Hi Film Folk,
Today we bring you another In Conversation.
This time we had the pleasure of chatting with the amazing 1st Assistant Director of The Jungle Book and Mother’s Day – Dave Venghaus!
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and how you ended up working in film. Were you raised in a creative environment?
I was raised for part of my life by my Grandparents. My Grandfather used to love films and was an inspiration to me. He just loved the art of films and watching films and I remember seeing my very first film with him – a Disney film called The Island at the Top of the World.
I remember watching the end of the film at the movie theatre at 8 years old and I remember turning to him ands aying “How did they do that?” and the he thought I was referring to something that happened in the film and I said “No, no, no, how did they actually make the movie, how did they do that?”
I remember using his Super 8 camera that we shot home movies with and making little films. I would put on plays in my living room, or a puppet show from the Wizard of Oz album he got me after we saw that film as a family. Both he and my Grandmother used to tell me that I would some day be in entertainment. I knew it too.
So I knew at a very young age that that was something I wanted to do and I truly enjoyed it. I loved going to the movies. Back when I was a kid, you could go and see two films back to back sometimes. So that was something I loved.
By the time I got into college, I didn’t get to go to an established film school. I wish I could have but I couldn’t because I couldn’t afford it at the time. I decided to went attend a SUNY Oneonta in New York. It was a very small school and had a very limited small film & television program at the time. There in school I just took whatever they offered me in film and started making my own curriculum through the college, as best as I could. I actually had a wonderful experience there, learning any way I could about the art and business of film and television. My professor, Dr. Zoohori encouraged me to get internships every summer, including working for a photographer, Soap Operas, commercials with my Dad and CBS News in New York.
After graduation, I needed a job. My sister, Kathi would sit with me and fill envelopes with letters and resumes which helped land me my first job as an intern and then Production Assistant onThe Cosby Show. From that moment, I knew that I would make this my career.
How did you start getting work and how did you maintain getting it?
Putting ego aside, I was good at my job, that’s the best way of putting it.
The film industry is very fickle and competitive so I knew the only way I was going to keep getting work is to do well and to be the best at every position that I held. When I first got in television back in New York on The Cosby Show, I immediately started setting goals for myself and I wouldn’t stop until I hit that goal which involved networking.
When my career began was a Production Assistant, there wasn’t a lot of work in New York compared to now, which made it very competitive. You had to be better than everyone else and prove yourself every day on every job. Every PA job went towards my days to get into the Directors Guild of America to become an Assistant Director.
I had worked on a movie called JFK as a Production Assistant, with Oliver Stone directing, and I got on with Oliver well at the time. An A.D. named Herb Gains was the 1st AD on Natural Born Killers and I got a call to interview for the position of 2nd Second A.D. on his staff. That was my first Assistant Director job as a Guild member.
From that moment on, I had to build relationships with First Assistant Directors and Key Second A.D.’s. As a 2nd AD, I was so lucky to have opportunities to work with 1st ADs such as Ellen Schwartz, Herb Gains, Sergio Mimica and many others, all of whom taught me to be the A.D. I am today.
Once I became a First A.D., then I needed to prove myself in that position to the Directors and Producers I had worked with in order to keep those relationships going.
Tell us a bit about working on those Oliver Stone, Scorsese movies in the 90s. How did you make the transition from second to first?
Going back to what I’ve learned, every Director, every 1st AD, every filmmaker you worked with, teaches you something different and that’s the best part about this business. That every experience and every film job you have is completely different. No two will ever be the same.
With that said, every job I had, I was able to learn something different. As a Production Assistant, I had two aspirations: one was to be an Assistant Director and my other aspiration was to direct. Most of my career has been as an Assistant Director but the aspiration to direct drove me to be a much better 1st AD simply because I was always very tuned into understanding story and what the director chose and wanted.
There were First A.D’s I had the opportunity to work with as a Production Assistant and a Second A.D. that had amazing on set relationships with their directors. It was more than just yelling Rolling and cut, more of a true collaboration. Joe Reidy was the First A.D. for Oliver Stone on JFK, Martin Scorcese, Robert DeNiro and many others. Watching him work was incredible. I felt the same with Sergio Mimica as we worked together with Steven Spielberg and Ellen Schwartz with Garry Marshall. All had a real trust from those directors. I wanted to emulate that.
It made me want to be a First AD where the relationship wasn’t just me doing the schedules and running a set. I’m the A.D. who is you partner and the first person the Director is going to turn to on many levels that at times can be creative. It could be setting back ground action or it could be making sure the story is being told in the right way.
