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Sam Holdren, classes of 2001 and 2002, and Stephen Hanson

Sam Holdren and Stephen HansonIt’s often the most familiar job titles in television and film that students are most attracted to when studying to enter into the industry. The actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, costume designers, make-up artists, and editors are coveted roles. But you won’t see an Academy Award for Best Locations Department, though jobs in this craft are just as essential to getting the project done, and done well.

When Sam Holdren was a full-time instructor at West Virginia State University (WVSU) from 2012-2014, he wanted to make sure his students were aware of the sheer diversity of job possibilities in the film industry, even in West Virginia at the time.

“I tried to incorporate information on logistics and paperwork, Production Assistant training, etc. in classes,” he said. “I didn’t want the film-focused students to graduate without the breadcrumbs to find employment in the real world.”

A former student and current best friend and colleague of Holdren’s, Stephen Hanson, of Given, West Virginia, said he learned about the “grunt work” of film work under Sam’s instruction.

“From lighting to sound mixing, driving the crew around, picking up trash, etc. We all really benefitted from the fact that Sam taught us about these jobs,” Hanson said.

Holdren, who is from South Charleston and now resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, earned a Bachelor of Science in Communications in 2001and a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2002 from WVSU before earning his terminal M.F.A. in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and becoming a professor for WVSU years later. In 2014, he left the university to continue his career as a film worker, and has since built quite the industry resume and IMDB profile.

“There’s community and there’s industry,” Holdren said. “Industry helps you support yourself. Community helps you support others. When they overlap, your quality of life is stratospheric.”

Holdren and Hanson have worked on many productions together, both working on the locations, safety, and general logistics of feature films, TV shows, shorts, and commercials. One of their most recent productions was the highly anticipated fourth season of Netflix’s popular  “Stranger Things,” the science fiction horror drama set in the 1980s starring Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown.

Holdren was an Assistant Location Manager and Hanson was the Key Location Assistant for the New Mexico unit of the show.
Sam Holdren in office
“It’s the flagship show for Netflix, so to have ‘Stranger Things’ come to New Mexico for a few months was amazing,” Holdren said. “When the opportunity presented itself, we knew it was the one to get.”

Holdren said he and Hanson were contacted by the Location Manager for the New Mexico unit of “Stranger Things” in early 2020 before the global COVID-19 pandemic took shape. The plan was to begin prepping in March of that year, but of course that didn’t happen. Then the start date was pushed to late fall, and again, didn’t happen because of the pandemic. Cut to spring 2021 and the same Location Manager hired them for an Amazon Prime pilot and a lot of the same crew who worked on that show went on to work on “Stranger Things.” Season four of the show finished filming in New Mexico late August 2021.

“We had to keep our mouths shut since last summer and we were just waiting until it released,” Hanson said. 

Split into two parts, the first seven episodes premiered on Netflix on May 27, 2022, while the final two episodes will debut July 1, 2022.

The Locations Department is a vital part of a film production as the leadership is typically the first hired. The team expends during location scouting and prep, and are among the last to finish once filming is complete and the shooting crew moves on. Holdren described the department as a “logistics department with degrees of creative input.” 

“As a craft, we’re still mysterious, sometimes even to our colleagues in other departments” he joked. “The Locations Department finds the filming locations, contracts with location owners, works with government entities, several different vendors, and serves as the ambassadors for the production to the outside world. We work on logistics, safety, and make it so the crew has somewhere to eat lunch or go to the bathroom, even providing the toilet paper sometimes. We work to find our base camps, crew and truck parking, locations for catering. We work with our colleagues in the Transportation Department to work out the logistics for our filming locations. And when it’s all over, we try to leave the locations better than we find them.”
Stephen Hanson in location truck
Hanson added that their department focuses on the creature comforts a crew or cast member may need, such as chairs, tables, heaters, food, and hair and makeup stations.

“We also deal with police and security. We do janitorial work. We are the PR person before and during filming. We worry about the filming and road permits,” Hanson said.
“You have to sell the idea of production to people with complete honesty and understanding, not only to get permission to film in or near their homes or businesses, but also to make sure the temporary disruption is worth their time,” Holdren said.

The two said that creating a feature film, TV show, or commercial involves more skills than just acting and editing, and many positions are hired locally where the crew is filming the project, so long as the trained workforce exists.

“About any skillset can transfer into the film industry,” Hanson said. “You have to build the sets, make sure the electricity is safe when rigging, and you have to buy the tools and equipment.”

“Our industry is employing carpenters, plumbers, and electricians,” Holdren said.

The two understand there are many more challenges for a film student in West Virginia as opposed to a student with the same professional goals somewhere more known for film production like New York or California.

“Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not legitimate, but understand there are many different jobs in our industry,” Holdren said. “If you’re willing to take the chance and you try it and it’s not for you, it’s okay to live a normal life. Not everybody is famous, but we’re all real human beings. We work hard and love what we do, and the money we make doing it helps us do fun things between jobs, even our own creative work.”

Though their work for the current season of “Stranger Things” is finished, the duo is currently working Locations on a feature film called “Love Lies Bleeding.” The romantic thriller stars Kristen Stewart and is currently in pre-production. They will be working on this movie through August.

To learn more about Hanson and Holdren’s professional work visit their IMDB’s profiles:

Stephen Hanson: www.imdb.me/stephenhanson
Sam Holdren: www.imdb.me/samholdren


Stranger Things Season 4 Location Crew
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