As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Pete Dress, a 2nd Assistant Director and member of the Director's Guild of America.
As he puts it, the position of 2nd AD entails "communication, communication, communication. I serve as the central hub through which all information flows. I call actors and their agents with schedule information and report times. I liase with department heads to determine their needs and to relay information from the set if/when the schedule changes. I call the Animal Wrangler with the python's report time and the Picture Car Coordinator with the Gran Torino's work dates. On set, I manage and set the extra performers' action behind and around the actors themselves.
"Setting background is the one time my fingerprints are directly seen in a film and it is the most rewarding part of the job. It is actually an art form in itself to direct 500 extras, say, in a shopping mall scene and make their behavior mirror reality but work for the various camera positions. I actually find myself looking to reality in my everyday life and 'stealing' things I see to then duplicate on set with extras. In short, the Assistant Directors support the director with all the logistical and managerial aspects so s/he is free to concentrate on, well, directing."
HBAD: How did you get your start?
PD: While attending film school at San Diego State University, I attended a presentation from the Assistant Directors Training Plan (ADTP). This program is maintained by the Producers and Directors Guild as a pathway to becoming an Assistant Director without previous set experience or knowing anyone in the industry. It levels the playing field and allows individuals who might not otherwise have connections to the entertainment industry gain access to it.
Of course, the plan is flooded with people trying to get in, so access through the system is highly restricted. In fact, I did not make the final cut the first year I applied. When I was finally accepted, my class size was 21 out of the 980 that applied that year. Yes, it is a pretty steep cut. After becoming a Trainee, I worked on O Brother, Where Art Thou? with the Joel & Ethan Coen and a few weeks on Dr. T & The Women with Robert Altman. My assignments also included episodic television shows such as Angel, The Pretender and The West Wing. After obtaining 400 days of on set experience (which took roughly 20 months to complete), I was released into the world as an AD in the Directors Guild of America.
My first job after graduation was the series Angel. I couldn't have asked for a better (or tougher!) show to jump start my career. We had demons, monsters, vampires, stunts, lots of night work and an exremely tight shooting schedule. I learned how to get the job done efficiently and under stressful conditions. I left after that season and crossed over to feature films, where I've worked since. Some of my credits include working with the Coens on Ladykillers, Scorsese on The Aviator and Clint Eastwood on Letters from Iwo Jima and Gran Torino.
HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?
PD: Access. Hollywood is a tough nut to crack when you're the new kid in town. After graduating college and not getting into the ADTP the first time, I still moved to Los Angeles and began hustling work as a Set PA until I could apply again. I did not know anyone and was surprised by the large number of NO! responses I received. My first gig was a low budget feature ($500,000 I believe) and I received $50/day as a Set PA. After that show I received many more NO's and then landed another Set PA job making $75/day. And so on and so on until I got into the ADTP the following year.
HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to become an assistant director?
PD: 1) It might be difficult as a 22-yr old to absorb the body blows, but my biggest piece of advice is to shrug off the NO's. The gates to Hollywood are not going to be thrown open for every college graduate coming to town looking for a job. I don't want to sound callous, but the reality is many people want to work in the industry. The system can actually absorb all of them, but it takes time. There will be some (many) obstacles to overcome and expect to be told NO a disproportionate number of times. This does not mean you will not make it in Hollywood. It's more like a right of passage toward woman/manhood.
2) Treat everyone around you with respect. I am astonished at some of the bad behavior I see in this industry, but am a firm believer in Team Play and behave accordingly. The Production Assistants and Interns on my staff are an asset and work just as many hours as I do. In my mind it is completely unjustified and unacceptable to demean their efforts by yelling or otherwise behaving like an ass. You will be remembered more for your consistent "good guy-ness" than anything else.
3) Network like your livelihood depends on it. It does. I throw a massive party in my backyard once a year and invite every single one of my friends, co-workers, new graduates from San Diego State, etc. This is a great way for everyone to see each other and mingle in a no-stress evnronment. I actually have a friend who looks forward to these because he gets a job every single time I have a party. That makes me feel great.
4) Use your position to spread the love. I travel to San Diego State University once a year to speak about my career path and the realities of life after graduation. My two regular Set PA's are recent graduates of SDSU that I literally threw onto set and gave them their first gigs. I do what I can to bridge the gap and prepare the next generation for life in Hollywood.
5) Maintain your sense of humor and have fun. I'm the guy who cracks the joke on the walkie-talkie at 3:45 AM when we're shooting nights and makes everyone laugh. I text my PA's when they're driving home to thank them for their efforts while making a snarky joke at the same time. Humor cuts through the stress and reboots the team's attitude when things get hectic. Choose your moment, though, as making jokes during a stunt sequence is not a good idea.