Monday, December 8, 2008

Eight Things They Didn't Teach You in Film School...

Granted, most people who read this blog either aren't in the Film Biz, or Film School is in their distant past, so this post will be of limited utility to them. On the other hand, I expect someday to be recognized as an Eminent Authority, thereby making this post incalculably valuable to future readers who will seek it out from my archives. To you, future reader, I say, "You're welcome".

1. Lots of people make a lucrative career doing Craft Service.

Yeah, sure! You went to school to become a Director. Maybe you're willing to settle for being a Director of Photography, but that's as far as you're willing to compromise your dreams. Good for you.

Guess what? The vast majority of people on a set are not the Director...and odds are you won't be either. Do yourself a favor. Stay after a movie and watch the credits. There's about 10 minutes of peoples' names whizzing by who all worked on the movie and didn't direct it. Those are good gigs. And the Director is fucked if they're not really good at their jobs.

Unless you're really special, you'll end up doing one of those jobs instead of directing. In fact, unless you're fairly special you'll end up selling auto parts or insurance or fixing computers. (I'm making no value judgment about selling auto parts or insurance or fixing computers; I'm just saying that people who do those things do not decide what Harry Potter is going to say in the next movie.)

2. Getting a job on a movie does not mean you get to watch the movie get shot.

For the vast majority of people, getting your first job means being a Production Assistant. There are P.A.'s in pretty much every department and none of them are getting paid to watch the movie get shot. Maybe you're working in the office. The closest you'll get to set is when you get the honor of running paperwork to the Producer on location. Maybe you're working in Wardrobe...doing laundry in the trailer.

If you're in Production, you might be herding the extras back and forth between the set and the Holding Area. If you're a Set P.A., you're doing lockups; making sure the crew knows when to be quiet for a take, keeping civilians from inadvertently walking into the shot. The fact is, if you're in Production, your proper position is with your back facing the set. If you're not looking outward, odds are you're not doing your job.

3. Be careful what you say on your resume.

This is pretty universal advice, but it bears saying anyway. And it actually falls into some sub-parts.

A.) Don't lie about what you worked on. I've been handed resume's by people who claimed to have worked in the Locations Dept. on movies where I was the manager. I didn't remember them. Fail!

B.) Don't inflate the scope of your involvement. If you were a day-player on a movie, make that clear. It's no strike against you and people resent it when you try to make it look like you were on for the run of the show.

C.) Don't try to puff up the importance of your job. If your resume' says you "balanced and accounted for Production Expenses", I'll assume you reconciled your Petty Cash. Big Fucking Deal. If your resume' says you "oversaw the comfort and well-being of Executives", I'll assume you picked up the Producer's dry cleaning and called in the lunch orders. If your resume' says you "interfaced with the public to facilitate the filming process", you were doing lockups.

Just give your job title, the department you worked in, and your department head. Those of us who are hiring know what's involved in the job.

4. Garbage Maintenance (Note: this applies to all P.A.s on commercials but only Locations P.A.s on features.)

A.) Any trashbags larger than small kitchen bags need to be the heavy-duty contractor bags. You may either take my word for this or learn it the hard way the first time you find yourself wearing the contents of some flimsy-ass bag.

B.) When you call your garbage company to have the dumpster swapped out for an empty one, they won't get to you for a day or two. Plan ahead.

5. Toilets

A.) There's no such thing as too many toilets.

B.) Portable toilets are just plain nasty. Get Production to spring for the best ones available.

C.) Occam's Razor does not apply to clogged toilets in Extras' Holding. It will be clogged for the stupidest, most complicated reason imaginable. (I once had to call in a plumber to snake the pipes and discovered that an extra had tried to flush a pair of underwear.)

6. Permissible Deceptive Behavior.

There's a common misperception that most people on set just stand around all day. While it is true that there's a lot of standing around involved, that's because things happen in stages. Electric may not look like they're doing anything, but that will be because they're staying out of the way while the set gets dressed. And the Set Dressers have to wait for the Director and D.P. to finish blocking the scene. The Sound Department obviously has nothing to record until the camera rolls. These people all have a good reason to be waiting to do their jobs. You don't!

O.K. fine. Maybe you really don't have something to be doing every minute of the day. I suggest, however, that you create the appearance of having something to do every minute of the day. You don't want to be seen sitting. You may be only heading to Craft Service for another cup of coffee, but walk there purposefully! Aimless wandering should be done as if it is a mission!

