What Working on a Hollywood Movie Set Really Looks Like

Work hard, show initiative, be consistent.

 

“It’s inevitable that you will make mistakes as you begin. I’ve found the best way to combat those mistakes is to own them and learn from them.”

Lights Film School had the opportunity to catch up with Matthew Webb, a professional Assistant Director who’s worked on a wide variety of Hollywood films including Mad Max: Fury Road, 2016’s Oscar-winning Hacksaw Ridge, and the upcoming Alien: Covenant, to name only a few.

Matthew has extensive onset experience, which he shares in his new book “Setlife: A Guide to Getting a Job in Film (and Keeping It)”, as well as here with Lights’ students and readers.

What happens on a professional, large-scale film set? What does it take to break into and succeed in traditional film production? Matthew provides a glimpse into the process at the studio level!

Hello, Matthew! Thanks for sharing your book “Setlife” with us! First, what inspired you to write it, and what do you hope your readers will take away from it?

“Setlife” started as a bunch of emails and job outlines I would put together for PAs when we started on new films. We’d often have five or six PAs and regularly for one or two of them this would be their first job on a film set. It was part of my role to explain their job responsibilities and try and set them up so they were useful for our department. Then on the next job the same thing would happen and I’d repeat myself.

While I was away from home for six months on a job training PAs again I began to wonder how I could teach these new few in a much more efficient manner as time is so precious on a film set. I started to write out all the lessons I’d learnt over the years. I would spend time on set working during the day and then come home and write down things I’d learnt or remembered that day. It took me 18 months from conception to land at a finished draft of “Setlife”.

I studied at film school for three years and enjoyed my time there, but it didn’t teach me the nuances and actual skills that I apply everyday in my role as an AD on set. After reading “Setlife”, film school graduates, interns, or someone still figuring out if they want to explore the world of filmmaking will have an understanding of exactly what a life as part of a film crew looks like. They’ll have hundreds of tips to help them succeed early on in their career and also to help them maintain this wild lifestyle of long hours and grueling work environments.

The feedback has been wonderful from all types of people – people have particularly appreciated the ten interviews spaced throughout the book, packed with advice and tips from various Academy Award winners and world-class crew.

So cool. You don’t start out as an Academy Award winner or word-class crew, though! What has been your own journey through the film industry so far? How did you get started, and where are you now?

As mentioned, I studied a BA in film. My last subject was a two-week placement on a TV drama called Rescue Special Ops. I was originally meant to be placed with the locations department in the production office, but as they were midway through their third season, the locations manager thought I’d be bored with him, so he drove me out to set and gave me to the Assistant Directors. He thought I’d have a much better time with them and they might be able to use the extra pair of hands. I spent two weeks doing small tasks, like getting coffees and waters, calling “rolling” for the crew, and locking down sidewalks and the back of shot. Everyday I learned something new and was helped every step of the way by the 3rd and 2nd ADs on the show. I’d stick around right until the end of the day, as often they’d both give me small pieces of advice when all the hustle had settled down.

After those two weeks, I went back to university and finished my degree. A few weeks later, the Production Manager of the TV show called and asked if I wanted to interview for the 3rd AD role after Christmas, as Chris was leaving for a different film project midway through the season. I was ecstatic. I went on and was offered the job on the spot. I couldn’t believe it. I spent another two weeks on set with the 3rd AD learning what he did everyday. I started after the Christmas hiatus and did ten weeks of filming as the 3rd AD. From there I was lucky enough to be offered a job on The Great Gatsby soon after, followed closely by Mad Max: Fury Road.

After working on those large features, I knew feature films were where I wanted to work and build my career. The hours were long and draining, but the work was exciting and really cool. Since then I’ve been fortunate to work on Oscar-winning films and with names such as Sir Ridley Scott, Mel Gibson, and Jerry Bruckheimer. I’m still moving forward in my career, and I gladly take opportunities as they come.

Matthew on the set of Modern Family in Sydney, Australia.

Sounds like quite a journey so far! Your book is packed with useful firsthand perspectives and tips for surviving and navigating the world of Hollywood film production. What would you say are the three most important lessons you’ve learned about succeeding onset? What about building a career in the film industry more generally?

