Danielle Gruberger stumbled into the photography world by chance; she found herself in the right place, at the right time more than once. Perhaps because when you’re as ambitious and hard working as Danielle, you find yourself in many places - all of the time. From talent management and artist development to dabbling in photo assisting, all of these lead her to producing full time in Los Angeles for Art + Commerce’s PROD’n. We spoke to her about how she got here, the micro details of being a producer, and what it’s like to produce for an agency that represents the best names in the industry.
This interview took place at Milk Studios LA between Danielle and Ella
EJ: Can you give an overview of how you got to where you are today?
DG: Sure, it's kind of a weird, windy path. It's not the typical story of, "Oh I was a PA (production assistant), and then I worked my way up."
When I was nine years old, I just wanted to get out of my house. I was the oldest and needed my space, you know? I was too young to babysit, so I started asking all of my mom's friends who had babies if they needed a mom's helper. And as soon as I could babysit, I did. I was always into the "next steps."
I'm also not one to sit still; I hated school. I was a horrible student, and I didn't finish college, though I am still pursuing my education. It's not something I talk about, or usually ever tell people because there's such a stigma behind it. I've seen people that I respect hear that I didn’t finish college, and immediately attach some sort of judgment to it. I've always judged myself for it, but I've recently accepted it because I realized that this was the right path for me. Who knows, I’ll probably end up going back. During school, I worked a lot and that was always the thing that I loved doing most.
While you were in school, what was it like?
I went to college to get out of my parent's house. I'm from LA, and I went to Cal State Northridge. In school, I joined a sorority and partied a lot, but I worked through it the whole time. My path started to change while I was working at a little Apple retail store - my parents split up, I dropped out of school, and I felt very lost.
The store was really small; it was quiet and slow. I had this coworker who went to Brooks, which at the time, was a very respected photography school (sadly now it's gone). He brought his cameras to work and was always doing photo projects. We were often bored, so he’d tell me about his projects, and I became super interested in photography. I got my own starter Canon and sometimes the owner of the store would bring in his kid and their dog so I'd shoot them, or take photos of the products in the store.
My photos weren't particularly good, so in my spare time, I'd mess around with them in photoshop. Nothing serious, I’d give my family member a third eye or something. One day, this guy came in, we'd been bantering for a bit, and I was helping him with some products. He asked what I was doing in Photoshop, and I told him I was interested in photography.
He said that he ran an ad agency that did all of the marketing for Arclight Cinemas and asked if I wanted to sit in on the shoot that they were doing that week. I went to the shoot and didn't have any idea why I was there, but I knew there had to be a reason. I found an open seat; there was only one, and it was next to the photographer. Instead of shooting models, they were shooting real Arclight members, and the photographer wasn't super engaging. I found out later that he was a sports photographer, which makes complete sense. His lighting was beautiful, but it was just missing a bit of engagement with the subjects, so I started talking to the people as he was shooting them. Honestly, it was the fucking boldest thing. Now, I would never do that in a million years.
But they thought it was amusing and they hired me; both the guy at the ad agency and the photographer. At first, the photographer had me assist with lighting on a couple of shoots, but I didn't know anything. All I knew was how to talk to people. I had only ever worked in sales. I think he recognized that I could help him in the sense of networking, but I didn't really know how to make a job out of that.
So what were you doing at the Ad Agency for Arclight Cinemas?
I did a lot of production, but more from an event standpoint. I also put on Q&A's, for example, we'd show old movies like "The Breakfast Club" or "Ghostbusters." And I'd hit up literally every agent to get as many people as I could for a Q&A. Sometimes, I'd host them as well. This job was a great segway into production, but there was no creative outlet for me so I felt pretty uninspired.
So what came next?
I was open with the owner of the ad agency who initially hired me, and expressed my interest in working in photography. I went on Craigslist and typed in “Los Angeles” and “photography.” The first thing that came up was "Sales for Fashion and Celebrity Photographer" and it was like five minutes from my house. It seemed strangely perfect.
