How 30 Years in Hollywood Made Me a Good Boss

A veteran movie professional’s new book offers practical tips from a lifetime of working behind-the-scenes.

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Jan 6 2017, 6:57pm

Photo by Marianne Rosenstiehl/Sygma via Getty Images

Hollywood is a $100 billion-dollar global industry that's obsessed pop culture and audiences alike, but behind every summer blockbuster and tentpole are an unsung hundreds of supporting crew and assistants off-camera. They make runs, make calls, and generally make sure that the show goes on. Tom Reilly was one of those people. He's worked in Hollywood for more than 30 years on more than 100 films, including working on The Prince of Tides with Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte, The Devil's Advocate with Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino, and Just Cause with Sean Connery and Scarlett Johansson. The technical term for what Reilly did was "assistant director," but his real job was to manage people, put out fires before they started, and make sure the studio's money wasn't being wasted. 

Reilly's new book, The Hollywood MBA: A Crash Course in Management from a Life in the Film Business, comes out January 10 and details what being a Hollywood filmmaker taught him about managing people. From "Spartacus Moments" on the set, where everybody shoulders the blame collectively, to creating what he dubs the "Oscar Effect," where a self-motivated crew performs at the highest level, Reilly's career in film has made him a master of management. Since leaving the film industry, he's been writing books and giving lectures on management principles people can use in the workforce.

I recently spoke to Reilly about trust, accountability, and what it's like to chill out in the Everglades with Sean Connery and a couple hundred angry gators.

VICE: As someone who played an instrumental role in making big-budget Hollywood films, you found yourself working in an ever-changing set of circumstances. Can you explain how that taught you to think on your feet and manage people accordingly?
Tom Reilly: One of the really interesting things about films is that every one is a startup situation in terms of a business. It's like starting a new company. You go from zero to hero within six to seven months—meaning you get a script, you break it down, you schedule and budget, hire a crew, cast and shoot it, and so forth. You learn what works and what doesn't work, and you learn how to adapt. A lot of times, you're spending 50 or 60 million dollars in a period of six months, so time is really, really valuable. We often spend $200,000 a day. Our crews are usually a 100 people at least. Cast could be 60 or 70 actors. We might shoot at 50 or 60 different locations. There are a lot of moving parts. It's weather dependent, because we're doing photography, so the sun affects continuity issues. 

So the short answer is that, as a manager, I want to help the individuals on the crew do their job really well, and we begin to do that by something I call "fractional scheduling." We take a big movie that might have 70 days of shooting, and we break it down into incremental sequences. From days into scenes, into camera setups or shots. Setting realistic goals is the first step for a manager who wants to help everybody do their jobs well, feel good about themselves, keep things as simple as possible, and meet deadlines.

What's it like working with big stars when you're their boss? Do you act like their employer or is it the other way around?
When you go to the movie theater, you're not thinking about the 100 people that made the film or what kind of tensions there were, you're thinking about what that particular actor or actress is doing. The actors understand this and an awful lot of them are just very down-to-earth people. But when you're in that kind of category where you're highly paid and you can't even walk down the street without people hounding you for autographs, I think it does change your persona a little bit. 

One of the things I always make sure I do is get as close to them as possible in preproduction. I want to develop a personal relationship and do so when we go to various meetings and rehearsals to democratize the playing field, if you will, because we're all in it together. I mention in the book that we were shooting City by the Sea on the Jersey Shore at night in January and February. It was 15 degrees out, and everybody was freezing, and the wind was howling. We were shooting until sunrise, but it was the same temperature for James Franco and Robert De Niro as it was for me and the crew, so we all kind of suffered a little. It becomes very much like a family. You get a team that's working together with a common goal.

"Somebody makes a mistake, and the director says, 'Whose fault is that?' and everybody goes, 'My fault,' 'My fault,' 'My fault,' and then somebody says, 'I am Spartacus.'

When things go wrong, do you advise to always shoulder the blame? It's about moving forward and getting the job done, right?
You can have different kinds of problems on a movie set. You can have human problems, or you have mechanical problems, and then you can have what I would call an act of God. We're shooting by the ocean and all of a sudden a storm moves in and winds pick up to 50 miles an hour, and we can't shoot. That's nobody's fault, but sometimes there's a human mistake, and you get a director who is under a lot of pressure, and he starts squawking and yelling and screaming. I usually step up and say that it's my fault.

