By Erin Trahan
August 11, 2008
Admit it: You’re a little obsessed.
And a little proud. Your backyard is suddenly the setting for multiplex movies like “21” and Oscar winners like “The Departed.” Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, and Bruce Willis have been in town lately, hanging out at bars you’ve been to, shops you’ve been in, and gyms where you work out.
Thanks to tax credits that are making it more attractive to film in Massachusetts, the area is becoming a hotbed of moviemaking. Eight movies already have been at least partly filmed here in 2008. So maybe now, instead of simply charting celebs’ every move in the entertainment news, you want a firsthand peek at them.
The region is teeming with opportunities to become more intimately acquainted with film production. But you’re not alone if you don’t know where to begin.
The first rule of order is to understand that filmmaking is a serious and expensive business. And be warned: The bigger the budget, the bigger the barrier to getting on set. You shouldn’t try to wander onto a set off the street without preparation or a reason for being there.
“It’s bad business,” said Joe Maiella, president of the Massachusetts Production Coalition, a nonprofit founded to grow media production in the state. “Sets are very busy places. If you want to qualify for it, you have to have relationships and training. You have to have talent.”
With that in mind, here are some tips for taking that first step onto a set:
Be an extra
Working as an extra is one of the easiest ways to get a glimpse behind the scenes, says Carolyn Pickman, owner of C.P. Casting. First-timers can up their chances by taking an acting class, having a professional head shot taken, joining casting agencies’ mailing lists, attending open casting calls, and gaining experience on small productions, she said.
Caroline Gulde of Chelmsford tried to get work as an extra by e-mailing her headshot and resume to local casting agencies, and landed a job as a stand-in for actor Lacey Chabert. Gulde spent two months on the set of “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and earned a Screen Actors Guild card, which could open doors for future roles.
“I didn’t know what the heck being her stand-in entailed at all,” said Gulde, whose job was to wait patiently while the director and director of photography discussed lighting and blocked shots. The experience, she said, “demystified the movies” for her. “I don’t think anyone realizes how much detail goes into every shot. I have a newfound respect for actors. Every part of it is such hard work.”
Work as a PA
Fetching coffee can also demystify the glamour of movies. That’s what’s expected of entry-level crew members, otherwise known as production assistants, or PAs. PAs are hired either as day laborers or for the duration of a shoot. Their duties, most of which can be learned quickly, can shift at the whim of their supervisor. And everyone on set is a PA’s supervisor.
Marc Colucci, a former PA who now works as an assistant director, recently spoke to 19 eager college students hoping to break into the Boston production scene. “If you hear someone say it’s a 10-hour day, it’s a 12-hour day for you . . . if you’re lucky,” he said. Colucci ran through a litany of duties: setting up craft services and the “video village” (for video playback), loading equipment, handing out walkie-talkies, and keeping the set clean. PAs must also anticipate needs, keep their mouths shut, smile a lot, and ignore the inevitable abuse.
Colucci suggests that anyone who wants to work as a PA should have business cards made, and offer to work for free on student films and low-budget productions. Job opportunities are advertised on Craigslist.org, Mandy.com, and NewEnglandFilm.com (full disclosure: I edit the site’s magazine). Once you have a job on a set, you should start asking around for your next job.
Spin your skills
People with experience in landscaping, construction, sewing, painting, office administration, accounting, catering, or electrical work can contribute important work to film productions. Maiella said plans are underway for an apprenticeship program for people whose skills can help meet the growing demand for crew in the state.
You could also work for an equipment dealer or rental company. As a sales agent for Barbizon Lighting Company in Woburn, Dan Aronovitz delivered lighting equipment, offered technical assistance, and helped with set up on the sets of “Ashecliffe,” “The Proposal,” “Bride Wars,” “Mall Cop,” “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” and “The Surrogates.” He doesn’t always work during the filming, but he has gotten to watch sets being built. His advice: Build a reputation as a reliable PA and then become an expert in one particular area.
Loan your location
Nick Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office, is developing a database of homes, businesses, and properties of people who want productions in their backyard. People interested in loaning places should send him details and photos of the location. Keep in mind, though, that filming on location means heavy trucks, lots of equipment, and people will be there for the duration. And if the movie becomes popular, your home may become a tourist destination.
Lay down cash
One sure way to cut through red tape: get on set by laying down your green. Even film productions with major stars attached can be clamoring for financial backing. A few years ago the New Hampshire Film Office initiated an effort to match financiers with scripts set in the Granite State. Though Massachusetts does not have a formal effort in place to groom executive producers, just whispering “cash on hand” is a guaranteed call for filmmakers of all stripes. You can find projects to finance by attending film festivals to meet filmmakers, researching independent production houses, and placing a call for scripts on local film websites.
Donate to charity
Smaller sums can also do the job. Beacon Hill resident Ilana Leighton got on the set of “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” – and got a kiss from actor Michael Douglas – by bidding at an auction to benefit her son’s school. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. She expected Douglas would waltz in, do a quick shot, and be out of there. But the 15-second scene – in which Douglas enters a bar (Saint on Exeter Street in Boston), greets Leighton, and kisses her hand – required more than 20 takes. Leighton watched and waited while the crew broke into a different scene. “Then they re-set up for the scene I was in, to shoot from a different angle, which we shot probably another 15 times,” she said.
Erin Trahan is the editor of NewEnglandFilm.com.