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April 10, 2016

How do you balance parenting and career? Part Two - Fatherhood

The challenges of parenting while working in the film industry are complex and at times over-whelming. It is a subject often considered personal and therefore not widely discussed.
We've asked four male designers to share their stories about fatherhood and career. 
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Tommaso Ortino

Tommaso Ortino has worked with acclaimed directors Michel Gondry on “The We And The I,“ Abel Ferrara om “Welcome to New York“ and Joshua Marston on "Forgivness of Blood and “Complete Unknown.“ He also 

designed "Still Alice,” which garnered Julianne Moore her first Oscar. Tommaso is about to start work on the 3rd season of Golden Globe winner Amazon show “Mozart in the Jungle.“

How do I balance my time being a father and the time spent working? It is a very complicated issue and like everything in this world I would say there are millions of possible answers and maybe a couple of essential common points.

 

I think the balancing is hard, complex and ever changing, like every relationship. Kids grow and your interaction with them changes, your relationship to your partner (in my case wife) also moves and shifts. Work develops. Gets better, worse. You work less, you work more; you get a break and have a bit of success, then you have a bad one and you find yourself waiting for calls.

But I think these are the challenges of anyone who wants to work and have a family.

 

There is no easy way. Yes, parents, family members, and very good friends will help in moments of particular difficulty. But for me the main “demon” I’ve been struggling with is a big, silent, subtle one that I would like to address here. As a confession, maybe, but also as a chance to create a sort of open-ended discussion. The demon: the idea that “kids need their mom the most.”

 

Now, some background: I was raised in Italy by a Catholic family in a conservative environment. Nothing too crazy and or bigoted: My parents were both university graduates and both professors when they got married. But nonetheless they were both Catholic and were definitely conservative in their beliefs. When my siblings and I came along, my mother gave up teaching and took care of us. All around me  the various wives were mothers who were not working or were giving up work to “take care of the families.” I remember reading comic books about a disgruntled housewife and a disgruntled working husband (they were both wolves and the husband thought the wife was being lazy and vice versa). One time the wolves swapped their “duties” for a day. Of course daddy-wolf learns that being a housewife is super hard and mommy-wolf learns that being a professional workingman is super hard. And everything ends well: both sides of the wolf-family conundrum end up appreciating each other’s job much more and eagerly go back to what they did before. No need for much analysis here. I was raised in a world where separate family (wolf and non-wolf) roles were right and best for all involved.

 

Luckily that’s not where my background ended. I grew, I studied, I made important friendships, I read important books, I saw decisive movies, I had important experiences and formed myself in a more progressive and I would say enlightened way that brought me to think very differently from my upbringing. I grew resentful of how my father treated my mom and was (am) strongly convinced that my mom had been “repressed” by my father and most importantly by her own upbringing. Though my mom’s father was a renowned progressive-minded doctor of his time, he insisted to be addressed by his kids as “sir” and would not permit her to chatter at the dinner table if he was around.

 

In my eyes, my mom was repressed. But in her eyes it felt very different. My parents loved each other deeply and the picture I’ve painted here clouds some important truths: they were both loving and wonderful people and I consider myself lucky to have been their kid. That is very clear to me.  Nonetheless I was becoming a different man from my father. And that was something I wanted. 

I moved away and then came to New York and fell in love and married soon after.

 

My wife works and she always did. We met when she had finished her studies. While I was in the process of becoming a lawful green card holder in this country, she was already working and supporting our frugal but fun lifestyle.

I love that she is a smart, successful vibrant professional. I always did. I secretly felt like I was successfully demonstrating that I was not like my father. But more than even that Freudian plot twist, I was truly and naturally attracted to her passion for her profession.

 

Our relationship was based on her being the steady working one. She had an office schedule that rarely shifted and like clockwork she rarely ever came home later than 7. As a freelancer I was the opposite. Crazy 2-3 months with early calls and late wraps, my mind focused on the job. Often it was hard to disconnect in those crazy months to find a way to really be there and present with her. But we made the relationship work somehow. Then we decided to have a kid and 4 years later another one.

Like everything else in our life together we jumped on it without wanting to think too much about the outcome. We are proud of this way of doing things but sometimes we also feel a bit dimwitted and reckless. 

 

One thing that having kids gave us was an even higher appreciation of what our parents had done for us and unfortunately it also brought back some of their beliefs. The demon: “kids need their mom most.”

 

My wife was brought up also into a fairly conservative family. Her mom also gave up working for a while to “take care of the family.”

So we both fought (still are) with that archaic, old-fashioned belief. She felt guilty working and I felt guilty letting her feel guilty. When the kids were first born we were ok because she had a 3 months leave and I turned down jobs for at least 2 months. Parents visited and thanks to them we navigated those periods well. But when “normal” life would restart things got a lot harder. My wife returned to work. I got the necessary “crazy months” jobs. Our kids got trotted to day care. But then (as always happens) things happen: numerous school holidays, fevers, aches, the consequence of germ-infested childhood and all of a sudden one of us would have to stay home to nurse a youngster. And though we were both working, she would be the one to stay home. I would say, “I can’t not be there.” Then I got some away job and I would say, “this is a really incredible opportunity for me.” The job of parenting in those moments would fall principally on her. 

