The role of an Assistant Director on a film includes tracking daily progress against the filming production schedule, arranging logistics, preparing daily call sheets, checking cast and crew, and maintaining order on the set.
It was a pure pleasure to sit down with 1st Assistant Director Mathew Dunne. Mathew has worked on some of the top action movies in the last 20 years, including: Starship Troopers (1998), The Last Samurai (2003), Mission Impossible III (2006), Live Free or Die Hard (2007), X-Men: First Class (2011), Iron Man 3 (2013), and the last 3 Planet of the Apes movies. As of this interview, Mathew is currently working on War for the Planet of the Apes, coming out in 2017.
Matthew Toffolo: In a typical Hollywood production, how many weeks before shooting does the 1st AD come aboard the film? When setting the schedule for the production, who is generally in the room?
Mathew Dunne: The sooner the AD starts the better! Usually somewhere between ten to sixteen weeks out, depending on the scale of the picture. After my first pass of the schedule with the director, I am given a number of days to fit the work into and directive by the Executive/Line Producer based on what the budget will allow.
Sometimes that means me having to trim our original number of days. Then I’ll adjust again after meeting with the director. At that point it’s going through it with the Line Producer, DP, Production Designer etc..
Matthew: What are the key qualities to being a great 1st AD?
Mathew: Being prepared, flexible, calm under pressure. Being able to maintain a sense of humor. Someone that can give a director all the ingredients to make his vision. That cares about the quality of the movie, the schedule, the welfare of all involved. You have to know the work better than anyone. There’s also no substitute for experience.
Matthew: I always noticed when I worked on Hollywood productions that the 1st AD sets the mood of the shoot. They are the patriarch or matriarch of the production. How does the 1st AD gain the respect of the crew on the first day?
Mathew: General crew members can work on three/ four movies a year, so they see all sorts. They know immediately if you know what you’re doing. They want information. They want to work as efficiently as possible and as soon as they see that you’re on top of it, you’re in.
You have two great opportunities to establish this with a large group of people. The Production Meeting before shooting begins and the safety meeting on the first day.
In the safety meeting you have the attention of the entire crew. After talking about safety you talk about the work of the day. Normally the first day is one of the most planned out day — you’ve probably figured out all the shots the day before — so as soon as you get off to a good start the crew sense you’re on it. After that, you have to be consistent – show them that no matter how difficult the project you’re going to get them though it.
I tend to do harder movies, so sometimes its like a military operation, but you try to do it with a sense of humor.
Matthew: You’ve worked on many action movies through the years. Is there is a key difference when working on productions of that genre?
Mathew: Planning is everything in action – rehearsals, critical. You could feasibly shoot three days work in one day on a dramatic piece, but there is no hurrying action. If you look at most action scenes there’s almost never a shot longer than three seconds, but each one of those shots can take hours to shoot and sometimes months to plan and set up, like the car flying into the helicopter on Live Free or Die Hard.
When we did the Shanghai car chase in Mission Impossible III, we rehearsed cars backing up to reset for another take. You want to cover all your bases. Then of course there’s the safety element of action sequences — I’ve had up to one hundred PAs doing lockups when we did a car chase in Seville.
Matthew Dunne on Set in Seville, Spain:
Matthew: How important are the storyboards for action and stunt scenes?
Mathew: Whether your task is to shoot exactly as storyboarded or not (exact lens, angle etc,) the shot HAS to be better than the way it’s represented. If its a near miss in a car chase, expect there to be a couple of collisions in the background. Make each shot look better.
Even if a storyboard is just a representation of a sequence, it’s a great tool to let everyone know what pieces you have to get. I always have the storyboards laminated and put on a big velcro board on the set in order of shooting day. That way everyone can keep track of what can be quite complex sequences and where we are in the day.
Matthew: When working as a 1st AD on 2nd Units, are those mainly pick up stunt scenes?
Mathew: It can be anything to shooting one hundred and eleven days on Starship Troopers – including shooting the biggest explosion ever on a movie – to a four man crew going out to get a car driving by. I tended to work on bigger action sequences and sometimes entire dramatic sequences of first unit were behind. So it was not unusual to be given Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio for a scene. A second unit with the right director can be a real asset to a movie. I got to work many times with two of the best second unit directors there are – thirteen times with Brian Smrz and six times with Vic Armstrong.
A car flies into a helicopter on set for Live Free or Die Hard (2007):
Matthew: If the day or entire schedule goes into overtime, does the 1st AD carry the most blame?
Mathew: Everyone wants to finish the day’s work, almost all directors want to finish on schedule. Obviously part of the ADs job is to make the day, so there is pressure when you go over. You cannot fall into the trap of pushing for mediocrity in order to fit it into the box however. Hopefully you can create enough space for a director to get the quality he wants in the time allotted.
Matthew: What is a director mostly looking for in a 1st AD?
Mathew: Someone they can get along with and who is competent I would think be something all directors would be looking for.
Hopefully an ally that can make the day happen for them. Someone they can trust, that can adapts to changes without drama. That can push everything through.
Matthew: What is a 1st AD mainly looking for in a director?
Mathew: I can only answer that from my perspective. Firstly I want to work with the best I can. I’ve been very lucky to work with some amazing directors in my career and out of the fifty or so Ive worked for, most have a great deal of respect for what an assistant director does. As long as everyone is treated like an adult, I’m happy. After that – it’s all about making it happen. As I said earlier, you have to be flexible.
Matthew: Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?
Mathew: I think I’ve seen Mel Brooks The Producers more times than anything Ive ever worked on. Probably not the answer you were expecting. I’ve also seen a Tom Courtenay film called “Billy Liar” many, many times. I love comedy — my father was Peter Sellers stunt double and I grew up on the Pink Panther sets and obviously seen those movies a million times each.
Mathew’s father with Peter Sellers:
Matthew: You’ve worked on over 40 productions in the last 25 years. Is there one or two films that you’re most proud of?
Mathew: Certainly Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as it was such a challenge on many levels and I thought the end product turned out great. The action sequences on The Last Samurai and also Mission Impossible III – all brilliant productions to be involved with.
I started out working for Blake Edwards and was involved with seven of his productions, so Im very proud of that — and hopefully my current production War for the Planet of the Apes, coming to a theater near you in summer of 2017!
Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.