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Movies | WORKING HOLLYWOOD

When the job is building sets, her crew can nail it

July 02, 2006|Susan King

Karen Higgins

Construction coordinator

Credits: Currently working on the comedy "Brothers Solomon"; just wrapped "Nancy Drew." Other films include "Anger Management," "50 First Dates" and "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Job description: "The short definition is that I am head of the construction department, and the construction department is basically responsible for building the sets for a film or for TV or for commercials -- I do primarily film.

"The long definition is that I work with the production designer, who is basically head of the art department. They design or they have a vision for what the film is going to look like. I sit down with him or her -- and often it is not even blueprints at that point -- and they say, 'We want to build something like this,' or 'We want to take the existing building and make it look like this,' and we come up with an idea of how to do it.

"I work with the production designer and the producer to come up with the most economical or the most logical way to achieve the production designer's vision and stay within the budget of what the producer feels they are allowed to spend."

The breakdown: "I hire carpenters, painters, plasterers, laborers, sculptors and sign writers. I have a lot of the same crew -- some of my people have been with me for 12 years. I also supply all the construction equipment -- anything that is needed to build the sets. I have it all. I have two 48-foot trailers of tools....

"The reason I think we are called construction coordinators is that we are more than a construction foreman because we deal with other departments. A lot of times I have to do things for other departments. I have to build something for set dressing. Sometimes it's furniture, or props will need something."

Crowning achievement: "Last year I did 'Good Night, and Good Luck.' I am fortunate to have worked on that. I work a lot with Jim Bissell, who is a great production designer, and when he calls I want to work with him.

"It was done on a low-budget contract -- it's a union contract, but it allows for low-budget films to be made, so we all took a cut in pay. That wasn't the best part of the whole thing, but you just felt like it was the right thing to do."

If I had a hammer: "I started out as a carpenter in this business. I was a theater major in high school and college. I went to Los Angeles City College and then I went to Cal State Long Beach. Theater was my love, but I needed money because I put myself through college. So my boyfriend and I went around to all the movie studios and applied to do anything. I was 19 or 20.

"One day I got a call -- 'Would you like to go to 20th Century Fox and work as a carpenter?' I had done carpentry in theater, so I knew the basics. I knew I wasn't going to cut my hands off. I got in with some really nice people. I was always willing to say, 'I don't know how to do that -- can you show me?' "

Going up the ladder: "I got out of college and had a lot of debt, so I went back to work as a carpenter. People would say, 'We would like you to run this crew.' So I would run the crew.

"I was at Paramount for eight years and they would bounce me around from show to show. I slowly got more and more responsibility. There was a construction coordinator -- Stacey McIntosh -- we were very good friends. He called me and said, 'I'd like you to be a general foreman' -- the right-hand person for the construction coordinator.

"I thought about it for a minute and I said, 'Sure.' It was a real eye opener, because when you go from being a carpenter or somebody on the set running a small crew to being a general foreman, it was a big deal. I was his general foreman for about 12 years, and it was really good training."

Problem solving: "On 'Hollywood Homicide,' we had to build a structure on top of the roof at the Broadway Hollywood. It's 12 stories in the air, and we had to build a structure for the actors, so we had to bring in a structural engineer. Safety is a huge part of my job, as far as making sure that everything we do is safe for my crew but also safe for the shooting company."

Outlook for women: "There are actually some really good women in all the crafts now. Where I have seen the change from 30 years ago is, then, people would see a woman and do a double take. I remember the days when they would come onto the stage to watch the woman carpenter work to see if she could do it -- that was me. Now it is like nobody looks twice. It's still a male-dominated business, but most businesses are."

Resides: Hermosa Beach

Union or guild: International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 44.

-- Susan King

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