Given the subject matter, how appropriate that the biggest challenge for 1st AD Richard Coad on the recent USA Network miniseries, Political Animals, was uniting crews from a trio of production centers in the most diplomatic way.
“We had three different film cultures—New York, L.A., and Philadelphia—with disparate ways of working,” recalls Coad, whose long career in television includes running the sets for hits like Brothers & Sisters, Alias, and Felicity. “I had to convince everyone to pull in the same direction.”
Political Animals stars Sigourney Weaver as a former First Lady now serving as Secretary of State. It was set in Washington, D.C., but shot in Philadelphia (where Coad had never worked) to take advantage of state tax incentives.
“I knew the producers, the DP and that’s it,” he grins. “My approach to winning hearts and minds was as facilitator. I never left the set, and stayed close to camera. People saw early on I was there to solve problems, not point blame.”
Problem solving led to a unique experience for a scene when Weaver’s character meets with politicos in front of what’s supposed to be the elephant enclosure at the Washington Zoo.
“The Philadelphia Zoo does not have elephants and they wouldn’t allow us to bring in our own elephants because you can’t mix the animals,” Coad recalls. “So we brought down a few Indian elephants from Connecticut and the art department greened out the swimming pool in Fairmount Park and put them behind the fence.”
All seemed well until the night exterior shoot, which included large lighting elements on Condor boom lifts, was hit by a massive thunderstorm. “I saw the lightning in the sky and shut down the set,” Coad says. “During the downtime, the keeper brought out the elephants and the whole crew and cast got to feed them carrots. It was really quite lovely.”
But in a TV landscape dominated by shrinking budgets and raised expectations, spreading the love has become more challenging with each new series. When scouting locations for Political Animals, Coad had to be realistic with the producers about getting heavy equipment up to the fifth floor of a Federalist-era brownstone.
“The best TV shows are always trying to do more than [the production team] can do,” he says. “Part of my job as a 1st AD is to let them know what is physically possible within the time they’ve allotted. You don’t say ‘We can’t do that,’ only that it will cost more time and money.”