Chapter One: The PreviewSo go the twisted lives of Hollywood's personal assistants, Sherpas to the climbers of the entertainment peaks, handmaidens to the movie star gods, granters of wishes to the too-rich and too-famous. It might be sushi at 4 a.m. It might be a private plane to Tibet, by tomorrow. It might be exotic animals for a party, or prostitutes for an afternoon. It might just be laundry. But it's always something.
-- Washington Post
Whether you're trying to get a foot in the door of the entertainment industry or just love all things Hollywood, this book is for you. The eager neophytes who once flocked to Wall Street are now looking over their shoulders at the life of their friends at agencies, production companies, and studios. Let's face it, it's always been considered hip to be in showbiz and at the turn of the millennium, complete with a robust economy and Internet studio mergers, the biz is booming. Is it any wonder more and more of Generation Y2K wants in on the party?
Starting as an assistant, or in the mail room, is the single proven way to advance quickly in show business. And, for the hordes seduced by the fantasy of Hollywood, it is also the best way to get the closest look at the stars and industry machinations. While it's true many begin life in Hollywood working tech jobs in film or TV (sound, electric, camera, etc.) these tend to limit you to contacts and promotions among technical workers. So if you're searching for broad exposure to the people who call the shots, you're going to want access and proximity to those people...access only an assistant job can provide.
Being an assistant to a director, executive, star, producer, agent, or manager can be a great, intense education in how "the business" works. It's like making it through boot camp, and it's hard to predict who will survive. All types live through it and all types leave, including lawyers, film school graduates, and MBAs. This book endeavors to give you the view from under the red carpet. And if you have the sickness required to actually seek gainful employment in the industry, then we hope you will glean the basics in what each job involves and tips on how to succeed, learn as much as possible, and trade up in the food chain of Hollywood. And by "Hollywood" we mean the many cities where the entertainment industry is flourishing, providing the U.S.'s largest exportable product.
Sure, you've seen the images of the peons running across the floor of the stock exchange at dawn. You've seen the footage of sleepless campaign workers giving their all for a candidate. But imagine a similar kind of sacrifice and hard work for the sake of a producer who demands the City of Los Angeles change the timing of traffic signals so that he can have a more "streamlined" drive to work each day. This is a true story, but by no means exceptional in the land that breeds bosses who make assistants blow their noses for them.
The job of the Hollywood assistant is not just about getting coffee at 9 a.m., it's also about getting Forest Whitaker a Quarter Pounder at 3 a.m. There are serious hazards in the workplace as well. Just ask Naomi Campbell's assistant, who got smashed in the head with a cell phone hurled by the leggy beauty during a temper tantrum. One producer cut his assistant's tie off with a pair of scissors because he didn't like it. There's much more to being a Hollywood assistant than just retrieving messages and scheduling meetings, although, as you'll see, the complexity of those tasks alone have led many back to Kansas.
One may assume that the term "assistant" indicates merely a glorified secretary who must perform the usual office duties. However, there is an entire set of rules and special knowledge required to succeed in the highly idiosyncratic entertainment biz. Terminology, geography, and pecking order are just a few of the things they don't teach in film classes.
For example, putting Harvey Weinstein on hold, or xeroxing Steve Zaillian's latest screenplay incorrectly, can cost you your career. Try assuming your boss doesn't mind you giving out his home number. Or perhaps you didn't know that Sharon Stone will never sit sideways to the door of a restaurant. Make just one of these mistakes and you may find out how quickly you can be replaced by one of the thousands of eager young assistant wannabes who are all too happy to work for as little as six bucks an hour.
The first steps you take in this business can be crucial. Reputations are established and contacts made very quickly. If you're the kid who saves the day, instead of the kid who spills the coffee, you may be looking at a bright future. If not...you may be used as a target for bottle-throwing practice like one Oscar-winning actress's former assistant.
A word of warning: While you are reading this book you might think, Why would anyone take a job like this? An assistant job is not hell, it's purgatory. It's the rite of passage which, if suffered and surmounted, can land you in those heavenly regions beyond the pearly gates of the Brentwood or Los Feliz estates.
