Hello ladies and gentlemen, your pal Muldoon here with a fun (and hopefully informative) new column, MEET THE CREW. If you've ever wondered what a Production Designer does, or a DP, or an AD, or exactly what it takes to be a Prop Master... well, then this column is for you. It's a combination of interesting stories, advice for indie filmmakers, and ultimately a way to shed some light on folks who rarely get rocognized for their work. So while I'm truly interested in seeing interviews with film directors and actors, I just want a little extra... to go just a hair deeper into how some of my favorite movies get created. So this week we've got a pretty cool guy with a job that's absolutely crucial to running an efficient set, a 1st Assistant Director. So let's hop on in and find out what makes a 1st AD click.
BRIAN MCQUERY - 1st ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
As a First Assistant Director, what types of duties fall on your shoulders during pre-production and then production? In short, "what exactly is it you do here?"
As a First Assistant Director (1st A.D.), I see my responsibilities broken down into three areas - ensuring that the film is shot on schedule and on budget, ideally to the satisfaction of Director, D.P., and Producers, maintain safety on the set, and keep cast and crew morale high. I'm not a yeller, though when we shoot exteriors, I can project and you will hear me. I treat everyone with respect. I do my absolute best to communicate to everyone so that all of the departments know what we are doing. I try to keep the mood reasonably light so that we can have fun while we do our work. But if the fun gets in the way, I have no problem stopping it.
As for pre-production, that can be very tough because most of the time there is little to no budget for me. Which is pretty crazy. While at times I've been given a week or even two for prep, I would guess on average it's about three days. In that time I have to break the screenplay down into a very detailed schedule. Then sit with the Director and D.P. and talk through each scene, hopefully get a shot list from them that we can organize into a shooting order. We will have at least one pre-production meeting with all the department heads where we walk through the screenplay and schedule to address all of the concerns, solve problems, etc. Then hopefully we will tech scout the locations with the department heads, which means we go to each location where we will be filming and walk through the set so that everyone knows in the actual space what is required of them. As you can probably tell, that is almost impossible to do in three days.
One of the biggest mistakes I see from indie filmmakers is their resistance to do a detailed shot list. I always insist on one and I usually do it in front of the producers, stressing how important it is for us to be efficient and move quickly. Typically I am told yes, they will do a shot list and most of the time if they deliver anything, it is incomplete. One excuse would be, "I need to feel it on set with the actors." That's a nice thought. And if you have the time and money to allow you to do that, that's fine. But that can often result in a Director feeding me one setup at a time or not thinking a sequence through causing us to go back to something after we have already done a turnaround to shoot the other side of the set. The way I work best is with a detailed shot list of every setup that the Director, DP and I have organized into a shooting order based on lighting or any other variables. Then when you get to set, you block, light, rehearse, shoot. But if I walk on set each day knowing exactly what we are shooting and in what order, not only can I provide copies of that list to the department heads, but I can answer their questions. When a Director doesn't know what they want to do or keeps me in the dark, they are essentially keeping everyone in the dark and making me much less effective because I don't know what we're doing next.
While the audience will never see my work on screen, an A.D. can certainly affect the quality of the film. If you have a bad A.D. who is disorganized an wastes a lot of time in your shooting day, the result is less takes, less setups, maybe scenes that never get filmed. A great A.D. maximizes time for the creative part of the day so that the Director and actors never feel rushed and are able to perform the scenes to the best of their abilities and even have time to explore. And if the A.D. keeps the morale high and the stress low, the end result is likely better too.
While set life can be a whole lot of “hurry up and go,” what do you consider the most enjoyable parts of your position? On the other hand, what are some universal duties of a 1st AD that you find rather mundane?
The most enjoyable part of my job is working with smart, talented people and being part of the making of a good or even great film. And secondly working with actors you admire. Being a 1st A.D., I am often at the monitor with the Director. One vivid memory was working with the brilliant actor, Lennie James. There was a long sequence in the screenplay that was cut up by flashbacks. But if you removed those flashbacks, you essentially had one long scene. So to be efficient, I suggested shooting all of that together in each setup, even though in the screenplay it would be indicated as multiple scene numbers. So when we got to Lennie's close-up, it went on for about 10 minutes. And a lot of that was just him listening. And I remember the Director and I being mesmerized by Lennie. After the take, I said, "Why would you ever cut away from that?" There was another setup with Lennie where the actress playing his girlfriend wasn't available for some reason, so I sat in off-camera and "played" his girlfriend. Having to look at me as his girlfriend shows you how good of an actor he is!
