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Sunday, April 11, 2010
A Grain of Salt
Production Assistants having actual fun on a movie set...
A comment left on one of The Anonymous Production Assistant’s recent posts got me to thinking.
“... if you work long enough as a PA, you will hate life. please please please take this blog with a grain of salt.”
Given that most blogs offer a highly subjective outlook based on each blogger’s individual experiences, biases, and personality, it’s good advice to take every blog with a grain of salt -- but the commenter (who calls him/herself "rather pathetic") seemed to have a more specific complaint: that what he/she perceived as a negative, snarky tone in the APA’s posts does not accurately represent the reality of Industry life.
Like everything else in life, this business offers a roller-coaster ride of good and bad that varies from day to day, job to job, year to year. A good day on set with an experienced crew and a competent production team (and for decent money...) can be fun -– you work hard and share a few laughs while getting the job done, then wrap it all up and go home. If the hours are longer than in most types of work, that's just part of the deal.*
But a really bad day on set well and truly sucks. I hate working all night or in the rain (or both, compounding the misery), or for the Big Ego screamers who either don't know what they're doing or never learned to communicate in a civilized manner. Slaving for cheap-ass production companies unwilling to hire enough help or pony up for good equipment -- or worse, pay on a flat rate, all-the-shit-you-can-eat basis -- can be a physically and emotionally debilitating experience. Toiling all day in the blinding heat of the desert isn't much fun, nor is enduring the suffocating humidity and swarms of insects that accompany summertime locations almost everywhere east of New Mexico. It's no picnic to shoot in the freezing cold of ice and snow, either, or work long hours on a hot sweaty sound stage filled with the oil-based smoke many DP's use to add "atmosphere" to the visuals -- an exercise in sustained misery that remains my personal bete noir.
There are many harder jobs out there -- personally, I can't imagine working as a coal miner, sand-hog, or a roofer -- but on a bad day, this is a tough business.
There are only three positive things I can say about such a miserable day: it will end (eventually), you will get paid for your suffering (if not enough), and the experience will make a good story somewhere much further on down the line. And since the worst experiences usually make the best stories, it's natural that many Industry blogs lean towards a darker vision of life in the shadow of the big white Hollywood sign.
I can't speak for other Industry bloggers, but the goal here has always been to peel back the curtain on my end of the business -- set lighting -- and give anyone interested (fellow work-bots, young people just entering the biz, or curious civilians) some idea what it's like to live and work in Hollywood, along with a greater understanding (and hopefully, appreciation) for what it takes to get a location or sound stage set lit and ready for the actors. Given that mounting any sort of production is a complex endeavor requiring so many very different crafts to work together (often, it seems, at cross-purposes...), delays and frustration are inevitable.** On any shoot, as the hours mount and end seems nowhere in sight, we all tend to get a bit cranky, and some of that inevitably bleeds into the blogs.
A secondary rationale for this blog was to dispel the notion held by so many of my civilian friends and acquaintances that working in Hollywood is somehow a glamorous activity. To that end, many of my own posts have focused on the less savory aspects of a work day on set.
Still, "rather pathetic" might ask him/herself just what he/she really wants to read in an Industry blog. Imagine such a blog that was nothing but sweetness and light -- praising the intelligence, understanding, and compassion raining down from above-the-line, speaking of friendly, competent directors, producers and AD's, and relating warm-and-fuzzy stories about actors who learn their lines and hit their marks like true professionals. Should such a blog exist -- laden with anecdotes about shoots that glide smoothly through short, happy days, the crew basking in warm sunshine while enjoying delectable craft service, sumptuous catering, and big fat paychecks -- would it make for an interesting read? Do any of us work in a filmic paradise where the lion lies down with the lamb, love is in the air, and everything really is beautiful in its own way?
Maybe –- I suppose anything’s possible -- but most of the time the answer to all of the above would be a resounding “no.” Yes, some shoots are dream jobs -- and here I'm thinking of the lighting crew on one Oscar-winning movie a few years back that filmed in the rugged mountains of Montana. The first two weeks of production were spent shooting day exteriors on a river, which required no artificial lighting. While the gaffer played meter-maid by the camera (and the grips got a workout wrangling big silks and grifflons in and around the water), most of the juicers spent those two idyllic weeks upstream fishing for trout -- at full union scale.
Nice work, if you can get it.
Although that remains an the exception (especially nowadays), we all occasionally enjoy a brief moment of grace -- a little positive karmic payback for all those miserable times in the past. And truth be told, not even production assistants run an endless gauntlet of torrential abuse. Although my own experiences as a PA (blessedly brief) were no joyride, I managed to have a little fun along the way while learning a lot -- mostly how badly I wanted to move past working as a PA, but still...
Those three kids in the photo above were production assistants on a low budget feature filmed in Vermont during the late 80’s. The two on the outside were locals, while the one in the middle was a fast-talking kid from New York – who, as that brand new tool belt indicates, we’d already drafted to help with our undermanned grip/electric crews. These kids worked for peanuts suffering right alongside the rest of us for eight long six-day weeks in the ice and snow, but they still managed to have a little fun.***
Working as a production assistant is not a goal, but a means to an end – a springboard position from which to get a close-up look at the Industry before deciding which direction to proceed. The truth is, if you work long enough at anything -– grip, juicer, prop man, boom operator, wardrobe, set-dresser, makeup, or camera assistant – you’ll probably end up hating life, but any of those jobs will pay you a lot more money while inflicting considerably less soul-crushing degradation than working as a PA.
So by all means, keep a salt shaker handy as you read this and every Industry blog. Understand that for each miserable hard-slogging day we describe, a good day comes along sooner or later -- sometimes several good days. But unless those turn out to be spectacularly wonderful days, you might not read about it in a blog, because a run-of-the-mill day on set doesn't always make a particularly compelling story.
* This is easy at first, when working on set is an all-new adventure full of interesting experiences, but one's view of long hours changes over time. That, however, is a subject for another post.
** Seriously -- craft service, wardrobe, sound, and set lighting could hardly be more different.
*** After this movie wrapped, the kid in the middle went out to LA and managed to get his IA card five years before I finally got mine. Go figure...