Number 1 would be working hard – the film industry is a grueling industry that requires huge amounts of commitment and hard work. If someone expects everything to be handed to them, they won’t make it. You can’t be afraid to get involved; put in the extra work and do the little jobs well until you get an opportunity to use your skills and experience. Even where I am today I still have to do little menial tasks well everyday.

Showing initiative – once you’ve been shown how to do a job, it’s important you use your initiative to continue to improve and take more responsibility from your superiors. If you see something that needs doing, then do it. Don’t wait to be asked. It’s so great when we hire and train a new PA and then a couple of weeks into the job I can trust them to use their own initiative.

Consistency – a film shoot is not a sprint. It’s often 4-6 months of long days and exhausting conditions. You will lack sleep, your body will fatigue, and your social life will suffer. It’s important to maintain consistency in your job from start to finish. Yes, there will be days when you’re not at your best (everybody has them occasionally), but for the most part, you are switched on from crew call to wrap everyday. You should finish the job better than how you started it because of the experience you gained along the way.

These suggestions are all very broad, but I think if someone applies these three skills to their career in the film industry, no matter what department or role, then they will eventually succeed. The people I work with that have won Oscars, are directing blockbusters, or are smashing it at their role possess all three of these qualities. It takes dedication, hard work, and time to succeed in the film industry.

The AD team aboard Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl from Pirates of The Caribbean.

Well said. How does a beginning filmmaker get that first onset gig, Matthew?

As with a lot of industries and finding jobs, it’s all about who you know. You hear that said regularly and it rings true in the film industry. You need to prove to someone that you’re worth taking a risk on and they should employ you, which is much easier if the person already knows you. When I started I didn’t know anyone working in the film industry except for a sound recordist who was my friend’s Dad.

For me, it was the work attachment I did as part of my film course that got me that first elusive gig, so make sure you get on as many sets as possible while studying, as it seems to be easier than when you have graduated. This time is incredibly valuable making connections and proving your worth to potential employers, and that is why this book was so important to write. I outline a bunch more tips to help newcomers land that first job in “Setlife”, but at the end of the day, most people do get jobs through some connection they already have. It then becomes a matter of doing well in those first few weeks and then trying for promotions later on in your career.

We’d love to take a moment to paint a picture of a typical day on a film set – if there is such a thing! What does it look like? How does the day unfold?

Every day is different in some way – that’s one of the reasons I think most of us continue in this crazy industry. One day you may be on location with 300 extras, and the next you are doing a large stunt or special effects sequence, so for me each day is different but I approach it in the same way.

It begins by starting fairly early most days, around 5 or 6 AM, generally an hour before crew call. If there are large crowd scenes on that day, however, then the day could start at some ungodly hour like 2 or 3 AM. Breakfast is had somewhere in there, often while I read my script sides or the call sheet to remember exactly what we are shooting. At crew call, I’ll make sure the PAs are preparing the extras while I head to set for the setting up of the scene. The cast or stand-ins gather around, and we’ll block the first scene. Depending on what’s involved in the scene, cameras will be built, the scene will be lit, and I may start directing the extras. Slowly, layers are added until the scene is exactly what the director wants. We’ll shoot the scene a number of times so I need to match the extras’ performance with each take and camera setup. I’ll take photos, video, and sometimes draw maps to help me do this. This will generally go along all day with different scenes throughout.

At some stage we’ll either break for lunch, or more often nowadays we’ll eat a hand-around lunch on a 10-hour continuous day. As wrap approaches, things will often become very frantic trying to capture the last takes of the day before the sun goes down or we run into overtime. When wrap is called, I don’t have much gear to pack up like the other departments, so I will help wrap the extras, then discuss tomorrow’s work with my superiors and maybe debrief a little with the PAs and rest of the team. Next, beer.

Throughout the day, I balance my time between standing behind the monitor watching takes, or close to the 1st AD for instructions, or in the background working with the extras. I’m on my feet the whole day and regularly walk about ten miles a day or more so you can see why it can be so exhausting. ADs are generally busy all day, but my work becomes a lot more involved when there are lots of extras, stunts, vehicles, or special effects.

Matthew directing extras for Banished, an Australian/British co-production by BBC/See-Saw Films.

