Alumni-Blue
Small width layoutMedium width layoutMaximum width layoutMaximum textMedium textSmall text

Current Articles | Categories | Search | Syndication

Three Shades of Grey: How a trio of graduates became part of the production team for the #1 show on television

Shades of Grey's Anatomy
Communication grads on the set of the hit TV series, "Grey's Anatomy" are, from left to right: Winter Zemans, '01, Laura Martin, '09, and Amanda Pecora, '06.
 

Last May, Laura Martin received one of the best graduation gifts ever. She woke up Commencement morning wondering where her first job would be. Hours before she received her diploma in Steele Hall, she got her answer.

She was about to become the youngest member of the more than 100-member production crew for “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“I was so excited,” Martin recalled of that conversation. “It was all happening so fast, but it was so rewarding to know that my hard work had paid off.” 

How did she join the number-one hit drama on television among adults 18 to 49 straight out of school? For starters, she was one of the most talented TV and Digital Film majors to come out of the Department of Communication in recent memory, as Associate Professor Jane Jackson is quick to attest. It also helped that the person at the other end of that phone call happened to have a SUNY Fredonia diploma of her own.

Winter Zemans, ’01, is the production coordinator on the set of “Grey’s Anatomy.” She joined the program — now in its sixth season — at the start of its second season, after having spent three seasons in a similar role with NBC’s legendary TV drama, “ER.”  Like most successful alumni, she worked extremely hard to get where she is today, a work ethic she honed at SUNY Fredonia as a teaching assistant for Professor Jackson, with whom she still keeps in contact.

One of those conversations came after Laura applied for a position with Winter on the show. At first there were no openings, but when that unexpectedly changed just a few weeks before the semester was through, Laura found herself flying across the country for an interview most college seniors only dream of.
“I called Jane as a reference for Laura, and she backed her ability and character 100 percent,” says Zemans. “If Jane says they’re exceptional, that carries a lot of weight for me.”

Coincidentally, Martin had a second connection to Zemans that went back to Laura’s high school days in Mendon, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester where Winter’s mother is a school counselor. She remembered hearing that Mrs. Zemans’ daughter had gone to Fredonia and had worked on “ER,” so she contacted her former counselor to ask for permission to reach out to Winter.
Sounds simple enough, right?  Hardly, according to Jackson, whose 25-year professional career included managing Francis Ford Coppola’s studio in San Francisco before she came to Fredonia.

“Even with those connections, they know within the first five minutes if you’ve got any chops at all,” Jackson noted. “Connections only get you so far.”
Still, Zemans’ fondness for her alma mater and her first-hand knowledge of how well-prepared Fredonia students are made her confident in her decision to hire Laura as a production assistant (P.A.). That knowledge was further strengthened because she was replacing Amanda Pecora — another Fredonia graduate with “Grey’s” since April 2007.

Unlike Martin, however, Pecora’s path wasn’t quite so direct.

“I packed up my station wagon with everything I could fit and just drove out,” Pecora, ’06, recalls of her decision to follow her dreams and go to California. She had nothing lined up, and didn’t really know anyone influential, but that didn’t scare her. After all, compared to what she’d already been through, not much could.

A native of rural Little Valley, N.Y., she always dreamed of going to college at Fredonia, where her father, Frederick, graduated as a nontraditional student in 1989. She recalls going with him to school at night as a child and sitting by his side while he attended art class, or riding her bike with him around the campus and village. Pecora was inspired by her father’s ambition to start anew after he and her mother divorced, and when the time came, Amanda did whatever it took to pay her way through school, which meant starting out at a community college.

However, after earning her associate’s degree, her father, now living in Buffalo, had become very ill. Wanting to take care of him, she transferred to a Buffalo-area college while she tended to Frederick at every opportunity. As much as she tried, she never really felt at home in Buffalo, although she admits her father’s situation had a lot to do with that. When her father eventually passed away, Amanda responded by returning to where her earliest and best memories of him began — SUNY Fredonia.

“School was always my refuge,” Pecora recalls. “Whether it was grade school, high school or college, no matter how bad life got, I always felt I could escape it in school. So when my father passed away, it allowed me to re-evaluate my situation and start focusing on my future.”

That transformation began with a visit to the Department of Communication, where Pecora recalls frantically rushing through the halls on the last day of registration and being “rescued” by Professor Joe Chilberg. She told him she was an English major but had, in a moment of clarity, decided she wanted to be a reporter.

“Joe smiled and said, ‘Well, welcome to the communication department,’” Pecora remembers. “I instantly knew I was in the right place.”

That’s the feeling she had in California too, even though she arrived with no job, no apartment, and very few personal belongings. But that didn’t worry her.
“I knew I was a really small fish in a huge pond,” she explains, so she got a job in a deli and a modest place to live, and started sending out résumés and placing cold calls.

One of those calls was to Zemans, at Jackson’s encouragement, before either was a part of the fictional team at Seattle Grace Hospital. Winter was working on an ABC Studios pilot and, although at first she had nothing available, eventually a P.A. position opened up, and Amanda got the interview that led to her first big break.

Pecora assured Zemans that she was willing to do whatever it took to make it…and Zemans made sure she knew what that meant.

“When you start in this business, you start at the bottom,” Zemans advised her.
As a P.A., you do pretty much whatever they ask of you, she explained. You deliver script revisions all over town, you order lunches and stock the refrigerator, you run errands for cast members — and you learn how to do it with your own personal touch so that people feel you’re indispensible.

How bad can it get?

“I once had to weed out all of the green M&Ms for a producer,” Zemans proudly states.