The least enjoyable part is waiting. And waiting. And waiting. The thing you wait the most for is lighting. So it is a joy when I get to work with a talented D.P. who knows what he is doing and who has hired a talented crew. But if things go wrong, you can be waiting for Art Department to finish a set, or get you the props, or for an actor to get through hair, makeup and wardrobe. It is my responsibility to schedule all of the elements required in a scene and to bring them together so that we can shoot them. That involves a lot of planning and juggling and relying on my AD team and really all of the departments to deliver on time. When it is a long lighting setup, I will step off set when I can and have someone there in my place in case the lighting crew needs anything.
I remember one feature where the DP would estimate how long lighting would take and it always took longer. I stepped out, had my 2nd AD there on set, and went to craft services. A short time later, but still within his estimate, the D.P. came out to craft services. This isn't unusual, D.P.'s need a break too. So we're standing there having a snack at craft services and the lead actress who also happened to be a producer asks, "What are we waiting for?". The D.P. says, "Nothing, we're lit and ready." I turn to him and say, "I'm standing right next to you and you couldn't tell me that?" Nor did he tell my 2nd AD who was on set with him before he walked out. At the end of the day, that falls on me and makes me look bad. So it's a fine line with the D.P. If you hover over them and constantly ask them how long, you create a terrible rapport and probably cause delays because you're not letting them think or focus. But you can't just tune out and let them take forever either. Hopefully you develop a trust where they provide you with realistic estimates and you check in with them just enough to know if they are on track.
Do you typically get an assistant, 2nd AD or Production Assistants or otherwise? I guess a better question is on average, based on your experiences, how much help do you get at each level of a film’s budget? I assume the bigger the budget, the more assistants and help, but I’m not really sure when it comes to AD world.
On any indie feature, I insist on a 2nd AD, 2nd 2nd AD and Key PA because it's just not practical to go without that core team. I also insist that I get to hire those people. Though just because I "insist" doesn't mean I get what I want. I have turned down jobs when I was only allowed one additional A.D. team hire. At this point I know how the process works and what's required to be efficient. And when I'm able to hire a team of people who I'm familiar with and with whom I have a shorthand, it benefits the film. When it's a 2nd AD with whom you have worked with for a while, they know exactly how to prepare call sheets and they already understand and anticipate your expectations, so that takes a huge burden off of me and allows me to focus on set on the scene we are shooting. But you still have plenty of productions who want to plug interns or friends or whoever into these positions. I have worked as both a 1st and 2nd AD and many productions really either underestimate or don't understand what a 2nd AD does. The 2nd AD is really the hub of communication to the entire cast and crew. That person is working ahead of you informing everyone what we're doing, where they need to be when, confirming that everything the production needs will be there as planned. Beyond that core team, the bigger the shoot day or overall production, you typically get to hire more P.A.'s and sometimes an additional 2nd 2nd AD if there are a lot of background performers.
How did you end up becoming an AD in the first place? Did you go to film school? Was there anyone in particular in your life who helped give you that “first break?” Are there any mentors who helped show you the ropes?
I did not go to film school. And it's not something I regret. It is important to learn your craft and to continually learn and improve and there are many ways to do that - reading books and screenplays, watching movies, DVD commentaries and behind the scenes, going to Q&A's, working on sets, etc. What I see as the biggest benefit to film school is meeting like minded people who you can make films with. Luckily once I left telemarketing and began making films, I was introduced to a bunch of filmmakers at Columbia College and got that benefit without attending the school.
My path to being an A.D. was really backwards. I started writing and directing short films and was working with a solid crew around me. Then right around the same time, two people asked me for help as an A.D. on their projects. One was Karl Sundstrom. He's a multi-hyphenate - actor, writer, director, musician. He composed the scores for most of my short films. He was starting work on his feature, ALL HALLOWS, and had a shoot day coming up with Brinke Stevens. So I helped him prep, got some of my crew to help and we shot with Brinke. During the shoot, she told me I was a really good A.D. and asked how long I had been doing it. I told her it was my first day ever. She was surprised and I was flattered considering how many sets she has worked on. Dimitri Moore produced a bunch of my shorts and was directing a music video, so I was his A.D. on that. Then I began picking up A.D. gigs where I could in Chicago and built a resume. My only real mentor was not in the film industry. Randy Greenberg was my boss in my telemarketing days and through his belief in me I gained a ton of experience that would serve me well when I decided to direct films instead of telemarketing.
