Hi Film Folk!
Tell us a bit about your upbringing – where you were brought up, how did you end up wanting to do films?
I was born in Ontario, Canada. Lived in the countryside, north of Toronto and, from a young age, I started hanging around the horse industry. I was fortunate enough to work for this dude ranch called the Circle M Ranch, where I took out dude rides, and helped around the stables.
They also had a western backlot there and made Canadian TV shows. I was introduced to it and when they needed a kid on a horse a lot of the times it would be me. That setting evolved to become what is now called Kleinburg Studios and they have done movies there like Equus  w/Richard Burton and a famous stuntman, Yakima Canutt who I was fortunate enough to work with.
I got a chance at the business there but, in the meantime, I rodeoed and trained horses at the racetrack and that got me further involved in the film industry.
That’s how it all started. It wasn’t by design. I kind of fell into it and went along for the ride.
You started as a stunt rider and trainer. How did you make the move into ADing? What drew you to the role?
In Canada, back in those days, in the mid to late ’70s, it was a small business and so you did a bit of everything. I did the horse thing but was also a transportation guy. A friend of mine, Bill Corcoran was ADing a TV show and he said ‘here, come and work with me and be my 2nd AD’ and so I did. It was good, I enjoyed it but I didn’t pick up the profession then.
I continued rodeoing and training horses and transported horses by air around the world for a living for quite a while. That was an interesting way to see the world. Then I went to California for a while and worked for the likes of Desi Arnaz Sr. and Robert Mitchum training horses where I had the opportunity to meet more people working in the film industry.
Then I came back to Canada and I was working at a racetrack called Fort Erie, a historic place which is in the southern part of Ontario, they came there to film The Black Stallion and they called on me to setup the whole racing sequence; procure the horses, train them for the race. That led to more of a full time career in the business and I went on to AD some more shows in Canada but continued to fly horses. I then went to Morocco and bought and trained all the horses for The Black Stallion Returns, a great experience.
Dino de Laurentiis built a studio in North Carolina and there was an influx of Canadians that went to work at that studio. The second movie they did was a movie called Cat’s Eye
with Drew Barrymore and I got a call to go there and talk to them about being the transport coordinator on the film.
When I went there, I met the assistant director who was this Spanish guy who had worked for Dino a lot named Kooky Lopez, who was famous in the industry and an interesting fellow. His brother was Pepe Lopez, a producer and they’d done movies like Lawrence of Arabia and he said ‘instead of doing transport come and be my 2nd AD’.
By then I’d been fortunate enough to get a little help from people in the industry – I was already a member of DGA by then – I ended up living in North Carolina for 5 or 6 years and doing a raft of movies there. Firstly as a 2nd AD and then as a 1st AD. While there I went and did The Jewel of the Nile in Morocco and France and Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins in Mexico.
I had met a stunt coordinator, Walter Scott on a movie I’d done years prior in Canada – a Western called Harry Tracy Desperado – he was the stunt coordinator on the Back to The Future movies and he put in the word for me to do the Back To The Future II & III as 1st AD on the 2nd Unit.
So that got me started in a bigger, broader sense with the ‘Hollywood folks’. There were Hollywood folks on Dino’s sets but a lot of them were European – I got to work with DPs like Jack Cardiff who did The African Queen and many famous old world craftsmen.
Anyway, I ended up doing 2nd Unit on Back To The Future II and III. I then ended up doing a raft of 2nd Units, Backdraft and Apollo 13 with Ron Howard, Death Becomes Her with Zemeckis to name a few, went to Japan and was the 1st AD on Mr. Baseball with Fred Schepisi.
I was the 1st AD on the 2nd Unit Team that did all the Zemeckis’ movies after the BTTF movies and then when it came time to do Forrest Gump – Bob took the whole 2nd Unit Team and put us on as the 1st Unit on Forrest Gump.
To this day, it’s still a favourite experience.
What did your 2nd Unit stuff involve on the iconic BTTF 2 & 3? How was it?
