Chasing Dreams: A Nervous Odyssey (Part I)

Author's Note: This essay became so big that I decided to split it into seperate parts, the first of which I graciously offer you below. While I understand that by doing so I have signed a sacred writer's pact to never finish this article, I nonetheless hope you enjoy it.

Earlier this summer, I received a last-minute solicitation from a friend of mine, with whom I’ve worked on various independent and no-budget features and shorts, to do a day’s work as a Production Assistant on a Universal Studios Film referred to, at various points throughout the day, as Identity Theft, Identity Thief, and ID Thief. My friend apologized for the meagerness of the pay I would receive as a result, not knowing that it represented an increase of nearly one-hundred percent over my current daily pittance. I modestly deigned to accept. What follows is an experiential account of what I observed and experienced over the course of my first honest-to-god day in the show business trenches.

At 6:30 in the morning, the external world resembles nothing more than a low, tight-clinging haze through which it is difficult to find meaning or purpose. It is through such a fog that I, armed with a fairly weak and heavily-sugared cup of coffee, trowel my way towards the Atlanta Motor Speedway on a muggy July afternoon for my first day working as a PA on an honest-to-god Major Motion Picture ™. In the interest of a very brief and yet over-generous justification of my credentials, I have in the past three years completed my Masters work in Communication at Georgia State University with an emphasis in Film/Video/TV Production.[1] My thesis film has screened to the approval of my defense committee and to a group of colleagues, family, and friends whose time I would have felt very guilty about wasting. I am currently working on my first feature, by which I mean that I have been trying to hone in on an acceptable idea for a first feature, by which I mean that I spend the majority of my free time sitting in front of blank computer screens and notebooks, chewing my fingernails and impotently cursing the inability of anyone in a position of fund-bequeathing power to gaze into my brain and see the simmering genius just waiting for the right well-budgeted structure within which to be unleashed.

Before I leave the house, I once again enter my destination into my phone’s earnest yet underachieving GPS app[2] before deciding which piece of music is most suitable to get me into the mood for the day ahead (by which I of course mean which piece of music I most want to be discovered listening to in the unlikely event that a higher-ranking crew member asks to see what I have decided to fill my ears with and, upon being thoroughly impressed with my selection, recognizes in me a level of taste and genius requisite for my immediate promotion, after which it is only a matter of time before a slightly more important crew member rightfully recognizes my qualifications to run the entire production). In order to further keep myself awake as I swerve down the freeway, I reflect upon the myriad reasons that a production could have for scheduling the start of their days at so unlooked-upon an hour. The most obvious explanation is rooted to practicality – there is a daunting amount of work that needs to be done on any given production day, and so it is necessary to cram as many working minutes into each twenty-four hour period as is humanly possible and union-allowable. But I have a good forty-five minutes of empty highway and country road to fill, so mere reason alone will not do. It strikes me as fairly obvious that a pre-luminescent call time is as good a way as any to ensure efficiency not merely because of the volume of work that needs to be done but because it guarantees that anyone who shows up so early will be the kind of person who is unshakably dedicated to their job. Then I remember that, while this holds emphatically true on the hardscrabble independent productions on which I’ve worked until now, this is a real, honest-to-god Major Motion Picture ™, and that as such, it is an operation in which those involved will be very handsomely paid for their efforts, and that even people who empty garbage cans for a living wake up at inhuman hours if the pay is good or life-sustaining enough.  I then begin to wonder if the schedule is in any way made in the hopes of making more successfully manifest the purpose of movies as collective dreams - that perhaps a collection of such early-roused somnambulistic roustabouts, so freshly wrested from their own slumberous imaginings, will be more directly plugged into the dream world that Hollywood ever longs to tap into and reproduce on screen. I am, in my own half-wakened state, tempted to follow the path of this idea even further into the twisty corridors of my own under-caffeinated brain when I begin to notice that the road signs guiding me to the Speedway begin to race past me at an ever-increasing frequency.

It is a testament to my underestimation of the NASCAR fan that I wrongfully presume the Speedway parking lot to be an easily-navigable destination, but as it happens I spend so much time trying to find my way once on the grounds that the extra half-hour I have allotted my travel, which would usually be spent sitting in my car waiting for just the exact moment of earlier-than-on-time (but-not-too-early) arrival, is quickly in danger of being swept away in a tide of flop-sweat.[3] I finally have to break down and text the friend who put me in line for this job and ask her where exactly we are supposed to meet. She tells me that she is in the process of retrieving said information at that very moment, and so my circular driving route loses the essence of desperate searching and gains that of listlessness. Once I am informed of exactly where to head, it becomes an essence of sheer purpose and sure-to-be-in-charge-of-this-production-by-the-end-of-the-day dedication as I careen at a not-insignificant speed towards the hive of tents, trailers, and trucks that rises over the immediate horizon. This navigational hiccup will be but the first of the minor infractions that build up during the course of the day and which, while no doubt destined to be forgotten by everyone else on the crew by the time they shift their cars out of reverse thirteen hours later, will do no less than convince me absolutely and irrevocably that I will never amount to anything in This Town[4].

