We continue our chat with David Allen Cluck, known for his work as a 1st AD on Monster and the Artist . David was kind enough to share some of his free time from working on Mechanic: Resurrection to discuss (over some food) his experience as a 1st AD and other aspects of the Film Industry. In the first part, we concentrated on working as a First Assistant Director. In this second part we discuss film producing, the changing landscape of the film industry, the ‘problem’ with passion and overview David’s career.
A Changing Industry.
Raising money… trying to find money for films has gotten increasingly harder since the digital revolution, if you will. Distribution is basically free on the internet. The concept of direct to DVD is soon to be anachronistic. All those forms of financing will be a thing of the past. The middle-class of the film business is going away same as the middle class of most Western society is starting to diminish. The lack of consistent and reliable revenue sources, as they continue to disappear, results in a higher risk. This means that there will be less films made and the people that are making them will do it from an institutional or set-formula standpoint, which does’t necessary makes for the best movies.
There will always be good movies made, but there may be more bad movies made. Movies made in low risk situations, from companies that have some sort of deals already in place, a mechanism that makes sense. You need to make money, it’s commerce. I’m all for Art Films but unless governments are behind them like they are in Europe, Australia,Canada and places like that… if it is going to be venture capitalists and entrepreneurs… they got to make money because everybody needs to eat. There is still going to be the Transformers and the Hunger Games. These are huge money makers. There is no reason why would anyone say: hmm, we will let go of those. They are not that many of them, and some of those fail. The studios still have to take a calculated risk. But, that’s business.
There is no problem with the micro-budget approach, except it’s hard to make a living. I know a lot of people that make their films for 100’000US$, which is nothing, and still do not make their money back. That’s a problem. You cannot make a living or attract talent that way. Stars demands are not diminishing that quickly, in terms of salary and perks that they need. There is still a side to this business that is just completely drawn to the superstar, the rising star, the emerging talent. So you’re going to find some guy who made a cool interesting film that has gotten a lot festival play from let’s say a Danish director. He might be hired to do the next big Hollywood movie, or he may not. It can be a stepping stone for the creatives but not necessarily for the business people, the ones that have to ensure that their investors get paid back, and that everybody working on the project gets paid.
[David’s phone rings. More food arrives, we get distracted.]
The best hope is that people are still going to want to see movies. Movies are our cultural ambassadors. It is how we recognise and show our culture. It’s a popular medium. Whether it’s in television, with Breaking Bad and other series like that, or the more traditional cinematic releases. There is going to be a shift eventually: more institutional and government support for movies or new forms or revenues and ways of paying for it will come along.
Anything you would love to change about the film industry?
For some reasons, a 12 hours day is standard in the film industry. I do not know why that exists. I get that making movies and hiring equipment is expensive but to necessarily go into any given shoot days anticipating that you will need to shoot at least 12 hours… For a lot of people, myself, the Director, the DP, the other AD’s, we get there much earlier, it becomes a mandatory 14hrs day for them. I am not quite sure why the Film Industry feels the need of working 4hrs longer than most other industries in the world. There has been car accidents of people coming back home after work and other instances where tiredness resulted in people getting killed.
I do not see it changing any time soon, but for example the system they use in France is certainly a little bit better, or the system they used to have in England. The unfortunate thing is that Unions were the ones that came up with those rules and now that we are pretty much in an anti-unions swing again, they are coming to places like South Eats Asia and Bulgaria and other parts of Eastern Europe to make movies, because they are away from Unions. It’s ok when you have a company that has the policy of making 11 hours days, but then you have a Director who is feeling that he is making a master piece and he wants 14 hours; it’s tough.
On the Artist, we worked some long days but then we worked some short days. That crew, with a french Director, a french Cinematographer, a french script supervisor, they were not used to working 14 hours days. Still, we did a couple, but also a couple of days where we did 11 hours. We had super cool actors and we didn’t have any major problems in terms of dealing with difficult people. We had a really good producer on that, because he let every department do their job. He was a help, he was not a hinderance, and we accomplished a lot.
Any advice to aspiring Directors?
Understand the changing industry. See how many movies as you can, read as many scripts as you can. Study good films, study bad films. A good exercise is to find a book that was made into a movie. First read the book, then read the screenplay, then watch the movie. Study those transitions. Try to understand what decisions were made. Understand the compromise that were made. Get experience, go out and direct. You have a phone, go out and direct something this week end. Make a 3 minutes film that actually says something and that makes the audience feel something. Its not about crazy setups. I remember seeing the rough cut of a dialogue scene between two zombies that was covered with 27 setups and amazing camera movements, but the performances were weak. Give us the same scene with 2 setups but the performances are there, the emotions are there, the drama is there. Of course, Scorsese is great at moving the camera, but he has a great script and great performances. Understand your stories. Understand what you want to achieve. Understand what you want and communicate it effectively.
The worst thing about being passionate.
The degree of passion that it takes for a film to being made is a help and a hinderance. The ‘help’ is that it make you go that far. The hinderance is that if you are passionate about something it is likely to get destroyed by someone who does not have the same passion as you. That is how you take advantage of somebody, you find their passion and you exploit it. Some people describe passion as a weakness. You cannot walk 5 minutes in Hollywood without bumping in several people who are willing to take advantage of your passion. Take the agents and the lawyers for example, actors, well, everyone, there are some good ones and then there are some others. It is a dog eat dog world. It is pretty cut throat and you have to play the game. It depends what your passion is. If it is to tell that perfect story, or is your passion to make money. For me, passions have to align and they have to be in the right directions to make it work.
