The World’s Oldest Production Assistant, Part 2

Welcome to the second installment of The Worlds’ Oldest PA. If you’ll recall, in Part 1, I’d gotten through the first day of shooting for a show on the Discovery Channel, about which I knew absolutely nothing, without any embarrassing incidents. The only time I was really stumped was when the Director of Photography held out a camera cable and asked me if I knew how to do “over-under.” I paused briefly, giggling to myself and thinking it sounded like something sexual (I have the sense of humor of a 13 year-old boy), but it more likely had something to do with the cord he was holding.

I kept cool and said, “No, but I’m sure I could learn if you’d show me.” He didn’t have time right then, but didn’t seem annoyed, so I assumed over-under wasn’t critical PA knowledge. I did, however, vow to myself that, before the end of the job, I’d figure out what the hell over-under was and how to do it.

After returning to the hotel after our first day of shooting, the crew all headed to our separate rooms. A couple people went to work out. I hadn’t even packed workout clothes and after a day of heavy lifting and errand running, was even more convinced that was the right decision. I chatted with the Associate Producer (AP) who said she’d likely head to the bar in a bit if I wanted to join her. Feeling socially weird (nothing new there) and yearning to remove my damn bra asap, I told her I was pretty fried, but to please text me when she headed downstairs. In the hotel room, I did my best to rally knowing that I shouldn’t skip out on meeting up with the others no matter how tired I was. Instead, I gave myself a mental bitchslap and when the AP texted, I said I’d be down in a few minutes. See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?

I got down to the bar and found the AP sitting there with her computer and a cocktail. I ordered a beer and, when she finished up with some work, asked her about the show and specifically, the episode we were working on. I’ll tell you, I was not prepared for the horrifying story she told. I can discuss it here because it’s a matter of public record and, in fact, got tons of publicity when it happened.

NND_logoIt turns out, the show we were working on is called Nightmare Next Door and you’ll quickly understand why this was an appropriate title. In 2011, a law student at Mercer University in Macon was murdered by another law student who lived in her apartment building. They’d both just graduated and were hunkering down to study for the bar. Friends and family of the victim, Lauren Giddings, began to worry after they hadn’t heard from her in a few days, initially thinking she was just busy studying. A search party scoured Macon looking for any sign of the missing woman. One person who was active in the search for Lauren was her neighbor Steven McDaniel. Steven was quite odd and a social misfit, but Lauren was friendly with him when their paths crossed.

When the search party was unable to find any trace of Lauren, friends and family members were distraught. A local reporter interviewed a number of people, including Steven. He told the reporter he had no idea where she could be or what could have happened to her. He said Lauren was outgoing and nice to everyone and he couldn’t imagine how anyone could do harm to her. In the midst of the interview, the reporter received some news and said to Steven, “Do you have a reaction to the fact that the police just found a body nearby?” Steven was visibly shocked by the news, needing to sit down and calm his breathing for a few minutes before he returned to continue on with the interview.

Shortly before this, the Macon police had found the torso of a woman’s body in a trashcan outside Lauren’s apartment building. The body had been decapitated and the arms and legs severed. The head and extremities were nowhere to be found. DNA tests on the torso turned out to be a match for Lauren.

The police investigated Lauren’s current and former boyfriends and interviewed family and friends, but quickly turned their focus to Steven. According to the police, it was the law students’ intense and strange reaction to the news of the discovery of the body that pointed them in his direction. The police questioned Steven extensively and arrested him for burglary after he admitted to have stolen items from neighbors’ apartments. A search of his apartment turned up videotapes taken through Lauren’s window, photos of Lauren, a master key to the apartment building, child pornography, and packaging for a recently purchased hacksaw. (I’m assuming Steven didn’t get the best grade in criminal law.)

I’m sure you won’t be shocked to hear that the killer was Steven McDaniel. He eventually confessed to the crime, describing how he’d strangled Lauren and dismembered her body with a hacksaw in her shower. He was (obviously!) obsessed with Lauren and upset that she would soon be taking the bar exam and moving away from Macon, and him, forever. Steven explained that he’d disposed of Lauren’s head and limbs separately from the torso, but police never found them despite extensive searching.

The story struck me hard. I couldn’t stop thinking about Lauren’s family. I was also astounded that Steven could be together enough to graduate from law school and not set off alarms with classmates and teachers as to his mental state, when in fact, he was a psychopath capable of planning and carrying out a gruesome murder. I was even more freaked out when the field producer pulled up the video of Steven’s interview on YouTube. To watch this guy who had murdered and dismembered someone just days before calmly express concern, on camera, about her whereabouts was chilling. I, couldn’t help but think about my own law school classmates and wonder which person in the group was the homicidal psychopath!

Lauren Giddings

Lauren Giddings

It was crazy working on this story in a small town like Macon, because literally everyone we talked to knew about the murder. Many personally knew someone involved in the case.There was one day when I took a large box of police records to be copied and sent to the production company for fact checking. I was flipping through the binders, showing the young woman helping me at FedEx how they were laid out, when she glanced at a photo of Lauren on the opening page and said, “I knew her.” My stomach dropped knowing there were gruesome photos in the records. I was relieved when we decided to just pack up the entire box of documents and send it to the production company rather than making copies.