“Kids need their mom most”. It’s the opposite of what either of us ever wanted to be. But though do not believe it, we both sort of lean on it in moments of difficult decisions. 

 

Now my kids are 7 and 3. There is no part or parcel of life for me that does not involve them.  But it’s important to acknowledge that it is a job, a real job to raise them and have a relationship with them. And my wife and I both believe and want to have a double job life. We are struggling because it is hard to have two jobs. It is hard to be or feel successful at both. But what is the hardest part is to fight against the belief that we are doing something wrong and especially the belief that she, as a mother, is doing something wrong.

 

 I loved when Dena wrote last month in this forum, that in those difficult moments she reminds herself of how proud she was of her mother and her doing an important job while being a mother. 

So to answer the main question of this forum, I do not know how you balance your job and being a father. I do both but it doesn’t feel balanced and I’m sure it will never be. And maybe, a big maybe, that is not a necessity. 

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Ryan Warren Smith

Ryan Warren Smith is a Portland, Oregon based production designer for commercials and feature length films like “Wendy and Lucy,“ “For Ellen,“ “The Motel Life,” & “Green Room.”

When it comes to balancing parenting and career, I firmly believe in putting family first. I find that making my family the priority in decision making always helps everything else fall into place, personally and professionally. I have learned that film and family go hand in hand. If a project is good for me, it has to be good for all of us.

 

Becoming a father has taught me to simplify and only chase the movie projects I truly love. Time is such a treasure now, and I don’t take on film projects I don’t believe in, or feel a connection to. My wife, Kate, reads every script that I am interested in. If we both love it and agree it would be a good choice for us, then we go after it. We weigh the pros and cons of each potential job together.

 

One thing I have learned is that art is nothing without my family. They push me to make better creative choices, as I want to leave a body of work that Sunny, my daughter, will be proud of. Like all passions, making films takes tons of sacrifice, and part of that is time away from your family. When I first became a dad, I wasn't sure how i’d do both film and family, how we would deal with the long hours and time away from home. So far we have adapted, with a lot of help from friends and family. When I am out of town, we make a point to talk every day and stay connected, even from afar.

 

When I am home, I spend as much time as I can with my family and enjoy the time we have together. We take vacations, we have family date night, etc. The time away is hard, but it’s a necessary part of the job, one that im sure ill never quite get used to. That being said, I look forward to a lifetime of showing my daughter far away places, and teaching her about my love of making movies. Being a dad to Sunny is the most important job I have. I love it and her so much. It’s an incredible thing to learn as much from someone, as you are teaching. She teaches me an incredible amount, and I am so grateful that I get to experience all that comes with fatherhood. Between making movies, being a father and a husband, I feel very lucky to live such a beautiful life.

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Daniel Clancy

Daniel Clancy started out as a set decorator for such films as “Home Alone“ and “Tropic Thunder.“ His production design credits include the TV show “Boss,“ “Promised Land,“ “The Hollers,“ and the recently-wrapped “American Pastoral,“ among others.

Wow, that is a good question. Well I am no expert but I’ll give it a shot. I am not perfect , far from it, but I think the key is to work hard both with work and with family, friends and relationships and mostly try to have as much fun as you possibly can, enjoy it all. 

 

Being a great designer is what we all desire to be. But being a great parent or even a good parent is so much more fulfilling and rewarding and like everything with effort and making it your priority it is attainable. I have always said and truly believe that being a designer is what I do, not who I am. I like to think I am a husband, father,son, friend first and a designer second. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE designing and all the good and bad that comes with it. But being a father is one of the greatest privileges of my life. 

 

My father who passed away in December gave me great advice when I was young. He said the most important choices of your life is firstly the choice of your partner/spouse…choose them carefully and wisely. The second is choose a career that fulfills you and creatively challenges you. It was/is great advice and one I share with my own three children. Having a true partner in life, one that understands, excepts our crazy business and its insane hours is the key to making parenting work in this business. Knowing that someone is home and “ holding down the fort’ so to speak, makes this carny life more manageable. I have been so blessed to have a great partner in every way in my life.

 

I think some good advice I can share is when you are on location { as most of us are these days},take the time, make it your priority to Skype, Call, FaceTime etc.. your family during the day at a scheduled time, so you stay more connected. I know some are saying “ yeah right” but if you tell your co - workers and producers/directors etc. most will honor that time and actually respect that you are doing it. A deal I made with my wife, who is a film/TV decorator  is that no matter where I am in the world I have to come home every three weeks. It sounds hard to do, but in actuality it is not. Nothing takes the place of real face to face time with your family. It is so important to keep that connection and line of communication open.