I was very lucky to have gotten Pirates of The Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End back to back as the Second A.D. During the shoot an opportunity came up which allowed me to bump up to the First AD position on those films, working with Gore Verbinski. Taking the leap from Second to First is a big, but this was gigantic and I had to do everything I could not to screw it up. Let’s face it, not many people get a chance like that, but Gore trusted me and even though there were some bumps and grinds along the way, I succeeded in both films and was very proud to finally call myself a First Assistant Director.
What’s your general process – from booking to wrap?
As soon as I get the job, typically hired by the Director (but it’s sometimes the producers as well) I’m given a script and the first thing they ask me to do is to break down the script using Movie Magic Scheduling.
What we mean by breaking down the script is we put it into Movie Magic Scheduling – which creates a schedule and literally every scene is broken down one scene at a time including all the information about each scene such as what cast members are there, what’s happening in the scene, the location, etc.
So my first job is to do a schedule that helps the producers with the budget and helps get the prep into focus. My primary responsibility in prep is to maintain the schedule. The schedule can be impacted in so many ways including availability of locations, talent, weather. I could go on. You’ll never ever shoot the first schedule you draft, you’ll have done 50 by the time it comes to shooting on Day 1.
My second responsibility is to be the conduit of information from the Director to the rest of the crew. This can be anything from scheduling meetings and scouts to castings and rehearsals. Anything needed for the prep of the film is my responsibility so the Director can execute his/her vision. Prep is just as important as shooting. Without prep the whole thing can fall apart.
There’s typically 3 ADs on the set, there’s the 1st AD, the key 2nd AD and the 2nd 2nd AD a.k.a 3rd AD. The key 2nd AD is very similar to Lighting and Grip department’s Best Boys. Their job is basically to know about what happened yesterday, what’s going on today and what’s going to happen tomorrow, making sure everyone on set has everything they need. They also do the call sheet with crew call, cast calls and all other important information about the day.
The 2nd 2nd AD’s job typically involves working with the 1st AD on the set and they are basically my arms, ears, eyes and legs and make sure everything is set up. They also typically set the background action on set, working with the Director and the 1st AD at many times, in creating an atmosphere with the background artists.
PAs are the extension of that, they are the ones that actually do all the work; the background, lock-ups and keeping the set clear. I truly love all of my staff.
How does the job change for you in terms of doing a documentary like Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber’s? What were the prep and days like for those?
Bruce Hendricks, the Producer of the Pirates films and an Executive with Disney at the time, was the director of the Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds 3D concert film. He asked me to be his 1st AD. We shot in native 3D and it was something I was interested in doing.
Our job primarily was to to go on tour with Miley Cyrus for a few months and learn her show and shoot the concert with multiple cameras in 3D. We did the exact same thing with the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber.
When it came to doing the Jonas Brothers, I took on the role of both AD and TD (Technical Director), working with Bruce from the booth on shoot night. So I would go on tour with them and literally watch every concert and rehearsal and bounce around with them.
When John Chu was doing Justin Bieber’s movie, I was hired in the same capacity. As an AD my job was still to be the line of communications with the Director but also I’d be in the control booth working with the Director calling the cameras and telling the crew which part of the show was coming up next.
We usually shot one night of a live concert and then a night or two, if we were lucky, of pickup shots in the venue to get the tighter shots on stage. The most difficult thing about these films was that we were guests in an already scheduled concert tour.
We had to find a diplomatic way to interject ourselves and work synergistically rather than get in the way. The guys who organize these tours are insanely talented and I had huge respect for them and 99% of the time it went really well and it was very professional.
And you’ve worked with Bob Zemeckis on a couple of films that are very CG heavy – A Christmas Carol and Mars Needs Moms. How were those? What changes for you there with it being CG?
Those were extremely intriguing. At that time,Bob Zemeckis really loved and wanted to do motion-capture animated films and his goal was to master that kind of filmmaking.
When I got involved with Robert Zemeckis, I was called to do A Christmas Carol because Bob’s AD that he typically used and worked with on The Polar Express and Beowulf wasn’t available and I had the chance to build a relationship with Bob. Through his ImageMovers Digital motion-capture company, which sadly did not succeed, we built a mocap stage down in Playa Vista in Playa Del Rey, California.
Interestingly, the entire film was shot in a 70x 30ft sound stage and all of this was quite new and exciting at the time. My job was to work with our crews and Art departments to organize the sets to create the necessary terrain for the mocap performance. There were no walls as they would block the information from the motion capture suits to the camera, only giving the actors props that they actually need to touch and use. The set was a muted grey color as to not interfere with the markers on the actor’s body.
