Why Your Indie Film Needs an Assistant Director

Keep your focus on the creative decisions with the help of this essential logistical department.

 

“My job is to get the film made.”

Here at Lights Film School, we love exploring every aspect of filmmaking, including some of the lesser-understood departments that comprise a film crew at both the independent and Hollywood levels. For example, we’ve investigated the world of the script supervisor – that essential “department of one” – and today, we dive deep into the world of Assistant Directing, as seen through the lens of professional Assistant Director (AD) Laura Klein.

Laura has been producing and Assistant Directing for years. She worked on Stephen Cone’s critically-acclaimed The Wise Kids and AD’d Andrea Pallaoro’s award-winning Medeas, as well as Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, which premiered at Sundance, found a home with A24 Films, and made a splash at The Independent Spirit Awards – to name only a few!

Obvious Child | A24 and The Exchange, 2014

Obvious Child | A24 and The Exchange, 2014

Hello, Laura! We’re excited to hear about your experiences in the world of Assistant Directing. To frame our conversation, would you mind sharing a bit about yourself and the projects with which you’ve been involved?

Hello! I come from a background in theatre and worked for a non-profit in New York City for five years before deciding to go to film school, because I wanted to go back to school and I wanted to change careers. I didn’t even know what an Assistant Director, or AD, was until I went to film school and ended up ADing and producing for my friends. Then, I got my first paid job as an AD and I was like, wait – I can do this for a living…?

After finishing school and doing many shorts as a 1st AD, I got offered my first feature – the director asked me to produce and AD the thing and I was, like, um, that’s a lot of work… and then I read the script – which was amazing – a wonderful ensemble film called THE WISE KIDS, and I said yes – and, honestly, never worked harder in my life. It was a beautiful thing.

Since then, I have been working primarily as a 1st AD on independent features. I mostly do features. Of course, the dream is always to work on projects that matter to me. I did it a different way – I went straight into 1st ADing and have been working my way up the budget level, as opposed to PAing on bigger movies first, etc. This is the way things have worked out for me, although there are other ways to become a 1st AD.

Indeed! As with so many paths in this industry, there is no one set “way”.

So, the basics: what does an Assistant Director do, and why is it important?

On a basic level, the 1st AD is responsible for making the shooting schedule, taking in all of the parameters – actor conflicts, location needs, etc. – and then adjusting the schedule as things come up during production. And, running the set during production – making sure that everyone knows what is happening next and keeping the lines of communication open and clear.

On a deeper level, I feel like my job is to get the film made.

I consider myself a facilitator. Helping to bring together all the different people working on set in order to get the movie made in the best way possible.

Laura collaborates with another department to prepare to shoot a stunt sequence.

Laura collaborates with another department to prepare to shoot a stunt sequence.

That’s beautiful, Laura. What are some common misconceptions about what an AD’s job entails?

Some people think an AD’s job is to yell at everyone and tell them to move faster.

I think my job is to make sure I am keeping track of the priorities of the director, so we spend our time on the most important things.

The title is “Assistant Director”, but what is your actual relationship with the director like? Any other department heads with whom you work closely?

In some ways, it depends on the director. My best relationships are when we talk through everything and I can become as much of an extension of the director as possible.

I work closely with all of the department heads, in order to make sure that there is clear and open communication – my relationship with department heads is very important to me.

There have been projects where I am very close to the Location Manager and we really make things work well together. Same with the Gaffer and Key Grip – if I can have a really good open communication with them, then it makes the production run so smoothly. Also with the Art Department, who are often the heroes of a film set, making miracles every day with very limited time and resources.

My relationship with the Director of Photography (DoP) is very important.

In many ways it sounds like you help to keep the film set running! What goes into pre-production to prepare for a shoot, and does it differ depending on the type of project (feature, short, episode, etc.) and budget? What tools or programs do you use?

I use Movie Magic for scheduling. Oftentimes, I help the director keep track of the changes in the script. I use Final Draft for that.

I have had pre-production ranging from 1 day to 8 weeks. It really depends on the production. My usual amount of pre-production is 3 to 5 weeks. A lot of time is spent scouting and locking locations, as well as shot listing the entire movie.

Every director and DoP have a different strategy regarding keeping track of the shot list. Sometimes, the DoP does it and sends it to me or shares it on Google Drive or something like that. Other times, I keep track of it. Sometimes, we don’t have one.

One of the goals here is to work on creating a shorthand of communication so everyone is making the same film.

When we get closer to production, my department starts to manage the actors in regards to facilitating communication, as well as scheduling their prep. And then, I run the tech scouts and production meetings – sometimes a production meeting is just me talking for 4 hours. One time on a film in New Orleans, I ran the thing sick as a dog – I thought it would never end.

Laura working a set with the crew.

Working a set with the crew.

Wow! And on set? What does a typical day look like for you – if there is such a thing?

There is such a thing, which is one of the beautiful aspects of making a film. Every film is different and challenging and every film has different needs and complications but there is a shared language, which I love.

