Dolphins, Pirates And David Hasselhoff: Breaking Into TV At Sea

May 10, 2014
Originally published on August 2, 2015 9:47 pm

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Director and producer Leah Warshawski's big break happened on the water.

It started when she was in college studying Japanese in Hawaii. Her dormmate worked on a boat and asked if Warshawksi wanted a job translating for Japanese tourists.

"I wouldn't say that I really knew Japanese, but I wanted to know Japanese. I was really eager," she says.

So she got the job. In addition to interpreting, she was also began learning about marine life.

"There I was working in Waianae in Hawaii on a dolphin-excursion boat. It was swimming with dolphins in the wild, seeing humpback whales breaching in the winter, and trying my best to speak Japanese to the tourists," says Warshawski.

One of the guests on the boat worked on the TV show Baywatch. He was the marine coordinator, responsible for all that goes into filming a show on the water.

"It turns out he was looking for an assistant to help with a production that he had coming up," says Warshawski. "It happened to be Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding."

She had no experience with film production, but she knew a little bit about the water, which they needed. So she got the job.

Warshawski says her first wrap party included Carmen Electra and David Hasselhoff.

"It was a trip," she says. "It's such an odd entry into the industry, but you have to jump in head-first sometimes. That's where it all began."

Since Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding, Warshawski has worked in the marine department on TV shows, films and commercials, including episodes of Lost and Survivor: Fiji.

She also worked on the TV show Hawaii, which lasted for one season on NBC. One of Warshawski's assignments was to find a modern pirate ship to use in a scene. They found the perfect ship, and Warshawski rented the boat for the shoot. The captain and his crew came along.

"I was in charge of making sure that the captain did what production needed," she says, "and he got pretty sick of production and ended up holding me hostage until we got back to shore and they gave him what he wanted."

That's when Warshawski realized the captain and his crew were real pirates.

"They were actually running drugs on the boat. Nobody knew about it at the time," she says. "It was a mess."

She admits she was scared, but it was all part of her job. This and other adventures all started on that boat excursion in college.

Even though Warshawski says she loves being on the water, she still gets seasick.

"Once I remedy that, it's just heaven."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now, for the latest installment of our series My Big Break, about triumphs, big and small. For director and producer Leah Warshawski, her big break into the film industry happened on the water.

LEAH WARSHAWSKI: You know, I was living in Hawaii. I was going to college, studying Japanese, and one of my dorm mates, she was working on a boat and they were looking for somebody to work on the boat who knew a little bit of Japanese to translate for all the Japanese tourists.

And at that point, I had already declared it as my major, so I wouldn't say that I really knew Japanese, but I wanted to know Japanese. I was really eager. And I applied for the job and I got it. And there I was working in Waianae in Hawaii on a dolphin excursion boat. It was swimming with dolphins in the wild, seeing humpback whales breaching in the winter, and trying my best to speak Japanese to the tourists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARSHAWSKI: The marine coordinator for "Baywatch" came on to the boat, and it turns out that he was actually looking for an assistant to help with a production that he had coming up. It happened to be "Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding." And every time you see a film or a show or a commercial, any time there's filming on the water, there's a whole department that just deals with that filming. It's called the marine department.

At that point, I didn't really know anything about film production but I knew a little bit about the water, and that was one of the requirements. So I got the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARSHAWSKI: It was a trip. My first wrap party was with, you know, David Hasselhoff and Carmen Electra on the North Shore of Hawaii. And it's just crazy to think about now. It's such an odd entry into the industry, but you have jump in headfirst sometimes. That's where it all began.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARSHAWSKI: Since "Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding," I've worked on a number of different television shows and films, commercials, a number of episodes for "Lost." I've worked on "Survivor" in Fuji, a show called "Hawaii" that was on NBC for a season. And there was a scene with a pirate ship, a modern pirate ship. It was more like a rust bucket.

Sure enough, one of the ships that we scouted really fit the bill. It looked exactly like what was written into the script. It was scary to walk on. Why not? It was a perfect fit. We ended up renting the boat for the shoot. And the captain of the boat and his crew came with the rental.

And so one day we were filming, and I was in charge of making sure that the captain did what production needed. And he got pretty sick of production and ended up holding me hostage until we got back to shore and they gave him what he wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARSHAWSKI: It did turn out to be a real pirate ship, and it got decommissioned. They were actually running drugs on the boat. Nobody knew about it at the time. It was a mess.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARSHAWSKI: You know, that was one of my first jobs in the film industry. So after that, everything else seemed like a breeze.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARSHAWSKI: You know, my big break was really being able to work on this dolphin excursion boat in college and have the opportunity to learn about the ocean. And to be honest, I get pretty seasick on the water, which is ironic. I'm always the first one to get seasick over the side. But once I remedy that, it's just heaven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Director and producer Leah Warshawski. Her documentary, "Finding Hillywood" is out now. We want to hear about your big break. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: If you've just tuned in, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West, and I'm Arun Rath. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.