1st AD: Theory, Thought and Practice

Posted by Joe Bohn
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today’s guest blog comes from Stage 32’er, 1st AD, Joe Bohn. Joe’s interest in film started in high school where he starred and acted in nearly a dozen plays both at school and the local theatres. He quickly started shooting his own short films and from there took to studying the art of filmmaking himself. This led him to his college career and eventually his professional career to date.

Recently Joe has worked with such actors as Miley Cyrus, the Kardashians, Jonathan Lipnicki, Stephen Webber, Mariel Hemmingway, and Levar Burton. He worked with the Russo Brothers, who are gearing up to direct Captain America 2, on several films they executive produced.

As a writer and director Joe has several films in development. Of special note is the feature version of his short film Checkmate, which was just announced into the quarterfinals of the Nicholl’s Fellowship, one of the most prestigious and competitive screenplay competitions in the world. He has a recently release web series which has received acclaimed reviews and is preparing the second season for production shortly.

Here Joe shares his experiences working as a 1st AD – A sometimes least enviable, but vital job on any film production.

I thank Joe for his contribution to the Stage 32 Blog.



1st AD: Theory, Thought and Practice: the position, power, responsibility, trials, tribulations, and troubles of being a 1st Assistant Director (1st AD).

The 1st Assistant Director position is widely regarded as the most difficult and least enviable on set. It is one fraught with compromises and negotiations; where politics and artistic visions collide with practical realities and necessities. What exactly does that mean and why is it that so few people seem to know how to do the job competently, let alone well? I’ve taken a long road to understand the ins and outs of a 1st AD, one that I want to share with my fellow Stage 32ers.

Once in high school, I enrolled in several advanced classes. Looking for at least one hour of my day where I could relax and get an easy A, I took drama. This simple act of slackerdom would embark me on the journey which has brought me to where I am in my life. I turned into a theatre kid, which lead me to earning my BA in acting from Rockford College in Illinois with a minor in education. During this time I lived in London and toured Europe to gain that “valuable life experience” you so often hear of.

Afraid that being “just and actor” wasn’t a safe life choice, I then moved to San Francisco where I earned my MFA in film directing. I continued to act while I honed by abilities behind the camera as well. My thesis film went on to win numerous awards and nominations and received distribution. However, that wasn’t the point that brought me from student to professional. The most valuable tool I gained from my years of schooling was my connections. The old adage of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” would soon prove true. It’s the exact reason we are all on Stage 32, and why a site, and community like this exists.

After school I starred in a feature film called Jake’s Dead, which was my first major feature and is still a point of pride in my career. Shortly thereafter I moved to LA with my then girlfriend. I was a big deal up in San Francisco, but suddenly in LA I found my social network severely handicapped. Where my phone rang constantly to act or direct in San Francisco, I was relegated to searching film and audition sites daily here to try to do something, anything. Then came the break.

I had gone to grad school with another director who happened to book the 1st AD position on a Miley Cyrus music video. He was also new to LA and knowing very few people, called me to 2nd AD. Mind you, at this time I had only 1st AD once for pickups on a short and I had never actually been a 2nd AD yet. Needing the work, I took the job and proceeded to dive into as much research as possible to make sure I was ready to perform my duties as a professional. If you don’t how to do something, you learn it, and that’s what I did. I made sure I was as ready as possible both for my own benefit and to not let down my friend who had got me the job.

The video was epic and amazing. Miley was a joy to work with. On the last day after wrap I was walking to my car. I could see the producers standing nearby and, wanting to make sure I put the image of my existence in their heads one last time before I left, I walked over to them to say goodbye. That little bit of extra effort led to them offering me another job the following weekend, and another after that, and another after that. Then I started getting job offers to 1st for people I had never met. The producers were recommending me.

Fast forward five years and here we are. I’m a professional 1st AD who was never “professionally trained”. My training came from research, from learning on set, from asking questions, establishing relationships and working my butt off. I still act. I still direct. But being an AD is how I truly eat and live. More impressively, I do it all based solely off of recommendations. Nothing will kill a film faster than a bad 1st AD, and most ADs are bad ADs. So, what makes a good AD and why do I keep working?

It’s funny really how few people can define the job of the 1st AD. If you can’t define it, how can you do it well? I have several Joe Bohnisms regarding film. Here’s one: My definition? “The job of the 1st AD is to get the director as much quality footage as possible given the realistic confines of the production and ensuring the obtainment of enough footage to compile a complete film. Your job is to facilitate the scheduling of the film and the running of set in such a way as to maximize the amount of time getting quality footage in the can as opposed to losing time waiting on other elements that could have been prepared had you done your job more effectively”.

