Those who dream of calling the shots on glamorous movie sets, donning an authoritative baseball cap and aviator sunglasses, and watching a film unfold before you as the actors heed your every call, might want to adjust their expectations early on. Before you can get to Spielberg status, you’ve got to take out the trash — literally.
Most big time directors and producers don’t start out by waltzing onto a movie set and taking charge. They start by learning the tools of the trade, and for many filmmakers, that means working as a Production Assistant — more affectionately (or resentfully, depending on the experience), a PA. Illustrious producer Kathleen Kennedy famously started as a PA on Steven Spielberg’s 1941, before Spielberg brought her in as his assistant for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy’s credits grew from E.T. and Gremlins to all of Spielberg’s biggest hits, including 2012’s Lincoln.
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And to think Kennedy started in a job that had her running for coffee and anything else their superiors might need. There are PAs for every aspect of a film production (office PA, locations PA, set PA, truck PA, and set runners), and in every aspect of the job, there’s dirty work to be done. And the PAs are the ones doing it.
With stars in our eyes at the thought of being paid to hang out movie sets, we spoke to a few working PAs in New York City, both of whom came up through the Made in NY PA training program, and they gave us a bird’s eye view of one of the toughest and most valuable jobs for filmmakers (before and after they make it big).
“When I'm on set I learn as much as I can so I know, when I want to make my own movie... I know what to look for when hiring a grip and when hiring a camera guy,” says professional PA Matthew Butler. “I want to learn what to look for in scheduling and budgeting, and I can learn that while I'm here, too.”
But before you can walk, you’ve got to plunge a toilet.
It’s Quite Literally a Thankless Profession
”A lot people don’t know what a PA really does, but when you get on to set you realize, ‘Oh a PA is all the dirty work that nobody else wants to do,” says Made in NY 2009 grad Will Mahr, who’s since worked as a PA, production coordinator, camera operator, and key PA on various projects, including Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” music video and Remember Me with Robert Pattinson. “When I first came on, I kind of visualized what a PA was until I got on set and had first-hand experience, and my first experience was actually plunging a toilet. Anything goes, but I guess a lot people won’t know what a PA does unless they do it firsthand,” adds Mahr.
When it comes to needs on a film, TV, or live event set, the PAs are there to do whatever might be needed to move the shoot forward. And that truly meanswhateverthe filmmakers need. Sometimes that entails bringing the talent down to set; and other times that means cleaning up messes no one else wants to deal with; sometimes it means running to four different Bed Bath and Beyonds to purchase enough high-end fans to keep stars’ sweat levels at a minimum. It’s like silent magic; others on set don’t always see every little thing the PAs do, but the result of the work is invaluable. All the same, that doesn’t result in a whole lot of hands-on praise for the folks executing PA duties.
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“When I first started, I was just like nobody knows I'm doing anything. I'm changing garbage, I'm helping out on set, I'm doing all these things and I don't think anyone sees it,” says Butler, who’s worked on shows like Snooki and JWOWW and Food Network Star. “But people do see it, because at the end if they hire you again, they know you were doing a good job,” he says. PA work, of course, is freelance, because even most television shows don’t shoot year-round. And that’s how Butler says he knows who’s been doing a great job with their “thankless” positions. “You look around at sets and you see a whole bunch of the same people, but then you see some people that aren't there from the previous set because obviously they weren't doing their jobs,” he says.