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Omaha Magazine

Mary Kerrigan Says Yes to Changing the Hollywood Landscape

Oct 01, 2021 01:42PM ● By Andrea Kszystyniak
cartoon of van in the desert

Illustration by Derek Joy    

Nebraskans were in a bit of a tizzy over Chloe Zhao’s film Nomadland. Even before its three Oscar wins, they were excited to see Scottsbluff serve as the background for a portion of the production. 

But Nebraska was more than part of the mise-en-scene for the movie. Mary Kerrigan, an Omaha native, played a critical role in the making of the film as the first assistant director and unit production manager. 

Before Kerrigan’s work netted Academy Awards, she was behind the camera for Darkwood Brew, a live, virtual spiritual broadcast hosted by Countryside Community Church. After trying her hand in broadcast journalism at Westside High School, the show offered her a chance to attempt live TV. As the only teenager on the crew, she said it was one of the first times she felt the thrill and pressure of making film and television. 

“I think the best way to learn and grow is to be metaphorically free-falling off a cliff and figuring things out as you go,” Kerrigan said.

Industry professionals willing to take a chance on Kerrigan led her on an, at times, winding path. While enrolled at New York University, she worked on student films, and, as she puts it, “did every job under the sun.” Key grip, boom operator, and art department. 

“I did everything I could, just saying yes to every job, even unpaid, short films by friends,” she said. “Like, ‘yes, I'll do that. Because you're offering it.’”

Kerrigan completed school with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in film and television. After graduation, she got to work on a number of projects, among them Benh Zeitlin’s 2020 film Wendy. Zeitlin is also the director of the acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild

For Wendy, Kerrigan served as an assistant production coordinator. The experience prepared her for a role as first assistant director on Nomadland. Assistant directors serve a variety of roles on set. Kerrigan explained it like this: A director is responsible for all of the creative aspects of the movie. An assistant director manages the logistics. 

When director Zhao had a particular shot in mind, Kerrigan helped pull together all the pieces to make it happen. 

Kerrigan acted like a camp counselor, shepherding more than 70 vans of non-actors to their appropriate places for a few days of shooting at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a giant gathering of van dwellers. 

“These are people that had never been in a movie and had no idea what to expect,” she said. “They're literally going out to the desert to meet strangers and be in a movie with Frances McDormand.”

It was chaos, she added. Shooting involved a full day of escorting people in and out of their vans (for many, their homes), moving them from one side of the set to the other and, in some cases, kindly asking them to please put their grills and lawn chairs back inside. 

The end result was amazing, Kerrigan said. The day began with an empty desert. By night, a small town had formed. 

“And at that point, I knew everyone and their whole life story,” she said. “It was fantastic.”

Kerrigan’s best friend, Madison Pflug, met Kerrigan at Westside High School, where both were on the track team. When Kerrigan left for her freshman year of college in New York City, Pflug visited, became enamored with the city, and moved out herself to attend the School of Visual Arts. They’ve worked together on various films through the years, including Kerrigan’s Omaha-based thesis project Geez Louise, and most recently on Nomadland

Before Nomadland, Pflug, who worked in the art department for the film, was between jobs. She got a call from Kerrigan asking if she’d like to work on a travel movie.

“She was like, 'OK, can you get on a plane tomorrow?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ And so I got on a plane the next day,” Pflug said.

Later that week, Pflug was surveying locations in Nevada for the movie. Kerrigan and Pflug spent their days traveling across the country together, sharing hotel rooms and leaning on each other when things got difficult. 

“It's obvious in her successes lately how good she is at this,” Pflug said. “She's just going to continue to get better and have more success. I don't doubt that at all.”

For now, Kerrigan is continuing on a journey of her own. She says she’s been more or less living out of storage units for the last few years, hopping from set to set. Since Nomadland, she’s worked on the A24 feature film When You Finish Saving the World, directed by Jesse Eisenberg. Kerrigan also wrapped a film in Mississippi with Morgan Freeman earlier this year, and she’ll be working on an Amazon film directed by Dave Franco in Portland this fall. She hopes to keep getting bigger and more challenging projects and, someday, become a director herself. To that end, she recently joined the Director’s Guild of America.

“I tell people I'm not ready, though. I feel like I don't have enough life experience,” she said. 

Kerrigan thinks the Oscar is just the start of what she hopes will be a long career. She said she not only wants to grow her skills, but to change the industry at large.

Roles such as hers in Nomadland were previously thought to be suited to a certain kind of personality, Kerrigan said. Tyrannical, harsh—the type of person who would force a crew to work too many hours. “I'd like to be a part of changing the way a film set is run and make it more enjoyable and safer for people,” she said. 

Kerrigan added that she would like sets to be more accommodating to all personalities, “Not just these same stereotypes that you see on a film set.” 

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.