Charlotte Manning cut her teeth at Scott Rudin Productions, a job she landed thanks to her savvy Linkedin networking skills. Since then, she’s assisted showrunners, line producers, and directors. Today, she works as the Director’s Assistant on Netflix’s "From Scratch", executively produced by Reese Witherspoon and Zoe Sadana. Though she came to the position in a very roundabout way, her career has been nothing if not immersive. From being 42 binders-deep into research to making sure she knows who’s who on the roster (and who their agent is)—Charlotte’s position means she’s always engaged in an ongoing game of scheduling Tetris.
We spoke to Charlotte about reviewing Lady Bird script revisions, spending an entire month in a library for research’s sake, and managing industry-standard stress levels. We also chatted to her about directing and producing her own short film, Sheltered, and why a story has to have heart.
This interview took place over the phone between Makena Gera in Boston and Charlotte Manning in Los Angeles, and was edited by Duc Dinh with an introduction by Lyzbeth Lara.
MG: How did you get where you are today?
CM: I went to NYU Tisch for film and television production.
The first internship that pivoted my career was working at Scott Rudin Productions, during my junior year at NYU. I knew I wanted to work for Scott because I respected the quality of his work, so I went onto LinkedIn to find the current assistants at the company. Turned out, I had mutual friends via NYU with the executive assistant at the time, so I reached out and he got me an interview.
I started as an intern there and worked my way up to an assistant. I learned more from working there than I could have at NYU because it offered me a window into how a producer functions as well as how to manage 40 projects at once while still giving each the attention they deserve. From reading a script to hopping on the phone with the writer the next day and giving notes that are so acute, thoughtful, and perceptive—that was a big deal for me to be able to see a producer talk with the talent and be able to create these projects from the ground up.
That sounds like a great first experience to have.
Of course, it wasn’t without challenges—the hours from 6 AM to midnight to on-call weekends to the non-stop emails—but you have to look at the bigger picture and what you're learning from it.
The people that you’re meeting are so important: from your team members, other assistants, to agents, and talent all playing a part in each individual project… those people are your tools for the future. Your coworkers, whom you’re spending hours on end with, are your collaborators, your allies. I saw assistants come in with the mentality that they could survive on their own two feet, without collaboration, and those are the ones that would fail. A big part of it is just leaning on one another when you need to.
But when you’re working that many hours, there’s a lot of stress involved. It can be very emotional working in production, which can be challenging, but that has been an industry standard for a long time…it's a bit hard to undo all of that. We’re not performing surgery, but at the same time, it feels like the stress that you would see in the ER. We have to remind ourselves that no one's going to die if we don't have this one call right now.
The real challenge is managing your own stress, and understanding that if you do something wrong, it's not the end of the world. You take it and process it, and you move on. Don't beat yourself up for it too much. You've got to remind yourself in any situation that you're learning from it.
What are some of the responsibilities that you had day-to-day there?
I started as an intern and worked my way up to assistant, so my responsibilities spanned quite a bit. Starting out, you're doing runs, errands, and administrative tasks, then you work into script comparisons, coverage, and more things on the development side.
As an assistant, there was a lot of scheduling involved—it really was a game of Tetris. Along with prepping materials for each project, and potential incoming projects.
At that particular production company, each project required dense research. There was one month where I went to the library every single day researching Jerome Robbins. A lot of those old materials you can't find online, you have to go to the library. One time, we sent Scott [Rudin] 42 research binders, to the point that his kitchen counter was covered in them.
Wow, that's intense.
It's a lot but there's a part of doing research that is fun and fascinating. It makes you enjoy the project more because then, you have a deeper understanding of it.
You were involved in the production of mid90s (2018), Annihilation (2018), and Lady Bird (2017). What was your role in those?
I remember when the first drafts of those scripts came into the office.
For Lady Bird, I had the opportunity to listen in on calls with Greta [Gerwig] about her progress and any producer notes she was given. Then, we’d dig into script comparisons once script revisions were made. During production, we weren't ever on set, but we had to make sure that things were running smoothly. Once we got to post, we’d have to decipher producer notes from each screening. It's a lot of behind-the-scenes work and observation.