Once I moved to L.A., being an A.D. was really a means to an end. The end goal is to write and direct features. Being an A.D. was a job that would pay my bills while being on set in the thick of things, working with filmmakers that I could hopefully learn from, and working with cast and crew so that I could build my own database of people for my films. Now once I have financing for a film, I have a pool of talented crew people in every department whom I have worked with to draw upon to crew up my film. And I also know tons of actors whether they be well known or unknown and I know which ones are easy to work with and which ones can be a handful.
Is there any project in particular you are proud of? If you had to pick, what three films would you say you’re the most proud of and why?
While I was the 2nd A.D. on this one, I really enjoyed THE BUTTERFLY ROOM. As the 2nd A.D., you are typically in an office or a trailer and your experience on the shoot has almost nothing to do with what is happening in front of the camera. So you really have no idea if things are going well or not. We had a great cast on that one, which was really fun for me to interact with. I got to see the film last year at the Laemmle NoHo 7 and I was impressed. Afterwards I moderated a Q&A with Director Jonathan Zarantonello and Heather Langenkamp.
BAD ASS starring Danny Trejo turned out better than I expected. I watched it on cable with my Mom last year and it was fun. That was a strange experience for me because through a bizarre set of circumstances I was hired at the end of day one of production to take over as 1st A.D. So I was not involved in any of the prep and had to play catch up the entire time. But I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with that cast specifically Danny Trejo, Charles Dutton, Ron Perlman and Winter Ave Zoli.
DROP DEAD GORGEOUS was another fun shoot that turned into a fun movie. I enjoyed working with Writer/Director Philip Alderton. I loved working with Vernon Wells. He's a fantastic guy full of great stories. And I got to work with a really cool cast including Jeremy London, Steven Berkoff, Dawn Olivieri, Josh Coxx, Nicholas Irons, Natasha Alam and Kirsten Berman. We actually did the table read for that one in the house I was living in at the time. I remember being blown away by how good Dawn Olivieri was that night. It was clear that she was going places. She's currently on Showtime's HOUSE OF LIES with Don Cheadle and she's great on it.
Is there a shot/sequence/set that you can point to and say, “It’s that way because I was there and had it of been anyone else, it would have been different.” Not necessarily good or bad, but possibly something a lot of us movie fans would have seen and can find a little more appreciation out of. As in, did you make a call to move forward when a director wasn’t going to make his/her day?
I was working on day two of a feature and things were already not going well. Overall we didn't nearly have enough money to make the film. But beyond that the Gaffer refused to pre-light a set even though I scheduled plenty of time for him. And nothing I or the Producers said seemed to matter to him. So he finally lit the set for a complicated sequence that involved half a dozen principal actors. We have one hour till wrap, two cameras and tons of coverage to shoot. It was a first time Director who was having trouble on set blocking and explaining what he wanted. Luckily he did a ton of prep and was very clear to me what he wanted. The scene started with a poker game and broke out into a fight. One character was not playing. He was sitting off by himself whittling. But he had lines and was involved in the scene. The Director announced that he didn't need any coverage of that actor. The actor was obviously not pleased. I explained to the Director that coverage of that actor was essential because if he got into any trouble in the editing room with parts of the fight not matching, he could always cut away to that character. He was the "cat" that you cut away to which can save you in the editing room. Time was running out and once it was clear that the Director was not able to act quickly enough to explain what he wanted, I stepped in. Some might say I overstepped my bounds, but I knew what he wanted and was looking out for the film. So I told the D.P. what to shoot with each camera. We shot a few takes until the Director was happy, then I repositioned the cameras after he got what he wanted from each setup and we banged out the scene in that hour and wrapped on time. A funny epilogue to that story… The Director was fired after day three. The D.P., Camera, Grip and Electric crews were fired after day five. That remains the most bizarre and difficult shoot I've ever worked on.
As you are a part of a giant team, what are things that help your department/position run more smoothly? Meaning, while staying on the positive, what are things you rely on in terms of making sure you’re covered and able to do your best? Also considering the 1st AD is pretty much the director’s right-hand man/woman, what are some mistakes you’ve seen other departments do in the past – things that have stalled a day or things that could have been done more efficiently?