From an AD’s perspective, it was interesting and taught me a different way of prepping and with it a whole new vocabulary and it was ultimately all about creating the illusion for the actors being on a set. I applaud Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman and the actors that worked on A Christmas Carol as there were literally no sets which I know was very difficult. I thought it would be tedious at first but it was incredibly rewarding and working with Robert Zemeckis is brilliant.
My experience with those two films then translated to the job I got with Jon Favreau on Jungle Book. With that film we didn’t do the same thing as Zemeckis but we started the process on the exact same stage that was used for his ImageMovers work.
When it comes to the new vocabulary that comes with motion capture films, you have to educate yourself very quickly, there are no classes. Luckily, I absorb things quite easily and it isn’t all that complicated and you learn from the very talented people who are around you on set.
Bob Zemeckis has such an amazing mind and he is literally one my most favorite people I know, let alone as a Director. He is very educational and everyday on set I would learn something new.
And are there any myths about the process – either your job in particular or of filmmaking – that you could dispel?
I don’t know about myths. There are a lot of people who want to work in film and I don’t blame them. Everyday I have to pinch myself.
I get that a lot of people want to be in this business but many people have the misconception of the glory and the glamour of the industry. It’s not a glamorous business, it’s a very hard business.
It’s especially difficult when it comes to hours on family life, but the rewards far outweigh the negatives. As a PA, you have these glamorous ideas of being on set surrounded by famous people and the next thing you know you’re in the cold, 3 blocks away from the set telling a homeless man he’s not allowed to cross the street. That’s the nature of the business.
With ADs, they’re always seen as the mean, yelling ones on set in jokes and on TV they’re always portrayed as the ones who are chain-smoking, neurotic and about to have a heart-attack but that’s just not true. The vast majority of us are not like that at all. That’s definitely one myth I’d like to dispel.
What makes a valuable actor? What qualities would you recommend an aspiring actor to work on?
There’s no magic bullet. It’s such a difficult thing. You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do that job. With that said, it’s not impossible.
A friend of mine, Glen Powell, who has been doing amazingly well, was an aspiring actor from Texas who moved to LA. He figured it out. He understood how to make it work. Many cannot.
Acting is a business and, yes, it is about talent but it’s also about marketing yourself. The best thing I can tell actors is consider yourself as a bag of potato chips. If you’re going to make a new bag of potato chips then you are going to work on that potato chip until it’s perfect and you’re not going to put it in its bag yet and that’s essentially perfecting your craft.
Once you’re ready to put it out there, you now create a bag and you have put something on the packaging to make it stand out, the naming and how it looks. When you’re on the shelves, you have to hope that the ‘shoppers’, the casting directors, pass by the big popular ones and they’re going to see your brand and going to want to taste it but you’ve got to make sure that once they open the bag and take a bite that they come back and tell others about it.
Figure out how to stand out from the crowd whether it’s good looks, comedy, etc. Actors have to have a lot of patience and learn to accept rejection. Once you accept that then you can start making a dent. Take classes. Learn your craft. Know what kind of actor you want to be. And do not give up.
Want to know what it’s like to 1st AD a $200m+ studio movie like #BatmanVSuperman?
Read our EXCLUSIVE interview… https://t.co/WHiyZjmF9X
— Film Doctor (@film_doctor) April 6, 2016
And on a project like Walter Mitty where Ben was directing and acting. Does that put more pressure on you or on the DP to be able to ‘see’ the movie so to speak?
I worked with Ben Stiller mainly on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Zoolander 2 but I actually met him on the set of Tropic Thunder. I don’t want to take credit at all being that I simply came on to help the First AD when he needed someone to fill in.
Ben and I got along terrifically well that’s how I got on to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Zoolander.
Zoolander 2 is a comedy so do you have to submit to the jokes a bit more than something like Mitty?
The comedy doesn’t really change the process. Can improv happen on the day? Yes, it does but it happens on the spot so it really isn’t something that’s planned for. There’s a script, there are still rehearsals and there’s a lot of prep.
Zoolander was a lot of prep because it was not only a comedy, it was a fantastical comedy. There were a lot of gags, visual effects, costumes, and prosthetics. The prep on that film was actually much more extensive.
I love Ben Stiller and I love working with him and I am so proud to be his 1st AD. I am very excited about that. The process with him is a little different with that when on the set, he’s a very hands on director. He’s there with us every day in prep and clearly the person in charge. Simply put, he has a vision and is very involved in achieving that. He’s one of my favorite directors because he does not compromise on his vision.
