Making good money in the creative arts is an intimidating Everest of a goal. It's designed to keep people who aren't serious about the work and discipline away. All of us like to say that we know this, and that we're going to be one of the few that stick it out until we get to the top. But every day, we start to see why everyone keeps jumping ship.
I'm not yet giving up on the dream, as I don't think I've encountered nearly enough difficulties to really break my back, but I have learned that saying is easier than doing. The foremost example in my life is the time I tried to be a production assistant. I got it in my head to be a writer for TV and film, because I lived in this area anyway, and the prize (while the odds of reaching it were slim) was more rewarding than my other career goal of novelist. But the path to writer is through writer's assistant, which is accessed via production assistant.
Production assistant is the term for entry level, all-purpose set hand. Here's how you know you're a competent PA: No one notices you. As a PA, you can only make things worse. On your best day, the show business machine continues on as it is supposed to. You facilitate its regular action, and the only difference you can make is when you screw up.
I answered an ad to PA for free on a student film for 10 days in 2010. It was a student film, so it was dime a dozen in show business resumes, but that's how the system works. You do a bunch of PA gigs for free to build up knowledge, network your way into real PA jobs, and then work from there. Or, learn enough until you can cold call production companies with confidence.
Either way, it was rough going. I wasn't about to give up on something without trying. So, with a little bit of courage, I got in touch with a student film over Mandy and signed up. The first surprise was that I was accepted. The second was that I had to report to the Angeles National Forest; a location described as "past the white trailer."
Angeles National is much more of a forest than Griffith Park. Griffith is a great place but it's a tourist attraction for hikers and never too disconnected from the metropolis around it. Angeles is a seemingly untouched slice of nature, and nature does not accommodate. There is no reception, the roads are winding, the few signs are unhelpful, and doing anything is difficult for those of us who are not survival-savvy. I took the long drive until I found a white trailer, situated next to some log cabin ruins. I was officially over my head.
No one appeared to be there. I pulled over the the side of the road and waited for a few minutes until a truck parked across the way and the driver stepped out. I jumped to meet him, who turned out to be in charge of stunts, although considering the nature of the film he was more of a safety expert. We were filming in the hillsides of the wilderness, which were cold and dusty yet not as thickly forested. It was the sight of California wildfires years before, and many trees hadn't grown back. It was a scar on the earth.
The first day I learned how arduous the job of a PA could be. It was filled with equal parts boredom and strenuous labor. When I wasn't baking in the sun in my overdressed jeans and polo, I was running around in the pitch blackness with a flashlight or pouring buckets of dirt in front of a fan to simulate fog. It wasn't the hardest work I've ever done, but it was certainly more tiring, sweaty and dirty than I expected. Most of all, the hours were nuts. We went until midnight or so, and stopped only because that was legally required when some of the actors were children. Day one clocked in around 14 hours, and I dreaded the 10 day commitment.
Day two we took over a supermarket in North Hollywood. I did the time-honored PA base work of guarding the craft services table, and then proceeded to mess up shots. Once, I left my radio on and it went off to ruin a perfectly good gate. Another time, I had to reel in cable (quietly) for the camera guy and avoid tripping up the boom mic operators. Of course, that didn't go well for my first time. I would have fired myself, but I was the only PA they had, so more or less they were stuck with my dumb shit.
The locations and my responsibilities varied greatly, but the one constant was that it was always very educational and terrible for my self-esteem. I know I'm not a bad worker. But I do know that I need to sink my teeth into something to be good at it, and 10 days is not enough time. There was the day where I just let myself soak in the rain as they filmed inside a convenience store deep in Los Angeles. I trailed a camera/car rig down a long road near some industrial sectors over and over. I bought cigarettes for the producer.
One of the last days I was there, I was working with an assistant director who clearly did not like the work I was doing. I didn't blame him, and mostly internalized it. I was relegated to a lot of guard duty. I stood in an alleyway in Crenshaw for hours, asking cars to go around, and explaining to them, no, it's not really a film, just a student film at USC. Once:
"Why you got a radio?" said a kid passing by. "You with the police?"
That night, I also gave a crazy person a call sheet (revealing the location and times for the next day's shoot) by accident. That was also my last night on set. I don't know if it was technically fired, but I was told that since the last day they were going into the desert, my odyssey was unnecessary. But I was thanked, and at the very least, one of the Producers was cool with me.
Even though I had signed up for the full 10 days, I had in actuality only done 7. Other than the last day when I got cut off, I had also asked for two days off because of a going away party, even though I technically only needed one, but I was hating the experience. It wasn't that it was hard work. I am not afraid of reaching that delirious, physical limit, which I have done several times over. It's mostly the lack of reward associated with it. When I work hard for my internship, I know I will be there for a while, so my work is reflected in good opinion. When I work hard in college for my student organizations, I knew that it would result in funds for the club, or a great show, or a better club overall.
But with being a PA on a student film? You pretty much have to make your life for the duration of that shoot entirely about that project. Regardless of how you feel about it, or it's quality, or what it means. It's a strange, uncomfortable way to live your life. The worst of it is that people do this for free, to network and learn. I was talking to people of various positions, and they were in this game for years. I couldn't imagine going from film set to film set, dedicating the entirety of my soul and well being, to a new project for no pay. It's not merely a rough job, but a rough way to live.
Maybe I was going at it the wrong way. I've heard of people landing professional PA jobs with little to no pay. I'm sure knowing that there was a paycheck awaiting you at the end of it makes dedicating your time, body and mind to someone else's film easier. I could do this a few more times, but I couldn't do this without knowing it's going somewhere. There just had to be a better way.