Working As An Assistant on A Hollywood Television Set

It was my first day as a production assistant on American Horror Story. Fox Studios was shooting season nine in Los Angeles. I got a break from a friend of mine who wanted me to take some of his hours. No experience, no problem. I began making $14.25 an hour. We parked at a school off Mulholland Drive and vans took us to a mansion in the Hollywood hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley that had been rented out to film.

A female production assistant came up to me after a few hours. How is it like being a PA? I asked. Well, you can see there is a real lack of diversity in Hollywood. She commented. This set is a case in point. The mid 20’s blond looked out a the mostly white male crew and workforce. I can just feel their eyes on me all the time. The hours are horrible, 12, sometimes 15-hour long shifts. And benefits, Ha! She smiled and laughed, one of her teeth seemed crooked and partially black. We don’t have dental, and I need a root canal and a crown.

She quickly walked away. It wasn’t good to be caught standing talking to each other about these things.

There was a sex scene filmed in the Hollywood mansion. A young PA, a white male with jet black hair and an eager demeanor stood transfixed watching the actress disrobe. Only camera and sound in the room, the director called out, and I proceeded to shooed him away.

We would drive to a parking lot, full of trailer staging areas. Vans would then drive us to set, itself full of trailers and truck.

My driver was a member of Teamsters 399. He was former military. On this show he works 19-hour days, and on top of that lives in Murrieta, in Riverside County, over an hour from our shoots in Ventura County, the Antelope Valley, and the west side of LA. Another driver was from Castaic, had a house up in the canyon. He sees people living in RVs in industrial parts of town. He was US military and is 58 years young. He spent a year in Iraq, had a government pension, VA Care, plus his union job. He’d work 30 and out. Says he doesn’t think about it. He’ll probably work till he dies. He chuckled.

We were sitting waiting between shoots in a farm out by Calabasas, about an hour from LA with traffic. Set electricians were standing around their truck and gear.

A black electrician was cracking jokes, huddled around three other electricians and a few grips and an assistant, all the others white men. They were waiting for what seemed like an hour, their ears tuned to walkie talkies ready to jump when the director barked for them move and switch scenes. He told a story of a party where he told a gay joke in an awkward moment between a “mixed” straight and gay crowd. He didn’t know what to think. – He was embarrassed about being shocking, was he not politically correct? Or maybe it was funny for everyone? It turned out everyone laughed he explained. Or did they?

The black electrician also had written a script. He was pitching the concept to two lesbian producers. He had some jokes and comedy in the script using homosexuality in jokes- and he wasn’t sure if it would embarrass the women whom he wanted to sell the script to. Things have changed. What is appropriate anymore? he mused.

After a while, I changed the subject. This is a big operation here, isn’t it? I asked.

One of the grips had been working since the show began. He estimated that it costs $100,000 a day just payroll, minimum, not to mention contracts for food, the equipment, set locations, renting one location at Franklin Canyon cost fifteen million easy.

The conversation shifted back. It moved from embarrassing gay jokes to common racial tropes in Hollywood TV shows. At first it is novel, then it becomes an accepted stock character piece- and that’s how these stereotypes get ingrained movie after movie, one white grip mentioned, followed by nods and muttered agreement. Like the black magician who gives some advice and saves the clueless white boy, or how there are a bunch of white guys and one black man around a campfire in the woods and how the black man always dies first. These stereotypes, as the electricians and grips discussed, have a life of their own. After a while they make themselves into movie and TV history.

We spoke about homelessness. They are everywhere, but should they be allowed to sleep on the sidewalk? We’ll where are they going to go if not? But do you really want drug addicts and the mentally ill around your neighborhood? Views were mixed. The price of housing and rent is skyrocketing-and that’s why people are evicted and become homeless. Everyone agreed. That’s why so many guys live far away, one man exclaimed. No one can afford to live near where they work.

My job consisted of passing out scripts in the morning and collecting them in the evening. I would give a copy to the actors, the directors, assistant directors, camera 1, 2, and 3, the sound guys, and whoever else wanted them, makeup, costumes, other production assistants, grips, and others. Then I would do whatever they ordered me to do, which was very little. But I had to look busy, constantly yelling rolling and telling people to be quiet. Often, I would go to back to the trailers and tell staff to call someone on the intercom, or to go get actors on set. We would be ordered around by walkie talkie, with our ear ever attuned to the earpiece clipped to a t shirt and affixed to a walkie talkie hooked to our belts.

Often, a lowly extra PA, I was rarely called on for hours. I just had to stand, at the ready, along with dozens of other crew members, mostly white guys with a few blacks thrown in. We gathered around crafty, where coffee, sandwiches and snacks were provided, or off to the side behind a truck stuffed with gear.

We sat about one side of a dirt road for endless hours – waiting on one thing or another a group of guys standing around shooting the shit.

