Organization is the key to getting any large project completed and that’s as true for movie production (big budget or independent) as it is for building a skyscraper or running a ship. We’re going to use the analogy of running a ship to describe how a film is organized. Because this is about making movies, we’ll use a pretty famous ship – the USS Enterprise from Star Trek.
The captain of the ship would be analogous to the director—everything is being done to make his vision happen and to make it happen as fluidly as is possible. Everything on the sets is focused on achieving that end goal and, ultimately, the success or failure of the movie rests with his execution of the vision.
The job we’re going to cover is less glamorous, but no less important. It’s the first assistant director. Going back to the USS Enterprise analogy, if the director is Captain Kirk, the first assistant director is Mister Spock. It’s the assistant director’s job to make sure that things happen in the right order and that all the messy routine details of running a stage and set operation happen, solving problems before they come to the attention of the director and presenting information to the director when a decision needs to be made. In most cases, the assistant director reports to the producer, who’s managing budgets for several productions at the same time. While production generally deals with finances, the director’s side of the job deals with actors, which is the distinction between the assistant director and the production manager.
Most of the first assistant director’s jobs are logistical in nature. It’s his responsibility to make sure that the production schedule is created, that it’s broken down to a day-by-day shooting schedule. It’s his responsibility to make the daily call sheets, which are distributed to production crew and cast members, telling them where and when to meet for which scenes. When the set is being populated, it’s the first assistant director’s job to make sure that people are in the right place at the right time. First, the first assistant director establishes what’s causing any delays in the scene shoot, including which department (makeup, talent, grips, etc) so that everyone’s informed. This saves time and money, no matter what size of production is being run and communications and organizational skills are essential for this job.
Once there are no more delays, the assistant director calls for people to make any last minute adjustments to hair, position or lighting, then calls for quiet on the set, rolling the sound and camera, confirms (with hand signals) that both sound and camera are rolling. Once this is done, everyone stays out of the frame; the camera assistant uses the clapper board common to everyone’s vision of how movies are made and the director calls for action!
Now, that describes the day-to-day aspects of what the assistant director does. Where a lot of small budget films do is economize on this job. They either roll it into the production manager job or have the director do it all (who usually burns out in the process well before the shooting schedule ends).
When looking for an assistant director, look for a person who’s organized. This is a person who has a day planner and uses it. Look for a person who has good communications skills—he’s going to have a lot of information passing through his head and part of his job is making sure the information goes to the right person at the right time to do the maximum amount of good. A good assistant director has an ego, but knows it’s subordinate to the producer and the director. His job is to make sure that things happen on set, without chaos or strife or confusion.
Good assistant directors can improvise and always have a B plan (or C plan, or D plan…). There’s time after the shoot to have a nervous breakdown. When everything is going to hell on a rocket sled, it’s the assistant director’s job to be calm, clear and composed while trying to avert the disaster. Every assistant director knows the importance of providence and having backup plans ready to go.
It’s important to understand that an assistant director cannot afford to play politics with the crew or the cast. That’s in the producer’s bailiwick. Unfortunately, as the person on set who has the most authority with direct access, the assistant director is the person who gets whined at the most. The temptation to whine back is overwhelming, particularly since the assistant director ends up being the go-to guy for solving all problems on the set that can’t be handled locally. When presented with a problem by someone else, an important skill for any assistant director to have is to direct them to the person who can SOLVE the problem.
Finally, the assistant director needs to be flexible. Things will go wrong—it’s his job to fix them and deal with the crazy atmosphere of grips needing things, makeup needing things and actors being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ultimately, the assistant director can’t run the set like a boot camp. This will cause friction with the people doing the work and an overly regimented environment is wholly detrimental to getting creative performances out of actors.