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?
Mostly, the job is drudgery, but there are opportunities for adventure. The fourth night includes a rooftop shoot, where I was called upon, with the other PAs, to lug equipment up a series of ladders by flashlight in the building across the street. We encounter a terrified bat that plays dead and climb to the edge of the roof and take third floor selfies.
On day eight we film in the Elizabethtown City Cemetery. I help lug the large jib from the parking lot to the pavilion where most of the crew wait in the March gloom and cold while the director, cameraman and two actors shoot a scene inside a moving car. A tire refuses to cooperate with our plans to stage a blowout, despite Chase buying the cheapest one he could find and Stevo-O rigging up a board with five nails. Darkness comes before we can stage what's originally meant to be a late evening shot. The temperature falls into the low 40s; my windbreaker too flimsy for this chill. The crew stumbles around among graves in the darkness, looking for the right spot to shoot the scene. We assemble the jib in darkness, and finally shoot the scene lit by car headlights and cellphone flashlights (it's more necessary for the camera operator to see what he's doing then to light the actors). A few minutes of dialogue takes 45 minutes to capture, putting us hours behind schedule.
On the second night, the actor hired to play a cook doesn't show up for her 3AM call and doesn't answer her phone. Upset by the defection, Samantha finally turns to me and asks if I can play the non-speaking role. I happily agree and rush to wardrobe (well, to the restaurant's back office where the extra Roxies' shirts are kept). I make an unauthorized wardrobe decision, commandeering an apron from the kitchen, since I feel my character is the sort who would wear an apron while cooking. While the action scene is fun -- focused mainly on star Derek Babb, whose thesping skills earns him applause from the extras -- the main effect was to lock down my commitment to the project. I now have to come back for future days, making sure to wear the same pair of jeans I wear on that night.
When I shoot the second of my trio of scenes as an extra, I have perhaps my greatest moment as an actor. My main job in this scene is to react to Darnell's angry monologue; I have no lines, so I ad-lib a rude gesture. The movie now must be finished, or the immortal footage of me as a short-order cook will be lost forever.
It's not all fun and games and acting glory, though. On day three I meet my personal PA nemesis for the first time: squad car duty. Payday is a hostage movie, but the producers can only afford to pay the police to barricade the street in front of Roxie's overnight for three nights. However, continuity requires that blue and red police strobes light the set at almost all times. Samantha works out a deal with the city to employ two unused squad cars, which are parked across the street, to turn on their lights so that they will flicker onto the set through the restaurant windows. But if the flashers are going, the cars have to be turned on; and if two police cars are sitting on Main Street in Elizabethtown overnight with keys in the ignition, someone has to stay with them.
Director Chase Dudley, actors Tiffani Fest and Bishop Stevens. (Photo © Larry Green courtesy of A Cut to the Chase Productions)
As the least necessary person who is always on set, the job falls to me. I receive about a minute of instruction on how to turn the lights on, then I'm by myself in a squad car, for hours on end, catching glimpses of the on-set action through Roxie's front window. This is the most boring job imaginable; essentially, a night watchman with no rounds. I didn't sign up for ten-hour shifts as a lonely night watchman; I signed up for ten-hour shifts of fetching coffee.
I'm left alone with my thoughts, with bathroom breaks allowed only every two hours. I type a few notes into my phone. The next night I bring my laptop, but it's awkward fitting it into the front seat with the cruiser's bulging control panel and trying to type by the dashboard lights on an already wonky keyboard and spotty Wi-Fi. With each hour that drags by I feel like I've put in my time in the movie trenches and earned the right to lob another insult at a low-budget film.
Many, if not most, outlets that review microbudget movies grade them on a curve. The lower the budget, the more they forgive amateur acting, muddy sound, continuity errors, hackneyed dialogue -- all the frailties to which tight shooting schedules and makeshift props are heir. Perhaps this tendency comes from the fear that less than glowing reviews will lead to the loss of the free screeners that are the sole perk of this dusty corner of the critics' world. Perhaps the writers are just movie lovers who see the good in everything. Amazon reviewers who accidentally stumble onto micro-to-low budget productions are more honest; you see lots of one-sentence “middle schoolers could have made a better movie" types of comments. OK, it's not great criticism, but it's an honest reflection of the letdown that people conditioned to Hollywood glitz often feel when they endure the entirety of a microbudget film. The sad truth is that, whatever the artistic merit of the movie, most of the audience for sub-million dollar movies are friends and family of the cast and crew -- and fellow low-budget filmmakers. It's the nichiest of niche audiences. Good reviews and positive word-of-mouth are the Hail Marys of low-budget indies.
Many people view the job of the critic as a glorified version of that aforementioned Amazon review: they think we watch a movie, spend ten minutes dashing off dismissive stream-of-consciousness thoughts about what happened, then sit back and gloat at the way we demolish the beloved work of the poor suckers who dare try to entertain us. But serious critics don't hate on the movies you love because we're smug, pretentious bastards intent on demonstrating the superiority of our intellects. When we hate on a movie, it's because movies matter to us, dammit, and we believe that this movie is wrong. Writing a legitimate review takes hours of work, consideration, and fact-checking. Like filmmaking, writing isn't easy. It consists of considering all possible combinations of words in the universe, then systematically eliminating all the wrong ones. That's damned hard work.