The main thing that helps my team's efficiency is information. That primarily comes from the Director and his/her ability to translate their vision to me. But I need any and all logistical information - we have to wrap out of this location by this time, this actor has to wrap by this time, this element won't be ready until this time, etc. It is all a giant puzzle. Initially you make a schedule that is the ideal way to shoot the movie. Then you modify it with every piece of information, requirement, restriction that you are given until you produce something that should work based on all the information you have. There is nothing worse than last minute surprises that could have been addressed and solved long before you get to set and are ready to shoot.
Here are some things I've encountered that have caused major delays, some are clearly avoidable, some are clearly not. On a Western, our horses were attacked by hornets and a bunch of ran into to pull the horses out of there and several crew were stung as well. On a period movie, there was some ridiculous miscommunication and all of the extras showed up but there was no wardrobe for them. I was told that they were supposed to provide their own period wardrobe. But if that was true, I would expect that our Costume Designer would have wanted to see it in advance and approve it. Had that happened, we would have found out that they in fact had nothing to show and there was no wardrobe. I've had a generator go down in a remote location, which basically ended our day early. The crew went on strike during one feature. Sets not being completed on time or elements of them being done wrong. Art department going on a run for gas and taking a key prop with them in the trunk that I needed for the current set.
While a slow D.P. with a mediocre lighting crew, or even a good D.P. without an insufficient sized lighting crew is often the main thing that costs time on set, I don't think enough emphasis is placed on the Hair and Makeup team. When you have a great team that works efficiently and connects well with your cast, you start your days in a very good place. But there are times where they are talented but incredibly slow and unable to give you real estimates on how long they will take. There are times when they are not talented and slow. I had a situation on a feature with a large ensemble cast where things were not going well during the first week with the Key Makeup artist. I strongly suggested to the Director and Producer that we fire her and bring in a team that I had worked with before. They agreed and we made the change. Early on in week two, several actors came up to me thanking me because the previous woman made them feel uncomfortable. They loved the new team. Cast morale shot up and our efficiency improved dramatically. It's no fun to fire someone, but if they are not effectively doing the job and you are shooting a feature in a handful of weeks, make a change. You are not obligated to keep them for the duration if they can't deliver.
Another bizarre delay was on a feature where we had a honeywagon for our "name" actors. A honeywagon is a large trailer with multiple rooms of equal size. To my knowledge we had a favored nations deal with our "name" actors, meaning that they each got a room in the honeywagon of equal size. One morning one of our "names" arrives on set and demands his own 35 foot trailer or he won't begin work. The Producers tell me about the situation and the fact that now I can't shoot him until I resolve this. My first question was, "Don't you have a signed contract with him with a favored nations deal?" I just got blank stares. A few hours later, his trailer arrived. The lesson to be learned there is to make sure all of those contracts are signed before you start shooting. Losing even half a day with one of your "name" actors on a small indie is something you might never recover from. You might have to cut scenes or rewrite, but that can in many ways compromise your film. After that this actor was pretty easy to work with. He has a huge ego. No doubt about that. His wife was a sweetheart and within a day or two, knew most of our names and would greet us by name each morning. It's nice when talent knows your name. I've had bets with other crew members at times that certain actors did not know my name even though I was 1st A.D. and I was interacting with them regularly each day.
Have you worked with any director who you’ve absolutely loved? Someone who was easy to work with and at the end of the day delivered an incredible film?
I really enjoyed working with Danielle Harris on AMONG FRIENDS. Danielle is a talented actor and I've been a fan for a long time. I met her through Jennifer Blanc, and Danielle and Jennifer asked me to A.D. the film. Danielle and I got along very well and even carpooled to set for the shoot. If you meet her and have even a brief conversation with her, it's clear how intelligent she is. I expect that she will direct again and when she has the right material and the proper resources to execute it, I have high hopes for the result.
Can you share any stories from the trenches? Any specific moment in your career that’s stuck with you ever since?
Through sort of a unique turn of events where I was trying to get Michael Biehn and Jennifer Blanc attached to one of my features, I got a call one morning asking if I could come to Michael and Jennifer's house to help them prep THE VICTIM. I've been a huge fan of Michael's since I was a kid and had only met him briefly before this and had only started getting to know Jennifer. Then suddenly I'm sitting with Michael at his kitchen table helping him prep THE VICTIM. It was very surreal, though very fun. I've since worked with them several times and gotten to know them and their families well. And there is nothing more fun than hanging out with them in their living room and hearing Michael tell stories. And score one for me, once at a party I even got Michael laughing so hard he fell out of his chair.
