On Being A Better First AD

Back in May, I was the First AD on a series of commercials for Microsoft – specifically, for several computers that sport the new Windows 7 operating system. We shot in a studio for four days and to be honest…

It was my best experience as a First AD ever.

I’m not sure what the difference was. Perhaps it was the director, who treated everybody (and I mean EVERYBODY) with kindness and respect. Perhaps it was the crew, who were all so comfortable with their jobs and comfortable with their rate of pay, that they just showed up on time, with smiles, did their work and rarely complained. Perhaps it was the gaggle of awesome PA’s we had? Perhaps it was being in a studio? Perhaps it was the shooting schedule?

Or perhaps it was me. And not because I’m amazing (which I’m not) but because of two disparate experiences I’ve had that, combined, have made me a more comfortable (possibly better?) First AD. Those two experiences are:

  1. Producing a feature film
  2. Working as a background actor

In 2008, my husband and I co-produced a feature film with two friends and business partners. Along with producing, each of us had at least one other key role. One was also the writer and lead actor, one was also the director, my husband was also the editor, and I was also a line producer and costume designer. It was the experience of producing and line producing (the two are not always the same job!) that made me a more knowledgeable First AD. Knowledge isn’t always power, but it certainly can add a level of comfort. And comfort can breed confidence. Comfort certainly doesn’t breed fear.

In 2010, my husband and I moved to New York City where I determined that I didn’t want to First AD, I didn’t want to Line Produce or UPM or Production Coordinate. I just wanted to be a simple artist. I wanted a part-time job that wasn’t taxing or emotionally draining and I wanted to spend the rest of my time writing and working on the Short Film that I’d just finished shooting and was ready to edit with my Los Angeles-based editor. This all sounds kind of selfish in hindsight (especially considering that there are plenty of people with my skill set who can’t find work); it seems nearsighted to avoid looking for the best-paying work I can acquire, but I felt strongly about persuing my passions (and still do).

So what did we come up with for me to do? Background acting! But first! First, I had to get over my pride. “I’ve produced a feature film!” “I’m usually a First AD!” “I’m actually a director!” These lines echoed in my head each of the first half-dozen or so times that I found myself on a set as a background actor (aka expensive organic prop). I had to get over that pride and be okay with my choices.

Once I did that, I was able to open my eyes and learn. I began to watch the First ADs, I began to watch the other crew and (given my experiences) I could actually understand what was happening (many background actors are clueless about the process). And as I watched, I learned.

It’s mostly tacit knowledge: things like, how different ADs run their sets, how different shows plan their days, how different gaffers like to communicate with their DPs, and how long a 2/8 page scene really should take!!! Also, to be frank, as a background actor in New York City, I found myself on bigger sets than I ever had been as a producer or First AD. And being on bigger sets gives you a better perspective of how smaller sets should run.

So now, I recommend that everyone who wants to be in a key creative or technical position in “Hollywood” work on big sets and work on small sets. It doesn’t matter what your position is as long as you pay attention to what’s happening around you.

Anyway, back to being a First AD. I’m kinda energized for the position now.

Anybody shooting anything?

Working Background

So my husband and I just moved to New York City and to help pay the bills while I work on writing screenplays and directing short films, we decided that I needed to get a part-time job.

I needed to figure out what kind of job I could do that would be flexible enough but that would also provide a decent hourly rate.  I have an MBA, and experience producing films, bookkeeping, being a local coffee-shop girl, and even small business management; but I wanted something that wouldn’t drain me physically or emotionally.  As much as I like to play the tough, macho feminist who’s going to take over the world, I’m really just a sensitive artist who takes everything about my self way too seriously.  So I knew that bookkeeping and coffee-slinging would be too taxing for my fragile artistic soul (at this juncture).  What could I do?

Then one day it hit me!  Background work!

At first I was somewhat resistant to the idea, and to be honest, it’s because I’m kinda prideful. I’d love for people to think that I’m rollin’ in the dough, having made a ton of moolah on the feature we produced and don’t need any help getting my short film made. Well, the cut and dry of it is: the feature film hasn’t been released yet (and who’s to say how well it’ll fair at the box office once it does?), so I really do need the earn the money that we’re going to spend to finish my short film.

