Marvel's UPM Joann Perritano: A Gatherer of Remarkable People
"There was an idea, Stark knows this, called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to fight the battles we never could." ―Nick Fury, The Avengers
JoAnn Perritano, Marvel's unit production manager (UPM) of Avengers: Infinity War is comparable to “Nick Fury”: she pulls in a group of remarkable people together to make something become more.
Perritano has worked with exceptional teams of producers and directors whose films have earned millions to billions of dollars. According to IMDb, Perritano's career as a film production manager began in 1993. Since then she has over 26 movies to her UPM credit. But for Perritano, it was working in 2004 on the film Van Helsing that grossed a respectable $300 million that finally convinced her she was indeed an official UPM.
In 2010, Perritano was the UPM for producers Scott Rudin, Mike De Luca and director David Fincher on The Social Network, a film that earned eight Academy Award nominations. She continued to succeed on film after film with her ability to oversee big, blockbuster productions. Perritano proceeded to work on an onslaught of blockbuster movies: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Iron Man 3 (2013) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
In 2015, Perritano followed Marvel to shoot in Georgia. Pinewood Atlanta Studios was their new “humble abode” where they successfully shot Ant-Man. The next Marvel project she worked on at Pinewood was Avengers: Infinity War, and then shortly after that film she continued to work as the UPM on the film that could become the highest grossing ever: Avengers: Endgame. Since 2010, she has worked on films that have collectively grossed over $10 billion in box office sales.
JoAnn Perritano gives an exclusive interview to Oz Magazine’s managing editor, Nicole Sage:
TELL US ABOUT HOW YOU GOT BIT BY THE FILM BUG.
I was about 12 years old. My aunt took me on a trip to Los Angeles. I had always wanted to go to California. We went on a tour of southern California, and Disneyland was the main attraction. But we also went to Universal Studios, which was and is a working studio, but it is also a theme park. Back then, it was more of an example of a working studio. You rode around on a tram and saw actual movies and TV shows filming. I distinctly remember going on the set of The Bionic Woman. It was incredible to see for me! I always loved going to the movies and watching TV shows, but touring Universal made me realize that I could be part of it…that people actually made films for a living.
When I got back home, I just wanted to do whatever I could to be a part of the film process. We had a local cable station in town, and I volunteered. I ended up doing everything. I ran the camera at football games, school events and town hall meetings. It was the really dull stuff, but it didn't matter…I loved it. I would read anything I could about filmmaking. There was an aisle at the bookstore that had books about film and TV and the history of old Hollywood and new Hollywood. I just got them all. After college, I decided to move to Los Angeles.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START IN THE INDUSTRY?
I just wanted to be on the film sets. My first job was working at Entertainment Tonight, and I would visit film sets to cover stories. I had read about Roger Corman and his production studios. I was a huge Jonathan Demme fan, and I knew Corman gave him his start. Knowing Corman was in production making movies, I went down to his studio in Venice, California and got on set as a production assistant on one of their modest budget films. They didn't pay at that level, but I did it for the experience. I learned the ropes. I continued to PA, then when I worked at NEO Motion Pictures, the team of Joel Soisson, Mike Leahy and Keith Border asked me to production manage a film. It was my big break; they gave me start as a UPM. I had no idea what I was doing; I made it up as I went.
"Georgia provided top-notch facilities and top-notch crews."
WHEN DID YOU KNOW BEING A UPM WAS GOING TO BE YOUR CAREER?
In the early 2000s I had roughly, give or take, 14 feature films under my belt. But I think I accepted and realized I had made it as an UPM when I started doing a more prominent film…like Van Helsing for sure. At the time, it was my most significant film to work on. It was my first overseas (Prague) film. It was just a big studio picture with a budget of $160 million which seems like a small budget film compared to the last two Marvel movies I worked on, Infinity War ($321 million) and Avengers: Endgame ($350 million). Nothing I do as a UPM will ever top those two films.
