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Playing Your Role in a Working Film Crew

COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : David McGiffert : Playing Your Role in a Working Film Crew
CreativeCOW presents Playing Your Role in a Working Film Crew -- TV & Movie Appreciation People / Interview


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My first "real" job as an assistant director was the 1976 version of King Kong. I started that shoot as a location scout, and then moved up to being the second assistant on the second unit, mostly shooting miniatures.

We came to New York to shoot background plates for the movie's helicopter sequences. I was sleeping all day because we were shooting at night, so a phone call at 2PM woke me up. It was Dino De Laurentiis's office, and they wanted to see me right away.

When I got to the office, it was full of producers, the director and the production chiefs. I thought "Damn, I'm fired."

But Dino said, "We've had some problems, and we'd like you to take over the first unit. Will you?" I stammered "Yes," but I thought I was going to have a heart attack. This was the largest shooting unit I'd ever seen - there were hundreds and hundreds of crew members.

My first scene was at the World Trade Center, with Jessica Lange running to the fallen body of King Kong. There were almost 10,000 extras, and 12 cameras rolling to capture it all!

It took me 20 years to discover the full range of what I didn't know, and it still makes my knees weak to think about it today.


THE JOB

If you start at the beginning of a show, being an assistant director means laying out the whole schedule: coordinating when actors and locations are available, efficiently turning in and out of night shoots, having alternatives available when outdoor shoots rain out, and so on.

During the shoot, you carry out what the director wants for how things are set up, what happens next.

You're also responsible for when things go wrong, and they always go wrong. Even after you think you've fixed something, nothing stays fixed. If you're a rigid person, this job is impossible.

One of the things I love most about the job is that you have to look out further than anybody else, discern the trends of the present, extrapolate into the future, and make changes to meet those challenges.

At the beginning of the day, you might hear that there's a set change or that somebody's ill, and it's clear that you can't get everything done. It's your job to figure out how to make up that time.

You only hear about trouble coming if people tell you. They have to trust that you are not going to jump on them, or "make an example" of them, or exercise some kind of power trip.

That's why running a set as a sergeant, telling everyone what to do, was the wrong approach for me. People on the crew are the ones who decide whether or not you keep your job.

If you've backed them into a corner and the crew doesn't want to tell you important information anymore, you're done. Build trust, collaborate, or get out.


WATCH & LEARN

Part of your end of the collaboration is becoming something of a dilettante. You have to understand what everyone on the set does, and be able to talk about their jobs in language they understand.

More important, you have to understand enough about people's jobs that you can gauge their progress without asking.

The least favorite question on the set is "When are you going to be ready?" People work as hard as they can, so you asking them about the work only slows them down.

If you know what you're looking at, you'll see that the gaffer is going to be ready ahead of schedule, so you can make sure the actors are ready to go and the production team is ready.

Understanding their job will help you do yours better.


ACTING IN GOOD FAITH

So much of what actors do takes such enormous concentration that you have to find ways to accommodate them.

It's very well known that the set of Tootsie could be fraught with conflict. Many of the elements in the screenplay weren't set, and two of the very strongest personalities in the business were trying to figure it all out.

Dustin Hoffman wasn't sure who this woman was, and director Sydney Pollack had ideas that differed from Dustin's. As much as it was always for the good of the picture, they argued intensely.

One of the ways that Sydney and Dustin worked it out is that Sydney asked Dustin for a number of takes his way. Then Dustin could do it his own way after that. Sydney promised that the best idea would go into the picture, and that's pretty much how it happened.

But even on the calmest sets, crews have issues that need to be discussed with actors. We found that if we had something to run by Dustin as he was preparing to be Michael, the angry out-of-work actor, it rarely went well. It went much more smoothly if we approached him when he was preparing to be Dorothy.

When we all began to understand how his intense internal preparations affected our conversations with each other, everyone - including Dustin - was much happier. We could quickly float ideas, get his feedback, and then quickly get out of his way so he could get back to his work.

Another show I worked on didn't get tense until the reshoots, which needed to take place in several parts of the country.

