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The Production Assistant: Hollywood’s Most Important and Most Thankless Profession

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Feb 11, 2013 | 4:43pm EST

Production Assistant on Set

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.

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Rubbing Elbows With the Stars All Day? Think Again

The hardest part of taking on any job in entertainment is the realization that it’s never as glamorous as you think it will be. PA work is no different — and not simply because you might be asked to deal with a literal mess as part of the job. On set, the atmosphere is less like the glittering, shiny Hollywood sets we’ve seen in, well, Hollywood movies. In reality, it’s all business and all on a tight schedule. “You don’t talk to too many people other than the other PAs assisting you; maybe every once in a while you chat with the other guys, like camera guys, but they’re pretty busy as well and on the go all the time,” says Mahr.

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Of course, Mahr adds that the distance between PAs and famous faces is more prevalent on big budget movies because the process is more rigid. On smaller projects, like music video and indie movies, there’s a little less of a divide. While working on Gaga’s video shoot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Mahr had the chance to shoot the breeze with the mysterious pop star. “I worked on a Lady Gaga video as well and spoke to her a bit. She was quite a character, I must say, but a very nice person over all,” he says.

Reality TV PAs: Keepers of Unbridled Chaos

Had Mahr been working in reality television, however, that interaction probably wouldn’t have happened. In fact, it would likely have been forbidden.

Butler says when he worked on both Food Network Star and Snooki and JWOWW, he was prevented from speaking with the contestants in most cases as a means of preserving the “reality” of the reality stars’ reactions to the prompts and conflicts laid before them by the producers. “Yeah, it's hard because [the stars] pass you and they'll say ‘Hi’ and the professional thing they tell you to do is that you can't talk to them. So you look like the rude person when they say ‘Hey, what's going on?’” he explains.

It was something that made his job a bit more trying when he was working with Snooki and JWOWW. “They had a PA getting in the van and driving them around, I was in the follow-van driving with the security following them, when she drove the wrong direction. We're going for 45 minutes in the wrong direction and the entire time, I'm trying to like call them on the walkies and tell them like, ‘You're going the wrong way,’ but the producer on my end says, ‘No, you can't say anything; it's just a part of the story,’ he says. Butler says he struggled with the request to refrain from correcting the PA driving the wrong direction while the stars’ friends were waiting at a club and the duo was stuck arguing in appropriate and explosive reality TV fashion.

“As a nice person, I just want to help this girl because she may get fired because she's driving the wrong direction. Finally they pull over and she gets out of the car and she's like crying … when I get to the car they’re like ‘What the f**k is going on?’ using foul language. ‘What's going on? Our friends are there.’ And me, I wasn't allowed to say anything,” says Butler.

Luckily for Butler, and his proclivity for showing others compassion, when they finally got the crew driving the right direction to the club, he had some time to speak with Snooki and co. “It was cool just to be able to sit down and talk with them and calm them down for the entire drive on the way to the city,” he says.

Unfortunately, in the world of reality TV, PAs don’t often get the chance to get chatty. Reality with interference is no longer reality in the world of television.

Welcome to the Boys’ Club

If the top, best-known directors in the entertainment business are almost all men (take a quick look at this year’s Best Director Oscar nominees), it should make complete sense that the PA profession is greatly devoid of women. “There will always be like the one girl on set: the one grip girl in the group, the one camera girl, the one PA girl,” says Butler. He adds that there were more women on the set of The Celebrity Apprentice, but they were in production. “They're the planner, the coordinator, they're accounting. And then most of the camera guys are men, but there's that one camera girl you see sometimes,” he says.

It’s something NYU film professor and documentary filmmaker Christine Choy sees as a deterrent for many young women coming up through the filmmaking world. “There are so few female crew members. I've never seen a female boomer... Same thing with the teamsters. When's the last time you saw a female truck driver?” she says. The PA profession certainly isn’t without women, but men are the undeniable majority. It leaves a bit of a hole in the industry and one that Choy sees as an opportunity to level the playing field. In order to get ahead in the film production world and promote equality, “I encourage a lot of young women to take up the technical aspects,” says Choy.

But man or woman, young or old, anyone looking to sop up the glitter and glitz of Hollywood by working as a PA might want to think again. It’s a tough, tough world. “It’s great that you get to work with celebrities and what not, but it’s hard work. PAs are the soldiers of the production," says Mahr. “It’s a lot of grunt work and sometimes you plunge a toilet … but if you’re willing to be positive and put a smile on your face, you’ll definitely go a long way,” he adds.

If this less-than-rosy look at the profession sends aspiring PAs running for the door, they should likely keep on going. But for those willing to stick with it the potential for rewards is infinite. You just might have to wade through a little crap on the way.

Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler

[Photo Credit: Tim Denison/Getty Images]


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