The spawn of rebellious colonists, it’s no surprise I spent most of my career without ever having a full-time job. I started my ‘freelance’ career with a strong emphasis on the first syllable, volunteering on movie sets while pretending to study the same in college. I was lucky: my alma mater had a full-scale production studio, and outside companies like Disney and HBO came in to make TV movies on the studio lot, and they allowed crumbs from the craft service table to fall to hungry film students like myself.
I still remember my first interview — to see if I was good enough to not get paid on my first show. As I entered the rickety, at-some-point-made-permanent mobile trailer that housed Production, I awkwardly stepped around art department boxes and office supplies and mottled brown shag carpet and desks with intimidating people at them. Eventually I knocked on the hollow false-wood door at the back of the trailer: it felt like it had been prepped for a movie fight scene.
“COME IN!!” a huge booming voice shook the trailer. “Oh geez,” I thought, and the knot in my stomach churned a pretzel-fest in my gut.
I creaked the lightweight door open.
Looming behind a desk (even seated) was a very tall, non-green Grinch.
He wasted no time. Probably because he was the UPM and the First AD. From hell — but I didn’t know that yet.
“You know what you are to me?” he almost yelled as he stood up, and I thought he wouldn’t fit without bending over a little bit. I started to stammer but apparently the question was rhetorical. “You’re gum on the bottom of my shoe. And I’m gonna stomp on you all day, grind you under my foot, and basically ruin your life — (I might be making up that last part, but in retrospect that’s the best description of what he would later do to me as he tried to drive me from the movie business altogether) — and at the end of the day, I’m gonna look at my shoe (he bends one of his gangly legs to see the bottom of it). And if you’re still there, (almost yelling again, redirecting his fierce gaze directly at me) then THAT’S A GOOD P.A.!!!”
Apparently, “P.A.” stood for Pathological Abuse-victim. I blinked a couple of times. I think he was waiting for me to faint or just run away; and when I didn’t collapse or flee, he bellowed at his assistant. “Take Craig and show him around. He’s going to be one of our interns on set.”
And that was it.
And on the eighth day, Lucifer became the First AD
The First and Second ADs (I secretly nicknamed them Satan and Lucifer) later tried everything they could to drive me away. They specialized in berating and screaming at the interns on set, in front of everyone, whether there was a reason for it or not (there never was).
And every time Lucifer gave me some bizarre and unreasonable request, and I looked at him with wide, naive eyes, he always gave me a flippant gesture and said with wicked glee, “Wave your magic wand!” That was all the explanation I ever got, for anything I was supposed to do.
As it turns out, though, I did fairly well at making things happen. Fast forward a couple of years, and Lucifer was now the First AD, and I was his Second AD. About to go into production on our first show in our new roles, he gave me a rundown of my duties. He said my first priority no matter what, was always to take care of him. Since he couldn’t leave the set, I was to foresee his needs and bring him food, or water, or whatever else he needed.
A few days into the project, we were on location about 1/4 mile from the production trailers, in an open wilderness area. It suddenly started to rain, huge drops, and instinctively, I ran full-tilt back to the trailers, got in his set bag, grabbed his rain jacket, and without even pausing long enough to grab my own, I ran it back to him, near collapse and out of breath.
He yanked his jacket away from me, looked at me with hatred, and yelled, “Don’t you EVER get in my personal belongings EVER AGAIN!!” Then with a huff he turned away from me, shoving his arms into his jacket. I would have quit on the spot, but then Satan and Lucifer’s plan to drive me out of the business would have come true. No, I wasn’t about to let him get to me. So I grit my teeth, had a good self-pitying cry at the Transpo Coordinator later (who told me that everyone else hated the First AD as much as I did), and began to plot Lucifer’s slow and hopefully painful demise.
In which Starbucks saves me
A couple of years later, it was he who quit the film business. He got a job for Starbucks in Seattle in PR. That left a gaping maw in Production at the studio — and then, as if I really HAD been waving a magic wand, I found myself behind the big desk in the back of the Production Trailer on the other side of that balsa-wood door.
I vowed, the day I was promoted to First AD, that I would never turn into the demons who trained me. By this time, I actually had a bit of an appreciation for my intense disciplined training; as a result, I can hold my own in any number of unpredictable — and potentially costly — situations on set.
I spent over 25 years freelancing in film production, mostly as a First AD, and then a DGA First AD; I also began producing here and there along the way.
I should admit at some point in here, that, like the Satan who went before me, I, too, developed a huge booming voice on set. I earned the nickname “Shakespeare” for my resonant pronouncements. I yelled on set every day — but unlike Satan, I only ever yelled to be heard by my crew. I’ve never once yelled on set out of anger. (My biggest claim to fame was yelling loudly enough to stop an entire symphony mid-stanza, from backstage, so the director could move a camera in the middle of a live performance.)
And sure, I’ve developed my own idiosyncracies along the way. I’m a veritable AC fiend whenever I’m on location — hotels these days put motion sensors on their thermostats, so that unless you’re bouncing off the walls all night, eventually your room starts to heat up well beyond what my ample frame can tolerate. I even buy box fans in most places I visit, just to make sure the room is cold enough.
I’ve never been as harsh to the new interns and PAs I’ve worked with over the years — but if they weren’t quite as sharp and terrified as I could have made them, the friendlier attitude on set more than made up for it. On more than one occasion, a former-P.A.-turned-producer has hired ME on a project — something I’m pretty sure Satan could never say.
I don’t claim to be an angel, by the way. I’m totally evil. But my vengeance is humor instead of yelling and intimidation. At the end of every show, starting on my first one when the production coordinator wanted me to come up with a clever invitation to the wrap party, I’d write a “Wrap Memo,” and personally distribute it to every one on the show. I’d deliberately mis-quote people, take things out of context, and poke fun at everyone — and yes, at times, my biting sarcasm and deliberately out-of-context “quotes of the day” (the tagline was always “watchwhatyousayitwillalwayshauntyoulater”) pull out all the stops at those who need to be called out. Yes, this guarantees that I have the last word; but I make sure the crew has the last laugh.
But all these years later, now working my first full-time job (as a producer at Struck), I still honor my inner P.A., who dove into ditches and stood in muck up to his neck, who ran like crazy because in film everything is urgent, and who learned that the most important thing in the known universe is the current setup; and the next most important thing in the universe is the setup after that. Part of that P.A. still works on every project, as I throw my energy into pulling off the impossible, with not enough time and never enough money — but with a determination that kept me from fainting in front of the Devil Himself the day I began this incredible journey.
Old stomping grounds
Speaking of journeys — it’s an old cliche, and I think really it’s an ancient Chinese proverb — that the longest journey begins with a single step. But Satan was right: your first steps often aren’t IN shoes; they’re on the bottom of someone else’s. And no matter how evil it gets, the only thing you need to do — is to stick. Just don’t let go of where you want to arrive, and sooner or later, those shoes that are mashing you into their tread will take you to a way better and more satisfying place — one sticky stomp at a time.