Prior to 2020, I’d never really heard the term “essential worker.” Or if I did, my brain then didn’t recognize and process it the same way it does now. What I used to think of as a class of workers only attained by the likes of doctors, farmers and firefighters is actually much broader.
Our society has come to consider (or in many cases, demand) a wide range of seemingly simple things as essential. Two-ply toilet paper dispatched to our homes by delivery drivers, virtual chats with dental and mental health professionals, stable internet connections cabled by fleets of field engineers… The folks behind these tasks make “civilized life possible for the rest of us,” as Mike Rowe put it in his Emmy award-winning Discovery TV series, Dirty Jobs.
Although they do a good job at making their work look easy, these essential workers didn’t just show up overnight. They’ve always been there--even while some of us were taking them for granted.
When it comes to work that’s considered “nonessential,” many were quick to label the entertainment industry as the first one to go and last to come back amid the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, we’re not exactly saving lives by producing the next installment in the Trolls series or the latest episode of The Bachelor, are we? (Although if you listen to the leaked audio of Tom Cruise shouting at crew members on the set of Mission: Impossible 7, you’d think that we were.)
However, don’t nurses need to laugh at the end of a sleepless double shift? Isn’t there plenty of redeeming value in crafting a story that takes peoples’ minds off their troubles for a while? Absolutely. Calling anyone’s work “unessential” does nothing to boost spirits. Without one cog, the whole machine falls apart.
As far as essential film and television workers go, production assistants (“PAs” for short, a.k.a. “gofers” or “runners”) help form the bedrock for all other cast and crew to stand on. “The Safe Way Forward,” the pre-vaccine COVID-19 safety report (published by the Director’s Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and International Brotherhood of Teamsters), specifically calls for some stage, set and office disinfection responsibilities to be delegated to PAs.
There are newly minted “COVID-19 Compliance Officers” on many sets who’ve been charged with communicating safety protocols to the cast and crew. But PAs remain the glue that fills the gaps between all pre-production, production, and post-production departments in this brave new year of filmmaking. They are writers’ PAs supporting social-distanced storytellers in a virtual writer’s room, set PAs monitoring hand sanitizer levels on a studio backlot, and office PAs ordering face masks to be sure that everyone stays safe.
After I graduated from CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College in 2015, I began working as a PA on the sets of everything from yoga athleisure wear commercials to major studio films and primetime TV series. Back then, one of the last things I considered myself was essential. I was going for expensive lattes with goat milk for people who were being paid much more than me to play make-believe. And when I wasn’t dashing around for someone else, I was “locking up” street corners, telling pedestrians where they should move to avoid ruining our camera’s shots.
As time went on, I was delegated more and more responsibilities by assistant directors (“ADs”). Checking out and testing walkie-talkies for second units filming dangerous stunt sequences; keeping an eye on expensive equipment while the crew walked away for lunch; signing in and staging background actors to help the director create on-screen depth... If PAs weren’t there to do these things, who would?
Years before the pandemic, I came to recognize just how imperative my entry-level, non-union work actually was. After all, if our lead actor didn’t get his/her breakfast burrito just the way that I knew s/he liked it, there could be a ripple effect that would lead to lost time, money, and morale! Producers, directors, and ADs aren’t able to handle every tiny detail themselves.
Realizing how many people have no clue what PAs really do (including many of the mega-successful cast and crew I’ve worked with) and forced by the pandemic to take more time off from the industry than I ever could’ve wanted, I self-published my first nonfiction book, “Gofers: On the Front Lines of Film and Television.” It’s a gritty overview of the hard work and humble lifestyle of some of the most essential people on any motion picture project: the PAs. From working with crews of hundreds in war-like conditions to maintaining a positive mental outlook in the face of stressed-out showrunners, nothing is sugarcoated.
“Gofers” is for folks who want to work on set just as much as it is for those who hope to hear how some of their favorite movies actually get made. If you’re interested in my honest peek behind the curtain, you can purchase a paperback or ebook copy via www.passingplanes.com/book.
I’m thankful to all the storytellers who continue to do the essential work of entertaining others. When their scripts get put to screen, the necessary cast and crew will all be back on the job--and so will their essential coworkers, the PAs.