Spotlight: Mercedes Williamson, 2nd Assistant Director

This series of posts highlights some of our local industry talent: on-screen and behind-the-scenes, established and up-and-coming. We asked Mercedes Williamson to provide insight into her work as a 2nd Assistant Director, how she got started, and what advice she has for people trying to get into the film industry.

Mercedes Diaz Williamson was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. She’s worked in commercial, film, and episodic television as a production assistant, 2nd 2nd AD, and 2nd AD. Before immersing herself in the film industry, Mercedes worked in radio and public relations, specifically, in promotions and as a publicist. 

Is this career path something you always wanted to pursue?

You know what, as soon as I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I couldn’t imagine being behind a desk. I love the logistics. Every show is different, every day is different. You also bond with your crew like family because we’re around each other for 12-20 hours a day and I love that sense of family that you don’t necessarily get in the corporate world. Plus, you get to be outside, it’s great!

What is your experience in both living and working in Utah?

I started in radio at KXRK / X-96; I also worked at the Sundance Institute until a friend of mine, who worked in the Sundance Press Office, stole me away to become an assistant film publicist for an NYC-based PR firm. I tell people my first love will always be music, but film is a mistress I can’t give up.

I’ve had the fortunate experience of working with incredible actors, directors, DP’s, and film crews from both coasts, points in-between, and all over the world while working here in Utah and I will tell you this – our local crews can go toe-to-toe with any crew from anywhere, anytime. We’re certainly not a bunch of hayseeds who just make ski-bum films. Many of my mentors have over 25+ years of experience, some started right out of high school and some are second generation. The roster of talent we’ve fostered and hosted here in Utah is impressive and intimidating to say the least.

How do you typically prepare for a job?

The way I prepare for jobs is pretty simple: I read the script. You gotta read the script. You can’t skim or go in blind, it just doesn’t work in your favor to take shortcuts that way. As an AD, if, and inevitably, when you get asked a question by someone from a different department or a higher-up, it helps to actually know the script. Trust me, it makes you look good to know the scenes and story progression, even though you’re almost always shooting out of sequential scene order. I try to know it backwards and forwards.

If you don’t know the answer to something, be humble enough to admit it, but work on getting the information as quickly as you can. I synthesize information from many departments and from many forms of intelligence – creative, analytical, technical, executive, etc. – and parse it out in shorthand. It’s a weird skill-set, but I enjoy the challenge of it. I also try to research the director’s and DP’s previous credits from resources like IMDB to get an idea of their previous work. Sometimes you might get someone who is unknown to you until you see their past credits and you might find yourself blown away by the scope of their experience, it’s happened to me more than once. 

How much of a Utah presence did you feel on the set of Utah-made productions that you have worked on?

Many of us, myself included, have worked with world-class directors and producers and crews who have consistently said the same thing: This is the best crew I’ve ever worked with. And you guys are so genuinely NICE! I don’t know what it is about us Utah film carnies, but maybe it is true, maybe the small-town aspect of kindness and respect is what sets us apart. Maybe because it is such a small and tight-knit community and we all know each other through three degrees instead of six.

I call it my Big Fat Dysfunctional Film Family, and it is a family. But once you’re in, you’re in. And you’ll hear the “nice” comments over and over, it’s kinda cool and I’m proud to say I’m a local, even when I get mistaken for being from LA or a New Yorker, probably because I look like I fell off a tour bus circa 1986 and I’m usually wearing all black because it hides dirt well and I can’t match my clothes when I’m getting dressed in the dark at 5:30AM, let’s be honest.

Do you have any funny experiences or stories from set?

You know, I’ve signed way too many NDA’s to share my truly funny stories, but I’ll give you one. It’s kinda dark, but I have a dark sense of humor so… I was once greeted by a very, shall we say, eccentric DP who promptly took my hand, kissed it, and told me he would kill his wife for me. This is how he actually introduced himself to me. I told him not to say things that might land us on a witness stand someday. That dude is legend. Helluva DP, too, a genius with natural light, bit unhinged upstairs if you know what I mean, but whatever.

Most recently, there was a moment when an actor popped out of the hair/makeup trailer and we spontaneously broke into doing the hustle while singing “Dancing Queen”. We got a round of applause from some teamsters. Also, this kid has been on Broadway. I have no business thinking I can get down and boogie with Broadway types and yet that kinda stuff just happens. It wasn’t even 9AM. This is my job.

Last summer, after wrapping an episode of Andi Mack near Peoa, up in Summit County, and with a spectacular sunset as a backdrop, I was watching the catering tent slowly coming down while a giant of a teamster rolled up electrical cables at base camp, and I suddenly had this surreal moment where I thought, “Holy sh*t girl, you actually did it – you ran away and joined the circus.” I still feel that way. It’s magical. And bizarre. That’s why I call us Film Carnies.

If you could work with anyone or anything, who or what would it be?

If I could work with anyone or anything, I would love to work with my local crew, my own home-grown heroes and make a Sundance-worthy film, truly, that would make me so happy.

I remember telling my father I was gonna marry Robert Redford after watching Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid as a child. That didn’t happen, but I did get to meet him at Sundance a couple of times while introducing directors to him as a publicist, and I probably blushed like a schoolgirl because he is the epitome of cool – gracious and charming and down-to-earth and real. Also Bill Murray. I would make a Magic Bullet infomercial with that man for free, do you hear me, Bill Murray?

What advice would you give a local who is trying to get into the industry?

My advice to anyone interested in working in production is: 

Stay humble. Never stop learning. Take your lumps and earn your stripes. You will hopefully realize rather quickly that there is a chain of command you must follow, very similar to a military hierarchy, and yet it is also a collaboration. So be a team player. If one department is failing, the effects will be felt by all of us.

Don’t get star-struck, stay professional. Actors aren’t there to make friends with you or take selfies with you, they are there to work, so honor their time and headspace. This is a business and you’re only as good as people remember you from your last show. Also, you’ll find that “hurry up and wait” is a real thing, so cultivate patience and tact.

Do your best to anticipate what is coming up next. I had an AD tell me once that this job is 25% staying present with what is happening right now, and 75% anticipating what you will need next or very soon. Anything you can do to save time is always, always appreciated because time is money, yes, but also saving two minutes here or five there suddenly adds up to a half hour or more  in making your day. That’s how AD’s think. Things are timed down to the minute. So you must have both a good concept of time and respect for others’ time.

What is a fun fact about yourself?

I was an extra in Zoolander. I was visiting a friend in LA who is a talent agent and he had an extra drop out at the last minute. We’d been bar-hopping on the Strip the night before and I was such a hot mess when my friend woke me up at 6AM to beg me to fill in for this missing extra, I wanted to kill him. They placed me just behind and camera right of Jerry Stiller during the “Eugoogoly” scene, but don’t blink or you’ll miss me, or the real estate between my chin and my chest to be exact.

Is there anything else that you’d like us to know?

I’m also a writer. I just finished a screenplay called OWL, based on true events of what I call the Best Worst First Date story I’ve ever heard that actually happened to a friend of mine. It’s a throwback to early 90’s independent film, quirky and character-driven, somewhat Ruben & Ed’esque, with two Dads, a lesbian couple, a dead owl, an obscene amount of hallucinogenic drugs, and a biker chick gang. Tame stuff. I aspire to direct and produce it, then submit it to the festival circuit and see what happens. It’s something of a valentine to all my friends, living and passed on, who have left an indelible mark on my life.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Syd Smoot is the Film Program Specialist at the Utah Film Commission. For any press and media inquiries, contact the Utah Film Commission at filmpress@utah.gov.