TIFF 2022 was one of the buzziest in recent memory, with the return to a full theatrical experience and a slate of great Canadian programming that included 17 films made by DGC Ontario Members. In the newest edition of our Member x Member series, Production Manager and DGC Ontario Production Caucus Rep Moe Rai sits down with fellow PMs Kim Yu (Love Jacked, Pretty Hard Cases) and Jessica Cheung (The Man From Toronto, Flint Strong) to talk about their careers, what makes a great PM, the importance of communication and collaboration, and more. Both Kim and Jessica worked their PM magic on two of the most talked-about Canadian films at TIFF 2022: The Swearing Jar and Women Talking.
Moe Rai: Tell us how you became a Production Manager. What was your journey like?
Kim Yu: I was really shy as a kid, and pretty obsessed with television. I did a lot of writing but didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. My mom, who was very supportive of me, ended up letting me visit LA. I visited the set of Moonlighting and Scarecrow and Mrs. King when I was a teenager, and that actually gave me the confidence to start figuring out my future. When I got back to Canada, I started freelance writing, and I met somebody who got me into advertising. From advertising, I went into stand-up comedy publicity and then movie publicity. I did a lot of work as a publicist, so I could really see things on the distribution side. That’s how I first got into the industry, and from there, I transitioned into becoming a Production Manager.
Jessica Cheung: When I was in high school, I saw a grade 12 student’s grad video. I was intrigued, like, “How did she do this?” I had all these questions, so I decided to go to film camp one spring break to see if this was something I actually enjoyed doing, and I really did! From that point on, I went to UBC for their film production program and started working in the industry right after I graduated. One of my classmates in university, his dad was a PM, and at the time, they had this IATSE internship program that had just started. My classmate’s dad asked if I wanted to do the office internship, and I said absolutely. At the same time, I also Location PA’d to get my days and get into the DGC. I had a lot of luck and met some great people in school, and then when I PA’d, I met even more great people.
Moe: I also came from Locations. Before I became a PM, I made it a goal to actually volunteer or work in each department to learn what they do because I felt that that was going to help me understand their jobs, understand my job, and how to help them with theirs. Both of you came from different backgrounds before becoming a PM. Did you find that useful?
Kim: I think it’s been helpful coming from the distribution side and seeing how the script comes to fruition. When I was working in distribution, I also had to do a lot of the marketing and EPKs (Electronic Press Kits), and that’s what brought me onto a film set. That’s when I started learning about the different departments, because when you’re doing these little documentaries on the production of a film, you get to meet every department head and see what they’re doing. It was really helpful for me, and that’s why I decided to get into production and become a PM. I felt very fortunate, like Jessica, to meet supportive people throughout my career.
Jessica: I always tell people who want to be PMs to go out there and learn what other departments do. I was a Locations PA, and I worked in the Camera Department for a while because I thought I maybe wanted to do that. I also volunteered as a Grip, and Electric, in every different department. I tried each role out to see what they did and get a better perspective of everyone’s job. I think as a PM, it’ll help you do your job because then you have a better understanding of each department and what its limitations are. Because every show has limitations, whether it’s budget or manpower or anything else.
Moe: Do you prefer working on projects in specific genres? What about being a PM on shows versus features – is there a difference?
Kim: It’s always nice to work on a show that has money. [Laughs] But having fewer resources and a smaller budget makes you more creative. You’re always trying to find different ways to solve problems that you can’t just throw money at, for lack of a better term. I also think as a PM, you get the opportunity to pitch in a little more on the smaller projects. On larger projects, there are also complications, because when you have more resources, you have more people, and you’re managing a lot more. So I think I don’t really have a favourite genre or budget level. I think it’s more about understanding the challenges of what each genre and each budget level brings. And obviously, working with competent and kind people helps make things go smoothly!
Jessica: If it’s something dear to your heart, like a passion project, or you just love everyone who’s involved, or whatever the case may be, it can definitely make a big difference.
Kim: I think there’s less time to gel on a feature because a series is a longer period of working time. I find there’s more leeway in a series – as long as you balance the budget in the end, then you’re okay. Whereas with a feature, it’s like, “this is your budget,” and you don’t always get that opportunity to juggle like you would on a series.
Jessica: I tend to work mostly on a mix of Canadian and US features, and I do like the format of it more. In the US, there’s definitely more money to play with, but I mean, whether you’re doing a $100 million movie versus a $1 million movie, you’re always asking for more money, so that part doesn’t change too much, unfortunately. I think everyone on smaller projects has the same mindset of, “how can we do this for what we have, and let’s figure out the best way to do it.”
