The future of equity in production with Becky Morrison
Lauren Ruffin, co-founder of Crux, passes the mic to Becky Morrison, Owner of The Light, a production company committed to dismantling systemic inequity in the film industry and re-imagining production. The two discuss how she got into the business and the future of equity in production.
Lauren: Hi, I’m Lauren Ruffin, co-founder of Crux, and you’re tuned to the Pass the Mic by The Rosie Report Podcast. In each episode, the guest from last week, me, talks to another rebel for good, changemakers who bravely opted out of traditional employment and turned their life’s work toward a mission that is also changing the paradigm of work.
Last week, I talked to Henry Childs II about the future of platforms designed for black audiences, and this week I’m so excited to chat with Becky Morrison, owner of The Light, a production company committed to dismantling systemic inequity in the film industry, and re-imagining production. Welcome to The Rosie Report Podcast, Becky. Let’s get into it. How are you doing this morning?
Becky: Excellent. Very happy to be here with you.
Lauren: How would you best describe what you do?
Becky: Well, I’m an executive producer and I own a production company, so I do a lot of the typical stuff that comes along with that, budgeting, and all those things. But in addition to that, I am an advocate for production innovation. So what that means is that I really encourage people to challenge the existing paradigm of film production, to ask questions about whether the way that we do things is actually the best way to be doing things, and I also find myself listening a lot to what people have to say, including the crew, and incorporating their ideas into our new model of work.
Lauren: Yeah. Now, I think that’s really super dope. I’m relatively new to the film approximate, film adjacent sector of production, and I’ve noticed that seeing the rise of things like #OscarsSoWhite, there really is a system of oppression there, an inequity there that’s baked right in. And you started doing this work before 2020, so what was the impetus for jumping in with that particular lens on production and on the development of the story?
Becky: Yeah, you’re so right. I mean, that was what I saw, as I was coming up in the film industry, that there were multiple realities that people were living in. There was the reality of the dominant culture of being white and being male in the film industry, and then there was the reality of everybody who didn’t fit into those boxes. And I think that there is this tragic thing that evolved in our industry where there’s this combination of magic of movie making, which is why all of us got into this industry, there’s something so transcendent and magical about telling stories and about making the impossible possible, and yet at the same time, there is really a culture of abuse built into the way that we do that. And I really just don’t think that that abusive part is necessary at all, and I think that it could actually be removed.
Lauren: Yeah. Well, it strikes me, I took a… As I was learning the first thing I did was like, well, I’m in Albuquerque, and Albuquerque has such a thriving film industry, so I took a course at a local community college. And I was shocked by in the class where we’re talking about pay inequity, and the person who was teaching the class was just talking about you may or may not get paid on set, and this many hours in unions, and I’m like, wow, from the very basic point of training. It’s baked in to lower your expectations as a crew person, about whether you’re going to get paid, how you’re going to get paid, when you’re going to get paid, how your labor is valued, and that was just so wild to me.
Yeah, and it’s really true, and I think I came up as a PA, I was told to keep my mouth shut, don’t ask questions, do what you’re told, don’t show any emotion. I can’t tell you how many times on set I went and I cried in the bathroom, and then wiped my tears off and then came back out, because I didn’t want anybody to think that I was soft. It was all about being hard in this very militaristic paradigm. Yeah, and I think that if you actually look at that, which has fascinated me for so long, is why I go back to my research and scholarship in the history of film production, why in that class in Albuquerque were they telling you those things?
That when we actually go back to the history, we go 100 years ago flashback into the creation of this model, we start to see the origins of those things back then. And for me I think it’s very interesting to look at the origins because we can see that these systems were created by men, they were created by human beings, and they’re not somehow passed down from the gods, and that this is only way we can do it. It’s like some guy in a cowboy hat thought of-
Becky: Burbank, exactly. He was just a regular dude with his own prejudices, and his own motivations, and his own desires, and just one, or two, or three people that are really, if you look back at the history, there’s a few people who started it all, and we’re just still riding off the wave of what they created.
Becky: I don’t know why.
Lauren: So when did you know that you had to start your own thing? What was the moment?