I worked with Heather Langenkamp on THE BUTTERFLY ROOM. After a week or so I confessed that I was a huge fan of hers. CUT TO lunch one day. I was sitting with some crew members and Heather walked by. Someone asked, "Weren't you Nancy?" I interjected, "Who's Nancy?" very sarcastically. And without missing a beat, Heather said, "Oh please, Brian, I know you sleep with a Freddy doll." That brought the house down. It's not every day someone you've admired since you were a kid scores such a great put down on you. But let me be clear, Heather is not mean. She is a very sweet, cool lady with a good sense of humor and I thought it was hilarious.
When I was hired onto BAD ASS, I had no idea what it would be like to work with Danny Trejo. I had been a fan for years and he typically plays really scary dudes. And I knew he had been in prison when he was younger as well. I quickly found that Danny is just a warm, fun guy who appreciates his career and loves to work. And he takes acting much more seriously than most people seem to give him credit for. After a few days he told me that he was grateful that I was there and he loved the tone and atmosphere on set and really appreciated me for that. Which is as great a compliment as you get as a 1st A.D.
During week two, we were shooting in a residential neighborhood and base camp was several miles away. So I had to call for the actors to be transported in a passenger van and time it the best I could. I always err on the side of early, because you don't want to be lit and ready to shoot and not have any actors. So each day that week Danny came up to me complaining that we weren't ready when he got there. I apologized and explained it would only be a few minutes, but each time he did not seem very happy. And he gave me the cold shoulder. At the end of the week, I was at base camp talking to the Transpo Captain and Danny came over. Uh oh. He put his arm around me and said, "I've been messing with this guy all week, trying to get him to break and he doesn't break. He just keeps his cool." I was stunned and Danny laughed. We had a great time for the rest of the shoot. I got him to come to the New Beverly Cinema shortly after that and introduce a midnight screening of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. He was texting with Robert Rodriguez and it was 2:00 AM Robert's time and he was reading some of Robert's texts about the making of the film.
I was lucky enough to work with Joe Mantegna, who is just an amazing guy. We are both from Chicago, so we bonded instantly, especially over Chicago style deep dish pizza. At the time his restaurant in Burbank, Taste Chicago, had just started making deep dish. Well one night he was wrapped and I was going to walk him back to base camp. Second meal had just come and it was pizza, so before we left the location, I told him there was pizza and he grabbed a slice. We got into the elevator and Joe tried the pizza. He deadpanned, "This pizza's not terrible." And cracked us all up.
I worked with Chris Backus on a Western called YELLOW ROCK. And he and I got along really well. We had a young, energetic P.A. who everyone adored and when I called for her to bring Chris to set, he teasingly said no. I was at the set which was up an incline from where they were at the bottom, so I could see them. And I told her via walkie to get him there no matter what, take his hand and walk him, carry him, etc. Now Chris is about 6'5" and she's about five foot nothing. So I walked down the incline, picked up Chris fireman style over my shoulder and carried him up the incline and put him down on his mark. He was stunned as was everyone else as we looked around. But it was a really funny moment. There were a lot of funny moments on that set because it turns out that James Russo is a great impressionist. He had Chris, myself and Michael Biehn laughing hysterically at times.
I am a huge practical joker though I don't do it very often on film sets. But one that I was witness to was amazing. We were working in a warehouse type of location and the 2nd 2nd AD found a mannequin somewhere. And she and the PA's did various things with it, placed it in the restroom, strapped a walkie talkie to it and startled people when it seemed like it was talking. But the best thing was the final one. It was the last day of shooting this feature and it was a really, really long day. We had an intern that we nicknamed "Harvard" because that's where she went to school. So somehow the 2nd 2nd AD got Harvard's car keys and put the mannequin in the driver's seat of her car. So we wrapped and most of the crew was gone, it was very early morning by now and the 2nd 2nd AD suddenly remembered that the mannequin was in the car. She had put it there hours ago. So we told Harvard that she could leave and then three us of peek around the corner of the building like the Scooby Gang and watch her approach her car. There was morning dew, so her windshield was obscured. She got to the driver's door, put her key in and suddenly saw a shape of a body in her driver's seat and screamed worthy of a Scream Queen! We all fell on the ground laughing. It was genius.
