Summer 2017

The Director's Right Hand

The best 1st ADs allow the director minimum distractions and maximum creativity


MAKING IT WORK: Michele "Shelley" Ziegler, with director Scott Cooper on location for Hostiles (Photo: Lorey Sebastian)

When he first worked with the director Martin Scorsese, Joseph Reidy naturally felt nervous.

Scorsese had already achieved considerable acclaim for his early films, including Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). Now he was embarking on his 1986 release, The Color of Money, featuring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise as pool hustlers. And he'd hired Reidy—for whom this marked a welcome career boost—as his first assistant director.

Walking alongside Scorsese in a Chicago pool hall location that first day, Reidy took notes as Scorsese gauged how to shoot scenes. "I saw that his thinking was deep into the creativity," says Reidy, who decided the best way he could facilitate the situation was to quietly and keenly attune himself to Scorsese's thought process.

It worked. Scorsese reenlisted Reidy for 13 more films, most recently Shutter Island in 2010. "I learned to listen and read him," says Reidy, "and to get to understand him without being verbal." It's something he's done with every director thereafter.

As DGA members are well aware, the role of the 1st AD is largely a practical one, serving as the director's right hand while handling logistics and keeping track of time so the director can focus on the artistry. When directors consider whom to place by their side for the entire length of a production, however, they also want someone who can intuit and adapt to their creative style, and establish the right tone on set for everyone to do their best work.

"It's so different because each director brings a different game to the table," says Tommy Gormley, an in-demand 1st AD who specializes in blockbusters, including one Star Wars, two Star Treks, and three Mission: Impossible movies helmed by three different directors: J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie. He's currently readying his fourth Mission, which is the sixth in the series.

"For me, I love working with different directors," says Gormley, describing how each one shows up with their individual paintbox of talents and ways of doing things. As the perennial team member, he says, "Your job is to be their rock and support them.

"The worst thing to be as an AD," he continues, "is the guy rolling his eyes and saying, 'What are you doing?' You never question for a second that you've got their back 100 percent. And I always try to achieve that."

While the 1st AD's role will fluctuate according to who's commanding the set, certain responsibilities are a given. They draw up the shooting schedules, giving consideration to the budget, the availability of the cast and the needs of the script. Once production commences, they maintain a close check on the clock and a tight orbit around the director, liaising on his or her behalf with department heads, producers and crew, and shielding the director from unnecessary distractions.

Tommy Gormley, with Roland Emmerich on the sci-fi epic 2012, says when it comes to blockbusters, "every day is a half million dollars" (Photos: Courtesy Tommy Gormley)

"It's all about bringing the team together and making it work," says Michele "Shelley" Ziegler, whose ability to shorthand with directors and gain their trust has similarly translated into repeat collaborations. Her lengthy dance card includes David O. Russell (four films) and Scott Cooper (two). She recently assisted Barry Levinson on the film The Wizard of Lies, about the Wall Street Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff. She also assisted him years earlier on the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street.

Formulating a realistic production schedule always presents challenges. For Hostiles, a new Western directed by Cooper, she had to calibrate, for instance, the time and effort involved in transporting and setting up enormous water storage tanks used to create artificial rainstorms at a remote campsite location. "I have a really good gauge for how long scenes will take," she says.

When it comes to scheduling a ginormous blockbuster, even more is riding on an AD's attention to detail. "If I've got it wrong, every day is a half million dollars that I've got it wrong," says Gormley, who AD'd on one of the biggest budget films to date: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

"So that's very pressurized," he says. "You have to be able to make a very educated guess. You have a responsibility to the director. But you're also responsible to the production company and the producers. So I take that very seriously."

They must also bear in mind the approach of the director. While directors often shoot scenes out of order to accommodate budget constraints, Russell, for instance, likes to stick to chronological order to reinforce the actors' emotional connection to the story. Ziegler does her best to oblige him: "Can this set or scene be changed to this? Or is there something right around the corner from our first existing location so we can still make our day?"

She says, "You have to walk the tightrope between making sure you make your day and allowing the director and cast to make scenes in the way that the director has envisioned it."

"I honestly think the tone is the most important thing," says Reidy, reflecting on his profession in a West Village tea house this past winter. It was his first opportunity to unwind in days, having concluded his latest assignment with an all-nighter and then immediately begun organizing a shooting schedule for the next.

If Gormley's résumé accents scale, Reidy's filmography reads like a who's who of auteurist voices: Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Oliver Stone and Robert Redford are among those who've repeatedly hired him. He's also mentioned frequently as an inspiring mentor to other ADs.

Stone worked with him on four films, including JFK and Born on the Fourth of July. Unlike Scorsese, who liked him to maintain a quieter set, Reidy says Stone revels in a lively, bustling ambience. "He would like a little more chaos," says Reidy, "and doesn't mind noise."

Stone also films at a furious pace. "I was responsible to move the set around at a high velocity," he says, describing how he would collapse at the end of each day and only then have time to analyze what took place.