You left Scott Rudin, where did you go after that?
I left Rudin for The Gersh Agency. I worked for Leah Hamos in the Theatre/Literature Department for a year. I still had the desire to go into production, but I wanted to see another side of the industry. At Gersh, I was learning other sides of the agency that people in production would have never seen—I was able to grasp a fuller picture of the industry.
I loved my time at Gersh, particularly working for Leah and the assistants I befriended along the way, but still felt a bit trapped in the office and knew I wanted to go into production.
I left it and was a little lost, in terms of my next steps. I didn't know how to get into the production world at that point. I had all this industry experience but to start as a Production Assistant (PA) in production felt like taking a big step back. But at the end of the day, you've just got to suck it up and realize that you're starting over again, in a way.
What happened next?
My first project in production was as a showrunner's assistant on a Michael Moore project. After that, I had another long hiatus, until I got the opportunity to work as a PA on Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk (HBO Max). That led to a job as a PA on the show Inventing Anna (Netflix).
I went on to work for the Executive Producer, Celia Costas, on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film, Tick, Tick…Boom! (Netflix). That was an incredible experience because it felt as though the cosmos had blessed our cast and crew. It was as if the stars aligned and brought together a beautiful team who all worked well together.
During the making of Tick, Tick…Boom! Celia gave me a great analogy for filmmaking: It’s like giving birth. It’s painful and exhausting, but once it’s all over, you forget the pain and you are proud of what you’ve created. Then, you want to do it all over again.
That’s a great analogy! What are you up to now?
Now, I'm working as a director's assistant on From Scratch (Netflix) [executively produced by Reese Witherspoon and Zoe Saldana]. For years, I've known that I wanted to work for a female director, and it feels good to finally be there. Even though it's been a long journey, I am thankful for the opportunities that I've had leading up to this role. If I had just started as a director's assistant, I wouldn't have the well-rounded experience and understanding of all the other aspects of the industry that I do now.
Those experiences allowed me to see how the entire production works from the first draft to bringing cast on board, the relationship between producers and agents, hiring production crew, and into production.
On this current project, I'll get to be with the director through post. So, I’ll be able to see the director’s relationship with the editor, and how she communicates her vision to advance each cut until we reach the final product. This will be my first time seeing the director make her way through the entire show—pre-production, into production, then finally through post.
Congratulations! Can you share more about the director's assistant role? What are your daily tasks?
It varies quite a bit, depending on what stage of each project you’re in. I’ll be working with this director through the entire year on multiple different projects. Again, as an assistant, scheduling is a huge part of our job, but what’s fun about being a director’s assistant is that you get to work closely with the 1st AD (Assistant Director) throughout pre-production to plan out the necessary meetings prior to our shoot dates.
Pre-production also requires a lot of notetaking and research. I essentially act as the director’s right-hand and follow her journey throughout this project [Netflix's From Scratch].
The biggest way that I'm learning is absorbing all the information from the Zoom calls and being able to be a fly on the wall. Normally during non-COVID times, these would be closed-door meetings, so you’re not able to learn as much as an assistant because you're not in the room. Now, I get to be in the room where it happens —for table reads, tone meetings, department meetings, etc.—and see how each meeting helps the project evolve into production.
There are obviously more cons of COVID-19 than there are pros, but it’s given me a window to see the whole evolution of a production.
You have to find the silver linings during these times. Did you know from the beginning before you went to Tisch that production and film were what you wanted to do?
I've always been drawn to it because I grew up with my dad who was a screenwriter. For me, reading his scripts was a big part of getting to know him, since he passed away in 2005. Every project I do, I feel a little bit closer to him. When I write, I feel closer to him, and I feel his presence. In a way, I’m chasing him.
My relationship with my dad has been a big part of my relationship with Film and TV Production. On one hand, it's a relationship that I'm building with my dad through my work, but on the other, it's also an intuitive part of me that I’ve been drawn to since I was young. I enjoy it—the long hours, exhaustion, and all. You have to.
I just know that this is what I'm here to do. I feel very at home and comfortable in the space.
That's so beautiful that you can connect with your dad that way.
