In Conversation: John McKeown 1st AD (I Saw The Light, 50/50, Albert Nobbs)

Hello Film Doctor friends.

Awards Season may be over but we’re still on the work treadmill as always. Today, we have the pleasure of sharing another in our interview series.

This time we delve into a role that entire films would literally fall apart without – the first assistant director. 

We are joined by an awesome man who has overseen scores of productions, including the forthcoming Hank Williams biopic, I Saw The Light, 50/50 and Albert Nobbs

Ladies and Gentleman, meet John McKeown!

 

John McKeown1
Picture courtesy of John McKeown

 

 

Where did you grow up? Did you come from a film or creative arts family where filmmaking was encouraged or were you an outsider?

I grew up in North East England. No one in my family was involved in the creative arts but I was encouraged to pursue whatever career appealed to me – and I pursued quite a few.

I worked at a fairground, joined the army, ran a liquor store, sold cars, installed security systems. The list is long.






 

 

When did you know you wanted to work in film?

I had made some money and I took a year out in my mid twenties to figure out my next move. My dad was retired and just for fun he had signed up to be an extra on a movie. He asked me if I wanted to join him for the day and having nothing else planned I said yes.

 

 

How did you get your “foot in the door” with the film industry?

I spent that day as an extra sitting in a jury box dressed in period costume watching a court room scene. It was the perfect vantage point to see how a movie is really made and what all the various crew members do.

I focused on the ADs. Foolishly I thought “that doesn’t look too tricky” little did I know that the people I was watching were so good that they made it look easy. I kept coming back as an extra and quite soon I was helping to wrangle the extras.

I stuck with it (and the AD team) and as they moved up I became a PA then a 3rd AD (3rd AD was initially the height of my ambition) time went by and I reached the dizzy heights of 2nd AD. I’m forever grateful to the people who took that initial chance on me.



 

 

What made you want to take up the 1st AD role? How did you go about making those first steps?

I took my time moving up. Initially all I wanted was to be a 3rd AD – I thought that was as far as I might go. As time passed I worked with some great (and some not so great) 2nds and I started to think that perhaps I should try to move up. A regular 2nd that I worked with moved into location managing and I took his place.

As a 2nd AD I worked with Jon Older who is a great 1st AD and taught me a huge amount. We had done a couple of jobs together when an offer came to go to Canada on a UK / Canadian co-produced TV series. We ended up going backwards and forwards for almost two years on first one and then another TV series.

Jon moved up to directing and he was kind enough to ask me to 1st for him. It was a great introduction to running the set with a crew I knew and a director who was also a pal.

 

 

In those earlier years what was the key to getting further work? Luck? Proactivity? Referrals?

All of the above. I remember finishing my first ever job and thinking “now what?” I had no idea how to get onto my next project. I found that word of mouth was the best way to get hired. People I had worked with moved onto other jobs through their contacts and I started to get calls from people I didn’t know but who had heard of me from people I had worked with.

I took everything that was offered. Every job was an opportunity to widen my circle of contacts and increase my chances of getting the next gig. This was really at the very beginning of email, social media didn’t exist and there was usually one cell phone on set that everyone had to use!

Networking was different then and involved writing letters and cold calling any & every production I heard about in the hope of getting hired.

 

The 50/50 set - photo by Chris Helcermanas-Benge - © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC.
The 50/50 set – photo by Chris Helcermanas-Benge – © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC.

 

How would you describe your job to someone just starting out and maybe considering taking up production work?

An ADs job is never boring! Prep is a combination of location scouting, scheduling and meetings with all the departments. It’s a constantly evolving puzzle that you need to solve in the short term to answer questions like “how many days do we need this actor?” and in the long term to figure out “how do we make the movie in the time we have?”

The contrast between prep and shoot is enormous. You go from sitting in a room or a van with 20 people all working together to plan the movie to being on a set with over a 100 (& often many more than that) where any minute wasted is a huge financial cost.

It’s up to the AD to make sure that every minute is put to good use.

 

 

What makes a good 1st AD? What do you think are essential qualities for the job?

