There are different levels of thanklessness in filmmaking.
You're watching the latest Oscar winner, or the latest direct-to-video Netflix production, and you're sitting there afterwards watching the end credits, as I like to do, taking a moment to decompress and process what you've just seen. Some people don't watch credits, but I find it hard to instantly transition from the trenches of World War I to making a cheese scramble. Plus there's all those names in the credits. Look at all that. Most people don't know what a best boy is, or a gaffer, or a second AC. We blink and move on.
There's a level of thanklessness in that dynamic, but to a degree it can't be helped, and it's not the sort I want to dwell on.
On a set, everyone knows what a best boy does and who the gaffer is. They're not invisible. It's the Production Assistants. Who are these friendly and harried people, running about the set on their own time? Bringing another carrier of coffee. Filling everybody's parking meters again. Carrying the ladders. Ordering the lunches. Taking out mounds of garbage. Fighting traffic as they rush run errands. Cleaning the location afterwards. All this and a thousand tasks more, as a volunteer: no matter the size of the production, PAs generally don't get paid. They're taking days off work to do this. Often you don't even know their names.
You can understand how the smaller the production is, the more is asked of each crew member. My recent shoot was a tiny one, but the effort put into it was massive. Each PA did the work of what should really fall to several people. My script supervisor monitored continuity and confirmed shots and was a director's assistant and deputized to delegate the other PAs and and managed the extras and transported and relocated items from room to room and car to room and truck to car and blocking pedestrians and showed up on set as asked, just in case she was needed– on one day only to find the shoot cut short by rain.
My craft services person selected all the food in careful anticipation of everyone's needs and supervised setup and takedown and wrangled the extras and cleaned the locations and ordered the crew lunches and packed the cars and blocked traffic during takes and enforced seventy extras to a quiet set. Did anyone on my film perform only one role?
It's all so spectacularly thankless... and yet so absolutely critical to a film's existence. This thanklessness isn't exclusive to the PA role; it's just the most obvious there. They bear the brunt of representing it the most potently.
A PA, scrambling to get a stack of pizzas for a crowd of hangry extras. The extras, waiting two hours in a cramped room while lighting is set. The gaffer and grip, working as quickly as they can with dangerous equipment, solving a thousand mini-problems the extras will never know about. The location owner bending over backwards to bring in security and technicians on their off days. The DP and focus puller, working out a complicated move the audience will only notice if it's done badly. The actors, spending hours working out a psychology and backstory only the most careful viewer will consider.
You have to do this stuff because you like it. Because you like the people you're working with, the idea behind the project. The craft of it. Filmmaking is tied heavily to celebrity in the public eye, but you can't do it for recognition. It's invisible work.
Directing is one of the last truly dictatorial roles out there. Realizing the authorial singularity of one person's vision by collaborating creatively with dozens of others demands the approach; a hierarchy is needed. Everyone who works a film set has at one time been a PA, and we all understand what that bottom rung feels like, but there usually isn't time to express it. You just hope they know, as I hope my crew knows, that I'm forever indebted to them for putting in the backbreaking effort necessary to make a film together.
"I feel awful," I told a friend after one of the shoot days. Things had gone spectacularly well, but the euphoria was wearing off.
"Because I have no way of communicating to all these people how thankful I am. Like I'm trapped. The language doesn't allow for an expression of gratitude that big."
I'm guessing everyone on my production, to varying degrees, felt ignored and undervalued at various points of the shoot. It's the nature of the beast. I asked for the world from each of you, and was too busy to say thank you. Friends, know that I knew you then, in each of those moments, as I dashed from issue to issue, trying to keep the ship going.
It's because of you that it all stayed afloat.