They were on the clock – unable to move on to do what they might want – some had a hobby, some wanted sleep, sex, drugs, travel. No, they were stuck there on that road picturesque scenery, butterflies with multicolored wings fluttering in circles amidst thick oak trees with scraggly outstretched limbs.

We stood around and waited to be barked orders run up and the be who they needed us to be, at the place they needed us to be at the moment they need us. Other than those intermittent hours of frantic work we just chilled, all day. The days go by slow, that one hour over the next, the monotony of it all, people go home, sleep four to six hours a night, then back to work. The long days were getting to everyone.

No one wants to work this gig. Everyone knows about it- a Hollywood teamster muttered sitting back in his cab. This show is known. Days and nights, a grueling schedule.

People were getting testy, snapping at each other, pissed off over little shit that delayed production and the time they’d have between shifts at home.

It’s the hours which is why a lot of the grips lighting and truck drivers, props and other support staff are all tatted ex-military. They’re some of the only who are willing to endure the schedule—18, 20, sometimes 22-hour shifts. Night shift then days. Eight, 10, 12-hour turnarounds. People had long commutes from Fox Studios. They lived past Santa Clarita, Palmdale, Riverside, and Murrieta, in more affordable homes and apartment they never spent time in. It was all work. While we were in production, it was all go all the time.

My job was easy, if not tedious. I had a specific role, making sure all the scripts are collected and distributed in a timely manner. I was to make sure no one stole the script and leaked it, and to stop people from filming or taking pictures of shoots when we filmed in the city. Los Angeles’ Film LA allows production companies like Fox Studios access to film throughout the city. We were in the city streets along with security, police, PA’s hundreds of extras, hair, costumes, makeup, lighting, sound, camera, grips to move equipment, assistant directors, post-production, catering, etc. What is one more guy making 14.25 an hour, time and a half after eight, and double time after 12, watching out for people who would leak the next suspenseful scene public by getting hold of the script?

“Tarot Cards 5 cent advice” was scrawled on a small, ripped cardboard sign sitting at a makeshift table made by grips sitting under a tarp. So what’s in the stars? One asked. I predict this show will continue to be a shit show, was the reply. People were bored, and humorous, as one take was shot and reshot again. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone wrote a story about life on set? I mused. There are some real characters here, the white male grip with a sleeveless shirt and a straw hat replied, then began to explain. I thought the director was going to lose it on Ben when the cast were running late to the set. It’s not like it’s his fault, they have to do hair and makeup, but he was just pissed because we’re behind, and the shit runs downhill. That was Ben’s time to eat shit. It was a hot day, the sun baked down as we waited, joked, and waited.

There were about five or more grips, two sound guys, two guys for each camera. The production assistants, the lowest and largest non-union title on this big set included a cast of black and white, women and men, mostly in their 20s. There was Raymond, Sig, Jack, Chris, Jay, Taylor, Zach, Crystal, and Sam. Sam wanted into the Directors Guild. But before she could join as and AD2, she needed so many hours as a PA on a union set, over 660 she mentioned, to make it into the union.

Though we were ostensibly supervised by the Assistant Directors, some PAs tried to boss the others around, some helped each other, others disappeared and tried to pretend they were busy with work.

Most of us made less than 15 an hour, others a bit more, all with no benefits.

Drivers on this shift included a woman, a man, the vet from Castaic who had Tricare health coverage and has a military pension, a Latino man and his wife drove golf carts to transport folks around set. The man had two years to retire. It’ll be 30 years he worked in the industry, and he would retire with 60,000 a year pension and full benefits.

There was a pecking order at the sprawling TV shoot. Assistants were at the bottom. We were the gofers. We fetched coffees for the directors, big wigs, and VIPS, ran to get people on set and order other crew around, most often to hurry up and get on set, or to make sure an actor knew where to go when they arrived. The other crew barely tolerated us when we asked them to do things. They knew we were the least paid, and it was the assistant director ordering us to order them through our earpieces.

Almost everyone except for us were union members. The grips and electricians were IBEW and IATSE. Some were in the Director’s Guild, SAG-AFTRA, Cinematographers, and Teamsters unions. They had good health benefits, a retirement and were paid enough to buy a homes an hour and a half to two hour commute from Fox Studios.

People expressed their politics through t-shirt messages, symbols, and insignia. Some wore red rose printed button downs.  Rolled up under a woman’s sleeve was a rose tattoo. The red rose grew as a fashion trend earlier that summer; some took it as a symbol of intrinsic dignity and beauty. A white male grip with a shaved head wore an America First shirt. One of the sound guys was vegan, and he sported a punk rock aesthetic, always wearing shirts for minor threat and social distortion. In the overwhelmingly male crew, there were two Blacks, mostly white men, a few of them Jews, the rest good old boys.