One practical joke that was all me was on a shoot in San Francisco. A handful of crew was brought from L.A. and that included me, the D.P. and the Sound Mixer. One night we shot out in front of a restaurant and when we wrapped, I saw the Sound Mixer's chair which had his name and company custom embroidered on it. The D.P. and I were carpooling home. I grabbed the chair and tried to jam it into the backseat. And of course was struggling to get it in before I got caught. I finally made it, jumped in the car and we took off for the hotel. For about five miles, we were crying laughing, imagining his reaction. He got the hotel and I set the chair in front of the door to the Sound Mixer's room. I had a line of sight from my room to his door so I kept checking and it was still sitting there. Finally I went to bed. The next morning, I was eating breakfast in the lobby and the Boom Operator joined me. He told me that the Mixer flipped out and was yelling at the Line Producer about loss and damage and how much this custom chair cost. I started laughing and then the Sound Mixer walked in and stared me down with daggers in his eyes. I probably laughed for another 10 minutes. That shoot was the most fun I ever had since several of us from L.A. were staying in a hotel, so we were constantly doing that stuff, betting each other on stupid things, going out together after our work days, etc.
If you didn’t have the position you do now and you did not work in film, what could you see yourself doing for a living?
In my 20's I worked in telemarketing. I was a Director of Telemarketing for a while and had 3 call centers in 2 states. It was incredibly stressful, though ultimately great experience where over the years I did hiring, training, supervising, managing and was ultimately the Director. It was great training for the film world. But all I want to do is tell stories, so it's really hard to think of something else that even comes close to that.
Lastly, what are a few of your more recent projects you’ve worked on?
I haven't worked as much as I would like to lately, partially by design and partially because of personal issues. The design part being I'm trying to get my own projects off the ground as a writer/director. The personal part being I lost my Dad to Leukemia a year ago and as an only child, I've spent a lot of time with my Mom this past year. So I've been doing a lot of writing and planning for my films.
But the last set experience I had was a great one. Rob Soucy is a young filmmaker whom I met when I took over an indie film as 1st AD. He was a P.A. He was new to L.A. I immediately saw how smart and hard working he was and began to mentor him. He worked as 2nd 2nd AD on several projects with me. He is directing music videos now. He was hired to direct a music video for Alkaline Trio's song, "I Wanna Be a Warhol". It was a big project for him and he said he wanted the guy who taught him how to make movies to work with him on it. I was flattered. I would have done it for nothing, but luckily there was some money for me. And then it turns out Milla Jovovich starred in it! I'm a huge fan. She could not have been more down to Earth or easier to work with. We had a lot to do and not a lot of time and she jumped right in with us. She was not looking for any star treatment. Rob and his D.P. very diligently planned what they wanted and communicated that to me and it was a very smooth and fun 2 day shoot.
Lloyd Kaufman's first three rules of filmmaking have always stuck with me - 1) Safety to Humans 2) Safety to Other People's Property 3) Make a Good Movie. (Go buy his book: MAKE YOUR OWN DAMN MOVIE) From what I've seen on random sets, safety is a massive part of the AD's, be it double checking the Armorer's weapons, double checking with Stunts about a gag, or ensuring a Location is safe for crew (taped off areas/clear walkways). What are your thoughts on running a safe set?
In light of the tragedy on the train tracks during the MIDNIGHT RIDER shoot, safety is a big topic. The filmmakers - director and producers - and the 1st A.D. are responsible for what happened on those train tracks. It was clearly irresponsible and totally unsafe. Having said that, every crew member who agreed to work in those conditions is equally responsible. They are all working adults. If in fact they were told that the train tracks are live and if a train comes, we will have 60 seconds to clear the tracks, every one of them should have refused to work in those conditions. I suppose that is easy to say in retrospect because when you're on set, you're trying to serve the film even when the request is outrageous. But it's a movie. It's not worth risking your life. You have to stand up for yourself and say no, this is not safe. If they fire you, believe me they are doing you a favor. There are plenty of other responsible filmmakers you can work with.
As 1st A.D., I'm responsible for safety on set. And when filmmakers have insisted on doing unsafe things, I have protested and walked off set. I even quit once. We were shooting in a park in East L.A. at night. The Producer, who may have been under the influence of a substance, took out a gun and fired it in the air. Then he got in his car and drove away. I contacted the Line Producer, eventually he found the Producer and confronted him. The crew was freaked out. Ultimately I quit and called Film L.A. I explained the situation to the person on call and she said, "He can't do that." I said, "That's why I'm calling. You should pull their permit and shut them down." That was a situation where I got a call to replace the 1st AD who had to leave the project. I took over and this happened on my third day. I later found out there had been tons of safety problems the first week and that's why the previous 1st AD left, though she didn't tell me any of that. I was also never paid for those three days of work.
