by Cullen McGowan
Never again will an extension cord be an extension cord. No, forever on it is now a ‘stinger.’
Such are the mind bending challenges that a PA, or production assistant, must face on the set of the Perils of Being Flat Chested.
And a ‘best boy’ does not wear a tuxedo or a cape, nor is it in his or her job description to be cool and the best at it, as my imagination prior to having on-set experience would have liked to believe. In fact, if you wear a tuxedo to a set as best boy then you are a fool; you will probably ruin that sweet tuxedo setting up and tearing down lots of lighting and electrical equipment. Yes, these are the revelations gained from working on Yulin Kuang’s The Perils of Growing up Flat-Chested, which recently wrapped up production. Having had the opportunity to PA for the duration of its filming, finding that wearing a button up shirt to help with lighting duty is less than a preferred choice is but one of the many wonderful things that can be learned being on a movie set.
In May, Ms. Kuang took home first prize in the Steeltown Entertainment Project’s Film Factory screenplay contest. Ms. Kuang was a finalist in the 2011 competition, but this year her story took home the gold of the Ellen Weiss Kander Award. The well-earned $15,000 became the budget for her coming of age story about Katya, a sixteen-year-old girl determined to increase her bust size before a study date with her lab partner. The story based on Ms. Kuang’s teenage traumas, if you will, proves that teen angst is at least good for one thing.
“Something I couldn’t have known then was that the horrible agonies of adolescence would be useful to me in a few years; that insecurities I had about my chest size, my acne, my total lack of coolness could be exploited for the sake of comedy and screenwriting, Ms. Kuang said.
So the days that most teens probably never want to re-live came back to life through the magic of movies.
On Day One of the Perils Of production, I experienced a bewildering revelation. We all have a favorite kiss or love scene in a movie that just looks so perfect and charmingly romantic, the type of scene that was forever ruined for me on Day One that was pretty much just the semi-climactic make-out scene. I always knew that filmmakers did multiple takes of scenes, but never would have guessed that one make-out scene might actually be something like 40 or more takes of make-outs before there is a final edit. To further strip the romance, your two admired lovebirds hold boom mics, point cameras, push dollies, and all those other important things to allow you to feel the passionate chemistry radiated through the big screen. Sentimental, right? Oh and by the way, those movie markers are as awesome in person as you would think; that sound will never get old.
Left to right; Irene Choi (Katya), Kelsey Lynn Boze (Leigh), James Wolpert (Owen) Photo by Zack Wallnau
Another duty of a PA, at least working on an independent movie, can be the most important responsibility of picking up and returning with food. After hours upon hours of shooting, the crew is hungry, tired, and in no mood to be toyed around with. If you say, “Yeah, no problem. I can get the food,” you’d better get it. So it would just so happen that my GPS would die and I would show up at the wrong Subway. Calls from Producer Nick Hurt, whom I had met only earlier that day asking, “When do you think you’ll be back?” send panic into my eardrum. After circling around for a while then parking at a meter for which I had no quarters to pay, I made it. I think everyone at least one point in their life should have the opportunity to walk into a Subway, and tell them “Nick, no Zack, no both, sent me,” just to see the look of ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ on the employees’ faces. Then to follow it up with, “I’m here to pick up the two platters of subs,” tell them to make sure there are vegetarian options, and that you want it all for free because it’s for a movie. What a liberating feeling.
Now, I won’t go through every single day of production in detail, but I’ll try to give you all the juicy stuff. For a day-by-day you can go to the Perils of Production Blog where Ms. Kuang herself shares the fantastic memories of what it’s like to make a movie about growing up flat-chested.
The story behind the movie is one of hard work Pittsburgh’s tremendous sense of community. To my knowledge a large majority, if not all, of the locations allowed the crew to shoot for free. Not that I am familiar with filming rates in Hollywood or other areas for that matter, but the whole free thing makes me believe that the people of Pittsburgh are phenomenal. Besides, who wouldn’t want their house to be in a movie about teenage girls and youthful angst? And, a large portion of the food for the crew was either donated, or purchased at a ridiculous discount. It’s great to see the city of Pittsburgh and its people so behind the glorious transformation to a movie town.
A prime example of why people from Pittsburgh are purely awesome was exemplified the one day of production, shooting around Squirrel Hill North.
Photo by Zack Wallnau
While most of the equipment was expertly placed on the back of a pick-up, much of it had spilled over from the sidewalk we had temporarily declared as base into the front yard of a neighborhood resident. Eventually, the sir who lived there came out to see what was going on, followed by his wife. He seemed a little skeptical at first when some of us on crew told him blatantly that we were shooting a movie called The Perils of Growing Up Flat-Chested. Finally someone with a better knack for explaining said that we were shooting the winning film of the Steeltown Film Factory Contest, of which Carl Kurlander was the Executive Producer. “Oh Carl,” exclaimed that man and he began to laugh. He then practically welcomed us to his front yard. Across the street, another neighbor let the crew use the electrical outlets in their garage to run some equipment.
Man, Mr. Rogers would have been proud.
Simply being on a movie set is a fantastic feeling. It’s something that’s hard to explain, but it’s like knowing that you’ve played a part in creating something brilliant and lasting. To watch a story begin as merely a screenplay on paper, revised multiple times; then granted a budget, joined by a committed crew that believes just as strongly in the story, plunged into full-blown production; then to watch it wrap. Crew members such as myself often did not return home until the hours of the A.M. But, after a long day on location, reminiscing by sharing a Yuengling (that came from a cooler camouflaged by production equipment) with a first assistant director, gaffer, key grip, and best boy is truly exciting. Independent movies I suppose have their plethora of challenges and their triumphs.
Photo by Zack Wallnau
Set decoration is a thing of its own. One simply cannot understand the lengths that are taken to produce a movie right. The most seemingly minor details are of the utmost importance. Have you ever noticed in a movie an actor at a dinner table, and within seconds the beverage in his glass has miraculously risen? I will now. Or, how about an awkward change of body position? Details, details, details are imperative. Set dressings can make a scene everything it is meant to be. Ms. Kuang actually folded each one of these many lovely paper cranes herself. Ah yes, passion at work.
Emerged about halfway through production, came what I will call the clothespin game. At this point in time I am unaware of a formal name for this game. Clothespins are useful; to pin things together, hold papers and gels, and their usefulness can be pretty prominent with lighting equipment. But yes, they have another side to them. The object of the game is to secretively attach as many clothespins as you can to an unwitting victim. The more you can attach to your fellow crew members and the longer it takes them to notice, well then I guess you are the most winning, or at least the most entertained.
It is moments like those; finding a clothespin on my shirt hours later after thinking that all of them had been discovered, that I will remember about working on Yulin Kuang’s The Perils of Growing Up Flat-Chested movie. Well, that and learning about the different kinds of light bulbs that must be used to light a scene, the proper ways to shield them with paper, and how to use a c-stand, among many other fantastic lessons. It was a truly awesome experience, and after working on set with everyone, by the end it kind of feels like we all became a movie making family. And then it’s over and all filmed before you know it, and you realize that you don’t have to wake up for a twelve-hour day again. Have I ever the opportunity to work with anybody from the Perils of Production crew again though, I would jump at the opportunity. If you ever have an chance to work on a movie, definitely do it.