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I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know

Every boss wants you to be proactive, to take care of things without checking with them every five minutes, to figure things out for yourself.

Except, of course, when they don’t.

Every once in awhile, I run into a situation like the following: the set PA called and said they needed a stand-by painter on set.

Most of the work that happens in the office is either getting ready for tomorrow’s shoot, or fixing what went wrong yesterday. The set, on the other hand, lives in the moment. They only have these twelve hours to film these eight pages on this location with these actors. If they can’t get the shot now, they may not be able to do it again later.

All of which is to say, when the set needs something, they need it immediately. Unless your hair’s on fire and your butt’s catching, you better get them the thing that they need.

In this case, as I said, they needed a stand-by painter. Why? I don’t know. Mine is not to reason why. The coordinator wasn’t around at the time, so I just called the construction department and said they needed a stand-by painter on set. the construction department said okay, and that was that.

Or so I thought.1

A little while later, the UPM came into the bullpen and asked, “Did you authorize the construction department to hire a stand-by painter?”

“What? No, I didn’t ‘authorize’ anything. The set asked me to get the stand-by painter, so I called construction and told them.”

“We don’t have a stand-by painter. They called a guy in with an eight hour guarantee to touch up a bit of floor. You need to ask me before you call in someone else.”

“I didn’t know they were going to hire someone else.”

“If you don’t know, you should ask,” he chided.

This was clearly one of those situations where no explanation was going to make him happy, so I just said, “It won’t happen again,” and moved on.2

But I really hate it when someone says, “If you don’t know something, ask.” Well, of fucking course. But what if I don’t know that I don’t know?

There was no reason for me to think they’d hire a new guy. Every show I’ve ever been on has a stand-by painter. There’s, like, twenty guys in our construction department; surely one of them knows how to paint. Hell, the PA asked for “the” stand-by painter, not “a” stand-by painter.

There was nothing about the situation that would lead me to think they were going to hire a new crew person. If they called and said they couldn’t find an actor, I wouldn’t assume they would just hire a different one to replace him.

I could just as easily seen the conversation going this way:

ME: “Hey, the set said they need the stand-by painter.”

UPM: “Why are you telling me? Don’t you know the stand-by painter is in the construction department?”

And it’s not just a one-time thing. People call all the time asking for stuff. I can’t run every little request past my superiors. At that point, they might as well answer the phones themselves.

There are times when you just don’t know something, and you don’t know that you don’t know it. And that’s exactly what happened.

What really bothers me is how short-sighted his response to this is. People so often extrapolate from the problem right in front of them and try to formulate a general rule. “You didn’t know? If you’d asked, you would’ve known. Next time, ask.”

But the next time I ask, you’ll think I’m an idiot. Or, you won’t be around, and I’ll wait, and you’ll get mad that I didn’t just take care of the problem myself, instead of waiting around for you. Or some damn thing.

And all I want from any UPMs and coordinators reading this is to realize that the solution to your problem today is not a universal solution. What might’ve worked in this situation may not work in the next one.

Sometimes, a mistake is just going to happen, despite our best efforts. You just have to live with that.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. This wouldn’t be much of a post if that really was that.
  2. Well, except for writing this post, I moved on.
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9 Responses

  1. Side note: if no camera scenic is hired and you ask painter to act as a camera scenic, it’s a union job so they rerate. No way to avoid that. What does your UPM want, no touchups of any kind to the set?

    1. Ultimately, Jess, yeah, I think that’s what he was going for. 🙂

  2. Isn’t there a call sheet and crew list to reference? That’d be the first thing I’d look for, before calling any off set people. It kinda gives away the lack of camera scenic. And whoever you spoke to in construction is an idiot for listening to a PA about hiring someone and not talking to the UPM. Manpower discussions is a daily occurrence between department heads and UPMs. It seems extremely strange that there was no conversation.

  3. You’ve forgotten that the stand by painter is the highest paid position below the line on the entire crew. That’s more than the 1st AD, more than the coordinator, and more than the camera operator. No wonder he was upset, that’s a 5 figure mistake.

    1. Are you sure about this? The last time I asked — a couple of years ago — the lead painter on a union show made somewhere between $42 and $45/hour, which at most works out to well under $400 for an eight hour call. A stand-by painter may get more due to the temporary nature of the work, but are you trying to tell me that he/she is paid more than a $1000.00 dollars for an eight hour call?

      I find that very hard to believe…

  4. That UPM is an idiot. I’ve never done a show that didn’t have a stand-by painter or art department person there, on set, ready to deal with such issues. The very title “stand-by painter” tells the whole story — he/she is on set, doing nothing at all (standing-by) in case a floor, set wall, or other on-camera item needs a little paint for whatever reason. That’s the job description. If your UPM doesn’t know that, I have to question his/her level of experience and qualifications to even be a UPM — and if he/she doesn’t understand the need for (and thus never bothered to authorize) having stand-by painter on set in the first place, then he/she is an even bigger idiot.

    And of course, such self-serving, ass-covering idiots always make sure that whenever something bad happens, it’s never their fault. When in doubt, blame the PA.

  5. This is part of what always bothers me about being a PA (or generally in many departments if you’re not a key memeber). They never want to give you too much information (for whatever reason), but then they’re frustrated when you don’t do something to their liking because you didn’t have the information to make a better decision. In a real world scenario, this would be called crappy management. Not to mention, trying to deflect the blame back on the person they are supervising. Ehh…*UPM fail.*

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