I'm not a critic, as I write this. I'm not going to tell you Payday is a great film. I'm not going to tell you it's a good film, or a mediocre film, or an awful film, either. I will tell you that it was made by people who love movies the way I love movies, people with whom I can argue whether Jackie Brown counts as film noir or not. While critics and filmmakers are sometimes natural enemies -- because the critic works for the audience, not the producers -- we're united by love of this medium. Payday was made by talented, hungry people who gave it their all, sometimes working 16 hour days. It was made by people using their vacation time from their day jobs to work long weekend nights rather than to go to the beach with their families during the day, by mothers who knocked off early (at 1AM) because they had to wake up at 6AM to make breakfast for their school-age children. It was made with stress, endurance, sleep deprivation, and off-brand duct tape. It was fueled by coffee, five-hour energy shots, slices of cold Little Caesar's pizza grabbed and eaten on the run, and hugs.
Making a movie seems both easy -- just put people in front of the camera speaking their lines, and film it -- and impossible. On the first night, around 2AM, I catch sight of Chase sitting alone, with his head in his hands. That gives me a feeling of mild concern. By day eight, we're already down one hand in the makeup department with a makeup artist out sick. And that night, the irreplaceable Steve-O has anxiety attacks. His wife Stevie walks him around, but he's clutching his chest and doesn't look good. Early in the morning, he leaves for the emergency room. Having heard about his schedule -- he works constantly, going to another job in Louisville during the day and only getting a few hours of sleep per night -- I make an amateur diagnosis of exhaustion. His friends are worried, and the movie itself is in jeopardy. Steve-O is to supply the big special effect on the last day of shooting, as well as helping out in makeup and being the go-to guy for any handyman duties on set. Without him, I don't see how the shoot can wrap on schedule. Fortunately, Steve-O is back on set for day nine, rehydrated, refreshed and as gung-ho as ever. He had been diagnosed with a potassium deficiency exacerbated by too much caffeine. I'm told that low potassium levels can lead to arrhythmia and mimic the effects of a heart attack. He's instructed to eat more bananas, and Stevie tells me to knock the coffee mug out of his hand if I see him with one.
With Steve-O back in the fold, we're ready to bear down for the penultimate day of work. I'm weary after six hours of poor quality sleep, but I'm still better-rested than much of the crew. I'm on squad car duty, as usual. Word has it the shoot is two hours behind schedule. I'm thinking that they've shot too much to abandon, but it looks like they won't be able to wrap it on time. With no barricade and street traffic intruding into shots, at half-past midnight we decide to set up our own impromptu system to divert traffic around the location. My fellow PAs put on bright yellow reflective vests and wave lighted batons to try to direct cars to detour around the block. A college student PA and I swap shifts sitting in the warm squad car and standing in the chilly rain. It's only then that I realize there is a PA job worse than squad car duty: traffic control duty. We're lucky if half of the vehicles heed our detour suggestions and we can get a traffic-free minute or two to shoot. Progress on the interior scenes is slow due to road noise, but they chip away at the remaining scenes.
At the beginning of day ten, the final day of shooting, I recall the advice I got from a script-supervisor friend who had worked on many a low budget film: “be prepared for a death march." For me, it's a repeat of the previous day: sitting in the squad car, alternating with waving a baton at oncoming traffic. The worst part is the cold drizzle that comes in the early morning hours. This keeps the sky dark when dawn should be breaking, giving the crew more time to shoot night scenes, but making it even harder to convince cars to go around the block, please, particularly as rush hour starts and both lanes of Main Street fill up. Desperate to get those final shots with a minimum of road noise, Samantha exhorts me on the walkie-talkie: “Really whip it! Don't let anyone through!" By 6AM, however, it's clear we're not going to get any more traffic-free shots. Word comes that there's enough material and were going to move to the final scene.
And so I'm standing outside watching over the squad cars as everyone else in the cast and crew gathers inside to capture the final shot. Steve-O has rigged up a practical special effect for this scene, and he warns the crew they'll only get one chance to capture it. I watch the action through the window from across the street. After the shot everyone rushes to wipe down the walls then the group dissolves into a puddle of group hugs and photo-ops. I don't appear in any of those wrap photos; I don't desert my lonely post. I stand there alone, waiting for the off-duty officer to come pick up the cruisers for the last time, as the others celebrate, pack up their gear, then gradually start to drift away.
We made the movie, and we made it on schedule. There was no wrap party. Chase, Samantha, the technical crew, and a couple of actors leave to shoot one final scene in a hotel room. By the time I make it back inside the restaurant, the place is mostly deserted. No-nonsense Grandpa Charlie doesn't have the same sense of empty melancholy and anticlimax as I do; in fact, he's visibly annoyed, for the first time since I met him. “They're all out there fingerfucking each other," he groused, “while this place is a fucking mess." As my last official act as a Payday crewmember, I grab a broom and mop. The early lunch crowd will be arriving in a few hours. No more Payday for me. It's time to sweep up the set, stack the ketchup-stained dishes that can finally be washed without destroying continuity, and return to being just another guy with a website.