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Supporting Role – Tommy Gormley on being a 1st AD

In the cast of hundreds that it takes to make a movie, the first assistant director has a pivotal role. Here, the experienced first AD of films including STAR TREK, SUPER 8 and the up-coming JOHN CARTER OF MARS, explains what it takes to be at the heart of the process. 

Tommy Gormley

I always wanted to work in movies. My father, Charlie Gormley, was a talented writer/director, and was one of the founders of the Scottish film industry in the mid-1960s. He started in the world of documentaries, graduated to writing movie scripts for the Dutch new wave, had a long partnership with Bill Forsyth and wrote and directed films and TV. We spent our time together enjoying and studying old movies. This was my film school; endless evenings dissecting Preston Sturges, Marcel Carné or Billy Wilder.

Being the first assistant director on a major movie might just be the best job in the world. It is a pivotal role; you are at the heart of the process. You have got to be a leader, have presence, and win the respect of the crew. Film crews are a tough audience; most of them have seen it all, and know when you are faking it, or don’t know what you are doing. The assistant directors are the glue in a film production. Everything is our problem and, unlike other departments, who often are focused on their own world, the ADs have to look at the whole shoot across every department. A well-run film set should have three people at its core: the director, the director of photography and the first AD. I love working with the director of photography. He or she is someone I must have a strong relationship with and I have been blessed to work with many of the best in the business: Dan Mindel (John Carter of Mars, Star Trek), Dean Semler (2012); and Remi Adefarasin (Elizabeth, Onegin) have been particularly influential. And good producers are priceless. It is a monumentally hard job, and the ones who do it well are like gold dust. Many of the best ones, like Larry Franco (2012), have been assistant directors before; they know exactly how a movie functions.

A film set is quite a hierarchical place, but it needs to be; you are only as good as your weakest link. A film crew is like an army-especially when it comes to food-and the set has to be a kind of benign dictatorship. In the old days of British movies, the ADs were often ex-military types. The best film sets are hotbeds of ideas, but with one person in charge. Ultimately, it has to be one person’s vision; directing by committee is the most depressing activity one can be part of.

The first AD is the director’s chief of staff, and strives to get his or her movie made. A good first AD often has far more experience than the director he is working for, and the trick is to be their biggest support. They should be able to rely on you absolutely, and know that you are defending their vision. Of course you also have a responsibility to the film’s producers to deliver the film on time. This is the balance you have to strike: providing every moment possible for the director on set with their actors, while keeping within the rigid parameters of a budget and schedule.

I entered this world when I left university and got jobs as a runner on Scottish productions, such as David Leland’s The Big Man. My first big break was when first AD Peter McAleese (now a producer) made me his third AD on Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff. Working with Ken is fascinating; it is the complete antithesis of Hollywood-style filming. If Ken could manage it, he would make the film without the camera, as that, and all the other film paraphernalia is just an intrusion into the world of the story. With him, every shot is an end-board (or tail slate); the clapper is not put in front of the camera at the start of each take, as that would remind the actors of the artifice of what they are about to do. He avoids putting film lights on the floor for the same reason, so most scenes are lit in a naturalistic style. People often mistakenly think his films are shot in available light. They are not. It just feels that way. Indeed, one of the most difficult jobs on one of Ken’s films is just hiding the crew and the trucks from his view! It is a very refreshing way to work, and I’ve never forgotten that low-key is always best when possible.

When Ken’s next film, Raining Stones, came around, Peter McAleese was unavailable and I was asked to be his first AD. It was a slightly ludicrous idea in retrospect, as I was only 24. I had the huge benefit of not realising how little I knew; I survived, learned from it, and worked with Ken on more projects such as Ladybird, Ladybird and Carla’s Song. This has been a great asset to my career.

After then working with my father on his TV movie Down Among the Big Boys, I landed my first big movie as first AD, The Boxer, directed by Jim Sheridan and starring Daniel Day Lewis. Jim has a wonderful, open attitude to filming, and every day is unpredictable in a good way. Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur, was the next major project. Shekhar is a thrilling-if frustrating-director to work with and his organic style was stimulating.

Many of the films I choose to do are because of the location; indeed, I’ve become known as a foreign location specialist. Working in different countries presents different challenges, not least the language barrier. Usually I hire a local first AD who will help run the set, translate for me and communicate with the foreign cast and crew. British crews are the acknowledged experts at foreign filming. Any Hollywood blockbuster set in an exotic location will invariably have been shot by a UK crew. American crews don’t travel well…

While I was shooting The Four Feathers with Shekhar in Morocco, I was lucky to meet a first AD called Ahmed Hatimi, who put me to shame. He and his team were streets ahead of us in how to organise the gigantic scenes that that film required, so we learned from them shamelessly. It was incredible to watch them get 2,000 extras through makeup and costume and on the set at 8am! His own second AD had even written his own computer programme to control the crowd.

But the shoot also provided one of the worst moments of my career when we suffered a terrible accident on set. After safely surviving five months in the desert doing huge battle scenes, we filmed our army leaving Britain at the Greenwich Naval college. A horse bolted and charged into the crowd, badly injuring some extras. I have re-run that day in my head and have come to the conclusion that we had been unlucky. It had truly been an accident; if you put horses and large crowds together, there will always be an element of risk.

A turning point in my career was when I worked on Ask the Dust, directed by Chinatown writer Robert Towne and produced by Paula Wagner. I felt my career had in some way been leading to this point. I flew to Los Angeles and spent a fortnight driving to Robert’s house and figuring out his movie. We shot the movie in Cape Town, building a wonderful backlot to stand in for 1930s LA. After watching me on set, Paula told me she thought I would work well with Tom Cruise who was at that time her producing partner. That’s how I came to meet JJ Abrams and work on Mission: Impossible III. Had it not been for Paula, I might not have got the chance to work in the States. That’s one of the things I love about working with Americans; they are very ready to take a chance and promote people or use their talents.

Then, as is the nature of such things, I joined JJ on Star Trek and, after Trek’s producer Jeffrey Chernov introduced me to his colleague Larry Franco, I met director Roland Emmerich and was asked to first AD on 2012. This was a whole new, daunting experience. The sheer size of the film and the complexity of the visual effects was on another level to what I had experienced before. But Roland was incredible; he had the complete film in his head from day one. Currently I am working on a fascinating production, John Carter of Mars, which is Pixar’s first live-action film under the Disney umbrella. The director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) has come from the world of animation, so he has brought a whole different take on how films can be made.

My heart is in Scotland, however, and I would love to see more of an industry there. There is a wealth of talent crying out to be used. That’s one of the reasons my wife, Sarah Purser, and I have formed the production company Little White Rose Films Ltd, to try to marry that talent with the great material we have in Scotland. We hope to bring some exciting projects to the screen. ♦

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 17 (May/June 2010)

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