First A.D. Babylon – the pitfalls and the rare pleasures of a role less rewarding

Mexican food is my comfort food. I have eaten a lot of Mexican food lately. I’ve needed a lot of comforting. I’ve been working recently as a first Assistant Director, or “First Bitch” as I like to call the role. It’s rough – one of the steepest and least rewarding learning curves I’ve ever had to negotiate.

I think I eat Mexican mostly for the Horchata, which is a rice milk drink, flavored with cinnamon, served on ice. It's soothing after you've loaded up your burrito “con todos” then dipped it in the green sauce and crunched a few radishes on the way. Many taquerias make their own Horchata – if they do, there's usually a bit of grain at the bottom. That's how you can tell it's real. T-Shirt

(Get the T-Shirt)

Your job is to support and assist the director, and coordinate the different departments, to ensure that all the shots you need get done, and the director is free to focus on the actors. You need to allow for artistic license, while making sure that no time is wasted. A mediocre shot is better than no coverage at all. But this is a hard truth. This makes the job torture for creative people, and hard to do in a creative environment.

No first A.D. expects to be liked, and luckily thanks to having realistic expectations, I don’t really expect to be liked in my general life – so I’m probably ideally suited to the work. But every first A.D. Expects to be allowed to do their job – and that expectation isn’t always fulfilled. In fact, since the organization and time-keeping on set falls to the A.D., it’s very hard to delimit the job. On a good day, it’s like herding cats. On a bad day, it’s like herding retarded cats.

Here’s my quick guide to surviving the job of First A.D. On an independent or student film set.

PRE-PRODUCTION
Do as much as you can of this. If you can get this right, you’re golden. It’s magic. You’re sorted.

Meet with the Director in advance
This is the best way to figure out if they’re a sociopath or a flake. Most directors are one or the other and it’s important that you are prepared to deal with the consequences of either tendency. In the rare case that the director is neither, congratulations: your life, briefly, doesn’t suck.

Meet with the Director of Photography (ideally with Director present) ideally at the location(s)
The best reason to do this is so that you can get The Shotlist – or at the very least, an overhead diagram showing camera / lighting setups for the shoot. That way you have a hope in hell of being able to put together a viable schedule for the shoot. Of course, it’s often impossible to meet with the D.P., and if you do, and if they have seen the location and are able to put together a shot list or better still, schedule, you’re a lucky, lucky A.D.

Figure out what the producer thinks their job entails
Many student producers I’ve run into (I know of about 5 exceptions, all of whom I respect immensely) seem to think the work of a producer involves going to the most obvious location they can think of, asking to book it, filling out a couple of forms, and then charging the director for the costs without bothering to negotiate them much. If you’re lucky, they’ll also handle food and craft services on set. The producer should be doing a lot more than that… although I’m not too sure what at this point, since I’ve never actually had a producer. It’s one of those roles that people interpret as they please. Just make sure you know what is being taken care of and what you’ll have to take care of. If the director is the producer, great. At least they give a shit. However, try to make sure they’ve taken care of everything before the shoot starts and ensure there’s a set producer to pick up any loose ends on the day of the shoot.

Small things make people happy. If someone's having a birthday on set, get whoever fetches lunch to get them cake. If someone's nice to you, smile. It matters. I couldn't have survived my most recent job without the friendliness of some crew members - particularly the D.P.

Put the essential info about the shoot not only in the call sheet, but also in the body of your email to cast and crew members.
This will make them less likely to read the call sheet. That’s the down side. The upside is that they probably wouldn’t have read it anyhow (exception here: actors, cause they want to see what order they’re billed in and whether their name is correctly spelled). The even bigger upside is that when they get lost/confused etc they’ll be able to use their smartphone to look up the basic info: location address, and your phone number so they can call to ask you for directions instead of googling them before leaving home.

ON SET

Introduce everybody, learn their names, and use their names
I made the mistake of referring to the production designer on a set as P.D. As in “Can we get P.D. In here?” While valid and natural, it’s also rude and made me sound like a dick. So it’s “Can [P.A. Name] get [P.D. Person Name] in here.” In the safety meeting at the beginning of the day, make everyone give their names, what they’re doing there, and something about themselves. It’s just nice to know who you’re dealing with, and a great way to put faces to the names in the call sheet. Also make sure the director gets a chance to say hi to everyone. You rely on them taking charge, so help them do so. The worst thing you can do (and I’ve made this mistake) is forget that this is their set, not yours. This applies even if they’re useless.

Figure out how to make people shut up without shouting at them.
This is the thing I need to work on. If it were legal, I’d just Tazer noisy people. (There’s a reason I don’t have kids. One kid can ruin an entire beach for 400 people by crying all day. Why are there no kid-free beaches?) There’s nothing more exhausting, and counterproductive in a creative environment, than shouting at people to shut the hell up. At the same time, there’s nothing more time-consuming and distracting for those that are actually WORKING than idle set chatter. The odd joke is nice. Lots of jokes during wrap are almost essential – you’re so tired that everything is funny. But noise is stressful, annoying and just creates more noise.