Any fun “setlife” stories from your various experiences? We’d love to hear a tale or two from the production trenches!

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some extremely talented filmmakers and actors. The experience to work with Australian directors Baz Luhrmann and George Miller very early on in my career was amazing. The party scenes on The Great Gatsby were mind-blowing for a young filmmaker. They were super long days (often up to 16 hours), but Baz’s energy on set is second to none. He makes everybody involved feel like they are valuable to the filmmaking process.

Walking onto the set of Mad Max: Fury Road felt surreal. The post-apocalyptic vehicles that had been built were incredible, and we got to do all these stunts and destroy absolutely everything. It was interesting that even the most-experienced crews on set were having such a great time, and everybody knew we were working on a pretty special film.

But my favorite on-set moment was on a smaller film called Truth, with Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford. We were shooting scenes in a luxurious hotel when Mr Redford’s PA had to leave to run some errands. I went to give Mr. Redford an update in his greenroom on how long it would be before we needed him again. He asked if I was free to run his next script lines with him for the upcoming scene. I was more than happy to. So I ended up sitting with him for about 15 minutes doing the other characters of the scenes while he practiced and memorized his lines. I play a pretty good Cate Blanchett, if I may say so. My peers were extremely jealous when they found out.

Haha. That’s amazing! Short of running lines with Robert Redford, how do you figure out what you want to do on a film set, Matthew? What are some good positions onset to get your bearings and observe what each department does? How challenging is it to change departments later in your career?

Hopefully you have some idea of what you are interested in and want to do on set, but to be honest I was still figuring things out even after three years of study. I knew I didn’t want to be a director or work in post-production but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an AD or in production or in the camera department. You can always start something and change later on, as onset experience can generally help with whatever department you move into.

Any start on set is better than nothing, but I’d say whatever you have an interest in, try and pursue that. Every department has junior roles such as truck loaders, PAs, or runners. You are going to have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Everybody does that. I personally think an onset PA role or camera truck loader are great positions to start. You have great access to the actual filmmaking process and will work with many of the departments along the way. However, these jobs are limited, so any position on set is better than none. Lots of people will start out as a runner for the office or art department. From there you can network with people and decide what department you want to pursue.

Changing departments can take time but I have definitely seen it done. You may have to take a pay cut and go back a few positions, but if that’s the role you definitely want to pursue, then a little speed hump like that is fine in a 40-year career.

Healthy perspective. What positions onset should an aspiring director or producer pursue? For example, can assistant directing be a path to directing or producing? What positions allow you to work near the director? What about the producer?

I’ve loved my time as an AD, as it’s allowed me to be at the center of the filmmaking process. I’ve been privileged to be at meetings and recces with the most experienced filmmakers while I was still in very junior positions. Everybody creates their own path to where they want to be, but usually ADs become producers rather than directors (although working as a 1st AD is a career in itself).

There’s no one way to become a director or a producer. It’s all about learning along the way.

Having said that, I think there are a few ways directors and producers come through the ranks. For directors, it’s often as an editor or writer until they get their chance to prove themselves with their first feature, or they may have directed hundreds of commercials or music videos before a studio takes a risk on them to direct drama. Producers often come through the production office, moving up from PA to coordinator to production manager and finally a producer. Years of dealing with all aspects of the production office gives them the training they need to produce a film. ADs also often jump into producing when they have progressed to 1st AD.

Every department will work with the director and producer at some stage in the project as they are helping create their vision. The ADs work closely with the director but so do the costume, makeup, camera, SFX, art, and props department. The production office and HODs work closely with the producer. Multiple meetings and recces will take place before and throughout the shoot to ensure all aspects of filming are being discussed. The producer will oversee this. As you move up the ladder, you will likely have more contact with the director and producer as your responsibilities become greater.

You encourage beginning filmmakers to adopt a positive attitude and own up to their mistakes made onset. What if you get started off on the wrong foot? Any advice for repairing one’s reputation and winning back a crew’s trust and respect?

I definitely do discuss owning your mistakes on set in my book, as it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes as you begin. I’ve found the best way to combat those mistakes is to own them and learn from them. Sometimes personalities will clash or you may make a huge mistake that could cost you a job or working with those people in the future.

