A production assistant, or PA is typically an entry level position for many people looking to get into the film and television industry. PA’s are often first on set and the last to leave. They work long hours and usually for a low flat rate, meaning little pay and no overtime. Set protocol often has PA’s eating last after all other crew members have gone through the line. It is a thankless job rewarded solely by the knowledge that you won’t be a PA forever and by the personal passion realized by finally breaking into the business.
I started as a PA. I can remember working 20+ hours on some jobs for a $150 flat rate. I remember being so tired I could barely function (in one case I was asked to drive a very large RV after working 2- 20 hour days back to back, hardly safe). The worst part of being a PA wasn’t the hard work, I always understood that I had to pay my dues. The worst part was being belittled, talked down too, and often disrespected. This is not the norm on most sets. Many crew members treated us PA’s kindly like little brothers or sisters. But there were those who were tyrants. Here are a few reasons why you should treat your PA’s well.
1. They are learning the ropes and trying to find their way. We were all new to the industry once. I remember when I was just starting out as a PA and I really didn’t know much about how a set worked or what all the different crew members did. I didn’t know how to wrap a cable or even make coffee! I didn’t know the rules or set etiquette. I can remember one of my first jobs on a TG Lee milk commercial. I had been hovering around the lighting crew nerding out over the big lights and gear. I asked enough questions to drive the older grips and electrics crazy I’m sure. But the gaffer on the job saw that I was genuinely interested and approached me after the shoot. He gave me a book “The Set Lighting Technician's Handbook” and told me I should read it. I’ll never forget that. And there were so many instances when seasoned vets, from art department to camera to production to lighting and grip gave me invaluable advice or help that encouraged me to stay the course and pursue a career in this industry. I would have done most anything in those early days to work in this business. In those early days there were several producers I worked for that treated PA’s really horrible. I could see how working for these kinds of people would discourage a young person from staying in the industry. Or even worse would influence them in the way above the line people treat below the line people. And that affects us all. But the kindness of the others is what stuck with me far longer than the negative experiences. As seasoned crew members we are somewhat responsible for the next generation of crew coming up behind us. We should therefore find and encourage those young PA’s that have passion for what we do. We should be answering their questions, guiding them, teaching them, molding them into the kind of crew members that we want to work with. Will there be times when they need to be scolded or corrected for a mistake? Sure, of course. But don’t berate or scream at them. That accomplishes nothing except creating an environment of fear and loathing. And any negativity on set is counter- productive to the production or working environment.
2. The way you treat other people, especially people of a lower position says a lot about the type of person you are. Maybe you don’t give a crap what people think of you. Hooray for you. But most people want to have a pleasant experience and a good relationship with the people they are spending 10+ hours a day with. We work long hours, and often times away from home. At times it can be stressful. As a Director of Photography and a department head I get this. How are you treating the people you work with when times get rough? Are you professional about it or do you take it out on someone beneath you? I have seen people mistreat PA’s and thought to myself that I would never hire that person if I was doing the hiring. You are being observed all the time. Do you want to be seen as the screaming, red faced, jerk, or do you want to be seen as the guy who kept cool and composed, treated everyone with respect and got the job done?
3. Finally, one of the most important reasons to treat your PA’s with kindness and respect. They could very well end up being your boss one day. This is just the nature of the business. I started as a PA and now some of those very electricians and grips from my first shoots end up on crews where I am the Director of Photography. I have worked on shoots with PA’s and then worked again with them a year later as my field producer. Production Assistant is the first step for many who end up as directors or producers. Believe me they remember how you treated them. You can call it Karma if you like. So remember, treat these kids well. Help to mold, teach, inspire, and show them by example the kind of crew members we want to work with. Let your colleagues see you exhibit grace and composure under stressful situations. And cultivate positive relationships with the young up and coming crop of filmmakers that could very well end up hiring you on their next shoot. Be nice. It’s the right thing to do.