There were children who were at the shoot as extras. They had a teacher who would give them lessons in between times they were shooed on and off set.

In the Assistant Director’s trailer, Katy was busy reviewing paperwork, keeping track of everyone’s timesheets. Adam, another PA needs hours to get union work. Even though were not in the union, with so many hours of fetching coffees and asking crew members to stop chitchatting when they are rolling live footage. He’d then be in the Directors Guild. Being an assistant director two, assistant director, or even the director is a difficult fast paced job with long hours. With so many moving parts that all must be ready on time, and with responsibility for the day’s shoot and budget and overhead, it can be incredibly stressful.

One couple met on set and both wanted to become directors- it was their dream. Finally, the wife had a heart attack the week before she was set to promote from assistant director to director. The long hours, fast food, and high stress environment took its toll.

The entire operation’s breadth and depth was almost overwhelming. There were locations, scouting new places and obtaining permits and negotiating deals for film shoots. There were construction works making and tearing down sets. Crafty provided snacks and catering trucks made three hot meals a day. There were actors and writers, assistants and directors, financiers. There were producers, and advertising.

One day, Fox Studios sent five or ten film crews from a number of shows to film in Highland Park, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of LA, whose Hispanic families were being pushed out by rising rents and real estate speculation; young hip whites and out of town transplants flocked to Highland Park, as they did Echo Park, Silverlake, and Hollywood beforehand. We parked downtown and were transported in Vans to a city block that was being intermittently blocked by police hired to direct traffic and provide security at LA film shoots. They were on duty police, paid by the studios.

From the chatter over our intercom’s channel, it seemed like we were an occupying army. Pedestrians and cars were called bogeys. These locals would interfere with the film shoot, or potentially find out what we were shooting and leak it on the internet.

Cops pulled double duty for extra pay directing traffic. Some were retired and collecting a city pension. They went back to work for the studios to pull in extra income.

To get in to work the crew it seems you need some sort of clout. You have to know somebody. Except for some specific people, it’s a nepotistic relationship. I got the job because my friend who worked there referred me for example. Then you would put in time, slowly rising from assistant to director for example, joining the union and moving up the occupational hierarchy slowly.

Occupations are very segregated by gender and race. The grips were white men, with one or two Blacks or persons of color. The Sound guys were white men, makeup hair and costumes were white and Latina women. Catering was Latino men, crafty was older white men and women. The Assistant Directors and Directors looked Jewish. The teamster men and women were white and Latino. The PAs were younger in their mid-20s and early 30s and were mostly white, except for one Black man in his early 20s. Electricians were men in their 30s and 40s mostly white, with one or two blacks.

People work from 7 am to midnight for weeks at a time, working 16 to 18 hour days, then night shifts alternating with days. There has to be some good drugs that keep people going It cant just be coffee and gourmet meals all the amenities don’t mean much when you think that they should really hire enough people for two eight hour shifts instead. To be fair to people’s sleep wake cycles and families, they should double the payroll especially for Ads grips, truck drivers, sound and camera persons. But then they’d have to pay workers comp and unemployment and pensions and health benefits to more people, not to mention the mid-shoot shift change.

I heard stories; people shared of how they stayed awake in their cars on the drive home from remote film locations to apartments and modest homes in Murrieta, Palmdale, Long Beach, Torrance, Santa Clarita, anywhere more affordable than the neighborhood surrounding Fox Studios in Century City.

This was the show’s 9th season. The rumor was they were blowing their budget on a bang out vanity project or just fort the tax write offs.

We shot all night in Franklin Canyon, a small lake surrounded by steep hills in Los Angeles Hollywood Hills.

The entertainment industry, its glamor and glitz, the drugs and sex, heroes and villains; it was all supported by underpaid production assistants and overworked assistant directors, hundreds of people in dozens of job categories and hierarchies, some employed through education and skill, others nepotism or connections, working long hours through the constant chatter and barked orders over the walkie talkie’s main line.

After leaving the set, later that week I went to a bar and met a buddy’s old friend. They met cooking together at a local restaurant. After a series of jobs and while he waited for his disability benefits, he worked as a PA just like I had on the horror show.  In 2014, he explained, he was staying at a homeless shelter for veterans in echo park and would take two buses to the Culver City Studio where he worked as a Production Assistant. He served in Iraq; he was in the national guard and was deployed in 2004 and 2005. He eventually moved out of the shelter. And now his disability benefits have kicked in, and he is taking courses at UCLA extension. Working as a PA is rough. He described, I barely had enough to survive, and I was staying in a homeless shelter.

#PayUpHollywood launched as a twitter hashtag to draw attention to the low pay and undignified conditions of Hollywood assistants. According to a report 80% of Hollywood assistants do not make a living wage. Some blame low initial jobs as grueling rite of passage that only those privileged with parental rent support can survive, keeping underrepresented minorities out of showbusiness.

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