Moe: How do you find creative solutions to challenging budget situations on your productions?
Kim: I think it’s really about collaboration. You pull the team together and discuss what options there are to make it work. It’s not like you can just get more money. It’s about trying to encourage the department heads to work together and come up with a solution. That’s my go-to, because it’s a collaborative art form. I like to get everybody involved and say, “Okay, let’s pull together. Where can we cut? What options do we have? Are we willing to compromise a little to make it work for the budget that we have?”
Moe: Both projects you’ve recently worked on screened at TIFF: Jessica with Women Talking and Kim with The Swearing Jar. So congratulations! How do you feel about such success?
Kim: It really is a team effort. I’m really happy to be able to see the film with an audience. The Swearing Jar is a musical and a romance, and I think it’s going to be great to see it with an audience on the big screen.
Jessica: I’m always excited when one of the films I work on plays TIFF because obviously, it’s where I live, and especially for Women Talking because it was directed by Sarah Polley. I feel like it’s such a Toronto film, and we had such a great group of local crew on board that all wanted to make this movie with Sarah. To me, it’s a huge tribute to the great local crew that we have in Toronto.
Kim: I really agree with you there. We have such great crews here in Toronto. And I have to say that the team on The Swearing Jar was wonderful. It was one of my best experiences working on a feature, because everyone really pulled together.
Moe: That’s so good to hear. We need to celebrate ourselves more! We have really great talent, from writers to showrunners to PMs, all the department heads. That’s why I love TIFF, because it really spotlights Canadian projects and Canadian filmmakers. What excites you about TIFF? What does TIFF mean to you?
Kim: I think TIFF is a time to celebrate the art of film and the filmmakers. This year I’m hoping to be able to catch a couple of movies. One that I’m excited about (other than The Swearing Jar and Women Talking, obviously) is Chevalier, directed by Stephen Williams, who is a Torontonian. I actually worked on his first film Soul Survivor, which was at TIFF decades ago. He moved to the States and started getting into television, and now he’s finally back after 27 years.
Jessica: I love TIFF because I get to celebrate and see my colleagues’ and friends’ work on the big screen, and sometimes some of these films don’t get to play in theatres, especially if it’s a small indie film.
Moe: What kind of specific organizational process do you like to follow? What’s your day-to-day like on a production?
Kim: I tend to make a lot of lists.
Moe: You’re a list maker? Do you do post-its, and then your room is full of post-it notes?
Kim: Yeah, and all over the desk and the computer? I just like to make lists, and I do have a notebook. I still believe in long-form writing, because I feel that it makes me focus better. I’m not a big “let’s have long meetings” type of person. I would rather have an update in the morning, maybe one at the end of the day, just to know what we’ve accomplished. Sometimes I like to try and make it to set over the tail end of the lunch hour as well, just to have a quick little meeting with the ADs and make sure we’re on track.
Jessica: I do lots of lists, lots of post-its, all over the desk. It gets ridiculous. [Laughs] I think it’s different on a day-to-day basis, depending on whether it’s the prep or shooting period. When we’re shooting, I try to go earlier in the day to check in with people on set and then go back to the office to do paperwork. I like to see if there are things we can deal with early, and then come up with solutions, so it doesn’t become a bigger issue. If there are any issues. Hopefully, there aren’t!
Moe: I really agree with you both; visiting the set is important. I don’t think I can be just an office PM. I meet every department, and I do my rounds, just like in a hospital. It’s good to foresee things happening because our job is to find problems and solve them before they become bigger.
Jessica: Like Kim, I am much more of a paper person. I know we’re supposed to be more environmentally friendly, but I need to have paper copies of my actual work reports because I will refer to those all the time. So yeah, I’m a paper person. Even though we’re transitioning into a digital world.
Moe: It’s so much easier to just keyword search on a PDF file than going through paper.
Jessica: I don’t know, there’s just something about that feel of the paper!
Moe: Speaking of environmental initiatives, as we talked about, we use a lot of paper, we use a lot of electricity, and we produce a lot of pollution like garbage and other waste. What do you do on your productions to make them more environmentally friendly, even on a smaller scale when you don’t have a lot of budget for it?
Jessica: With most of my productions, we do have a green initiative program that the studio mandates for us. Even for a show that doesn’t have that mandate, whenever we have extra flats or something, we always try to donate them to another show that may need them, or sell or donate them. We never want to just dump them into a bin and be like, “Okay, moving on.” The crew is very receptive. They want to help, they’re giving us ideas. I know on our last show, the COVID department discovered these mask recycling boxes that you can purchase, where people recycle their masks, and they get mailed off. I didn’t know those existed prior to this show.