DESCRIBE YOUR JOB AS A UNIT PRODUCTION MANAGER?
A UPM or a film production manager is a member of The Director's Guild of America. I am responsible for supervising all aspects of the film. I work closely with the line producer and directors to put together a production plan for the film. I am responsible for budgeting the project and hiring the crew. I oversee obtaining all the equipment, etc...basically, giving the directors the necessary tools to make a great movie while making sure the project stays on budget, on schedule and all the while being responsible for answering and reporting to the studios.
There's location traveling; it's a challenge. Bringing hundreds of crew members to a location and then integrating them with the local crew is as difficult as it sounds. I have a kickass production team! My job ends at the start of post production. I do not manage anything post related. A UPM’s job is to project manage the production, to reassure the producers and directors their vision will be seen on the screen.
HOW CLOSELY DO YOU WORK WITH PRODUCERS VERSUS THE DIRECTORS AND ACTORS?
Well, you certainly get to know the cast, but you are not asked to join them for meals or relax in their trailers. Besides, there simply is no time for that even if they do invite you.
I work very closely with both the producers and directors. So, there is a ton of interaction, especially during the prep period when we figure it all out. For the Marvel movies, we allocate about 30-35 weeks of prep. Breaking down the budget and production plan is the first step. Most of Marvel’s shooting schedules are 70-75 days. No matter how much money there is in the budget, it is never enough. Then we roll up our sleeves, start the hiring process, and off we go.
With the producers and directors and in terms of their demands, I think I'm used to working with them and can anticipate their needs. Honestly, it doesn't really faze me. I am honored to help them make their films. I have always had the same work ethic to do whatever it took, whatever it takes. Loving what I do certainly helps. I learn something new on every film.
Technology changes all the time, so you are always doing new things, especially with these big blockbuster VFX movies. But when I first started working as UPM, my goodness! I had no clue. I just did what I thought was right. But I am fortunate to have worked with extremely successful producers. They taught me the process and what I need to do. Learning under some of them made me really understand producing. I quickly learned that it's crucial to balance the budget. I never like to say “no.” So, if there is something we can't afford, my tactic is what can we give up instead? I try to take that type of attitude. I believe this is the reason my career has kept moving forward.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN YOU HIRE? DO YOU USE THE SAME CREWS?
At our busiest, (on Infinity War and Endgame) we had some 1500 cast and crew on set, in Scotland we had an additional 300 on the construction crew. I think I can safely say that during the height of filming, at our heaviest weeks, I signed well over 1500 time cards per week, no, probably closer to 2000 a week!
When I hire crew, I look for enthusiasm. I can tell if someone really wants it. I hire most of the same crew on these movies. They are the top crew in the business, which makes my job a little easier! I have my team, and I couldn't do it without them! I am only as good as the folks I hire. I learned that a long time ago. It takes a village.
"I loved shooting in Georgia!"
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE FILMING IN GEORGIA?
I loved shooting in Georgia! Not so much the bugs and humidity, but it was a great experience for me. Georgia provided top-notch facilities and I hired top-notch crews. I have made some fantastic friends. Georgia offered many conveniences for me. It's funny. I am doing some additional photography in Los Angeles right now, and we have much of the crew that was working for me in Georgia. Not one hour goes by where one of them doesn't say, "I wish we were in Georgia."
In Los Angeles, it's the annoyance of the parking and the traffic, not to mention that every studio here is crowded, and there is not enough space for filming. We had none of those issues while at Pinewood Atlanta Studios.
ALL PRODUCTIONS HAVE A FAIR SHARE OF CHALLENGES. WHAT WERE SOME THAT YOU FACED?
Yes! There’s more than a fair share of challenges. One of the biggest challenges of being the UPM is you must prepare and remind yourself of Murphy's Law: if it can go wrong, it will. This is why you must have seasoned professional crew; my crew are incredible first responders! They address the emergencies, face the elements, shift gears and adapt immediately. When there is a shift in production I rely on my team to execute the plan B, plan C and sometimes the plan D options.
