Filmmaking Unsung Heroes: the First Assistant Director

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I can still remember one of my teachers telling us: “the First Assistant Director always ‘gets the girls’. Some people cannot resist the charm of a person who appears in control.” So, do you want to be a 1st AD? Recently, David Allen Cluck, known for his work as a 1st AD on Monster and the Artist informed me: “I do not know who did this study, but they say that the average lifespan of a 1st AD is 56 years old? It’s definitely a stressful job.” So, do you still want to be a 1st AD? 

David was kind enough to share some of his free time from working on Mechanic: Resurrection, currently shooting in Thailand, to discuss (over some food) his experience as a 1st AD and other aspects of the Film Industry. I made him talk a lot (so that I could eat more) and will have to split his contribution over a couple of posts. In this first part, we concentrate on working as a First Assistant Director. 

What are the various phases of a 1st AD’s involvement with a project?

Sometimes, before a movie gets a green light, I will get hired to do a breakdown and an assessment of a reasonable schedule. I take the scripts and break it down in scenes and format it correctly, as necessary to be able to build a schedule. From that schedule, I then create an elements and cast database. That way they can say: how many days might we need that character? We are thinking of this actor, and he costs X dollars per week, we can afford him for two weeks. Is it feasible to shoot him in two weeks? Until you break it down and get a one-line schedule, it is impossible to determine that with any degree of accuracy.

When I am officially engaged, if I have not done one already,  I prepare a much more detailed shooting schedule. I break the script down, meet with the Director, meet with all the departments heads, run meetings and become involved in location scouting, casting, hiring crew and so on. A lot also depends on where we are shooting; if it’s in the States, if it’s in LA, if it’s in a production centre or if it is outside of a production centre. I assess all those aspects and kind of pre-produce the movie from the scheduling standpoint; that dictates pretty much everything. Who is working when and where? Locations that may or may not be available on a given day, or within a given time period. Is it weekends only? or nights only? So, you are constantly revising the schedule as you go along to make it fit with all the other demands and all the other complications thrown in.

Then, on the shoot days, it’s actually running the set. I have my 2nd AD who makes call sheets to keep everyone informed and putting all the various elements together. You need to keep an efficient working machine so that you can make the shooting day. It is the responsibility of the AD to make the day, but not necessarily within the capabilities of the AD to do so. The shooting is the fun part. But, if you are working on a show that is very disorganised, or is underfunded, or is too ambitious, or you are working with a green director, or working with producers who have not really thought things through and have not allowed everyone to do their job effectively, or you are working with actors that are incredibly difficult and so on; that’s tricky, that’s the pain. Shooting is the fun part, but it can also be very painful.

Once production is wrapped, I am gone. It sorts of work for me. What I didn’t like about Line Producing so much was to be involved in the wrap, counting receipts and so on. All that paperwork bored me to tears. I never miss that.

How do you estimate how long it will take to shoot something?

Mostly from past experience… The vast majority is from past experience. There is the standpoint of the page-count of all the scenes shooting in a specific location. But, it is also a lot of time from the number that is backed into it. Most films I do you get 25, 35 or 55 days and then it’s just a matter of ‘divvying up the pie’. Of course,  you have to get creative. You go talk to the Director: “listen, you know it would make sense if this scene instead of taking place in the café would also take place in the library. If that works for you, it would make for a more ‘shootable’ day.” Sometimes the answer will be: “yes, that makes sense, no problem” Some other times the answer will be: “no, it has to be in the café.” So, you need to figure out a way to do it. There are a lot of parameters you have to deal with.

How do you ‘understand’ a Director’s shooting style?

Just spending time with him. During the interview you would inquire about visual references for that particular movie. Then, you just learn as you go, too. The Director, the DP, the Production Designer and the Production Manager all look at the schedule and bring their experiences to it. There is always a debate. The schedule always has to be vetted. I will never look at a scene with 20 speaking actors, explosions and fights and say: ‘that can be done in a day”. But, there are way more parameters than just the page-count, number of actors and amounts of setups. A lot of aspects need to be factored into it, such as shooting nights, shooting at the end of the schedule or shooting long days; there is a fatigue factor.  Also, was there proper rehearsal? No rehearsal is often a problem. Everything is unique.

Any advice on keeping the set motivated and on schedule?

Experience and having the confidence from the years doing it will help with how you deal with people. It’s a lot about managerial skills. There is also an innate quality that some people have, to have the charisma to get in there and have other people follow them, to make a lot of noise and stir things up, and to know what everybody is going to have to do. It’s a stressful job. It’s not for everybody. There are too many people, in my opinion, who do it for the wrong reasons. They have their own power trips, they like telling people what to do. That is the wrong approach. It’s like someone who becomes a cop because they like to kick ass. The last thing you want is for ’your cop’ to be kicking ass. 99.9% of the contacts a cop will have are in situations where they are supposed to help people. My job is not to tell people what to do. It is to provide them with the information that is required for them to do their job. If I have to kick ass all the time, then somebody did not hire right, and that is a bigger problem.

Does your ‘style’ change according to the personality of the Director?

A degree of assertiveness needs to exist on a film set. It is either coming from me, or it is coming from the director. I never compete with the Director. There is no point to have an ego about it. The more experienced the Director, by far the easier my job is. For example, I just did a week of 2nd Unit working with Vic Armstrong, who is a legendary 2nd Unit Director who worked on films like Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He has been doing it forever. It is a piece of cake to work with him and that frees me to concentrate on the weaker aspects of the crew. I struggle working with timid Directors, the ones that are super low key. I also dislike working with truly bi-polar crazy assholes. Even if it is a big film, with name actors, it is not for me to work in those conditions. Within reason, I have to adapt to the situation.

Any word of advice to aspiring 1st AD’s?

It helps to have a masochistic side. Get experience on set as much as you can. Be organised but most importantly be listening. If you’re the kind of person who cannot go on five minutes without chatting with someone, you should not be a 1st AD. If you see the DP and the Director talking about something, you should be there listening. I learned 99% of what goes on on a Film set eavesdropping. Do not talk, listen. Information is flowing on a set 60 times a minute. There is always information. You always have to be listening, especially as a 1st AD. I do not sit down during the course of the day, I go to the bathroom only during lunch break, and I never stop concentrating and listening. At the end of the day, I am mentally exhausted, and that is what is required. It’s not a party. It is about 100% absolute focus all the time. If you miss even three seconds and somebody has to call my name to say ‘roll’… that is bad.

In the next part,  we will get a bit more personal with David as we overview his career, discuss film producing, the dangers of ‘passion’ and the changing landscape of the film industry. Until then: stay focused and listen. 

2 responses to “Filmmaking Unsung Heroes: the First Assistant Director

  1. Pingback: Making Films for the ‘Right’ Reasons: a Chat with David Allen Cluck | W(A/O)NDERING Filmmaking·

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