There are endless books about directing movies, but it’s rare to see a dedicated guide for film crews. “Gofers: On the Front Lines of Film and Television” is a new book that is entirely focused on the production assistant role in the film industry. And because of how specific it is, every line in the book becomes precious advice for any up and coming PA.
The author of the book, Daniel Scarpati, is a New York-based filmmaker and camera operator. He graduated from CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College before jumping into a career as a production assistant. His insight into the PA job is all too familiar for anyone who already works as a PA, but for anyone on the cusp of joining the film industry, this book should be required reading.
Interview with Daniel Scarpati about “Gofers: On the Front Lines of Film and Television”
Q: What’s a Gofer?
A: My favorite definition has always been the Oxford English Dictionary’s: “A person who runs errands, especially on a film set or in an office.” It really shines the spotlight at those breaking into showbiz!
For about six years, I worked as a film/TV production assistant, or “PA” for short. These are interchangeable terms: PAs and gofers both refer to the people, oftentimes the youngest and lowest paid crew members, who are sent on an endless variety of errands for those higher up in the film set hierarchy.
Q: What inspired you to write Gofers?
A: I was a connection-less kid from Queens, New York with no knowledge of how to break into the industry before I began PA’ing. As I found my first jobs and began sharing stories from set with classmates and at college open houses, I kept hearing the same questions: “What does a PA do?” “How do you start out, and what’s it like going from gig to gig?” “What are the best and worst things that have happened to you on set?”
I repeated the same answers enough times that I thought it’d be infinitely more helpful if I could point people to one definitive well of knowledge. No book I knew of at the time covered all the industries of single-camera and multi-camera film/TV, commercials, and new media/streaming. So I decided to write the book I wish existed back when I was starting out.
Q: What’s a typical career path – how does a Production Assistant get started in the business?
A: In the beginning, PAs generally work as an “additional,” or on a daily basis. They are needed on set, in the production office, and sometimes in specific departments (camera, wardrobe, etc.). There were weeks when I worked on a different set every day. If you’re like I was and have trouble memorizing people’s names, you learn very quickly how to do that well!
Knowing someone’s title, rank in their department and personality type can make all the difference when hours grow long—and they will. The average length of a workday is 12 hours. Showcase your efforts to enough people and it doesn’t take long to be offered a staff position. Staff PAs are hired for full-time positions and follow a chain of command that looks something like this:
“AD” stands for assistant director, the next rank up for many set PAs. These crew members are second-in-command under the director and production manager. They schedule the entire production and hire PAs, so they’re good people to know as you start out.
Q: What don’t they teach you in film school about crewing on a production?
A: I can’t believe film schools don’t offer classes about freelancing, which is a time-consuming lifestyle. Understanding how (and more importantly, why) to keep records of jobs you’ve been employed on; curate your own schedule; manage money and begin saving for retirement; which receipts you might use as tax write-offs; and what streams of passive income you might consider creating for time periods where your phone isn’t ringing. No matter which department a person works in, we all have these same considerations day-to-day.
Q: How can a Production Assistant avoid burnout?
A: Regardless of the type of productions a PA might specialize in, burnout can feel inevitable. In most parts of the world, this is a non-union, minimum-wage job with a high rate of turnover. Those in charge of PAs aren’t always patient with the people who fail to quickly catch on to the daily grind.
As I ranked up from additional to staff Production Assistant, hours grew even longer. Friday nights turned into Saturday mornings (a “Fraturday”) and weekends passed after a few hours of sleep. From time to time, give yourself a break. Promise yourself time off after a certain amount of work weeks, and stick to your word. Listen to your body and consider taking up exercises like stretching and core workouts – assuming your doctor approves. If you need more sleep, don’t be afraid to speak up to your supervisor. Physical and emotional wellness shouldn’t be kicked to the curb.
Q: What surprised you while you were writing Gofers?
A: As I researched and spoke with PAs who I’d come up with, many of them were hesitant to share negative stories. Not many wanted to talk about instances of being overworked to the point of exhaustion or harassed out of fear of retaliation. I completely understand that feeling and have even felt concerned myself. So I took care and made it a priority while writing “Gofers” to never callout any individual, but to present an honest, balanced and fair point of view of what life is like from the PA’s perspective.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you can give for an up-and-coming PA?
A: Some of the greatest advice I’ve ever been given: “Grow a thick skin.” No matter the department on or off set, there are people who will take out their years of stress on you. Not every day is glamorous. But I believe it’s important you don’t let yourself forget why you started.
To this day, I put in work to fan that flame of excitement I felt the first time I stepped onto set. “Oh man, how cool is this!?” Whether job you’ve set your sights on, remember that this is a job worth doing well. The story succeeds best when all cast and crew are respected and appreciated. And hopefully one day, I’ll see you on set! ✊
You can read a sample of the Gofers book and purchase a copy here: https://www.passingplanes.com/book
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What’s your experience as a PA? Do you have any additional tips to avoid burnout? Let us know in the comments!