Setlife:A Guide To Getting A Job In Film (And Keeping It)
August 2023 | Matt Webb
Who are you and what do you do?
Hi, I’m Matt Webb. I’m originally from Sydney, Australia, and now living in New York for the last 6.5 years. After studying communications at the University of Sydney, I began my film career as an Assistant Director, with my first job as 3rd AD on a channel 9 TV drama called Rescue Special Ops. I subsequently spent the next 7 years working as an AD on various films and shows including The Great Gatsby, Mad Max: Fury Road, Hacksaw Ridge, Pirates of the Caribbean, Thor: Ragnarok, Alien: Covenant and Modern Family. In 2017 I moved to New York and have been producing content for creative agencies and brands such as Peloton, Meta, Google and Adidas. Currently, I am Head of Production at Media.Monks.
After several years as an Assistant Director, I noticed people coming out of film school needed to learn quickly what happened on large film sets. They may have understood the basics but Hollywood film sets are a unique beast and you have to learn on the job. So I wrote the book Setlife: A Guide To Getting A Job In Film (And Keeping It) to help aspiring filmmakers take that first leap into the daunting film industry. I love what My First Film Job is doing and hope that all these resources can take some of the stress out of those early years in the industry finding your feet.
What is a typical day like for you?
Lots and lots of video calls! I co-lead a team of 20 producers creating content for Meta at Media.Monks. These projects range from social content, short documentaries, animations, VR content, and Horizon World builds. The team is spread across the US and Canada, and are all based remotely. We generally have up to 30 projects running in all stages of production, from creative development to post-production. I bounce in and out of meetings from pre-production meetings, to creative and edit reviews, to 1x1 manager calls, new business and client meetings. My role has changed over the years from being on set 24/7 to a managerial role now overseeing a team producing content. I still love getting on set when we are shooting for various projects, where my Assistant Directing experience best compliments my current role. I understand production inside and out so I can make educated decisions on what is best for the client and production.
How did you get to where you are now?
Hard work and a bit of luck. I was fortunate to land some amazing jobs as an onset PA on The Great Gatsby and Office PA on Mad Max: Fury Road (which later turned into 3rd AD for pickups), but when I got these jobs I worked hard, I was on time, I asked questions when appropriate and I learned quickly. I would approach each day with the attitude of completing the tasks I knew I had to do while constantly helping to make the other more senior ADs jobs easier each day. What small task can I take from them to relieve the tiniest amount of pressure from their crazy busy day? Literally getting them lunch, or clearing their plate, showing up 15 minutes before them to tidy our office truck when on location, and just being a general team player willing to do whatever. I won’t sugar coat it; for the majority of Gatsby we worked 6 day weeks with 14+ hour days. It was exhausting and I did nothing else in life for 6 months straight, but it was an amazing experience. Doing those jobs well established my reputation with a solid group of ADs which continued to provide me with regular work for years to come.
One of the challenges with on set production roles is making the transition to the next role ie. From Set PA to 3rd AD or 2nd 2nd AD (depending on what country you are in) or Office Secretary to Coordinator. The reason it’s hard is someone has to take a risk on you as you haven’t proven you can do those bigger responsibilities yet. From my experience I found I often got these opportunities towards the end of a film. If a shoot is 4-6 months long you’ll often find a portion of the crew leaves with 2-3 weeks left of filming to jump onto the next project. Rather than bring in someone new but experienced at that level, if you have proven yourself your manager may suggest you fill those shoes for the 1-2 weeks left of shoot. It’s a great way to test you out as you know the production so the transition won’t be as rough. This exact situation happened to me on Pirates of the Caribbean when I was the 3rd AD. The 2nd 2nd was leaving a week early to go on vacation so I filled his shoes. The challenge, though, was that for that one week we were on location in the Whitsundays in Australia loading our cast and crew onto ferries and barges to work in remote islands each day. Not only was I dealing with this new role but also the most challenging week of our entire schedule with boats, helicopters, no phone reception and a tired cast and crew at the end of an arduous production. Somehow we made it through the week and I grew in my role immensely and was now considered an option for 2nd 2nd roles if available.
What experience did you need, how did you get it?