In BTTF 2 one of the most interesting things that we did was the hover board chase sequence. Max Kleven directed the 2nd Unit, he’s a famous Hollywood stuntman. The whole Hoverboard chase was all done for real on wires that you couldn’t see. We built a huge arbour and flew the actors around the backlot of Universal on a huge crane with no CGI.
The only CGI in the sequence was when Biff turned on the rockets on his hoverboard to go faster. It was quite the achievement because we did it all for real. The actors weren’t harnessed, they wore waist belts and the wires went through small clevises on their belts to the hover boards which allowed them to manoeuvre by leaning on the wires and move around like they were actually flying and in fact they were. There was no blue screen used. It was quite the achievement.
BTTF 3 – the Western – the 2nd Unit did all the train work and all the horse work and Monument Valley with the indians chasing the DeLorean. The 2nd Unit got to do big parts of those movies which was fun.
That’s fascinating that you had invisible wires with no need for removal!
Our little group just decided ‘let’s try this and see if we can do it because it would be more natural’.
We rehearsed many, many weeks at a ranch north of Los Angeles to perfect it and when it started working we went to Zemeckis and said ‘this can work, let’s do it this way, let’s not do a blue screen deal’ and he went with it and it was great.
So how does the structure of 2nd Unit work? How does that work from Director/Producer to 2nd Unit?
Every 2nd Unit is different because it depends on the Director of the 1st Unit. They all have their idiosyncrasies about how they want 2nd Unit to work.
On all the Ron Howard movies, the 2nd Units were basically the same way. Ron was trusting in what we did. They both looked at our stuff and critiqued it and there was the odd time you’d go back and do something a little different.
The majority was, first of all, laid out ahead of time; storyboards. There was a plan and a vision before it happened each time. That made it easier. I’m a true believer in rehearsals and storyboards – or nowadays pre-vis. You can pre-visualize the film and it allows the filmmaker, whether it be 1st or 2nd Unit, to have a more efficient method of making the movie. As opposed to going in there cold and trying to make it up on the day. Big film or little film, it makes for a better film but it also saves time and money.
In the case of those films we had the luxury of foresight and that’s the key, as far as I’m concerned, to making a 2nd Unit work.
I’ve worked with a lot of directors who don’t like 2nd Units, per se, and they’ll run what they call ‘splinter units’ where they can run back and forth between the units or pump video from whatever we are doing to their set. That’s another method. It’s not as efficient but some directors like it that way.
They dive into what they’re doing. They’re filmmakers. The majority of the good ones are prepared and have an enthusiasm for the story they’re telling and are non- compromising about what they want.
The really good ones will listen to suggestion and take from it what they want to and leave behind what they don’t.
Pending the type of film it is (whether it be a studio film or an independent) they also have to understand the politics of the movies too. Dealing with studios and producers.
Describe your process from engagement on a project to finish.
I always insist on a good amount of prep because that’s where the movie comes together and a plan is formulated. My job is multi-faceted in that I have to schedule the movie taking into account the creative flow and continuity of the script; look for locations, cast extras, set up rehearsals,have a plan and an alternate plan.
Usually what I do, and I’m a little slow at it, I read the script and then read it again in depth. As I’m scheduling the film, I see it in my head and with the input from the director and animatics and storyboards, you formulate a plan.
Keeping in mind that as you schedule films, you need to be kind to story & continuity, meaning you want to give the actors a chance to develop their characters as you go. So you’re always striving to keep a continuity story-wise, as you shoot it. Invariably there are times that that doesn’t work – if they shot every movie in continuity, they’d cost too much – but I try to pay attention to that for the sake of the director and the actors.
Then you get at it. Whether it’s a 60 day schedule or a 140 day schedule, you go forward and try to shoot it as artistically and as efficiently as possible because you’re spending lots of money every day.
Of course, you always have to have the alternate plan for when it snows at the wrong time of year or rains when you don’t want it. You have to be able to go the the alternate set or weather cover.
