Cincinnati, OH 1990…
I was best boy grip on the feature film, “A Rage in Harlem”. We were shooting in Cincinnati and I hadn’t seen my mother for two years so I asked her to come down from Detroit for the weekend. Two things astonished her when she came to a movie set for the first time; how hard her “baby boy” worked and how much “crap” we needed “just to make a movie”. To the uninitiated, film making may seem like a traveling circus. Because it is.
A few years ago I was working in downtown Los Angeles. I was working on a single camera episodic when an older gentleman approached me with a question. He was retiring soon and he wanted to know how to get into doing background (extras) work. I was too busy moving furniture or playing “words with friends” so I suggested to him to find a PA and he’d get a better answer. I told him to find a young person under the age of 30 trying to project authority with a walkie and headset that had an expression on their face of equal parts entitlement, bewilderment, consternation, confusion and fear and that would be a…*
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (vigilate productio canis)
When you approach a movie set on location you will most likely be greeted (barked at) by a territorial perimeter PA to keep you from entering the shot or the crafts service area.
The ASPCA has vastly more powerful lobbyists than the AFL-CLO and Amenesty International so it’s safer to hire (imprison) young kids than border collies. At the end of film credits is a disclaimer, “No animals were harmed in the making of this film”. We say nothing about Production Assistants. Coincidence? Even the most hardened of us frown upon hanging a goat upside down and slicing its throat but when a sacrifice needs to be made no one bats an eye at sending a PA to roust a drunk, angry, 314 lb. homeless guy out of the shot. PAs eagerly do all the nasty jobs that not even that homeless guy would do for a bottle of Jack Daniels. The PA position is entry level position that requires no specific skill other than enthusiasm, the ability to listen, understand and a modicum of common sense. **
ALWAYS TAKE CREDIT! NEVER TAKE BLAME!The duties of a PA
(You can assign anything to a PA as long as you avoid one word, “AND”.)
A long time ago in an industry far, far way actors would report to make-up, wardrobe and come to the set and hit their marks. Now actors have the attention span of kittens on adderal. Assistant directors and producers have a valid fear of volatile, toxic and unpredictable explosives. That’s why they send PAs to base camp (the group of mobile offices ,trucks and trailers) to compel the actors to come to set and perform their duties.
The PAs are also charged with escorting (herding) groups of background (extras ) to and from the set to background holding. Background actors have varying degrees of commitment and focus so production makes sure to charge responsibility for the group of extras by telling the PAs to, “Go get YOUR background”. Just as the shepherd must protect it’s flock from distractions and predators, the PAs must get groups of background to and from the set without losing any to natural disasters or crew members trying to get phone numbers from the attractive women. A young person entering the industry will be able to observe and gather information about the various departments and how they work together from the vantage point of the PA. History and the unions have defined the duties of the various other crafts and departments. The PA position in our industry doesn’t have a long history or a union so they pretty much do everything we tell them to do. Although the PA is often viewed as an expendable position thier duties are invaluable.
For want of a nail a kingdom lost…
I’ve heard a 1st A.D. say to a group of PA’s, “I can drive down to Home Depot and replace you all at lunch”. He’s not correct. There are many tiny details that can derail a $5000 per minute production; An actor leaves his prop watch in his trailer, a contract needs to be brought to the set for a signature, an orange cone is in the middle of the shot or an old lady wanders in to the path of the stunt, all these “little” problems can add up to push even the most modest production over budget and off schedule. This is why an alert, aware, anticipatory, agreeable and ambitious production assistant is a valuable production asset. The ambition of the PA is to rise from a lowly position that gets bullied, condescended to and yelled at by the 1st AD to become a 1st AD who gets bullied, condescended to and yelled at by the director, the producer, the studio, the unit production manager, the actors, the cops, the public and the on-set dresser.
*Incidently the gentleman did return, smiled and told me that I was absolutely right.
**My advice to new PAs and many young people entering the film industry: GOLF. You don’t have to be that good but you really should invest in learning to play at a level to keep pace with the DGA members who will be mentoring you. Turning down a golf invitation is turning down a promotion.
Try to carry a pen, small pad, sharpies, multi-tool and flashlight.
My prepared advice to DGA Trainees and PA Alike:
From the outside looking in:
1. Be proactive in seeking improvement. Constantly ask what you’re doing right or wrong. Sometimes the AD’s and other people would rather talk ABOUT you rather than TO you about your performance.
2. Believe in yourself and don’t allow others to condescend just because they have more experience.
3. Take copious notes because it’s very easy to be tossed under the bus for something you could not anticipate.
4. If you ever have a question that you don’t want to ask because of fear of a condescending reply, ask me I will give you an honest answer or guide you to the truth. If you have common sense and common courtesy you’re already ahead of 2/3 of most people.
5. Expedience is best facilitated by anticipation, not “panic” or “visual hustle”. Try to say “we’re going to need…(future)” more often than “We need…(now)”. Don’t run because it looks like your department is panicking and has not planned properly and on a set where six different departments are always moving it’s unsafe. My personal motto is “Only the incompetent ever need panic”
6. Always be PRO-active vs RE-active: don’t SAY, “That trash bag is in the shot”. MOVE THE TRASH BAG OUT OF THE SHOT!
7. LISTENING is a skill. Cultivate the skill of listening with the intent of gathering information and intel, not with the intention of responding. Debate is for politicians looking to “win” a pointless argument and not a way to show your attention span.
There IS a difference between “hearing” and “listening”. If you don’t know the difference, many of your relationships will fail.
Your most important function is to listen and follow instructions!
You can NOT talk and listen simultaneously.
Close mouth and open mind.
You cannot learn with your lips flapping.
Your supervisors and mentors want you to succeed but the more experienced the person, the less tolerant they are of smart alec know-it-all’s. There is a thin line between confidence and cockiness. Navigate carefully.
I wrote this three years ago but you can apply it to your life as a PA…
A great article for filmmaker magazine about the unwritten rules of on set etiquette:
Bruce Bellamy IATSE Local 44. firstname.lastname@example.org (323) 382-5412.
Best or ninth best on-set dresser depending upon how much coffee I’ve had and who else is available.
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Through errant operation of the WordPress app I lost the first draft of this post. If you spot any incongruences, repetitive statements, redundancies or run on sentences that say the same thing over and over again, please leave a note or comment for me down there so I can correct it. Okay?