I'd Always Cursed Film Crews Downtown — Then I Became a PA for a Day
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday. I’m fiddling with a walkie-talkie in a photo studio off North Broadway in Chinatown. Around me, 15 others are enduring a mandatory safety meeting. In a few minutes we’ll adjourn to an adjacent parking lot, where two passenger vans sit stuffed with cameras, lens bags, tripods, bounce cards and enough Red Vines and bottled water to sustain us for the day.
I have officially surrendered my Downtowner card for the next 12 hours. I’m through the looking glass. I belong to the dark side. Today, I’m with the film crews.
Ask anyone around the Southland (or the world, for that matter) and they’ll tell you Los Angeles is a company town. We make and export films. In a 2012 industry report, the friendly business boosters down at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation suggested that the film industry “directly or indirectly” maintains more than half a million jobs in L.A. county alone.
Amid a downtown building boom and a re-concentration of livable urban space, that crystal-clear charter is in crisis.
As of August, 6,260 apartments were under construction in downtown. Infrastructural improvement projects, such as the regional transit connector, have carved up city streets with prolonged traffic snarls.
Meanwhile, the Central City Association’s 2015 Downtown L.A. Survey reports 50,000-plus residents. That number is up from an estimated 28,878 in 2006.
Concurrent to downtown’s residential redevelopment is a boom in location filming. Mayor Eric Garcetti, formerly a City Council member representing District 13, ran on a platform of enticing film jobs back to Los Angeles. In May 2015, the mayor announced a citywide initiative to improve collaboration with the film industry. That same year, the California Film Commission tripled its film tax credit program to the tune of $330 million.
The results were palpable: 2015 saw a 10 percent increase in location filming in Los Angeles. Film L.A. reported that the first quarter of 2016 saw a record 9,703 shoot days on the streets of Los Angeles.
The sheer bulk of filming in downtown has residents and filmmakers alike comparing the city’s rebuilt core to a Hollywood backlot. That isn’t necessarily a compliment.
Though an impressive heritage of films — from 1980s dystopian masterpieces such as They Live and Repo Man to contemporary rom-coms like Bridesmaids and (500) Days of Summer — have used downtown’s streets as a backdrop, the seeming omnipresence of grip trucks and honey wagons scattered between skyscrapers, warehouses, bridges and tunnels has residents flustered.
People who pay a premium to live along downtown’s broad avenues (a median monthly rent of $3,340, according to a recent number crunch of listings on Apartments List) are less tolerant than ever of the block-consuming rigmarole inherent to filming. The appearance of Film L.A. notices or yellow set-parking signs are harbingers of infuriating street closures, blocked sidewalks, loud noises, prolonged inconveniences and tension with a perceived entitlement among the cinema industry’s production corps.
I've also grown weary of the film industry’s constant intrusions. Since moving into the Historic Core in 2010, I’ve witnessed Jennifer Lopez dancing on a street corner, Liev Schreiber petting a zebra in a parking lot, a live male lion stalking through the Old Bank District, Gotham PD patrolling Spring Street and a Batmobile racing down Grand.
Like film itself, these sights seem magical until you contend with the reality of their creation. A life spent wondering if I’ll be able to access my parking lot grows tiresome. Production assistants denying me entry into the building where I pay to live test every fiber of my patience. An electrical truck pumping exhaust directly into my window pits my health against asphyxia.
I’ve said things to film crewmen that I regret. It would be physically impossible to lodge the entirety of a film slate in the places I’ve suggested. Further, I’ve ruined countless shots acting like a jackass in the background. I've grown bitter about something from which I once derived much enjoyment and wonder.
I’m hoping that my daylong stint as a production assistant for a lifestyle photo shoot will give me some perspective. It is my proverbial mile walked in the other man’s shoes. I’m terrified it will also be a karmic comeuppance.
For those not in the know with film shoot vernacular, a PA is the lowest man or woman on the totem pole. They make food runs, arrange craft services, provide logistical support, liaise with various departments and, in my case, drive the passenger vans.
We’re armed with a blanket permit. It costs $63 and gives us carte blanche to shoot from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. within a grid of downtown streets. Included in the 12-page document are “generic conditions” (park legally, maintain five feet of sidewalk access, no monkey business before 7 a.m. or after 10 p.m.), a “Filmmaker’s Code of Professional Responsibility" (pack your trash, don’t swear in front of the public, turn engines off when possible) and “Special Conditions for Location Filming in Downtown” (don’t mess with the Broadway Entertainment District or the Old Bank District, Art Walk is sacred, your helicopter will need an FAA permit).
With the blessing of the city in our pocket, I lead a two-van convoy to our first of six locations: Lower Grand, the sun-dappled stretch of blacktop just beneath Bunker Hill. I’m entrusted with getting us there because I’m a local and I presumably know where I’m going. Not today, unfortunately.