There are many different types of AD. Some people are loud and like to yell. Others like to encourage people to do their best work by keeping calm and running the set more quietly.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it really all flows from the top. If your director is a maniac it is difficult to run things calmly and smoothly (although you have to try!) My favorite directors are the ones who like to work with the crew, everybody is respectful of each other and you all pull together to make the best film you can.

I have experienced working with directors who have little or no respect for the cast and crew. They tend to bully their way through and although the film will still get made I try to avoid working with those people if I have a choice.

 

 

What kit should be in a 1st AD’s arsenal?

I try to carry as little as possible on me. I used to go to work loaded down with everything I thought I could possibly need for the day. Now I carry only the essentials, call sheet, pen and my walkie talkie.

I use a combination earpiece that allows me to hear the walkie and also listen to a comtec (provided courtesy of the sound department) so that I can hear the actors dialogue.

In my car I have a bag full of weather gear that covers any kind of weather from desert to ocean – I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years.

I usually have a complete change of clothes in case of disaster so that I don’t have to spend 14 hours in wet clothes if a sudden storm hits.

 

 

When do you usually come on board?

It varies. Depending on the project I could start 12 weeks out or as little as 3.I usually start a couple of weeks after the director and a week or two before the DP.

 

 

What can make you say ‘No’ to a project? And what are the ones you’d still cherish as “top film sets” and why?

I try to find something positive in any project that comes my way. If it’s a great script (even if the budget is lower) that’s an easy “yes”. If it’s a script that I don’t love immediately but a great director again an easy “yes”. If it has neither of those things to recommend it but it is well paid and I need to make some money I might say yes!

Sometimes the movies you don’t want to do right out of the gate turn out to be great experiences.

The movies I’ve done with Rodrigo Garcia are definitely in the “top film sets” category. We’ve worked in Los Angeles, Ireland, Canada and most recently out in the California desert. He and his producing team Julie Lynn & Bonnie Curtis put together fantastic crews.

Working with that group is the best way to make a movie that I’ve discovered.

 

Albert Nobbs - © 2011 - Roadside Attractions.
Albert Nobbs – © 2011 – Roadside Attractions.

 

What are some of the biggest mistakes you might have noticed emerging filmmakers do, time and time again?

Mistakes are to be expected! There is a lot to learn for an emerging filmmaker. New film makers need to be helped and encouraged.

I really believe that there are no dumb questions when you are a newbie. Ask anything and forget about feeling foolish for not knowing. I’m a 20 year veteran and I learn new things on every project.

 

 

On a film project, how involved are you with all the departments, communicating and collaborating? And on a TV project?

Very much so. In both cases. If you imagine all the various departments as spokes in a wheel then the ADs are the hub. We’re involved in everything and it’s up to us to keep the whole thing on track and rolling forward.

 

 

What differences have you noticed between working in the UK, US and Canada?

Mainly the accents. The process is the same everywhere in the world. Often the personalities within the crew are very similar. My prop guy on a movie in India reminded me very much of a great prop guy in Los Angeles.

This business attracts people of a certain type and the good people that I have worked with on one continent would be equally at home on another in the same department.

 

 

What’s the allowed degree of variation in a filming schedule? Do you have a certain ‘best practice’ for staying on top of things?

I have lots of techniques that I have developed over the years. Mainly I take notes. When I break down the script into a schedule I note everything that I can think of.

“Are we closing the road?” “Could this be weather cover?” “Will 50 extras be enough to fill the room?” I put everything into one document and I spend my prep time getting answers to all of the questions. I keep notes of the answers (and any unanswered questions).

Before the start of each shooting week I review my notes relating to the week ahead plus the first day of the following week. This system means that if there are any upcoming problems that need addressing or things that the director has put off making a final decision about I am always a few days ahead which gives me time to find a solution.

It sounds simple but when you are in your 5th straight week of night shoots and you can’t remember your own name it is really useful to have the notes you made when you had a clear head!

I also timeline the entire schedule with the director and DP during prep. We go through each day allocating times to each scene and agreeing upon the workload for each part of the filming. This really helps everyone.