I had a situation where we were shooting on a side street and the Director and D.P. insisted on setting up dolly track in the middle of the street which would block traffic. We didn't have permission. I protested. They ignored me. I called the Producer and walked off set. I've had situations where actors have cold guns out in public, which still requires a police officer on set. (A cold gun means it can't fire anything, but it still looks real.) We discussed the need for a police officer on set for those days, the day comes, the producer didn't arrange for a police officer, I advise the actors that it's not safe and they agree to do it anyway, so I walk off. I can't be responsible for those unsafe things. A film set is a strange place where everyone wants to serve the film, but it's also reality and it's not worth risking the safety of cast or crew. If you want to setup dolly track in the street, you have to pay to have the street shut down. If you have actors walking around with guns outside, you have to pay for a police officer to be there. But lots of indies want to cut corners and try to get away with things. Even though nothing bad happened in these situations, it's still not worth it.
So it looks like our time's just about up. Do you have any advice for the indie filmmakers out there? Do you have any words of wisdom that might help a future shoot go more smoothly? If so, what are your thoughts?
Before you direct or produce a film, make sure that you have spent some time on set. If you P.A. on one feature, you will learn and absorb a lot of information. Make sure you understand what a grip does versus what an electric does. What an A.C. does. Understand the "works" - makeup, hair, wardrobe. Get on some sets so that you know firsthand how things work.
Beyond that, there are two ways to position yourself to make a successful film. And when I say this, I am putting creativity aside. Obviously you need a great script and wonderful actors and a director with vision. But let's assume you have those elements. Now you need a plan. Most indie films have a screenplay, the filmmakers raise X amount of money and they try to make the film. Unfortunately that X amount in no way relates to how much is needed to shoot that screenplay. X is simply how much they were able to raise. So suddenly you're trying to shoot an epic Western for $250,000. How do you think that is going to go?
So there are two ways to do it properly. One is write a screenplay. Have it broken down into a schedule and budget. Raise that much money and shoot it. If you can't raise enough, then you go back, change or cut things in the screenplay, re-schedule, re-budget until you match up. Or the second way is to raise as much money as you are able to and then write a screenplay tailored to that amount of money. It's harder than you think, but still very possible. Unfortunately, department heads in the indie world are always trying to find that next gig as like everyone else, we have bills to pay. When you get that gig, you may realize that there is no way you can do your job with the budget and resources that they have. But you need the job and you never speak up. And no one speaks up. And everyone does their "best". And somewhere during the shoot, the wheels fall off and reality hits. Sadly, if you do speak up, you probably won't get the job. Or if you speak up once you have it, you are not being part of the team, you're being negative, you don't believe in the film, etc. I hope any indie filmmakers reading this article will take this advice and set themselves up for success.
If there are any indie filmmakers with questions or who need advice, feel free to email me. Better yet, if you need to hire someone to breakdown and schedule your screenplay, or if you are looking to hire a 1st AD for your film, you can reach me through my Website at email@example.com.
Well ladies and gentlemen, that's it for this MEET THE CREW. Hopefully Brian gave you a little insight into what a 1st AD does. Clearly he's one man with his own unique experiences and stories, so hopefully we'll have another AD in the future to share their expeirences as well. I'm incredibly thankful Brian took the time to chat with me about what it means to be a 1st and I hope his answers have been interesting for you folks. He even included his contact, so if you've got questions, comments, or need a script broken down, be sure to check out his website. I'll see guys and gals later, with more Q&A's with filmmakers here on MEET THE CREW. In the mean time, feel free to check out past MTC columns or go hit up SATURDAY SHORTS):
If you work in production, in any aspect (truly!) and would be cool enough to give us film fans a glimpse into the innerworkings of your world, please shoot me an email at Mike@aintitcool with the subject line: "MTC - (Your Name) - (Your Position)"
This column is new and while I'd love it to be an "every Sunday" kind of thing, I have to wait and see first if it should only remain a "first Sunday of every month" kind of thing. Hopefully you ladies and gents got a kick out of today's chat. I'll see you fine folks later. (Now go out and make something awesome!) Be sure to check out past articles:
- Mike McCutchen