PA Days: A "Guy with a Website" Is Put to Work on the Film Set of 'Pay Day'
Don't we owe the people whose craft we criticize the courtesy of at least trying it out? How hard could making a movie really be?
Like a modern day Elvis, I'm standing alone in the cold Kentucky rain. I'm standing outside for a better view, and because I'm tired of sitting in the police car. Through Roxie's glass window, I watch my colleagues hug each other and celebrate.
I'm a film critic. At least, I have a laminated card proclaiming me a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and I've been admitted to film festivals as a member of the press. On the other hand, a low-budget director to whom I gave a mediocre review e-mailed to tell me that I'm not really a film critic -- I'm “just a guy with a website." Every movie critic, or guy with a website, has heard it: “If you're so smart, why don't you make your own movie?" The most obvious answer is that most of us can barely afford our own websites, let alone afford to make movies. But we can all be a part of making a movie, right? Don't we owe the people whose craft we are about to criticize the courtesy of at least trying it out? How hard could it be?
After receiving a request to review his previous movie ( Marvelous Mandy, available on Blu-ray), I contact director Chase Dudley on Facebook when I notice that he also lives in Louisville. The decision to volunteer is something of a whim. I'm hoping for something of an education, and something of a penance. Amazingly, he accepts my offer. So for nine days out of a ten-day shoot -- or rather a ten-night shoot, since we're filming overnights in a restaurant open for business during the day -- I volunteered as a production assistant (PA), the lowest position on the lowest rung on the moviemaking ladder, on a microbudget, independent, regional, hostage negotiation drama called Payday. We're shooting in tiny Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Payday sports a cast and crew of around 50 (excluding one-day extras).
The PA is the grunt solider, the utility player, the movie set version of the roadie. Someone in that position could be a student working for class credit. It could be someone with no useful skills -- like those needed to operate a camera or know how to light a scene -- who nonetheless wants to pitch in. It could be someone with useful skills, but less experience than more senior crew members, who still wants to be on set to build-up her résumé. It could be a film critic writing an article about what a PA does.
I don't meet director Chase, or assistant director Samantha, his then-fiancée (now wife), until the shoot begins. Chase is a tall, fashionably bald African American on the cusp of middle age, with a stubbly beard. Samantha is a no-nonsense, down-home country girl with a thick Kentucky accent that charms and amuses some of the L.A. actors who fly in for the shoot. The two work about as well together as any team I've ever seen. Chase inspires the cast and crew and focuses on arranging particular scenes; Samantha keeps everything running, administrating, scheduling, and delegating duties. Although basically a one-set affair staged at Roxie's restaurant, Payday is a big step up for the team after the even lower-budgeted 2016 film, Marvelous Mandy. Chase's goal here is to make a “Sundance quality" movie.
On a microbudget set such as this, duties are not well defined. You pitch in wherever needed. The job makes up in variety what it lacks in required skill. My first official job is “ketchup duty" (turning condiment bottles between shots so that the labels aren't visible as the camera changes angles). When I signed up as PA, I expected to spend my time mostly fetching coffee. I fetch a few gallons of coffee. I follow Samantha around the set for an hour with a cup of coffee that she never finds time to sip from. That task complete, there are plenty of other jobs, including carefully recreating the place settings (complete with half-eaten food and precisely placed napkins and straw wrappers) at the restaurant set every night before shooting begins; using a magic marker to blacken the orange nibs at the end of prop Airsoft pistols; helping craft services prepare salad for the crew; standing guard to make sure the unwitting don't walk onto live sets; getting extras to sign consent and confidentiality forms; lugging sandbags and lighting equipment (when the gaffer lets me touch it); fetching props, slates, and actors; shadowing Chase with his shot list; trying to keep an excitable teenage extra quiet while she plays an Insidious-branded virtual reality simulator; repeating the words “rolling" and “cut" into a walkie-talkie; and cleaning up every night, removing the plates and sweeping up before the breakfast crew arrives for the day's restaurant business.
The people putting in time at this level of moviemaking are a motley bunch, a mixture of journeymen, ambitious up-and-comers, and hobbyists. At the top of the pecking order are the draws: in this case, Bishop Stevens and Tiffani Fest. Stevens, a former pro wrestler who's been acting since 2014, arrives confidently on set like a whirlwind, and has both a massive presence and a sense of professionalism. Fest is an up-and-coming “scream queen" whose IMDB page is full of titles like Blood Island, Circus of the Dead and Krampus: The Devil Returns. For her, the role of an FBI detective is a chance to expand her range. Both of them are only on set for a couple of nights each to shoot their scenes before they fly off to their next assignments. Other out-of-town actors stick around longer: Derek Babb, Lara Jean Mummert and Colton Wheeler. Not exactly household names, but all with multiple TV and movie credits, solid working thespians still awaiting their big break.
The technical crew -- director of photography Anthony Pesce, sound man Erik Kyr, and gaffer Trevor O'Neal -- are there for every shot along with Chase and Samantha, doing Payday's heavy lifting. After the actors, these three eat up most of the film's budget. They have to supply their own equipment, thousands of dollars' worth of cameras, lights and mixing boards, and can't afford to do projects for charity.
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I hang out mostly with my fellow PAs, extras, and the local actors (some of whom double as PAs when they're not shooting scenes). They're a fascinating demographic, each at different points in their careers. Sandra Holliger is a model and actress just starting out; she landed the significant role of Katia, the anxiety-ridden waitress. I jokingly promise her I will describe her as the shorter version of Jennifer Lawrence. Tory L. Beckham, a talented local comedian, plays Darnell, the part Chase originally planned to play but wisely abandoned so he could focus on directing. He takes jobs with flexible hours so he can focus on auditions and acting roles, still pursuing a movie career. (He worked on Captain America: Civil War, but as a “precision driver" rather than an actor). Dennis Roach plays the “single dad". He's an executive at a non-profit who was once an uncredited extra in a Michael Bay movie. He has a family to support and considers moviemaking a hobby rather than a vocation.
Other cast and crew show a similar spectrum of experience: the gaffer and the Director of Photography recently worked together as PAs on Yorgos Lanthimos' latest movie, The Killing of a Sacred DeerKilling of a Sacred Deer, while camera assistant Deshawn Harris joins the crew late because he had been in London serving as a personal assistant for a famous actor (whose role was just canceled) on an upcoming untitled Star Wars project. Then there's Charlie, the semi-retired father of Roxie's owner, who drives the talent back and forth between the set, the hotel, and the airport, and who also makes sure the crew doesn't leave a mess for the breakfast crew to clean up. He's a veteran, amiably crusty, and one of my favorite people on set (in my mind, I dub him “Grandpa Charlie"). Regardless of experience or lack of same, we're all peers united in our desire to make the best movie we possibly can.
Director Chase Dudley with special makeup effects artist Steve-O Shephard. (Photo © Larry Green courtesy of A Cut to the Chase Productions)
Bishop may be the star in front of the camera, but Steve-O Shepherd is the crew's MVP and breakout character. With a pencil mustache, a lime green streak in his hair, and double-flared gauges in his earlobes, Steve-O looks like John Waters' punkier nephew (he doesn't wear his trademark bow tie on set, alas). He's the lead makeup artist and the special effects wizard, as well as a general Mr. Fixit. He pulls whatever odds and ends anyone could ever need from his multi-pocketed utility vest -- band aids, nail polish, makeup remover, airbrush. He's also a great prop improviser, although sadly we never get the opportunity to use the strobe light simulator he designed from a coat hanger and pizza box.