 

It really is easy to get caught up with the day to day minutia of our job and the urge to say “they can’t do this with out me.” The ever present struggle of self importance and always giving 110 percent everyday and the guilt we all feel when we can’t be everywhere, everyday for our directors and producers. Truth be told. We are important, and our leadership is very important to the success of any film. That having been said, the film won’t stop if you take a day off. The sets won’t collapse, the locations won't disappear, the decorator won’t stop decorating if we take important time to visit our family. We all hire the best support staff possible. For me I have been blessed to work with some of the best Art Directors and Decorators out there who work tirelessly to make sure we always look good. Part of a strong designer is to hire a great team and by doing so it hopefully eases the guilt of taking the time to nurture and visit your loved ones. It is important to allow any member of your team to do the same thing, life really is to short and it is important for all of us to take time to “ breathe.”

 

I look back when I was younger at some of the stupid mistakes I made just concentrating on myself or my career. I postponed my honeymoon, missed anniversary and birthdays, and even missed my Grandma‘s funeral, all with the excuse of, “I can’t leave right now” and truth be told sometimes we can’t but most of the time we can. We are ALL important but NOT that important. It is hard to hear but it is the truth. A great designer and mentor Richard Sylbert once said to me, “Kid, your talent speaks for itself, stop trying to over compensate by working 15 hours a day. That doesn’t make you look smart it makes you look stupid. If you can’t do your work in a normal time frame that somethings wrong with you. Now go home and kiss that cute wife of yours.” Great advice from a master. I took his advice and the only thing that has changed is now its my wife and my beautiful kids I go home to to kiss goodnight. 

 

Take the time to put in the effort to show them you care, take the time to show they are loved and are special and make them feel like they too are part of your creative process have them visit you often on the set and have them meet your co workers so they know who you are talking about in your day to day conversations,and always, always take their calls. To me that is how you balance the demands of the job and the more important demands of being a good father. Share with them your passions, show them how you express your creativity and it will help them understand and appreciate and hopefully learn to do the same. 

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Shane Meador

Shane Meador designs for film and theatre. His features include “One Hell of an Angel,“ “Quiet River,“ and “Seven Days ‘Till Midnight.“ He won a Southeast Emmy for an animated PSA and helped develop the world and story for “Wrong Way Home,“ a science fiction tale recognized by the Black List as one of the top pilot scripts of 2015.

Three weeks ago, I was on the side of a mountain, along a steep rock, overlooking a valley. I checked my phone and found a faint signal. My wife was at home- pregnant, full term. My first child could be here any day. I had given Melanie the numbers of a forest ranger, our producer, and the director's wife, but I was relieved she might be able to reach me directly. I was production designing my third feature. Weather and actor schedules pushed the shoot to the brink of our due date. I had been attached to the film for two years with input during script development. My personal connection to the project, and the understanding of the director, allowed the pregnancy to influence scheduling. I was clear before shooting began, that once my child was born - my priority was to be home. We front loaded the more complicated sets at the start of the schedule. By this stage of the shoot, we were down to exterior scenes with minimal props.

 

Two days later, we wrapped the shoot. I drove home. Nine hours later, my wife's water broke. We gathered the supplies for a home birth (and contracted the midwife and doula,) before production began. My wife labored for thirty-four hours. The next day, my son Ford was born. We threaded the needle. I had fulfilled my 

commitments to both family and film. Planning, boundaries, endurance, and luck all played a part.

 

Until now, balance has been my wife and I taking turns with our careers. During the recession, I worked a day job to help her go back to school. It allowed us to buy a home. On the side, I designed theatre and volunteered time on micro-budget films. Once returning to film full time, living in Asheville, NC (a culturally rich, but small town) has meant diversifying- filling the gaps between design jobs by working nearly every crew position as well as work in theatre and projection design.Ford's birth has already influenced the manner in which I choose work. I turned down a non-design job to spend more time with family, and I found myself negotiating more aggressively for a decent wage on a design job for a national client.

 

We have saved a little money, live modestly, and are solvent through August, but I'd like to support Melanie in her decision to stay home with Ford. This likely means establishing residency in Atlanta, and renting our "home" by the month when away. I'd like to get my bearings, work by-the-hour crew positions, and learn from more seasoned designers. I expect long hours, but poduction design can sometimes require every waking hour, and I'd like save some for my family.In the meantime, I've established long term creative relationships with a few directors. I get involved early, years out. What may start as director and designer partnership has led to me taking a producer/designer role in the development of several projects.

 

Occasionally, I see above the line crew bring their kids to set. I don't expect to raise my children on set, but what a privilege it would be for them to travel on location and for me to see them for a short time before or after the shoot day. I'd love for seeing family to be a daily reality for local crews. There is the rare director who shoots a ten hour day. I'm no stranger to successive twenty hour days; I'll do it again; I enjoy the rush of hard work, but on the second feature I designed, we kept the shooting days to eight hours. It can be done. It results in better life balance, safer conditions, and a more focused crew. By taking an involved role in the development and scheduling process, maybe I can create a better balance between work and family.

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