Joshua Friedman has recently written the book Getting It Done: The Ultimate Production Assistant Guide. Written with advice, lessons and techniques garnered from working in New York, Friedman’s book goes into great detail on all of the most significant knowledge needed for those looking to begin work in film and television. Defined within is all the necessary terminology, the differences between shooting on the East Coast vs the West Coast, the essential crew members, their equipment, and their roles as well as how a production assistant fits into the world of entertainment. Regardless of the genre you’re working in, if you make the commitment to be a union or non-union filmmaker, this book offers the building blocks of knowledge needed for a proper foundation. The production assistant’s role is the entry level position to working in show business. For those looking to break into the industry and learn more about what is expected on a film set, this book is the quintessential know-how needed to hit the ground running and succeed where others fail.
In your book you discuss dealing with talent and the needs of actors & directors. What’s the best way to deal with difficult personalities? Any stories you can share?
The best advice I can give you is to smile and keep yourself even keeled. I was once on a movie where a day-player showed up on set about 30-minutes late. I found him standing on the street outside his car arguing with the parking coordinator about whether or not he could take the spot. As the coordinator tells the actor “no, you can’t park here”, the actor becomes more enraged and each of these gentleman began feeding each other. I noticed the situation escalating and literally jump in body blocking the men from each other. I calmly get the men to settle as I tell them both, “Tell me what the situation is, and we’ll work something out.” I took the actor’s keys and sent him to his trailer to grab breakfast, I negotiated a spot close to the trailer with the parking coordinator and everything was status quo. Basically the steps are as follows:
- Assess the situation
- Calmly get involved in an unbiased way
- Separate the person from the problem
- Find a plausible solution.
You address the concerns and procedures of safety on film sets. Have you ever witnessed a stunt gone wrong or a similar situation?
Safety is always a major concern. Fortunately, I’ve never seen a stunt gone wrong. Though I’ve heard stories of guys losing thumbs, crashing into lampposts and flipping over cars. It’s dangerous stuff, that’s why those guys get paid the “Big bucks”
What are some of the key differences between studio projects and those independently financed?
Studio pics tend to have more money, and stricter rules and policies. If you’re working for a studio there are many more hoops to jump through and rules to follow than if you’re working on an independently financed pic where the producers are controlling the strings, not the executives.
Another key difference is the equipment used. You may see 5-10 cameras on a movie like Salt or Pelham 123, but on a low budget film like It’s Kind of a Funny Story most days you only shoot with 1 camera, maybe 2 if the shooting day calls for it.
A big difference between studio projects and Indies are the companies that they use. A studio pic will usually use Haddad trucks, rent from Panavision or CSC, and use airwave or Gotham walkie talkies. An indie will use Lightning trucks or even rented box trucks and cheaper walkies from companies like rock bottom rentals.
On a studio project you will have a set job and will only be allowed to do that job. If you’re a PA, you’re a PA, you do not move the prop chairs or carry sandbags. On an indie, you may be a PA, but you’re also doubling as a sort of electrician, a kind of grip, and a slightly challenged scenic artist… Be prepared to jump in.
What red flags should someone consider before accepting a position in a production? Has there been a particular project you turned down and why?
Red flags usually come up during the interview. My biggest thing is personality. I like to run a tight ship in a relaxed environment. I won’t get on you until something that was supposed to get done doesn’t, and if that happens, lord help you! I try to be open to all of the people I may potentially work for and I’ve seen the many types. There are the Yellers, the Blamers, The Smile to your face, and fire you behind your back kinds, but there are also ADs (Assistant Directors) out there who will let you run with the game. They will guide you and check up rather than scream when you mess up. I always research the people I work for before I meet them so I’ll know what I’m getting into.
The only reason I’ve turned down a job in the past was because I was either already booked on a project, or I was weighing that job against another that was potentially better.
Another red flag as I mentioned before is the equipment. When a company goes for the lower end of the spectrum, I know that the project is going to be more of a challenge.
In an age of the Internet, Twitter, and other digital media, how does that factor into the world of production assistants? What about dealing with paparazzi?
You have to be careful with all of the social media out there! You never know what your boss is reading at that very moment. The 2nd AD spends a lot of time in the honey wagon. Because of that he/she is constantly surfing the computer, FaceBook, email, and checking up on YOU!
PAs constantly update their status’… “On a lock up in the middle of nowhere… bring food”, “Angelina Jolie just offered me half her sandwich”… It’s cool and it’s interesting, but not things that we need to be sharing. In my opinion it’s starting to take away from the mystique of what filmmaking is all about.
As for dealing with Paparazzi, I was working on a set the other day and Olivia Munn was tweeting about the beautiful place where we were shooting. The paparazzi follow her tweets, figure out where she is and show up to shoot! The PAs now have to tell them to please stay out of the shot and move away from the set. It used to be easy. You ask, they move, problem solved. Nowadays these guys get in your face, try to physically force you out of the way without actually pushing, and quote their constitutional rights to be there and “do their job” It’s tough dealing with these guys. The best thing to do is not to engage them. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. Production Security, TCD (on set police), or locations will come to your rescue if things get out of control. What differences should one expect between working in film and television?
One of the main differences between film and television are the hours. On a TV show you are working on average 12-16 hours. Usually the week starts light and gets heavier. On a feature film, the days are usually 14-20 hours long and the shoot is a grind based on what the script calls for.
Features usually have more money (though this is not always true) and run for 3 weeks to months and years. Shooting a TV show is like being in school. You work for 6 months, take a 1-2 month spring break, and then work for another 4-6 months before taking the summer off.