So anyway, back to the hotel bar. Controlling my neuroses and meeting the crew for dinner and drinks was absolutely the right thing to do. We chatted and I got to know them better, which was great since they already knew each other having worked together on previous projects. The DP told me about his daughter who’s between Biggie’s and Smalls’s ages, and we discussed the difficulty of juggling career and parenthood, especially in a field like production where you can be away from family for weeks, if not months, at a time. The crew also asked about my background suspecting that I wasn’t a career production assistant. They were all awesome, and said they’d tell the production company to add me to their list of field producers. I’m keeping my fingers crossed! Obviously, I couldn’t be away from home for weeks at a time, but a few weeklong jobs every now and then would be great.

The next day, we were scheduled to interview the police officer who discovered Lauren’s body and the Police Chief in charge at that time. We shot at a small, neighborhood police station that looked to me like a run-down, old Baptist church. When we walked into the building, the producers,’ DP’s and sound guy’s faces fell. It was quite possibly the worst place possible to film. The whole office had been painted white decades before and bore the grunge and scars of the intervening years. The ceilings were high with buzzing fluorescent lights, and the sound of the air conditioner seemed to be competing with them for attention. The DP looked at me and said, “Watch…the producers are going to start freaking out. I just stand back and wait for them to get through it.” And, indeed, there were a lot of concerned looks, muttered discussions and frantic phone calls made. However, they did get through it and a plan was hatched to shoot in one of the cramped offices, with the overhead lights and AC turned off. Never have I been so happy to not be in the interview room.

Before the interview, though, we set up outside for the “hero shot” (which is exactly what it sounds like) of our main good guy, the police officer who found the body. The sky was looking ominous but we kept checking the weather which indicated that there’d be no rain until the afternoon. Once the equipment was in place, I asked the AP if she wanted me to go find a Starbucks. She said yes and that I should ask the officers for their coffee orders as well. She told me to pick up some doughnuts while I was out as well. When I protested, insisting that it was simply too cliché, she laughed and told me to shut up and go get the damn doughnuts! I told you this was a glamorous job.

storm_clouds_maconMacon isn’t exactly a town with a Starbucks on every street corner, but I was able to track one down and ordered some very complicated coffee and tea orders for the crew and a couple plain, black coffees for the cops. I watched out the window, waiting for the order to be ready as creepy, dark clouds rolled toward me. Luckily, I got all the drinks safely into the car before big, fat raindrops started plopping on the blacktop. By the time I got to Dunkin’ Donuts, it was a full-on torrent. I returned to the police station dripping wet.

My hair doesn’t like humidity, let alone driving rain, so I spent the rest of the day with random waves and wings sticking out everywhere. I briefly considered grabbing a baseball cap from the car, but remembered that the only one I could find to pack was my “Ready for Hillary” hat. I wisely decided that might not go over well at the Macon, Georgia police station.

I thought I’d have an in with the police officers since my dad was a cop for 25 years, but I wouldn’t say they were the warmest guys in the world. Later, as I was getting the Chief’s lunch order, I mentioned to him that I’d practically grown up in a police station. He indulged me with a little grunt of acknowledgement, then continued trying to figure out how to maneuver through the lunch menu on my iPhone. We interviewed another retired police officer back at our hotel two days later. The AP sent me out to make small talk with him while the crew tweaked camera and sound. I, again, tried playing the cop’s-kid card telling him that my father was also a retired police officer. He replied, “Hm…good for him.” Apparently, cops in the south aren’t known for being sparkling conversationalists.

My traveling companions, sent by the girls so I wouldn't get lonely

My traveling companions, sent by the girls so I wouldn’t get lonely

There was one classic working-mom-moment on the afternoon of the police station shoot. I was out picking up lunch when Ad Man left me a message sounding stressed and saying that the babysitter (an employee of his, actually) had bailed at the last minute and we had no one to replace her. This wasn’t good news to receive in the middle of the work day an hour and a half drive away from home. I dropped the lunch bags on the table and started madly making phone calls while trying not to hyperventilate. When the AP and the rest of the crew found out what was going on, they immediately told me that I should head home and they’d just cover for me for the rest of the day. I seriously almost started crying, told them I loved them all, grabbed my lunch to-go and hit the road! I’m ridiculously lucky to have worked with such a great bunch of people.

The rest of the week was a whirlwind of interviews with journalists, prosecutors and the District Attorney. We shot b’roll (generally, scenic filler) of Macon’s famous cherry blossoms, the courthouse, the crime scene, the landfill where police searched in vain for Lauren’s missing body parts and the exterior of the FBI crime lab. You didn’t think they had one of those in rural Georgia, did you? Yeah, me either.

By the time I headed home on Friday afternoon, I was utterly exhausted. Most of my body was sore, including the butt cramp that only got worse as I added more and more hours in the car. But, regardless, I was happy and felt more confident than I had in years. Nine years to be exact. I also finished this job with the absolute conviction that going back to work is the right thing for me. While wasn’t easy, Ad Man survived, the kids survived and I thrived.

I learned two other important things by the end of the week: how to set the goddamn cruise control on my car and how to do the “over-under” method of wrapping cables! Turns out, you can figure out how to do just about anything if you’re humble, willing to work your ass off, and have unlimited access to YouTube tutorials.

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