No one can predict the weather 100%. I have to always stay on top of the weather forecast. We include the forecasts on the call sheet for the crews to know what to “expect.” During Infinity War there were several times that the weather shut production down.
When production is shut down, this is not considered a break or downtime. Shooting schedules are created based on the talent’s availability. So, scheduling all the stars to be on set at the same time is a real nail-bitter! For example, Scarlett Johansson reports to work, we have 10 days to shoot all of her scenes back-to-back. If weather shuts production down, she cannot break her prior work obligations that she is contractually bound to waiting for the weather to work out and finish her scenes. Because of unpredictable scenarios like this, there are mandatory reconfigurations to the entire production schedule.
At Pinewood Studios we were shooting exterior scenes; the weather changed fast. We were told that there was a code red tornado alert. We had to immediately evacuate cast and crew from set to a sound stage, which was the safest location. I remember when we got everyone to the sound stage. Tom Hiddleston (Loki) was walking around to all the cast and crew politely offering doughnuts and coffee and making jokes. It was hilarious, and it put all of us at ease.
No stars were allowed in their trailers (trailers are the first thing destroyed by tornadoes). All equipment was left as is on set because equipment can be replaced; people cannot be. Safety for our cast and crew is clearly the biggest priority.
On Infinity War, we had to recreate Wakanda. We found it in Fairburn, it was a perfect location. We were at this location for a few weeks. Before the base camp was set up, it took over a 1,000 people to excavate the land and remove ant piles and snakes. OH! And we created a man made river!
We had 40 of the “super heroes” on site. We had to have their trailers; we had the catering trucks; there were hundreds of pop-up tents. We made a city; it was insane! I heard the Guinness Book of World Records gave Avengers: Infinity War the biggest film base camp to date. But the weather was a debacle. The rainstorms bore down on us, but as soon as it cleared and was dry enough, everyone was on their mark. The show must go on.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF WORKING IN GEORGIA AGAIN?
Yes, I would come back and work in Georgia for sure.
MANAGING A FILM PRODUCTION WITH A CAST AND CREW OF HUNDREDS TO THOUSANDS COMES TREMENDOUS PRESSURE. HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN THE BALANCE AND TO DECOMPRESS?
Working on a major motion picture set is extremely hard work. You have to maintain being on point and have laser focus for long, long hours. The misconception is that Hollywood is glamorous; I can assure you it’s not. At a moment’s notice you have to be instantly ready to pack up and go. You live the life of a nomad. But with all the time you are on set working together, the crew becomes your family. There is energy of comradery. I have comfort knowing that my “family” will be there for me when I fall.
As for personal balance, it's hard. I “try” to keep Sundays to myself, spend time with my husband, and stay away from the computer, but that doesn't always work. Honestly, it's tough because while we are shooting, it is work seven days a week. I think my real balance comes with downtime between the movies. My husband is great and understands my job, and I have his constant support. I can come home and vent, or just say, "I don't want to talk about it." I truly can rest when we travel or sail away on our boat and escape from it all.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO SEE, HEAR AND READ ABOUT THE AUDIENCES’ RESPONSE TO THE MARVEL MOVIES?
It's pretty great. I get a lot of amazed reactions of when people know I work on the Marvel movies. So many people love the franchise. If I wear my Marvel crew T-shirt or jacket, I immediately get a reaction; everyone comments. I like to watch the films I have worked on with an audience. Infinity War was really enjoyable to watch with an audience. Our cast and crew are one of a kind; we all are so dedicated to the craft and it is reflected in the work. It does give me a feeling of gratification knowing how much everyone enjoys the films.
IN YOUR OPINION WHAT IS THE MOST CRITICAL ASPECT OF MANAGING A MARVEL FILM SET?
I would say safety first, the budget and working within the parameters to stay on budget. Then the schedule. It is critical to maintain a schedule that production sticks to with the day out of days. And of course, making a great movie; that is the ultimate “endgame.”