Fall 2019

High-Octane Organizer

As one director puts it, blockbuster 1st AD Chris Castaldi minimizes potential problems while maximizing shooting potential

By Margy Rochlin

1st AD Chris Castaldi (Photographed by Steven Simko)

Perhaps the most well-known sequence in Jurassic World involved dozens of screeching, genetically engineered creatures descending on a theme park and causing a stampede of a thousand frightened tourists.

First AD Chris Castaldi remembers what it took to make the scene work: amping up the extras on set by running alongside them in 105 degree New Orleans heat, piping in ferocious growling noises over loudspeakers, and using a swooping helicopter to help the entire cast imagine what would later be filled in with Industrial Light & Magic's VFX.

But the moment in this expensive sci-fi adventure blockbuster that Castaldi likes to talk about the most is a quieter micro-scene right before the mayhem on Main Street unfolds, when park-goers sit on stairs, drinking water and talking among themselves. "They had no idea we were shooting that," says Castaldi of the large crowd of rumpled, perspiring background actors who thought they were between takes, just trying to keep still on the searingly hot day. "I wouldn't say often, but there are occasional opportunities where you can get a much better, more real reaction like that. So we just put them on the stairs, passed out water bottles, and had all our cameras rolling and not a single one of them knew."

If Castaldi appreciates the simplicity of how the director injected realism into the footage, it's perhaps because over the past 20 years he's become the go-to 1st AD for special-effects-laden, high-octane moviemakers. He spent 2½ years in Georgia as 1st AD on the back-to-back productions of Joe and Anthony Russo's Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, which means he helped pull off the tightrope act that the Russo brothers have called "the most expensive shot in history"—getting the dozens of A-list actors who played almost every character in the Marvel universe to show up at an Atlanta horse farm under the guise of shooting a romantically jubilant scene—Tony Stark's wedding—when, in fact, they were filming his funeral.

"We knew we only had one chance at that scene, so we rehearsed the scene very thoroughly, every department made sure they were prepped, and this was all orchestrated by Chris, of course," says Anthony Russo, who remembers that it was Marvel Studios copresident Louis D'Esposito who first suggested that Castaldi's unflappable, orderly style might mesh well with his and that of his co-director brother, Joe. "He has a calm, confident voice—but the truth is he's good at everything. He's an amazing people person. He's extremely smart in terms of how he organizes a shoot, how he anticipates issues and how he builds his team for success. He knows where the problems are going to come from, and he structures things so it minimizes potential problems but maximizes our shooting potential."

(Top) Castaldi wrangles a Jurassic World dinosaur; (Bottom) Sharing a moment on Avengers: Endgame with director Anthony Russo and actor Mark Ruffalo. (Photos: Courtesy of Chris Castaldi)

Castaldi's decades in the industry have taught him to keep up with the ever-changing world of film wizardry, to be as fluent as possible in everything techno from motion capture and precapture to simulcam, as well as the intricacies of aging and deaging actors.

On Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, for example, he helped prep a twentysomething body double to mimic Johnny Depp's drunken swashbuckler moves so that the 56 year old could shed 30-plus years by way of Lola Visual Effects. At the same time, Castaldi also served as a lodestar for Tell No Tales directing team Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the Norwegian filmmakers who leapt from a $16 million maritime historical drama, Kon-Tiki, to the CGI-filled, high-priced fifth installment of a valuable franchise.

With an estimated $230 million budget, the many moving parts of the production included not just massive explosions and full-bore visual effects but a star so famous for arriving late to the set that before production commenced, producer Jerry Bruckheimer took Castaldi aside and cautioned him to always have alternate scenes to fall back on. Says Castaldi: "Johnny was so sweet. He'd walk onto the set in full Jack Sparrow [gear] at noon going, [cockney accent] 'Oh, me alarm clock didn't go off.' But he was never within three hours of his call time. Ever. So we always had a backup plan. We always had other things ready."

In 1999, after a chance meeting with director Ron Howard, Castaldi landed a job as an office production assistant on EDtv. And after working his way up to 2nd 2nd AD with films such as The Alamo and Miami Vice, he found that 1st and 2nd AD gigs on second units and reshoots of big-budget action films were the best training ground.

"[Second units] are often harder than first units—especially when it involves heavy action, heavy stunts and the first team of actors," says Castaldi. "Like Tom Cruise driving a BMW at a high rate of speed in a real sandstorm in Dubai [for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol]."