Construction on the regional connector station has subsumed the branch of Hope Street that feeds beneath the Broad Museum onto Kosciusko. So we loop around Flower Street to Sixth up Olive to Fifth to Grand to Hope, where the entire street is blocked off for an exaggerated version of the ordinary Friday farmers market.
I’m starting to sweat now because the photographer is sitting directly behind me, and every moment we’re not shooting is a burden on his timeline, and I’m supposed to know what I’m doing but I apparently don’t. So I make a dubious U-turn and a perhaps extra-legal left onto Grand, then a right on Second with an immediate right on Olive and a right on Kosciusko. We finally arrive and guess what? The light isn’t right.
So off we go to the Second Street Tunnel. Except the Second Street Tunnel has no immediate room for passenger vans to offload and idle. Thus, I wisely maneuver my van into an open “Passenger Loading Only” spot outside the Kawada Hotel at the corner of Second and Hill.
A prolonged offload ensues. Talent, producers, product managers, digital techs, cameramen and a make-up artists all mill about and grab armfuls of gear while a tall man in a blue-and-white striped golf polo stares at us with utter disdain from the doorway of the Kawada. He intercepts one of the producers. By his body language and the producer’s immediate wide-armed “surrender” pose, I can tell the man in the polo shirt is none too pleased.
The producer trots across the street, where a deal is struck to harbor the two vans for an hourly rate. Meanwhile, the man in the polo shirt flags down a traffic enforcement car as it’s circling around the block. We manage to deploy the crew, pack up the remaining gear and disappear to the nearby surface lot before we tangle with the meter maids. As we pull off, the mood of hostility is palpable.
As it turns out, the man in the striped polo shirt is John Marko, manager and 20-year veteran of the Kawada Hotel, which has itself been in business since 1990.
Marko is a striking example of a downtown that is growing weary of making concessions to the film industry. When I pay him an uninvited visit at his lobby-adjacent office a week later, he’s lucid, rational and good-humored. Despite a clear-cut frustration with the eight or more film shoots he contends with each month, Marko is conciliatory to a fault.
“We want to support the industry and the jobs they bring. Those are great,” Marko says. “We try to respect them, we just ask that they respect us.”
As a hotel manager, Marko is worried about anything that may disturb his guests. In particular, disruptive night shoots have made his job difficult in the past.
In 2014, the feature film Furious 7 shot an iconic and incredibly loud helicopter scene centered in a parking lot one block away at Second and Spring. According to Marko, the noise was inexcusable.
“They say, ‘Don’t worry, we won’t bother anybody.’ Well, put it in front of your mother’s house and see if it bothers her.”
You hear this specific complaint often. The air of professionalism among film crews might be effective in getting the shot in an allotted window of time, but it breeds a certain disregard for the effect a major production has on, say, a hotel full of tourists.
Regarding my own brief breach of etiquette with the passenger vans, Marko makes another good point. “Every guest comes in by the street,” he says. “Imagine foreign tourists scared of driving in L.A. What are they to do when the sidewalk is blocked?”
Point to John Marko. Especially given that two decades into his career at the Kawada, he is still patient enough to elucidate these opinions graciously.
Remarkably, the parking issue outside the Kawada is one of few contentious moments from my day on set. LAPD showed up at one point but quickly left once they saw our permit. Photo sessions on the Fourth Street Bridge and beneath the First Street Bridge proceeded uneventfully.
Being unobtrusive paid dividends. The shoot also paid money to numerous local businesses. The parking lots at Second and Hill and North Broadway got some cash. The photo studio was rented for a half-day. Zinc in the Arts District supplied two meals to the crew. These are decent chunks of change handed over to the local economy.
Twelve hours after call, my fellow PAs and I were still returning passenger vans and unloading gear. This is not a complaint. I got off light. Twelve hours is nothing in the life of an on-set production assistant. Better yet, I’m lucky because I had the leeway that day to avoid conflict. There was no major video photography. There were no street closures. There were no pedestrians to wrangle for wide shots.
It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to PA something like a Christopher Nolan film, which leaves a heavy footprint on surrounding neighborhoods. No PA is getting rich doing their job. These are people who are mostly trying to break into the industry. They are likely scraping by to make a living wage. They cannot change the fundamental arrangement of the thing that irks so many locals.
Yelling at a PA over the particulars of a film shoot is like vomiting insults on a McDonald’s fry cook for the company’s treatment of animals. It is a base and fruitless form of critique that ultimately resolves little.
On the flip side of the coin, the head-over-heels eagerness with which the city enables film shoots in downtown isn’t always a fair arrangement. City policy has to make adjustments to accommodate the people and businesses here.
It's nice to think of downtown as a resilient venue that can serve as host to any number of creative endeavors. The reality is that space and patience are finite resources in a city eager to build, improve itself and also capitalize on its own image.
Facilitating film at the cost of alienating bedrock businesses probably isn't the best approach.
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