How to be a Runner

or: Everyone’s got to start somewhere.

The lowliest role on a film set is the Runner. A catch-all title for gopher, shit-catcher and tea-maker extraordinaire. Odds are that this will be the first job you’ll have in The Industry.

How do you get that first job?

Tenacity.

That’s all it takes.

You knock on enough doors and refuse to take “no” for an answer then eventually you WILL get that job – promise.

Ok – I just lied – tenacity and a driving licence.

It is possible to get a runners job without a driving licence, but a lot easier if you can drive. And drive you will – all day, every day until the job is done. Don’t worry too much if you haven’t got a car – the kind of production that can’t afford to hire you a car is also the kind of production that can’t afford good catering.

The other way in is to know someone already in The Industry. Nothing will open doors like having a relative do it for you. Just look at the Douglas family (including that walking moustache, Zeta-Jones). Nothing will get you further faster than nepotism. Mind you, nothing will get you hated faster, either. Good luck with that part.

Once you get the job…

Congratulations!

You’re now in The Industry. Go call your mother – she’ll be as proud as punch. Just don’t tell her that you’re working for expenses only, sixteen hours a day, six days a week. She really doesn’t need to know that part.

Here’s the best advice I can give you for your first job as a Runner:

You’re a Runner – get over it.

Whatever you do, DO NOT tell ANYONE that you’re a Director, DoP, Writer, etc. etc.

YOU ARE A RUNNER.

True story: we’ve just wrapped on a 6 week job. There was one runner who’d really impressed the camera team – he was a shoe-in for the role of Camera Trainee on the next job we were going on to. UNTIL he handed out business cards that said “Director.” You have never seen such unveiled contempt in your life, as the Focus Puller goes all shades of purple and the Cameraman thanks the Runner for the card then, in front of him, tears it up and throws it to the floor saying: “Call me when you shoot your next feature.”

EPIC FAIL!

You’re a Runner – get over it.

You are about to be asked to do every job that no-one else wants to do. Beyond the obvious tea-making and photocopying, you will find yourself doing the dumbest jobs on earth.

One classic on-location task is “locking off” streets for filming. This will mostly involve you standing at the end of a street in a fluorescent jacket, politely asking cars to stop and turn off their engines while a scene is being shot further down the street. Brace yourself for hours of soul-crushing boredom, punctuated by verbal abuse from the drivers who you’re stopping.

The other great job is “set-watch.” This involves you sitting on set while the entire cast and crew go off for lunch. Someone from Locations or the AD department will (hopefully) bring you some lunch from catering – probably stone-cold and not quite what you asked for. You will then have about three minutes to eat this and take a leak before you’re needed back on set.

That’s the lot of a Runner – get over it.

Mollycoddling actors will become second nature to you. Actors are, by and large, deeply broken people (even by the frail psychological standards of everyone else in The Industry). If you’re assigned to an actor, you are now the slave to their slightest whim for the duration of the shoot.

All of those bizarre stories you’ve heard about demanding stars are probably true. I know a guy who had to drive 40 miles every week to find a particular brand of cigarettes for an American actor who was filming in the North of England. I don’t know what it’s like on the other side of The Pond, but American Spirit cigs are about as rare as rocking horse shit over here in Blighty. I smoke them and know where to look, but the runner in this story has never smoked in his life. He spent the whole of his first day-off driving town-to-town to find a carton of smokes. Just what you want on your one day off in the week.

Mollycoddling the crew is little better. It’s not uncommon for an H.O.D. to ask for a coffee just before a take begins. They will probably expect this coffee to be put into their hand seconds after “cut” is called. If you’re shooting indoors, you can add to this pressure the rule: “No drinks on set.” Now try telling this guy that he can’t have his coffee. The higher up the pecking-order a person is, the bigger the strop they are allowed to throw on set.

They’re now shouting at you, but…

You’re a Runner – get over it.

You will be the first person in to work and the last person to leave.

If the average day is 0800 to 1900, you will be there for at least two hours longer than the rest of the crew. If the make-up truck gets set up at 0500, you will be there for that. If the rushes need driving into central London after you’ve wrapped, you can add another couple of hours onto the end of your day.

Through all of this, you will NOT complain – even to your fellow runners, as they (and especially they) will take this as a sign of weakness and use it against you.

Through all of this, you will be alert, eager and just glad to be there. You are lucky to be on-set (something that some Producers will take great joy in reminding you). If you quit there are a hundred others who could fill your spot. You are mostly here by chance (unless, of course, Daddy is the Producer, then you can complain all you want).

So, how to survive your first job?

Sleep is your friend. Get as much as you possibly can. Ignore family, friends, pets – anything that isn’t either work or sleep is now secondary in your life.