I was very fortunate that one of my last subjects at university was a placement on Rescue Specials Ops. I was supposed to be attached to the locations department but on Day 1 the Location Manager told me I’d be bored with him, drove me to set and promptly handed me to the ADs with the reasoning “they always seem busy, I’m sure you can help them”. So I spent 2 weeks as an AD attachment doing whatever was asked. As I mentioned earlier I got my opportunity as the then 3rd AD was leaving halfway through the series to do another film. Strangely the UPM offered me the role, even though I was unqualified. I got another 2 weeks of training and after the Christmas break was the 3rd AD for the remainder of the series.
I don’t think you need formal education for doing onset film roles, though I don’t discourage people going to film school. Just be aware of what you’ll gain from the experience. I made great friends, grew up a lot and learned technical things about filmmaking, but I didn’t come out of film school knowing how to AD or be a standby props or grip. Those skills are 99% of the time learned on the job. I had zero connections to the film industry so my work placement subject turned out to be the best possible thing that could happen.
What are the biggest challenges and rewards of what you do?
Production roles are time intensive. Productions work traditionally on 12 hour days (though some are doing 10 hour continuous hours), so I knew when I was on a big film it would be all-consuming. Still, I never got the ‘Sunday Scaries’ during my years as an AD. I would often face a Monday in the knowledge it would be a massive day with 400 background artists or a big stunt - but I was always excited for it. Every day was new and different and challenging in its own way.
Sadly, because of how consuming production roles are, if you are not prepared and conscious of the lifestyle and its pitfalls, it can negatively impact your relationships. I’ve seen firsthand the breakdown of families and marriages due to the grueling nature of the industry and years of working away from home.
On the upside, some of my closest friends are from the film world. We have shared experiences and passions. A film crew quickly becomes family. I think this is partly a result of eating several meals a day together. Not many other jobs start your day having breakfast and a sit down buffet lunch every single day with your colleagues.
I have also been lucky to travel, shooting in some incredible locations I may never have visited otherwise. I have worked with some of the most renowned and iconic filmmakers of our generation, and have some very special memories of certain scenes, stunts or performances I know I was a part of and that will live on in cinema history.
What are your top 3 pieces of advice for someone trying to follow your footsteps and break into film?
Buy my book. Haha. But seriously, it’s literally titled “A Guide to Getting a Job in Film”. It has tons of tips, advice and experiences from myself as well as contributions from Oscar winners and industry leaders.
Be prepared to work hard, or else consider choosing a different job/industry. There’s probably easier ways to make money, so if you aren’t ready to fully commit to working the long, grueling hours maybe choose something else. Your reputation is everything, so if you do one or two bad jobs you will struggle to find continual work. Look after yourself. Take vacations. Spend time with your friends, partners and family whenever you can. It’s hard being contractors that are always hoping for that next job but sometimes you just need to book a holiday. Work will figure itself out.
About Setlife:A Guide To Getting A Job In Film (And Keeping It)
Film sets are an extremely strange environment to walk into, let alone continue to thrive and evolve. Matt has been a keen and observant contributor to many elite crews and major productions. His book, Setlife is a valuable guide for anyone looking to build a career in the film industry. Film schools are wonderful in teaching you film history and the practicalities of filmmaking but this book delves deeper into what working on a film set actually involves and how to excel in this field.
Foreword by George Miller - Director (Mad Max: Fury Road, Happy Feet 1 & 2)
When you finally finish film school and throw your hat into the air in triumph, soon follows the daunting task of actually landing a job. You need to be prepared to not only nab that first role, but build a stellar career. Setlife is a must-have guide designed to prepare you for what happens on a typical day on a film set. It will help you if you’re studying, have just landed your first job, or are continuing to sharpen your skills a few projects in.
Matt Webb’s no-fuss, practical tips are essential reading for anyone chasing a career in the film industry. Negotiating contracts, understanding key departments, figuring out which role is for you, as well as exclusive interviews with Oscar winning directors and crew -- this book will help you land that foot in the industry door -- and keep it there. It’s all that film-world knowledge you won’t learn elsewhere.
Would you like to share your set stories, write reviews or blog about your journey into the industry? MFJF would love to hear from you!