The Director always has their chair. It’s a sign of their authority as well as their comfort. The AD never sits during the production day. Their position is standing next to the Director and running the set. At the Director’s elbow...
As fate and luck would have it, I got an education in the field from many different Directors who taught me in different ways. You could not buy the experience today at any cost.
By 1978, American movies were rocking the world and film schools like USC and NYU had already earned their impressive reputations. Their graduates went directly into the film and TV industry. I was just about to graduate from Oakland University in Detroit’s northern suburbs with a minor in film history (film history and aesthetics, no less. Woo-hoo). I had done student movies and 2 real docs and was willing to do anything on a film crew. I wanted in the business. What would be the way forward?
I knew the business was centered in LA, but there were opportunities in Detroit at that time because of all the filming of TV commercials and what was then called—‘Industrial Films’ (now Corporate Communication).
Through my friend Kim (now my wife of 32 years) who in college was a professional mime (not kidding), I got to work for one day on a very small crew filming the mimes and surgical stockings, of all things. I made myself very helpful and got to spend time talking to Frank Spinozzi, the Director. Me. Chatting to an actual Director!
Two months later, Frank came into the restaurant I was waiting tables at, to have lunch. Frank told me he would be directing the GMC Truck Announcement Show that year. These were huge sales and promo tools for the car companies and they spent a lot of money on these films. This will be a 30 day shoot on and off over the summer and will be 9 weeks of work for me. The gig is washing the cars and getting them ready to shoot. Hey, it’s show business. It will pay $3.50 per hour. I’m in!
During that first great summer, I fairly quickly moved from car washer to Assistant Director. (Luckily for me, the kid who was the AD was pretty lame).
I really started to learn the job at Mr. Spinozzi’s elbow. I also literally glommed on to every crew member to chat them up for whatever knowledge they possessed about the business.
This was the first time I could see that on even this 30 odd person crew (typical size for industrials), it took organization and good prep work to keep the process moving. The Director is his own, best first AD, my old pal Don Scardino says. What Don means is that a Director who knows their plan and timeline, can communicate with their DP–can get the job done even with a less than competent AD. The good Director can direct and AD and anyone directing a small crew knows that intimately. So many of my early tasks were just executing orders because I was so green. And on these small crews there is only one assistant director.
By the end of that summer, I was started to get a handle on the job of being an AD. Even the grip and gaffer would ask me what was next. I realized if you were organized the crew will listen to you.
Now that I had gotten a look at show business, I have also realized–I wanted to really be an assistant director. I knew they ran big movies and TV shows and even though I was in Detroit (The city was still alive, then…), my new plan would be to hustle to get enough experience to move to LA as a professional and get that work. Hopefully, in a couple of years.
I survived the year doing Production Assistant gigs, building sets and waiting tables. Early that spring, I got a call from Doug Wandrei, the gaffer on that GMC shoot. A Director from Chicago, Joe Morton was looking for an AD for his Chrysler Announcement Show that would prep in May and shoot all summer in Detroit.
I met with Joe and got the job. Mainly because the only other actual Assistant Directors in Detroit were 3 old guys close to retirement. Joe wanted some hustle.
So that summer I hustled. Frank Spinnozi was a copywriter who could direct. Joe Morton was a career director who could handle anything, Directing or Producing.
Although Joe had never worked in theatrical films or TV, he had run Wilding Productions in Chicago for many years. He had directed Ronald Reagan in those famous GE commercials in the 50’s (I know..it’s a boomer thing) among hundreds of other projects. In 1958, Wilding Productions produced a slate of Industrial Films costing $120 million dollars. Joe was head of production and also directed, edited and finished dozens of films a year while supervising all the other productions.
But that was then. By the time I met Joe, the heyday of industrial films was over. Wilding was long gone and the TV commercial market had passed him by.
I spent 2 summers doing the Chrysler show with Joe and I was lucky to work with him toward the end of his career. Joe had slowed down enough that he was more than willing to show me how it all worked. Got into the Directors Guild in 1980 because of that job.
Joe not only taught me how to run a crew, but how to really understand cameramen (we did not call them DP’s in Detwa) and get their best work. I learned the complete film chain and how to work with editors and lab timers. How to handle locations, cops and shoot around town in a time long before film offices. I learned the ins and outs of budgeting in the real world and how to allocate film money so you got the biggest bang for your buck. Incredible flows of information to me that I could absorb all in the service of filmmaking. The greatest business ever, I thought.
Through that experience, I had done well getting freelance AD gigs with many LA companies who came to town to shoot commercials and the high budget industrials. I had also become the go to AD for a very talented local Director, Frank Garnetti who took me out to LA in 1979 to AD his industrial sales film for Hiram Walker booze.
The HW Beverages had hired David Copperfield to do a magic show for them that we would film. Frank was a very good director and it was really cool breaking down this shoot with him. He knew how to set his shots to make the best out of Copperfield’s act. Actually working on a lot in Hollywood and learning the behind the show stuff about Copperfield tricks (Nope. Get nothing from me on that) and filming the famous magician—I thought I had died and gone to heaven. So I now know what Hollywood looks like! And I kept learning and filing it away.
As the summer of 1981 comes along, I am readying for my move to LA. I have at least 3 companies out there who have said they would hire me for commercials. I’m a DGA member now for over a year and I can make this move. At that time there were no lists you had to be on, no additional requirements to work in other cities on any shows.
But—I did interview in Chicago for a Key 2nd AD job on a TV series called ‘Chicago Story’ in June and had forgotten about it because I thought it had gone away. Another Chicago Director I had worked with, Don Carlson had recommended me to his wife, the 1st AD on the show and although the interview went well, I did not think I had job.
The UPM called me in mid August. ‘You got the job, Kid. Need you in 2 weeks’.
Chicago. The town of my father. Chicago had a storied history of film long before Hollywood was famous. And I’m going to be there working on a TV series. Not commercials or Industrials. An NBC Primetime TV show. I’ll be AD’ing for 9 different Directors. I am beyond excited. So, the boxes that were heading to LA are now headed to Chicago.
It was in that great city that I really did learn the trade. And spent endless hours standing at the Director’s elbow. What we did and how I not only survived, but thrived in Part II.
Next— I hit Chicago.
This story was originally published on JohnLRoman.com. It's Part One of a three part series on John's early days as a commercial AD (Assistant Director) to feature work on Backdraft and Groundhog Day to Producing for the Law and Order and Chicago Fire series. Here are Part Two and Part Three.