Industry Pro: Film Researcher Sally Charette
When YII heard about this unique position, we were intrigued. Sally is an example of someone who has truly found her calling, in a job she didn’t even know existed until days before her interview for the job. As you can see from the below interview, in her own words, ten years later she is still passionate about what she does.
Current position: I’ve been working on “CSI: Miami” (CBS) for seven years, since its first season, and now I also work on “Army Wives” (Lifetime). I recently worked on HANNAH MONTANA: THE MOVIE, and am currently doing research for the upcoming feature films FAIR GAME and LETTERS TO JULIET.
College & degree: UCLA — B.A. in English/Creative Writing
First job in the entertainment industry: Transcribing audio tapes from the early reality TV show, “Rescue 911.”
Big break: I was working in acquisitions in the UCLA Library system when I had dinner with college friend who had started a new job as a lawyer for CBS. When she told me about the type of work she was doing, I was fascinated and excited. She said she’d check and see if the company they contracted with was hiring.
I had an interview with Carolyn Plumb of Marshall/Plumb Research Associates within days. The computer and research skills I’d used to find rare books for the library, my knowledge of Lexus/Nexus, and my general enthusiasm for pop culture helped qualify me for this unique job. Carolyn was a little worried that, being a literature major, I might find reading TV and movie scripts excruciating, but when I confessed that I have a soft spot in my head for disaster films, she knew I’d do all right. Knowing that it would only grow harder to leave the great benefits at UCLA, I jumped on the chance to do more creative work.
Eureka moment: As soon as I heard about this job, I knew I’d be great at it. I started playing around online when there were only BBS dial-up boards, and I was excited about being able to use the Internet even more. I’d been here about a week when one of my coworkers came through the office asking about a quote. (It was 1999, and you couldn’t find them online as easily as in a hardcopy of Bartlett’s.) “I think that’s Edgar Allen Poe,” I ventured. “Oh. You’re going to fit in nicely here,” she said. All the esoteric knowledge that I’d thought of as brain lint turns out to be very valuable in this job.
Career path: This job is basically what it is, and there’s not any room to rise. But it’s very gratifying work, with short term goals and constant challenges that keep it interesting.
Describe a typical work day in your current position: I get to work at 6:30 in the morning. I do this partly to avoid traffic since I live about 45 miles away (in the hills around Acton) and partly so that I can get a jump on calling agencies and organizations on the East Coast. I’m also often the only one in early enough to call the UK.
I check my email first thing, to see what new work has come in. Most productions email new scripts, rewrites, and requests for items. Some things are needed ASAP, some are needed within 24 hours, and some can wait a couple of days. We turnaround a new 1-hour television script in 3 days. A big part of the job is being able to prioritize and re-prioritize throughout the day, since some days everyone needs everything five minutes ago.
I like to break down new scripts fairly soon after I receive them, so I know how much work they’re going to involve. This means highlighting the things I’ll need to research and typing up a skeleton report that I’ll fill in when the research is done. I figure out what calls I need to make so I don’t wait too long and miss the end of business on the East Coast.
A crime procedural typically has 6-8 new character names per episode. I check to make sure that they haven’t accidently used the name of anyone who actually lives in the show’s locale (or that there are more than 5, making the name common). If the characters have professions, I check those too. For instance, for a doctor I contact both the American Medical Association and the state licensing agency. The same is true for business names and products. If something disqualifies a personal name, a business name, or a product, I create 3 alternate names to offer to the production. Often they take my suggestions, and it’s fun to see a business name pop up on a sign on television and to know I thought it up.
I also do some historical and informational fact checking, like calling a police department to find out if they have certain precinct numbers, or collecting sports statistics, or making sure a quote is attributed appropriately. If I’m aware of an inaccuracy, I let the show know. In one case, they had a standard car engine running underwater. As the daughter of a service station owner, I was well aware that the thing won’t go without oxygen!
If a production wants to use a real product, or book, or business name, I find contact information and the Clearance person takes over from there. I interact with script coordinators and art department supervisors for the most part. A good working relationship is very important when there is just too much work to do in a day and something has to wait until tomorrow. It’s important that they trust me not to put them off lightly, and for them to communicate to me exactly what they need and when they need it.
At the end of the day, I try to organize my desk a bit and lay things out in order of importance. Sometimes I leave myself notes about calls I need to make or things I need to follow up on, because I haven’t had a timely response from an information source.
Productions use our reports to secure Errors & Omissions insurance, and studio legal departments use them to make decisions about script content in terms of personal names, business names, and the like.
Best day in entertainment industry: Sometimes I am invited to wrap parties for shows. I’ve gotten pretty good at walking into a roomful of strangers and realizing that most of them, like me, work in areas of production that don’t allow for much face-to-face interaction with other parts of production.
The best night ever, was at a premiere party for “Gideon’s Crossing” (CBS). It was held in a nice restaurant-style room on the production studio lot in Hollywood. There was a nice buffet dinner and there were big televisions all around the room where we were to watch the premiere together. I’ve been a huge fan of Andre Braugher for years, and my husband teased that we’d probably end up sitting next to him. We chose a big table in the middle of the room, while most of the cast and crew gravitated to booths around the edges. A couple of actors in recurring roles sat with us, and then an executive producer.
When Andre Braugher showed up, he asked if the seat next to me was available! Yes! He was absolutely lovely, asking me and my husband what we do for a living and including us all in the conversation that followed. All evening long, he introduced me as “one of our top researchers,” which was truly sweet. I wouldn’t have thought he was rude if he hadn’t introduced me to anyone. It’s always nice when your heroes live up to your hopes!
Best thing about your current job: Being able to find out just about anything, being valued for snoopiness, and being creative in coming up with alternates and writing up reports on things I haven’t encountered before. Learning something just about every day! (Can you tell, I like it?)
Worst thing about your current job: The extreme fluctuations in workload. Although I don’t work anything like a typical production workday, focusing on producing accurate reports for 10-12 hours on a particularly busy day tends to shred the brain a bit. It’s a bit intense because if my not doing my job right could result in a lawsuit against the production, which would be passed along to my employer. Yikes! Luckily, in the ten years I’ve been doing this, that hasn’t happened!
Brush with greatness: I went to a taping of “8 Simple Rules” (ABC), which I worked on. I was impressed with the efficiency and calm that prevailed on that set. I have to think that was largely due to John Ritter’s ability to put regular and guest cast members at ease and to laugh with them.
Secret of your success/advice to the newbie: Whatever you’re doing, keep finding ways to improve or maintain high quality work. Be honest. Don’t create drama; it doesn’t inspire people to work any harder and can even have the opposite effect.
Next move (or next five moves): A person could go from this job into Clearance, which involves actually securing rights and permissions for productions to use products. It’s a great place to hone your prioritizing skills and to learn a lot about how things work in the world.
Sally Charette lives in the hills outside of Los Angeles, CA with her husband and a small, deeply devoted flock of birds. She conducts script research for film and television to support her writing habit. Her prose and photography have appeared in Weber: The Contemporary West, ZYZZYVA, The Houston Literary Review, The Oral History Review, Story House, Raving Dove and more. Her first short story, “Times I Broke the Rules” was named One of 100 Other Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories 1999. She writes a recurring music-related column in The Bard Chord newsletter and keeps a lively blog at www.anygivensundry.com.
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