It’s 6AM, and still dark. Kirk, Ideene, and I wait in the crew parking lot, groggy and disheveled. A shuttle van arrives to take us to basecamp. We shuffle over, trying to untangle walkie-talkie cables from crew badge lanyards. Overworked, bleary-eyed, and strung out on coffee or other tonic of choice, a sorrier bunch, you haven’t seen.

We are the lowest of the low. Bottom rung of the movie-biz ladder. Wholehearted and wishful, at least in our first few days. Then we learn.

We are Production Assistants.

In the van, one by one we tune our walkies to channel one.

“Walkie check?”
“Good check.”

Moviemaking doesn’t do 9-to-5. Twelve-hour days are a jumping off point – many workdays stretch longer. Does it end? Eventually, but not before the union workers cash in on their overtime hours. Most of the crew, including grips (rigging), electrics (lighting) and cameramen, have union status. What about us production assistants? Are we in a union? Do we get overtime? Fat chance. If crew call is 8AM, we have to be on set and ready to shine shoes at 7AM. Oftentimes, if many background extras are needed, it’s earlier. Then, once wrap is called for the day, the production assistants remain for an hour or two afterwards collecting out times, passing out call sheets, and performing other under-appreciated duties. (Fortunately we don’t actually shine shoes.)

With my walkie tuned and ready for transmission, I wait for channel one to heat up. It’s still early, but in a half hour it’ll buzz like LAX air traffic control.

At basecamp, we hop out of the van and scramble like cockroaches to a handful of potential roosts: set, catering, extras holding, or basecamp. PAs shouldn’t be seen together. Groups give the appearance of needless chatting. If there’s three or more PAs together, it’s not a crowd. It’s a PA Bomb.

My regular morning haunt is the catering truck. Here I am lucky to be able to eat a hot breakfast of my choosing, albeit, standing up. PAs must never sit, it’s just part of the job. The crew slowly trickles in. Between bites of bacon I hand out call sheets (legal-sized documents containing crucial information for the day) and sides (a detailed list of the day’s scenes) to anyone in need.

It takes a good hour or two for the assistant director, the director, the DP and all the crew doing their bidding to set up for the first shot of the day. As soon as the dust settles and we PAs manage to figure out what is going on, we formulate our own plan and assume our positions. We are responsible for the smooth operation of the entire production. If anyone is talking too loud, we tell them to be quiet. If a door needs to stay shut, we guard it. If a package needs to get to a producer, we deliver it. If the extras need water, we procure it. If screaming fans bombard the set, we close-line ’em. Whatever it is, we get it done.

On many days – especially if a surplus of PAs have been called – we are assigned posts. We must stand at the assigned spot and generally make sure none of the crew in the vicinity cause a racket. Then, we parrot. Whatever the AD says over the headset, we yell out so the rest of the crew can hear what is happening near the camera at any given moment.

Exhausted PA

It’s a constant battle to stay upbeat and positive, yet remain unnoticed and appear useful. A PA should always look busy, or at least ready for action. Sometimes I become exhausted with the typical PA modus operandi, so I emulate Ideene – she can befriend a cardboard box. She could care less if she appears to be working or not, and everyone loves her for it. With a booming voice and petite stature, she flits and floats like a butterfly from person to person. A monarch with a megaphone.

The afternoon melts into evening. The craft services truck cooks up hot dogs to tide everyone over. News of the snack travels fast, and before I get a chance to grab one myself, I’m taking orders via wakie and special delivering hot dogs with ketchup, hot dogs with onions, hot dogs with ketchup, mustard and onions to the AD, the director and anyone else who says please and smiles big enough. Work doesn’t slow much, but the actors seize the opportunity to slink offset. Between bites the AD yells into the headset, “Where is number 3? Where is number 7? Can we please invite them back to set now?!” Scrambling, the PAs try to round everyone up. Good grief, let’s please finish this thing.

We’re fifteen hours in. Right about now the producers are digging for change in the couch cushions because the director will accept nothing but perfection, so again the AD yells, “Quiet all around…Rolling!” and we parrot. The additional takes don’t bother the crew – heck, they’re getting overtime – except the beer that’s waiting on their equipment trucks is starting to warm. The picture is up, the 1st AD yells, “Background action! And… ACTION!” The sun is sinking, the light retreating, the extras are now moving like zombies, and a big sigh comes from our minds, because the sound of a real sigh could ruin the audio and prompt another take.

Kirk on the Greektown Set

With small ceremony, we stumble onto the martini shot. The last shot. Really? we ask each other, It’s the martini? But we are too exhausted to declare triumph. Then, it’s official: we’re wrapped. The AD jumps on channel one for the last time. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for all your hard work today. This is your 1st AD, signing off.”

Later, after the lights are shut off, the cameras are back in their cases, the costumes are hung in their trailer, after the crew has started drinking, the actors have started smoking, and after every last extra has gone home…

Finally, the production assistants switch off their walkies.