Winter 2013

Richard Cowan

Do-It-All AD

This film school dropout from Vancouver, Canada, says becoming a 1st AD by the tender age of 25 was a dream come true. “I learned early on that the AD was the centrifugal force of a project,” he says. “The person everyone—crew and creatives alike—came to for answers.”

Cowan first became “the answer man” in the world of early ’90s TV, when MOW’s were all the rage. “I did baby swapping, anorexia, and suicide all in one year,” he says. “You learn how to think on your feet, schedule under very tight constraints, and be extremely organized. All of that was valuable when I transitioned over to features.”

In the last 15 years, Cowan has worked on a varied diet of comedy, drama, and action films. His first feature job as a 1st AD was for former DGA president Arthur Hiller on Carpool (1996). “The AD had to bail right before production,” recalls Cowan, who had previously interviewed with Hiller. “So when the producer suggested my name to Arthur, he said, ‘Sounds fine. But send over a photograph because I can’t remember what he looks like.’”

Cowan, who rode in the car with Hiller to and from the set, says he’s “thankful in a million ways” for the Old Hollywood stories Hiller shared. “I walked away from that movie realizing I may not get that kind of experience again.”

Storytelling is also the glue that’s bonded Cowan with director Bruce Beresford for five films, on locations all around the world. One tale from the trenches involves an actor who had missed a London flight to the Bulgarian set of The Contract (2006). “When I said he wasn’t going to make it, Bruce said, ‘You’re the only one on the crew that speaks English that I haven’t photographed. You’ll have to play the park ranger.’

“I said, ‘Bruce, I have other stuff to do.’ But he insisted. So I stop a car with a kid in it, and the next thing I know, Morgan Freeman jumps out and pistol whips me.”

From the sublime to the surreal is how Cowan describes his AD experience on visual effects movies like X-Men: The Last Stand (2nd unit), Man of Steel (2nd unit helicopter), and the upcoming tornado disaster film Black Sky, which required 200-foot rain cranes and nine wind machines.

Cowan took handholding to new heights on the recent indie horror hit, Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. “The zombies had to wear contacts and they could not see a thing,” he says. “We’d be shooting at night, in the woods, and you’d have to walk them through every step: ‘four paces to the right and then you step over a tree stump.’ Camera would roll and I’m biting my nails thinking, ‘Is he going to step around … oh, he hit the tree stump. Back to one, please.’”

No Canadian can resist a good hockey story, and Cowan has worked on four hockey films including Jay Roach’s Mystery, Alaska (1999). “The thing I enjoy most about those movies,” he says, “is that as an AD you get to take on a coach persona, helping the sports coordinator to execute the various plays. I’m on the ice in skates all day setting the plays. It’s such a rush.”

At Work With

Short profiles of Guild members in all categories sharing their experiences at work.

More from this issue