P.A. Confidential: The Myth Of Movie Magic Exposed!

la-confidential-phone-kim-basinger(Throwback Thursday: A glimpse back at my reasonably short-lived days as a production assistant, and what it taught me about making movies. First published in INsite Boston in April 2006.)

Astronauts and firemen, ballerinas and princesses. These are the professions we choose as kids to conclude that all-important statement, ”When I grow up I want to be…”

Granting power and prestige, filled with excitement and adventure — is it any wonder these lives appeal to five-year olds?

What could be better?

In reality, however, very few of us end up pursuing those careers we glamorized in our youths. Most end up setting our sights on more readily available occupations — doctor, lawyer, teacher, fry cook. These are practical jobs with everyday necessity. The naïve, egocentric fantasies of our formative years give way to more imminently pressing concerns — like fiscal responsibility, familial obligation, and man’s inherent urge to give something of himself back to humanity.

And then there are those of us who decide to make movies.fellini 8 1:2 make a face like a whoreFilmmakers are grownups who still want to make a living blasting off to the moon, delighting the masses in a frilly pink tutu. (But maybe without the intense training and sacrifice that comes with actually chasing down such coveted pursuits.) Early on we discover that the real world, with its 9-5/Monday-Friday/lather-rinse-repeat routine, is no place for us, so we pilfer a few extra years of make-believe and extend those juvenile daydreams to include special effects, bombastic soundtracks, and hootenannies with the stars. Pity the fool who trades fire engines for stock options; we’re the kids who never outgrew the desire to be princesses.

But there’s a rude awakening in store for dreamers awaiting a super-sized movie life. Sooner or later, every slumber must submit to a blaring alarm.

Though we like to pretend that it’s confidential, Hollywood wants the general public to be aware of the blood, sweat, and tears that go into its product, the behind-the-scenes drama that often trumps what we pay to see on screen. They know as well as we do: it’s all part of the show, the magic of movies. So recently, I went undercover to unveil what they don’t want us to see. Something that’s been kept off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush… until now.

My wakeup call sounded loud and clear on my first day as production assistant on an independent film:

Eyes open, sleepyhead, and leave those dreams behind.sherlock jr buster keaton projection booth sleepFor the uninitiated, a PA is known throughout the industry as the lowliest position on a film crew, and possibly the planet. It’s a crash course in everything that sucks about moviemaking, an experience that will not only crush your dreams but also back up over them twice just to make sure they’re good and smooshy. The day rate seems sufficient until you realize that you’re logging 75 hours a week, so your paycheck breaks down to less than minimum wage hourly; the job itself embraces the least enviable aspects of careers such as mailman, secretary, chauffeur, housekeeper, and pizza delivery guy. (Please note that five-year olds seldom yearn to be any of these.) Which brings me back to that dirty, filthy, naughty little secret Hollywood truly doesn’t want you to know:

It’s boring.

Sure, only a child would imagine filmmaking to be as easy, breezy, beautiful as it looks on TV. I spent my whole life bracing for a bumpy ride. As a PA, I certainly didn’t expect red carpets rolled out for me, never indulged in fantasies of the director pulling me aside to say, “Hey, you seem pretty bright, why don’t you take a turn this time?” I went in expecting the worst, prepared to hate PAing spectacularly — with violins screeching violently, bolts of lightning reflected in my bloodshot eye. I ended up just hating it the normal way… sitting in traffic for six hours, in the rain, at rush hour, on my way to set, and on my way back, and then to set again because someone forgot to mention they needed those copies on buff-colored paper. (“What the hell is the color ‘buff’?” you’re asking. I asked, too — and no one had a satisfactory answer.) It turns out the entertainment industry is just the real world with a vengeance; I work longer hours for less pay than anyone I know with a “real” job, and have yet to behold the teensiest poof! of movie magic.

What a crock.the_player_tim-robbinsWhile the rest of the world looks to filmmakers for escapism, there’s no escape for us. As children, we watched our cinematic counterparts defy the daily grind through danger and mystery, and promised ourselves that we would, too. Unable to actually live inside a movie, we pursued the next best thing — a life on the cinematic sidelines. But there’s a price to pay for every fantasy we hold onto. Rent in the bubble I live in is not cheap, and with expenses like car insurance, clothing, and Special Two-Disc Collector’s Edition DVDs released right after I bought the single-disc version, I can no longer afford it without seriously working. Like so many heroes and heroines before me, I wake to discover that my would-be adventures were only just a dream all along. And so begins my worst nightmare.

It’s strange and disappointing to be so close to everything I dreamed of, but nowhere near the reasons I pursued it. To struggle in vain as the Technicolor world I envisioned is sapped of sparkle, becoming a little more like drab Kansas every day. Perhaps most frustrating of all is that I know everyone faces this — the doctors, the lawyers, the teachers, the fry cooks. Probably even the astronauts and princesses. I went so far to evade the trappings of a normal life, and now my growing pains couldn’t be more universal.The Wizard of Oz 1939Still, sometimes I walk on set and realize that, although it’s nothing like what I imagined, I am exactly where I set out to be. I’ve adjusted to the grueling schedule, the thankless tasks. I’ve made friends with coworkers who are as tired and stressed out as I am. I’ve started to see moviemaking as a collaborative process, one that I’m a part of. Now and then something interesting happens, like the day they were short on high school kids and put me in two scenes as an extra. (After a couple hours of standing around, I discovered that that, too, is boring.) The rest of the time, I get through the day like I always have: daydreaming of a life less ordinary.

Roughly a year after graduating from cinema school, exactly a year after I began this column, I’m finally on the inside of this industry. And, if you look deep enough in the background, I’m also inside a movie.

It may not be a good movie. It may not be a successful movie. And my contribution to it is about as minimal as they come. But if I squint at my current life, I can kind of almost see it as something like what I always wanted.



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