Everyone has to start somewhere and that somewhere is usually at the bottom. It’s no different in the film industry. While the menial task of knowing how to prepare the Assistant Director’s coffee may not feel hugely critical to your career trajectory, you’d be surprised how quickly you can rise through the ranks just by having a positive attitude and asking for more responsibilities.
People on set notice this kind of thing and they will remember you for it. And the next shoot you’re on, maybe you’re not grabbing coffee but being a human fan-turner-onner. I once had the privilege of turning on and off a fan in between takes for an actor on a, particularly sweltering Chicago day. It doesn’t sound like much but it put me right in the middle of the action, next to the director, the DP, and the actors. I was right there. This was more like it!
MAKING MOVIES IS HARD
The simple truth is that to be a filmmaker, you have to really love to be on set. The long days and nights, standing around, often doing nothing, then all at once, being asked to do everything. It can be a roller coaster of extreme boredom mixed with overwhelming time constraints, not to mention the egos. As a production assistant, you’re not allowed to have an ego, by the way. So save that for when you’re in the director’s chair. Or you know, not at all. But if you don’t love being on a working film set, you’re not going to make it, period.
I have PA’d on sets as recently as a few years ago. I do it because I’m one of those aforementioned people that love being on set. But it’s also particularly important, as was the case for me, to establish yourself as a dedicated, hard worker when working in new or unfamiliar territory. When I moved from Chicago to San Diego, none of my experience in Chicago meant anything to anyone here. I had no industry connections in San Diego. So I took whatever entry-level film production jobs I could find just to start figuring out this new landscape.
If you find yourself bored on a film set, which as a PA you will trust me, don’t just stand there continuing to be bored. Find someone who looks more important than you (who’s not busy) and ask them what you can help them with. It will not only fix your boredom issue, but it will also make that person recognize you as the go-getter you are. Because in this industry it is all about relationships and the connections you make onset that are going to get you to where you want to go.
Now that we are closer to the top of the film set food chain, we love being impressed by these same go-getters we once were and we are quick to reward those individuals with better (and higher-paying) positions on our next project. One such individual went from a PA on one film to hair and makeup on the second, and subsequently, a production designer on the third. Not all film production careers have these types of leaps from gig to gig but it shows how important attitude is to filmmakers like us.
THE SUBTLE ART OF SHOWING UP
Now that we are a little more established in our careers and hiring our own PAs, we often joke that they are the most difficult position to hire for and the one that often ends up hurting us the most. It’s amazing how many times someone verbally commits to your project and then simply does not show up. It’s infuriating. I was once promoted from PA to the Transportation Department on the first day of a shoot simply because the other guy was a no-show. So I guess the saying is sometimes true, “showing up is half the battle.”
Learning to Speak Film
Things work differently on a set. Even the language spoken is different. We covered some of this in a previous article. You need to develop this language if you want to succeed and the only way to do so is to get on set any way that you can. You learn how a director talks to her actors, how the DP speaks to his Gaffer, how the AD wrangles and motivates the crew to stay on time. You’ll learn the shorthand and subtle nuances of interacting with other departments. If you’re able to soak all of this in without too much of a dumbstruck look of awe on your face, it will be invaluable to your rising status as a filmmaker.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of being on a working film set, that you wouldn’t otherwise have, is simply seeing how different departments interact with each other; being exposed to jobs you may be interested in and some you never knew existed. In your typical film school class of 16 students, you’re probably going to have 15 (if not all 16) that want to be directors. Maybe that’s you as well. Or maybe you get to work in tandem with the production designer on a set and realize that this is where your talents may be best utilized. On the opposite side of this spectrum, maybe you see something that you don’t want to do. This can save you years in pursuing a position that you end up hating.
You’ll also learn the types of people that you’ll see on a film set. From Crafties to the stunt coordinator, and the guy or girl holding the boom pole. Really pay attention to these people that the production has brought together. It was no accident. They surround themselves with creatives they trust, that they’ve developed a shorthand with, in order to work as effectively and efficiently as possible because, on set, time is absolutely money.
Take Pride In Your Role
Regardless of my position on the crew, I still learn something new on every single set that I step foot on. So please, understand this before you gripe under your breath about a task being so far beneath you. You’re experiencing something that very few people will have the opportunity to experience in their lifetime. You’re witnessing the behind-the-scenes magic of movie-making. This peek behind the curtain should elicit pride within you when you see the finished product because you were a part of bringing it to life. Appreciate the process. It will give you more respect for the movies and the people who make them.
No one wants to be a PA. At least no one that I’ve ever met. It’s simply a necessary step to getting you on a set and learning the craft of filmmaking. As someone who spent way too much money on film school, I can honestly say (much to my chagrin) that I have learned far more from being on a real set than I did in years of film school. Bringing someone’s idea to life is so incredibly rewarding, so no matter how small your role is, really soak it in. For me, time melts away when I’m on set, as I watch this creative machine and all its moving parts in action. Call it being in the zone, the flow state, or whatever you wish, but I’ve yet to encounter a film set where I wasn’t in it. It’s how I know that filmmaking is my path.
So, How Do You Take Your Coffee?
Will starting as a PA automatically catapult you to directing someday? Absolutely not. Through PA’ing you MAY be able to work your way up to 1st Assistant Director but if you want to direct, eventually you’re going to have to draw from that motivating on-set experience to go make your own thing. To make that decision to leap and just go for it; make your own movie. If you truly value your on-set experience and learned from each time, you should have plenty of inspiration to draw from. Has my entry-level film production job made me a better filmmaker? Absolutely. Making movies is really hard. But it is also really fun and you should enjoy not only the process but the crew that you surround yourself with, all the way down to that PA who knows exactly how you take your coffee.