Call me a Production Geek but I love my relationship to the 1st AD (First Assistant Director).
The 1st AD is usually “hated” by everyone on the set. It’s like the secretary of a firm who acts as a gatekeeper that filters out all the bullshit, the unrelenting manager that won’t give employees overtime, and is the one-person army that no one wants to contend with. Along with the Producer, the 1st AD protects the Director’s vision while seemingly ruining it and that’s why I like ADs.
NUNE is the first major film project that I’ve worked on that required an AD and full production team. Everything else I’ve made has been done with my own bare hands in a filmmaker “DIY” sense. And I had to let a lot of that go during this production.
Contrary to how I felt about letting someone film the project, control it and tell me what I can and cannot do: I’ve become increasingly enamored by the professional opinions and skills of others and I enjoy the “battle of collaboration;” of being told what works and doesn’t work.
To be quite honest, I never knew what a 1st or 2nd AD did. Even though I studied all the relationships between crew in film school—it doesn’t click until you apply it—outside in the industry. In my past studies, I remembered putting a line across “1st AD” and rendered them useless because as a filmmaker, I was doing all by budgeting, shotlisting and script breakdown. All the small shorts I made never required or depended on anyone to help me film it: I wrote, directed, produced, shot and edited. And while all that is great, there comes a time when an artist has to let go…and I am enjoying the freedom of letting go.
Discovering the wonders of a 1st AD is like tasting wasabi for the first time or maybe eating fish sauce. First it’s gross, then it’s exotic, then it’s your “essential.”
If a director is in control all the time then who is in control of the director? If a president is in control all the time, who is in control of the president. The 1st AD is like the president’s wife. Behind every great president, is his wife. And it’s the wife that calls you out on everything and you trust her implicitly because it’s the person you’re most naked (transparent) with.
When there is a lot of yelling between a director and his or her 1st AD, you know there is a beautiful relationship going on.
I credit my first difficult days of success of the NUNE production to Sienna Beckman, whom I lucked out with as my first experience with an AD. I couldn’t have ask for the better one. I think the Film Gods were watching over me.
When I look back at my personal production war stories, it is full of ridiculously funny moments.
Sienna texted me one day and said, “Ji, do we have walkies?
“Why do we need walkies, can’t we just use our cell phones?”
“NO!” she texted back.
“Can’t we just text each other while on set?” I asked (and I was being serious).
She didn’t call me an amateur. She didn’t treat me like a fool. I think she probably thought was just a crazy eccentric filmmaker. Most importantly, she was very patient with me. I seriously wonder now if she took me seriously or laughed her ass off when she texted me back. “No Ji, we need walkies.”
I asked her, “Well, who is in charge of getting the walkies?”
“The producer,” she texted. (Note: she didn’t say “you”).
I said, “But I’m the producer!” I answered my own question. The next day, I ordered walkies and found myself driving into a store located in Paramount Studios near K-town to pick them up as if I had just arranged some kind of drug deal. I never even met the guy that rented it out. He just gave me the address and left them with some heavy security people. And the whole time I was there, it never occurred to me that was being wedged into the world of Hollywood filmmaking. I was becoming a “Pro” but I sure didn’t feel like it. I was just a producer being a mule.
There were many moments like these that make me laugh my ass off when I look back and I am amused by my learning experience and my naiveté. I don’t pretend that I know everything, but when I do learn something—I always learn the hard way.
I gave her a heart attack one night when I emailed her and said, “Sienna, I’ve decided that I’m not going to shot list. I got it all in my head!”
An AD without a shotlist is like a car without a carburetor. I had no idea what I was doing to this woman!
Definition of Carburetor:
“The goal of a carburetor is to mix just the right amount of gasoline with air so that the engine runs properly. If there is not enough fuel mixed with the air, the engine “runs lean” and either will not run or potentially damages the engine.”
I was running lean. I was putting sugar in the gas tank of my production by being a “genius director” and doing things intuitively out of my head. She patiently argued with me and finally gave up after a long series of email. I said to her, “The DP and I would sit down and create a shot list. We ended up disagreeing with everything I wrote down and ended up rewriting it. So I’d rather her write the shotlist and I’ll adjust.” I didn’t see any point in creating a shot list if my DP already knew what I wanted but we just did things the dyslexic way. It’s a nice balance: I’d frame left, she’d flip the image right. I have someone walking up, she has them walking down. It’s the same shot, same idea every time, it’s just that we have it backwards with each other. So I just wanted the DP to map it.
I woke up the next day, strangely enlightened.
“Oh, I got it,” I wrote to her. “You need the shot list for scheduling. DUH.”
Sienna was like, “Exactly.”
Do you know what the dumbest thing film schools teach to students about shot lists? They teach you that it’s about the director’s vision; the “look” or scene list of the film. Many will never get it until they work with ADs. Shot lists to a film production is like a music sheet to a musician. The music sheet is for the non-musician so they can play your music and understand it. Real musicians don’t need it. Further, the heartbeat of a shot list is budget, time and money. It is about economy. It has nothing to do with artistic vision because it’s in braille.
Sadly, for our next production, Sienna won’t be there to yell at me. She is booked for something else. This news came to me shortly after I texted her and said, “I can’t wait for you to tell me that everything I’m doing is wrong.”
She replied, “I do my best.”