Takahide Kawakami has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. The Japanese-born 2nd AD remembers playing in front of his family's TV while his mother, an avid film buff, watched classics like Michael Powell's Stairway to Heaven and Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait. "She just plopped me down with my crayons to draw," Kawakami laughs, "and I'd follow along with the stories."
Twenty-three years later, after Kawakami moved to New York to complete a marketing degree, the movie gods again found him. "A friend called looking for someone bilingual to be an interpreter for the crew of a Japanese bank commercial," he recalls. "The first morning I saw an older gentleman come out from a town car and go into the makeup truck. When he came out it was Paul Newman. I was completely starstruck!"
Convinced that movies were his destiny, Kawakami phoned the location manager, who told him to get more work on sets so he could join the DGA. Commercial jobs followed, as did his Guild card. But it was just plain old good timing that propelled him up the ranks. "I had been working as a 2nd 2nd," he says, "when I got a call from [1st AD] Michael Steele asking if I wanted to get on the next plane to Vancouver. He needed a new 2nd AD by morning, 12 days into a 38-day schedule."
Kawakami made plenty of mistakes on that first shoot, Beautiful Joe. But he says the pressure of learning on the fly served him well. Although he returns often to visit his family in Japan, he's only worked once in his native country—as the 1st AD on Lost in Translation. Mostly he's worked in his adopted home of New York. For an action sequence on I Am Legend, he helped ensure that eight midtown blocks on Sixth Avenue were empty of people while a stunt driver tore down the streets in a Shelby Mustang GT500. On Changing Lanes, he led a convoy of background vehicles on the opposite side of a car accident being staged on the FDR Drive.
"One of the main jobs of a 2nd AD is to prepare the extras and set the backgrounds," he explains. "I just finished The Women [directed by Diane English] where every single cast member had to be female. So in the opening scene, a character walks down Fifth Avenue and into Saks to go shopping. We had to ensure there was not a single male face in the frame on one of the busiest corners in New York City."