- Job title:
- 1st Assistant Director
Chris has been working as an Assistant Director for over 30 years. His recent credits include Your Highness (dir: David Gordon Green), Dorian Grey (dir: Oliver Parker), Mamma Mia! (dir: Phyllida Lloyd), Match Point (dir: Woody Allen), Sahara (dir: Breck Eisner), Love Actually (dir: Richard Curtis), About A Boy (dir: Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz), Shanghai Knights (dir: David Dobkin), Band Of Brothers (various directors), Sleepy Hollow (dir: Tim Burton) and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (dir: George Lucas).
What does a 1st Assistant Director do?
The job has a very wide remit, but in the simplest terms you are there to assist the director in getting his or her film shot. I help schedule a film so that it is shot in the most cost effective way in the right number of days. Lots of dynamics come into play when creating the schedule: the actors and their availability or when the locations are ready. I plan a movie as though it is a military campaign.
At the very beginning, you take the script apart and break it into component scenes and try to work out how long it will take to film. A lot of judgement based on previous experiences is needed in this planning stage. You have to talk to all the departments such as lighting and special effects departments to make sure they can fit into the schedule.
Then when the shoot starts it's my job to move things along in a sergeant major kind of way so that the plan becomes reality. It's a continual process of talking to people and making sure things happen, but not making it unenjoyable because you're always watching the clock. You're always out to do the best thing for the director and not just be the guy who always says you haven't got time to do that.
For example, on Sahara we had two units filming at the same time. The first unit should have been shooting in Morocco and the second unit in Barcelona. But because of logistical problems - we were having some boats built that weren't ready in time for a chase scene on a lake - we all ended up in the desert at the same time. So we had to work out a new shooting schedule that shared the limited resources of the desert in Morocco between the two units. We had to juggle rest days and resources so that the second unit didn't just sit there with nothing to do.
Being an assistant director is a jack-of-all-trades job. On a film set everybody has better knowledge about his or her own speciality than you do, whereas you know a little bit about everybody's job. You have to make educated guesses to see you through - and that is the difficult bit.
Some people say being an assistant director is the best job on set. You're meeting people all the time and not just loading up the camera. It depends on the people you are dealing with. If they are distasteful it's tough, if they are really nice it's fun.
How did you get into the business?
I started a long time ago, before film schools became endemic. A contact I knew at Disney passed my name onto their UK production office in Pinewood for the film One Of My Dinosaurs Is Missing. I started off a runner, making cups of tea and coffee, Xeroxing and occasionally walking onto the set. Then I spent four or five months working in a cutting room, which is something I'd always wanted to do. But I couldn't get a union card to work in a cutting room - it was the mid-70s and it was important to have a union card then. I could, however, get a card as an assistant director. So by a quirk of fate, I became an assistant director. Once I was in that job, I went from one job to the next and have been lucky enough to be able to work my way up from third to second to first assistant director.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to become an assistant director?
It's a good idea to try to go to film school so you can get some practical experience of making a short film and how to shoot movies. Getting involved like that will stand you in good stead no matter what grade you go in at.
One of the most popular routes for people to get into the film business is by becoming an assistant director. It's viewed as a catch-all department.
To succeed, you have to be humble and very good at communicating and persuading people to do what you want. But you can't bully people. An assistant director is not on the set to be liked, but you'll get less done if you are disliked. The best assistant directors are the ones that listen and find out what is going on around them. It's all about listening, which is a very underrated art.
You've also got to be outward going, but not so outward going that it annoys people - it's a quiet maturity that I look for.
If you want to get in as a third assistant director, you've got to persevere. You've got to knock on doors - it's always better to try and come and say hello if possible than to send CVs.
Once you're in there's not much formal training for an assistant director. Most of it you learn on the job.