Aspiring Pitt film students seize opportunities to work on local productions

Behind+the+scenes+on+the+set+of+%E2%80%9CThanks+to+Her%2C%E2%80%9D+an+indie+film+produced+in+Pittsburgh.

Image courtesy of Aditi Sridhar

Behind the scenes on the set of “Thanks to Her,” an indie film produced in Pittsburgh.

By Mera D'Aquila, For The Pitt News

Many people tend to conjure up fantastical images of Hollywood Boulevard, or perhaps New York City’s quaint Greenwich Village when thinking of movie productions. But they often neglect to recognize Pittsburgh’s bustling film scene. And Pitt students are an integral part of it.

Pittsburgh has recently become the backdrop for several movie sets, creating many film industry positions in the heart of the City. Several of Pitt’s undergraduates, who are passionately working to advance in the business, have claimed these sought-after opportunities. Students often work behind the scenes as production assistants — helping bring various projects to the big screen.

According to Kevin Smith, director of undergraduate studies in broadcast and an adviser for the film program, there are currently seven different productions currently filming in the City. He said these are great opportunities for Pitt students who are interested in the film and television industry. 

The Netflix biopic “Rustin,” produced by former President Barack Obama’s production company, began shooting in September, and the Amazon Studios series “A League of Their Own” — about a professional women’s baseball league in the 1940s — filmed on East Carson Street in early July, and in Greensburg on Tuesday. 

Smith, who made a name for himself in Hollywood’s film industry, said working in Pittsburgh can be the gateway to a career in Los Angeles. He also said the City is filled with opportunities for aspiring film students, especially compared to other locations.

“Here in Pittsburgh, our students can get on a 71 bus, ride for free and get on a set and work in downtown Pittsburgh,” Smith said. “That’s the difference, is that our setting is not only a campus, it’s the versatility of the City. People in other cities send their resumes to Pittsburgh and try to get jobs here.” 

According to Smith, the education that students gain in Pitt’s film and media studies department prepares them for these early experiences working on a set. He mentioned the skilled professors within the program, who ensure students are well-equipped to make a lasting impression at their first positions in film production.

“Our catchphrase is ‘a critical education with a professional outcome,’” Smith said. “We’re able to show them the techniques and how to do it. The most important thing in our business is if you don’t have a professional reel when you come out, you’re going to have trouble getting a job.”

Sara Sirignano, a film production and public and professional writing major, understood the importance of starting out in the industry in any way possible. A recent hire in the health and safety department on the set of Amazon Studios’ “Sprung,” she said this new opportunity was a valuable first experience in the business.

“We do [COVID-19] testing every single day,” Sirignano said. “That’s super important that we do, just because exposing someone who’s a principal person to the crew or the cast could shut the entire production down for two weeks. Not the most sought-after position, but definitely an important one. It’s a gateway into the industry.”

While an important stepping stone to a career in the business, the job does not come without its challenges. Sirignano addressed the long hours her position requires.

“The film industry is really demanding,” Sirignano said. “You don’t make plans on a Friday night because you know you’re going to be at the set until 6 a.m.”

Despite the position’s difficult schedule, Sirignano said she is still able to balance her academics and work, thanks to the flexibility of her employers.

“They’ve been really good about working with my school schedule,” Sirignano said. “When I was building my schedule I built it around the job.”

Smith described the lengthy 14 to 16 hours on a set as a “very normal day” on the job, but said the students’ affinity for their work makes it feel like a passion project rather than an arduous task.

“They are so passionate about what they do, the time is irrelevant,” Smith said. “They’re all in. It’s not a matter of trying to convince them. I love the fact that they’re all show-offs. That’s part of our business, where you can’t wait to show how good you are at something.”

Sirignano said working on a set showed her everything that happens behind the scenes. She added that it connected her with people in positions she didn’t know existed, such as set builders and people who transport the cast and crew. 

“It’s been really interesting in my position to be able to see and speak with people in positions that I didn’t even really know existed or thought about like the entire construction team building the sets at all hours of the day, the teamsters who drive the cast everywhere and transport crew back and forth,” Sirignano said. “Being exposed to that has been really interesting to see all the different facets of the industry.”

For students looking for these opportunities in the film and television industry, Pitt’s alumni network has proved to be a reliable place to turn. Ryan Floyd, a senior majoring in film studies and political science, was a former production assistant on the set of “Thanks to Her” and currently works in the health and safety department for “Sprung.” He said the University has played a role in helping him find work.

“When I [worked as a production assistant] on ‘Thanks to Her’ this summer, that set felt much more like the smaller sets that I had been on before, and Pitt connected me with those people and how to be useful on a set like that,” Floyd said.

Floyd’s biggest piece of advice to aspiring film students was to seize any possible opportunity to be a part of the business. He mentioned the importance of getting involved in programs offered at the University, and said professors can also offer some guidance.

“Stay engaged,” Floyd said. “Do your best to show up to things. Participate in UPTV and Pitt in Hollywood. Reach out to people who can give you advice. Don’t be afraid to ask to sit down with professors. And take opportunities when they present themselves.”

Sirignano said when it comes to working on a production, there are more ways to get involved than expected. But according to her, the key to a career in the film and television business is the passion and tenacity of the student.

“There’s so many different paths to get into the industry,” Sirignano said. “There’s not one correct way. I think just a willingness to go for it and to keep going when you get no’s over and over and over again is the best way.”

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