Monday 20 January 2020

'I’ve had women who are my senior completely kick the ladder out from under my feet' - Irish producer Hilary Johnson

Behind the Scenes with.... Irish producer Hilary Johnson

Irish producer Hilary Johnson
Irish producer Hilary Johnson
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Behind the Scenes: We meet key Irish and Ireland-based talent working behind the scenes in the TV, film, radio, theatre, and music industries. This week we're chatting to Irish producer Hilary Johnson.

Hilary Johnson (29) has not so much climbed the career ladder as leapt a few rungs at a time from working as a runner five years ago to being a fully fledged TV producer today, flitting between Dublin, London and LA.

It's all the more admirable when the Wicklow woman reveals she has encountered obstacles in the form of men who assume she's not as capable as them and women who, she says, have made it difficult to progress.

"There are ego trippers in this industry and I hate to do this whole ‘women in the industry’ feminist thing but as a woman in the industry it’s difficult for the obvious reason of it being a male dominated industry," she says.

"You have to work twice as hard as your male counterparts to be considered capable."

What is more disconcerting, perhaps, is the difficulties she has faced with some fellow females. 

"Oftentimes, and this has happened to me so many times, I’ve had women who are my senior completely kick the ladder out from under my feet rather than reach down and help me up a rung," she reveals.

"[They’ve done] terrible things.  Women are just terrible to each other sometimes - it’s not unique to this industry. Back when I worked as a waitress the same thing happened there and I swore that if I ever got into a position of authority where I have women working underneath me I would always try to look after them and guide them, not be an a******, never ego-trip on them."

That said, Hilary acknowledges the huge support she enjoys from three high-profile mentors - two male producers and one a woman.

Steve McCormack of Mediacon and LA based producer John Smith are always at the end of the phone when she needs support, as is IFTA-winning producer Julie Ryan.  Ryan produced The Young Offenders movie, which is currently being shot as a series for the BBC.  She was Hilary's boss when she worked on Irish series The Fear.

Irish producer Hilary Johnson
Irish producer Hilary Johnson
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"I’ve been lucky enough to become very close friends with Julie since so I constantly go to her for advice," she says.

"There’s no rule book and there are so many things you have to navigate  so to have people who can look out for you is very important.  I know that Julie is a woman after my own heart. She’s starting a mentoring programme with her production company and I would hope, in ten years time, that I’d be able to mentor young women who are in the same position as me now, coming up the ladder.

"It just literally takes one woman to the next to be cool.  Don’t see each other as a threat.  There’s no reason for it."

Although the industry "can be cut-throat" and the job stressful, the industry is also full of good, grounded, creative people and Hilary has fostered some relationships which have become "like family".

"One of the nice aspects of working in TV and film is that you get 'set families'," she explains.  "You can make friends for life because you literally work on a project for 3-6 months, day in day out, and you really get to know each other.  There are some wonderful, wonderful people."


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Hilary's path to producing was pretty direct.  She started out as a red carpet reporter for a movies, games and tech TV show straight out of college but soon moved behind the camera.

"As much fun as presenting was it stressed me out so much," she reveals.  "I used to get so nervous.  I'd be interviewing Tom Cruise, Al Pacino, Mark Wahlberg, all these people on the Savoy red carpet and I'd be so nervous.  I'd be like, 'Lads this is not good - I'll have a heart attack!" she laughs.

"I just knew I wanted to be a producer, that it was something I could potentially have a good skill set for.  I worked my butt off, climbing the ranks from runner to production assistant, junior researcher, senior researcher, production coordinator, production manager, line producer and now full on producer."

She has worked on a variety of shows from a hidden camera show to Keith Barry's magic shows, live TV with Ireland AM at TV3 and recently filmed two crime series documentaries for CBS in the UK.

Last year she produced IFTA-winning documentary A Fanatic Heart: Geldof on Yeats which involved spending four months on the road with Bob Geldof.

"It was incredible," she says. "You'd be travelling in the car with him and he'd just tell you these amazing stories.

"He told me about when he and Phil Lynott first moved to London and being down in the tube station and I thnk what he said was the two of them were waiting on the tube and Phil was standing in front of him and he stuck his thumb out to stop the tube like you would do a Dublin Bus!

"He was incredible to work with.  All you had to do was press 'record' and what would come out of his mouth was so poetic, always so intellectual, and absolute gold.  He has an amazing insight into life.  I know Irish people in particular love him or hate him but for me he was one of the most inspirational people to have met and spend time with."

Lest it sounds like producing involves swanning around the country (and beyond) with celebrities, Hilary is quick to point out it's extremely hard, pressurised work.

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"There are so many long hours and I think people probably don't understand just how long the hours are sometimes, especially when you're on set," she says, adding that it can be difficult to find time for relationships and family although her boyfriend and family are hugely supportive.

Also, there's the fact that responsibility for the production falls entirely in your lap.

"There are so many challenges to overcome. There are changes every few minutes, someone calling every hour with a problem, and you have to figure out how to make it happen.  There is no plan B!" she laughs.

However, the plus side is the people side of the job.

For one of the crime series for CBS, which she filmed in Europe, she met people who had been involved in the Bataclan terror attack, as well as woman who had lost her leg in London 7/7 and survivors of the 2011 Norway attacks.

"You get to meet these remarkable, inspirational people who had to battle through these things that happened in their lives. And you get to see the strength of the human spirit and you get to tell their stories," she says.

"I really enjoy the people aspect of the job.  You're stuck in an office many hours of the day but then you get to go out and meet people and hear their stories and give their stories to work, without sounding too grandiose about it.  But it's nice."

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