Recently I found myself in a particularly unusual situation on set. I came on board a project very late and while the crew were exceptionally welcoming, I experienced an unusually high level of hostility from the lead actress. Now and then it happens that you just don’t click with someone and you just have to make the best of it, in this instance it wasn’t even that. I actually got on fairly well with said actress on a personal level, but now and then she would come out with a very aggressive and snide dig.
On the most basic level she objected to me putting pressure on the wardrobe and make up departments to get the cast on set sooner. The actress objected to this so strongly that she accused me of picking on the costume girl and using deliberately belittling tactics. Like every AD in the world, occasionally I’ve been accused of being abrupt, or rude or overly pushy – but I’ve never in my life being accused of singling anyone out. Generally I’m told that I’m pretty fair on set and treat everyone equally.
Most cast at a certain level reach the same conclusion ‘They have a certain amount of my footage in the can so they can’t fire me without costly reshoots. I can say and do what I want and no one is going to intervene.’ Cast need to maintain good working relations with the director, so it’s not wise to vent frustrations to them. Taking it out on a runner, gaffer, sound recordist etc. is equally as problematic as the 1st AD may be forced to have a quiet chat. The best person to use as a human punch bag is the 1st AD themselves – the only person left to turn to is the producer and asking them to intervene could be extremely negative to cast performances.
It’s easy to see why cast can get frustrated, they have a really rough ride sometimes, especially on low budget indie projects. It’s not an easy job and they’re pulled around the set like dolls at times, occasionally treated as little more than a walking prop. Actresses often wear skimpy dresses for night shoots in sub-zero conditions, and no matter how many warm coats you wrap them in the moment you cut, it doesn’t take away from the inside-out chill that only a hot soak can ever really get out of your system. It doesn’t help when the DP can’t find the shot and is casually sipping herbal tea in their layers of thermals and their North Face ‘I-work-in-film-don’t-ya-know’ jacket. Cast regularly hang about because you’re running a ‘little late’ and often don’t even have adequate green room facilities. I’ve seen costume changes in public loos, the kit truck, in a runner’s car, behind a bush, in the street, you name it. Cast have to maintain their figure to maintain their livelihood, yet on set catering on a budget is usually pure stodge. Carbs carbs carbs. They’re cold, uncomfortable, badly fed, rushed and they’re expected to maintain a calm focus and character for The Shot. Let’s not forget The Shot, which is after all the point of the whole endeavour. Working conditions shouldn’t be like this, but the reality is that making a film on a shoe string budget dictates these things. Without a doubt, acting is tough.
So is ADing. Put simply, the role is to deliver the project on time and in budget awkwardly straddling the line between the director and producer. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised the actress in question only half understood the job. In one of her little gripes she said she would never presume to pick someone up on their ‘professional failings, or supposed failings’ and of course we would finish on time that night because ‘that’s your job’. I suddenly understood why she felt I was picking on the costume and makeup departments. The actress believed the role of the 1st AD was to stand with a watch saying ‘It’s five o’clock guys! Lets speed things up a bit here’. It’s not.
The role of the 1st AD is extremely complex and broad and I could talk about it for days. In order to deliver the project on time you have to manage the crew and run the set so the director can focus solely on the artistic aspects of the production and work with the cast. You plan every moment of the shoot day in advance and make sure everyone is moving towards the same goal. The 1st AD will order the shot list to best utilise the time, reducing the number of setups needed to achieve the shots. Any changes throughout the day need to be immediately communicated to the cast and crew. You have to know at every moment what every department is doing and make sure they’re prepping for the next setups. This is achieved by managing the crew, knowing what they need to be doing for the next scene, getting them started and focused on it. It’s about keeping the energy up, the morale high, playing the peace maker, the disciplinarian, being the protector for cast and crew and being the fall guy when things go wrong.
When I put time pressure on the wardrobe department the lead actress, whose background is predominantly theatre, understood that to be telling them how to do their job. To be overstepping my mark and in short, she understood my job to be to stand in a corner and simply chime the quarter hours on a loudspeaker. While it’s true that cast are unlikely to be fired or even reprimanded during the course of a shoot, and the AD department are seen as fairly expendable, it won’t help an actress get cast again. Nothing is more miserable than an entire crew who feel a performer is taking the piss and they have little power to do anything about it. Directors and producers notice it as much as anyone.