Can You Come in tomorrow? Our AD’s Ill

Until recently I’ve never taken over a shoot from someone, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve taken over two. Both were relatively close to the end, both were feature films. On the first of the two projects the crew were very welcoming and worked with me to get my bearings. The second shoot however was very problematic and ended in my succumbing to an already present malady and going home sick.

The problems were multiple. I had been called the day before and asked to do a shoot, including overnight stays for an embarrassingly small payment, which the producer made clear was non-negotiable. The schedule and script were promptly sent out. When I requested the shot list I was informed there wasn’t really one but not to worry. I did worry and pressed the point. A rough shot list was duely dispatched but little communication was encouraged the day before the shoot, although it was clearly to be a logistically challenging day.

On the morning of the shoot I had a very clear plan. I was to arrive nice and early, get the producer to walk me round the location and unit base, introduce myself to all cast and crew and then start running through the shots with the director and DP. But it was not to be. I was the first on location and as people slowly trickled in, a running theme of deep seated contempt towards each other started to become apparent – to this day I don’t know what the cause of it may have been.

What I do know is that when the producer turned up he didn’t even seek me out to introduce himself, although I believe I was the only new face on set. I introduced myself to costume, makeup and art department heads who were all very welcoming. By a process of elimination I found him and cajoled him into walking me round the sets, which he did with a rather ill grace. A random person walked up to me, didn’t introduced himself, demanded to know why there were no printed sides or callsheets available and promptly walked away again without so much as giving me a moment to respond. I put a runner in charge of getting the radios together who sneered that there seemed to be a lot missing and did I know no one had put them on charge last night. I got cast started with costume and joined the DP and director to go over the shots.

The director was keen to tell me the shotlist was for guideline purposes only and he would be shooting above and beyond it’s meagre confines. When discussing the shots the DP had an expressive way of starting every sentence with a pained roll of the eyes and an impatient ‘tsk’. A random person cynically wished me luck.

I was feeling rather poorly that particular morning, and while ordinarily I would sit out the malady and keep on trucking, I decided to take the unusual step of going home and back to bed. The whole experience raised one key question. Is it appropriate to bring another AD on for the last few days?

Ordinarily I would say of course it is, you always need an AD and if you don’t think you do you’re a fool. But, for a few remaining days it may better for the second to step up (if there is one, on this shoot there actually wasn’t) or for the producer to get his hands dirty. Most producers, either have a background in AD work or have the over lapping skill set to undertake it for a day or so. Most importantly, they know the script, the project and the logistics better than anyone.

On the first of the two projects mentioned, I had one prep day where I had only been able to have one read of the script, had no breakdown sheets or location lists and was asked by the production co-ordinator to reschedule the last week’s shoot then and there, going off nothing but a printed strip board. I genuinely believe that having someone under take such a task with so little working knowledge of the project is extremely unconstructive as the risk of casual mistakes is very high.

Essentially the 1st AD needs to take ownership of the set. Knowledge of the production (and experience) is what grants an AD the foresight to look ahead for potential problems, and the confidence to take decisive, prompt action when troubleshooting. This is in turn gives the AD the authority to run the set. By the very nature of stepping in for a day or two, you’re going to be several pages behind everyone else, so no one will instinctively look to the AD for leadership anyway.

This is where the producer-AD relationship really comes into play. In a sense, the producer needs to give the covering AD the permission to run the set. They need to undertake a proper and full briefing with the new AD, covering everything they can possibly think of, enabling the AD to decide what’s important. The previous AD will have made breakdown sheets – pass them on, and if there’s a Dropbox link – share it. If a meeting wasn’t possible before the shoot day, due to the urgency of the situation, the producer needs to be on hand to answer any queries in the first few hours. It’s beneficial to take the new AD round and break the ice with a few introductions – at the very least it’s rude for the producer not to introduce themselves. If the producer won’t do these things, they are preventing the AD from ever really owning the set, so you many as well not have them there, and filming is far too expensive to take passengers.

It is also important to stop and think ‘Why are they looking for a new AD half way through the production?’. It may genuinely be down to sickness, or personal reasons, or the previous AD may have left the project or been asked to leave. Frankly it’s no one else’s business but theirs. However, it is essential to analyze the paperwork to see if it’s a troubled production and if you will actually be able to do your job. If there is any hint that the previous AD may have left under some sort of cloud, you need to be asking one question – is it safe? One of the biggest causes of friction with an AD at this level is a director wanting to do a work around stunt that hasn’t been adequately planned, and you need to be sure that’s not the case.

Truth be told I was thoroughly ashamed to play on the relatively mild sickness I was feeling, but it was quite apparent I was not going to be able to do my job without the full and correct information, or without the support of the crew which did not seem forthcoming.  Ironically, while writing this I got a phone call asking me if I could come in as cover for the next two days – I declined.