Ever watched a movie’s closing credits and found yourself asking what the hell a gaffer or best boy is? Hundreds of people collaborate to make a film, and you’re not alone if you’ve been wondering what some of them do. Our Industry Spotlight aims to shed some light on the lesser-known professionals working behind the scenes.
Industry Spotlight: Set Production Assistant
Imagine if someone offered you—an average Joe—the opportunity to work on a film set every day. Not just any film set, but a major movie, with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. You’d do anything, right? Would you be willing to stand in Times Square telling thousands of pedestrians not to walk past the camera, one at a time? Could you go on a coffee run for 60 people in Los Angeles’ busiest traffic, on the hottest day of the year? How about sleeping three hours a night for six consecutive weeks? If you answered yes, then you might have what it takes to be a production assistant.
Production assistants (PAs for short) are the do-what-needs-to-be-done population of filmmaking. Next time you see a behind-the-scenes video and notice a young crew member getting yelled at, that guy is probably a PA. It’s a tiring, thankless, soul-crushing job, but it’s also one of the absolute best ways to start a career in film.
In the fall of 2008, Michael Stewart’s role as a PA meant looking for cough drops. An actor needed “organic, unflavored lozenges with echinacea,” and Michael soon found himself driving to every bodega in Brooklyn to find them. An hour later, on the verge of an empty gas tank and a panic attack, Michael found a box and returned to set, breathlessly handing them over. “These are red,” the actor told him, throwing them into the trash. “How do you think that would look on camera?”
Before the lozenge hunt, Michael began his PA career as an intern, enduring long hours and constant abuse for no pay. Finding work as a PA is all about networking, and since nobody wants to hire you with no experience, working as an intern is the quickest way to show people you’re willing to put in the effort. Michael started in 2007 on the Matthew Perry film Birds of America (then called Laws of Motion) and quickly made connections that allowed him to segue into paying jobs.
Many PAs get work one day at a time, while others work on staff for the full duration of a film or TV shoot. Like most film jobs, PAs receive a day rate instead of an hourly rate, with “day” meaning up to 12 hours before overtime kicks in. On one indie movie, Michael was tasked with the responsibility of driving all the film shot each day to production offices in Manhattan. This meant that he left his apartment at about 5 a.m. and took the subway to a parking lot the production was renting. Michael would pick up a van from the lot and drive it to set in Brooklyn for his 6:30 a.m. call time.
After production wrapped, Michael would leave set at about 10 p.m., then drive an hour into Manhattan to deliver film to the office. He’d drive another half hour to the rental lot and return the van, then take the subway home, returning at about midnight. He repeated that process six days a week for a month. This made for 90-95 hour work weeks (over 100 with travel), which put his hourly wage at slightly less than he could have been making at McDonald’s.
That said, being a PA isn’t all bad. Working in film often means seeing a new location every day, and the allure of being on set around some of the world’s biggest celebrities doesn’t hurt either. Michael’s work as a production assistant on a small indie film called Push was exhausting, but when the film went on to be retitled Precious and received six Oscar nominations, he got to feel like he was a part of something bigger. Watching your name in the credits of a piece of film history is one of the job’s most rewarding aspects.
Another rewarding aspect? Alcohol. A lot of it. At the end of each week, many PAs will commiserate over wrap beers, bonding over their experiences on set. On the whole, PAs who spend a few months together are extremely tight-knit, and they tend to remain in touch as their paths continue to cross on future projects.
While there are also office PAs who handle paperwork, set PAs like Michael are the ones who see the action. Their jobs include escorting actors and extras to and from set, locking up pedestrian traffic, charging crew walkie-talkies, and yes, even looking for lozenges.
Basically, PAs are anything the production needs them to be, and sometimes their assigned tasks take a backseat. They might be called away to help on a lock-up or simply to go on a coffee run. They usually find themselves needing to be in three places at once, and in Michael’s case, it wasn’t uncommon to need a new pair of shoes after each staff job thanks to weeks of constantly being on his feet.
Nobody can keep that up forever, and while PAs are one of few film jobs not represented by a union, they can eventually join the DGA (Director’s Guild of America). Once they’ve worked 600 days, a PA can submit their proof (pay stubs and call sheets) to join the guild as a second assistant director. It’s not a fast track to stardom, but it’s at least a light at the end of the tunnel that can make the long hours worth it.
After four years, Michael eventually quit PA work and moved onto a different career. Many PAs before and after Michael have burned out in a similar way, and nobody can blame them. Still, if you can handle the hours, being a production assistant is one of the best ways to get an entry-level job in filmmaking, and let’s face it: unless your dad is Steven Spielberg, you can probably use the foot in the door.