Amanda was up for the challenge and, after proving herself to Winter during the pilot (which unfortunately didn’t get picked up), found herself on Winter’s short list when she once again had a need for a P.A. on “Grey’s.”

Zemans also has first-hand knowledge of how hard it can be to get into the business. Like Martin, she came to California thinking she had a job all lined up with a film that was in production. However, with everything she owned packed into her mom’s minivan, she arrived only to find that the film’s budget had been cut — and with it, her job and place to live.

But Zemans wasn’t going anywhere, she told her mom. She got a job at a coffee shop, a room in a house for $650 a month that included kitchen and bathroom “privileges,” and the chance to work for free on some film projects, which allowed her to start making her own connections and prove to people that she had what it takes.

And in Hollywood, word gets around.

One day, Zemans got a call from Warner Brothers, who wanted her to come in for an interview. This surprised Winter — since she had never even sent them her résumé. Not one to dwell on such details, she readily accepted, and just three days later she had two major hit shows, “ER” and “The Drew Carey Show,” vying for her services. And although “Drew” was the first to make her an offer, she was given something that was closer to what she wanted from “ER,” a show of which she was a huge fan, having watched every season since it began eight years earlier.

“I was in awe of L.A. in general,” she recalls. “But I just said to myself, ‘I can do this. I’m scared as hell, but I can do this, and it’s going to be great.’”
And it has been great for all three Fredonians — although Pecora made the difficult decision to leave the show earlier this year. She was offered a job with Playground Media Group, a post-production company that creates the DVD bonus materials for “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Desperate Housewives,” among other projects.

“The hardest jump in this business is going from being a P.A. to something else, and that’s where I am right now,” Pecora explains. “I was ready to learn about a different aspect of the business.”

That “something else” is where Winter is now, with a job that’s more predictable and where greater skills can be developed. Her duties include dealing with the studios, sets and contracts, making sure all departments have the supplies and equipment that they need, and making sure each shoot goes smoothly and efficiently for the producers, directors, cast and crew.

She is also starting to get some opportunities to stretch her wings, such as the six “webisodes” — a series of five-minute shows available only at ABC.com under the title, “Seattle Grace: On-Call”— which she was asked to produce this past October.

“My goal is to one day become a producer on ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ so this is a step in that direction,” Zemans says excitedly. “They are a huge achievement for me and I am very proud to have my name on them. I only hope the studio asks me to do the next six!”

“[Being asked to produce] is a huge accomplishment for a woman who I am inspired by every day,” Pecora affirms. “Winter is a perfect example of someone who has worked so hard to reach her goals, and I’m very proud of and thrilled for her.”

Martin echoes Pecora’s sentiments. “Having heard of Winter’s accomplishments back in high school, she was always a motivation and inspiration to me. Now I get to work with her every day and see it all close up,” she says appreciatively. “She is where I hope to be one day, and it’s great to be able to observe and learn from her.”

Pecora’s decision meant an opportunity for Martin, who is making sure she learns everything she can and soaks in as much of the experience as possible.
“It’s pretty amazing,” the 22-year-old Martin says of working, like Zemans, on a show she’s been watching since its beginning. “I get to work every day with people like Patrick Dempsey (who, for those who haven’t seen the show, has the on-screen nickname, McDreamy, due to his extraordinary charm and good looks). The crew members are very willing to give you advice and help you learn and grow.”

That’s the role Zemans has often played with Martin as well, and Pecora before her.

“In many ways I saw this as a chance to give back to Fredonia,” Zemans agrees. “It’s a big learning curve, and it’s always interesting for me to see people going through exactly what I did. I wish I had a ‘me’ when I was going through that. I would have felt a lot more grounded.”

She still has her days when she’s somewhat in awe of what she’s doing, but most days it’s now a job to her, just like anybody else’s.

“People’s reactions to the fact that I work on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ make me realize just how amazing it is,” Zemans admits. “But when I’m working, it’s really just my job and I have to be focused.”

It’s also very rewarding for Zemans to see Jackson continuing to produce such talented and motivated graduates.

“Fredonia was really blessed when Jane came on,” Winter says. “She brought so many real-life experiences to the department.”

Jackson is equally proud of her graduates, lighting up at the mention of this trio and their success stories. “It’s a tough business, but you tend to get smitten by the beast,” she explains.

Technical skills are critical, Jackson attests, but personality traits are equally important in an environment where long days are the norm.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to be in an editing room with this person for 14 hours? Do I want to be sitting on a loading dock at 4 a.m. with them?’ It takes a special kind of person,” she says.

Zemans knows she has been lucky to find two of those special kinds of people.
“Amanda and I turned from co-workers to friends to family, which is pretty incredible in this wild and crazy life we have chosen,” she says. “If you are lucky, you take away one or two really close relationships from each show/project. We’re at work more than we’re home, so it’s great when you can make personal connections. I look forward to experiencing that with Laura.”

It’s clear these three Fredonians are indeed special, with long, promising careers ahead of them. While their show is on top of the world right now, they know that it won’t last forever. But the relationships they are building right now certainly could, which is a comforting thought, because they can hopefully continue to look out for each other—and maybe some future Fredonia alumni as well.

And if Jackson’s eye for talent and ability to teach are any measure…Fredonia’s Alumni Affairs Office had better start planning more West Coast reunions.


 

posted @ Tuesday, January 26, 2010 11:29 AM by Christine Davis Mantai

Previous Page | Next Page

COMMENTS

Search

Privacy Statement | Terms Of UseCopyright 2007-2016, State University of New York at Fredonia