[David’s phone rings again. Such is the life of a 1st AD, on his day off.]
How did you end up working in the Film industry?
Well it came mostly by accident as a lot of jobs seem to in this business. I worked in cable TV on the East Side of LA for about 4 years, working my way to being an executive, a Marketing Director. It deviated from what I wanted to be doing. Through a series of circumstances I left my job in cable. I just wanted to work in film. Reaching a tipping point in my life at the age of 26 where, I didn’t know anything about it, but I wanted to work in films. So, I stared working wherever I could, as a production assistant and any kind of work that I could get. I then met a commercials Director, and he asked me to help him do a little short film he was working on for his reel. That was my first real education into bigger budget film, even though it was a 100’000US$ short film, a relatively small project at the time.
This lead to a full time job at a commercials production company in Hollywood. That was a huge introduction to a new world. What I learned from these folks there was mostly what is called ‘table top’ commercials, a lot of food stuff and toys that require product shots. The guy who trained me was a producer and AD; He did both. That is kind of how I learned. You handle everything in the office and then on the day you run the set as well. On occasions when we did bigger jobs he would hire an AD but he would do most of it himself. I stayed there for about a year and Production coordinated commercials, production managed commercials, directed a small music video and so on. Back then, I though I wanted to be a director, as most people in this business seem to think.
After a year, I was ready to move into narrative, I ran into an old friend of mine I used to work with on Cable TV. He had a script that he wanted to make and he had raised about 30’000 US$ to make this little family film about a boy who’s dog is dognapped. He asked me if I would help him on it, and I said: sure I would love to work with you on it as a co-producer but I also would like to be the AD. So that I would be close to the creatives and learn more about being a Director. That was my first job as a 1st AD. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I had been around and thought I did an ok job. That lead to a crew from that job recommending me to another guy; another freebie. So I did another freebie. After that I did another job where I got payed 500 US$ for the whole movie (a month and a half worth) I was lucky enough to be in a situation where I could do that. I was 27, maybe 28, I did not have a lot of expenses. I was not raising a family or anything. So, I was able to work cheap.
I still wanted to be a director, so I started to find being a 1st AD kind of frustrating. I ended up making my way into production management and line producing. Did that for a while. Line produced a couple of film and was a production executive at a small company. I started developing projects, with a partner trying to raise money for films as more of a creative producer. After 2 years of doing that and getting nothing significant off the ground. I left and was crazy in debt, thinking: well I guess I have to get back to work. It had been 5-6 years since I had been a 1st AD, except the occasional commercial.
A commercial director that I had worked with told me about a TV series, a very very low budget TV series. He was going to direct an episode and asked me to be the 1st AD. The pay was just horrible. I remember I told myself I would take any jobs because I have to pay my credit cards off. That led to another job, and another job, a couple more features and a 70mm project.
Then the features started to get bigger and better, getting more and more work as a First AD. That allowed me to start travelling. I did a movie in Cleveland Ohio, prepped a movie in Oregon. A couple of bigger jobs in LA. The next big break was when I got hired to be the AD on Monster. That was the first film that I had done that had really received any kind of note. Obviously Charlize Theron won the Academy award for her work for that project and that was a big boost for the resume.
Years later after number of other projects as a first A.D. in New York, Chicago and other cities, my ex-partner raised most of the money with myself and other people to produce a movie about the Taiwanese political situation from the 40s until the 80s, Formosa Betrayed. I left the project in post due to serious creative differences. They decided for me to leave the project. It wasn’t really amicable but we both felt it was the right thing to do. The film never really achieved any notes, never made any money, the investors never made their money back and that was too bad, it could have been a good film. So, I was back in a world of being a 1st AD again. [That eventually led to working on the Artist and many other projects. David’s phone rings again. It seems more work always find the 1st AD]
Would you ever consider going back to Producing?
If the circumstances were right… Sometimes as a First AD, when things go particularly well you might hear the Director or the Producer telling you: “hey, we might have something for you… to be involved on our next project in a larger capacity.” It’s hard not to be interested in that stuff. The money is better, you get to do what you really want. You do not have to deal with the ‘moron’ producer, you become the ‘moron’ producer.
I would need a script that I am passionate about, with a director that I am familiar with and have respect for. That anyone who is involved in the project is doing it for the right reasons. They understand it is a business and that we are not going to do an obscure Art Film. Also, there must be a place I can take it to get the funding. I am not going to pound the pavement in this market anymore. I will not go to a company that are a bunch a scumbag and sell my soul because I will eventually just be unhappy.
A bit of self promotion?
I do not have a website. I’m fairly low key. I like freedom, independence and freelance. It really works for me. I do not like to blow my horn. I always thought my actions would speak for me. I certainly have my faults and my complications and weaknesses, things that piss people off.
There is still going to be an outlet for creative expression in this business. You can be productive and having fun, make things while you travel and see the world and get paid to do it. It’s not bad. You work with interesting people and the jobs do not last forever which is nice. You will come across some incredible scumbags and you will come across some people with amazing integrity, honourable and honest people. You have all those same elements digging ditches, so I rather be making movies.
No, I’m fine.