The L.A. Film School alumni are one of the greatest resources we have for current L.A. Film School students. For this session of Barrier Breakers, we interviewed alumna Paquita “PQ” Hughes. PQ is a military veteran, independent producer, and location manager in Los Angeles. We got to pick PQ’s brain about her childhood in Mississippi, being in the military, the ins and out of working film production, the movies that have inspired her, and so much more.
Editorial Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview with Paquita Hughes
LAFS: Paquita, we’re so excited that you were able to join us today! Thank you for making time to share your story. To kick things off, tell us a little about yourself and your background, and your experiences that brought you here today.
It all started with Wizard of Oz, for real! The Wizard of Oz was the first movie that blew my mind, it was this fantastical world and I wanted to go there.
I grew up in Mississippi, but I was born in Puerto Rico and came to Mississippi by way of New Jersey. I had a very rough childhood, so escapism is what drew me into the filmmaking industry. I was a heavy reader, and I still am a heavy reader. Reading used to give us (me) an escape. As a kid, during those harsh Mississippi summers, when we would come inside my mom would give us two options, “Either take a nap or read a book”—I always read. It was my way of escaping.
As a child I had a very vivid imagination and watching movies just took it so much farther, because, in movies, you can do anything you can imagine. Another movie that drew me in was Star Wars. When I saw Ewoks I was like “Are you kidding me?! Can I have one?!” There was a VH1 special that went behind the scenes of Star Wars and when I saw the world, I was like “Oh my god, people do this for a living?!” I discovered that it was a legit job. I realized I could do this and not try to be a teacher or a doctor. I can make-believe for a living. But I grew up in a rural area, the only broadcasting we had was a news station. So I couldn’t see how it (the film industry) was possible. I knew I had to get to Hollywood. But how do I get to Hollywood from Mississippi?
When I was in high school I made a plan. I was super serious about school and I did everything—band, Beta Club, and I was an academic pro. I received a band scholarship to Mississippi State University and I signed up for the U.S. Army as soon as I turned 18. Then 9/11 happened and I wasn’t ready to go to war. I was young and I was just trying to get some money for college and going out on the weekends. Eventually, college didn’t work out. I did a Kayne West, I’m a College Dropout. Once I left home and got away I really wanted to find out who I was. I ended up joining the U.S. Navy, full-time active duty and I was stationed all over the world. I learned about so many different cultures and went to places I never thought I’d go. It was a great option with a good backup plan for work after the military. But I never thought I’d be an air traffic controller. It’s a high-stress job, one of the most stressful jobs in the world with a suicide rate higher than neurosurgeons. Being an Air traffic controller I was able to show my abilities. I proved to myself that I could do that and once I accomplished it I knew I could take on my other dream of filmmaking. It wasn’t easy getting there.
LAFS: How did your former military experience and being a former foster youth help you navigate life challenges and help you find your passion and what you wanted to do for a living? And at what point in your life did you decide that filmmaking was your passion?
PQ: It was always there. But when I had the epiphany to just go for it, that’s when I wanted to prove that I was capable of accomplishing it. Growing up I always had this feeling that I was going to go somewhere and be somebody. Like the song in Sister Act Two. I was paying attention and I knew I had to get out of there! I always had this sense of mission, like destiny to fulfill.
The darkest moments of my life were when I was taken away from my family and going through the foster care system. I have 2 older siblings (brothers), and when I was 11 years old I was taken out of my mother’s custody. It was out of nowhere, it just happened. We were in the hospital for my brother, cops were called, my mom was fighting with the cops, and the next thing I know I’m in the back seat of a car with a caseworker on the way to a different city. My friends, my dog, The Flintstone Movie we just rented, my whole world shook. I was taken to a group home with these other kids. I went to school on the bus that everyone knew was for the group home. The kids at school called us orphans, they called us crack babies. Having to deal with that, even in those moments I knew that I wasn’t meant to be there. I knew I was meant to go further. As much as I don’t see representations of myself, I still believe I belong where I belong.
Because of my creativity, my passions, what I’m good at, my skill sets. I’m a photographer, I’ve been drawn to the industry, performances, I did theater growing up. I like organizing, I like putting teams together. Even when I was in the children’s home, I tried to put together a girls group. I’ve always had that sense of organization. I want to build. With my production company, I want to build an empire to keep going and sharing and allow other people to do the same thing.
The moment I realized I had to go forward was while I was serving in the military. I had the epiphany to go to film school because I was unhappy in my job. I was waking up crying, crying on my way to work. And no matter how much you’re getting paid that’s not worth it. At the time I was living overseas I had done some incredible things. But when I got in trouble for getting one extra piercing in my ear it was done. After 10 years of my life, I said “I don’t think it’s gonna work out. Thanks for everything, I’ll take my GI benefits and I’m out this, I’m going to Hollywood.” Because if I can take on war and Osama, I can take Hollywood and some make-believe. And that was the first moment.
