Producer Lavanya Radhakrishnan talks about what's indispensable for a production, who takes the lead on set, and where to do a shoot on an impossible budget.
This article has been contributed from the Summer 2009 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.
Photo by Shane McCauley.
Hurricanes, broken bones, lost luggage, and political mutiny are not stopping Lavanya Radhakrishnan, a freelance producer and extreme sports junkie who would rather spend holidays dangling from bungee cords than lounging poolside. Even while in the company of models clad in couture, an esteemed stylist, and a famed photographer on a beach resort in Langawi, Lavanya’s job is more tactical than glamorous. Managing the financial and creative logistics for high-stakes editorial spreads and advertising campaigns such as Ray Ban, Levi's, and Reebok is only half her battle—the other half is keeping her clients calm and happy. “Mind-reader” and “shrink” should also be included to her job description. Her motto: Stay Positive. And she can say it in French, Japanese, and Tamil.
Kick the concrete, not the client.
My number one job is to support the artist’s creative vision. This requires patience and intuition. I support each client differently. Sometimes this means keeping my opinions to myself, but luckily most of the time it means getting involved in more than just the budget. Regardless of where I stand, I always remain positive and keep an open mind.
I emigrated with my parents from India to the States when I was five and was the awkward kid wearing striped overalls with a polka dot blouse—I’m the first to recognize that it’s not about my personal taste. I hire as diverse a staff as possible, and I build reference books that reflect a multitude of styles to keep my eye objective. Someone can be the best producer, but if they’re pushing their own agenda, they’re bound to clash with the creative team. I think it’s my optimism and ability to keep it real that win clients over. Even when a client is frantic or mean, I never raise my voice. My response to hysterical behavior is to give the person space. And when I am about to explode, I take my stress out on the concrete and go for a run.
Just because you’re buff doesn’t mean you have to wear a muscle shirt.
In college I majored in industrial design and my first real job was designing tech-savvy gadgets like razor-thin Palm Pilots. While my job as a producer requires more management than creative scrutiny, I enjoy strategizing ways to develop my clients’ vision. While some agencies know my background and hire me because I will enhance the creative process, my knowledge of design isn’t something I flaunt. My job is to give the creative team the support and space to ideate with as little limitation as possible, and to make those ideas reality. If my gut tells me a second opinion will cause more tension than inspiration on the set, I refrain.
Cutting Cost / Cutting Edge.
My rule when drafting an impossible budget: Don’t eliminate a person; rather, skim a little off everyone to establish a balance and a sense of camaraderie. One of the best ways to cut costs and remain cutting edge is to shoot in developing countries like Romania, the Czech Republic, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. These untapped beauties offer more services for less. Everyone is shooting in the UK and Germany, but when shooting in a place like Uzbekistan, you are able to develop a relationship with everyone, from the studio heads to the cabbies, and when time comes to negotiate prices they're more likely to comply.
[√] Insurance! Every person, every piece of equipment, every shoe is covered. When cutting costs, insurance is never expendable. The world is too unpredictable.
[√] Carry-on luggage. Checked luggage gets lost.
[√] Locals. Always hire locals. They won’t be jet lagged, and they know the best car service, caterer, and doctor. If there is a disaster, they’ll know what to do.
[√] Care packages for everyone, complete with bottled water, anti-diuretics, power bars, and vitamins.
[√] An assistant for the stylist and the production manager who is qualified enough to take over at a moment’s notice. Before hiring someone with a stellar portfolio, I talk to them and make sure they will be easy to work with and are aware that they are an assistant or at most a collaborator. This person should be a local or at least be used to the food.
You gotta hit rock bottom.
Anyone with the right computer program can draft a budget, and anyone with the right travel agent can find a hot location. But nothing is fool-proof. I trust my staff completely. I don’t correct them when they’re wrong because it’s important they learn how to spot mistakes. And if I baby them, I’ll never feel comfortable enough to leave them alone while I take a vacation. Yet, it is impossible to prepare for every setback. I was once walking across a grass lawn during a shoot and shattered my ankle and kept working. There is no training manual for maintaining composure in excruciating pain; you have to hit bottom in order to know how you’ll react.
Producing for dummies and do-gooders.
This isn’t an innocent industry. But since I love my job, I make the best of all its shortcomings. Dove’s positive body image campaign is proof that pencil-thin models aren’t the wave of the future. So when sending a positive message, why assume that only a certain geographic audience will appreciate it? It’s so disappointing when people automatically assume that Middle America is lowbrow. Instead of dumbing down ads marketed to people in Nebraska, hold them to the same standards as ads running in SoHo. When choosing a direction for a project, humor rarely fails. When the goal is to make people laugh, everyone on the set works harder and has fun. If I hear about an opportunity to work on a progressive campaign with a positive message that lacks funding, I’ll take it pro bono. And when it comes to those leftover refreshments and apples that didn’t quite make the food stylist’s cut, I make sure they go home with the crew or straight to a shelter.