Monday 18 December 2017

My life as a Hollywood assistant...

The lowdown on the mad, bad world of LA's film industry elite

Lydia Whitlock - Writer of To My Assistant photographed in the Hollywood Hills Los Angeles
Lydia Whitlock - Writer of To My Assistant photographed in the Hollywood Hills Los Angeles
Fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is relentless in the demands she makes of her new assistant, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway).

Hilary Rose

What's the worst thing your boss has ever said to you? A snipe about your workload? A bitchy comment about your timekeeping? Well, count yourself lucky that you don't work in Hollywood. If you think it sounds glamorous, think again.

Lydia Whitlock spent five years at the Los Angeles coalface, working as an assistant to producers, directors and managers. And guess what? The combination of money, fame and gigantic egos sends people mad.

"I was once screamed at, literally screamed at, by my boss because the butter that came with his bread was too warm," she says. "He said I should be making sure it was the right temperature before I handed it to him."

Another time, she was required, at 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning, to pick up a 20lb cake for a baby shower. To this day she has no idea why it had to be so big or so early.

Or there was the time her boss gave her 24 hours to get hold of a particular DVD, which wasn't for sale in the US, and get it shipped to the East Coast.

Unsurprisingly, with material like that she's now written a book about her experiences, and those of her friends.

The resulting collection of anecdotes is jaw-dropping in its depiction of human madness, a sort of Devil Wears Prada goes to California.

"I certainly empathised with the assistant character in The Devil Wears Prada," she says. "Our jobs were both frustrating. Miranda Priestly's assistant has to deal with outrageous requests, whereas my frustrations came mostly from having to deal with many mundane problems at once. It's the little things that really get you down, the finicky office supply requests and very vague e-mails and texts.

"They never tell you you're going to be dealing with a very small and yappy dog on a daily basis, or that your boss has a terrible temper in the afternoon. You have brushes with the glamour and the celebrity, but it's mostly a life of drudgery."

Indeed it was. Her days were spent answering the phone, telling her boss who s/he needed to call back, and setting up conference calls between stars, producers, managers and agents.

Thanks to a pervading culture of presenteeism, Whitlock only got a lunch hour if her boss was also out to lunch. If her boss noticed that another assistant was starting work earlier than she did, she would be told to start even earlier, because that gave the impression that her boss was also super-busy.

The good times were when a producer she was working for actually finished a movie, and she had the satisfaction of seeing a film that she had helped to make. And yet there were plenty of times when there was simply nothing to do.

"People in this business work insane hours, even though they don't have to," she says. "Being an assistant was a lot more boring than I expected. There was plenty of sitting around waiting for your boss to need something. You're in the office at 8am, working 12-hour days, barely earning minimum wage and spending weekends reading 20 scripts so your boss doesn't have to."

But it must be glamorous, right? Not so much.

"You get to go to premieres," Whitlock concedes, "and you get free clothing that has been gifted to the celebrity that she doesn't want. But on the other hand, no one cares who you are at premieres, so you sit in the corner and try to keep out of the way of the famous people."

Whitlock (27), who grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, is an Ivy League student with a degree in film studies from Yale.

Her first job in LA was delivering post at a management company, for which she was paid $9 an hour, a job which she says she was genuinely excited to land.

She got it thanks to a contact from university, and it followed three months of unemployment, in which she sent out more than 100 CVs.

"So many people want to work in this industry that you can always find someone else. And delivering the mail was actually a great experience, because I covered for other assistants when they were away and learned the ropes. The question later wasn't, 'why was I delivering mail' so much as 'I've been in LA for four years and I'm still answering phones. What am I doing with my life?'"

What indeed? There was the boss who asked her to send out his Christmas cards, featuring a happy family photo, then shouted at her for having done so when, 24 hours later, his wife served him with divorce papers.

Or the time when the company moved offices and she had to spend an entire day persuading IT to change her boss's extension number, because it contained the number 13.

There was the boss who insisted that it would be a 'fun team-building exercise' if they all went on the week-long juice cleanse that she was embarking on, and another who claimed to be a vegan, but secretly ate Big Macs.

There were expensive haircuts and manicures and facials to schedule, and that was just for the men. They would complain that they didn't look busy enough, and that more meetings needed to be scheduled.

Then they'd complain there were too many meetings and order her to cancel them. One boss accidentally hung up on a conference call, and then was cross with her because he couldn't hear anything.

"They're not very self-aware. They don't realise that what they're saying to their assistant makes them feel terrible. And stress can drive people off the deep end. It was always my instinct to snap back, but that just makes it worse.

"Sometimes a calm response would piss them off more. It's an industry full of egos and money and fame, and that goes to people's heads."

She put up with all of the above for $30,000 (€22,000) a year, of which half went on rent alone. She would have rice and beans for dinner and if she went out for a drink, she'd stick to soda water because it was the cheapest option.

Some of her fellow assistants networked constantly, going out for drinks with industry people every night of the week in a bid to further their careers. Whitlock generally preferred to crawl home at 9pm and get into her pyjamas. Like everyone else, she did it simply because she wanted to work in movies and move up through the ranks, be it as a writer or producer or agent.

In the years she worked as an assistant several of her friends were promoted, usually to a position called 'creative executive' that, while not much of a pay rise, combined more responsibility with none of the administrative tasks of an assistant.

"The promotion and the title were the reward," says Whitlock, "not the money".

There are career assistants – many of the big CEOs at the major studios have 50-year-old assistants who've been with them for 30 years "and they couldn't live without them".

Most, Whitlock says, want "young, ambitious, proactive assistants who want to move on. But the economy has slowed down and a lot of people are hanging around waiting for the next opening. Sometimes it takes years. What keeps them going? I honestly don't know. I dropped out to write the book when I realised I didn't want any of the jobs that my bosses had."

There were upsides: as well as the cast-off clothes and film premieres, she got a genuine thrill out of speaking on the phone to people she admired such as Seth Rogen, or Sam Raimi.

"I've had moments of going 'Wow, I just spoke to that person,' even when you're only saying, 'One moment and I will transfer you to my boss.'"

To My Future Assistant: Your Foolproof Guide to Handling the Boss From Hell by Lydia Whitlock, Sphere

Irish Independent

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