After more than two decades in the production trenches, Mark Cotone modestly compares his craft to that of a flight attendant assisting passengers on an airplane. Extending the airline metaphor, he says a movie’s journey is usually bumpy, and occasionally, as in the case of his first job as a 1st AD, a matter of pure survival.
“The movie was Anna Karenina, directed by Bernard Rose, and shot in St. Petersburg, about five years after the Soviet Union collapsed,” he recalls. “It was literally the Wild West; the city was controlled by Russian mobsters and we had to pay the mafia protection money to stay away from our set.”
But that didn’t really work that well, according to Cotone. “The mobsters went over to our production office one day and, at gunpoint, robbed us of all our available cash. So we stopped paying the mafia and hired ex-KGB guys to perimeter our set, which worked out much better.”
Although he’s worked as a 1st AD for prominent directors such as David Lynch, McG, and Wes Craven, Cotone’s introduction to the job was as much practical as artistic. He was working as a production assistant for the PBS KIDS series Reading Rainbow at the time. “We were filming in the winter at the Delaware Water Gap and I was wrapping cable in the pouring rain in 35-degree weather. I looked over and saw the AD standing under the front porch of a house, dry and warm. That’s when I decided to find out what that guy did and how I could get his job.”
Cotone’s youthful epiphany was eventually fulfilled when he headed west to enter the DGA Trainee Program in Los Angeles. His mentor, longtime feature 1st AD Jim Van Wyck, helped Cotone get started down a similar path in features. “That led to working with some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, in or out of the industry,” says Cotone.
One was American History X director Tony Kaye, whose creative curveballs included taking star Beverly D’Angelo—unscripted and unplanned in the middle of a day’s production—down to water’s edge in Venice Beach to skip rocks. “If Tiger Woods wants to putt with his wedge, you don’t question it,” Cotone laughs. “This job is always about balancing the time and budget constraints of the schedule, which the AD puts together, with fulfilling the director’s creative vision.”
And knowing the boss’ workflow in advance doesn’t hurt, either. “I got to know David Lynch while prepping Mulholland Drive,” Cotone explains. “He’s an incredible gentleman, but extremely soft-spoken, and likes to direct with a bullhorn—even during the sex scenes. That kind of stuff could really throw the crew for a loop if I haven’t prepared them in advance.”
But nothing could have prepared Cotone for working on Tropic Thunder last summer in Kauai, which was shot in jungle terrain so inhospitable that roads had to be built just to reach many locations. “It had to be the rainiest place on earth,” he says. And unlike that cozy front porch in the Delaware Water Gap, no one stayed dry, especially the 1st AD.