Before leaving home, I prepared a small collection of evidence to prove that I was worthy of admittance - my call sheet, the email from my friend containing said call sheet, the text message in which she asked me if I would be interested in helping out, my previous five text messages from her to prove that there is a pre-existing social relationship, as well as my ID to prove that I am in fact the one with whom she has corresponded and not simply an interloper who has somehow stumbled upon the called-upon’s phone and email passwords. All of these materials are cross-referenced and collated with a series of other emails and correspondence to show that I have in fact worked on other shoots and will thus prove myself to be at least somewhat capable and in no way a liability to the production[5]. The insecurity of my preparation is apparent enough in my inquiries into where to park that there is no need to overcompensate with hard evidence, and my simple assertion that I’m a PA seems to be enough to gain access as the young man at the gate (wearing an Atlanta Motor Speedway polo rather than any sort of official Major Motion Picture ™ garb and not, significantly, wearing a walkie-talkie on his person) nebulously waves towards a stretch of gravel to my immediate right where there is gathered a small menagerie of cars (the only cars in evidence on the whole site - they do not, in fact, make the PAs nor any of the other lowlier crewmembers park out of sight, at least not on second unit days). Base Camp resembles nothing more than the most technologically advanced Bedouin herd one will ever see – a tightly packed cluster of camera cars, grip trucks, and People Movers[6] occupies the small patch of field opposite the crew parking area and bleeds into a small collection of trailers and outhouses that soon yield to the food and catering trucks, which then ease you into the large white beacon that is the mess tent.

My coffee, too weak and not sweet enough to properly waken and stimulate me even in disgust, has served merely to increase my nervy uneasiness and give my mouth a bitter acidic taste, and so as I still have ten minutes to kill before my mandated thirty-minutes early arrival time, I decide to sit in my car and google pictures of various mouth cancers (fearing that perhaps the aforementioned acidic taste may be due to more than just the coffee), until I see two other friends walk by in my rearview mirror. It is a decidedly more comfortable feeling to be out of place in the company of others (as long as it’s not too many others, in which case there will be enough people lost to begin forming groups within themselves to which you are just as likely to feel un-belonging to as the one into which you are all, as a body, trying to insinuate yourselves), and so I step out and chase them down, lest I continue to follow ten paces behind and look like some sort of hanger-on, still ever-ready as I am to assert my necessity to the production and prove sanctioned my presence.

As we reach what looks to be the heart of base camp, that point where the lines of trucks and cars converge on a set of large camper trailers right before the catering trucks and Porta-John flatbeds, we are met by two other friends with whom we will be working, including the one who got me the job and who seems to be the one who knows more or less where we are to be and, worst case scenario, who we are to talk to when we find ourselves unsure of where we are to be. Production Assistants may be the only class of people on a movie set for whom there is not some sort of loose, unspoken yet firmly self-regulated dress code,[7] and so my friends and me make up a fairly motley procession as we wend our way to the trailer that serves as the office of the Second Second Assistant Director.[8] It is here that I meet Gene, though in actuality I meet Gene the weekend before when we share drinks and watch karaoke together at a mutual friend’s going away party. Gene does not recognize the shabbily dressed PA currently standing before him as one and the same with the talkative independent writer/director from the previous night who clammed up and politely nodded when the subject turned to another film on which Gene worked as an Assistant Director and which his soon-to-be underling did not particularly care for. Rather than assume any sort of grudge-induced cold shouldering, I choose to give Gene the benefit of the doubt because today I’m wearing a hat, which I never do to begin with and certainly would have had no use for the other night as the event which we both attended took place, well, at night. I am in no way a hat person, in fact – my skull is too large for most of them, and those that do fit tend to assume a shape that make the top portion of my head look rather shrunken in relation to the rest, like the top of a Lego man before his hair has been clipped into place. There is also the fact that the hat I’m wearing is a Boston Red Sox hat, a team for whom I will make no effort to fake any affections for (aside from the acknowledgement that they wear what may be the only uniforms in all of professional baseball that are just as aesthetically-pleasing in their road version as in their home iteration) and who are in fact that very weekend playing my team of preference. I make sure to tell Gene all of this through my eyes as he gives his pep-talk, and I know that he understands me because we have a pre-existing connection, and he is the only member of this crew of any note who knows that I’m more than just a PA and that if anyone is suited to take over this production should disaster befall or the creative minds in charge be found for any reason wanting, it would be me. [9]

It is also at this point, while Gene is giving us our morning’s/first-time-ever-being-a-“real(ie, paid)”-PA briefing, that the various scents from the catering area begin wafting in our direction. I no sooner start to worry that a vaporous finger of sausage scent will carry me away from my post and forever color me a malfeasant than Gene breaks us up and tells us to go ahead and grab a bite to eat and a cup of coffee and await further instruction. This surprises me somewhat as I had rather assumed that every second of our day would be accounted for and designated to some menial task, with eating and drinking to be done only in brief spurts at a time and when and only when we finally got to the point that we saw fit to break our vigilance and ask our superiors for quick respite. I do my best to both disguise the giddiness of my trot and maintain pace with my friends as we shamble over to the catering tent.

