First Assistant Directors: Who Are They?

Ready When You Are Mr. Coppola, Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Crowe

During the filming process, the First AD is the guy in charge.

Or the woman.

He/she organises the shooting, what will be filmed and when. His/her mission, to harmonise the production requirements with the director wishes, which is never easy, sometimes plainly impossible.

The First AD is the one in charge in the film trenches.

The Assistant Director’s mission

In his splendid auto-biography, An Open Book, legendary film director John Huston describes the First Assistant Directors as follows:

“Great First Assistants are well-known. They are like great top sergeants, often valued more highly than the director. When I find such an assistant, I put all my trust in him. First Assistants are basically “company men”, and one of their primary responsibilities is to protect the interests of the studio.”

“Some of them carry these to extremes, basing every decision on immediate monetary savings, regardless of quality. Then there are those (…) who understand that cutting corners doesn’t necessarily save money. They have the ability to perceive what a director is after, and the judgment to decide whether he’s good enough to warrant added expense. If it is, they are the director’s champions.”

John Huston on Annie's set
Huston on Annie’s set

To leave the director free to take care of the creative side

“A First Assistant worth his salt takes over the details, leaving the director free to make creative decisions. The First Assistant decides when the company moves, whether or not there should be a second unit working on the preparation of the so-called action shots; whether the action scenes should be shot together or broken up.”

“He’s a specialist in such a back-up people as stunt-men; he knows them by name; and knows who is best for what: falls, horses, rope-climbing, driving, piloting or motorcycling. When it comes to explosives, he picks the powder man. A good First Assistant is a first-rate diplomat as well as a disciplinarian. He has the ability to command without offending people. Along with his authority, he has a sense of fitness and good taste. He is able to go to the stars’ dressing rooms and persuade them to his course of action without toadying to them or seeming to authoritarian. There aren’t many like this.”

First Assistant Directors: Who Are They?
Edward Dmytryk, a master of cinema

Edward Dmytryk on Assistant Directors

Let’s get some more input about ADs from another master director, Edward Dmytryk. His excellent books On Screen Acting and On Film Editing have been analysed in our posts On Film Editing According to Edward Dmytryk and On Screen Acting According to Edward Dmytryk (and Jean Porter).

In his book, On Screen Directing, Dmytryk, a great editor and director for many years, discusses the AD job:

“Although he bears the title of Assistant Director, and he belongs to the Directors Guild, he is not always the director’s man. Some independent producers, as well as studio production departments, succeed in making them their man on the set. They can offer incentives and exert precious to accomplish that end.”

“He’s not an assistant in the creative sense but is instead the set foreman. He sees that the set is efficiently organized and that everything the director needs is at hand, whether it be actors, extras, or special equipment; he also marshalls the set for the director during rehearsals and shooting. (…) If he’s exceptionally able he will leave the directive free to do nothing but direct. On location, his work and his hours are even harder and longer.”

First AD Jerry Ziesmer

Jerry Zeismer in Apocalypse Now

Terminate with extreme prejudice

I keep vivid memories of when I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time. I remember thinking “how did they manage to film all that?”. It seemed humanly impossible to film some of those scenes.

Apart from the main characters, 2 faces stuck in my memory. Both belong to the same scene: when Martin Sheen‘s character is briefed on his mission. One was Harrison Ford‘s, playing a very short part right after Star Wars‘ fame. The other one was a certain guy who appears in that scene and says ONLY ONE LINE: “Terminate with extreme prejudice”.

That line ended up becoming a cult thing related to this great movie. I didn’t know it then, but that gentleman was Jerry Ziesmer, the film’s First AD. You can see him saying that line 22 seconds into the following trailer.

Apocalypse Now

A Top First AD

Jerry Ziesmer did, as a First Assistant Director, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (although only a little part of it), Spielberg’s 1941, De Palma’s Scarface, Black Sunday and Apocalypse Now, amongst many others, and lived to tell the tale.

Zeismer wrote a book about his professional experiences called Ready When You are, Mr Coppola, Mr Spielberg, Mr Crowe. It’s priceless.

You don’t usually get books written by First ADs. Usually ADs perform a supporting part in some Making Of books, if they get mentioned at all. So when one makes a book, we should pay attention, as they are the first in the trenches, they know everything that really goes on – in fact, one of their missions is to filter reality to the director so that he can concentrate in his/her job.

And he worked with the late John Huston too.

Huston, John

Now it’s the turn of Jerry Ziesmer to introduce John Huston to you. They worked together in one of Huston’s last films, the musical Annie.

Annie Huston 1982
Annie, the Musical, directed by John Huston

If you don’t know who Huston is, pretend you do, as you will never be forgiven for loving film and not knowing Huston. This is when they met:

“I felt I was in the room with Hollywood history. John Huston had directed The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Moby Dick, and more than 30 other movies over a 50-year career as a writer, actor, and director. He had directed Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and many, many others.”

But this was Annie.

Huston would get to direct only 2 more films before dying. He was an old man in poor health, as Ziesmer remembers.

“John Huston was not a well man, he had many ailments, including the early stages of emphysema. In his suite at the Essex House, John had an oxygen bottle with a plastic tube on the mask to help his breathing. I became accustomed to meeting with John and his sweet to have discussions with him while he was attached to the origin bottle to help his breathing.”

john_huston
John Huston

Huston and Ziesmer together

“You’ve seen Annie?”, John (Huston) laughed quietly. “The Broadway musical?

“No I havent!, I admitted. (Ziesmer)

“Neither have I, but I will”, John laughed quietly, “Don’t worry”.

This exchange would be normal between two theatre aficionados, but certainly not between the guy who is about to direct a film version of Annie and his First Assistant Director.

“I liked John Huston’s spirit of devilment. When I was a teacher, I enjoyed the trait in my students. I knew he was “John Huston, Hollywood Legend”, I also felt that he was “John Huston, mischievous little boy.”
And I was right.”

This book is full with amazing stories about the making of many remarkable films of American history. My favourite chapter? When filming in the jungle the Tiger Scene on Apocalypse Now and the D.O.P. (Director of Photography) Vittorio Storaro and his crew were nowhere to be found.

Even if you are only curious about how a film gets really made, the pages of this book will be enlightenment to you.

Jerry Ziesmer’s most embarrassing professional moment

Nobody is perfect.

So, even a super First AD like Ziesmer has had his bad moments. Please listen and watch him telling you a great anecdote on Apocalypse Now by clicking here.

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