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 Art Director Jeremy Woolsey (Pitch Perfect, Million Dollar Arm, Dirty Grandpa)

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Art Director/Production Designer Jeremy Woolsey to chat about the world of film-making. Jeremy has worked in the Art Department on over 40 Hollywood productions including Vacation, Ouija, The Haunting in Connecticut 2, Pitch Perfect, Million Dollar Arm, Dirty Grandpa, and Bastard.

Matthew Toffolo: Film fans always get Production Design and Art Director mixed up, thinking they are the same position? Can you tell people what the difference is?

Jeremy Woolsey: The Production Designer is the head of the department and lays out the visual look of the film (along with the DP and Director). The Art Director runs the department and makes sure that vision is executed on time and on budget. Scheduling, budgeting and planning are all key components of the Art Director’s job.

Matthew: You’ve worked in the Art Department in over 40 productions in the last 10 years. Is there one or two films that you’re most proud of?

Jeremy: I am proud to be a part of the runaway hit “Pitch Perfect” .. That film has touched a great deal of people. And I think our work on “Million Dollar Arm” was rewarding.

Matthew: Who is your Art Director/Production Designer mentor?

Jeremy: Barry Robison …. I have worked with him seven times and he has helped me get to a different level of filmmaking.

Matthew: Is there is a Production Designer working today that you haven’t yet met that you’ve a big fan of?

Jeremy: Jack Fisk …. Legendary figure and craftsman. We have a really good mutual friend, so maybe one day.

Matthew: 5) As of this interview, the film “Dirty Grandpa” is premiering, a film you were the Art Director on. How was working on that production with the legendary Robert DeNiro?

Jeremy: I normally don’t get too excited about seeing an actor on set, but the first day he stepped on set it was pretty cool. Was in the presence of a living master even if the subject matter was a raunchy departure.

Matthew: How did you get started in the studio film Art Director world?

Jeremy: Was it something you always wanted to do, or did the job find you? I started in the music production business in the 90’s then transitioned into entertainment production in New York in the summer of 2001.

Matthew: If there is a case of getting type-Art Direction casted!, you might be with the comedy/road trip movie. Bastards. Dirty Grandpa. Vacation. Is there is distinct different when working on these films in comparison to a non-road trip movie?

Jeremy: Not really … maybe more exteriors. And larger signage.

Matthew: How about working on a film like “Million Dollar Arm”, where the majority of the film was set in India. Does an art director move with the main crew when there is a major location change?

Jeremy: In that case, I was handling the Atlanta portion and Mark Robins out of New Zealand handled India.

Matthew: What type of film would you LOVE to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

Jeremy: I just started a period show set in the 60’s. Great story and great group of people, so it is a welcome departure.

Matthew: What film, besides ones that you have worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

Jeremy: Goodfellas

Matthew: How often to you re-watch the past films you’ve worked on? If you’re flipping through the channels late one night on a random Tuesday for example, and “Pitch Perfect” is on, do you watch?

Jeremy: Most of them aren’t the kind you would watch more than once, but if Pitch Perfect is on the screen I will give it a watch.

Matthew: In a typical studio film, how many crew members are on the Production Design team?

On the budget sizes I work on (20m to 45M) … We will generally have 10-12 in the office.

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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.

What is a Production Manager?

PRODUCTION MANAGER
FILMMAKING NOTES

The Job of Production Management is the job of organization, budgeting, scheduling and preparing for everything.

POINTS OF A PRODUCTION MANAGER

1. Prepare breakdown and preliminary shooting schedule
2. Prepare and coordinate the budget
3. Oversee preliminary search and survey of all locations and the completion of business arrangements
4. Assist in the preparation of the production to insure continuing efficiency
5. Supervise completion of the Production Report for each days work, showing work covered and the status of the production, and arrange for the distribution of that report in line with the company’s requirements
6. Coordinate arrangements for the transportation and housing of cast, crew and staff
7. Oversee the securing of releases and negotiate for locations and personnel
8. Maintain a liaison with local authorities regarding locations and the operation of the company

THE PRODUCTION MANAGER’S RESPONSIBILITY IS TO FACILITATE THE WORK OF THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR AND TO PROVIDE THEM WITH THE BEST POSSIBLE WORKING CONDITIONS

The Production Manager MUST protect the film and the interest of the company they are working for

They are in charge with the control of all organizational, managerial, financial and logistical aspects of the production

Production Managers will have a lot of MEETINGS, make sure you know how to run one.JOB IS TO FINISH THE PRODUCTION ‘ON TIME, ON BUDGET’

