"Oh, so you're a physician's assistant? I thought you did film-stuff."
You know, there are multiple meanings for the acronym PA: physician's assistant, personal assistant, producer's assistant... and production assistant. (I'm sure there are more.)
As of right now, I am usually the last one. Being a production assistant on a film set can be hard work. you are the last rung on the totem pole, and often times there is such quick turnaround that most people forget your name by hour 10.
But working on a film set is glamorous, right?
Unless you're working on a TV show that is filmed in one studio and you have a set schedule (ha, no pun intended), you're probably pulling all kinds of weird hours doing even weirder things. (Vlog coming soon on this one!!)
Some days, I'll be getting coffee for people. Other days I might help with casting. Or paperwork. Or finding catering for a very hungry and angry crew. Other days I will stand for 5 hours straight in one place on what's known as a "lock-down". (Those can actually be fun if you have the right people around.)
But if you're getting into the film world, you gotta pay your dues. And it might not be for 15 years, it could be 5 weeks depending on your work ethic and your networking skills, and yes, some ounce of right-place-right-time.
While you're finding that magical bar, here are some of the best lessons that I have learned while being the lowest position on the film totem-pole.
1. Learning all the things you never did.
Didn't take a lighting class in college? Didn't go to college? No problem! You'll probably get thrown in with ALL the teams at some point: production (the Lions' Den), Grip+Electric (the Wild Things), Camera (the Geek Squad), and Talent (the Potential Disasters) at some point, especially if you're working on a "non-union" set with union guys working on it.
Pro tip: Usually G+E people are crazy, and they're the best ones to drink with after the day is done! You can make good friends and allies in that department... if they're not too grouchy.
2. Network like a pro.
In between doing someone's laundry, getting coffee (with skim milk, 3 pumps of vanilla, non-fat whipped cream, espresso at exactly 90 degrees Fahrenheit), locking-down a set and trying not to piss anyone off, you may have the chance to network. Absolutely do this.
I don't care if it is someone's assistant, the stand-in, or the 2nd AD, get to know people and build a relationship with them. At the end of the shoot, you may find you have a couch to crash on, a lead for your film, and maybe another paying gig!
Pro tip: If you're a PA, make sure you do your job first. It is easy for your higher-ups to think you're there to schmooze and not to work.
3. Getting it all out of your system.
I mean the green, obvious mistakes a newbie makes. Seriously, there is no vocab book for this industry's sociolect. Don't know what a C-47 is? GFL, my friend.
4. Humility is key.
The above being said, if you find you don't know something, ask. Now is the time to learn, not when you're on set as a key grip for your buddy's first feature.
In my experience, no one has ever not called me back for asking questions. In fact, they usually respect that I am asking, as it shows I am willing to learn. While I may have certain strengths (people-skills) and experiences (acting for like, 12 years) that may propel me a little farther quicker in other fields of filmmaking, the point is that I am making an effort to better myself in general.
Pro tip: Don't ask too many questions. Do trust yourself here and there!
5. Finding what is best for you.
PAing gives you the chance to be on set, and that is awesome! It also gives you the opportunity to see if what you think you're good at or what you think you want to be when you grow up is what you actually want to do.
Specializing in the film industry is going to get you the most jobs consistently. If you're not 100% committed to one thing, that's fine. Just realize that it is going to take you a bit longer to get to the paycheck level/consistency level that you want in either field(s).
Pro tip: Once you've gotten some experience under your belt, but you still aren't sure what you want to specialize in, ask friends and colleagues who know you well to give you their input.
In the end though, this life is yours and so is the way you define yourself.
Film and entertainment is a massive industry, and there is no age limit, no gender, race or sexuality limit. The beauty of film and communication is that you could come from anywhere, any background, and make something that connects with someone somewhere.
You want to create, so do it. You don't need to have a ton of experience, connections, money or equipment to do it. Storytelling needs lots of voices and even more people:
You could think that you're a gaffer but one day find you're the best AD to someone else's director.
You could be gunning to be the best screen actor in the world but find that you are killing it being a stage manager.
You could be a producer that really is better off as a writer, or
you could be an Fortune 100 accountant who realizes that the studios really need some help in their management and you're their answer,
In all honesty, as I write this, I know that I haven't quite decided my one true path (or paths) yet. And that's okay. I'm still in my experimentation phase, and for all I know tomorrow something will push me one step closer to picking something.
But I have gotten the same advice over and over: when people put you in their phone, they're always going to remember you as John Doe - Stunt Coordinator... even if three years down the line you've directed several blockbusters.
Explore now, then choose what kind of legacy you want to leave behind when you're done on this earth, and stick to it. If life throws something else your way, go with the flow. Everything is connected, and if you stray from your plan, odds are you're gonna find out really quickly if it is really part of it.