So, I went and interviewed with the photographer, and I think he really liked how green I was. I ended up becoming his in-house agent and worked with him for two years. It was a tough job. It was full-time, literally eight hours a day of cold calls. I had a call log and would show my progress at the end of every day. I arranged meetings for him, tried to send him to different cities to get people to meet with him, and produced shoots for him as well. Aside from photography, he was also a model scout. Right when I started working with him, he discovered Taylor Hill at a dude ranch, and was the first to shoot her as well. My favorite part about working with him was looking out for these kids he kept finding. Taylor and her family became my family; they become like your little sisters and brothers.
With this job, I definitely got to see what I loved and hated. I realized that I hated cold-calling, but I loved everything about what I was witnessing in this industry. I loved producing, and I loved developing artists.
And then you took those skills and started your own talent agency?
I did. I realized I didn't like seeing people getting taken advantage of, and I loved developing young talent so starting an agency felt like the next step. Instagram was brand new and I started trolling the app, meeting people. I didn't get a loan and I also quit my job because it was a conflict of interest, but I still needed an income to develop the agency and live.
A friend who worked in the music industry knew I was looking for a job and, there was an up-and-coming electronic group called Krewella. The manager, Jake Udell, needed an assistant at Th3rd Brain, and I needed money and liked music, so it seemed like a good enough fit.
I didn't really understand what electronic music was, but I did a bit of research before the interview and ended up working with him and the artists he managed for about two years. Management is a really cool role because you get to see every aspect of what it takes to be an artist; from the label, to the PR, to the syndication, to the creative. There are so many important pieces of being an artist and successfully managing someone. Even with music, I always found myself taking on production of our artists’ photo and video shoots.
It's hard to maintain a steady timeline of the work that I was doing because I was always producing on the side. When I would pitch photographers, I would usually end up producing for them as well, it kind of just went hand in hand. After nearly two years working in music management, I turned full-time to my talent agency, but wanted it to become a production company as well.
Once I looked at all of the numbers, it seemed like a really big investment to take on. I had already put so much in this agency, and I wasn't ready to start something completely new.
So when did Art + Commerce come into the picture?
I think Linkedin emailed me saying that Art + Commerce had an open role in LA right as I was contemplating what to do about starting the production company. I sent in my resume, but I thought it must have been a mistake because I knew they were based in NY. To my surprise, they called me the next day.
How did you format your resume? I feel like that's an obstacle a lot of young people face.
I don't think there's a right way to present your resume. I feel that sticking to one page is important while also keeping it consistent and relevant to the industry that you want to work in.
I've personally worked in so many different roles, and worn so many different hats. But in reality, I was producing for all of them, so it was important for that to be reflected on my resume. I have always submitted job applications with intention. I also suggest taking the time to tailor your cover letter and resume to each role and write something genuine. Show that you researched the company and that your passion is in line with the role you are submitting for.
Once you applied, what was the interview process like?
I applied and quickly received a call back from someone in HR. I think I must have asked more questions than they anticipated, so they referred me to Lila Dominguez, who created the LA office for PRODn (Art + Commerce’s production company).
From there, it was a process of meeting with Lila and taking calls with several different people, but the main event was a shoot in LA. Lila was coming out for it and they hired me to locally produce it as a freelancer. It was a 2-day editorial shoot at Milk Studios in March of 2017. Francois Nars was shooting Guinevere Van Seenus and Adonis Bosso for Marie Claire.
What was the shoot like?
It went pretty late into the night. It was a great shoot and I loved working with the Art + Commerce team. A couple of days later, I got a call from them with an offer. I had to make the decision between freelancing and the freedom it offered, versus working for a company full time. As a pretty extroverted person I knew it was going to be a big sacrifice, going from meeting with different people every day and being on different sets every day, to being primarily in an office.
But I'm so in love with the company, and the clients and artists are very much in line with the direction that I was interested in, so it felt like it was the next step. I closed my agency, and I thanked everyone I was representing for their support. Some people were definitely not happy.
What was the transition like, from producing on your own to producing for Art + Commerce?
