10 Questions with The Grunt Squad
We watch TV shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime, we go to the cinemas and watch block buster movies and we dream that one day we too can work on the set of one of these films. Some of us go to film school in hopes that we can jump straight into directing the next box office hit, or we pick up an affordable DSLR camera and figure that with a few friends we are going to make the next Netflix original. However, where most successful filmmakers, producers, directors, editors, gaffers start is at the Production Assistant (P.A.) level. Why is that? Well we caught up with two of the founders of The Grunt Squad - Brianne Stewart and Sheldon Reid - to find out exactly what is The Grunt Squad and what is being a P.A. all about in this exclusive interview.
JAFTA: Hi Brie, hi Sheldon.
JAFTA: Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you get your start in the film industry?
Sheldon: So, I happened to meet producer and director Tanya Taylor when I just got into 6th form. She brought me on as a P.A. on the KFC quiz show.
Brianne: My start was a little different. I got a job as a personal assistant to Justine Henzell, not really knowing what she did or who she was at that time. She introduced me and brought me on to set. My first set was in 2018.
JAFTA: What does being a production assistant entail?
Sheldon: OH…Aaah. Everything. (Laughter). It is the backbone of every production. You can be an office P.A. handling paperwork, location P.A. scouting and booking locations, Set P.A. making sure everything runs smoothly on set, everyone is fed, has water, is on set on time, you are everything. You may not be noticed for it, but you are expected to do whatever needs to be done.
Brianne: For me I find this question difficult to answer, as you said Sheldon, you do everything, You are making sure crew is good, the cast is good, there is craft (services). You are all over the place making sure everything is being taken care of.
Sheldon: Yeah, you can be given a specific role but even with that specific role if something outside of your role needs to be done, you have to fill it.
Brianne: Exactly, so it is really hard to definite it in specific terms. You really are the backbone of the production.
JAFTA: What was your most challenging experience while being a P.A. on set?
Sheldon: The most challenging experience on set is just navigating a new set every single time. You pretty much have to learn to navigate a new crew the Director the AD whoever is in charge of that set, you need to learn very quickly what your role is on set and execute it.
Brianne: It’s the same for me. You have to adapt to a new crew. When you are on a set for a while and you get used to how everything works then you get placed on a new set and everything is different, and you have to re-learn everything because you are dealing with different personalities.
JAFTA: What is the most misunderstood aspect of the role of P.A.?
Sheldon: Whew, as a P.A.???
Brianne: I would say that it is assuming you are only a Goffer (Go For). Yes you have to run up and down and get things, but like we were saying before, when it comes down to the roles and the details, you are taking care of people. You are the backbone of this production. Not just this goffer running up and down.
Sheldon: I have to agree. So that will also be my answer. As a P.A. you are often overlooked, you are at the bottom of the totem pole, you don’t have an opinion you are literally a goffer ON SET! But if you don’t do your job, the production could potentially fail. Everyone on set has a job, the Cameraman, the Director, the DIT [Digital Imaging Technician], Electric, the Grip, everyone has a job. If you aren’t there to fill in the gaps and ensure [that] everything runs smoothly behind the scenes, then the production fails.
Brianne: Exactly, so it’s not that we aren’t important. Just because we fall on the lower end of the hierarchy doesn’t mean we aren’t important. It doesn’t negate the fact that we are just as important as the next role.
Sheldon: Absolutely. You can make a whole career out of being a professional P.A. for the rest of your life.
Brianne: Yeah, I have met a couple people who do that and they are pretty good. Very solid.
JAFTA: How has the role made you develop?
Sheldon: Being a P.A., I am definitely more organized. Cleaning! When you are in charge of locations, you walk into a space you have to keep it cleaned and maintained. Learning first aid and putting together first aid kits. Little skills you generally need in life that you take for granted or forget to develop. You have to do that. Being organized, keeping documents together. It’s priceless and overlooked.
Brianne: For me I find it helped me develop as a person on a whole. I will go to events and see things that need addressing and I am itching to fix it. It has added to me being more observant. I notice things more, notice where things are lacking and things need to be done a lot more. It has taught me to be more patient and to be humble. I usually walk into a room and take over. That’s just my personality but I have had to learn to take a step back and realize there are bigger people in the scene, so I need to stay calm and understand my place.