In the year after he passed away, I would go into his office at our old home where we kept all his notebooks. I would read his scripts and watch the realized work at the same time. I’d pause, read the script to compare the difference between what's on the page and what's on-screen and repeat that process through the whole film.
What inspires the stories that you tell in your work?
Again, it's an intuition thing. I think it's important for every project you work on to have a heart to it—that was a big thing with Lady Bird. It was Greta's personal story, so there was a lot of heart there, and you could feel that the whole way. Tick, Tick… Boom! also had that heart to it because it was a combination of Jonathan Larson’s personal story, and the impact Jonathan Larson had on Lin-Manuel Miranda as an artist. And now, on From Scratch, we’re working with Tembi Locke’s deeply personal story. It humanizes the work.
For the stories I choose to focus on in my own writing and directing, there’s always something that intuitively draws me to them. It may sound strange, but it’s what reels me in and keeps me wanting to know more, do my own research, and share the story with the world. There may be pieces of it that I connect with and can relate to.
Often, I start with a clear visual of one particular scene, and then it bubbles from there. If I hear a story and can really picture one significant moment in my head, that’s when the lightbulb goes off.
What was that moment or that story for your film, Sheltered? Where did that come from?
Sheltered was my thesis film for NYU. The idea was seeded when one of my friends from elementary school happened to text me when she was visiting the city. We hadn’t seen each other in years, so we cracked open a bottle of wine and started rehashing what we had missed from each other’s lives. I was asking her how the past year had been for her, and she started telling me this story. It all kind of spilled out.
I looked at her and said, “We have to tell this story.” Luckily, she felt the same and said, “I'm so glad that you said that. I feel like the reason that it happened is because I need to share it with other people,” particularly because it’s typically a “hush-hush” topic.
After that, I had to figure out how comfortable she felt being attached to the project, what level of involvement she wanted to have, if she wanted her name on it...We had to talk through all these different parts because it is so personal. It’s still hard to talk about mental health, but at the same time, it was a story that she felt could help heal other people.
We began the writing process by interviewing her. She also sent me essays that she had written about the experience. On set, if there was any uncertainty of how her room in the psych ward would look, what materials were or weren’t allowed, or other details about the space, I would give her a call to stay authentic to her experience. She’d give me her input on all the details. It was important to me to stay authentic to her story.
How did the production process work out? How did you go from there to funding to casting and everything else?
Well, funding was terrible [laughs]. We crowdfunded with Kickstarter. We shared it on social media and begged people to donate. That was not easy for me because I had never done that before. Thankfully, we met our goal, but even then, it's crazy how the money just flies out the window in production.
Once we met our crowdfunding goal, it was able to become a little bit more fun. We were really able to start booking flights, equipment, picking cast, wardrobe, etc. We were able to do more of the creative work.
When you're making a short film and you're directing it with a small budget, you have to be a producer at the same time. The balance of that is hard because you want to have the time to do all the creative parts of it but it's also highly stressful balancing the logistics of everything.
Our location was a big problem. We were trying to look for a place in New Orleans that could be used as a psychiatric hospital. And at the time, even in 2017, there was still a lot of damage from Katrina to many of the locations we were scouting. We had landed on a location in New Orleans, but then a network show filming in Nola ended up booking the location—paying a lot more than we were able to!
Two weeks before filming, we were able to find a place through a friend of a friend. It was an hour away from Baton Rouge, and the staff there was extremely helpful—there were technicians of the actual hospital who were supervising and helping us. They even let us use some furniture in their warehouse for our set dressing. That was a blessing. But that happened two weeks before production, we were scrambling.
Then, we flew out our core crew and one cast member. The rest of our cast and crew was hired locally. That was great because they had a better lay of the land than we did. It was also nice to be able to collaborate and bring these two different communities of people together. The film world in New Orleans is pretty tight, so it was nice to see their world and how that differs from the New York film scene.
What was the process of hiring the local cast and crew like?
We first found our casting directors out in New Orleans. They were a big part of casting everyone locally. We started doing that a few months before filming and got most of our cast.
