– By Sam Hendrian –
After graduating from JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing in 2013, Chicago suburbs native Will Armstrong has gone on to work multiple jobs in the Hollywood film industry. He has always had an eye for production design and most recently worked as an Assistant Art Director on National Geographic’s mini-series The Long Road Home. Having earned an undergraduate degree in history, this television show provided him with the perfect opportunity to combine his dual expertise in history and production design.
Will has been fascinated with the behind-the-scenes processes of filmmaking for most of his life, saying, “As a kid, I loved all the ‘making of’ videos for films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Jurassic Park… by high school, I was involved in our drama department designing and building the scenery for plays.” While he majored in History at undergraduate school, he reflected, “I missed the creative outlet that theatrical set design provided and discovered that there was this whole department in filmmaking dedicated to creating the sets and props for movies. I just knew I had to work in the art department.”
Before coming onto the set of The Long Road Home, Will worked several different jobs in the Los Angeles area, some art-related and some not. He said, “Starting out in L.A., anything that paid the rent was good enough for me. I drove art department trucks for commercials and photoshoots, worked on indie features for next to nothing, and eventually that built to bigger, better-paying work.” A JPCatholic professor, Rob Kirbyson, recommended Will to work in the art department for a short film designed by a man named Glen Hall. The two worked quite well together, and Will went on to be Glen’s art director for two independent feature films. He has also worked on the Fox TV series Lethal Weapon and was the production designer for the YouTube Red series Single by 30.
When asked how he got involved with The Long Road Home, Will replied, “The age-old joke: ‘It’s who you know…’ Maintaining good relationships is the lifeblood of a film career. Through the Art Directors Guild, I grew to know Michael Allen Glover, another art director. He had been working on The Long Road Home for several months and knew I had a background in history. So he recommended me for an interview, and thankfully, I was hired!”
The Long Road Home tells the story of the First Calvary Division’s deployment to Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, where a platoon was infamously ambushed on “Black Sunday” in 2004. It is based on a book of the same name by Martha Raddatz. Bringing this historical story to life was quite a challenge for the art department. Will recalled, “We had to recreate Baghdad in Texas. We built 80-odd buildings, the sets spanned 12 acres, and most considered it the largest working set in North America at the time.” As assistant art director for the show, Will’s main task was to be in the field supervising the progress of the Construction and Set Decoration departments. “I’d walk several miles a day, reviewing progress and keeping things on track, sometimes getting up to 12 miles a day as deadlines approached,” Will said. “We’d work an average of 12-14 hours a day. That was the second challenge, working to get everything ready in time was a marathon… But we did it all for one reason.” Will and the entire crew at National Geographic worked tirelessly to make the sets of The Long Road Home as realistic as possible, and it paid off. “Black Sunday took place a mere 13 years ago. Several of the veterans of that day were consultants… Seeing them walk around the sets and say things like ‘The only thing missing is the smell’ was such an honor.”
Will offered three helpful tips for students who want to be successful in the film industry one day. The first one: just do it. “You can’t have a career in film if you don’t do it. Move to a production city. Make contacts. Get on a set. Work. Just do it.” His second tip is to put in the hard work. “If you show up, put in the hard work, stay present (stay off your phone!), you will get more work… Talent might get you in the room, but hard work will keep you employed.” His final tip is to be humble. “Most of the people you work with will know more than you or at least have been around longer. Be humble, listen and learn from them, their successes and failures.”
When asked how he feels he is impacting culture for Christ through his work, Will replied, “In my experience, I don’t believe that grand gestures of faith make a substantial impact. They tend to just preach to the choir. So for me, it’s by applying my values to my work… Creating a more healthy, labor-friendly culture in the film community is the most long-lasting and impactful way I can honor my beliefs.” He has certainly lived up to his words and continues to be a force of good in Hollywood.
The Long Road Home is currently playing on the National Geographic Channel and will be airing new episodes through December 19. Will is most proud of the way that the show honors the veterans of Black Sunday. “Knowing that I played a part in telling their stories, and that our department did so accurately and respectfully, will be something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.