Becky: Well, there were probably several moments, but one I remember specifically, I was doing a commercial for a fast food chain and there was a chicken nugget floating on a piece of fishing wire, and it was swinging back and forth, and we were filming that. And there was a whole conversation that went around about us violating the integrity of the chicken nugget, and that we couldn’t disrespect the chicken nugget. And I just thought, “Is this what my life is for? Is this why I took incarnation as just to shoot chicken nuggets?” Yeah, I think I just had a vapid existential capitalist crisis. And I also was working a lot.
Lauren: The chicken nugget has been violated to get to where it is. You are not the one who did that to it, you know?
Becky: Exactly, exactly the chicken nuggets. The chicken had problems which is why I ended up here. Yeah, thanks to ask. And I think that I also was working inside of the system. I was working for people that I didn’t really necessarily think that their ethics were all great. And I found myself not being acknowledged for my work and I just felt like there’s got to be another way. This movie, this industry that I loved so much since I was a kid that has that feeling I was describing before that magical feeling, there’s going to be another way to do it. And that’s when I started my own company.
Lauren: Cool. Can you share a little bit about what differentiates your company, The Light from other production companies?
Becky: Absolutely. Well, one thing that I became very interested in is this idea of branding the production experience. Often if you’re on a set, you could be on any set, they all feel the same because we’re all freelancers. So it doesn’t matter what company you’re working for. And I got curious about this idea of what if we branded the production experience? So when you walk on set with The Light you know from the moment you get there you are in a different world. And I actually think it relates to what you were saying earlier about awesome narrative experiences. And I’m very interested in this idea of creating a narrative experience through the production process, so that when people walk on set, that is basically a precipitating incident, and then through the course of their day on the set there’s plot points, and there’s a climax and there’s things that happen and that we leave them in a place that is higher frequency that’s elevated than when they arrived.
And so I think what that looks like in practice, there’s a lot of things that we do on set that are very different. So one thing is that if you look at the crew on our set, you will see absolutely a very diverse landscape of human beings. That’s part 1. Part 2 is that, just things are very different, like our color sheet looks different, everybody wears name tags with their gender pronoun, we have branded name tags, we have a circle at the beginning of the day where everyone introduces themselves, we have different quizzes or challenges when we wrap the day everyone gets a fortune cookie with a message in it. So there’s a lot of things that we do that feel very different in terms of that. And all of that is in the spirit of creating a new model that is equitable, sustainable, and really just.
Lauren: Yeah. And joyful, it sounds like.
Becky: Oh yes, uplifting.
Lauren: Really, really fucking delightful.
Becky: Yes. Really, really fucking delightful. That is exactly what we’re going for.
Lauren: Yeah. And taking a hard left turn, the production business has been impacted by COVID obviously, I feel like in some ways, small nimble production companies have been able to get back to work and have figured out safe protocols. But I’m curious about what changed for you and your work in 2020, if anything?
Becky: Yeah, things have definitely changed in 2020. There was a huge… We didn’t have any work for several months, it just shut down. And then since we’ve been back there’s a different landscape we’re in the COVID era and all of this stuff really falls on production. I think it’s interesting actually people… if I were to ask you, I’m going to be the interviewer now for a second, what is production when you think of production? What is it?
Lauren: I mean, for us it’s always in virtual. So our business has not really been impacted because we’ve always done work from afar, so yeah. But production… That’s actually a hard question how would I describe production. There’s just a process, but it’s just the coordination and management of people. It’s goat herding, it’s just goat herding. Yeah. How would you describe it?
Becky: Yeah. Oh, turned the tables on me. I would describe it as really the invisible infrastructure underneath it all and that… It’s very interesting I love asking this question because everybody gives a different answer.
Lauren: Different answer, yeah.
Becky: Everyone has a different answer about what production is. And I think that’s telling, because if you go on set and you say, what does an electric do? People are going to give you pretty much the same answer or what does the wardrobe stylists do? It’s clear. But for some reason production is very nebulous because we’re everything and nothing, and if we’re doing it well, we’re invisible, if we’re doing it terribly well it’s incredibly obvious. Yeah and I think that that’s the interesting thing and I think the reason why these systems have been allowed to perpetuate for so long is because they’re really underneath the surface. And I think with COVID one of the things is that this is all now fallen on production to handle. So there’s a lot that we’re doing in terms of COVID precautions and testing the crew and questionnaires and all of this stuff that now is different in the COVID era. It’s certainly good to be back at work, I’ll say for sure.
Lauren: Do you find that going back to talking about providing a brand and production experience? Do you think that that maybe helped you come out of the COVID cave because people had a sense of what your brand was and what your commitment to safety and equity and care?