As a Production Manager you will be expected to know every detail about every unit during all phases of production
-Keep logs that contain notes on your conversations
-Keeps a paper trail of memoranda that details recommendations, suggestions, directives and opinions expressed by and to anyone involved in the production

PRODUCTION MANAGER STAGES OF PRODUCTION
PRE-PRODUCTION
-screenplay breakdown
-shooting schedule
-location scouting
-budget
-casting and unions
-permits
-hiring staff and crew
-unit supervision
-permit clearance
-equipment rental and stock
-lab supervision
-payroll service
-insurance
-post-production preparation

PRODUCTION

-Responsible for a glitch-free shoot and must handle both logistics and overall organization
-Budget must be monitored according to the cash-flow chart

-Public relations must be started
-Together the Production Manager and the Assistant director on the set are responsible for the flow of information. They must ensure that everyone involved with the production – staff, crew and cast – knows what is going on, when and where

POST-PRODUCTION

-Generally the Production Manager organizes the editing phase in advance, including sound effects, music production, opticals and mixing

PREPARING FOR THE PRODUCTION

SCRIPT BREAKDOWN

With an initial first glance reading of a screenplay, an experienced producer or Production Manager can get a good estimate of the size of the production

Considerations come into play when designing the shooting schedule

1. Availability of the actors
2. Availability of the locations
3. Putting day player actors into shooting all their scenes in one day to cut costs
4. Desirable to schedule less complicated scenes during the first few shooting days in order for the crew to find its specific rhythm and chemistry
5. Exterior scenes should be scheduled before interior ones, which are independent of whether conditions and if they can be shot safely towards the end of the shooting period
6. Trying to shoot in script order as much as possible

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    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 http://www.wildsound.ca for more information.

    Free logline submissions. The Writing Festival network averages over 95,000 unique visitors a day.
    Great way to get your story out: http://www.wildsound.ca/logline.html

    Submit your Film, Screenplay, Novel, Story, or Poem anytime to the festival today: http://www.wildsound.ca

    Watch recent Writing Festival Videos. At least 15 winning videos a month: http://www.wildsoundfestival.com

    Deadline for Writing Festival – Books, Poems, Scripts – http://www.wildsound.ca

Tips to Produce a Movie

HOW TO PRODUCE A FILM
FILMMAKING NOTES

FILM PRODUCTION
– How to make a movie!
– How to PRODUCE a film!
– How to be the best Movie Producer

A movie producer has the most important position in film production. Why? Because they start from the top, and are in charge in the entire production. They play many different roles: the mother, the father, the lover, the romancer, the persuader, the psychologist, the soothsayer, the comic, the best friend, the teacher, the warrior, the negotiator, the arbitrator, the dreamer, etc…

The best thing to do when making a film is hire or get people who know what they are doing technically, and with whom you can be in sync, artistically.

Before anything else, the producer must know the end result of the project, and know which path the project will take after it is completed.

THE PICTURE HAS TO BE MADE – You have to do whatever it takes.

The key to being a great producer is TIME MANAGEMENT.

SIX STAGES OF FILM PRODUCTION
DEVELOPMENT
PRE-PRODUCTION
PRODUCTION
POST-PRODUCTION
DISTRIBUTION
EXHIBITION

DEVELOPMENT
-Developing the major elements of the project
-Totally at the expense of the producer
-Selling, money, doing work, showing what you have on the table

PRE-PRODUCTION
-The period that commences as soon as the financing (grants or other funding) has been secured
-Make sure you have all of your Film Agreements in place
-AND make sure you know how to run a proper MEETING
-Immediately follows the development, securing and organizing of personnel and equipment needed for production
-Pre-production SAVES you a bundle in the future IF you’re properly organized

-It’s all about GOOD, CHEAP and FAST
-Know the Rules of Film Budgeting
-Orchestrate all the players, location, equipment, cast, crew and props to prepare for any complications that might occur once the film is rolling
It’s important to think about CONTINGENCIES during this phase.
What if the weather turns bad?
Do we have an alternate location ready to go?
Is there something else we don’t have?
Where are the nearest hardware stores, gas stations, restaurants, groceries, rental cars, etc.?
Back-up CREW MEMBERS.