It strikes me upon entry that the wealth of food made available on a Major Motion Picture ™ set works towards two distinct and perpendicular purposes. On the one hand, it serves to make the important members of the crew, the above-the-line talent and the most valuable technicians, feel that they have been adequately pampered and are thus as valuable as they believe themselves to be, which in turn allows their egos to maintain the level of inflation that justifies such extravagant treatment and thus keeps entire cadres of caterers employed for as long as they can possibly hope to be. For those more on my end of the hierarchy, it serves much the same purpose as the architecture of ancient cathedrals or Presidential monuments. An uneducated peasant in the Dark Ages would have little choice, upon walking into Notre Dame, but to fall to his knees dumbstruck and admit that its overwhelming gorgeousness must be the result of some sort of divine providence to whom he must eternally submit rather than the labor of simple mortals; likewise, upon first entering a Hollywood-funded mess tent, one has no recourse but to bow in deference to the grand benevolence of the studio system and swear his everlasting fealty and allegiance (especially if, as for certain verbose PAs who will go unnamed here, the quickest way to their heart is through their stomach). To someone who will never turn down the most extravagant of free meals and yet feels guilty spending more than $2.00 on a cup of coffee for himself, there is a certain Pre-Fall Roman extravagance to what I’m presented with as I walk though the open tent flaps. I have already compiled what I believe to be a shamefully indulgent meal from the trucks lining the approach to the commissary, yet as I walk into the tent I find what under any other circumstances would be an embarrassingly over-complete set of buffet tables, smoothie bars, fruit assortments, cereal dispensers, juice bars, pastry trays, and various other culinary ephemera. The air conditioning is so strong on this summer day that even though there are multiple points of entry and exit that are kept wide open at all times, the internal temperature never seems to rise above seventy degrees, as if they’ve somehow managed to bottle the essence of the California heartland from whence they have traveled and transplant and contain it within this most sacrosanct of spaces.  I squeeze my way into a seat beside my friend Steve, honoring the dictum that the more food one has collected on one’s plate in a public setting, the more trouble one will have navigating themselves through enclosed spaces in a fashion quiet and graceful enough to avoid notice or embarrassment.

As we eat, I try to get a sense from my fellow Production Assistants as to what manner of duties we will be obliged to perform, since I’m fairly concerned that I will be qualified for none of them. I am continuously assured that nothing more than basic traffic control will be asked of us, and I breathe continuous sighs of relief through mouthfuls of bacon and grits[10] and wait for the inevitable moment that I am pulled from my circle and given an assignment for which the degree of my success will be measured by the extent to which I disprove myself of being the most inept PA ever mistakenly hired. We are introduced to a flurry of individuals, all of whom seem to be on some level directly in charge of us and yet most of whom I will have no further interaction with whatsoever. The hierarchy of a movie set, as in any undertaking of this size and scope, is based almost entirely on a refined system of delegation. The production of a Major Motion Picture ™ is an enormous undertaking and in even the smallest studio picture made these days there are tens of millions of dollars at stake, and so every piece of the machine needs to be operating in the most efficient manner possible, which for people who have no sense of efficiency whatsoever usually means throwing the most personnel at every facet for the least amount of money they can, which usually ends up being more money than most people could ever imagine. This is done to ensure the most efficiently produced product possible, which will in turn be enough of a financial success once released into theaters that it will earn a return on the initial investment that will exceed all expectations and thus justify the exorbitant amount of money thrown at every facet, said amount usually ballooning to unimaginably irresponsible levels. It is a system that, as of now, continues to work well enough that the people in charge can continue to convince themselves that it still works, though it is hard to imagine that even such professionally-practiced and well-funded denial as this can hope to be sustained for much longer. It seems inevitable that the structure of the commercial film-making system in this country is one day destined for a sudden and crushing failure. It is something that has played out to a certain extent in the cycles of Hollywood history – periods of great financial opulence (the cinema of the 60s and the 80s, for example) crashing and giving way to epochs of smaller, more idiosyncratic and personal cinemas (such as the New Hollywood of the 70s or the independent movement of the 90s). As someone who grew up in the thrall of those artists who made their mark in these artistically richest of post-fallout periods, it has long been my dream to have come of age as a filmmaker along with Scorsese, DePalma, and Coppola in the 70s or with Tarantino, PT Anderson, and David O Russel in the 90s. As I sit within the coolly protected atmosphere of this dining tent and survey the scene around me, all that I can hear are the scribbling of nervous hands on company checks, the click of accounting calculators as the newest figures are added to the overall budget, and I think that perhaps there is a chance that my dream will come true after all, that all of this will very soon implode on itself and I will rise with my film-making brethren out of the resultant empty space. But as a flurry of walkie-talkie squawks informs the crew at large that it is time to head out to set for the first scene of the day, these thoughts are momentarily forced to back of my mind just as the last forkful of hash browns is washed down the back of my throat with one final sip of coffee, and I head out to face my fate.

