January Spotlight: Melissa Willis – Producer/Production Manager
I had the pleasure of working with Melissa Willis at Take Two (now HINT) several years ago. She was the kind of producer who respected the Production and everyone’s roles in it. She seemed to always stay late, she was amazingly organized, and meticulous about her production books. One of the truly great things about her is her willingness to teach young associate producers and production assistants who were interested in how to run a commercial production. Melissa is what I call a “crackerjack.” She knows her stuff and accepts nothing but the best from those she works with. Melissa is now the Senior Producer at Northpass Media in Kansas City.
KCFMO: How long have you been in the production industry and how did you start?
Melissa: I started about 22 years ago. There are many moments which shapedmy first 2 years. I answered an ad in a local paper, the Pitch, I think. The ad was asking for people to participate in a documentary. We met at the Westport Library. At that meeting I met Kirby Cobb the director and creator of the project. We met every Wednesday night. From those meetings the Independent Filmmakers Coalition (IFC) was born.
Via the IFC I met Patti Watkins the Film Commissioner of Kansas City. I interned for her during Ang Lee’s feature “Ride with the Devil” and during Frank Pierson’s HBO movie “Truman” when they were scouting Kansas City. Patti recommended me for Production Secretary on “Truman”. I’m forever grateful to her for that opportunity. My script cabinet was Emmy worthy!
When “Truman” wrapped I interned at Take 2 Productions where Chris Flowers and Terry Gerkovich were fantastic mentors. As a freelancer I was incredibly lucky to meet Kathie Krieger. I can’t say enough about how she impacted my understanding of commercial prep, shoot & wrap. The impact was so dramatic I felt I could survive and thrive in Los Angeles. Through Kathie I met Tim Biggins the next mentor in my career.
KCFMO: What role or roles on a production do you typically have?
Melissa: Now that I’m in Kansas City most commercials are non-union. The roles in non-union terms are Production Manager and Producer. In a smaller markets one person usually does both positions and the budget requires it. If it’s a union job then Production Supervisor or Producer but rarely both.
KCFMO: We see all types of Producers as the credits role by… what are the different kinds and what do they do?
Melissa: This is way to much for me to answer…..commercials, feature films, TV network series, TV cable, TV reality, PBS, network or local news? Wikipedia! [Producer’s Guild of America link to Code of Credits]
KCFMO: Tell us about a time you had to creative problem-solve during a production
Melissa: Every production! Weather can be a big one. Shooting water crafts for Honda in Florida you have to be ready to move from the Atlantic side to the Gulf of Mexico side at the drop of a hat, not miss one shot and move an entire armada including a Technocrane. Which for the record can only move at 5 miles an hour on the water!
I have many of stories; principal talent getting arrest between the shoot days, sand storms, waiting for sucker holes, equipment breaking and cameras crashing to the ground. Survival is in preparation and communication. You have to have back up plans and cover sets even if they seem insane.
KCFMO: What makes a successful shoot/production?
Melissa: Preparation, communication, a director with clear vision and a well written spot doesn’t hurt.
KCFMO: How is it different working in KC than in LA?
Melissa: The resources would blow your mind. You can get ANYTHING for a price within 1-12 hours. The weather in Los Angeles becomes a non factor unless you’re shooting on the coast in the morning. The back lot at Universal Studios would blow your mind again. It’s one of my favorite places to shoot.
KCFMO: Over the years you’ve worked with a lot of famous people. Have you ever asked for an autograph?
Melissa: Only twice – Cher and Wayne Gretzky.
KCFMO: What do you love about Kansas City?
Melissa: The people, the traffic and the cost of living!