Hollidaysburg native working his way up TV, movie directing ranks

Matt McLoota isn’t one to rest on his laurels.

After years of logging in long hours on television and movie sets as a second assistant director, the 1999 Hollidaysburg Area High School graduate, 32, just wrapped up his first job as first assistant director on the movie “The American Side,” directed by Jenna Ricker and starring Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster and Janeane Garofalo.

McLoota, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., said he feels “pretty good” about achieving the career milestone. He followed the advice he said he gives others: If taking the job scares you, then go for it.

“That’s the only way you know you’re moving forward,” he said. “If you’re at work and you’re comfortable and it’s easy and you don’t go to work afraid, then you’re treading water.

“So I liked it, because every day I went to work and I was afraid. I thought, ‘I could screw this up. I’m not 100 percent sure how to do this.’ But that makes it better, it keeps you on your toes and it’s nice to have that.”

McLoota, who believes he will one day try his hand at directing, has been working as a second assistant director on the hit CBS series “Elementary” since June 2012.

As a child, McLoota impersonated Michael Jackson in a contest at the Altoona Area Public Library and would act out the movie “Rambo” and was interested in movies, music and acting at a young age, said his mom, Jamie McLoota of Altoona.

McLoota wondered how what he was seeing on the screen actually got there, he said.

After graduating from Hollidaysburg Area High School in 1999, he studied film and drama at Syracuse University. He graduated from college in 2003 and, according to the Internet Movie Database website, landed a production assistant job that same year on the set of the TV series “Hope & Faith.”

In 2004, he began the Directors Guild of America Assistant Directors Training Program in New York, where he was one of about six selected from a pool of about 800 applicants. He completed the program, which prepares its graduates to become assistant directors, in 2006.

McLoota has worked as a second assistant director on several television shows including “The Big C” and “Suits” and movies including “The Darjeeling Limited,” a 2007 Wes Anderson adventure flick.

Assistant director jobs are different from job to job and can get blurred, he said. Every job usually has three assistant directors – a second second AD (sometimes called a third AD), a second AD and a first AD, who is the director’s right-hand man.

The director relies on the AD staff. They handle what people might think a director does such as taking charge of the people on set and often yelling “rolling” and sometimes “action” and “cut.”

A second AD schedules every nuance for the next day and makes sure everything is happening on set as it should, McLoota said. A first and second second AD, who are always on set, worry about what is happening for the camera at that moment. A second second AD is usually in charge of setting the background action in a scene.

“It’s just amazing how much goes into one shot. You look at TV and you just have no idea what goes in behind making that shot happen,” said Jamie McLoota who visited him on the set of “Ugly Betty.”

Typically, McLoota’s 16-plus hour work days start with him hitting the snooze on dueling alarm clocks, he said laughing. The second AD then hits the ground running.

“For the most part, the actors and most of the crew and everybody always calls the second AD about everything. So your phone’s always on, you’re always getting phone calls, you’re always getting emails,” he said.

“There’s been times when people ask me to describe my job and I usually hand them my cell phone and say ‘scroll through the recent calls’ and there’s a call every four minutes. For an entire day, for 12 hours. And on top of having one phone to your ear, I’ve got a walkie-talkie in the other one. It gets a little schizophrenic sometimes.”

Taking care of tasks as they come is how McLoota keeps up with the frantic pace.

“There is no such thing as a to-do list for me because it has to happen immediately. … If you did it, within an hour, your to-do list would be too long or you would forget something,” he said.

The job requires organization, attention to detail and an ability to stay on point, he said.

“The American Side” director Jenna Ricker “could not have gotten through the challenge of making a feature film without someone like him alongside,” she said in an email.

“The AD deals with so many of the details and logistics – time, schedule, rehearsals, department coordination – freeing the director to focus on shots, performance and what lands in the can. Matt was invaluable with this, and given our frenetic pace and ambitious production, it made all the difference. He’s also got a great laugh, which is a joy to hear when the stress is on,” she said.

A career as an AD is made up of freelance work, going from job to job and taking breaks, if they want, when shows go on hiatus.

“It’s a weird industry because you do 12 months with people for 17 hours a day and they become a surrogate family for you, and then you go on to do another job. And then sometimes it’s the same people on those jobs or people that you worked with five years ago, and it’s like you never kind of left them,” he said.

McLoota said what he likes about his career is how it is not monotonous.

“Every day you’re doing something different. There’s a lot of things that you get to do that a lot of people don’t get to do,” he said, listing things such as full access to the United Nations, and assignments to shoot in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.

“You get to travel. You get to meet a lot of people. You’re not sitting at a desk. There’s no cubicle work. It’s very different every day.”

What has gone from exciting to ordinary, however, is working with celebrities.

“You’re meeting celebrities and not just meeting them, but they know your name and they’re joking with you and they ask about your family. It becomes intoxicating at first and then, after awhile, they’re just like people you go to work with,” he said.

McLoota’s parents, who said they are proud of their son, pushed him to explore, he said.

“I feel like they’ve pushed more toward, it’s a big world out there, go see it,” he said.

Matt’s sister, Michelle McLoota of Hollidaysburg, lived with him in New York for more than a year.

A freelance artist, she worked in the art departments on independent films including 2011’s “The Art of Getting By” and 2010’s “White Irish Drinkers.”

“We really always knew Matt would be able to express himself creatively through film,” she said. “He is very creative, very motivated, very educated.”

“He’s one of the smartest people I know,” said his dad, Gary McLoota, also of Altoona. “This is what he wanted to do and he gave it his all. He didn’t sway from his career. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he went after.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.