask for pictures or selfies of anybody. I really just want to make those things happen behind the scenes. I try to stay humble with it and really make them the top dog.”
Goedeke says film is definitely a male dominated industry.
“A lot of times in the meetings that I'm at, I'm usually the only female,” Goedeke said. “Even a lot of the community departments that we work with, it's just part of the job. But I never let that bother me. I'm always treated as an equal. I think that if you go in, and I don't want to say ‘prove yourself,’ but I think if people are respectful of what you do, and you know that, and they know that you have their best interests, I think it eventually all works out.”
Goedeke is 67. Growing up she loved watching “South Pacific” and “The 10 Commandments.” But it wasn’t her love of films that brought her to her current position – mostly her love of people and making connections. Goedeke is also the Convention Services Manager for Discover Albany – she’s been in the event-planning industry for 16 years. And Goedeke says if you look around on a film set, most likely the high power seats: director, producer, writer – are men. And on the few occasions a woman is in a seat of power, she says people assume they’re an assistant or makeup artist.
“I've spoken to a couple of women and even seen it myself that are, you know, a producer or a director with a project, but they share with me when they go on set, a lot of times people think they're the people that are there to get coffee,” Goedeke said. “I'm hoping that perception will change.”
Goedeke says the deck may be stacked against women, but we just have to continue to prove ourselves.
“I also think it's important to promote and uplift women in general, as a woman, nothing drives me crazier than to see women be catty with each other,” Goedeke said. “Oh my gosh, there's enough of that going on in the world, we don't need to do it to each other. So, yes, we need to be supportive of each other.”
According to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in 1998 24% of working producers were women. In 2019, that number had only increased to 27%. In 1998, only 4% of directors were women and in 2019 that only inched up to 13%.
But there is some hope. In the top 100 grossing films of 2020, 16% had female directors, up from 4% in 2018.
Growing up, I would watch the behind the scenes director’s commentary of all my favorite films and I don’t remember ever seeing one with a woman doing the talking. I honestly assumed that women, if they were pretty and went to lots of auditions, might get to end up in front of the camera. I wish it had been more obvious that if she works hard, is organized, and knows how to lead… she can end up behind it.