x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

It's not who you know, it's who your assistant knows

For the past year or so I haven't had what you might call an assistant, on the basis that my life isn't really so complicated that I need assistance.

For the past year or so I haven't had what you might call an assistant, on the basis that my life isn't really so complicated that I need assistance. I can work my phone, I can use Google Maps, I can unwrap my own sandwich - I'm a functioning, reasonably organised adult who makes his uncertain way in the world, unassisted. I've always been sort of proud of this. The unreconstructed Yankee in me watches my colleagues and friends, with their legions of assistants - a personal assistant for home and family life; a special assistant for work-related issues; another assistant for all the stuff that falls between the two - and I've always harboured smug, superior thoughts. I'm proud to be able to make my own dinner reservations, get to the airport myself, maintain my own calendar.

And I never really thought I needed an assistant when I wasn't caught in the crush of film production. Oh, sure, it's nice to have one - especially a writer's assistant who takes notes and types scripts. It's a wonderful luxury, and I've been lucky enough to work with one or two really excellent ones - but day to day, going to meetings and sitting at a desk trying to pound out a first draft doesn't really call for any high-level assistance.

What most assistants do - no matter who they work for - is manage the phone portion of the day. Who called whom, who's expecting, who's returning, who's not returning, saying "Can I have him return?", and that great phrase I've heard only in Hollywood, when you call someone and he's not available, so his assistant tells you: "I don't have him right now," which captures the assistant/boss relationship perfectly. "My boss is out of my gravitational pull. I no longer have him tied up to the dock."

Assistants all talk to each other, of course. That's really the way news travels around Hollywood - through the web and maze of assistants placing and receiving calls. While on hold, or waiting for the call to get connected, assistants will share furtive gossip, will spread mostly-true rumours, will pass on the bits and pieces of information that keep the town moving. But assistants do something even more important. They tell each other who their boss is. They spare their boss the indignity of not being known.

You can't know everyone in showbusiness, which means you can't know everyone important to know. And the really great thing about having an assistant is that then your assistant can tell the other assistant who you are and why you're calling that assistant's boss, and they can have a full and frank exchange of boss-status information. This is the real grease that keeps the machinery of the town in smooth running order - if your boss has never heard of my boss, my job is to fix that. Without letting my boss know that your boss wouldn't know him from a pile of sticks.

I called a manager a few weeks ago about a project I was peripherally involved with. The manager's assistant didn't know who I was. And it felt weird to say, "Look, kid, just run my name through IMDb - the Internet Movie Database - OK?" And because he didn't know who I was - and here I'm not implying that I'm a big shot, or a mogul, or someone who should be known and feared, but, you know, I'm someone. I'm someone you should call back, eventually. Especially if you're a manager who represents actors. I do occasionally hire actors to perform in the television shows I manage to get up and running, so, you know: call me back, dude.

But he didn't. So I had to call another person at the same company - a person who does know me and does call me back - and ask him to tell his colleague down the hall who I am and ask his colleague down the hall to call me back, which was embarrassing for everybody, but especially for me. "You want me to do what?" my friend the manager asked me, when I called him. "I want you to walk down the hall and tell your colleague who I am, and why he should call me back."

"This is a sad phone call," he said. "You're making me very sad." "Just do it," I said. "So it's come to this?" he said, sort of joking, sort of not. "You're worried that no one knows who you are any more." "Just do it," I said, again. And it's all because I don't have an assistant who, out of my earshot, of course, could have told the other assistant who, exactly, I am. And made it sound good. That's the tricky part. That should go on any assistant's CV, under Special Skills: "I can make you sound important and consequential, despite the truth."

Because in Hollywood, sometimes they don't call you back because they don't know who you are. And sometimes they don't call you back because they know exactly who you are.

Rob Long is a Hollywood writer and producer.