It was on Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a CGI- and stunt-packed dark action comedy filmed in 2012 at the Babelsberg Studios just outside of Berlin, though, that Castaldi experienced his first bracing encounter with work as a first unit 1st AD. "All eyes are on you," says Castaldi. "It was the first time I felt the weight of the day being made, the schedule being in order, the actors being happy—working in a foreign country with a language I didn't speak. The pressure is solely on you. Everything comes your way. Anyone who is in a bad mood? I have to counter that, get them in the right place so they look good in front of the camera."

He estimates that "99 percent" of his approach to working on sprawling, expensive films with A-list casts came from studying how it was done by the greats: 1st ADs like Eric Heffron ("He taught me patience. Eric is cool, calm and collected"), as well as the more boisterous K.C. Hodenfield, for whom he worked 14 times, from a PA post on Pearl Harbor to his 2nd AD position on films like The Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

(Top) Castaldi goofing around with Pirates' Johnny Depp; (Bottom) With Chris Hemsworth and Josh Brolin on set for Avengers: Infinity War. (Photos: Courtesy of Chris Castaldi)

"The biggest thing I learned from K.C. is the importance of relationships, of having the crew see you as an equal, behaving as one big group," says Castaldi, adding that Hodenfield also taught him something counter to conventional 1st AD wisdom. "A lot of people ask me, 'How do you like to start a movie?' And I feel like most of the time ADs go, 'I like to start on stage' or 'I like to start with a few people in a room' or 'I like to get to know people.' I'm the exact opposite. I like to finish easy, have those easy little sets be the last things we do. But [on day one], I like to take people a little bit out of their comfort zone to establish an intensity.

"I like to establish a style of filmmaking and a pace with which we're going to shoot," he adds. "Let the crew know, 'This is how fast we're going to move.' First day on Pirates, there were 800 people in a square, helicopters, drones, cannon fire and a building being moved around town. I saw the directors as they walked on the set and they were like this [he bugs his eyes out, drops his jaw]. We still laugh about it. But that's how we set the tone for the entire movie."

When it comes to handling the whims and vagaries of top-level talent, most of whom Castaldi has worked with, he always stays even-keeled. "The AD cannot have an ego—you check your ego at the door," says Castaldi. "There are people who I am social with outside of films and I can say, 'You're really misbehaving. Let's calm it down' or 'Do you want to walk around for a half-hour?' or 'Want to get some food?' But there's others where I have to say, 'I agree with you.' You'll do some things that are demeaning, sometimes you have to shut your mouth and eat crow. If an actor is screaming at you, just out of their mind about something absurd, my job is to calm them down, get them happy. And if that means I take the blame, I don't care."

What directors who've worked with him know is that Castaldi hates yelling. In fact, the relative tranquility he brought to Jurassic World is one of those intangibles that initially escaped director Colin Trevorrow. "Having only worked with (Castaldi) and Mel Eslyn, who was the 1st AD on my first movie (Safety Not Guaranteed), I didn't realize ADs can be as loud as they can be until after (Jurassic World)," says Trevorrow. "It was a very calm shoot," he adds about Jurassic World, "there wasn't a lot of drama on it—if any at all. It all went very smoothly. We came in two days under on that movie and under budget and we didn't have a day of reshoots."

Castaldi is also quick to correct any misconceptions about who is steering the ship. "When you see a director that may not be as strong or not have the confidence of others, there are crew members who like to pile on and say, 'This guy doesn't know what he's doing.' My first comment is always to remind them, 'That's why you're here. That's why I'm here. We're hired to aid the director in making this movie and helping them create their vision.' So if I have to pick the director up and put him on my back, I will."

Lately, Castaldi has seen his credit real estate grow, within the same film. When the names start scrolling on the upcoming Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Castaldi's will appear both as 1st AD and associate producer. As for Joe and Anthony Russo's next film, Cherry, Castaldi's been tapped as 1st AD and producer as well.

For Castaldi, it's not just about a bump in title—it's confirmation that it matters when he always goes the extra mile, showing up on the set early, learning as many names of the background players as he can, location scouting if necessary.

"We're one of the few departments that doesn't shut off," he says. "I don't shut my mind off for a year when I'm on these films. I think when you really, really work hard, your effort shows. You don't have to tell people you're working hard. They know it. They see it and they respect you for it."


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

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