It’s not every kid whose career epiphany hits like a lightning bolt at London’s legendary Pinewood Studios, watching the filming of Superman II no less. But that’s exactly how it happened for one of Hollywood’s most sought after 1st ADs, Adam Somner, whose résumé before he even crossed the Atlantic included some of the most revered names in the British film industry: the Scott brothers, Roland Joffé, Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Frears, Michael Caton-Jones, and Sir Richard Attenborough.
Somner admits to having a bit of a leg up—his father was head of physical production at MGM’s U.K. studios and his mother was a movie hairstylist (hence the Man of Steel connection). But the happy-go-lucky veteran AD says he’s seized every opportunity that’s come his way.
“On my second job, Duet for One, I met [longtime British ADs] David Tringham and Michael Stevenson, who encouraged and advised me to become an AD. I was just a PA/runner who was meant to work only in the production office. But my boss, the production coordinator, was not a nice person. So every chance I could get I would escape to the set to help out the ADs.”
Somner says he hadn’t really intended on “escaping” his nearly-decade-long run as a 2nd AD, where he often teamed up with Ridley Scott and Scott’s 1st AD, Terry Needham. “I was one of the few U.K.-based 2nd ADs who had been able to join the Guild,” he says, “and I actually turned down offers to become a 1st AD to remain loyal to Ridley and Terry.
“Gladiator, which had all of these huge, amazing crowd sequences,” he continues, “like the opening battle of Germania and then later in the Roman Colosseum, was my last film as a 2nd, before Ridley gave me the chance to move up to 1st on Black Hawk Down. I worked second unit, which was trial by fire to be sure, but what an experience.”
On this side of the pond, Somner has served as Steven Spielberg’s 1st AD on the director’s last five pictures—War of the Worlds, Munich, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War Horse, and The Adventures of Tintin. He’s now in preproduction for Spielberg’s much-anticipated biopic, Lincoln.
Of his close teaming with the world’s most famous filmmaker, Somner cites Munich as the most challenging project of his career. “Re-creating the airfield shootout, where all the Israeli athletes died, was an incredibly intense and emotional sequence,” he recalls. “Technically, and logistically, it was so difficult because we only had one chance to get it right: one helicopter to blow up, one night to shoot it. My assistants and I learned, by rote, the names of the 40-plus Arab and Israeli actors in order to just help pull it off.”
Somner says the way 1st ADs interface between a director’s vision and the practical requirements of a film crew is akin to being “the cartilage between the bones and joints.” He believes his best weapon, on any given day, is a sense of humor. “The ability to defuse tension in tough situations is key to doing this job,” he says.
For instance, on Gladiator Somner staged footraces across the arena and wound up squaring off against Russell Crowe in the finals. “Of course all of the money was on him,” Somner smiles. “He had a personal trainer for the film and was in incredible shape. We were neck and neck for the last 20 yards, when Russell fell, and all the extras and crew went potty. Needham was the bookmaker, so he and I made some extra cash.”
Being from England, where self-depreca-tion seems to be a national character trait, Somner makes a point of not taking himself too seriously on the set. To illustrate his point he recalls the time he was working in costume on Scott’s New World epic 1492. “I was in Columbus’ rowboat so I could give cues to Gérard Depardieu and the other cast and extras. When we landed on this black sand beach, I was in agony because my feet were getting burnt. Ridley put a long lens on the camera and started bollocking me because he thought I was wearing tennis shoes! But I wasn’t. My feet are just very English and white.”