It’s crazy to think it’s only been 4 years since I started working professionally as an Assistant Director. I think back to my days in Boston where I AD’d small Emerson films and friends’ music videos before moving to Austin and hitting my first feature as a 1st AD in the summer of 2009. Here I am at the brink of Summer 2012 and I’m facing key set on a big commercial, 1st ADing another feature in June, and working through several prospects for the second half of summer into fall and I’m revisiting all my past projects while I tweak my resume.
The truth is, I’m a baby in the industry. I’ve got a long way to go, and I’m probably doing it wrong (which is fine). A lot of ADs above me started off as PAs or office interns and I’m only now getting PA gigs on bigger shows and I have several features as a 1st and 2nd AD already under my belt. It hasn’t been an easy four years, by any means. I’ve been screamed at by producers and directors and DPs, rejected by projects, fired, laid off, and blacklisted. I’ve torched bridges on purpose while others caught on fire accidentally. The reality is, you’re going to fuck up - A LOT - before any respect comes through.
If I could do it all again, I don’t think I would. But instead, I can use my past experiences to warn, advise, and placate future ADs.
Hang in there! Here are the top ten things I would tell my younger AD self:
10. DON’T AD FOR FREE ON ANY PROJECT LONGER THAN 2 DAYS
When I was younger, I would take any gig I could get to gain experience. But there’s experience and then there’s experience. The kind that makes your skin crawl when you refer to it. Some of the worst projects I worked on were unpaid weekend only dealies where I was doing most of the prep work without any sort of reward. When a production is so unprofessional that you don’t actually learn any tips to doing your job better… it’s simply not the kind of experience you’re needing. You don’t have an AD reel you can add the footage to. Move on quickly.
9. PUT NO EGGS IN NO BASKET
If I could tell you the amount of times when I first started out that I spent the money from a production before the ink dried on a deal memo… well, it’s actually too embarrassing to tell you how many times that happened. Hell, even with a deal memo, I still got burned. In the indie world (AND EVEN IN THE STUDIO WORLD!), projects fall through, nepotism brings on someone else instead of you, and things get pushed to a date you’ve already been booked for. Don’t spend the money until the cash is in hand.
8. DON’T DATE YOUR COWORKERS
Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule. But as an AD, you need to put the personal life behind when you’re on set and in the thick of it. Some crewfolks can carry on a showmance without the slightest hint of it affecting performance. However, if you’re having problems with Mr. Hot Gaffer while you’re trying to get a 7 page day done with him stalling on getting the lighting going more efficiently… you’re not only going to lose your focus and probably your briefly enchanting boyfriend, but you could also lose your job. I’ve dated my fair share of crew folks and at some points, it affected me poorly. It’s not worth it in the end. Wait until the show’s over.
7. GET REAL SCHEDULING SOFTWARE AS SOON AS YOU BOOK YOUR FIRST FEATURE AS AN AD
You know what trying to make a feature length production schedule on Excel is like? Hell. Absolute fucking hell. No really, I think it’s listed in Dante’s Inferno somewhere. Yes, it’s mindnumbingly expensive. There are ways around that. For example, each full package of Movie Magic Scheduling comes with 2 licenses. I split the costs with a fellow AD/Production Manager friend of mine and we both use our licenses excessively and can share mms files between us when we’re on projects together (which is often, btw). It’s like the clouds parting and a heavenly choir encircling you. If you’re going to be a pro AD, you need pro AD tools.
6. DON’T LET ANYONE DICTATE WHAT KIND OF AD YOU’LL BE
Non-ADs love to tell ADs how they should AD. This is frustrating to some and amusing to others. The worst thing you could possibly do as an AD is not be who you are. I come from the east coast, from a big loud Italian family that’s mostly part of the working poor (with some exceptions). I have an aggressive personality and sometimes an intimidating appearance. Whenever I’ve tried to hide these realities about myself, I’ve felt distracted, lost, and unable to really do what I love to do. You don’t have to roll up on set with laser beams shooting out of your tits, but if you’re aggressive, it’s ok. There are lots of projects that call for that. And if you end up on one that’s not really calling for it? There’s a way to tailor the harsher parts of your personality without completely drowning them out. Don’t be afraid to let people know who you are.
5. ASSUME ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
One of the number one things I see sink a production is assumption, and the power it has with the production department. Assuming something will happen without quadruple checking in on it is playing chicken with fate and fate almost always wins. Make 16 phone calls if you have to. Text, email, FB message, smoke signal, and send a singing telegram if you have to. Whatever you can do to assure what needs to happen will happen. Because if it doesn’t happen, that’s shit’s on production. And guess who is the physical on set embodiment of production? You. The damned AD. And you will always be the one thrown under the bus when production screws up. So double, triple, quadruple check everything.
4. WEAR SOCKS WITH YOUR SHOES. AND WEAR BELTS.
I am still an idiot sometimes and wake up just a tad too late and run out the door to set without giving much thought to my own comfort. You’re on your feet for 12+ hours a day in all kinds of conditions. Wear some socks. And put on a belt so your pants don’t keep falling down from the weight of the walkie. Really. Honestly. What the fuck was I thinking?
3. ALWAYS EAT A NUTRITIOUS BREAKFEST ON OR BEFORE SET
I don’t mind sounding like your mom for a second. Every time I eat a crappy breakfast on set, I end up feeling it both physically and mentally. This goes to a deeper issue. You need to be on top of your game all day in both physicality and mental processes, so why are you treating it to trash? If your body is spending time trying to utilize empty calories and refined sugar, it’s not going to have much left to help you with the things you need to be doing. Hunger pangs are not fun on set, and neither is feeling weak, tired, or unable to focus. I’m vegetarian and try to make sure production has a hearty source of protein for me in the mornings. And if you’re stuck? Bananas are like a super food on set. Protein, calcium, healthy fats and fruit sugar, potassium, and more. It’s good calories and can at least tide you over until you call lunch.
2. TRY TO SEE THINGS POSITIVELY EVEN WHEN YOU WANT TO NUKE THE ENTIRE SET
Being negative a lot when I was doing this in my younger years really almost burned me completely. Negativity is like a virus. You can still be aggressive and commanding without causing the entire set to hate each other. Cut down on unnecessary complaints, pull troublesome crewfolk aside to talk instead of lashing out at them publicly, bring a smile to the director when things are looking rough, and always look towards a solution instead of looking towards who to blame. In the end, it falls on you. And if you always respond with a frown and a temper tantrum, that reputation can follow you for years. It’s also unnecessary stress on yourself. No one wants just lemons when you can make lemonade.
1. AND WHAT SEEMS CONTRADICTORY TO THE LAST PIECE OF ADVICE, BURN YOUR BRIDGES AND DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT.
So you’ve been the perfect AD and everyone loves you. Except one of the producers. Or maybe the director thought you were too aggressive or something. You’re going to encounter those folks you just will not win over no matter how much the others like you. Such is life. I used to get completely freaked out and saddened by it. What did I do? Was it something I said? Do they just don’t like women being ADs or is it my tattoos? Don’t spend your precious sleeping hours awake and dwelling on the few folks you’ve pissed off. If you can pinpoint what happened, learn from the mistakes and move on. If you can’t figure it out, don’t lose sleep over it. Sometimes the bridges we burn light our way. Be strong, keep calm, and roll sound.