I start the day with a safety meeting – bringing all the department heads together – running through the plan for the day and making sure everyone is aware of location restrictions and other special needs for that day. If, during the day, we are doing stunt work or scenes with firearms, I will have another safety meeting before that happens to make everyone aware of what to look out for and how to be safe.

Then, we start the day with a blocking rehearsal. The usual order of things is block – light – rehearse – shoot. Oftentimes the first blocking rehearsal with the actors and director is what we call a closed blocking rehearsal so they can figure some things out. Then I bring in the department heads to watch what they’ve worked out, then we finish lighting while the actors finish getting ready, and then we bring everyone together for a rehearsal – which sometimes we shoot. Shooting the rehearsal can be a good thing for some and not so good for others, but it does happen a lot. We move through the day like this, and then when we have to break for lunch, I think about the next day.

So the Assistant Director is “on” a lot of the time. When a film moves into post-production, Laura, are you off the hook, or does your job continue through the post lifecycle?

I am off the hook! Ha! My job really does end when we call picture wrap.

If I have a close relationship with the director, I will get to watch rough cuts of the film, but that is not part of the job.

I haven’t talked much about my team yet, but my team – 2nd AD, 2nd 2nd AD, PAs – is extremely important to me. They make everything better. The 2nd usually has a day of wrap – finishing production reports, etc.

Filmmaking is truly a collaborative craft. What advice would you give to a filmmaker who’s shooting a low-budget project with a skeleton crew, and is maybe considering not having an AD on set?

Making a film – any kind of film – is very challenging. It’s important to have someone – even if that someone is a producer/AD combo, which can happen on low budget films – who is keeping track of everything; making sure that you are reminded of your priorities, making sure you shoot everything, helping to plan the best way to do that, and organizing everyone else. It will take a huge weight off your shoulders so you can focus on actors and keeping your head as clear as possible of logistics in order to make creative decisions.

The producer/AD combo can happen a lot on low-budget films but I will say, as an AD primarily, a good producer is so important and, for me, really works as someone who is keeping track of the big picture. It is good when the roles aren’t combined, because one of the reasons we have all the different roles on a film is to create a system of checks & balances so that, if one person is not thinking about something, then the other person is.

Well said. At what point in the process should a producer or director bring in an AD?

This can really depend from film to film. Sometimes, a producer will have done the first pass at a schedule, but I always like to do my own so I can wrap my head around the film in a very specific way. To do it thoroughly, it usually takes me 2 to 3 days, depending on how complex the film is.

There have been projects that I have been attached to, as an AD, for years, and then there are projects that call me and want me to start prep within a week. Sometimes, I do breakdowns/schedules for producers very far in advance so that they can have something to work off of for their budgets – I may or may not end up working on the movie when it ultimately goes into production.

Laura managing extras.

Managing extras.

Wow. What do you wish more filmmakers, especially those just getting started, knew about your job?

It is all about the film for me. My goal is to make the film in the best way possible.

I am not just trying to make the day, although of course that’s part of it because, well, that’s part of making a film – working within parameters! This means that, if I make suggestions about time, etc., they come from a place of wanting to focus on the most important things in order to make the film as good as it can be – not for any other reason.

An important distinction, and one that can be easy to forget when a filmmaker is in the trenches with creative decisions. To paraphrase an AD friend of mine for the sake of driving home the point, “Do you want a perfect half film or a good whole film?” There are logistical realities that must be addressed in order to ensure success on set, and the AD is an instrumental part of that process.

What are some qualities that make for a good AD? What advice do you have for any aspiring ADs out there; where’s a good place to get started?

I always try to be as calm and clear-headed as possible. This can be challenging if you are having a tough day but will, ultimately, allow you to make the best decisions.

Be kind. Filmmaking can be like a war zone – and everyone is dealing with their own stuff – so being kind and understanding that is important. I really like to work on having very good relationships with everyone on set – ones where we can be very transparent and talk out issues, as they come up. Nobody’s job is more important than anyone else’s. You need everyone.

I really do try to protect the director’s and actor’s space because they have to get to the essence of the human condition amidst all the business of the set. I don’t know how they do it!

Start working. That is the place to start.

Fantastic words of wisdom, Laura. Any favorite stories from past projects you care to leave us with?

I always get asked this on job interviews. Ha! I’ve been really lucky to be a part of beautiful projects that give me the opportunity to see parts of the world that I never knew about.

Recently, I worked on an independent feature in Jackson, Mississippi, and we worked with the community to create the aftermath of a flood – like we were honoring the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

One time, we stole a scene at dawn of a topless woman in the middle of Times Square.

I have a great memory of working on a tiny, incredible film in Kentucky where we were trying to shoot Over-the-Shoulder of a cow, and me and the DoP were in a field and I was trying to hold the huge cow in place while it was eating my shirt.

Haha. “Film is forever,” right? Thanks for sharing your experiences, Laura! They go a long way toward demystifying the role and responsibilities of the Assistant Director. All the best on your next project!

 Courtney Hope Thérond, with

Need to write a film before you can AD it? We’d love to help you take your film from concept through final cut with our online filmmaking course – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.

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