Another key difference is that with a feature you’ll be busy for a few weeks to months and then completely free. With a TV show, you’re locked into a daily shooting schedule for months at a time.
If you’re trying to get your days for the DGA, television is a great kick-starter. One season of TV is anywhere from 80-200 days depending on how many episodes you shoot. And the work is steady so you’re fast-tracking your way to the top. On the flip side of that, you are working with the same crew for almost a year and so you don’t branch out as much and make the contacts that you would jumping from feature to feature every couple of months.
Either way, when you get the job, be prepared to give up a significant amount of time until the project is over.
The world of production is a competitive market. How can someone give themselves an edge over the competition?
Working in production is relatively simple. If you’re smart, you think ahead, and can anticipate the problems that arise from day to day, you’ll do fine. Here are a few tips for staying on top:
Listen to your walkie and respond
Know what’s going on on the set… are we rehearsing? Shooting? Have actors been invited?
When the ADs are looking for someone, don’t just stand there, help, and call the person’s name out.
When on a lockup, face away from set. The natural inclination is to watch what’s going on on the set. But everyone else is doing that, you’re job is to prevent things from breaching the set, so you should be faced away to catch things coming at us…
With the long hours involved in production work, how does one balance a personal life?
Honestly you don’t. The balance comes when you’re in-between projects. When I’m working I barely see my friends or talk to my family. When I’m not working, I have all the time in the world to be social and make up for everything that I’ve missed while I was on a project. If I’m on a long haul TV show, I’ll set aside Sunday as my day of rest to relax and see people, Brunch becomes a very special thing…
What are some of the social taboos and other pitfalls that folks should avoid on set?
Do NOT GET STARSTRUCK! We’re professionals, no pictures (unless you have a relationship) and no autographs. They’re people and they’re here to work.
Dress appropriately for set; high heels and flowy dresses are not conducive to exterior shooting days… for the men, keep your clothes on, even if you’re shooting in a Manhattan apt. in august…
Learn who everyone is. One of the big things I hear from 1st ADs and Producers is “So I met this PA and they just walk right by me without asking…” These are the people who we work for. Take a moment and introduce yourself. This way when people ask for things, you know who to look for, and they know who you are. The next time they see you, they’ll be more inclined to lend an ear.
What is one of your favorite perks or personal accomplishments so far in your career?
You know one of my favorite perks is the access that we get while working on these projects. I have been to the Top of the Rock, inside the torch of Lady Liberty, In a really cool elevated alleyway in the middle of Soho, and a building-long 3 level rooftop apartment that spanned half a block on 20th Street… you’d never know it was there…
As far as accomplishments go… I can make new ones!
How long did it take you to write this book? How did it come about?
The book itself took about 2 weeks to write. It’s literally what we do as PAs on a daily basis… So it was just a matter of getting everything down on paper.
The book came about while I was the background PA on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I would lecture green PAs who came in to work on the show and eventually I just got tired of repeating myself. I started writing everything down thinking I’d compile a manual to help the next generation of PAs. A Director’s Assistant saw what I was doing and suggested I contact MWP.com, a niche publishing house dealing with film. I sent them an inquiry and a sample of my writing… they sent me a contract… And the rest is history.
What are your opinions of the current trend of Hollywood remakes? Do you have a favorite genre to work in? Is there a difference between working different genres of film on set?
I am disappointed in the # of remakes that have arisen recently. I understand the idea that there is no such thing as an original plot, but there’s always a way to create an original twist or presentation.
I remember a lot of the movies I watched as a little kid, and I was awed and wowed by them… I mean the graphics in the 1982 Tron were incredible for the 80’s… and watching the new one now, I feel desensitized to the spectacle. While the new Tron is not necessarily a complete remake, I feel like it destroyed the simplicity of the world that original created.
I would love to a special FX heavy horror film; I’ve worked mostly in dramas, some action films, and a few dark comedies… Time to learn something new!
The air is definitely different depending on what you’re shooting. A film like Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman requires walking on eggshells and using kid gloves because the scenes in the movie are so emotional and deep. The inverse, a film like My Idiot Brother is playful and fun, at 1 point while shooting the director turns the crew and says, “everyone, go to work… walk by the cameras, cut between the actors, carry things in the background…” all just to have a little fun and maybe use it as an outtake…
What are your opinions of shooting on film versus the emerging dominance of digital filmmaking?
I like film, but the real answer is that digital is the way of the future. You can do so many things with digital film now at a fraction of the cost it would take to shoot and print a reel of Kodak.
I enjoy the graininess and the texture of film, but I don’t mind digital as long as it is not too surreal… like British television…
Shooting digital is also much quicker on set. Instead of loading mags and keeping track of short ends, everything is memory cards and disk drives. The entire process can happen with a backpack, a power supply, and an internet connection.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about making your way in this world, it’s Find a need, and Fill it. When I was starting there was no production guide out there. So I created one! I offer you the same challenge. Look for what’s missing around your world and try to fill that gap with something creatively unique. If it hasn’t been done and it’s needed, you will succeed!
I was very lucky, I only tried for 1 publisher and I was immediately accepted. Most people submit for years with no luck. Don’t let this get you down. Keep networking, keep trying, and eventually someone will bite.
As for the future, I am currently working on Season 4 of the show Damages. I’m preparing to join the Director’s Guild of America to work as an AD while developing some personal projects I hope to produce in the near future. I’ve also been putting together a workshop to accompany “Getting It Done” for people in NYC. If you’re interested or want more info feel free to contact me at Ultimate.PA.Guide@gmail.com. In the meantime, I’ll be pitching the book on every set I find myself on and reading BloodSprayer.com!
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