Spring 2019

The Art of the Possible

When it comes to rallying the troops and asserting a sense of order even amidst chaos, 1st AD Adam Somner has repeatedly inspired confidence among some of the industry's most revered filmmakers

By Margy Rochlin

1st AD Adam Somner (Photo: Courtesy Adam Somner)

Jonah Hill might have described it as "the most unhygienic scenario I've ever been in," and Leonardo DiCaprio called it "insane." But to the directors who've worked with 1st AD Adam Somner—including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott—the famously over-the-top inflight coke-and-booze fueled orgy scene from Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is just another example of Somner's unflappable professionalism.

"It was all in the preparation," says Somner of a scene that took eight hours to shoot and involved organizing writhing male and female background players on an enclosed airplane set. First, he split the extras into pairs, had them practice pre-choreographed moves, then reviewed with each couple what they'd be simulating and where.

"It would be like, 'You two are doing this over here,' and 'You two are doing that over there,' and then sometimes I'd be with Marty and he'd be like, 'Can you have something going on over there?' We were working in a secure environment that was preset," says Somner. "Everyone was prepped. So when we wanted them to go nuts, they could go nuts. Everyone was working in set boundaries."

To Somner's thinking, he was just scaling down the same technique he picked up as 2nd AD on Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning epic Gladiator. On day one, Scott filmed the opening battle of Germania. "There were hundreds of people charging around," says Somner. "Chaos. No one knew where they were going."

Then Somner watched how Scott's longtime 1st, Terry Needham, restored order. "We had this system," says Somner, adding that later in the shoot the same method would be used when a replica of an ancient arena was built in the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou in Morocco and filled with 4,500 roaring, toga-wearing extras. "We'd try to make it as simple as possible by moving [big] groups together as teams. We'd have team leaders, we gave them letters and numbers: an A group, a B group. It was almost a military thing."

That Somner loves bringing stability to a set about to spin out of control is something of an understatement. "It's food and drink to him," says Paul Thomas Anderson, who first brought on Somner as 1st AD on There Will Be Blood. "For me, I really underestimated the scale of that film in terms of the extras, the stunts and what was required. But for Adam, in terms of what he'd done before, it was right in his comfort zone," says Anderson of his 2007 oil boom drama that was shot on location on a ranch outside the high desert town of Marfa, Texas, which sported no cellphone reception.

Since then, Somner also served as Anderson's 1st AD on The Master, Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread, revealing the diversity of Somner's skill set. "I dare anyone to try and keep a film set quiet. Really quiet. Really, really quiet," says Anderson about the time on The Master when he had to shoot a scene with six pages of dialogue with "three of the most intense and focused actors you could have"—Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix—and Somner worked his very specific form of magic. "In the same way he'd attack a battle scene, he got everybody to be pin-drop quiet for the better part of two days. He had people in their socks, and suddenly, lights were moving like they were floating on air. I just remember thinking, 'I don't know how he's done it, but I really can't hear anything.' It was almost disconcerting."

(Top) Somner, (in light-blue shirt) on the set of Ready Player One, has worked with Steven Spielberg on 10 movies; (Bottom) Somner confers with director Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of There Will Be Blood. (Bottom) (Photos: (Top) PA Images/Alamy; (Bottom) Courtesy Adam Somner)

Somner's record is hard to top when it comes to working with Hollywood's top-flight directors: Besides four films with Anderson, he's worked on eight with Ridley Scott and four with his late brother Tony. Guild members who stay in theaters to watch the end credits scroll have seen Somner's name on Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, Munich and War of the Worlds, as well as six more films directed by Steven Spielberg, a man who appreciates Somner's boundless energy, eye for detail and, well, psychic qualities. "I have an unreasonable requirement when working with an AD, that they be the kind of person who can read my mind," Spielberg wrote in an email. "David Tomblin could. Sergio Mimica-Gezzan could. And Adam Somner could best of all."

An upside of working on blue-chip productions is that everyone—from the production secretary to the boom operator to a day player—tries to honor the situation. "Usually, there's a level of respect," says Somner, adding that he still has a basic technique for dealing with a cast member who didn't get the "you're working with a legend" memo. "First of all, you try not to make it worse," he explains. "If they're late, you try to call them early. If they're not prepared, you try and get them to rehearse. You just try and navigate the person."

When finding his way on a new director's set, says Somner, he relies on common sense and some nimble shape-shifting. "If there's a coarseness and a loudness, I try to inject a bit of calm. If someone's quiet, lackadaisical, I get louder, try to insert energy. If a director brings anger, I bring humor," he says. "Spirit is the most important thing on a set. I couldn't sit in a chair on a set if I tried. I move around quickly. I lead by example. If something needs to be done, I do it. And that's how I set the mood."