I tend to get a lot of shoots with actor/directors now. I did Zach Braff’s I Wish I Was Here and he acted and directed that, David Duchovny on Californication whenever he directed and I was even brought in when Don Cheadle was directing an episode of his own show House of Lies and they brought me in just to do his episode because he wanted an AD who knew how to work with an actor/director.
With Ben I’d learned quite a bit. I look at the job of the director and it’s so daunting already and I think how can this person also be the guy that’s the face of the film too? How exhausting is that? So my job has to step up to support them even more.
Ben’s very good at balancing. I came up with a plan with Ben which I loved. While we were in prep on Walter Mitty, we would go to every single location ahead of time with our Director of Photography and some stand-ins and take a 5D camera to video block every single scene that we could. We then brought the actors back in prep and were able to rehearse and video block with them.
So by the time we got to the set we were much more organized so that he was able to concentrate on acting on the day as well. Don’t get me wrong. Ben is a master at balancing the two jobs but the more organized it was, the better for all of us.
Jungle Book – how did you end up on that?
I worked with a Producer, Peter Tobyansen on a number of films throughout my career. He’s a line producer which he is quite good at, and works on many visual effects heavy films. We had worked together on A Christmas Carol and Mars Needs Moms, with motion capture.
Jon Favreau was looking for a new 1st AD but, more importantly, an AD who understood the process of motion capture. My work with Robert Zemeckis on A Christmas Carol and Mars helped because of the plan to utilize the technology on Jungle Book.
Jon and I immediately connected and that’s how I got the film. I interviewed with Jon and he explained what he wanted to do and it sounded exciting. I did a proper interview with Jon and it was probably one of the most intriguing and interesting and wonderful experiences of my life.
Jon is one of the most interesting, talented and educated directors I’ve met and it only got better from there. He is as tough and gentle at the same time. Knows what he wants and was incredible with our young actor, Neel Sethi. Watching Jon work with Neel was a true pleasure daily.
What was the prep time?
It was interesting because we did something completely different with Jungle Book which was kind of a combination of many of the things that I’ve done in my career.
This was a completely different process because the only actor in the movie for the most part, other than a couple of smaller parts in the film was Neel. What we decided to do was, going back to the Zemeckis format, go to a motion capture stage and for the first 40 days of the shoot, use performance capture (motion capture technology) for the entire movie with Neel and some other performance capture actors and stunt performers. We would have two actors per animal to basically just guide the motion capture performance of the animals per scene.
This aided in creating a rough animatic of every single scene. Then we took that rough animatic and the animators would do a master of the animatic working with our Production Designer, Christopher Glass, who created a rough virtual outline of what the set would look like, including trees and the various Jungle sets.
We would then take the master file of the scene and then give it to Bill Pope, our Director of Photography who would work with Jon and Bill to put the camera to it. Bill and Jon would create the shots in each scene that would be cut together as in any film editing process.
The cut scene would then advise us on how to proceed with the live action shoot with Neel on a blue screen stage. The Art Department and Property would have any set piece or prop that Neel would interact with set against a blue screen environment. Jon wanted real performers to work with him. Neel and Jon went around to most of our voice actors and pre-recorded all the dialogue to help Jon and Neel with pacing.
Then we hired a couple of wonderful puppeteers from Jim Henson’s company. They came in and they would wear blue suits and they would do all the off-camera with puppet heads or at times it was just eyeballs on their fingers. Anything to help Neel get to a performance. The kid was genius though and picked up on it instantly.
At times when building sets, Jon would want a bit more flexibility so Christopher would build larger sets including Baloo’s Cave. That was probably one of our bigger sets. When he was riding Baloo’s belly in the river, it was a tank in a parking lot with a Baloo belly piece. It was fun.
How long did you shoot for? Actually physically shoot.
It was approximately a 40 day motion capture shoot and then about a 93 day live action shoot. The only reason we showed up every day was for that 10 year old boy and he was amazing.
My biggest worry on that film was losing the actor. How do you keep a ten year old’s attention for an entire film? That’s a long time for any actor. He started as ten year old yet his passion for that project never swayed. He was amazing.
We had two young boys that were with him who were photo doubles that worked with him, Mateo Dimaya and Seth Zamora. Those two were just as amazing. I nicknamed each. Neel was of course Mowgli. Seth was Nowgli and mateo was Matowgli. They are all still buddies.