Trust me. If you spend the first eight hours of the day purposefully scurrying about, the first time the Producer will notice you is when you decide to spend a few minutes flirting with the cute extra at Craft Service. Fair? Hell no. But you will be judged harshly for this momentary lapse.

7. Beat your boss to work, (but don't be annoying).

Being on time is a cardinal rule of any job, but especially for jobs in film. If your boss has to do something that is your job because you're even 5 minutes late, your boss will hate you. Your boss already worked his way up the ladder, having done the shit jobs when he got started. He has hired you for the express purpose of doing the shit jobs so he won't have to do them any more.

Having said that, your main purpose in beating your boss to work is so that you are seen to have beaten him to work. Asking him what he wants you to do is asking him to work before he's ready. He's there early to have a quiet cup of coffee with nobody bugging him. If you make him start working earlier than he's ready, you're annoying the shit out of him. As long as you've been seen, you've succeeded. He'll start bossing you around when he's ready. (Also, review Number 6.)

8. Thou shalt not Fuck up.

Studio Executives are notorious for Fucking Up. They make Big Decisions. Those Big Decisions often have disastrous unforeseen consequences. They get fired. They reappear three weeks later with a better job at a different Studio. They have Fucked Up.

You, however are not being paid to make decisions, much less Big Decisions. You are being paid to do exactly what the fuck your boss told you to do...nothing more, nothing less. You are expected to follow instructions to the letter and not to take initiative...except when you're expected to take initiative. Since it is entirely impossible to magically divine those situations where initiative is expected, this rule is a total crap shoot. You'll probably get this one wrong at least as often as not. Fair? Hell no. But its a fair bet that nobody in Film School told you about this and I just did. And I'm not even charging you anything.

You're Welcome.


Ilya said...

Ok, turning Rule 6 inside out, if I were to sit on my ass for 8 hours a day and then purposefully do one small chore, would the Producer suddenly not notice someone he's never seen before now doing something very purposefully? And would that not be a good thing for my career?

Tania said...

re: Rule #3 Gods, I wish it worked that way in the places I've been. Swear to FSM, If you put down the job title only nobody can assume what you did, but if you fluff the living hell out of it, you get the interview.


Eric said...

I'm going to have to disagree with 3B, Nathan: per Wagner's Rules, I was a PA on one feature length and a painter on a short, therefore I am a filmmaker and DGA-qualified, thank you very much.

On another note, my friend's short "Altar" is about the toilet in 5C.

(I'd include a link to "Altar," but it's scheduled for a non-embedded Friday Night Movie later this week, so I'm going to be a jerk and say "wait for it." Sorry. Quotas, schedules, etc.)

Anonymous said...

My company has three completely different types of 1) program managers and 2) business analysts, only one of which are even remotely like the industry standard. So, Rule 3 wouldn't work in my field either.

Ilya said...

In other words, you're screwed no matter what. I knew there was a reason I did not go into the film business.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I'll have you know that when I was an extra for TV I never once clogged up a toilet. Not with my underwear or any other item of clothing. I'm just happy that I didn't do much location work, because yeah, those Portable Toilets are nasty.

If you want to work at all in entertainment and watch what's being taped, move to Los Angeles and become an audience page for sitcoms. The pay sucks and sometimes the audience can be a bit of a handful, but you do get to watch the entire show (all 4+ hours of taping) and it can actually be fun. If you're really lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view), an up-and-coming actor may lay across your lap (it was the end of the first season).

Nathan said...


Actually working is a tactic that has met some success.


We usually have holding areas with adequate indoor plumbing, but if you're shooting a real crowd scene, you're still gonna come up short in the toilets department. (The crew gets the honeywagon, though.)

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I was lucky enough not to have to worry about real crowd scenes. The closest was when I worked on "Thieves" at the Glendale Transportation Center. A lot more people than I was used to, but not so many that the indoor bathrooms of the station weren't manageable. I'm not sure how they worked that. I mostly worked on-set for shows like "ER" and "Judging Amy" - though I only did so for a few months.

Michael Taylor said...

Great post, Nathan. This should be required reading for all eager young PAs.

Nathan said...

Jeez Joshua (who signs in as Sharon). So glad you like the blog. And I'll even leave your comments up in the future if you don't post links for an auto loan.