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How Running a Nuclear Reactor is Like Running a Movie Set

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Hello Ms. In The Biz! My name is Jackie Perez and this is my first article for the site. Before I moved to Los Angeles two years ago and started working in the entertainment industry, I had a totally different life as a Naval Officer running nuclear reactors on an aircraft carrier. It was a scary leap to leave all that behind and start a new career from scratch, but what I’ve found is that a lot of the skills I learned in my old career carry over to movie-making. Here are three fundamentals of Navy nuclear power that have helped me to find success as a filmmaker:

  1. Level of Knowledge

Whether you are making a movie or overseeing fission reactions, knowledge is power. That doesn’t mean you have to go spend thousands of dollars on a directing MFA before you can make a movie. I didn’t go to film school. But I study A LOT. I read every screenwriting and filmmaking book that’s recommended to me by someone I trust. When I’m working on a project I watch lots of similar movies for research. Every time I come across a how-to online or Q&A from someone I admire I take the time to read/watch. People share their hard earned lessons and advice and my ears are always open.

This all happens before I get on set. Like a captain needs to understand the full capability of their ship, as a director I need a thorough understanding of my set. I didn’t get that knowledge in film school, and while you can find definitions online, nothing is as good as hands on training. Spend time on sets. You’ll learn things each time and get to see how other people work so you can incorporate good habits and steer clear of bad ones.

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  1. Preparation

Benjamin Franklin said it perfectly, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”. Nothing is truer when it comes to making a movie. Aggressive preparation during pre-production will pay off dividends during the shoot.   This is a lesson I learned from my previous shoot that I’m taking into my current film. Everything was smooth enough, but if I had spent more time thinking things out beforehand, I know I could have made a better film.

You are never going to have everything perfect, but you should never be kicking yourself about something not turning out the way you want because of lack of preparation. Murphy’s Law is taken to the nth degree when you’re ready to make your movie and if you aren’t prepared for plan A, having to flex to Plan B or C is going to be that much more difficult. Take the time to sit down with your DP and go over the shot list. Have a conversation with your AD before shooting so they know what you expect. Rehearse with your actors to allow them time to incorporate your notes on performance. Taking the time to have those conversations leads to…

  1. Watch-Team Backup

As a director you take words on a page and create an entire new physical world filled with people, places, and things for the screen. You cannot create this world alone, which is why trust in your team is so important.

You see people working together on projects over and over not because they are best friends (maybe they are), but because they have built trust, which is worth gold on set. As films get bigger, more and more has to be delegated and no one has the time to wonder if a task is getting done or not. You have to trust people to do their job, so choose wisely when hiring. The people you have a rapport with and who are enthusiastic about the project are the ones you want by your side. The backup between the director and their department heads is equally important because I believe a good idea can come from anywhere. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with that idea, but I want people to feel comfortable enough to make suggestions: lines, shots, set design, whatever it might be. I’m not on set to be a dictator; I’m there to lead a team of people who all have the common goal of turning the best version of the script into the best version of the film.

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I might have a background in nuclear power, but I have a future in filmmaking. No matter where you are starting from, use the skills you have gained from past experience to help you on current endeavors. Don’t be afraid to try something new, but be ready to put in the hard work. If you do that, success won’t be far away.

Jackie Perez

About Jackie Perez

Jackie Perez is a military brat turned engineer turned filmmaker. After five years of Naval service she left active duty and started a new career in the industry where she currently works as an assistant at Perfect Storm Entertainment and writes and directs short films in her free time. She is on advisory board for of Veterans in Film and Television, a graduate of the WGA Foundation Veterans Writing program, the founder of CAA Vets, and a Lieutenant in the Navy Reserves. Starting fall 2015 she will be pursuing a MFA in TV and Screenwriting through Stephens College and can’t wait to make her first feature film. She loves horror movies, has an environmental engineering degree from MIT, tries to travel outside the country once a year, plays the banjo, and has the most adorable hedgehog named Pickle.