That kid, I’ve never been so impressed with anyone in my entire career. To show up every day and give the performance that he did to nothing or to puppeteers or to animal heads or eyeballs on fingers – it was pretty impressive. Most of that was Jon Favreau – Jon would get in that water with that kid, Jon would be up there with the kid, hell, a lot of the time Jon would get in there and act with the kid himself. Jon was amazing with that boy!
Tell us a bit about where you shot ‘Mother’s Day’ and how the shoot was?
I’m going to start by saying, my favorite relationship in this business has been and always will be with Garry Marshall. I’ve worked with Garry for over a twenty year span. We worked together for the first time in 1995 on a movie called Dear God. I was 2nd AD, Ellen Schwartz was his 1st A.D.
I’ve adored and loved that man like family for the entire time I’ve known him. I grew up with Happy Days and Mork and Mindy when I was a kid so to be able to be Assistant director for Garry Marshall is nothing but a true pleasure.
One thing about Garry, he’s not afraid to admit what kind of movies he likes too make and who his audience is. We did Valentine’s Day which began this whole holiday thing for him. Then it was New Year’s Eve and, of course, this is the third in his holiday series called Mother’s Day.
We shot in Atlanta, Georgia and it’s all about family with Garry. It was an amazing experience, he was able to bring back family. He wanted Julia Roberts to be in it because this was their 25th reunion of Pretty Woman and it was a bit of a reunion with Julia, Hector Elizondo, Garry and Garry’s Director of Photography Chuck Minsky who has been with Garry as far back as Pretty Woman. It was truly nostalgic to be there with Julia and Garry together again – that was really quite special. Bringing Kate Hudson on, who we’ve done a number of movies with, was also important with Garry. A whole while back Garry directed her Mom in Over Board and then worked with Kate on Raising Helen. This was a great reunion as well.
Garry’s got a wonderful little term we use – FOGS – and they are ‘Friends of Garry’ and those are actors that Garry must have in his movie. They’re very funny. Many of his FOGS are his own family. His wife is in every movie he does. Hector Elizondo has been in every single Garry Marshall movie. He’s been Garry’s lucky charm for many years.
Working on a film with Garry Marshall is like going home.
— Film Doctor (@film_doctor) May 9, 2016
What advice would you give to an aspiring assistant director or what qualities would you recommend them working on?
My advice is to keep working. Obviously try to build consistent relationships, that’s always important, but also try to work with as many people as possible because the more people you work with, the more opportunities and the more people you’re proving yourself with.
So as a production assistant or an assistant director, work with as many people as possible and keep proving yourself and, at the end of the day, the most important thing is doing a good job. It’s not only a talent thing, it’s a personality thing.
People want to know that the assistant director is a stable and consistent voice, the communicator on set – they want to trust that person.
An important part of our job is safety, making sure that they feel safe on set. I bring that up simply because that is an issue that has been coming up over the last couple of years here in the United States. I take it very seriously. You ask anyone, they’ll tell you my safety meetings have become popular because I’m so anal about them [laughs].
The crew wants to trust the 1st ADs and the 2nd ADs – that we’re there to watch their back, keep them safe as well as keeping the ship going and keep the communication flowing.
If you’re going to be an AD, keep that in mind: your job is always going to be about communication on the set. The stronger you become then you’ll get where you want to be. Just be good.
— Film Doctor (@film_doctor) May 4, 2016
What advice would you give to a director wanting to work within the studio system?
Someone asked Steven Spielberg while I was on set “how can I become a director?” Steven turned to him and said “Pick up a camera and direct. Stop talking about it and just do it,” and that’s the best advice I’ve heard.
Sometimes I wish I took that advice to heart myself. When I was younger, it was very expensive to make movies. You had to afford film, rent cameras and it was a very expensive process finding a place to process your film.
You can make a movie so much easier now because people are making movies on very affordable cameras, with no processing costs whatsoever and they’re editing them in their living rooms on Final Cut Pro.
The access to directing is there but people are always waiting for this magic bullet like actors do and there is no magic bullet. Prove yourself by directing and start making small films and getting them into festivals.
The best directors, in my opinion, are the ones that first know what they want and that have a passion and a story to tell.
Directors come from many backgrounds, which in many cases has been a very good thing. Actors, writers, editors, DP’s have gone on to direct and many quite successfully. But I also worry that at times some feel that their experience on sets in those other positions gives them the right to direct eventually.
The job of the Director cannot be that disposable. It is a craft that is learned like all others and I applaud those who continue to learn but more importantly have a passion for the job. The job is a daunting one but also a very rewarding one.
Thank you, Dave!
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