Scenes were in constant motion, and takes were often completely different from each other. Sometimes the crew knew they needed to go again, even if the actors and directors felt the take was a keeper.

David McGiffert and Tom Cruise
Above: David McGiffert on-set with Tom Cruise during Rain Man.
Below: On set in New York for King Kong.

In New York for King Kong

Because the director (normally a very easy-going man) was under so much pressure to keep moving - and because the acting scenes were so intense - the crew didn't always know how to keep things moving in the right direction.

We'd all noticed that it was easier for the director to hear about needing another take from the actors instead of the crew. I'd developed enough trust with the actors that I went to a couple of them and explained the crew's problem.

"We'll speak up as often as he can hear us," I said to them, "and I'll never ask this unless it's an extreme case, but if we need some help, can we come up with a sign so that you can ask for another take?"

They didn't hesitate to say yes. We really didn't use it more than a couple of times, but it was a way for us all to share the heat for the good of the picture. I think you understand why I'm not going to tell which picture I'm talking about.

There's not always time to earn this kind of intimate trust. You have to trust each other because you're all you've got.

Sydney Pollack hired me for Rain Man. By the time Barry Levinson came on instead, Dustin and Tom Cruise's schedules meant that Barry was going to have to work with Sydney's crew if it was going to happen at all.

Barry had never worked with any of us before, so he had us over to his house, we started talking - and we started shooting together just two weeks later.


ASSISTING

There aren't a lot of stupid people making movies, but there is a lot of psychology on a movie set. That's why I've learned so much from cinematographers over the years. Maybe it's from watching everything so closely, but they often have a strong sense of the most helpful ways to deal with people.

In the end, the key to getting everyone on your side is not to have sides. That's been my biggest thing: no factionalization. Run at problems. Don't let them go. Make everybody with a problem get into one room, and work it out in front of each other.

The key is to balance the needs of the crew, actors and directors, as working professionals, but also as people who happen to be working on a film together.


David's Thoughts About Some of the Directors That He's Worked With

I worked with Sydney Pollack on Absence of Malice, Tootsie, and The Interpreter. One of the great pleasures of my life was sitting down, listening to him tell stories. It was easy to forget until we got back to the set and started working that he was the most powerful, intense director I've ever worked with. No question, absolutely larger than life.

Milos Forman is happiest when he's relaxed: sometimes he came to the sets of The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon in pajamas and slippers. He's also the most astute filmmaker I ever saw about knowing what needs to happen to make everything work. It was a devastating combination, because he looked like he was half asleep, maybe even too tired to do a full feature. Then halfway through the shoot you realize he's miles ahead of you, and you can't catch your breath trying to keep up.

Peter Weir is a deeply spiritual man. Working with him on Witness was positively serene. You can really see his strong visual style in that one, the way it takes in his spirituality. I didn't work with him on it, but there's nobody else who could have done "Master and Commander," is there?

Robert Zemeckis is the best I've worked with at visualizing the entire scene, every movement. A perfectionist, but not to do things "his" way. He wouldn't stop until he was sure it was right. When we first met, he told me to stand on the conference table in the middle of everyone and "start assistant directing." I laughed and said, "It's true what they say: you're nuts." He laughed too and said "Do you want to come along?" I did, for all three Back to the Futures and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Lisa Cholodenko was the writer/director of Laurel Canyon. I wish I'd gotten to do more pictures like this one. There were so many strong women – Lisa, Frances McDormand, Kate Beckinsale – who were so different from each other, but they worked together so well. I did get to work with her on Cavedweller. Her enthusiasm is contagious. She's obviously so happy to be doing this!



David McGiffertDavid McGiffert
Topanga, California

In this article, David McGiffert explores ideas and working principles that have made him a successful part of such films as "Rain Man," "An Officier and a Gentleman," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," all of the "Back to the Future" films, "Witmess" and many others. David's career started with the 1976 version of "King Kong" and is still going strong today, over 30 years later. David offers Creative COW members a look at what it takes to function as a successful part of a team in the high pressure world of filmmaking.





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