A Prairie Home Production Assistant

Jon Steinhorst was on break from Columbia College’s film program, and he was looking to make a few bucks. Back when he was in design school, Jon spent his summers painting houses, so repairing stucco on his mother-in-law’s home wasn’t out of the question. But stucco proved to be an insurmountable challenge. So Jon whipped up a résumé that described his quartet of short films and his design background. After printing a dozen copies, he headed to the Prairie Home Companion set in search of a yet nameless assistant director. The other day, Jon spilled the beans about his experience. (You can hear him for yourself at www.firstcrackpodcast.com, podcast number 54.)

Lingering outside the Fitzgerald Theater, he met the grips. They provided the assistant director’s name and pointed Jon to the production office. Once there, his spiel—“student … here to help … just five minutes of his time”— was met with a flat “He’s not in.” Undeterred, Jon offered each of the three secretaries a copy of his résumé and a “Please pass it along.” Halfway to his car, a voice mail came through from the assistant director: “Come back, come back. We want to meet you.” Two more résumés, for the first assistant director and the second assistant director. These were met with semi-encouraging words: “It’ll be a great experience … no money … call us tomorrow.”

The next morning, knowing shooting began at 11 a.m., Jon called repeatedly. When he finally got through, he was told to report to work. As a result, he became one of five production assistants, and was issue a headset and a walkie-talkie. Three days later, Jon had grown accustomed to the constant radio chatter and understood the lingo enough to use the walkie-talkie like a pro. (He offered two helpful walkie-talkie hints: “Talk when the light is green. And ‘10-1’ means Using the bathroom. No, nothing else is coded in a number.”)

Jon had five official assignments on the set of A Prairie Home Companion. No. 1: When the assistant directors yell “Rolling,” sound the bell and turn on the light that signals Quiet on the set! Upon “Cut!” ring the bell twice and flip the switch off. No. 2: When rolling, switch off the Fitzgerald Theater’s six air conditioning units to keep the rumble off the sound recording. Summarizing his work on this task, Jon said, “I got a lot of reading done.” No. 3: Quietly herd between one hundred and one thousand extras through the theater to their seats without disturbing gear or rehearsing actors. Now do it outside with fifty extras to your right, twenty-five extras to your left, and six cars, while coordinating with four other production assistants and Tommy Lee Jones’ director. Now, with the camera just on the other side of the curtain, cue Kevin Kline, four stagehands, and seven musicians. No. 4: Keep Robert Altman’s bucket filled with ice and bottled water. No. 5: Write out seven cue cards containing the lyrics of a musical number. This fifth assignment was Jon’s most rewarding. The first two takes of the song weren’t right, and cue cards were requested. After Action! was called again, Jon plainly saw Lindsay Lohan’s eyes glance to his cards for a key word. Lindsay delivered perfectly. At the song’s end, the audience of five hundred extras went wild. Unscripted, the entire cast returned to the stage for an encore. That kind of magic might not have happened without Jon’s seven clearly written cue cards.

Though he wasn’t paid, Jon was still able to make a little money. “There’s a game on movie sets called Dollar Days,” he said. “A production assistant duct-tapes a shoe box closed, cuts a hole in the top. Then each member of the cast and crew pulls a dollar bill from their wallet, signs it, and stuffs it in the shoebox. At the end of the day, one bill is pulled from the box, and whoever’s signature is on the bill, they win the entire box.”

On the set of A Prairie Home Companion, with a crew and cast of about a hundred, they played a higher-stakes version of the game, Five Dollars Days. Jon entered. “It was my only five-dollar bill, then I was flat broke.” At the end of the day, a five labeled “Jon S.” was pulled from the shoebox. The hundred bills were his. “I’ve already spent quite a few, actually—paid part of my credit card bill,” he said. “You go home and you can’t help but count the money again. You start thinking, Maybe I can sell this five-dollar bill for twenty-five dollars on eBay because it has Lily Tomlin’s name on it. And then you spend it anyway. I’m saving a couple. I’m saving the winner. And I’m saving Bob Altman’s, because he actually had me write his name on the five-dollar bill.”—Garrick Van Buren