At the beginning, it was really hard because I was so used to doing everything myself. Learning to be a strong delegator was a big part. I didn't recognize how easy and important it was to get the help I needed and used it as motivation to build a killer team. Working with a team of producers I have so much respect for is incredible. It opened my eyes to very different methods of producing and has been a great reminder that there is not a “right way” to produce.
From doing everything on your own to learning to delegate, was it challenging to start trusting people to do some of the work that you were used to doing?
Working with new people is always a leap of faith. I do my best to give my team freedom to do the work I delegate to them, and of course I have my eyes open for red flags if they come up. If I didn’t trust the people I delegate work to, I would only be doing myself a disservice. I find that staying in close contact with my team and on top of the tasks that are due is the most impactful.
What have you found to be the reality of production?
Passion is so valuable and not everyone is passionate. A lot of people just live to work and get by - especially in production. This industry is weird because everyone wants to be in some kind of spotlight, but our role in production is to literally be invisible while making sure everyone else is okay at the same time.
Being a producer is not a role that kids long for when dreaming about growing up. To meet someone who has the interest and goal of being a full time producer is super rare.
Did working as a talent manager prepare you for being a producer?
Oh my god, yes. And so much more than I ever thought it would. In production we have to be ninjas. Right? So our job is to make sure everything's perfect all of the time, keeping eyes that staging remains nicely set, making sure that anyone who needs anything is taken care of; but also to remain unseen.
I have seen people who aren't sure of the appropriate way to interact with the photographer, for example. In the fashion industry, our photographers and stylists are essentially like celebrities, but they're still humans. People can get nervous or starstruck. It sounds so glam, but in the end it's just a bunch of people. It's nothing more than that.
In my previous roles, before Art + Commerce, working very closely with so many artists was an incredible experience. I got to experience who they really are - they're humans who are passionate and usually don't believe in themselves the way that they should. Oftentimes, they need that push to build out their portfolio or to recognize they are good enough to shoot for certain clients, or whatever it is.
Especially with photography, almost every photographer I know is a bit awkward. There's a reason why they’re a photographer and want to be behind the camera. I feel the same way. So I think I'm not phased by the nervousness of celebrity, because I've learned to just see them as people.
For those who don't know, can you give us a breakdown of what Art + Commerce is and how all of the different branches work together?
Art + Commerce is an agency that represents directors, photographers, stylists, hair, and makeup artists. PRODn is their production company where we produce photo and video shoots for many of the artists represented by Art + Commerce. For example, Steven Dam in New York, is the Senior Producer who produces all of Steven Meisel's shoots. In addition to working with the artists we represent, we do sometimes work with photographers outside of Art + Commerce.
How do you decipher which office (between NYC, Paris, LA) gets which job?
It's usually about where the job takes place. We have producers in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris, and for the sake of local production and traveling purposes, amongst several other reasons, it makes sense that the job is usually attributed to the nearest office. Shoots in Europe are produced by PRODn in Europe and oftentimes by our NY team. LA usually handles the Asian market. It's almost always territorial unless a shoot starts off in one city and then moves to another.
So you're the only producer in LA, right?
How does that affect your role as a team member with the rest of PRODn?
Every shoot that we get, depending on the scale of it, is assigned to specific producers to work on and delegate. So I think the way I work with them in LA is probably really similar to how I'd work with them in the NY office, just from a literal distance. If there's a large shoot that's going to be based in LA, often times a producer from New York will be a part of it and we work together to split tasks up. It's typically different producers depending on the client, photographer, and who's available. Because of that, I get to work with everyone in a sense.
Once you're assigned on a job, what are the first steps that you take?
Let's start by saying every single shoot is different; no two shoots are the same. A lot of times the client will come with nothing, no concrete idea or concept. I start with the shoot dates I have to hold and whether it will be in studio or on location. Then I start holding a really light team and make my go-to vendors are aware that I may have a shoot coming up. Then I can start thinking about locations and scouting, holding artists and crew, things like that.
What vendors, besides catering, do you use?