I guess the good thing about working on projects for only 2-6 months is it won’t take you very long to have another chance on a different project. I’ve had times when things didn’t go how I expected and I ended up missing out on a couple of big jobs. I thought I probably wouldn’t work with those people again, but before long I was and the past was forgotten. People will give you another chance. It just takes time and the right job to come up again, but for you this can feel like a lifetime when really it’s only 12 months. In that time I worked hard on other jobs and made sure my reputation wasn’t affected. Also, don’t bitch or gossip about people or situations. That doesn’t help the cause.

The problem develops further when someone doesn’t learn from their mistake and starts to create a reputation of being lackluster on set. These people will struggle to get jobs the further this spreads and eventually will find themselves unhireable. Everybody in the film industry chats to each other so very quickly your reputation, whether good or bad, will spread.

How much experience should someone have before applying to work onset with a larger production? How do student and smaller, independent productions factor into the career of a filmmaker who’s eager to work on Hollywood productions?

The Great Gatsby was my first full-time film job on a big film set. I’d worked on portions of the shoots on three other smaller projects over the previous six months, but really I had very little experience when I started on Gatsby. I had to learn the majority of lessons while on the job. Luckily I had some great colleagues and they taught me everything I needed to know. You can start on the largest productions with little or no experience – essentially your responsibility and role will be relevant to your experience. I find that the larger the production the smaller my role actually feels in the whole filmmaking process, but I have to ensure I do every single little task to the best of my ability. Having said that, some days someone might be sick, or you’ll get an opportunity on 2nd unit and immediately you’ll be thrown in the deep end.

Smaller shoots and independent films are in no way less important. I bounce from large sets to small sets regularly, often taking a higher position on the smaller sets. If you are a 2nd AD on blockbusters, you may act as 1st AD on smaller projects. At the end of the day, you are creating film content, but the size of everything grows on larger productions. On big productions, there’s a very distinct hierarchy of crew and decision makers. You need to understand where you fit in this process and abide by the unspoken code. The sets are massive, the equipment is everywhere, and your days are longer. You will have less responsibility on bigger jobs but be expected to do the little jobs consistently well.

The set of Hacksaw Ridge, on which Matthew worked.

Great insights! What happens in a production office? How does what happens in a production office impact what happens onset? What are some of the differences between working onset and working in a production office? Are there any advantages to working in a production office before working onset?

The production office is the center for information and communication for the film. The office is there to support the onset crew in achieving their day of filming and oversee a whole bunch of things. They are the distribution center for scripts, schedules, paperwork, and expendable purchases. I find that I deal with the production office lots in pre-production while everything is being sorted and organized, but when we go into production, I speak to them only a couple of times a week to resolve any issues we are having on set.

Most production meetings are held in the production office, with the producer and production manager ensuring that all departments are working toward the same result. The production manager or producer will often have decisions to be made daily that will effect how the crew works on set. This may be a weather call depending on locations, whether to forge ahead into overtime or come back to the scenes tomorrow.

I’ve spent most of my time onset, but for the time I’ve spent in the production office, I have noticed when it rains, the production office get to stay inside, but we put on our rain jackets and continue to film for the next 12 hours… The office is a perfect 72 degrees all year round. On a more serious note, I don’t think it matters whether you start in the production office or onset to begin with. Both will give you a different but valuable experience. I’d recommend potential producers and production managers to try and spend a bit of time doing both so they fully understand all aspects to making a film.

How well should any given crew member know the script? For example, as an Assistant Director, how much time do you devote to learning the source material, and what level of familiarity do you expect from your department? What about other departments?

This will highly depend on your position and the project you are working on. As an AD, I need to know the script very well, but many technical crew members won’t be privy to reading scripts on most feature films. There are confidentiality agreements and restrictions on who has access to scripts. Often I won’t even be allowed a hard copy script; rather, I will receive a watermarked digital script that can be tracked by the studio’s security team. We are also sometimes issued script sides, which are small print outs of the scenes that are being filmed on that day. They are extremely helpful and can fit in you pocket rather than having to lug around your script binder.

If you are privy to a script, then you need to read it and know it. I’ll spend as much time as possible in pre-production reading the script, highlighting sections and researching the era the film is set. It may be a war film that I’ll do research on the area, how it looked and ideas for setting the background for certain scenes. I often even print these images out and carry them with my script.