Sheldon: Just be there to help and support really.
Brianne: Yes and I use that to propel myself forward in life.
JAFTA: What are 3 key traits P.A.s must have?
Sheldon: Definitely you need to be willing to help. You must be observant, and you have to move and think quickly.
Brianne: I would say the same thing and being proactive. Make sure you are thinking ahead and doing things ahead of time within reason. You also need to be at a very quick pace. The minute you slow down, you slow down everyone on set.
JAFTA: What upcoming projects do you have?
Brianne: We have The Grunt Work Squad which is our P.A. training programme. We wanted to create a programme to help people experience the job we do, as well as better the industry by taking people with interest in the industry by taking people who have an interest in the film industry or they don’t know what they want to do in the industry and give them the information they need to get that opportunity that they want.
Sheldon: The better the quality of the P.A. the better the production can be and reduce the introductory period for new people. This basic information will allow you to assimilate much quicker on set and have a greater impact than you would have without this basic knowledge.
Brianne: We also hope we can place people in jobs and lessen the time producers would take finding people to work on set without fear of working through teething pains.
JAFTA: Who are the people behind Grunt Squad?
Sheldon: Well, there is Brianne Stewart, myself Sheldon Reid and our silent partner Whitney who helped us formalize our curriculum. She is the big teach.
Brianne: Yeah and she works closely with the Literature and Film [Studies] department the Faculty of Humanities] at University of the West Indies. She is very ingrained in the work so she knows exactly what it entails and is very familiar with the University standards. That has helped us greatly in terms of organizing and putting forward a structured top of the line programme. We are P.A.s that have been working in the industry on local and international sets and recognize that we have the talent here, so we want to see it thrive.
JAFTA: How can Grunt Work Squad be a benefit to our film and tv industry?
Sheldon: I believe any formalization of any aspect of an industry makes it better. To be able to impart the basic knowledge of the film industry and better prepare people who are interested in entering provides structured avenues for to work your way up to other roles like Director or Producer for example. The Grunt Squad provides a higher calibre PA for the industry.
Brianne: We want to be able to increase the standard on a whole from our experience working on international sets. We see where we have the potential and capability to be just as good as them. We just have to put things in place to make us be globally competitive and to do that we have to start from the ground up and what better way to start than with P.A.s
JAFTA: What advice would you give to anyone looking to gain a start in the local film and tv industry?
Sheldon: Be willing to learn, be enthusiastic and observant. Don’t take criticism to heart because the set is very fast paced and very intense but there is always something to learn and it will always make you better for future jobs.
Brianne: That is a good one because human error is going to occur, it is how quickly you recover and learn from that mistake that makes the difference. My advice for anyone wanting to get into the industry is network, network, network. Sometimes we turn down opportunities. Don’t turn down opportunities. I have been on sets where you are not getting paid for it because it’s a small student film, but the people you end up working with are the ones that have the jobs and have the ability to help push you in industry. Keep networking. Make friends, especially with people in the department you want to get into. Learn from them, shadow them. Keep pushing. Work hard.
Brianne: Any final words Sheldon?
Sheldon: Aaahmm. Other than the fact that being a P.A. is always fun? It’s always fun to work on a new set, work with new people. Being a P.A. is the most fun I have working 14 to maybe 18 hours per day.
Brianne: Exactly (Laugh out loud).
Sheldon: In the heat all day everyday in different locations then I have to rinse and repeat at 5 a.m the next morning. It’s hard but it pays off.
Brianne: It’s the only job that will make me willingly get up at 4 in the morning (Laughs).
Sheldon: After that you may be drained and dead but…
Brianne: Yeah I might complain on set “Why am I up so early” but the truth is I want to be there. Especially when you have our wrap party or screening to see what we contributed to.
Sheldon: At the very least look forward to the wrap party.
Brianne: Right? (LOL). They are always fun.
JAFTA: Wow, thank you so much for doing this interview with us. It was very insightful. The passion is definitely there from The Grunt Squad and we look forward to see what your workshop brings. There is huge value in formalizing the industry and raising the standard. We will be following you up and seeing how things are progressing.
For our readers interested in breaking into the industry, being a P.A. is a great place to start and what better way to ease your way in than with professionals showing you the ropes.