Back in 2009, when I had just begun studying screenwriting, I went to a one-day workshop on the basics of filmmaking that was geared toward first-time directors. I wasn’t attending because I thought I could ever direct a film – that seemed like a mythical goal well out of my reach – but instead I went to support a friend.
After a long day filled with guest speakers and hands-on advice, directing looked more like a tangible craft I could actually dig into and learn, and no longer like an arcane world of magic, peopled only by wizards and royalty, as I’d envisioned it before.
At the end of the workshop, I approached a speaker whose own story as a writer/director I’d found particularly inspiring. I told him I was a screenwriting student and wanted to try directing too.
He asked if I was in film school. I said, no, I was studying screenwriting as a Continuing Education student. That was all he needed to know. He advised me to hire an experienced director to shoot my script or even a film school student. He discouraged me from directing a film myself since I had no training or experience.
When he said this, I was quickly put back in my place; I was a peasant scribe seeking to join the nobility of filmmaking.
But it wasn’t long after that day that his advice, which played on loop in my head, started to rile me up.
Why couldn’t I direct a film if I wanted? Why was it required I go to film school? Aren’t training and experience learned and earned and not inborn traits? And who the hell was he to tell me no?
One of the best ways to get me to do something is to tell me that I can’t. It was settled; I was going to direct a short film.
And then reality, as it's apt to do, kicked in. Not only did I have no idea how to direct a film, I’d never even been on a film set before. I knew I had to rectify that, and fast. I asked around and learned the best chance I had to work on a film set was to go after a Production Assistant gig. So that’s what I did.
If you’re aiming to direct your own writing and don’t have on set experience, here are the steps I took to get my first Production Assistant (PA) job. I hope these suggestions help to get you started, too.
SUPPORT THE CAUSE
If your goal is to work in the film industry, start this one today: Attend screenings of films made by local filmmakers.
Wherever you live, there’s bound to be some form of local filmmaking community. If you want to work on film projects to gain knowledge and experience, you first need to support local filmmakers. Not only will watching films made in your community stoke your passion for filmmaking but the audiences who attend these screenings include directors, producers, cast and crew, basically all of the people you need to meet.
Tip: You can certainly find published listings for screenings but I prefer to make it personal and use my social networking circles to find events. I follow filmmakers on Twitter, Like their Pages on Facebook, and sign up for their email newsletters. This way I always know what’s happening locally and I can easily connect with the filmmakers before and after their events.
NETWORK WITH PURPOSE
There’s a good chance your first on set job will come through some form of direct networking. I would recommend a three-prong strategy to letting your network know you are looking for work as a Production Assistant.
- Let your social networks know you’re on the hunt: Don’t keep it a secret, let everyone know you’re looking. You never know who knows someone who knows someone. Also, watch the feeds of those in the industry. I’ve gotten a number of jobs by spotting a call-out on Facebook and then being one of the first ones to raise their hand and say, "pick me!"
- Attend industry networking events: This doesn’t have to be something formal or stuffy, in fact, events that are geared more toward socializing than skills training make it easier to meet new connections and widen your circle enough to find that person who can get you onto a film set.
- Directly target a few filmmakers: Start with people you know well (read: in real life, in person) and ask for help getting your first on set job. If they’re not in a position to hire, ask them to introduce you to someone who might be. Keep going until you make the connections you need. This one definitely takes more guts than the two methods above but for just a little courage you’ll get a whole lot of reward. This is ultimately how I landed my first PA gig (and thank you, Miles Maker!).
Tip: It would seem like directors are the best people to contact for on set work but I’ve found they often don’t do the hiring for lower-level positions on their films. On smaller budget films, a producer may be the one hiring. Line Producers are great to know if you want to work on film crews and Production Managers often hire their own Production Assistants. I know what you’re thinking; you don’t know any people who do these jobs. Yep, I didn’t either, and that’s where all the networking came in.
MINE THE ADS
There are job listings for crew positions that you can find on a number of websites. Some of the more popular ones are Mandy.com, ProductionHUB.com and Stage 32. There are lots of these listings, including those geared to specific countries, states and cities, so find them and mine them.
You’ll need a resume to respond to ads and I know this seems tough because the whole point is you don’t yet have on set experience. Like anyone else trying to break into a new industry, highlight anything on your resume that can be related to production work and write a great cover letter.
This particular avenue didn’t work for me personally to get a PA job. For some reason, I just never got called in when responding to ads, but I know a lot of people who have had success this way, so give it a try.
Tip: Even if you think your resume will never cut the mustard applying cold for production jobs, follow film industry ad listings anyway. What I did land through an ad was a script coverage position at a production company that led to me working in Development for this same company. That was an incredible experience I hadn’t seen coming but I got it because I was always on the prowl for new opportunities.
DO THE WORK
If you’re diligent in your search, you will sooner or later land that first on set job, and when you finally get it, make sure you kill it.
Before you get on set, read up on what the job entails (Google it, there’s lots of information out there) and even learn a little lingo so you won’t feel like you’ve fully stepped into a foreign land.
But more than anything, rest up before you start because you will work hard. When you’re on set, there’s no bitching or whining. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole, so yes, you will have to pick up that heavy thing and carry it, and there will probably be stairs involved. Embrace the work because in exchange you’ll be a part of what I believe is one of the most awesome types of collectives ever: The badass film crew.
Tip: For the love of Pete, go to the wrap party! Not only will you have earned a night of fun with your new comrades but there’s no better time to let people know you loved the job and you want them to keep you in mind for future work.
Once you’ve successfully worked your first on set gig, there’s a very good chance you’ll want to do it again. If so, then be sure to thank the person(s) who helped you get the job in the first place and let them know you’re hungry for more. Go back to step one on this list and do it all again to keep expanding your opportunities to find new work.
If you kicked ass on set the first time, you will get called again. There isn’t anyone who crews up for films that isn’t always looking for reliable crew for the next job.
Tip: The time between your first gig and your subsequent ones is critical for building your reputation. When you are contacted about more work, do everything you can to say yes. It’s a fickle business and once you’ve said no a few times, you fall off the hirers’ go-to lists.
Everything I’ve laid out here is how I gained the on-set experience I needed to find the courage to direct for the first time. I combined that hands-on experience with study, practice and hiring a great team.
Now that I’ve directed two short films, I can tell you it isn’t magic that gets a film made. Just like screenwriting, it’s immersing yourself in your craft, persevering through all obstacles and never, ever taking no for an answer.
But while films aren’t made by magic, in the end, when you watch a film you envisioned in your mind, crafted on the page and then directed into life, it does indeed feel magical.