An Inside Look at Hollywood's Biggest Budgets
20-year-veteran Unit Production Manager JoAnn Perritano tells us how she breaks down the numbers on films like 'Iron Man' and 'The Social Network.'
One of the most important roles before a movie even beings principal photography is held by the Unit Production Manager (UPM). To put it simply, a UPM is the studio’s guiding light to a film’s budget and schedule. JoAnn Perritano has been plugging away at it for 20+ years, touching different genres on films from Red Dragon, Van Helsing and The Social Network to Marvel’s Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Ant-Man. While she's working on her latest project Avengers: Infinity Wars, we asked her to give us a little insight on her day-to-day.
"As soon as the script lands, they want a budget immediately."
NFS: Your job starts with the script, but how early do you receive a draft?
Perritano: It’s interesting. On the bigger movies or any big studio film, a lot of the times I’m brought in even before the script is ready. Sometimes we start really early on creating the budget with a beat sheet and the general idea of what’s going to happen.
NFS: So you’re budgeting blind sometimes?
Perritano: Well, I’ve done enough of films where you kind of know a jumping off point. You know you’re going to have a certain amount of departments with a certain amount of people. Then, when the script comes in, it’s more about filling in the blanks.
NFS: But with Marvel that’s a pretty big fill-in-the-blank.
Perritano: It is. And you have to try and stay ahead. It’s a ton of work. As soon as the script lands, they want a budget immediately, so you have to try your best to figure out what you think it’s going to cost without a lot of information.
NFS: Does the studio send you a cost they want to hit or do you create that yourself?
Perritano: We always back into a number, on every film.
NFS: Does that add any pressure?
Perritano: It’s a starting point. The way I approach budgeting is that I budget the script for what it is. I always want to know what the current version of the script is going to cost. For me, I don’t want to ever short sell the production team, director, or anyone and try to squeeze it into a box that it doesn’t fit in. I don’t think that does anybody justice. Everybody needs to know that if they’re trying to make the film for X amount, but it’s currently reading at the cost of Y, they may need to change.
NFS: Do you consider the director when finding a film’s cost?
Perritano: Yes. Definitely. I’ve worked with The Russo Brothers, David Fincher, and Brett Ratner, and you start to know how they work a little bit and can adjust from there. They will tell you they will never use a steadicam, so you don’t even budget for it. Or, "I love steadicam and I want it every single day." Or, "I want a Technocrane every day." Now it’s more common practice, but there was a time when I first started, you’d only have the Technocrane for five days. Now we have it for the whole movie. You learn their style and try and adapt.
NFS: What kind of prep time do you get before shooting starts?
Perritano: Lately it’s been 22, 23 weeks. In some cases, closer to 30 weeks. There’s a lot that goes into making these movies.
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NFS: Is waiting for a greenlight common?
Perritano: I have been on plenty of movies where you gear up and you had to wait. But it all depends on who you’re making the movie for or who you’re working with. Where I’m at in my career, I’m sort of past that. Nowadays we are waiting on the script or for the third act of the script. The films are just so big; it’s very common for that type of delay.
NFS: How do you approach different locations?
Perritano: Lately, it is all about rebate. We look at states and countries that can offer the best rebate. Then we make it work. Atlanta, where I am now, is the current hotbed. Then the challenge becomes how do you make Atlanta looks like other cities? For Ant-Man, we were in San Francisco for three days and Atlanta for the rest, thanks to the magic of visual effects. And, watching it, I don’t think you really know that.
For Captain America, Cleveland doubled for Washington D.C. We were in D.C. for three days as well and in Cleveland for seven or eight weeks with the rest on stages in Los Angeles. We can do stuff like that now thanks to the advancement of visual effects. You can send off a plate unit and put them in a helicopter and let these guys work their magic.
"Technology is changing at such a rapid pace I feel like a portion of my job is like I’m back in film school."
NFS: Is planning for the multiple units on the crew difficult?
Perritano: It’s interesting because we’ll always have a second unit, a third unit, a splinter unit, the list goes on. Basically, I have to budget for them all, and then I’ll bring somebody in to take the second unit over. They’ll usually have a about four weeks prep before we start shooting, which they will certainly have to tweak things as they starting having their meetings on set.
NFS: Communication must be a priority then.
Perritano: It’s constant. We come up with a system where we just communicate everything. If I’m shooting night with first unit and they’re shooting days, they’ll text or leave long emails when they wrap. We become a well-oiled machine and figure out how to cover each other if the day got rained out or there wasn’t enough time to finish everything. It gets crazy but you have to help each other.
NFS: With all the advancements in technology, how do you keep up with it all?
Perritano: The last couple of years everything has changed a lot. There was a time where everything was stagnant and I would read a script with a car blowing up in it and I could tell you exactly how much it was going to cost. Now that the technology is changing at such a rapid pace I feel like a portion of my job is like I’m back in film school. It makes it fun.
NFS: Have you learned anything new recently?
Perritano: On Ant-Man, in order to pull it off, we shot all this macro photograpy. I had absolutely no experience in it. A lot of us really didn’t and we were all learning on the fly. We didn’t want Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The audience had to believe when he was shrunk down he was in this macro universe. You had to feel like you were in it with him. We ended up hiring a macro DP who came and did everything and coordinated with visual effects. The entire thing was a learning experience. As the tech changes and we decide to bring it to our movies, we bring in experts who understand it and we all get into a room and talk about it and everyone shares their two cents. By the end, you sort of feel like, "wow, I just learned something new that was pretty cool." It’s the way the future of the business is going.
"You never want to say no to the director, but you can’t say yes to everything they want."
NFS: How can a cinematographer or another craft member approach their deal on a film?
Perritano: I think it’s different depending on the level. For instance, you have a whole budget of crew members who work for scale. As the scale changes each year, they usually get an increase of 2 or 3 percent. If you’re a gaffer or a sound guy, you might come in over scale. Sometimes as a UPM I have to bid stuff out to decide but I work with a lot of the same people so you know exactly what you’re getting.
Sometimes you do get a deal where you have to negotiate. As a UPM, I will say that I want to pay this amount and they will come back with an amount they can’t do it less than. It’s about finding what we can do. I’ll also call other UPMs to make sure we are not paying too much or too little. We also look at other studios and see what they are paying for a position, so it’s a combination of a lot of different things.
NFS: What happens when a director wants to add something you didn’t budget?
Perritano: You never want to say no to the director, but you can’t say yes to everything they want. It has to be within reason. Our goal is to be responsible to the studio and responsible to the budget while making the best movie possible, so we try to find ways we can trade to make what they want happen. Kind of like taking from Peter to pay Paul. Hopefully, during prep we have a plan that everyone has signed off on and planned for. So we know what all the needs are, but truthfully, that is rare.
NFS: Any advice for the future UPMs out there?
Perritano: If you want to do this job you’re gonna have to start in the trenches. Whatever it takes to get knowledge. I would not trade anything for those low budget movies and days I spent making Maniac Cop 3 or Children of the Corn 4. It taught me skills that I still use today. Get a job as a PA and work really hard and soak it all in. Take any opportunity that comes your way!