Bob Wagner, with Michael Mann on Public Enemies, says "some directors want feedback," others "don't want to hear a word from you." (Photos: Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures)

When collaborating with Steven Soderbergh, most recently on Mosaic, Reidy had to adjust for the fact that Soderbergh does his own shooting. Reidy often uses the conversations between a director and cinematographer to keep one step ahead. With Soderbergh, he says, "I had to use a sixth sense to anticipate him."

With all their varied experience, 1st ADs are often percolating with creative ideas. When Reidy is not working on films, for instance, he's watching them. And he does occasionally offer directors creative solutions to problems. "But I had to earn that. And I was careful with it," he says, explaining that he will only chime in if it's appropriate in that moment and clearly welcomed by the director.

"It's always a tricky thing with different directors," says 1st AD Bob Wagner. "Some directors want feedback. Some directors don't want to hear a word from you."

Wagner, who's worked with David Fincher multiple times and recently finished the HBO miniseries The Night Of, likes to get a solid grasp of the context of a film before commencing work on it. After Fincher asked him to AD on Zodiac, for example, Wagner boned up on everything he could find about the actual serial killer.

"I read the Graysmith novel," he says, referring to the book by Robert Graysmith, who's played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film. "I read clips. I went to"

That helps when the time finally comes, on every film, for 1st ADs to put their creative impulses into play. For they are responsible for casting and setting the background, which allows the director to continue focusing on the primary action.

On The Social Network, Wagner set the extras for the critical scene in which ousted Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) strides into the Facebook offices and loudly reproaches Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) for screwing him over. It's an explosive moment, and Wagner coached them on how to play their subtle but supportive parts well.

"You explain it to them. How important the scene is. And you tell them the backstory," says Wagner. To keep the frame lively, he assigned tasks, like someone getting up from his desk and going over to chat with a co-worker or other activities that lent texture and logic but didn't draw unnecessary attention.

Joe Reidy, on location for the upcoming The Only Living Boy in New York, says he's learned to "listen and read directors" (Photo: Courtesy Joe Reidy)

When Reidy worked with Angelina Jolie on Unbroken, she suggested he watch two classic oldies, King Rat and The Hill, for ideas on how a WWII prison camp might operate. She wanted to see prisoner regimentation, says Reidy, who coached the extras on how to fall into line. "I talked to them about how weak and tired and sick they are." He gave someone a limp. He created tableaus, such as a guard shooing prisoners along.

"The bigger the better," says Gormley, who once set 2,000 extras and 300 horses and camels for an epic desert battle scene shot in Morocco for The Four Feathers, directed by Shekhar Kapur.

The day began at 4 a.m., when he had the extras prepped in a giant marquee tent and sent onto the set walking two by two. He was exhausted by 7 a.m. "But the sense of achievement as you stand on your stepladder with your megaphone and you see them arriving—"I can't think of a better job in the world at that moment," he says.

Safety on set is a paramount concern and nowhere is that more important than on action/adventure films like Mission: Impossible. "They are challenging movies because we try to outdo the last one," says Gormley, referring to how the creators always ratchet up the special effects, stunts and other elements. To rouse his dedicated fans, megastar Tom Cruise personally executes his daredevil feats instead of using a professional stuntman.

Gormley still recalls the pit in his stomach the day Cruise pulled off a particularly audacious stunt for Mission: Impossible III. The scene opens with Cruise and his parachute stuck on a lamppost. After he releases it and hits the tarmac, "coming toward him is a 40-ton semi and it's going to drive over him," says Gormley, describing how the truck does a jackknife and Cruise goes between the wheels.

The stunt was, of course, painstakingly worked out beforehand. However, says Gormley, "When you have the world's most expensive star lying on the ground and there's a 40-ton truck coming at him, and if anything goes wrong, you might be the one up in court, it's slightly stressful, of course."

When the actors aren't performing, 1st ADs continue to train an eye on them, making sure they get ample room to roam in their characters. After the production of The Fighter concluded, Ziegler happened to overhear the star, Christian Bale, remark on a talk show that "he felt free to let his character grow and develop." She says, "I know that's important to David [O. Russell]."

Gormley recalls assisting Jim Sheridan on The Boxer, starring the brilliant and meticulous Daniel Day-Lewis. "I met Daniel once in prep. And for the next eight months, he was in character," says Gormley. "He'd write me letters in character. "

Day-Lewis also continued boxing training for several hours a day, complicating the shooting schedule. But Gormley made it work. "Because so much revolves around the actors," he says, "you have to make it a warm, comfy place for them to be in. If the set feels jangly, it affects everyone."

Maintaining one's equilibrium on a big, complicated set is undoubtedly trying. Ziegler says her favorite mode is "unflappable." Reidy says, no matter what, he never resorts to screaming. When necessary he will say, "Got to go," and everyone knows that's code for pick up the pace.

"It's almost like a performance every day," says Gormley, who thinks of himself as cheerleader and sergeant major rolled into one. "You have to be upbeat. You have to be happy. You have to be full of energy. It's exhausting," he adds, "and it's also rewarding.

"If I've done my job well, especially on these monster films," he continues, "if I can remove the director's worry about the logistics, then I've let their creative vision flourish. That's the biggest gift that I can give to the director."


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

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