Often other people on the crew do that, too. We call them "Spartacus moments," referring to the classic Kirk Douglas film. Somebody makes a mistake, and the director says, "Whose fault is that?" and everybody goes, "My fault," "My fault," "My fault," and then somebody says, "I am Spartacus." I feel it's really important to step up, especially with inexperienced people. They're under a lot of pressure, and they can't do their job quite as well as others. By helping them, you gain their respect. You're building equity with the crew. 

What was it like working with Sean Connery, and how do you create a safe environment with alligators?
I worked with Sean Connery on Just Cause, and I was thinking to myself, This is James Bond, a really tough, experienced guy. I found him a very cool guy, almost unflappable. We were shooting in the Everglades live, and it was crawling with alligators. I mean, there were times when I could count them by tens—I'm talking a couple hundred alligators. Sometimes they were too close, but we had armed wranglers who knew how to capture them and duct-tape their jaws shut and bring them to another part of the Everglades to release them again. But somebody like Sean understood that we would have things as safe as possible, or we wouldn't be there. 

What was it like shutting down five city blocks in New York for Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate
Extremely challenging. The script called for Kevin Lomax, played by Keanu Reeves, to step out of a building on East 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan after the suicide of his wife (Charlize Theron) to discover that he was the only person alive. Satan, played by Al Pacino, had eliminated all life. No people, no traffic, no movement. Just Kevin. On top of that, we executed the shot with an Aquila crane that had to rise from ground level to more than 100 feet in the air. In short, we would see the world. Since we were filming in one of the busiest places on the planet, we decided to shoot early on a Sunday morning before the city was fully awake. 

We used dozens of NYPD and traffic agents, as well as about 35 production assistants to reroute traffic, close down the avenues, and "lock up" building lobbies and coffee shops. To get the visual effect director Taylor Hackford wanted, there was no margin for error. By preplanning, assembling a strong team, and giving everyone a very specific task, we were able to pull off the shot—which is spectacular. By coordinating all of that manpower and parsing every detail (such as timing traffic lights) and by anticipating all potential problems ahead of time, we were able to take what appeared to be an overwhelming task, make it manageable, and execute it flawlessly.

"The important thing is to build trust and equity with the workforce."

How do you create and define what you have termed the "Oscar Effect"?
The "Oscar Effect" is a term that I came up with to describe the four factors necessary to get a self-motivated workforce that will perform at its highest level. Obviously, a self-motivated workforce is better for productivity and efficiency in any workplace, and it also creates very high levels of creativity. On one film, I came out of a restaurant at 10 at night, and I looked up at our production office building and saw some lights on. I noted that it was the wardrobe department working late. They didn't have to, they weren't getting paid overtime, but they were there. I was thinking, What motivates that

Then, when I was on another film with Woody Allen, one of the prop guys waded into a stream in his street clothes. He didn't say, "I've got to get my rubber boots." He just went in the water because we needed something done. Then there was a production designer when we were building a Supreme Court set on another project. She only had ten days to build it even though it took four years to build the actual Supreme Court. But we were under pressure and she was in tears because she was afraid that she might not get it done in time.

I wanted to know what motivated these people to such a high level, and I deduced that if you give people a sense of accountability and pride for the work, give them growth opportunities that will help their career and give them public recognition, that motivates people to elevate their game on their own and that makes the manager's job easier. 

What's the most important piece of advice you would give someone who wants to work in any type of management position?
It's about listening to people and providing them with answers. If I don't have an answer, I'll get one. I'll tell them I don't know, but I'll find out. I don't spin them because I need to build their trust. As a manager, sometimes in the morning, I'd pop by people's offices with a cup of coffee and say, "Hey, how you doing?" When you do this, it really helps to relax people. It opens up informal communication, and gives them a little more faith in you, and that's good because we want to be a very well-oiled machine when we're shooting so that we're very efficient. With me coming around in a casual way, I'm giving them a sense that I'm not here to crack the whip—I'm here to help. Do you need an extra hand or more money in the budget? If so, then I can help you with that. The important thing is to build trust and equity with the workforce.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

The Hollywood MBA: A Crash Course in Management from a Life in the Film Business by Tom Reilly is available online and in bookstores on January 10.

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