You may feel the urge to drink – embrace that, but DO NOT let it affect your ability to work. The only way you can turn up to work hung-over is if one of the Grown Ups got you pissed at a party the night before. In these special circumstances, you must take all the piss-taking that they throw at you and STILL do your job better than the other runners. That guy got you drunk as a test – prove him right – show him you’re made of sterner stuff than the others.

Take vitamin pills. Eat your greens and plenty of protein. Resist the urge to carbo-load. Smoke, if you must, but not too much. Drink coffee/coke/red-bull, but not so much that you twitch or get the caffeine-sweats.

Think first – then speak. DO NOT question the reasons behind the method. I don’t care what you learnt in Film School. Three years of that is equivalent to about six weeks of on-set experience. The first step on the path to true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing. That’s YOU, at this stage of your career.

Be humble, but don’t be a sucker. Don’t be a smart-arse, but don’t get pushed around more than is reasonable. If they want you to work twenty hours then be on set five hours later, don’t get all up in their faces about the Working Time Directive. If you’d bothered to read your contract, you’d have noticed that you signed away your right to the forty-hour week. Just ask the Line Producer or 1st AD (whoever your immediate HOD is) if it’s reasonable that you’re not getting your eleven-hours Turnaround. They’ll probably tell you to suck it up, grow a set and get on with your job, but they’ll also realise that they’re working you to death and, if they’ve got any sense (and talent), they’ll split the workload better in future – you hope.

A brief shopping-list – things you should always have to hand:

Emergency clothes: expect the worst weather possible, nomatter what the season. The day you don’t have your wet-weather gear is the day you’ll stand in the freezing rain for twelve hours straight. If you’re serious about being in The Industry, go to a hiking shop and spend a few bob on waterproof jacket and pants, plus a fleece. These things are the de-facto uniform of film crews the world over. Once you’ve broken them in, you’ll blend-in better – you look like you’ve done this before. Also pack a spare t-shirt and deodorant – you never know how hot the studio lights will get. Spending a morning under thirty space-lights is the diet plan you least expected (add that to your caffeine sweats and you’re not pulling anything at the wrap-party).

Pens: always have a pen at hand. Expect to lose them all. If you can nab one or two from the production office, then great. I am not suggesting you ‘steal’ them – no more than the person that asks “have you got a pen?” is stealing from you. It’s not unreasonable to ask for the pen back. Sharpies you can get from the camera team, but make sure you’re friends with the Clapper Loader before you go asking for these.

A lighter: I know that smoking is deeply unfashionable (and, apparently, not too good for you, either) but this is still a smoking industry. I’m not advocating that you take it up but, if you carry a lighter, you will INSTANTLY become a friend to the smokers. The smokers are usually make up of AD’s, Make-up, Costume, Art, Sparks, Sound and Camera crew – all the on-set jobs that you might want to get into. Office johnnies are usually too prissy and up-themselves to smoke – especially the mid-level ones who think make out like they have the power. Cigarettes would clog their chakras, or something. The smoking corner, like the tea table, is where you get the gossip AND the lead on your next job.

A torch: traditionally, everyone used Mini Maglites. Don’t bother. You can get an LED torch that’s twice as bright and half the price. Get something that won’t break your jaw, as you’ll spend a lot of the time with it clamped between your teeth, keeping both hands free. Resist the urge to get a Petzl head lamp this early in your career. They are the best head-lamps on earth but will draw all manner of mockery, even when you’ve been doing the job for years (yes – that’s me and my Petzl they’re taking the piss out of). Film crews usually hate change and the Mini Maglite is proving a hard habit for them to break.

Berocca: this is for any job that’s longer than a month. Your body should have enough vitamins in it to let you run hard for a month. Any longer than that and it will feel like sleep-deprivation is leeching the calcium out of your teeth. Berocca is your friend and the friend of anyone who gets these magic orange tablets off you, while they’re shambling along the breakfast queue. They are the crack of the vitamin world. Casual use turns your piss bright orange. Abuse them and you will get kidney-stones (apparently). That’ll turn your piss into something else entirely.

Gloves: if you’re intending to end up in production, get something that keeps your hands warm but still allows you to grasp a pen. If you intend to do one of the on-set crafts, go to your nearest garden centre and buy a pair of hide gloves. Make sure they’re that generic hide colour – nothing that says “gardning glove” – down that road, piss-taking lies. These are a cheaper alternative to the “Rigger’s Gloves” you can buy at camera houses and studios for a small fortune. These gloves will save your hands and, therefore, your life as film-making is a manual business.

Boots, or hardy trainers: You will be on your feet for twelve hours a day. If you don’t wear comfy and hard-wearing shoes then you’ll be in agony by lunchtime on day-one. While you’re in the hiking shop, getting your weather gear, check out their hiking-trainers and socks. Runners are called “Runners” for a reason and, remember…

You’re just a Runner.

Congratulations on getting your first job. And good luck.

Do you have any other tips for a production n00b?

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~ by mchawk on 7 June, 2008.

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