I guess I just love the excitement and challenge in working on those kinds of films," reflects 1st AD Shelley Ziegler about her career, which has been filled with gritty location dramas that blur the line between fact and fiction.
One of her favorite experiences was on Terrence Malick's you-are-there drama, The New World. "Terry told [the crew] we were documentarians who had been placed back in Virginia in the 1600s and were simply observing the natives and colonists. We would move through capturing moments as they happened, like we were flies on the wall." But that presented a unique problem for an AD. "The fort and village was always active prior to the day's shooting so I couldn't set the day's schedule like on other films."
Ziegler says Malick was a big fan of the urban crime series Homicide, on which she had been a 1st AD. "For my interview [for The New World], Terry talked all about the handheld camerawork and how much he loved that spontaneous approach." During shooting, "he liked to backlight everything, so my first job each morning was to
relay to the camera [team] where we would be in relation to the sun."
David O. Russell's The Fighter, on which all of the boxing matches were shot in real time, was yet another test for Ziegler's skills. "Usually you construct your fights in bits and pieces, with the actors all doing hits and misses," she explains. "But we had them really hitting each other, lightly, of course, and never had to stop and start, which doubled the amount of footage I could schedule each day. We shot all of the major fights in the first week. It was remarkable."
Ziegler says her love for spontaneous filmmaking began on the streets of her hometown Baltimore, where she worked on her first feature as a production assistant on Barry Levinson's Avalon. Later, back in town as a 1st AD on Homicide, she reteamed with Levinson (also from Baltimore) when he directed the season three finale of Homicide. Then in 2002, Ziegler became the 1st AD on David Simon's much-lauded Baltimore-set cable series The Wire, working on the show on and off for six years.
Although now based in New York, Ziegler still maintains a house in her hometown. "Baltimore's film community is really an extended family," she explains, stretching out her "o's" in that distinctive B'more way. "Everyone there has worked with Barry and John [Waters] for so many years, the relationships extend beyond the working environment."