Following yesterday’s post, I had a few more thoughts on mistakes.

I used to be a personal assistant to a producer. He asked me if I ever wanted to be a director, and I said I did. He told me I could never do that job until I could do this job perfectly.

This statement made absolutely no sense to me, whatsoever. What could getting coffee and rolling calls have to do with directing a film?

There are many career paths in Hollywood, but some are more straightforward than others. Advancing within certain departments works much the same way it does in any line of work– with each promotion comes more pay and extra responsibilities; as you advance far enough, smaller responsibilities fall on those below you.

A best boy, for instance, does the same work as a grip or electric, with the added responsibilities of ordering and tracking equipment (among other things). This, in turn, relates to being a gaffer key grip, in that these department heads are responsible for budgeting for said equipment, as well as hiring crew.

Other careers make less sense. A set PA becomes a 2nd AD, who becomes a first AD, who suddenly becomes a UPM. You spend twenty years running around sets, and then suddenly you’re sitting at a desk?

Camera makes even less sense to me. The ability to load film does not reflect whatsoever on your ability to pull focus, which in turn has no bearing on your camera-operating skill. Then, you’re promoted to DP, and suddenly you’re in charge of the grips and electrics, too!

Directing is an extreme version of this. Directors often come from being department heads. This makes sense for a DP, who’s already in charge of three departments. Less so for a costume designer.

But the absolutely most nonsensical career path is that of the writer.

In TV, producers will often hire their assistants to be writers. But what does getting the boss’s lunch order right have to do with writing a script?

This is what they mean by “paying your dues”– lying. There are jobs that must be done, but bear no relation to what you ultimately want to do. The older generation, including my old boss, simply lie to the next generation to get them to work hard at an essentially meaningless job.

And I’ll probably be doing the same thing in twenty years, I guess.

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11 Responses

  1. btw, I love working with Directors that have done every job on a film set, and not just once. Having done those jobs, they truly understand everyone’s craft, and the time it takes to accomplish goals.

    I always find that the directors (insert any person in any industry here) that complain and act irrational have the least understanding of how to manage people and how to accomplish a shot in the most effective manner. Those directors lack the respect that crews like to give to hard working, honest, loyal directors, and it further perpetuates their lack of confidence and friendliness.

  2. Loaders learn how the Camera Dept. works. They can move up to 2nd Ac and further learn how the set works. They can watch the DP/Gaffer light, and see how the Operator helps the DP and the Dolly grip…etc. 2nding for me is a lot of organizing and watching. 1sting is a different beast all together. The camera Dept makes the most sense, since it has been around the longest. I agree, there is no logical way for someone to “become” a director. You can have money and a young DP and shoot your own project, but it doesn’t make you good.

  3. “But that doesn’t change the fact that many good assistants get undeserved writing assignments”

    Sadly, that is quite possibly true. But I do still think that what’s learned from being on set or in the room, and starts to become second nature, *does* make the person with that experience the better candidate than the one without…

  4. You hit the nail on the correct end as far as the camera department goes. Camera assistants are perhaps the most anal people in the world, many will wake up in the middle of the night wondering if they reset the f-stop to compensate for the filter change on take 5 of a given scene that ended 7 hours ago.
    O.K., anal but (sorry) their job is purely mechanical, no aesthetics involved (i.e., composition / framing) that a camera operator has to catch on the fly, no artistic judgements as to the ratio of the sun lit side of a face to the shadow side, no idea about screen direction, etc…….
    My work as a DP started from a producer that knew my work as a still photographer and also knew that I was hungry for a break, would work cheap, and could hit the ground running. Never underestimate the “cheap” part of that sentence.
    And for being a director? I’ve only directed one feature film, but what I found was that you’d be far better off working as an editor or script supervisor before making that jump, get to know what you need to cut a scene first and then worry about getting performance out of what’s often not much different from a piece of wood when you’re on the set.

  5. Well, being a good PA is a double edged sword. Since I worked in commercials, the food change was a bit easier to climb.

    back in day (I’m so old now it scares me), working on commercials as a PA was more than just getting coffee. Some days I was a grip, some days I was an electrician, other days, I helped camera. And everyday, I was slave to production.

    I wanted to get into camera. I read about and studied every single camera mag out there. I would close my eyes imagining loading a mag for a specific camera from a manual I read. I had never ever touched one though.

    One day, a 1st AC asked me if I knew how to load? (they didn’t give him a 2nd to save money). YES! I almost screamed. And that was the beginning of the beginning. My name got out as being good and most important for a loader, really really anal. LOL

    worked my way up the food chain and eventually became a DP.

    So, in retrospect, I was an anal PA, worked harder than anyone else, remembered and studied, not just how to do something but the way people did things. So when called upon to do whatever in each dept., just by observing, I knew how to do most things on the set.

    Learning the lingo, the myths and gags, the running jokes, the way the director likes his coffee, knowing how far to push things and understanding the most important thing every PA needs to know: knowing when to keep your mouth shut. 🙂 I realized early on, that above the line people are really nervous, high strung, nuts, so giving them too much info, makes the freak out a little. So I gave them just enough info to make them happy and took car of the details myself, so whatever they needed done looked seamless aka less stress for them.

  6. GH-

    I’m not saying being an AD is completely irrelevant to being a UPM. Hell, I think a lot of writers and producers should spend more time on set, to see just how their scripts are made into shows.

    I’m just saying it’s not exactly the most logical next step. PA to AD (or production coordinator) is kind of a straight line, whereas an AD jumping into the office is a bit of a left turn.

    As for being in the writers’ room, I understand the apprenticeship aspect of it. In fact, I’ve covered that very topic in the past.

    My point is, you hire (and fire) an assistant based on his assisting abilities, not his writing abilities. If there’s a correlation between the two, it’s probably negative. But that doesn’t change the fact that many good assistants get undeserved writing assignments and, I suspect, many good writers have been fired before they got their chance, because they got the cole slaw instead the potato salad.

  7. I worked as an Intern for Matthew McConaughey for almost 4 months. Aside from answering phones and emails he had me washing dishes, sweeping the porch, and going on beer runs. It didn’t hit me for the first month that I wasn’t learning anything and they had no intention of seeing me succeed. What are your long term aspirations? writing? directing?

  8. You don’t think UPMs need an understanding of the production process that can be gained by being involved in that process? You don’t think you’re learning things every day that would make you a good UPM if you chose that career path? Yikes. I’d say “open your eyes” except I know from your blog that you DO see what’s going on around you. I guess you don’t value that experience?

    As for my department, Writer’s Assistants often attend story meetings, do research, clean up outlines while typing them, and write ancillary materials. If it’s a friendly office they’ve had a chance to throw out ideas. So their boss has had a chance to assess their abilities up close. You don’t get promoted from assistant to writer for being good at getting lunch — getting lunch is indeed the “dues you pay” to have the chance to observe and participate in the job that you are aiming for.

  9. This post reminds me of the Peter Principle…

    “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.”
    If you can’t do the job, you stay in that job. If you can do the job, then you get promoted.

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