Kim: On small productions that don’t necessarily have the budget for better generators or things like that, it’s looking for the little things we can do, like using reusable water bottles. I find crews are really receptive to the idea of greener practices. I think we all know that we’re very fortunate to work in this industry, where we have so much, and there’s often a lot of excesses, so we want to make sure that the green initiatives work out on every project. If I could do a shameless promotion here, a few of my colleagues and I started a little nonprofit initiative called The Clothes Off Our Racks a few years ago. Anybody who has leftover clothing from a production can call us, and we collect all of these clothes and donate them to charities. These charities turn everything around in two to three weeks, and those clothes are out there helping other people.
Moe: That’s amazing.
Kim: And again, that’s The Clothes Off Our Racks!
Jessica: That’s awesome. We always end up calling all these different places asking if we can donate to them.
Kim: One of your folks on Women Talking did donate to us, I might add, and those clothes went out to a number of charities. So thank you!
Moe: How did the pandemic affect your day-to-day life as a Production Manager?
Kim: Having a COVID Supervisor certainly helped us out, and we were able to work together and make sure all the protocols were followed and people were safe. I think COVID really affected communication, and it was more difficult to get things done in a timely fashion. I remember sitting there and doing call after call on Zoom, which was really strange. I prefer to see people and have them in front of me in person.
Jessica: Communication definitely got the worst of it, I would say, in our job. Collaboration was different between crew members, and it gave us this extra layer of stress running through our heads every single day. Thank God there are COVID Supervisors! I do think that now, especially after dealing with COVID for the last two and a half years, everyone’s on board, and they put in the effort to work in a safe environment. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were one of the few industries that went back to work ASAP, so I feel like we’re very lucky.
Moe: Personally, the pandemic taught me the importance of work-life balance. Because of everything that we’re absorbing as PMs, all the problems and stresses from every department, you really need additional support and time to recover. How do you achieve your work-life balance?
Kim: I’m still working on that. I always enjoy throwing myself into my work, but lately, because of COVID and other things, I’ve had to take a break. This past year, I’ve tried to balance my work-life components, so I’ve taken up Muay Thai. I think it helps with stress. I also try and go for more walks and spend time outside, especially with the nice summer weather, and especially on weekends, when I feel less compelled to look at emails. I think it’s important to take a little bit of time to step away. But on the other hand, because we’re PMs, we don’t always have that opportunity. We’re probably the first call when there’s an issue. My phone is always on. If you’re actively working on a production, it’s difficult to step away. You just have to find pockets of time for yourself, whether that’s on the weekend or it’s after or before work or taking vacations when possible.
Jessica: I’m like Kim. I’m a workaholic.
Moe: Do you have to be a workaholic to be a PM?
Jessica: I love it. My phone is always on when I’m working. I’m on vacation, and my phone is still on. But as Kim said, if you can take time off and go somewhere socially, after not being able to go very far for the past couple of years, it’s a great way to clear your head in a different environment. I used to do more baking, which helped me a lot. It’s a little harder to do that when we’re in production.
Moe: Kim, I know that you’re a Production Department Caucus rep within the DGC Ontario Diversity & Inclusion community. Why did you first get involved with the committee?
Kim: One of the main reasons I got involved with the D&I committee is because I think it’s time for people to realize that it’s an important initiative. Diversity is not always first on people’s minds. I do notice now, thankfully, we do have more diversity on our film sets. When I first started in the industry, I didn’t see as many Asian faces or Black or Brown faces. Now that we can offer more opportunities for people of colour, I think we need to keep that going in order to sustain the industry. DGC Ontario Members Teresa Ho and Luis Mendoza are the Co-Chairs, and they have great ideas and really galvanized us. I think it’s really important that people recognize that this isn’t just about saving face, for lack of a better word. It’s about time we do something.
Moe: It’s interesting, the knowledge and experience that I’ve gained in the past few years, coming as an immigrant from Syria. My parents chose Canada because they knew how diverse it was, and when we first immigrated here, we would look around and see that diversity. But now I’m hearing people’s stories and seeing things on a deeper level. That inspired me to work more on industry diversity, training and coaching, and helping others to climb the ladder as well. I am a big believer in training and giving everyone resources to support and lift them up. What do you do to bring more diverse skills or crew to your productions?
