It’s like the equivalent of summer-camp for mostly young adults and recent college grads who fancy themselves filmmakers. Like a boot camp, weeding out the weak, it culls out the posers, wanna-bes, and otherwise pretenders. Of course this entire business is mostly about pretending, so we all fit in well together like Rudolph’s land of the “Misfit Toys”, and in some capacity or another we will all be “filmmakers” when this is over. For some this may be their first and only experience, but for most a job on a major motion picture as a Production Assistant will seduce them. I have no expectations when I arrive on set my first day at my first job as a PA, though I am prepared like a Boy Scout, even if I’m on the wrong side of thirty five.
The fourteen and fifteen hour days spent on your feet, in the hot, in the cold, in the rain, and in the wind, I imagine is closer to going to a boot camp than a band camp. Though, admittedly, I’ve been to neither in my life. We do however march all day like little worker ants running around to commands doled out over “walkies.” A well oiled machine of worker ants who’ve invaded Cleveland where most of the locals are cool, though at times can be pretty hostile when you tell them they can’t cross the street because you’re about to blow-up and flip an SUV.
“What?! It’s dangerous? What movie?! I live in this neighborhood! I work right there! Right across the street! I don’t want to cross at the cross walk! Safety my ass! This is total bullshit!” said a half dozen Cleveland pedestrians each day while we were there.
Another reason why “PA-ing” is our industries perfect entry level job is it tends to weed out those thin skinned twenty something’s with only aspirations, and lack of true grit. Though no matter how many battle hardened “rodeos” you’ve worked on, it’s hard to be prepared for the Cleveland lake effect cold as it blows in and turns late May back into winter. It’s fitting though when it’s almost Memorial Day and the Captain America sequel is appropriately subtitled: The Winter Soldier. Our production code name is ”Freezer Burn.” Seriously! But it’s more like Freezer Burnt after Day One.
It may be a bit of a mystery why someone as old I am would pursue, interview and ultimately work a PA job at this stage in the game. After all this is not my first rodeo either. I cut my teeth on my first indie feature at twenty three and I’ve been grinding it out in the entertainment and production business in one form or another since finishing my undergrad in Film Studies in the late ‘90s. I’ve taught a little, directed more than a gaggle of TV commercials, and as far as films go I’ve even managed a few indie feature producing and writing credits to my name. I also didn’t, as they say, “need the work.” I run a boutique production company here in Northeast Ohio called 2 Ticks & The Dog Productions, and one can actually make more money in a day directing T.V. spots (even a local T.V. spot) than a week on this PA job. By only the second day my back and aching bones kept asking me why we were even here. Our office back in Warren was cozy and warm. But then again our office doesn’t have exploding SUVs, Marvel’s big budget super-size catering and craft services, or Samuel L. Jackson in eye patch.
To put you in the thick of it, it’s like this: Walkie chatter reigns eminent all morning long from our 6:12am call time through to lunch, then slows to a near stop in the afternoon. As you stand around between takes you surf between the various production channels. Then you hear it.
“We’re rolling sound on this one so KEEP. IT. LOCKED.” (That means no lookie-loos or people crossing the camera’s path.) But sound, you think. We’re shooting second unit so sound for this scene will be mixed in post. Won’t it? The car crashes, the explosions, gun fire, etc…? Why would they be rolling sound?
And then you see it. The only traffic moving in between the stunt cars is one, lone, beige SUV. This vehicle hasn’t been in any of the previous days scenes. My “spider sense” is tingling. Flash back to the attractive Asian girl you noticed earlier on set. She seemed to be running traffic routes in preparation for something, but she wasn’t with stunts. Was she a handler of some sort? Tingle, tingle. The two pleasant African American women whom I earlier escorted across the street, positioning them in front of the other hundred plus on-lookers because they were both so nice. Were they just “regular” Clevelanders? Tingle, tingle. Only now does it become evident that the one wearing a pretty yellow dress is beaming with a kind of pride that only a grandmother could carry. Could it be? No. Maybe? Mr. Jackson’s grandma? Then it all adds up as the beige SUV stops at the corner.
From the passenger side, nonchalantly, cloaked under an aqua blue windbreaker, emerges the “King of Cool,” and with very little notice or fanfare from the on-lookers, he strolls down the side walk towards the cameras to film a few lines for what will be the climax of this chase scene we’ve been shooting for two weeks.
Of course the closest I get to Nick Fury while working as a second unit PA is passing his stunt double, Jimmy, at breakfast. But this one little moment from afar reminds me why I’m here, and possibly why I got into the movie business in the first place. Summed up simply it’s my “Royale with Cheese” moment. I may always remain three degrees from Kevin Bacon but now only one degree from Mr. Cool’s bad mother-fuckin’ ass.
Though aside from this one moment, and the experience and cache a job like this can add to the perception of your production resume, the true pay off is the friends you make through the experience itself. My “Road Dawgs,” Alex (Mahalo, bro!), Johnny “Batman,” Pete, Pittsburgh Barry, Detroit DeJuan, Melinda, Cal, and “The Kevins,” among many others made the experience what it was (and covered each other and myself during ten-ones, and ten-twos. That’s “walkie” lingo.)
So I shout out and thank you all because it was truly a cool way to spend a few weeks. Each night in my hotel room, I journal the first week on the job in hopes to give others a good sense of what it’s actually like to work on set. I share the experience as so there will be no misconceptions if you too one day decide to take a job PA’ing. Or if like me, after a fifteen year career, you decide to get your first taste of a mega budget studio tent pole. But that my friends’ is for the “sequel” to this article. Until then I’ll be jazzed sitting in a darkened theater to catch fellow Ohio filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While most likely you’ll be waiting until after the credits to catch a preview hint of what’s to come in Marvel’s next feature installment, all Freezerburn’s PA’s will be sitting through the end of the credits waiting to briefly catch our names roll by, and hoping they spelled them right. P.S. Hey Marvel, I never got my crew T-Shirt 😉