It’s a lot of hours and a lot of hard work and hopefully a good film at the end of it.
When does your job finish? After production or does it ever overspill into post?
No, I’m done at the end of production.
How much room is there to change a scene on the day – because a director wants to change something?
The secret to it all is always try to protect the schedule with a bit of fat. Knowing where the fat is and what you can get away with.
Great actor but it just wasn’t happening. We all just looked at each and then went home. There was no sense filming it because we’d have had to re-film it.
The leaner the production, the harder it is to do of course, but then you have to say ‘look, if we want a better movie then we’re going to have to eat this and go an extra half day or day’. That’d be a meeting with everybody; directors, producers and studios.
Fortunately, touch wood, I’ve always managed to protect the film enough that it hasn’t happened. It does happen though. Some very big pictures have gone way over budget for whatever reasons.
On Terminator 3 – Rise Of The Machines at the very beginning of the movie we hired a young lady to be the heroine in the film and it didn’t work. We were 3 weeks into production and the decision was made to recast. So we did and that meant having to go back and reshoot sequences with Arnold and quite a bit of action.
It doesn’t happen very often but it happens.
What would be your advice to an actor wanting to eventually work within the studio system?
First and foremost is the ability to be the character you’re tasked with being.
For me, all great and good actors are nice people. I’ve worked with Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and many other ultimate pros. These types of actors who, in addition to being great at what they do, are great people to work with and be around
My advice to any aspiring actor would be: you need to stand up for your character and be who you are but you need to treat the coffee boy just as nicely as the director.
The business is too tough for the amount of time you spend every day making a film to have to deal with ugliness of bad behaviour, as far as I’m concerned. When you do these movies, you try to create a family that’s one for all, all for one and you go on and you do your best no matter what your job is on the project .
Other than the director and the 2nd and 3rd ADs, who does a 1st AD deal with most?
For me, I try to create a family. I deal with everybody; the cast, the crew, the cameramen, the grips, the gaffers, make up, hair, wardrobe.
On a studio film, you’re dealing with the studio, with whoever’s assigned to your film from the studio.
You’re kind of like Daddy in a way (or Mummy in the case of a woman). You’re the figure that everybody comes to. If somebody’s got personal issues, crew member with integral to the day’s work that’s not ready or an actor who’s having issues with script and such, they usually come to me first.
You have to give that invitation out at the beginning. You don’t want them to be afraid of you. You try to create a confidence that everyone is comfortable with.
What type of challenges most often occur on a day-to- day or week-to-week basis for a production?
You set out with a plan, knowing that along the way changes are going to happen due to weather or an actor getting sick or the director has a change of mind about what he/she wants to do something or the SFX doesn’t have this ready yet.
Every project is different and they all have their idiosyncrasies and things that can go wrong. It’s a moving feast all the time on every film. You have to be resilient enough and have a confidence in the vision of the overall plan to know how to deal with the changes.
You have to go forward and do the best you can.
What changes for you when you’re working on a $200m+ budget vs something under $100m?
On a smaller picture, of course, you have less time to do it. You compromise, as you have to sometimes. You can’t have all the toys that you have on a big picture. Cranes and helicopters and what have you.
Smaller pictures are more challenging than big pictures because it’s tighter all around. But it becomes a tighter group. You really have to have everybody pushing together to get it made.
On a bigger picture you’ve got a little more leeway on how things can happen and how long they can take to happen. A little more forgiving time-wise. If something does mess up you can recover it more easily.
How do you manage to juggle family life?
It’s difficult. Unless your partner in life is in tune with what you do then it doesn’t work.
I’ve always had a horse ranch in addition to working in the film business. My partner’s been tasked with taking care of that a lot of the time.
It’s difficult but the time you do have together is time you endeavor to make special. Both partners have to sign on then or it’s never going to work.
What changes for you on a CG heavy film vs. no CG? Are things easier/harder? What tasks are added/subtracted from the mix?