Jessica: Training is one of the biggest things I think we should push for. On the last couple of productions, we have really pushed diversity for crew members, and I love meeting these new faces and bringing them on board. Some have never been on a film shoot before or only had a chance to work on a short film. Giving them the opportunity to see what we do and see what other departments do is great, because some of them are still trying to figure out their careers. And if we’re shooting on stage one day, we’ll give them the opportunity to check it out. I think doing these things is so important to help grow the community.
Kim: I’ve been lucky to have worked on a few productions that have made a concerted effort to hire BIPOC and give people opportunities they may not have had before. Just watching people experiencing what it’s like to work on a film set for the first time, or learning the skills that they need to work in each department. Most of the younger folks that I’ve worked with are still trying to learn and don’t always know exactly what path they want to take. I think it’s great that we’re able to show them that they belong here too.
Moe: Coming from a BIPOC community, have you found it hard to climb the ladder? I had to change my name to Moe from my legal Syrian name, and I felt that that opened doors for me. Travelling was also challenging because of my Syrian passport. I had all these things on my mind along with PMing a production, so it was very difficult in the beginning, but I met good people in the industry that actually believed in me and believed in nurturing my skills.
Jessica: I was very lucky, and I had the opportunity to meet people that put their faith in me and gave me opportunities. Sometimes I get that vibe sometimes from people I’ve never worked with, who are like, “who’s this young-looking Asian woman?” But I always want to prove myself and that I can do the job. I do feel like when I first started in the industry, there weren’t many BIPOC people, and coming from an Asian background, my parents did not know what I was doing. They still don’t know. They’re like, “you’re doing film and TV? Is that a job? How does this work? Do you make money?”
Moe: Is there any advice that you would give to new PMs or trainees, or people who just joined the Guild?
Kim: It’s important to communicate and be willing to compromise. The other advice I would give is to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I know, it sounds very trite. But you have to be able to see what a person’s needs are, whether they’re the Producer or the department head, and then you’ll recognize what their problems are. The last thing is just to be grateful. Whatever position you’re in, we’re very fortunate to be working in this industry. If you’re grateful, you’ll work harder, and you’ll recognize the challenges other people have. If you don’t like your job, and you don’t want to be there, and it’s just a job to you, you’re not going to be a good PM. You have to be invested. You have to care.
Jessica: I agree. Our jobs are so hard if you don’t care. I always ask people who want to become PMs, do you have set experience? Do you have office experience? You should get experience in both environments. One of the most important things for me as a PM is listening. At the end of the day, I don’t really want to say no to people. I want to try to say yes, as much as possible. But I know we have parameters and budget constraints, and that’s where the collaboration comes into play. A huge part of being a PM is listening to the crew, hearing them out, and learning why they need what they need. And I think if you’re not a person with the patience for listening, it’s going to be very difficult.
Moe: What misconceptions do you think PMs face?
Jessica: We’re not trying to be the “no person”. We’re just trying to be fair and make sure the show is completed smoothly and that everyone will be happy with it. That’s usually our goal. I think there’s also a misconception that we have more power, in the sense of having the final say on something a crew member wants. But going back to what we talked about originally, it’s a conversation we need to have, and I don’t think any of us want to say no. PMs try to look out for everyone’s best interests because we are responsible for the crew, whether it’s safety or the hours we’re doing that day, especially during COVID. We’re all wearing these masks, we’re going to take breaks, we got this. We’re going to make this better for the crew and make sure that they’re happy and productive working in this environment.
Kim: I think people have this misconception that we aren’t looking at the overall big picture, even though we do. One department head’s concern is very valid, and it’s certainly important. That doesn’t discount another department head’s concerns. We’re not playing favourites, we want to make sure that the money goes on the screen and make sure that the creative is adhered to.
Moe: Where do you see yourself five years from now? What projects do you want to be working on?
Kim: I’m hoping to do more series, and I have a couple of my own projects that I’m developing. I would be happy to take a little bit more time for myself and take a vacation. Probably Italy, France, you know, a little villa somewhere for a good couple of months, at least.
Jessica: I know this is gonna sound crazy, but I have a soft spot for big action films. So I would really love to be somewhere in the world working on a big action movie. Marvel, Star Wars, I’ll do Jurassic World 14. I don’t care.
For even more great TIFF 2022 content, check out DGC Ontario Creatives On How it Feels To Be Back At TIFF and our roundup of the 20 films and series at TIFF made with the invaluable contributions of DGC Ontario Members.