Ask, don’t tell.
This is a good rule for life in general. The other rule is to do it offline. Whenever expressing a strong opinion or getting someone to do something differently, try to get them alone. If you suggest a change in role or strategy to someone in front of the whole crew, they may find it undignified. If they know about it because you took them aside and said “Hey, I see you’re not too busy and we’re short of hands. Would you mind very much if I asked you to sprinkle water on this / assist the production designer until you’re needed as grip again” then it’ll almost certainly be fine. Human beings (that includes me and you) are confused by sudden change. Give them warning and they are capable of evolution and multitasking.

Deal with the set Know It All the first time they start with their crap
It’s easy to spot the set “know it all” on an indy set. They’re usually the aging male lead, slightly past their prime, very experienced but ultimately a ZZZ-lister. And it’s not hard to see why: They’re annoying. They will reveal themselves early by doing one of the following: a. Bringing script revisions to set rather than suggesting them beforehand. b. directing other actors on behalf of the director and c. badmouthing the A.D. or director to the crew – usually by implying that any attempt to keep the clock is a sign that they don’t care about the quality of the film. No matter how hard you are working, they’ll find something to point out that you could be doing better, because they’ve seen how wrong things can go, and they’re just waiting for it to happen to them again. Because they’re very experienced. Best way to deal with them? Odd answer! Listen to them. If you don’t have time, find someone who will. They usually just want a sounding board for endless stories about “the time they worked with so-and-so” and how, as an extra, they helped re-write American Beauty, or something. If they’re not total assholes, the director might be able to work it out – this behavior is sometimes an indication of nerves about the role (a director I trust told me this). If the actor is in fact your most annoying uncle come back to haunt your set, try giving them to the 2ndA.D. (if you’re lucky enough to have one) or the make-up and hair person (for perpetual “last looks”). Anything that keeps them away from the D.P. And makes them feel important is good.

Don’t freak out
This is very hard sometimes. Things you should expect to deal with are a. missing permits, location agreements, crew and so on – most of this should be the producer’s problem, but by the time you’re on set, it’s yours too. b. D.P.s and lighting guys taking twice as long on setups as planned (I usually remind them that the trade-off may mean cutting a favorite tricky shot later, which is mean, but also the truth). c. Locations that are unsanitary (flake-type directors) – I’ve twice had to clean someone’s apartment, and once got shouted at for breaking a glass while washing their dishes d. Locations that are dangerous (psycho directors) or illegal shots (flake or psycho). e. Lack of shotlist, schedule, overheads, lined script. Most of these will be missing on most student sets, or so badly done that you would rather they were missing. I am pretty good in the Don’t Freak Out category. But at a certain point, everybody will crack, so if you’re a director of producer or D.P. reading this, take pity on your A.D. – being the asshole is hard enough without you competing.

Don't ask. JUST DON'T OKAY.


Find a safe place to go.

This relates to not freaking out. Whatever works for you is good. The safe place should not involve other people – the danger that they will tell you something that makes it worse or that you will say something you later regret is too great. I once ran away after a director burst into tears and stormed off set when I pointed out that her location agreement didn’t cover the street outside her location as well. In the rather filthy green room, I found crew member, who was avoiding the actor. He told me that the lead actor was whining about me to everyone. His intention was to say that he disagreed, but it spun me out worse. I wish I’d never known what the actor thought. L.A. Insincerity is vapid, but functional. To my face, he said I was a great A.D. and he was deeply grateful. He was annoying and not particularly talented, so the danger I’d ever work with him again or as a director was not high. Anyway. Whatever it takes to keep your cool, do it… A call to a friend off set. A shrink. Horchatas. A song on your ipod. The serenity prayer. ‘ludes. Find that thing.

Half the lights went out. This is where you don't want to be for lunch as an A.D. Why? Because the producer (myself, in this case, as I was director/producer) didn't check if it had a toilet.

WHEN YOU GO HOME TO CRY

And finally… Don’t expect to be perfect.
The actor who was whining about me was right. The people who told me I was great and meant it were right too. The inner adult in me that was saying I sucked was right, too. The truth is somewhere in between… your ability to be a good A.D. isn’t all up to you. It depends how many problems you have to deal with. Being the timekeeper on a set is like being the accountant at a newspaper. Everybody hates you when times are tough and you have to do bad things, but they wouldn’t get it done without you. Everybody loves you when things are easy. But they need you. On one set I worked, nobody would have gotten paid if it weren’t for me, either. When you’ve had a rough day, resist the urge to accidentally invite criticism by trying to deal with personal or other problems when you get home. People like to kick you when you’re down. Go home. Stay off facebook and chat. Read a book while the caffeine wears off. Cry into your pillow. Get some sleep. You’ll need all your energy to save the next day.

A random place. Side of the road. Just one of millions.

I have made every mistake in the book. Learn from mine, not your own. Good luck. And oh… here’s a recipe for horchata

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