“You like the Saints?” was the first thing he said to me. He pointed to the baseball cap I was sporting — a white cap with a light gold Fleur de Lis.
“Yeah. I love New Orleans. It’s a great city,” I responded.
“I think we’re gonna have a good year,” he said. “Our offense is really lookin’ good.”
We were in an old dive bar, one that reeks of decades of cigarette smoke and spilt booze — or, in other words, the perfect and most original location for every country music video that’s ever been filmed. I think I worked on three music videos in that bar that summer. A crusty pool table was in the center of the bar, and on it were call sheets and random pieces of grip and electric equipment.
I was a new, eager, and completely broke production assistant. 2008 couldn’t have been a worse time to launch a freelance career in any line of work. After months of living off a diet of offbrand spaghetti-o’s and stress, the threat of trying to find a “real job” was descending on me like a dark cloud. Miraculously, I received a call to work as a PA for two days in the boiling summer heat — and I was determined to make a lasting impression.
That’s how I found myself in that dive bar, hustling like crazy, and doing my best to anticipate and be in the right place when someone needed assistance. My fellow Saints fan took notice — someone finally noticed I had potential — and he kept getting me on gigs throughout that summer with several production companies. New producers and assistant directors started learning my name.
That fall, he helped me land my first set PA position on an independent movie.
“We’re shooting to FILM!” he said to me with complete excitement one early morning, before I’d had time to digest the caffeine in my coffee. “Laryssa, do you know how obsolete that’s going to be in a few years? It’s going to be an amazing thing for you to tell your kids that ‘yes, I worked on movies that were shot on film’!”
He loved everything about movies, and the process of making a movie. He was constantly on the move with purpose, usually talking into his walkie. If he wasn’t getting stuff done, he was studying the schedule or the day’s sides (“sides” are the pages of the script filmed in a day). He had a rugged arrogance, but a blazing passion: he knew how to do the job. And he sought out likeminded, less experienced kids to take under his wing. Perhaps it was the Saints connection, my work ethic, or a combination of both — but I became his project and learned a dozen new things with every new job. He also had an incredibly effective teaching method that I hated at the time: he didn’t spare the “tough love”.
“Your ear piece is out,” he said sharply to me while we were at lunch. These statements were never laced with fluff. They were direct– accusatory, it seemed– and got under my skin.
“We’re at lunch,” I snapped exasperatedly. Our call time had been at 5am, and I’d been on my feet nonstop. When you’ve got a walkie earpiece wired into your ear, you become a robot, incapable of carrying out your own thoughts without being interrupted by the constant voices in your ear. I was exhausted, and just needed fifteen minutes without someone chirping directly into my brain.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re in the assistant director department. What if our 1st AD needs us? We can eat, but we’re never on break. We have to always be listening.”
He was right, of course. Although I was making improvements, ignorance or sloppiness was never tolerated. Being on my game and thinking five steps ahead earned smiles and high-fives, but he was constantly pushing me to my breaking point. It offended me at first — okay, it always offended me — but I realize now that his tutelage was bootcamp, toughening me up for a brutal industry. Film and television production isn’t for the thin-skinned, and around him, I was forced me to learn the ropes quickly. I learned to never sit down, to always be vigilant, to always have my eyes and ears open and to be a step ahead of whatever we were currently filming. He forced me to set high standards for the quality of my work.
That winter, when a big-time Los Angeles production came to town and interviewed for three set production assistant positions, I had far less experience than most.
“Yeah, you don’t have much experience, but your name keeps coming up,” the 2nd AD told me point-blank in my interview as he studied my embarrassingly short resume. I later learned that my advocate, along with someone I’d met through him, had both pushed hard for me in their interviews.
I ended up getting the last set PA slot on that production.
Since those days in that smoky bar, I’ve been in the business for six years. I’ve had a solid four or five mentors in that time, but sometimes, I wonder where I’d be without my first advocate, that fellow Saints fan. We ended up going our separate ways, eventually. We sometimes text, but rarely about work — usually it’s about the Saints.
Becoming successful in any field is an uphill battle: you’ll have to prove yourself worthy of being there. Sometimes, you’ll have to work on dozens of jobs before you meet that first person willing to take a chance on you.
The piece of advice I give to everyone that asks me how to get started in the film industry is just that — keep working jobs until you find your advocate, and you may have to work for awhile until your paths cross. Some people will be threatened by you and will choose not to call you, or give you demeaning tasks to try to break your spirit — but don’t let them.
Because once you do find that person… you’re golden.