Kathleen Kennedy started out as Steven Spielberg's assistant and moved on to produce hit films, including Back to the Future, Poltergeist, The Color Purple, Who Framed Roger Rabbit,
Her advice to newcomers is:
I think a secretarial or assistant position is one of the most valuable positions to be in. In fact, it's unfortunate that most guys probably feel uncomfortable going in and taking a secretarial job because it's one of the best places to start. If you get in as a secretary or as an assistant to a producer or a director, you're the only person who has access to the entire filmmaking process.
An assistant can be more important and more trusted than a business partner or even a spouse. It's a very intense relationship. It's like a love affair, but a very lopsided one. They love you for taking care of them and you love them because, in a twisted sense, you become them. You must anticipate their every need. You feel happy only when they are happy. You take care of every annoying aspect of your boss's life and enable him or her to do the fun stuff, worry-free. If your boss could have you suffer his indigestion, he would.
There are no secrets between a boss and his assistant. It is a sacred bond, the strength of which we tested when researching this book. Not surprisingly, most of the assistants whom we approached (or who approached us) wished to remain anonymous. What they say often shocks and appalls those unaware of what a sick and crazy world Hollywood is.
The key is to become a jaded industry pro as quickly as possible by benefiting from the hundreds of hours we spent hanging out with Hollywood assistants at L.A. venues such as Capo, Katsu, Ago, Spago, the Ivy, the Whiskey, the Sky Bar, the Dresden, Le Colonial, Cafe Les Deux, Little Door, L'Hermitage, the Chateau Marmont, Bar Marmont, a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, poolside at the Chateau Marmont, and the parking garage at the Chateau Marmont. And NYC's venerable equivalents: Bubby's, Moomba, Nobu, Match, the Mercer, Ohm, Spy, and Veruka.
The typical evening spent in one of these trendy establishments consists of many overqualified and underpaid entertainment assistants drinking cosmopolitans and martinis next to junior execs who bemoan their heavy workload as they shamelessly schmooze those higher up the food chain in order to gain a job with an even heavier workload. The assistants, meanwhile, can be found discussing the deals "they" are a part of...though this often means they merely placed the call on which their boss convinced Glenn Close to do South Pacific
for television. They tend to share the dubious attribute of talking only about "the biz" at full volume. Name-dropping is also common among this junior delta force, although the same can be said of many of their employers.
But perhaps the most defining characteristic of an assistant cluster-schmooze is the penchant for trashing one's boss and complaining about one's quality of life, while simultaneously one-upping peers with heroic tales of Hollywood insiderness. For example, one manager's assistant was overheard at an L.A. club bragging about how he got Willem Dafoe the lead opposite Madonna in a sexy thriller. When a male star had fallen out of the project, the assistant took it upon himself to race the script to the airport and had it flown to Utah, then hand delivered to the Sundance workshop, where Dafoe was staying. The actor read the script, agreed to play the part, and the deal was done before the assistant's boss was back from lunch. Sounds impressive? Not so fast. The film turned out to be the dreadful bomb Body of Evidence,
and, as it turns out, Dafoe's agent had already been positioning the deal for months.
But the assistant managed to convince himself he now had a purpose in the cutthroat world of show business and Dafoe invited him to the set of the film, where he had the pleasure of meeting Madonna during one of her endless courtroom scenes. Their meeting was cut short, however, when Sean Penn arrived and pulled his ex-wife into a trailer for a tête-à-tête. The assistant, left standing in the emptying courtroom, was mistaken for one of the jurors in the scene and was asked by stage personnel to return his suit to wardrobe.
The truth is that the above scenario is no less absurd than what happens to Hollywood assistants every day. Some reassurance: Many of today's industry success stories, from Mike Ovitz on down, were kicking copiers and making lunch reservations just yesterday, so read on. After all, if David Geffen can go from his job as CBS usher to zillionaire and cofounder of DreamWorks, miracles can happen.
The aim of this book is also to show potential assistants:
- how to decide which industry job is right for you
- how to secure that job
- how to do that job well
- how to parlay the job into career advancement
Along the way, we hope you are entertained by the all-too-true adventures of the Hollywood assistant.
Copyright © 2001 by Bill Robinson and Ceridwen Morris