No job is too small. These humble words of advice launched a television career from production assistant to co-producer of shows like AMC’s Mad Men and most recently Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs. TU alumnus Nathaniel Smith (BA ’04) realized Hollywood has a way of changing the best laid plans, but unlike the storylines he brings to the screen, the greatest moments of life are unscripted.
A Change of Plans
Only 128 people are accepted every year to The American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles; and not only was Smith one of them but also he graduated with an unusual degree, an MFA in film editing. “I have the world’s weirdest degree,” Smith laughed. “I think AFI is the only institution in the world that offers it.”
Armed with a degree in film studies from TU plus a highly prestigious graduate degree, Smith was prepared to take on Hollywood, but the first job he found was not quite his first choice. “When I was called about a production assistant position on the HBO show Rome, I didn’t want it,” Smith admitted. “I thought, ‘I have a master’s degree in editing.’” But it was this coffee-ordering PA job that catapulted his career. “No job is too small,” he advised. “Take the first job you can get in the industry to get your foot in the door because that’s the only way you are going to get hired again.”
After Rome wrapped up, Smith’s boss asked if he would like to join a new project, which became the five Golden Globe and sixteen Emmy-winning show Mad Men. Smith worked on all seven seasons but not simply as an editor. Under the mentorship of head producer Matthew Weiner, Smith found his passion in producing. As a co-producer, Smith manages all aspects of the post-production which includes editing, music, visual effects and even delivering the product to the network.
Mr. Smith goes to the Emmys
The first season of Mad Men did not garner good ratings. “We thought we might get cancelled every week,” he said. But after season one received several Emmys including for Outstanding Drama Series, their numbers improved.
There are two Emmy ceremonies: creative arts and the following week primetime, and Smith anxiously sat on the third row of the creative arts Emmys. This was his pinch-me Hollywood moment. Smith walked down the red carpet into Microsoft Theatre.
“That was my first experience at an awards show. We won several Emmys that night,’ he said. “That was probably even better than the next week when we won for best drama because we had no expectations going into the first Emmys. We had no idea if we were going to win anything.”
The Romanoffs – A new type of TV
The question of how thick is a bloodline to the past plagues the characters in The Romanoffs. What appears to be eight disparate episodes are actually threaded together by the power of ancestry. The characters believe themselves to be descendants of the Romanoff family.
“There’s nothing else on TV like it. We basically made eight feature films all completely separate. They are different genres, styles with different composer and crew for each episode,” Smith said. From a comedy to a horror story, each week the audience is treated to an unexpected experience. “It’s interesting that we know there’s not going to be anybody who likes all eight episodes,” Smith revealed. “That’s okay because if you aren’t interested in one, just skip it and go to the next one.”
There is even another TU connection in The Romanoffs world, TU alumna Mary Kay Place (BA ’69) is featured in episode four Expectations. The plot is described as: over a single day in New York City, a woman is confronted with every lie she ever told.
Taking more than a year to film, this was a huge project with hundreds of moving parts, filmed all over the globe: Paris, Bucharest, Hong Kong, London and Toronto. Despite myriad locations, actors and plots, all the episodes spark two questions: “Does bloodline reach down through the ages and effect you?” and “Can or should you get past it?”
Filming on the campaign
Smith always enjoyed working with film, but he never considered it a career option until he joined a campaign. Forget Democrats or Republicans, this was a major election — student body president at The University of North Carolina. To help his friend win, “We decided to shoot short funny videos and make a website for them,” Smith recalled. Because it was the early 2000s, they did a Survivor spoof and even recreated a Christina Aguilera music video. “He won the election. My friend and I felt like it was in large part due to our videos,” Smith laughed.
Time at TU
After spending two years at The University of North Carolina, Smith felt lost in the large school environment. “Nobody really cares if you make it through. I appreciated the different culture at TU. I felt like I mattered, and people cared about me,” he said.
Smith developed close relationships with his professors like Applied Professor of Creative Writing Michael Wright. “Michael helped me think about things from different perspectives — both stories and even people,” Smith added.
Smith’s advice to film students is it’s okay to start small. “People get hired at the lowest rung of the ladder, and if they use that opportunity correctly, they can earn trust and show people that they know more.” Don’t be stringent to particular career plans. Live life unscripted.
Learn about TU’s Film Studies Department here.