Q. A 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 peek 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.
Don't worry about writing during your down time. You shouldn't have down time. During production, everyone's working 12-16 hour days. While you're on set, you should be making friends and volunteering for extra tasks, not sneaking off to write down your thoughts; and by the time you get home you'll want to just sleep.
If your friend will take you on as his assistant, if that won't wreck your friendship, that might be useful. Then you get him coffee when he needs it, and hang around and listen in on all the conversations with producers and stars at Video Village (that's where the director watches the takes). You get to see how shots are framed and listen in as the director explains to the cinematographer what he wants.
The director can't really hire you into a department -- that's up to the department head -- though he could recommend you. You could intern in one of the departments where your screwup can't be fatal, e.g. grips, props, electricians (well it could be fatal to you, but not the show!), etc. But if you're in a department, you should really be paying attention to your department, not ogling the camera and the actors. If you're an electrician, for example, you're concentrating on what the next light the gaffer might need; or sitting 60' high on the scissorlift in the cold night air wondering when lunch is.
It actually isn't that glamorous or necessarily educational to be on set. Everyone is doing their job. If you don't have a job it's not that exciting to hang around watching the other kids play. Most of the jobs aren't things you as a director or writer will ever need to know how to do. But, you'll need to be focusing laser-like on that job and not trying to understand what the director is doing. I'm not sure I ever learned that much from being a p.a. or from being an electrician (i.e. lighting department); at least, I didn't learn much about how to producer or direct or write movies.
On the other hand, everybody should work on at least one set so they know what goes on there, so I applaud you for doing what it takes to grab your chance.
If I were you, I would offer to shoot footage for the EPK (electronic press kit). Get a video camera and shoot interviews with everyone. The studio will send someone for three days to do the EPK, but you can provide additional footage throughout the shoot. So your footage may include things the studio team won't be around for. Your footage may wind up on the DVD. Maybe you can even cut it together yourself. It's a great opportunity to do as you please on a set so long as you're not in anyone's way. You may even be able to get yourself invited to screenings of the dailies, casting sessions and so on. Especially if you're buds with the director.
UPDATE: This guy asked John August the identical question, and lo and behold -- he got the same answer
. Now I feel very smart indeed!
John also provided a handy link to The Production Assistant's Pocket Handbook
, a free PDF document on how to be a good flunky. Check it out.