When non-film people think about filmmaking, they think “lights, camera, action,” so let’s break that statement down. On a film set, the grips and the gaffers are manhandling the lights, the cinematographer and his assistants are in charge of the camera and “action!” is both a word used to get the actors to start acting, as well as a general call to everyone else that you better stop making noise now. (Sound guys need total silence when recording dialogue, room tone, etc. You may notice that sound is not included in that iconic “lights, camera, action” statement, which is right in line with how poorly sound departments have been treated.)
So that covers a few of the most important departments on a film set. But have you ever watched a movie — set after the invention of the automobile but before right now — and wondered to yourself, how did they clear out that street and keep it empty for all of those old cars? That’s a very busy part of town — how did they keep people from parking outside of those businesses? Those extras are walking around at just the right time — how do they know when to start walking?
The answer: production assistants.
Production assistants, also called “PAs,” are the gophers of film sets. They run around, doing little tasks that everyone else is either too qualified or too busy to do. It’s an entry-level gig that requires next-to-no filmmaking knowledge — really, to be a good PA, you just need to have some degree of common sense. It’s a great way to make connections, get some on-set experience and get a firsthand look at how movies are made. Now, as a film student, I already have a pretty decent amount of filmmaking knowledge, and while making connections is always a good idea, I would not normally skip school to do so. However, when I — and the rest of the film department — received an email last week calling for students to volunteer to be PAs for Paul Dano’s directorial debut, “Wildlife,” filming in Livingston that was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
I love Paul Dano. He’s one of my favorite actors. And once I got on the set of “Wildlife,” I spent so much time quietly freaking out about being a mere 60 feet from Paul Dano that one of my friends, a fellow PA, told me repeatedly that I needed to chill out. And by the second day, I thought I’d gotten over my propensity for being starstruck. Then the lead singer of Mumford & Sons walked by and I realized that was still not the case.
“Wildlife,” based on a book by Richard Ford and starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, takes place in Great Falls in the 1960s and tells the story of a teenage boy watching his parents’ marriage crumble. The production shot four days in Livingston and is shooting the rest of the film in Oklahoma (why not film the entirety of the movie in Montana? Well, because Oklahoma has a better incentives program — but that’s a different story entirely.) It’s a Montana story that, thankfully, partially filmed in Montana, and the final product is going to have some beautiful scenery to attest to that.
But back to PAs: what did I, as a lowly production assistant contribute to this production? Mostly, I blocked traffic — both car and pedestrian. That’s right: when “Wildlife” hits theaters in, oh, two-ish years, and you see a street filled with old cars, you can think to yourself, ‘Oh, hey, that one writer from “The Exponent” kept cars from driving down this street!” Because that was basically what I did. I’d stand on a corner, and depending on the location, people would alternately drive up to me — or walk up to me — and I’d tell them they couldn’t drive through, walk through or park because we were filming a movie. As you can imagine, that made me pretty popular with the locals. Except, not at all. While most people were pretty understanding about the situation, the people who weren’t understanding were really, really not understanding. The guy who wanted his coffee, the guy who wanted to get his mail, the lady who was threatening to drive through our set until a police officer directed her around the block — they all resorted to yelling at me almost immediately. Don’t get me wrong, though: that was definitely the worst of an experience that was, overall, pretty great.
So why am I telling you this — any of this? For one big reason: to illustrate that filmmaking is not a simple exercise. That for every one person you see on screen, there are dozens — if not hundreds — of people behind the camera, working to make sure the movie gets made. And, sometimes, the duties of those hundreds of people are pretty miniscule. But without those lowly workers, blocking traffic and cueing extras, moviemaking would be even more chaotic than it already is.
Also, make sure to keep an eye out for “Wildlife.” It’s going to be a great film.