It depends on what it is. If it's a studio shoot, I start by holding the studio and the equipment that's needed for the shoot. If anyone's traveling in, I have to make sure everyone's clear on who's handling those accommodations: hotels, cars, flights roundtrip. If it's a location shoot, there are usually a lot more vendors, for example, we may need to rent restrooms, or motorhomes, security, trash hauling. It really depends.
What's the next step?
Then I can book the teams and artists. I obviously have to create an estimate and get all of that signed off by the client. It’s important to make sure that we’re all on the same page as well. A lot of times locations aren't confirmed yet and the client will give descriptions or photo references of what they're looking for, but we still have to go and scout a ton of different locations, and do extensive file pulls to find the location options that could work best for the client.
Once the location is locked down, we can look into set design, seeing if we need additional vendors, and making sure we are aware of all of the rules for this location; permitting is a big thing. It's very important to submit for permits early enough to get them in time for the shoot, and to book any officers required by Film LA.
There are a lot of little logistics, but because there are so many, as the producer you have to stay on top of them. You're in charge of everything, from handling transportation and accommodations for the team, to making sure wrap dinner reservations are made. There are so many little details. Handling shipments, if wardrobe needs to be received or transferred. Making sure locations are properly protected and renting gators to transport the team up and down tight driveways. Or if we are going between multiple locations we have to manage shuttles and book cars for the talent. We can't leave anyone hanging.
So how do you stay organized with all this information?
A lot of folders.
Physical folders or files on your computer?
I stay organized using digital folders and collect receipts and backup with physical folders. I try to stay as digitally organized as humanly possible. I file my emails based on each respective shoot and every document I receive in a corresponding folder on my desktop. Projects are separated into folders based on if the shoots are in production, wrapping, and completed.
Because your job is to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible, how do you handle mistakes?
With so many people involved in each shoot and elements that are outside of our control, I leave room for error on every shoot. Let's say a vendor makes an error. Yeah, it's frustrating, and we express urgency and can choose situationally whether or not to work with them again. But at the end of the day, the show must go on and we have to make quick, educated decisions with consideration of all parties affected.
On the flip side, when a mistake is made, if there is a clear effort to acknowledge and correct it, showing appreciation for that effort is important to me. If a vendor does make a clear mistake and they don't own up to it, I just won't work with them again.
Another aspect of being a producer, is getting the best deal, how do you bargain with vendors?
I prefer to be really transparent about what I have to work with. I let them know that I value and respect their service and share what I'm able to spend. Long-term, it's not worth it to pressure people to work within budgets they are uncomfortable with. People respect and appreciate loyalty. I notice that by being honest and fair about what I can spend, oftentimes when I really do need help, our vendors are generally willing to do what they can to work within my means. Sometimes it doesn't help enough, and that's where I just have to find ways to cut in other places; that's part of the job.
When you're speaking with the client about the project, how do you deal with seemingly "impossible" asks? Is "impossible" even in your vocabulary?
"Impossible" used to not be in my vocabulary and I'd say that was probably one of my biggest downfalls when starting out as a producer. I think accepting the fact that sometimes things are impossible is a strength that isn’t really talked about. What I've learned that has been most valuable to me in this role is setting expectations. If a client is really clear on, "I want this and this is what I have," and I know I can't give them that, I'm never going to pretend like I can, because in the end everyone would just be let down.
What kind of experience do you strive to create on set?
For me, my goal is to make each shoot as positive of an experience as I can. Behind the scenes, I prepare for the worst and assume something is going to go wrong because if it doesn't, we’re lucky. Nothing is ever perfect and having that attitude has lead to an ease that I kind of just have to maintain. For some producers, it's about making sure everything is perfect, which of course I try to do. But I'm personally more about taking care of the team. So for example, if I know the makeup artist is sick, I'm regularly checking in with them, making sure that they have Advil, water, or whatever they need, and just keeping it discrete. Knowing how to read the situation.
Production is long hours and a lot of teams are close knit, at the same time how do you keep it professional when it needs to be?
