Working on a Movie Set – Part 1: I’m a Production Assistant

It’s 7 am on a crisp November morning.  It’s Tuesday, I’m heading to Boston’s Chinatown, and I’m pacing briskly toward the next adventure in my life.  No, I’m not in the market for an early morning fixer-upper at one of the numerous Chinatown massage parlors.  Rather, I’m headed to work on an an actual movie set!  My first one, and I’m a Production Assistant (PA).  For the next week, I’ll be helping out on a feature film – a small budget indie flick – set in the Boston Metro Area.  But for now, I’m just trying to figure out exactly what I got myself into.  As I walk the last few blocks to the shooting location, I feel mixed emotionally.  I’m a little nervous; somewhat confused; but I’m definitely excited.  This is crazy, I think to myself, as I count my footsteps.  Only eight months removed from graduate school  in Neuroscience – how the hell did I end up here, doing this?  And what am I supposed to do again?  I did have a brief conversation with the assistant director about PA responsibilities the night before.  It’s what I suspected – coffee runs, hauling stuff, and other mundane tasks.  But it’s also a learning opportunity.  It’s a free pass to the inner workings of a movie set.  It’s a venue to meet the right people and I’d certainly pick up a few skills during my time here.  No question, I was in.  I arrive at the shooting location, a Chinese Restaurant, a few minutes early.  There’s nobody here yet, so I bide my time and wait.

[Rewind: My First Venture into Film – Making the ‘Stories’ Project]

How did I get here exactly?  I can only attribute it to organic growth.  I left a PhD program in Neuroscience last March.  I didn’t have much of a plan but I knew what I was passionate about: writing, outdoor adventure, environmentalism, and travel.  I figured the rest would figure itself out later.  I started this blog, IGORoamandreport – ‘I go roam and report’ – and began documenting my experience, writing stories and making videos for fun.  I held a few odd jobs until I got a rare stroke of luck in June when I was hired as a media production intern at a local park system.  I was given 11 weeks to create a documentary film based on park visitor stories and I was in charge of everything.  Gathering the right equipment, writing, filming, editing…the works.  It was an excruciating challenge, and on top of that, I had limited experience.  But I had a drive and I knew I was fortunate to get the job, which I viewed as a blessing.  I like to say I made a great product; I worked hard, and at the very least, it was my first semi-professional foray into film making.  The documentary recently premiered and got the attention of a few individuals.  Via one of these connections, my name was passed along to a production company looking for interns (aka free PA’s) to help out with a movie shooting in Boston in November.  I had finished the documentary the previous month, in early September, and I had trouble landing my next job.  I didn’t have anything else on my plate those two weeks in November and this seemed to be the right step forward.  My summer had taught me a lot about film making.  It was time to take my game to the next level and meet some new people in the industry, ask a few questions, and learn from the pro’s.

The crew at work on a movie set.

After a few minutes of waiting at the restaurant I start to see some activity.  First, a huge truck pulls up, followed by a few cars.  Faces appear.  Greetings are exchanged.  Names are registered and quickly forgotten.  I count about 15 to 20 people on crew.  Everyone is moving fast.  It feels like a covert operation has descended on this little spot in Chinatown.  Tasks are performed with assembly line like efficiency.  Directions are broadcast over walkies: some instruct while others follow orders.  The truck is quickly opened up and starts getting unloaded.  Some sort of catered breakfast is being set up.  Mysterious black boxes are carried from the truck and into the restaurant.  The restaurant owner is briefed about the shoot.  Cameras, sound, and props are prepared and set up inside.  And the few that aren’t busy?  A valuable time for a cigarette break.  I’m witnessing a beautiful, self-operating chaos.

[Recap: 2010 – A Journey From PhD Dropout to Writer/Filmmaker]

Finally I’m approached by the Assistant Director that I spoke with the night before.  She explains my responsibilities to me.  It’s a simple gig and I jump right into it.  My main job is to follow orders.  I haul some stuff.  I check parking meters and put in more change if I have to.I haul some more stuff.  I do a lot of “fire-watching,” which is a nice way of saying “Hey kid, stay out by the truck for a few hours and watch the stuff so nobody steals it.”  Most of the time I fire-watch I’m alone.  I help with food ordering, pickup, and preparation.  Along the way, I eat entirely too much said food.  Occasionally, I get a glimpse or two of the action on set.  On my first day I was even cast as an extra!  The hours go by slowly but I try to make the most of it.  I’m friendly with the crew, all of whom seemed slightly stressed.  I crack a few jokes to keep the mood up, figuring light humor is probably one of my few responsibilities.  I haul some more stuff.

“The work hours are no joke.  Expect ten to twelve hour days, six days a week.  As hard as it is, especially when you’re working pro bono, this is normal in the film industry.”

Those first two days in Chinatown are eye-opening.  I’m a noob; I get it.  It’s painful enough just to watch my awkward twenty three year old self.  I ask silly questions – “What’s a gaffer?” – and I make strange comments.  But I’m trying.  And I’m well aware that I know nothing.  So I go about my business and I learn.  First things first, the work hours are no joke.  Expect ten to twelve hour days, six days a week.  As hard as it is, especially when you’re working pro bono, this is normal in the film industry.  Second, no-one on set really cares about PA’s.  You’re the grunt labor of the operation; no-one wants to hear your life story except other PA’s.  Third, do a good job, look enthusiastic, and don’t complain.  If you do a good job, you may have a chance of working with the same production company down the line or at least get a referral.  This is fine with me and I suck it up.  Except the third day on set it’s pouring outside.  We’re still in Chinatown, I’m still feeding hungry parking meters, and I’m still making coffee runs.  It’s terrible – I get completely soaked.  My jacket, my boots, my pants, everything.  I’m a cold and wet mess, the lack of appreciation is getting to me, and I’m frustrated.  I do my best to keep a smile on my face whenever I’m around the crew, but really all I want is a hot shower and a bed.  Just as I’m ready to head home and call it quits, something incredible happens.  I’m approached by the writer/producer and the director, and they have a favor to ask of me.  They ask me if I’d like to stick around another week and earn some money.  They say it’s not a lot, but it’s something.  A promotion already? I think to myself.  What did I do to deserve this?  Of course I’ll help out.  Anything is better than nothing.  What’s the gig, I ask.  They tell me an actor is flying in from Los Angeles.  He is the biggest name in this movie.  We’d like you to be his assistant for the week.  We’d like you to drive him to and from set, make sure his wardrobe checks out for scenes, and generally get him taken care of.  We’ll give you a car.  I’m bewildered; this is coming out of nowhere.

Really?

Yes, really.

Okay, sure.  I’m game.

Great.

And that’s it.  I’m soaked to the bone, I’m cold and tired, and I can’t wait for next week to start.

To be continued.

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5 Comments

Filed under My Personal Journey

5 responses to “Working on a Movie Set – Part 1: I’m a Production Assistant

  1. Pingback: A Community Bands Together – Premiering “Stories from Boston’s Emerald Necklace.” | IGORoamandreport

  2. Pingback: Every Beginning Has an End, But Every End is the Start of a New Beginning: 2010 in a Nutshell. | IGORoamandreport

  3. Pingback: The Stories Project: A new venture into video-documenting a historic Boston park system. | IGORoamandreport

  4. Wow, great commentary love it. There are two kinds of people on set; ones who give orders and ones who take orders.

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