It means you know all of the call times you hope to have, which scenes need to be lit for day and where you might shoot day for night etc. etc. Much better than figuring it out the night before you shoot.

 

 

What do you look for in a 2nd and 3rd assistant director?

Sense of humour. A calm unflappable personality. Real attention to detail.

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.

Good AD’s are like gold and should be treasured!

 

 

What are the top 3 technological developments that have impacted your job over the years? What’s better and what do you miss?

I say “still rolling” a lot more than I used too. With digital it is much easier to reset on the fly and keep shooting.

In the past the sound of the film whirring through the gate was directly linked to spending money, the cost of film stock, the processing costs all had a huge impact on the budget and so it was vital not to let film run through the camera except when you were actually capturing the shot.

Now things are much more flexible and I think a lot of actors and directors enjoy the freedom of doing more than one take without cutting once they are in the zone. I also miss saying ‘check the gate’!

 

Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) - Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) – Photo courtesy of Focus Features

 

Any production tricks/tips/techniques you could share, both to new and established AD teams?

If you haven’t already then establish an “AD bubble”. Lots of things happen on sets that the ADs know about but that does not need to be shared with the whole cast and crew.

“Lead actor late again?” Will it really help the day to tell the director? Probably not. The art dept is frantically painting a wall that was missed – is it better to point fingers or is it better to shoot something else to give them time to finish?

There are dozens of occasions a day where you have the opportunity to stand back and say “ well you screwed that up”. I have never found that to be helpful. Anyone can have a bad day and very few people want to give less than their best.

If there is a weak link on the crew I try to support them. If they can’t (or won’t) raise their game then sometimes a change has to be made but that’s rare.

My advice is to pass on all the information that people need to work efficiently and keep all the unhelpful stuff inside the AD bubble.

 

 

Is ADing a viable or worthwhile route to directing, in your opinion? Or to any other role?

ADing is a great job and it can lead to directing but it is not the most direct route. A lot of ADs move into production managing/line producing. I always tell people who want to direct – go and direct! What are you waiting for?

By all means spend some time on a set to see how it all runs and who does what. Becoming an AD takes time and by the time you’re good at it you may find that you don’t want to stop.

If directing is where your passion is, take a day job but spend all the time you can actually directing. Short films, web series anything you can.

ADing takes every available minute and really doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for side projects.

 

 

Is there one common trait that you feel established, successful directors you’ve worked with, e.g. Rodrigo Garcia, Neil LaBute, all share?

Good material. The good directors I’ve worked with get the best script they can find, the best cast & crew possible and then encourage everyone to do their best work. Of course this is no guarantee of success and that presents a very simplified view of the process.

Every day on every movie I’ve been part of is made up almost entirely of decisions and compromises driven by budget, weather and any number of other factors.

The trick for the director is to let all of that become low level background noise and focus on the performance. Yes, you only have 20 minutes to get this shot and yes the light is fading but if you get the shot and it’s not a good performance so we can’t use it what’s the point?

Once you have a great cast in place as a director a lot of your work is done. Watching the performances, making minor course corrections if needed and letting the cast do what they do best is a recipe for a good time in the edit.

 

 

You’ve now got an Associate Producer’s credit, as well (on “Last Days in the Desert”). How did that end up happening and what did you experience / learn about the producing side of things?

Producing, ADing and most things in life are about dealing with people. On a movie you are often persuading people to do things with less resources that they think they need or in a way that they might disagree with.

People skills are paramount. Working with the producers on “Last Days In The Desert” was a fantastic experience. I know nothing about where or how to raise money. I do however bring a lot of on set experience.

I was very involved with the making of “Last Days” and I think that is why the team were kind enough to give me an Associate Producer credit.

 

 

Any advice you could give a Writer/Director/Producer wanting to make a name for themselves in the industry?

It all starts with the script.If you’re a writer/director or writer/producer then you’re off to a good start as you control the material.

If you don’t write but either direct or produce, you need to find a great script and get it made. It’s never been easier than it is right now to make a movie.

The tricky part now is figuring out your distribution.

 

 

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