— By Aaron McAfee —
It’s always been a surreal experience driving past famous landmarks in Los Angeles. Disney’s animation studio, ABC’s tower, Sony’s lot, and Paramount have this daunting presence that’s hard for me to put into words. When I pass those studios I always think “Wow, every year something happens in these buildings that will eventually reach the eyes and ears of millions of people around the world.” These are real people and companies that are in our every day discussions, but in a way they feel distant to us, and for me (as cheesy as it sounds) there’s always been something magical about them. The entire production/pre-production process is something that is completely different from any other job, and I’ve found that you can learn something new about it every day.
As an incoming freshman at JPCatholic, I wasn’t sure what part of film I’d find myself most drawn to. This was mostly because I didn’t know anything about it, save that there was a camera, some lights, and a director involved. So I tried to experience as much as I could. I worked on as many student films that I could possibly get on, and I also asked the upperclassmen and professors about what the industry was like. Everything I heard furthered my excitement, but also my anxiety. The fear of graduating and not knowing anybody worried me, and I started to think more about what I needed to accomplish long term at JPCatholic to secure a job doing what I enjoy.
My first opportunity came in the form of background work. At the time, I had heard there was a Fox show called Pitch which was looking for people to act as baseball fans in the background of some scenes. When a few of my friends told me they were going to signup, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. Somehow, I received a call back from the casting department and soon after found myself waving and shouting in the Padre’s stadium at an imaginary home run.
That set changed the way I saw films. There were far more positions and procedures on a professional film set than I realized. While trying not to be too overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the production, I took it upon myself during the downtime to talk with some of the production assistants about their jobs. Most of them were too tired to talk with me, and the ones that did kept the discussion very brief. As the day came to an end, I told my friend I didn’t think I was getting anywhere by trying to talk to the crew, but she pushed me to talk to one more person.
The person I spoke to at the end of the day would eventually lead to my involvement on over 10 large-scale union productions with companies such as: ABC, Warner Bros, Regency Enterprises, Netflix, Youtube RED, Blumhouse Productions, and several others. Of course not all of these jobs are from the same person, but as with most careers, one connection leads to another, and I have him to thank for giving me that chance.
My advice to my fellow film students would be: Don’t be afraid to talk to people! Everyone in the industry has been in your shoes once, and some of them are actually excited to help give young people a “shot” in their industry. By the same token I think that it’s important that you are respectful of that person, and don’t just seek to exploit them for a job. If you come off that way, people won’t have an interest in talking with you. There’s very little to lose in talking with someone and potentially everything to gain! I think there’s also a lot of value in talking more with your professors. There’s a lot to learn from their experiences, and I believe finding a spiritual/academic mentor during school goes a long way.
My work on these sets is typically as a set production assistant, which means my job can range anywhere from leading background and main talent around the set, to locking up a street during a car chase scene. I have worked on sets with stars such as Bradley Cooper, Will Smith, Lady Gaga, and many others, but I think regardless of who shares the production with you, there is a certain professionalism you always must maintain, especially during the times when you aren’t working. Many PA’s get dropped from gigs if they’re known to appear lazy or uninterested, so the way you present yourself to other people is incredibly important.
As a Catholic, I realize there are going to be times in my life, especially working in Hollywood, when I will have to choose between my own personal values and the demands of my work. I have cancelled work opportunities because they prevent me from making Mass, or sometimes my classes.
A lot of people I’ve found in the Catholic film community seem to think that Catholics get discriminated against in the film industry, but I personally haven’t found that to be the case. I usually don’t encounter many problems with other people on set either, as I think we all share the common goal of at least building a story together. There are too many hours on a set to have arguments with people! Of course when choosing your work, you also need to take a careful look at what kind of message the production is portraying before agreeing to work on it.
My goal upon graduation is to transition into screenwriting. I still plan on working sets to pay the heavy bills that come with living in Los Angeles, but I’ve found that I am a creative person with subsequent creative needs. The writing program at JPCatholic as spearheaded by both Professor Riley and Dr. Peterson is incredible both in the in-classroom experience, and in the community of writers and friends I have come to trust for feedback.
I also intend to help my fellow students at JPCatholic interested in getting set work. Several people have reached out to me, to have me put them on my PA contact list when I find a production with extra slots. As of recently, I’m happy to say one of them was brought on with me for a feature film starring Gerard Butler!
I would encourage my fellow students at JPCatholic – and all film students – not to miss out on crucial networking opportunities while still in school. Take advantage of your professor’s connections, local events, film festivals, and job listings. Don’t be afraid to speak up or reach out to someone – you never know what opportunities might come out of it.
About the Author
Aaron McAfee is a Film student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2018) in Escondido, CA.