From Raleigh to LA: A latchkey kid’s story


Cody Ferguson

Dr. O’Brien in her office, editing a documentary piece that she is working on with Dr. Slatton.

Cody Ferguson, Arts & Features Writer, [email protected]

When a lifelong admiration of film and television simply couldn’t be suppressed, a young woman traveled across the country time and time again to pursue her dream.

“They said ‘people don’t do this for a living here. Only people in Los Angeles do this.’ But I wanted to, so I did,” said current Lecturer of Mass Communication at UNC Asheville, Stephanie O’Brien.

O’Brien said she grew up as a latchkey kid. Her mother was busy all the time, working a full-time job in the mornings just to turn around and go to school at night. O’Brien would come home from school and close the door behind her, locking it latch and key while she was home alone, sitting in front of a television set, planting the seed of her future career.

“My parents were divorced, so I grew up between two homes, one in Raleigh and the other in Durham. In Raleigh my mother had me during the week,” O’Brien said.

In Durham her father had her on the weekends, and there she spent a lot of time with her grandmother. She was able to experience the rural, tobacco farming area of Durham.

“I went through grade school in Raleigh then I went straight to UNC Greensboro for, what they called at the time, broadcast cinema,” O’Brien said.

Laura Isley, a friend of O’Brien’s since junior high, said she remembers getting to go out with O’Brien to Atlantic Beach in North Carolina the summer before they all left for their respective colleges.

“I never really had a moment that created my affinity for film and television. I remember when I was 10 or 11, I went to see ‘Grease’ in the theaters. I was singing and dancing; I was mesmerized and thinking ‘man this is fantastic,’” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said while at UNC Greensboro she worked at the radio station and wrote news. She ended up doing a lot of documentary projects while there. Those bits of narrative documentary she did inspired her to pursue narrative projects.

“At the end of shoot days we’d all pay to get our film developed, and I sat in my little dorm room just slicing film and taping it back together to do very simple editing,” O’Brien said.

Once O’Brien finished her time at UNC Greensboro, she moved to Wilmington and got herself behind the scenes of local television.

“Over my two years there, I moved up from teleprompter, to cameras and then up to editing,” O’Brien said. “In my downtime I was a ‘dayplayer’ for ScreenJump studios. I’d help when they needed a lot of extra people to help on set or help organize background artists.”

O’Brien said when she made it full-time making movies she quit the news station. She loved her experience there, but knew that she wanted to move forward in her career. Her first film was in Statesville.

“It was a really horrible B, maybe even a C-level film,” O’Brien said. “After that film, I was able to network in the industry and often got jobs by word of mouth.”

O’Brien’s hard work and notable prowess never went unnoticed, especially to those privileged enough to work with her during her prime.

“In the early ‘90s, O’Brien was the top dog production assistant in film and television in Wilmington, North Carolina,” said long time friend and previous co-worker of O’Brien, Rick Kelly

Kelly said they still work in the film industry, but he’s never worked with anyone since O’Brien who he felt so in sync with. He was new to film when he first met her on the set of “Radioland Murders”, and watching her in action brought his knowledge to new heights.

“I worked a lot in the Wilmington area but I would move around as needed. I essentially would couch-surf a lot of the time, and I basically lived off of Taco Bell during my 20s,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said as she went through her career in TV and film, she always had the thought to be an educator. She knew that you needed at least a masters degree for that. The decision was made then that O’Brien was going back to school, this time at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I would spend a semester at school, then go back to L.A. for work during my breaks and the summer. This was a constant back and forth while I went toward my masters,” O’Brien said.

Isley said during O’Brien’s doctoral study, she reconnected with her, and noted how confident and optimistic she became since they had last seen one another.

“I met my wife, Jennifer Gatti, on the set of a film in Los Angeles. She was the lead actress while I was the assistant director. It’s funny, it’s like a lot of workplace romances. We just spent 14 hours a day working with one another for weeks and ended up together,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said eventually she spent enough hours working in the film industry to be admitted to the Directors Guild of America. This position allowed O’Brien to slowly work her way up from a second-second assistant director all the way to first assistant director. She mentioned that, before leaving film completely, she was able to do line producing for some projects.

Near the end of O’Brien’s career, she worked on a television series, ‘The Shield,’ in Los Angeles. She was feeling burnt out during the time, and her grandmother had just told her family that she wanted to stop dialysis.

“I decided then it was time to come home. I wanted to be with her for her last few weeks. Coming home made me realize I didn’t want to be traveling everywhere all the time,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said she and her spouse decided to get a house in North Carolina during this time, and here in Asheville is where they decided.

Isley said she remembered going to O’Brien’s house for dinner once they had settled in Asheville. O’Brien’s backyard was beautiful and all of her animals were a lovely accompaniment.

“When I started pursuing my career in higher education, my first job was as an adjunct at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. I was very lucky, got full time right away and taught there for 10 years. A position opened here at UNC Asheville, and I had been an adjunct in several departments already so I took the job. I’ve been here for four years and we’ll see what the future holds,” O’Brien said.

“Sometimes I get drawn back into the thought of going back to the film industry, but I know just how much work that can take,” O’Brien said.

Kelly said film is plagued by brutally long hours and so much time away from your families.

O’Brien said she’s loved her time teaching, and seeing her students express their creativity and joy for film has been a fantastic experience.

“Stephanie is as tried and true as Carolina blue,” Kelly said.