Pam writes in:
I have a question about something that happens to me on sets and in offices sometimes, but I never know how to answer. What should I do when someone gives me something to do, that isn’t that important, and then someone else asks if I’m busy and can help them? I know it’s probably simple, but it always catches me off guard, and I don’t know how to answer.
I always worry that if someone asks “Are you busy?” and I respond “No, what do you need?” That would come off as me dismissing whatever it is the first person told me to do. But if I respond “Yes, I am busy. Sorry.” It dismisses the second person, who clearly has something more important for me to do.
When there are multiple PAs, I don’t see it as that big of a deal because they can always just get someone else, but when I’m the only one, the judgment call becomes a bit more nerve-racking.
What should I do?
This sounds tricky, but it’s really just a more generalized version of the fire watch question Laura asked a few weeks ago.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: Say Yes.
In this particular case, yes, you are doing something.
But even if no one had given Pam something to do, she should still be busy. No one ever wants to hear, “I’m not doing anything right now.” Because if you’re not doing anything, why did they hire you in the first place?
Find something to do, even if it’s just organizing the files or sweeping the AD trailer. That way, when someone asks, “Are you doing anything right now,” you can honestly answer yes.
Don’t leave it at that, though. Tell the producer or whoever exactly what you’re doing, whether it’s your own make-work, or a menial task someone else gave you. Let them decide if their request is more important than what you’re doing.
As a PA, it’s not really your position to say what is or isn’t important, but you can nudge them in one direction or another. There’s a world of difference between, “I’m just tidying my desk. What can I do for you?” and “I’ve got to copy these pages and get them to set, because it’s the next scene we’re shooting.”
Some producers are polite,1 and don’t like to feel like they’re imposing, even when dealing with a PA. Also, certain newbie writer-producers may not actually understand what you do, and whether it’s urgent or not. They might say something like, “Can you get me a cup of coffee after you’ve finished filing?”
In a case like that, it’s still probably in everybody’s interests to set aside what you’re doing and pour that cup. It puts the producer in a good mood, which helps them get on with whatever real work they should be doing. Which, incidentally, is almost certainly more urgent than your filing.
On the flip side, you may run into a producer who’ll say, “I don’t give a shit about pages. Get me my half-double decaffeinated half-calf latte right now!”
It’s on you to figure out how to get both things done. You might want to get another PA to play barista, while you run the pages to set. Or, if you want the producer to know you handled it personally, send someone else with the pages to set while you whip up the drink.
And if there’s no other PA’s around…
You get those pages to set so the scene can be shot. If your producer really is an asshole, and yells at you for not getting his latte first, you just have to take it. Don’t argue, don’t explain. Use your four magic words, and be proud of the fact that you did the right thing for the show.