10 Mistakes New Production Assistants Should Avoid

If you want to know what a PA does, you’ve come to the right place. Various TAPAs have been telling you what to do for a long time. You can still buy the TAPA T-shirt with the definition of a PA.

But it’s not often that I tell you what not to do. So, as a public service, here are some common mistakes I see freshly minted PAs make all the time:

1. Thinking You’re Still in Film School

No one wants to hear your opinions about the mise en scène, or how this movie fits in the director’s oeuvre. You’re here to get coffee and lock up the set. There’s an old saying– “A PA needs a car, a computer, and a phone. Notice I didn’t say brain.”

This is the real world, where we actually, physically make movies.1 Save the theory for after work; right now, we have to shoot.

2. Being TOO Helpful

A PA’s duties can be fuzzy and undefined. If pretty much anyone asks you to do something, you should be prepared to do it. Film school and low-budget productions also encourage fluidity between the departments.

But on a union show, everyone has a job, and every job has someone to do it. If it’s not your job, don’t do it. Not because you’re lazy or want to avoid work, but because you don’t know how to do it right. Even something as simple as coiling cable can be screwed up, if you haven’t heard of over-undering. Or, if you do know how to over-under, but didn’t know that only applies to audio and video cables, not power cables.

3. Talking Too Much

There’s a time and a place for conversation. This is not it. This is the time for paying attention.

As Joaquin Sedillo put it on Crew Call: “You have two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. Use them proportionally.”

4. Being Unprepared

Ignoring the pithy sarcasm in #1, there are a few things you should always keep handy, whether you’re on set or in the office: pens, Sharpies, a small flashlight, sunscreen, a multi-tool. Some of these the production will supply, others not.

It’s also not a bad idea for set PAs to have their own surveillance mic. Production may provide one, but it’s been used.2

5. Not Knowing What’s Going On

Everyone assumes the PAs have special, inside information about what’s happening, and more importantly, what’s going to happen next. This is often true. But you shouldn’t tell anybody the stuff you heard while carting the producers around from the office to the stage.

On the other hand, you should know all of the official information. Keep a callsheet and one-liner with you at all times. Know what scene is coming up next. Know what the next set-up is, if you can. Know if lunch is going to be early or late. Know the actors’ call times. Know everything. (See item #3.)

And if someone asks a question you don’t know, say, “Let me get back to you with that information.”

6. Not Networking

“Networking” is a shitty term with a shitty reputation. Deservedly so. It’s often used by that guy who hands out business cards at lunch.

The Piven knows all.
Listen to Piven.

What you should be doing is making friends. Both on set and off. This is how you get jobs. Not by blindly sending your email to every show on the production weekly. You land gigs through recommendations and referrals from people who actually know you.

And this is when I remind you that you should come to the next TAPArty, at the Craftsman in Santa Monica, on the 21st of September.

7. Being a Downer

Everyone thinks they have the hardest job. Including you. That’s totally fine.

Don’t tell anyone that. Even if you’re right, even if you’re having the worst day imaginable, complaining will only make things worse. No one likes a downer. They won’t want to be around you, and they won’t recommend you in the future. (See #6.)

Every day should be the greatest day of your life. You know why? Because you work in a goddamn dream factory. Quit complaining.

8. Asking Too Many Questions

Your boss wants you to handle things. When she asks you to do something, just go do it. Don’t ask why. For the love of God, don’t ask how. Figure it the fuck out.

9. Not Asking Enough Questions

You don’t want to talk too much (cf. #3); you don’t want to ask too many questions (cf. #8). But sometimes you need clarification. Sometimes you don’t even know that you need clarification.

And there’s the rub. Think carefully about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you can figure out. Only then should ask a question, if it’s merited.

But don’t be afraid to ask. You want to be right, not just fast.

10. Saying No

I can’t believe I have to say this one. You’re a production assistant. Your job is to assist. Everyone. All the time.

But I constantly hear PAs saying, “Go ask So-and-so,” or, “Do I have to?” or just straight up, “No.” I mean, honestly, how is this person employed?

There is only one time to say no, and that’s when there is imminent, physical danger.

* * *

Share this list with any new PAs you know, and maybe we can eliminate some of these in the next generation.

If you have any more Don’ts to add to the list, leave them in the comments below!

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Or virtually. But you know what I mean.
  2. Ew.
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3 Responses

  1. I definitely agree with most of these, especially the last one. There is hardly a time as a PA where you have the luxury of saying “no.” The two times that come to mind where I should have said no was when I was told to sweep/pick up pieces of cars that were blown up. The material and liquid was highly toxic and of course production did not even provide masks to wear let alone gloves. Another time was was on my last job where we had to move a techno crane’s arm up numerous flights of stairs in a building in downtown LA. It was highly ridiculous and we all put our bodies at risk. Remember that if you get hurt and cannot walk or carry anything, you are pretty much useless to anyone and most likely will not be working.

    Being a downer is the quickest way to not get called back. Don’t complain. Hide your displeasure and move along. You really find out who has what it takes at hour 18 with no end is sight for wrap. Looks on the faces will speak louder than words.

    I do disagree with the comment about not needing a brian. You definitely need one of those 😉 This will set you apart from a majority of the other PA’s you work with.

    Good post.

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