My general rule on set is to speak when spoken to. It sounds sad, but it works for me. Unless someone asks me a question about myself, I'm not going to impose my life on them. I don't need to talk just to talk. But then, a lot of times, I’m on set with the same people day after day and they start to open up a bit. At the end of the day, it's just about being human.
Shifting gears, what do you look for in a PA that you're hiring or interviewing?
In production, there is no room for egos. So that's one of the first things I consider. During an interview, I'd give example situations of real scenarios that either have come up in production or are likely to come up on any shoot and if there seems to be hesitation, then it's not worth the risk. A lot of times, it's trial and error. I've interviewed people where they seemed like they would be a perfect fit, and it just wasn't.
That's where the loyalty comes in, the people who show consistency are always the first phone call because I know that they're going to come to set, do a great job, and I'm not going to have to worry about them. The last thing that a producer wants is to micromanage their PAs; we have enough that we're thinking about. It also boils down to passion - if someone seems like they're excited and interested in being involved, I'm open.
What's the best piece of advice you've received?
My mom used to tell me as a kid in school to “Leave room for error” when I had assignments coming up. This line of advice didn’t really speak to me then but it strongly resonates with me regularly now when I’m in production.
Full-time job aside, you dabble in photography on the side as "Kit & Clay", can you tell us about that?
"Kit & Clay" is a collaboration between me and my boyfriend, Clay. It's more of a passion project. I feel so lucky that I got to meet this person who loves to create and that we have that in common. Our way of working together is so seamless that we can essentially be two people with one final piece of work. What's cool and fun about it is that sometimes I miss being an agent, in the sense of getting to network and get people jobs. I see that in the future for Clay. We're still in such a growing phase with it.
What do you like about the industry today?
This is probably the biggest struggle for me in this industry; there is a slight lack of fulfillment. But what I really like right now about the industry is that, finally, there is a voice for the greater good.
Can I tell you what I hate about the industry? I hate how fake the lifestyle it sells is. No one looks like the pictures. I think the fashion industry is incredibly detrimental to young women in their image. So what do I like right now? I like that CVS is refusing to advertise with any photos that are retouched, you know? I like that some companies aren't selling fur anymore. I like that there are people who recognize this and want to make a difference. It's not super prominent right now, possibly because those people are still young or up-and-coming, but I think change for the greater good is going to happen.
I feel unfulfilled because I feel like there is still an impact to be made. We have the voice to make it, there are ways to be sustainable, care about the world, and send beautiful positive messages through these campaigns.
What's your take on the generation that's coming up in the industry today?
I'm so inspired. I'm inspired by the up and coming artists that are discovering themselves and pushing the line. I think that it's really cool that there are people who have a big picture idea and don't see themselves as victims in their fight to achieve it.
The beginning is always really hard from learning to perfect the craft, to the countless hours of portfolio building which naturally leads to exhaustion and self doubt. But I'm seeing a lot more people power through that and I think we're growing a stronger youth; the skin is getting thicker but in a beautiful way. I'm seeing so much collaboration and so much rejection, but that's the part that is cool. No one is giving up.
Where do you see yourself going?
I’m not sure and that’s my favorite part about life! I could see myself possibly getting into television and film. I like growing, you know what I mean? I don't like staying stagnant, I think what I love the most about life, in general, is not knowing anything, not knowing what's going to happen next. Or knowing that you could be having a horrible day, but that tomorrow, or even in a couple hours everything could change.
So what advice do you have for someone who looks up to you?
My advice would be to just be yourself and trust wherever your path leads you. I truly believe that life leads you to where you need to be, when you need to be there.
My deal is that I'm super into not comparing yourself; I don't believe anyone has the same journey. So I think if people are like, "Oh, how do I get to where Danielle is at?”, I wouldn't even want to advise on how to do that, because it feels unfair to say that there is a path.
My intention wasn't to become a producer, but I like fell in love with it, you know what I mean? So I think that there are a lot of ways to get here. It can either be by accident or planning it out. I personally just said "yes" to everything that came my way.