questionmarkA friend of mine is a writer whose work has been lucky/funny enough to make it to the big screen. The sequel has been greenlit and he just shot me an email letting me know that he’s signed on as the director! I am an aspiring screenwriter and I understand how valuable it is to be on set and get a bird’s eye view of the process. So my question is this:

What job should I beg him for? I’ve got no on-set experience and I’m not sure how much staffing power the director has, or in what areas he has it. I don’t want to ask for something completely unrealistic and appear foolish. I am, however, eager, ambitious and a very hard worker. I’ll carry their luggage, haul equipment or simply make sure the toilet paper is properly stocked — if I can just get a peak at the process, write during my down time and make friends/connections. I’d kill for this opportunity. I just need to know…um…. what opportunity exactly, I’m killing for.

— J.R.

If the budget allows him to have an assistant, that’s the job you want. By shadowing him, you’ll get the broadest perspective of preproduction, production and post.

Maybe he already has an assistant, or the budget won’t allow him to have one. Then it gets a little harder to figure out the right spot for you.

Assuming you can drive a car, answer a phone and work long hours, you can be an office PA. You’ll learn a lot about the logistical side of filmmaking, but won’t have a ton of on set exposure — you’re running back and forth from the office a lot. You’ll be taking orders from a production coordinator, who will generally send you for a pickup in Santa Monica when you just got back from Venice. On the plus side, you’ll get to know your LA geography a lot better, and become familiar with the various vendors and production houses.

While an office PA can learn on the job, an on-set PA actually needs to know what he’s doing. There’s a useful guide you can download, but a large part of the job is simply anticipating what’s going to happen next, and that only comes with experience. But everyone has to start somewhere, so if you can convince the first and second AD’s (who oversee the PA’s) that you’re a quick learner, they might bring you on. But always keep in mind that you’re working for them, not your buddy the director.

If you’re competent with a videocamera, another possibility is to shoot the behind-the-scenes footage. That certainly gives you access. Just make sure not to step on the toes of the actual filmmakers.

If it’s not possible to get a real job on the movie, it’s absolutely worth asking your friend if you can visit set a few times during production. Just make sure that when you do, you make yourself a ghost. The best set visitors aren’t just invisible — they’re almost immaterial, and never in the way when you turn the set around. The safest place to hover is generally near craft service; they pick that location to be close to the set but never in the way.

Update:

Alex Epstein answered the identical question, with almost the same advice. Which just goes to show we’re both geniuses.