Becky: I think so and I think that COVID has really collapsed or just I think we’re living through a moment in history that people will be studying for decades if not centuries to come and everything converged this summer. We have COVID, we have the black lives matter movement, we had a lot going on in the social consciousness. And so I think also when it comes to the work that we’ve been doing for years, now there’s a new understanding of what we do in a different way.
Lauren: Yeah. Or like the importance. I feel like talking to people about why it was important to center women, people of color, trans smoke living with disabilities, all of that. I feel like I would say it and people give me a look and then the pandemic and everyone realizes how fragile they are. And then that’s watching that fragility spread outward. I’ve noticed the look of when people would look at me perplexed about why I was doing work with that mission has changed. Like I think our understanding of our own mortality and just life’s fragility has shifted and in a way that wasn’t true in any other woman.
Becky: Interesting, I totally agree. I would say too I think that’s our human side, that softness and the vulnerability of us as human beings. And I also think that there’s a new awareness that’s more ubiquitous that wasn’t there before. Because I too would talk about dismantling systemic inequity or dismantling systemic racism or obviously people have been doing this work far beyond me for many, many years. But in the circles that I run in talking saying those kinds of terms, I just see people’s eyes glaze over.
Becky: They didn’t really help you understand what it meant, and then now they suddenly click, if I say that their eyes will light up. And I think that something has changed in the social consciousness where people understand that in a different way. And they see that in our industry or something that we can do in our industry as well.
Lauren: Yeah. I get this question a lot around for folks who… I feel like I’ve been doing mission-driven work my whole life, from raising coins in high school for the famine in Somalia like that stuff. Do you feel like your mission has changed at all or is it a different sense of urgency?
Lauren: Yeah. I totally got it.
Becky: I think that what we were just talking about, I think it’s nice to see how the listening has changed for or there’s an opening for, to have a bigger impact. But I would say that in terms of the work that I’m doing personally or the company is doing, nothing’s changed because of 2020 or anything like that.
Lauren: Yeah. So I think this is my last question. What does the ideal future of equity and production look like? What’s your dream scenario?
Becky: I don’t know. And that for me is like that’s really an I don’t know that’s filled with excitement because that for me is the whole game. That’s what lights me up like I don’t know what it looks like, and I think that there’s so possibilities of what it could look like. And for me, I have my own ideas in my limited tiny brain inside of my personal head. And I’m running with those, but what really lights me up is the idea of everybody contributing their ideas and really creating a new approach to film production, which is uplifting and which is equitable in all of those things that we love and that we want in a workplace. And I think that the history of production and of business management is really about division, calcification and control.
And I love imagining a future that is malleable and juicy and all of those things. And I think that it’s going to look very different than things look today. And I think that it’s going to look… There are things that I can’t even currently imagine that will be different, but I know that it will center people, and I know that it will allow for people to bring more of who they are to say than they’re currently permitted to do.
And I think I’m really excited to see what that does in terms of the creative output, because currently crew members are treated like replaceable cogs in an industrial machine, that’s what they are. You’re not a human being made out of flesh, you’re the third grip. And I think that as we change that system and we make it invite people to bring who they are, I can see that really changing not only the production process, the way the work is organized, the way we treat people, but also ultimately the content and the films and the TV shows and the commercials and promos and music, videos, everything that gets made in a system that allows for more of who we are.
Lauren: Oh, I’m excited about the future.
Becky: Me too.
Lauren: Yeah, it sounds really great and I’m excited that the Rosie Report brought us together. I was a little nervous because I feel like this is just speed dating with a stranger. This has been so lovely.
Becky: Thank you again.
Lauren: Yeah. So thanks so much for talking with me. Where can we find your work online, website, Twitter, Instagram. Tell us how we keep up with you.
Becky: Our website is the light.nyc. So www.thelight.nyc and our handle is @thelightislit on all socials.
Lauren: That’s what’s up?
Lauren: I like that.
Becky: Thank you.
Lauren: Okay. So that’s it for this week’s episode of Pass the Mic by the Rosie Report, tune in to the next week when Becky talks to Frida Polli, CEO and co-founder of Pymetrics. Until then subscribe to the Rosie Report Podcast on Spotify and Anchor, and be sure to check out more stories on building a future of work for everyone by everyone at therosiereport.com