I’ll go through my script in pre about 10 times. When shooting begins, I try to read through the script every 2-3 weeks to refresh me with what we are shooting. So if you are able to get your hands on a script, then it is good to read it as much as possible.

Battling the mud, rain, and even hail on the set of Hacksaw Ridge.

Be prepared, indeed! I imagine you’ve had an opportunity to hear from top directors and crew members over the years, Matthew. What’s some of the best advice that’s stayed with you?

I was lucky enough to interview ten other crew members while writing “Setlife”. These people are directors, producers, designers, stunt coordinators, sound recordists, assistant directors, etc., with many of them winning Oscars and working with the best in the world. They share their experiences and advice of how they started out in the film industry and what got them to be where they are. Some of the advice is extremely simple, from simply learning to make good tea and coffee, to remembering how lucky you are to be making these films.

Often we can get caught up focusing on the long hours or a pay cut we may have agreed to for a contract, but at the end of the day, making films is a privilege, and I love going to work every day. There are hard days, hard weeks, and sometimes even hard entire jobs, but it’s a career that you get to build a unique film family with, explore amazing locations, express your creative skills, and get paid pretty well while you do it. So I guess the best piece of advice is to continue to be positive no matter what the situation. Bad days will end, and tomorrow is your chance to once again pursue the career that you’ve dreamt of since you watched your favorite films as a child.

Any advice for filmmakers looking for mentors? How might you approach someone you’ve worked with in the past for career guidance?

The great thing is everybody has had someone else shape their career and mentor them along the way, so I’ve found that if you ask politely and make it appealing to the mentor, most people are willing to lend a helping hand. This doesn’t mean I call Jerry Bruckheimer asking him to mentor me in producing, as that’s unrealistic, but it does mean that if I’ve worked for a producer on a job and proven my worth, then I’m comfortable asking for their advice or help in contacting someone. Obviously the person needs to be skilled in the area you are aspiring to be in. This relationship doesn’t have to be overly formal; you don’t have to call them a mentor. It can simply be asking them questions while you work with them. Sometimes I’ve had the privilege of sitting with ADs and producers I admire at lunch or dinner on set. If the time is right, pick their brain for experience and knowledge.

To be a good mentee, you need to make it as easy as possible for the mentor to help you. Don’t expect them to give you hours of time or initiate the contact. The responsibility relies heavily on the mentee to do the bulk of the communication and be available when the mentor can meet up. I’d say aim for a mentor that you have a slightly better connection than just you admire their work. You want to have similar interests, have worked with them on a couple of jobs, and/or are family friends.

When you have the chance to be a mentor, make sure you reciprocate the experience and give some of those juniors the advice and time someone else gave you.

Speaking of which! As an Assistant Director yourself, do you have any words of wisdom for someone just starting out in the AD world? What sort of personalities tend to succeed in the job?

It’s probably common to all departments, but the people that I’ve seen succeed as ADs are hard workers. They don’t just do the tasks they are asked, but they go out of their way to take pressure off the other ADs. They get to work early, they make coffee for their boss, they know their script and call sheet and are always asking what else they can do for their department.

It can be a pretty demanding lifestyle and role, so you have to love it. People who complain and whine don’t tend to last as no one enjoys having them around. Positive people who are friendly, work well with other departments, and look after their team are the ones who consistently get work and promotions.

On a more practical note, ADs need to be organized, great communicators, patient, and tolerant. Their role is to work with the director in achieving the director’s vision. The best answer I’ve heard was when I asked PJ Voeten, a 1st AD I’ve worked with, this question. His response: “I can add value to a project by getting as much of what the Director wants on the screen and creating the space to make it happen.” A humble response to supporting the director in whatever they want, even as an accomplished filmmaker himself.

Thanks for sharing your experience with our students and readers, Matthew! “Setlife” is a fantastic primer we’re happy to share with everyone who wants to learn more about the world of film production.

 Michael Koehler, with


For more from Matthew, check out his book about working professionally on Hollywood film sets.

Want further support in getting started on your film career? Then we’d love to be a part of your filmmaking journey here at Lights Film School! Enroll in our comprehensive online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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