To be continued…

- cs

[1] An appellation that should give the reader a concise yet comprehensive idea of the cumbersome yet superficial breadth of the program.

[2] In an effort to be ever-prepared, I entered said address the previous night, partly to get an idea of how long the trip would take so that I could pad my schedule by the necessary extra half hour, and also in the vain hope that the directions would be stored in my phone for easy access the next morning, despite this never being the case after any previous engagement in such a ritual – either through fault of the app itself or, most likely, due to my own inability to navigate its most basic features.

[3] This is where my reliance on technology and over-literal thinking has failed me. Since my GPS has no idea where the base camp of this Major Motion Picture ™ has been set-up, and the only information I’ve been given is that it is on the property of the Atlanta Motor Speedway, it is to this arena that my phone points me. What I fail to pay heed to are the yellow, black-lettered signs pointing me in the more specific direction of my final destination. If you live in a city that has been deemed important enough [read, tax-break-allowing-enough] to play host to the filming of Major Motion Pictures ™, you’ve seen these signs before and probably wondered just what in the hell they meant, since they usually contain nothing more than a coded set of letters that can only be cracked by those who are possessed of a certain decrypter, ie, have been told the false name under which the Major Motion Picture ™ they are working on will be operating. Usually this name will be something incredibly trite and to-the-point vis a vis the subject matter of the movie at hand (sometimes only laterally so in the relation to the actual trite and to-the-point official title eventually settled upon). I know enough about the Biz ™ to know exactly what these yellow signs are whenever I pass them by, so even though I should know that the one I pass just before the turn into the parking lot of the Atlanta Motor Speedway is one I should be paying attention to, I stubbornly continue to follow the directions my phone is giving me to the Speedway’s ticket booths. I also have not been given any info as to the working title of this Major Motion Picture ™, and so I feel like I cannot be one-hundred percent certain that this sign pertains to me – there are, after all, a myriad of Major Motion Pictures ™ being filmed at any given time in Atlanta, and who am I to assume that mine is the only one in the vicinity?

[4] By “This Town” I mean, of course, not my current home town of Atlanta, Georgia, but Hollywood itself, as I assume that big studio movie sets are like foreign embassies, encompassing for political purposes homeland soil at all times wherever they may be located.

[5] An entire life spent feeling out of place will, if nothing else, expertly prepare someone for the task of continually proving that they belong where they are. It is also a heretofore unwritten law of the universe that, the more one goes out of her way to prove that she belongs somewhere, the less interested the arbiters of admittance will be in such proof, which will in turn serve to make the belonging all the less exclusive and rob the entrant of the small yet necessary thrill she felt in being asked to participate in the first place.

[6] Set-speak for vans.

[7] For a fairly comprehensive and still-accurate breakdown of this dress code, the reader may refer to David Foster Wallace’s sublime essay on his time spent on the set of David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway,’ though the author will respectfully suggest that they do so a fair length of time after reading this piece so that they will perhaps remember little enough of it to notice how inadequately beholden he is to Mr. Wallace’s immaculate prose.

[8] As best as I can tell, the 2nd 2nd serves as the second assistant director on the second unit of a Major Motion Picture’s ™ production, and in this instance seems to be the crewmember to whom we ultimately report, in the sense that a General is the one to whom enlisted men report (ie, they see him when he gives his big inspirational speech before battle and then afterwards only in the event that they screw something up and need a thorough lashing. Any other time they are sent to see the general, they will have to wait a very long period of time, while other more important underlings finish their business before an interaction that consists mostly of interrogatively-skewed repetitions of their current message and lots of sighs and eye-rubbing (the lowest of the ranks in both instances being special in that they are the only ones regarded in low enough esteem that the general/2nd 2nd can feel safe displaying his overall fatigue).

[9] And even though I am also today wearing large, mirrored sunglasses, which also obscure my identity and in any other circumstance would block the pleading of my eyes, but fail to do so today because of the aforementioned bond.

[10] I have never particularly enjoyed and thus usually never engage in the consumption of boiled chicken feed, but I am hesitant to turn down anything I am offered for fear that I will then be withheld every other egregiously generous option in reprisal.