Serving as 1st AD on Angelina Jolie's Khmer Rouge drama First They Killed My Father required setting the crew straight about who Jolie was to them: not an iconic celebrity but their boss and a filmmaker who'd directed four previous movies. "I saw people initially want to be flirty, then get a bit like, 'What does she know?' It was the first time I saw sexism in a couple of the departments, and I became like [in a resolute voice], 'She wants this, and this is what we're doing.'"

It's anyone's guess if Jolie knew that Somner's job description suddenly included enlightening dinosaur crew members. She keenly recognized, however, that he lived up to film producer Tommy Harper's recommendation —"the best of the best." "He didn't ask for an executive producer credit, but he deserved one," Jolie wrote in an email in which she also recalled a hot, humid day on location in Battambang, Cambodia, when they filmed an emotional exodus scene that involved thousands of extras, multiple cameras spread across city blocks, and drones. "We had one shot to get it. And I looked over at Adam. He smiled. Confidence. Loves to be in the thick of it. He's the man you want next to you in a battle. A film set is no match for him."

The London-born Somner was perhaps destined to end up in show business. His father, Basil Somner, was a 2nd AD in Adam's toddler years, then a film and TV production manager who rose to be the head of physical production at MGM's U.K. studios, but lost it all when the studio shuttered in the early '70s. From there, his family struggled, running small, failing seaside hotels. Then in 1982, a producer threw out a lifeline: Out of the blue, Somner's father landed a four-week gig overseeing the budget on The Curse of the Pink Panther. "I was, like [astonished tone], 'You're going to the south of France? You're getting paid how much?' " recalls Somner. "We were skint and now we had money."

(Top) On the set of The Wolf of Wall Street sandwiched between Martin Scorsese and DP Rodrigo Prieto; (Bottom) The Gladiator set in Malta, where he worked as 2nd AD to director Ridley Scott. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Everett)

He was visiting his dad on the set of Murrow, a TV movie starring Daniel J. Travanti as the ground-breaking journalist, when Somner realized his future calling. "I stood watching the ADs and thought, 'These guys have the walkie-talkies, they're the doers, they're cool,' and I thought, 'This is amazing. This is the best job in the world.'"

Somner started small, as a production assistant, washing tea cups and running errands. After more than a decade steadily rising through the AD hierarchy, he started getting offers to run the floor. Then Ridley Scott hired him as 1st AD on the second unit of Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001), about the American military's disastrous attempt to capture warlords in Somalia in 1993. The way Somner describes it, the film required "a symphony of organization" among Scott's production, the U.S. Army and a fleet of Moroccan ADs in a newly dangerous post-9/11 Morocco that was standing in for Mogadishu. "We had 60 actors, [were filming] real Black Hawk [helicopters], staging huge raids," says Somner. "I don't think you'd ever make that film now. The world has changed since then."

It was thanks to the decision of Spielberg's longtime 1st, Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, to start directing TV that Somner ended up on War of the Worlds, then, ultimately, Munich, Spielberg's thriller inspired by the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics massacre. "There was quite a strong presence during [many] scenes—it could be incredibly tense," says Somner of a set where Arab actors were hired to play the Palestinians and Israeli actors were cast as the Israeli athletes. In a response to the roiling emotions, Somner went simple, making more than 40 flash cards with the actors' images so he and his 2nd ADs, Kevin Walsh and Emma Horton, could test each other on names. "We didn't want to have to go, 'Go get that guy and that guy,'" says Somner. "The power of knowing someone's name? It's incredible. It just changes everything. You can see the light in their eyes."

Over the years, he's helped figure out how to shoot the planting and sowing of a rice field (First They Killed My Father), mapped out a three-take strategy for horse race sequences (Seabiscuit) and orchestrated a scene where brokers watched as the stock market collapsed (The Wolf of Wall Street). "I remember when we shot the scene on the floor of the trading firm the day the market crashes," wrote Scorsese in an email. "I walked on the set and [Adam] had the life of the scene planned out and rehearsed and ready to present to me, and he showed me all the different stages of panic as the scene progressed. So that freed me to concentrate on the heart of the scene, and even to open it up. To make a picture like Wolf, with a big sprawling narrative that takes place over many years and lots [of] scenes and locations and extras and complex background action, Adam Somner made it possible."

What Paul Thomas Anderson remembers about bonding with Somner—and they're close enough personally that he officiated at Somner's wedding in 2011—is that they both head to the set every day with a shared mindset. "I think we have the same sense of taking the work seriously, but not ourselves seriously," says Anderson. "There's a great balance between how seriously we take it, but how many laughs we can have."

"I take my job and work very seriously—but at the very same time, I have a release button," says Somner, who thinks of himself as "the cartilage between the bones and the joints." "In the end, you have to keep everyone around the director. The director has to make the film. Behind him is me. [Being] the director is the hard job. Nobody is ever going to say that the movie is bad because of me."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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