Well, as we progress in the industry and CG becomes easier to do, then the less tangible things are on a film set. When you’re spending weeks on a green screen and there’s nothing there other than the actor and a green screen (hopefully with pieces of set), to keep the motivation and enthusiasm going sometimes becomes a little more difficult, I find. We call it ‘green screen fever’ or ‘blue screen fever’ as the case may be.
The big thing with all the CG in this day and age is that you’ve got to anchor yourself in a reality somehow. A good VFX Supervisor still strives, as much as they can to do as much as possible for real. If you can do it for real or have a piece of reality, it just helps everybody.
Sometimes you just can’t do that. When Superman is flying through the clouds, he’s flying through the clouds. Unfortunately we haven’t taught him how to do it on his own yet [laughs].
I find sometimes when you walk onto a green screen stage with a 200 person crew and they’re all standing there. It’s hard to grasp the direction that you’re headed in because there’s nothing there to deal with. It’s hard for the actors too. The secret to that, of course, is pre-visualisation, storyboards and a director who has the vision in his head or has already worked out in theory what it’s going to look like (to a point) and has the ability to communicate that to a crew and cast.
It can be difficult on a CGI film. Running through nothing with ‘buildings crashing around you’ can be sometimes hard to do [laughs].
Tell us a bit about working on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Well, first of all, it was a long schedule. We knew that going in. We didn’t go over schedule which on a film like that is an achievement.
It was an interesting film in that it sets up the whole DC Universe with different characters, where now there’ll be offshoot films of all the other DC characters and, of course, the continuation of The Justice League
There was a lot riding on this film so a lot of thought had to go into the film to make the rest of it work for the future. You now have these characters that you’re going to buy into for the next 6 or 8 years.
It was a challenge that we all rose to.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was shot on film?
Yep. We had IMAX cameras for parts of it. I’ve never done a digital movie with a digital camera yet, I’ve always done film.
Did you shoot with multiple cameras on this project?
Zack likes to shoot the movie with one camera, which on a movie like that is a big undertaking. We shot mostly with one camera, sometimes two. On stunts and things, yes we’d use multiple cameras.
Zack isn’t a big 2nd Unit guy either. We had a splinter Unit. It’s basically a handheld movie (as was Man of Steel).
What can make you say ‘No’ to a project and what advice would you give to somebody starting out and wanting to be a 1st AD of your stature?
Sometimes the people that are asking you to do it, to be honest. There are some directors that life’s too short for.
When you’re young and aspiring, you’ll do damn near anything just to keep your foot in the door. As you get a little longer in the tooth, I guess you get a little more selective but I think try to keep your integrity. It’s tough to say no when you’re starting out. Once you sign on you’re committing on to make the best film you can make regardless.
No matter what the subject matter, once you say yes, you’re on your way to giving it your all. 110%. If you’re not comfortable from the get go, then you say no.
Every project has it’s own experiences, they add to the fabric of your career and depth to your understanding of the process.
What advice would you give to an indie director or producer looking to work within the studio system?
It’s hard to say for producers because there are all types of producers. If they’re a creative type producer then, much like anybody else, they’ve got to buy into the project and be there 100% from the get-go.
Aspiring directors should do the best with what they have. Oftentimes they don’t have the luxuries of time and toys and money that studio directors do but hopefully sometimes they have a purer project because they have more control in the indie world.
Just keep your wits about you and be willing to work hard. Never compromise on your vision where possible. That’s what will help you succeed as you go.
It’s all about integrity and being true to your work. Hopefully that integrity and enthusiasm to make a good film as an indie will lead to bigger and better things.
What films do you think all filmmakers should watch?
It’s good to see a spectrum of how different directors do different things. Lawrence of Arabia was one way, FORREST GUMP was another. The techniques of all the old masters compared to the new guys. You need to immerse yourself in all those films.
Always remember it’s a privilege to work in this industry.
Thank you, Bruce!
Read our interview with 1st AD of I Saw the Light’s John McKeown
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