When I moved to New York City, I could not have been more clueless. I had only visited the city once in fifth grade, and I knew that the memories of my time there weren’t going to be of much help. What little information I had about where I was going or what I’d be doing was pitifully limited, a smattering of words hastily scrawled all over a piece of notebook paper during a phone interview.
Everything about my move to NYC was a result of a spur of the moment decision, a direct consequence of e-mailing my resume to a fellow alumnus of Columbia College Chicago. Katie Levine was in need of interns for Danielle Levitt’s studio, where she (at the time) worked as a studio manager. She replied almost immediately, interviewed me an hour later, and by the next morning I had booked my flight. Within less than 24 hours my entire world had shifted. Two weeks later, after cramming whatever belongings I could into the heaviest bags imaginable, I was boarding a plane headed straight for New York, leaving my suburb outside of St. Louis, Missouri behind.
I’m not someone who has dreamt of moving to NYC my whole life, but it’s not that living in a big city was unappealing; I had lived in Chicago for two and a half years when I transferred there for school, and the rhythm of crowded streets and subway cars came naturally to me. But while Chicago gradually shrank in size as it grew in familiarity, New York remained this looming mass of famous buildings and foreign streets, teeming with a pace of life I had yet to encounter.
I was scared.
I was scared, but I was doing it anyway.
Financially, I didn’t have enough saved to support myself on my own, and the internship was unpaid. I already had an interview set up for a second job, and my parents generously agreed to support me the rest of the way. As a matter of pride, I wish I could say that I did everything on my own, but that’s simply not true. I’m so thankful for my parents, because without them NYC wouldn’t have been possible for me.
My first two weeks in New York were hyper-real. Everything flew by in startling color, and my brain buzzed with white noise that made it possible for me to meet each obstacle as it came, without dwelling on the absurdity of it all. I began my internship, both interviewed and trained for my second part time job, and spent every free moment scouring Craigslist in my desperate hunt for an apartment.
Finally, with the help of my two friends in NYC and Air B&B, I was able to couch hop my way to a furnished room to rent. I still had no idea what I was doing, but at least I had a bed. My first time assisting on a shoot came about a month into my internship. Up until this point, the bulk of my work had consisted of running errands (though the cliché coffee runs were surprisingly few and far between), organizing the office, creating tear sheets, and archiving hard drives and model releases. The shoot fell on one of my days off from my other part-time job, so I jumped at the chance.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t very prepared. While it wouldn’t be the first time I’d ever assisted on a shoot, it was definitely my first time assisting professionally on this level. When it came time to get ready to leave, I realized all I knew about the shoot was that it involved Hillsong church, and that I was supposed to wear comfy shoes. I didn’t think to ask for a call sheet, so I didn’t even know which magazine the shoot was for. When I introduced myself to the crew after we met up in the morning, they asked me what my role was. I looked helplessly over at Stephanie Porto, our producer, who was engaged in a conversation with Danielle, realizing I had no idea. I believe I said something lame, like, “I’m here for whatever you need help with,” and in that moment I felt acutely aware of every ounce of my inexperience, sure that I had the words “I’m clueless” stamped on my face in bold letters.
The crew was incredibly helpful and didn’t laugh at my questions. But most of the team, all there on a freelance basis, had worked together before and therefore had a solid rhythm to their workflow. I did whatever they asked me to do, carrying equipment and doing basic tasks like setting up scrim jims, trying hard to keep a balance between being helpful and not getting in their way. I recognized almost all of the equipment from my time in the studio when I was in school, but nobody used the names for them that I was used to, which made me look a lot more incompetent than I was. I naturally made some mistakes, but I learned that it did no good to ever be defensive, because assisting is all about checking your pride at the door.
The second shoot I assisted on went much more smoothly. I was actually listed on the call sheet as a production assistant, which boosted my confidence considerably. The beautiful thing about assisting is that no two shoots are the same. It can be nerve-wracking, sure, but it keeps me on my toes.
Working two jobs didn’t give me much time to relax. I typically had one day off a week (Tuesdays), but if I was lucky I’d get Saturday off, as well. It was tough not having two days off in a row, because I felt like I was always having to choose between either a lazy day that I felt I so desperately needed, being productive by doing laundry and going grocery shopping, or exploring the city. But my ideal day off in NYC? Going to the library on 5th Ave at 42nd St. I’d head into the dark wood-paneled room that archived newspapers and magazines, armed only with my notebook and pen, and I’d sit down and journal for a few hours. It was my favorite way to unplug. If I had time left over I’d also go and visit a café I hadn’t tried yet, but the library was my luxury.
There’s so much more that I could say about what it takes to live and work in New York City (not that I’m an expert), but instead, I’ll leave you with this – my top five “Tools of the Trade” when first starting out as a production assistant:
- Always always always have a rechargeable phone battery with you, especially when you’re out running errands. It’s also helpful to have a pair of headphones so that you can be hands-free on the phone when out on those errands. Side note: triple check that you have the receipts for everything you’ve bought while on the job.
- Wear comfy shoes. Seriously, you’ll be on your feet all day long. Even if you do get to have a break to eat during the shoot, chances are you’ll still be standing up.
- Have a driver’s license. It’s not absolutely necessary, but your boss will be glad to know that you can drive in a pinch.
- Get a call sheet for that day’s shoot. You may not always be listed on there as a PA, but it’s important to have so that you know the day’s schedule and the crew you’ll be working with. Bonus points for actually learning the names of the crew members – it goes a long way, and you’d be surprised at how few people take the time to do it.
- Get directions and plan your route the night before, and double check the address and cross streets with someone on your team to make sure you’re heading to the right place. Don’t forget to double your estimated commute time when you’re planning on when to leave. Delays are inevitable.
Even if you think you know what you’re doing, check with your boss. Be proactive about problem-solving, but don’t assume anything. Have a good attitude and don’t forget to take notes throughout the day. And most importantly, be present. NYC is nothing if not demanding, but opportunity is everywhere. Don’t miss it.
Lindsey's work can be viewed HERE