Interview with 1st AD John McKeown (50/50, Albert Nobbs)

The role of an Assistant Director – 1st AD 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. 

John McKeown has worked in the AD department, mainly as a 1st AD, on over 40+ productions in the last 20 years. He is a fountain of knowledge, which is evident when reading this interview.

jack_1stad.jpgInterview with John McKeown:

Matthew Toffolo: In your 20+ year career, do you have a favorite and/or memorable experience?

John McKeown: Those 20+ years went by in a flash!

I’ve seen a lot of sunrises and sunsets around the world and I have my job to thank for that.

Shooting in India was a truly memorable experience. It’s a place I hope to return to.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on action movies, dramas, comedies and most things in between.

Traveling to distant countries, seeing behind the scenes of cities, places and other peoples lives is a real privilege.

When I really think about it the thing that I value the most is the people I’ve worked with, both in front of and behind the camera. Most of my closest friends are people I have worked with. Spending your working life surrounded by people who are enthusiastic and talented is a real blessing and not to be taken for granted.

MT: In a typical Hollywood production, how many weeks before shooting does the 1st AD come aboard the film?

JMK: It varies. Depending on the project the AD can be in prep for many months or as little as 3 weeks.

I usually start a couple of weeks after the director and a week or two before the DP.

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MT: When setting the schedule for the production, what is the fine line between what is most logical and cost saving to what schedule has the best chance to make the best film?

Knowing when you can economize on a given scene or shooting day in order to allocate more resources to another part of the script is what the schedule is all about.

Achieving that delicate balance is the skill of a good AD. Talking to the director about what is vital to their story telling process and what they are most passionate about is the starting point of prep for me.

Working closely with the director and producers to bridge the gap that sometimes exists is a big part of the AD’s job.

I want to go into day one of shooting with a schedule that the director, the producers and I agree gives us the best opportunity to enter post production feeling great about what we got during the shoot.

MT: What are the key qualities to being a great 1st AD?

JMK: You’d have to ask one!

I can tell you that the qualities I look for in a 2nd AD apply to the 1st AD as well.

– A calm unflappable personality under extreme pressure
– Real attention to detail
– The ability to plan ahead and think on your feet if the plan falls apart
– The grit to do a great job when they are sick / exhausted / just had their car stolen / got yelled at by someone above the line or any number of other things that would put a regular person off their game
– Sense of humor – essential!

MT: How does the 1st AD gain the respect of the crew on the first day to set the tone of the production?

JMK: I try to set the tone during prep and at the production meeting.

I treat everyone with respect and I expect them to do the same.

On the first day at the safety meeting I make it clear that we are a team, that everyone needs to play their part and that I am always available to any member of the crew who needs me.

I make the assumption that they are there to do the best job they can.

In the rare case that we hit a speed bump because someone either can’t or won’t deliver what is expected of them I try to resolve the situation in private away from the set.

MT: Is there is a key difference when you’re a 1st AD on productions of an action film in comparison to a drama?

JMK: In large action sequences it is much more about logistics, safety and planning with the stunt team and special FX crew.

Often the angles are story boarded and detailed shot lists are created and then scheduled.

Running the set is always about making sure that everyone knows what’s happening right now and then what is happening next up.

It’s never more essential than when shooting potentially dangerous action.

Drama is a different discipline. Creating the right environment on the set for the cast to work with the director is the top priority.

Dramatic scenes can seem simple – two people in a room? What could go wrong? A surprising amount!

I try to remove all of the distractions from the set so that the director can work with the cast and get the best performances.

A combination of intense drama and extreme stunts? That’s when it gets really interesting!

MT: If the day or entire schedule goes into overtime, does the 1st AD carry the most blame?

JMK: Only if he/she is the cause of the overtime!

There is a lot the AD can do to make sure that things run efficiently.

Proper planning in prep is essential (The 3 Ps!).

Having a plan B, C and on some days plan D is also something an experienced AD is used to.

All that being said there are some things that you can never predict. Weather can be forecast but change in a moment, a cast or crew member can have a bad day for any number of reasons, equipment can fail etc.

My personal rule is this.

If something happens (however unlikely it was to occur) that I could in any way have expected, predicted or prevented then I carry the blame. If there was no way to know ahead of time that disaster would strike then I accept the new deal and do everything I can to move past it and get us back on track – the expression “It’s not my fault but it is my problem” comes into play here. The trick is knowing the difference!

MT: What is a director mostly looking for in a 1st AD?

JMK: Very much depends on the director.

Some want a drill sergeant, some want a very low profile AD. Most want a combination of skills and experience that the AD can bring to the ever changing circumstances on a set.

I always talk to a director when we first meet and ask them how they like the set to run. In my experience a good AD is really a chameleon, drill sergeant, advisor, morale booster on the tough days. Most of all I think the AD is there to get whatever the director sees in their head onto the screen.

jack1stad3.jpgMT: What is a 1st AD mainly looking for in a director?

JMK: For me it’s collaboration.

The best experiences I have had are when the director the DP and the AD are all in sync and pulling for the same goal.

Sometimes the director and the DP are a creative team and see the AD and indeed “production” as a barrier to getting their vision made.

This is really unfortunate but it is understandable.

A director I love once told me that he came to work everyday with a “bucket of diamonds” that were his ideas for how to shoot that days work. He told me that at the end of the day if all his diamonds had been lost (killed by production in his view) and all he had left was the handle of the bucket he considered that a good day!

The best directors include all the key departments in the plan and the end result is always better. I think the secret to success is to hire smart motivated people in the key crew positions and then let them really do what they are best at.
As a director you have the final say as to whether an idea brought to you is in the movie but having a whole team of talented people offer up ideas is a gold mine of opportunities.

MT: Did you have a 1st AD mentor?

JMK: I was lucky enough to have two. Nael Abbas & Jon Older. Both top AD’s in the UK and the two people who put me on the right path at the start of my career.

Nael gave me my first break and got me into TV. I worked as a PA and then 2nd 2nd for both Nael & Jon.

I moved my way up to 2nd AD working for both of them on multiple projects. Jon Older gave me my very first job as a 1st AD. He was moving up to direct and asked me to run the set for him. I’m very grateful to them both.

MT: Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?

JMK: Jaws. I pray they never remake it as it is the perfect film.

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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 Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go tohttp://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with 1st AD Mathew Dunne (War for the Planet of the Apes)

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:

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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):

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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:

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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!

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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.