The one person that we were looking for up until the last minute was our supporting female lead, Jorie. We just hadn’t found the one yet. Then, a week before filming we saw Abigail Achiri’s tape and flipped out. She was perfect. That was the last piece, but it was a big piece we were missing.
Abigail lives in Texas, so we were figuring out how to get her [to New Orleans] and she was such a trooper, she came on a bus from Texas. She was still in school, so she'd do homework between scenes.
Then maybe like a month out from production, we started getting our first ACs (Assistant Camera), gaffers, and electric—though some we didn't find until like two weeks out. We also had other people help us find equipment houses, where to rent camera/lighting, and things like that.
Can you walk us through the post-production process of it?
That was actually a really big learning curve for me. At that point, I had just graduated, and NYU was really good about helping you throughout the entire production process, but not when it comes to post-production. I found that a lot of my friends at NYU were having the same problem. Their films also sat in this weird in-between—they weren't finished or ready to be shared with the world. We didn't know how to get there.
I had this unfinished film since graduation, and I had sat on it for a year or two until I moved forward with the post-production process. I think I underestimated it a lot. I thought, "Oh, I can just edit it. It doesn't really need that much sound design or color correction."
I felt stuck for a really long time—I sat on the project for much longer than I should have, just because I didn't know the proper steps to take for post-production—until I started asking friends about their post-production process and for recommendations on a good colorist and a sound designer.
Now that I have been through it once, I think from the very beginning, I would bring on an editor and a sound designer to talk through everything beforehand and make a good game plan for once we've wrapped so that the film wouldn't just sit there forever.
People don't really talk about post-production that much. It's often just the casting and filming.
You want your editor and your sound designer to be able to know the tone and understand the story to the level that everyone on the production did when you were actually filming it. It's often overlooked, but it's so important.
I know that Sheltered is making its way through the festival circuit right now. Can you elaborate on that experience?
I wanted to introduce myself to the inner workings of the festival circuit before I began submitting my film.
I started by making a list of the festivals that I wanted to submit to and looking at short films that I admired to see which festivals they got into, where they submitted. I also personally tried to go to more festivals and reached out to friends who had worked there to learn more about the experience and understand more about how the festival world works.
It's still a learning process, I'm still figuring it out myself, honestly. Because not all the festivals are open at the same time and yet, some need premiere status [for showing the film], so there's that whole caveat you have to work around.
You have to figure out when exactly you want to start submitting your film, what time of year, what your top priorities are, in regard to where it gets in. It's also been an extremely strange year to submit to festivals because of COVID—everything is online. Even when you get into a festival, you can't attend physically, so it's definitely less dramatic than it normally would be—but it's exciting, nonetheless.
Where do you hope to go next?
I definitely want to direct again, whether that be a short or a feature. I have grown a lot as a director since Sheltered. If I were to direct it today, it would be a very different film. As much as I thought at the time that I had really found my vision and my voice, I have developed a lot more, and I think I would have a lot more fun with it than I did.
It’s all a balance between the work that I do as an assistant and working on projects of my own—I'm still trying to figure out exactly how to do that in a healthy way. But another silver lining of COVID is you can't really leave your house, so I have a lot more time to write and get back to that creative mindset in between projects at work. I really haven’t had the opportunity to do that since leaving NYU.
You’ve sprinkled advice into all your answers so far. Do you have one final piece of advice for anyone who’s coming up in the same position looking to do the same things you've done?
Be patient, enjoy the process and the journey. If they are going the assistant route, really listen carefully, observe everything that's around you. You can learn so much from your surroundings in your environment and that is the biggest tool.
As an assistant, you want to make sure that you're reading all of the materials that you're working on at the time, listen in on every conversation you can, know who's working on the project. For example, Production Designers, DP (Director of Photography), Costumer—anyone that's on the project, just in case they call in. You don't want to brush anyone off. It’s good to know who their agents are as well—there's a lot of homework that comes with it.
It’s easy to get caught up in early mornings and late nights and how tired you are. But if you are able to enjoy the process, the friends, and the people around you, that will be a huge asset.
A sneak peek of Charlotte's favorite tunes to listen to on set:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Charlotte Manning + Coco McDermott + Emma Newbern
Special thanks to Polaroid