Summer 2015

On the Job: First AD Christopher Surgent moved up the ranks from DGA trainee 

By David Geffner

Not many ADs who have worked on four Martin Scorsese features can say they owe their career to their janitorial services. But that’s how 1st AD Chris Surgent got his foot in the door.

About 20 years ago, the New Jersey native was one among "an army" of PAs on the Robert De Niro-directed A Bronx Tale (1993) when longtime Scorsese 1st AD Joe Reidy asked for a volunteer to clean the toilets in the rental apartments housing the film’s many actors/mobsters. "I raised my hand," says Surgent. "It was horrible, dirty work. But my willingness to do anything for the production got Joe’s attention, and led to bigger things," starting with his stint as a DGA trainee on Casino (1995).

As Surgent moved up the ranks, he learned how to deal with any kind of situation. For instance, on period or sci-fi films like Francis Lawrence’s Mockingjay — Part 1 and 2 (2014, 2015), with huge crowd days, "you can’t afford to dress 1,000 extras in the absolute best costumes," he says. "So you usually organize them in various levels. A’s are the most ornately dressed, all the way down to D’s, who may only be wearing certain color clothing to stay within the color palate and are only used in the deep background."

Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) took period detail to a new level. "Marty had us watch 180 Georges Méliès films, along with combing through books of Brassaï ’s photographs to get a sense of body behavior in the Parisian street scenes of that era," Surgent says.

"Hugo was one of the first shows to shoot native 3-D on the Alexa [camera]," he continues. "And we had the Steadicam operator racing on a Segway through the crowds and chasing a dog. It was as tricky as the backgrounds had to be set very specifically. Everything went fine until one of the backgrounds got [in front of] the Segway and the shot came to a grinding halt."

Surgent says some on-set moments are so unique they will never come again—like a scene from I Am Legend (2007) where Will Smith roars through a Manhattan devoid of humanity in a Mustang.

"Firsting on a large movie usually means dealing with a thousand extras and total chaos," he says. But to shoot that scene, Surgent says 2nd 2nd AD Matt Power convinced 220 PAs to spend their weekends keeping the nearby streets clear. "We locked up 10-block sections of Sixth Avenue, and I remember how amazing it was, right before we rolled, just staring at this empty city," he recalls.

Surgent admits to taking every shot, in every project, very personally. "An AD is an island because we have to make the call, time and schedule-wise," he says. "But we don’t have a physical hand in anything—changing the camera, doing hair or make-up, dressing sets. So we just ask a lot of polite questions, that are also very leading to keep [everything] moving along."

(Photo: Marcie Revens)

At Work With

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

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