From the Military to The L.A. Film School
LAFS: So you went to Hollywood and you landed at The Los Angeles Film School. What was that like? What were some of your favorite moments being at the L.A. Film School?
PQ: Shouts to L.A. Film School for accepting the Yellow Ribbon GI Bill! And the veteran’s program because that was the only way I could afford it!
What I loved about the program was that on day one they set you up with the materials you need. At the previous film school I went to, they sort of pushed you off the deep end. Here are some cameras and lenses, and a filter—good luck, see you Monday. Then when Monday comes around and everyone’s crying as they get ripped apart by the director because they didn’t know what to do. When I got to LAFS, it was more organized, it felt like school, like college. And as a college dropout, this was my last yahoo. I loved that LAFS had the degree program, too. Students got a little piece of everything when it came to the production side of filmmaking.
They put you through it at LAFS, and we learned old-school production designs. I found Women in Media at LAFS, I met and worked with great students and staff, I got involved with the school. I was in the honor society. My instructors were serious about their jobs, even though they were working professionals. And that was the best thing you were dealing with professionals who were working in Hollywood.
LAFS: What were some of the hurdles and challenges you navigated as you were going through film school?
PQ: The major thing was transitioning from military to civilian lifestyle. I got out and I came right to Los Angeles. I was also diagnosed with an “invisible wound” and it was a really interesting phase of my diagnosis. I was figuring out once again “who am I?”
Location Manager for Perry Mason and Little Fires Everywhere
LAFS: You worked on the Golden Globe-nominated show Perry Mason, and you’ve also worked with Shonda Rhimes. How did those projects come to be and how were they important to you?
PQ: It’s still almost surreal at times because you work so long because you have to get in a union. As soon as I got the opportunity to join the Teamster Union under 399 which is for transportation, drivers, location management, casting directors, and animal wranglers.
I was approached because of my veteran status and the opportunity sort of fell in my lap. I was on the AD (assistant director) track and I didn’t expect to ever go into location management or scouting. Just like air traffic control, it was never a part of the plan. But it happened and I enjoy it because it’s still a part of the world that I want to be a part of. Producing is my ultimate goal. I want to be Shonda Rimes level show running and creating. I want to be Jerry Bruckheimer level. I want to be Ryan Murphy level. I want to shoot for the moon with it.
And with transitioning to location management it didn’t seem like it was going to take me away from my goal as a matter of fact it felt like it was going to help. It was an opportunity that I never saw coming and I never thought about. It’s a very underrated job and what it did was put me on sets for major projects. Working on HBO’s Perry Mason was really awesome. I was called in by a location buddy of mine. He was going to Brazil for vacation and he asked me to fill in. I’m what you call a key assistant location manager. My job is scouting negotiating and prepping add the location while the manager is managing. That job put me right into the middle of production. As an A.D. I was in the middle. But as a location manager, I’m in the background where I can see everything happening while also being a big part of the production.
Perry Mason was the biggest show I’ve ever worked on and it was also the first show I won an award for. From the location manager guild international for Best Locations in a Period Television Show. The LMGL is an organization for location managers across the globe. This was my first location award and I’m very proud of it. Then came the Golden Globe nomination for Season 2 after only two episodes came out! What I loved about Perry Mason is that it’s a period piece, but challenging because we had to recreate 1930s Los Angeles.
LAFS: What was your work process during those projects? What challenges did you face on the job?
PQ: I did Little Fires Everywhere then Perry Mason. Little Fires Everywhere is the Emmy-nominated show with Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. This show was probably harder to balance because I was just figuring out how to be a single mom and do the whole co-parenting thing. Sometimes I would have to bring my daughter to set because I was working earlier than the daycare opened or I was working later than anyone could keep her. The scheduling on Little Fires Everywhere was more demanding because it was a small team. On a small show with a smaller team, you don’t have a coordinator’s help. You have to do your own paperwork and it takes more out of you.
Also, I bless my daycare provider. She’s helping me raise my child and allowing me to have this time to work. There were times I felt super guilty, location managers are the first one in and the last one out. Sometimes I have to be on site at 3 a.m. It’s a sacrifice but in the end it’s all going to be worth it because it’s not always going to be like this. I’m doing something that I never thought would actually happen. But it did. And now that I know it can happen I have to keep it going and be as good as I can be. I’m always trying to make myself better. Learning, growing and finding the silver lining from every experience on every job.
LAFS: Can you give some advice or encouraging words to the creatives out there who want to be filmmakers, producers and directors but are afraid of failing?
PQ: YOLO. I mean that you only live ONCE. And you have got to keep pushing and keep moving forward. You’re going to fall, you’re gonna have moments where you’ll stumble. Everything won’t be peaches and cream along the way but you have to look for the silver lining in every situation. At the end of the day, keep moving forward, keep taking steps forward, don’t stop no matter how long you think it’s going to take.
Thank you, Paquita Hughes!
We want to thank Paquita for sharing her inspiring story. Thank you for showing our students where you came from and where you are now!