My visit to
the set of "The Connecticut Kid" last week filled me with a profound sense of relief that I no
longer work in the film industry, which I did for 2`BD years. I moved to Seattle in 1997 to learn
how to make documentaries and ended up first an intern and then as a production assistant in the
fine art of making commercials, where there is more money.
A production assistant, or "P.A.," is the very bottom rung
of the film world. Even as an intern, I was pitching ideas for shows and helping with bids for
jobs. But production assistants get paid a minimum of $175 a day - enough to merit quitting my job
moonlighting as a waitress at "La Cocina."
It was a deal with the devil, but at least the work was
always changing: different crews, different locations, different bosses, different tasks.
Basically, the PA's job is to do whatever anyone tells you to do as fast as possible.
My first job as a PA involved directing traffic at
Microsoft. Another PA and I were given walkie talkies and told to hold traffic until we heard,
"Release traffic." After the first shot, I heard "Release traffic" and waved the stopped cars
through. Unfortunately, so did the other PA, and there was nearly a major pileup as a result. The
tongue lashing we received was not the last.
Often, verbal abuse arose over problems with coffee
orders. Working long hours in the land of Starbucks meant daily "latte runs." I would sometimes
have 15 or 20 detailed coffee orders, including one of my regular employer's favorites: decaf
mocha latte with whipped cream and a straw. I once had a director of photography scream at me
because an electrician had accidentally taken her decaf soy cappuccino, and I was back in the car
headed to Starbucks.
Driving was a big part of the job, whether it was
shuttling actors and crew members to and from the airport in a 15-passenger van, speeding film to
the lab at night after the shoot ("go to the bathroom now because you cannot stop for anything!"),
or running errands. That meant PAs needed electronic leashes so they could be reached if the
producer needed a pack of cigarettes, for example, or uncarbonated water with essence of lemon. My
pager would go off on the highway, and I'd have to quickly pull off and find a pay phone - fearful
of some catastrophe - and be told, "Oh, we just wanted to check where you were. When will you be
back with lunch?"
Sometimes I would "drive the directions," which involved
driving the fastest way from the production office or out-of-town crew's hotel to the filming
location and writing down every turn's odometer reading. The next day usually meant starting work
an hour before everyone else so that I could leave fluorescent signs with arrows along the drive
to the location, in case large type directions with specific distances weren't simple enough. This
was the scariest part of the job, since I often found myself jumping out of my car at a red light
to tape an arrow to it before the light changed or swerving off a twisty off-ramp to place a sign,
praying no one would rear end me when I reentered traffic at the blind curve.
Once I was in charge of driving a female producer's warm
breast milk from the set to the hotel where a nanny would feed it to the infant. Later the nanny
arrived at the set with the sick baby, who threw up some breast milk in the office/motorhome. You
better believe that it wasn't the nanny or producer who got on her knees to blot up the
During these sorts of incidents, I would recall the
revenge tactics of more experienced PAs. One took great delight in spitting in the food of a cruel
executive producer every day: "It was hard to disguise the lugey in a wrap, but Chinese food was a
piece of cake!" Another confided that she had peed (when she was well-hydrated, of course) in the
water bottle of a nasty director.
There were parts of the job that were less degrading and
vaguely interesting. On an overnight shoot for a grocery store commercial, I was assigned to help
the food prepper. She and I would spray poison on fruit and pies to make them look shiny and
appetizing. Later, I would have to document everything we'd used so that the store could charge us
for the ruined food.
Another time, I was working on the set of a bad movie
called "Ten Things I Hate About You." One of my jobs was getting breakfast for the teen-aged stars
and escorting them to and from the set. After a few days, I learned there were two sisters,
probably 7 and 9 years old, who were huge fans of teen heartthrob Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They had
come to the set hoping for a glimpse and maybe an autograph from the young star. I told him about
the adorable pair and asked if he would take a minute to sign an autograph for them, and he told
me, "I don't believe in fans." That's one way I learned that child actors are usually socially
Another job included stacking 50-pound sandbags in a
dirty, downtown Seattle alley to create a flooded corridor and then clutching the soaked and
soiled sandbags to my chest as I loaded them into a truck. (I was then told to dump them near
train tracks or somewhere "they wouldn't be noticed.")
Once it was established that I could be trusted, a common
job was returning clothes that actors had worn, or props, to stores for a refund. Of course, we
could never admit they had been used, and I'd feel guilty as I took back Chinese fans to a mom and
pop store in the International District or $1,000 worth of clothes to Urban Outfitters.
But like I said, the money was good, and it took longer
than it should've for me to realize I needed to get out. I was wandering around a public beach at
sunset, asking couples to leave so that we could shoot a phone book commercial, when I realized
how ticked off I would be if someone did that to me.
After that, I announced that I was moving to Taiwan to try
a new career: teaching English. It wasn't a good fit either, but, as Michael Ende wrote, that's
another story for another time.
- Jen Reeder