So in November, I signed up for Central Casting here in NYC. The very next day I was on a set silently improvising a conversation with two seasoned actors. The production was the pilot that Judd Apatow helped Lena Dunham produce. I questioned those seasoned actors and learned about other casting agencies – including Casting Networks. Shortly after, I signed up with Casting Networks.

The plan was to do the background acting for a few months to be sure I’d like it and could handle it; and if I did, I’d join SAG and earn the higher union wage (I became SAG eligible back in 2008 with a small role on an independent feature). I joined SAG back in April and haven’t looked back. It’s been really wonderful to have such a flexible job and for my job to be relatively low-stress! The early morning calls are tedious; but, boy! is it fun to be on set for a living!

Blue-Bloods-Background.png

Can you find me here on the set of Blue Bloods (S1 E14 “My Funny Valentine”)?

Also, with my producing experience, I can watch what’s going on around me with an educated eye – and I learn. I’m learning how different First AD’s function; learning how different sets are run (big ones versus little ones); learning who the best caterers in NYC are; learning what keeps background and crew happy; learning how to organize a shooting day; learning all the extra space you need when you shoot on location; and learning SAG rules. Learning all this and so much more will hopefully help make me a smarter, more efficient and patient director. I know it’s already made me a better First AD (more on that in another post).

On Directing Actors

The Hollywood Reporter has a delightfully short little piece on Tom Hooper and his recent accolades called “The 5 Secrets of Tom Hooper’s ‘King’s Speech’ Success.”  In it Hooper says,

“I was at the roundtable with Ethan Coen and he said to me, ‘I’ve never directed an actor in my life,’ and I thought, well — I wonder if that’s true. Because I’m sure if you walk into a Coen brothers setup, a good actor will immediately read so much from the locations, the art direction, where the camera’s placed, from the casting of the other person — that is all directing as well, just because it’s not saying, ‘Now do it this way, now do it that!'”

I think Tom’s on to something. While I do think that “True Grit” was better written than directed and would totally believe that the Coen Bros did not say a word to their actors on that set, I do think that perhaps the writing, costumes, set dec, and camera placement did have an effect on the performance of the actors.  It’s probably why, my favourite scene, is also my favourite performance – the courtroom scene.

I find it hard to process this idea from the Coen Bros; because one of the reasons I love directing so much is that I love directing actors.  The second reason is that I love directing the camera; but that’s a story for a different day. Directing was initially birthed in me when I would tell my childhood friends, after a rousing round of make-believe, “That was great! Let’s do it again but this time, let’s change a few things.”

True story.

I always found it strange that I was the only one who wanted to play the same story over again. But I digress.

I love directing actors and I can’t imagine being a director and avoiding that joyful experience! I’m not saying that all actors require direction all the time.  That’s certainly not true. But the experience of working out the truth of a moment or the truth of a character with a friend is too delicious! Let me play!

You might think that perhaps I am just a frustrated actor, but I promise that I love directing more than I love acting. I’ve done both enough to know which I love more.

I love directing actors.

A Dream Come True: I’m Playing Puck!

puckI’ve been working on a little independent film during the last few weekends that we’re lovingly calling “Midsummer 95.” It’s an abridged screen adaptation of “A Midsummer Nights Dream” and I’ve been cast as Puck! It’s been a dream of mine to play Puck. And it’s truly been a delight! The cast and crew is so warm and welcoming. It’s felt like a safe environment and I’m loving every minute of it!

Busy-ness

I’ve been very busy these days.

I’ve just started the Act One (Saturday) Writing Program. I’m working part-time at Hero Pictures (they’re producing The Private Lives of Albert Einstein) and I’m also getting my voice acting demos out to agents very soon.

Finally, both Ryan and I are on the producing team of a feature film entitled The Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher about which we’re very excited! So producing activities for that are taking up a lot of our time. Yup! We’re busy!

Just wanted to give a little update on my activities…

Hope you’re all happy and healthy!