When University of Arizona film student Rafael Gomez signed on for seven weeks as a volunteer production assistant, or PA, on the Hermosillo set of Chavez last summer, he was fully immersed in the filmmaking experience.
His days featured two languages, 4 a.m. report times, 14-hour days, and 115-degree temps — an initiation by fire that extended his learning beyond the classroom and tested his dedication in the real world.
“It was intense and long,” Gomez reflected when he returned to campus. “But it was the most educationally stimulating and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Gomez, along with classmate Irais Torres-Johnson and recent UA alums Claudia Jiménez ’11 and Zuleima Cota ’12 — first-time PAs all — got the gig through the UA Hanson Film Institute.
Founded in 2002, the Hanson Institute works with the UA film and television program to sponsor public events and film projects and offers students hands-on experience and funding for professional development. Institute director and networker Vicky Westover coordinates these efforts and also teaches, placing her in an ideal position to identify talent and give it a chance to grow.
“These students showed such professionalism and confidence,” she explains. So when Vicky met with Pablo Cruz, producer of the César Chavez biopic, at an industry conference, they arranged for the students to work on the set.
The Hanson Institute can provide an inside track, but it’s up to the students to make the most of the assignment. On set, PAs do the proverbial grunt work — making copies, tracking down props, loading equipment — with the long-term goal of moving through the ranks and establishing themselves in their chosen area. In the short term, good PAs will get to work on another movie, as Gomez, Jiménez, and Torres-Johnson did this fall on the Nogales set of The Hangover Part III.
But it’s not all toil and grind. When you are working on a Mexican set, food and festivity are never far off. Savory tacos replaced the usual food-service cheeseburgers, and on Saturdays the half-day shoot wrapped with a sapo, or cast party. Spanish for "toad" (the story goes that an unfortunate frog once leapt on the grill at a long-ago swamp shoot), the sapo offers valuable face time with more experienced crew and the chance to mingle and ask questions.
The UA PAs got to rub elbows with director Diego Luna and star Michael Peña and share midnight Sonoran hot dogs with visiting actor Wes Bentley, fresh from his Hunger Games success. In many ways, the PAs say, these informal exchanges were as instructive and inspiring as the actual movie-making.
This academic year, Torres-Johnson is interning at the Hanson Institute and expects to enter the business end of the industry, while Cota is considering film editing. Future director of photography Gomez will complete his bachelor of fine arts degree in May 2014. And Jiménez has already clinched a job as Westover’s assistant at the Institute, learning firsthand about her field of interest: programming and distribution.
Part of independent film’s next generation, they share a passion for cinema, the determination to go for their dreams, and strong ties forged under extreme conditions. Let the networking begin.