Make sure before getting to Film Production that:
-Legal problems and FEES are all completed
-Rights acquisitions for songs etc. are taken care of
-STAFF CONTRACTS are drawn and signed

PRODUCTION
-It is the phase in which most problems can occur
-There are no substitutions for solid groundwork in pre-production
-This is the stage of the manufacture of the RAW PRODUCT

WHAT THE PROJECT FAILS TO DO IN PRE-PRODUCTION AFFECTS THE FILM PRODUCTION, AND WHAT THE PROJECT FAILS TO DO IN PRODUCTION AFFECTS POST-PRODUCTION – ALL OF WHICH WILL AFFECT THE END RESULT

POST-PRODUCTION
-More than 80% of what happens in post- can be fiscally determined in pre-production
-In order to do so the producer must have a clear understanding of the entire process
-THEY HAVE TO KNOW WHAT EVERY JOB DOES AND HOW TO GET THE JOB DONE – THAT IS A GREAT FILM PRODUCTION

LOOK BACKWARDS
Think of the project from Z to A

DISTRIBUTION
-Delivery of the product by those who licensed, and control availability to consumers
-DON’T JUMP INTO FILM PRODUCTION WITH LITTLE CONCERN ABOUT THE WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO THE FILM
-Know where you are going and why the film is being made
-The key to a successful filmmaking career is distribution – without it, no one will ever see your FILM
-In producing, your job is to create a marketable product

EXHIBITION
-Cosumption of the product by the audience

BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WHOLE PROCESS

Film is one of the three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music
-FRANK CAPRA, Director (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)

MONEY-SAVING TIPS FOR FILM PRODUCTION
1. PREPARE A DETAILED BUDGET
Shot list every nuance in advance. See how the story is going to flow visually – then you can change it. Go over the action, dialogue, technical requirements, camera angles, color schemes, costuming, blocking, lighting sound etc…

2. REHEARSE YOUR ACTORS
Build trust with your actors. When it’s time to get to the set, it may take only a word or two from the director to get the actors ready for the camera.

3. COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR DEPARTMENT HEADS
There should be many production meetings, where every script detail is discussed. The department heads can take notes, do their own research, and come up with questions for future meetings. Once you are in FILM PRODUCTION there should be a meeting at the top of the day to go over what you expect to cover, and a short ten-minute meeting at the end of the day to go over what’s coming up. Then the crew can sleep on what’s going on. If any one of the crew senses that the director doesn’t know what he or she is doing, then all respect and enthusiasm for the project is gone. Everyone wants to work on a first-class film.

4. DON’T SPEND MONEY ON UNNECESSARY THINGS

5. USE ‘BUYOUT’ WHEN WORKING ON LOW-BUDGET FILM PRODUCTION PROJECTS
You pay a flat daily rate regardless of how many hours are worked. Then you know how much the cast and crew will cost at the project’s outset and you will avoid overtime charges which can quickly send you over budget.

Give crew a cut after distribution so they can take a daily cut of their on-set fees.

HIRING YOUR FILM CREW FOR YOUR FILM PRODUCTION
CLICK HERE for rules of the trade in hiring the best crew.

7.CONSULTANTS
They can save you a tremendous amount of money. An assistant director can break down your script. A production manager can prepare a budget. A script consultant can review your script for structural or pacing problems. THEIR IDEAS ALONE CAN SAVE YOU THOUSANDS.

THE GREATEST WEAKNESS OF YOUNG FILMMAKERS IS THAT THEY ARE UNWILLING TO ADMIT THEY DON’T KNOW SOMETHING. ALWAYS SEEK MENTORS.

THE RELATIONSHIPS YOU BUILD ALONG THE PATH OF THE PROFESSION ARE THE RELATIONSHIPS THAT WILL STAY YOU FOR YOUR ENTIRE CAREER

ALL RELATIONSHIPS ARE EQUALLY IMPORTANT

NEVER BURN A BRIDGE – JUST RECONSTRUCT THEM

An independent producer’s responsibility is to know the budget backwards and forwards, inside and out, and creatively finesse the resources so that every cent will be seen on the screen.

LISTEN TO AND CONSIDER PEOPLE’S IDEAS CAREFULLY

People skills are the number one advantage of any kind of filmmaking. Having good people skills, evoking a good performance out of the cast, crew, PAs, studio people and investors, and being able to have people share and believe in your visions and stories are absolutely paramount to the success of any director.

YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO PEOPLE YOU DISAGREE WITH – TAKE THOSE CRITICISMS FOR WHAT THEY ARE AND LEARN FROM THEM

Your weaknesses can be covered by clever hires.

REMEMBER
1) this is an adventure
2) it is a test of everything that you are
3) it’s only a movie
4) keep a sense of humor, and you’ll be just fine

 

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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.