Note that I didn’t say your job is to get a lot of footage. If the footage is of a quality so low then it doesn’t matter how much you get, it’s useless.   I also didn’t say that your job is to just get quality footage. You need a full film. Eighty percent of an amazing movie is a movie that can’t be sold. So you have to work with your director and other department heads to know when to sacrifice, when to adapt, what’s important, and what can be lost. You are that mediator, the conscious in-the-ear of the director reminding him that while he may want to spend 3 hours on 1/8 of a scene, he still has 8 more pages to shoot today.

For me, I tend to talk in terms of “real estate”. We only have so many hours in the day to shoot. That time is time real estate and as a team we have to constantly be figuring out how to spend that shared real estate with the 1st AD being the accountant.

A Joe Bohnism to remember: “It’s the director’s film, the producer’s product, the DP’s picture, the PD’s world, and the 1st AD’s set”. Why is this important? If the director decides he wants to spend 8 hours shooting an insert of a flower, that’s his choice. You can remind him as much as you want about time and what you still have left, but it’s his (or her of course) film. Now, should that occur you obviously need to call your producer to set immediately to update them on what is going on. Things in the modern age can get tricky though. Often times your director is your producer as well. In which case, do your job, have everything coming up 100% ready when the director wants to move on, and let the director worry about his film. Remember you work with the director for his film, but you work for the producer for their product.

Which leads to a pretty simple to state but hard to follow Joe Bohnism. “Not my job”. It’s easy, especially in the low budget world, to overstep your bounds. Do your job and do it well. Let’s say your director is a hot mess, you’re a director as well, and the cast is even looking to you for guidance and direction. Star actor comes up to you and says, “Joe, the director says I should do X but what do you think”? The answer is, always, “I’m not the director, you guys should have that conversation”. Don’t overstep your bounds because it will only lead to you stepping on toes and that leads to you not working again.

As much as filmmakers are professional and talented individuals, you have to remember you are the babysitter on set. You’ll find over and over that people will do their job and then be happy to sit around for hours if no one checks on them. You are the constant eyes and ears watching everything and striving to not waste a minute. Spend some time working in other departments and knowing them intimately.   That knowledge will allow you a short hand to communicate with all the department heads and to know when something doesn’t make sense. For example, your gaffer tells you it’ll take him an hour to light a scene but you know that’s not right because you’ve done it yourself before; you can say no way, it should only take thirty minutes so get it done or explain to me why I’m wrong.

The word “no” should not exist in your vocabulary. Your job is to facilitate the “yes”. The producer’s job is to come in and say “no we don’t have the money for that” or:

Producer: “Joe, do we have the time to do that and make our day?”

Joe: “We can’t do that AND make our day. We can choose to drop something, or compromise something else and still make the day.”            

Producer: “So no.”

You exist to make this movie happen as best as it can given the resources available to it, let the producer decide how those resources can be allocated, and you worry about running set efficiently and accommodating every need and want you can.

Which also leads to the difference between need and want. Often times you’ll experience a situation on set where an individual swears they NEED thing X. In reality, they WANT it and it order to get it they’re willing to sacrifice something they actually do NEED. Your job is to help them realize the difference. Remember, it’s not your job to decide what they need and want, it’s your job to help get them as much of both as you can.

Now about the reputation of the 1st AD being the biggest jerk on set. First, I truly believe you catch more flies with honey instead of vinegar. You can be a jerk, and motivate people to work hard through fear and wrath avoidance; but you will burn your crew out and take the joy out of this fantastic profession we are all lucky enough to be a part of. Instead, you can inspire, encourage, and demand people to function at their max without berating them.

Mind you, there are times where sets become to lax, where people slack, and a lack of respect can be evident. Thus, you must adjust accordingly. The point here, is that you can’t go in to each set as the same AD. Each set is unique, with unique restrictions, personalities, egos, circumstances, and a myriad mountain of variables you need to factor in. Don’t be the AD you are, be the AD this film needs (yes, another Joe Bohnism).

By the nature of the job, you’re telling a lot of creative people they don’t have the time to be creative. You’re the big bad meany of the set. Be prepared to feel the tension that can come from that and let it go. The biggest problem that can arise here, is that all these creatives can have good, great, and wonderful ideas. Here’s the thing, good ideas usually come late and take time to execute. Time you may not have. If you have it, embrace the good ideas and make them happen. If not, then remember, Good ideas are the death of days (yup, Joe Bohnism).

In summation, you have to be a yes man with conditions, a babysitter, a negotiator, a mediator, a boss, a jerk, and a friend. We work long days in high stress situations with a lot of ego, talent, silliness, and awesomeness swirling around into the awe inspiring cocktail we call filmmaking. Never forget that there are thousands upon thousands of people out there who would beg and plead to do what you are doing. So if you’re going to complain too much, you might as well just step aside and let the next guy take a shot. No? You don’t want to do that? Then hurry and get back to set. Pictures up!

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Joe welcomes your thoughts in the Comments section below...

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