Friday, March 20, 2015

Let's be careful out there.

One of my first projects as a baby director was a spot I offered to finance and shoot for a friend of a friend. It was a pretty ambitious production –– a post-apocalyptic story involving a golfer in a gyrocopter. 

At one point, I wanted to give some notes to the actor, so I walked from where I’d been standing by the camera toward the flying contraption he was sitting in. 

I didn’t notice that the blades were spinning. 

Okay, I did, but I was concentrating on my shots and the stuff I wanted to talk about with the actor. Between the angle of the blades and the speed they were turning, I was about to be decapitated. 

If you think walking into the spinning blades
is scary, imagine flying the damn thing.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t die. I got about ten feet before I was tackled to the ground by my Assistant Director. Among other things, the AD is the person who keeps the set safe. 

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been reading a bit about Randall Miller, the director of ‘Midnight Rider’, and how he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the death of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was killed when a train unexpectedly plowed into the set they’d built on a train track. A lot of what's being written makes it sound as if filmmakers are cynical taskmasters who will put people’s lives at stake in order to get a shot.

I don’t know Randall Miller or any of the other people involved in making that film, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t want Sarah Jones to die. And no, not just because they had more filming to do. 

But here’s what happens. 

'Burning Passion', a pretty ambitious
(and kind of dangerous) short film I directed.
A film is a project. A gloriously fun and exciting project, full of potential and fraught with unexpected complications. 

If you hire well, everybody on the project –– even the people who really only stand to benefit financially, like the guy who drives the motor home and the people who put up the lights –– everybody gets excited about this thing you’re making. We all pull together. 

And so when it comes to making a shot a little better, heck yes we want to do that. 

"Should we shoot the dream sequence on the bridge?" Yes. "There’s a train coming. Can we get one more take?" Yes. If we take the rig down and put it back up, we’ll lose the light or fall behind. 

My brother hates flying. He once explained to me why he was more afraid of take offs than landings. “When you’re landing,” he says, "the pilot wants to be on the ground. So he’s less likely to pull up if something goes sideways.”

It’s the AD’s responsibility to not only be aware of the safety issues, but to make them clear to every single person on the set. We have what's called a Safety Meeting every time we’re doing anything that might put anyone in harm’s way, whether it’s working with a cat that might scratch an actor or a candle on a mantel that might fall over and set fire to the chair. 

Yeah, when you're not shooting real bikers wielding real knives or creating a gag to look like flaming ejaculate (both of which I'm proud to say I've done) the safety meetings can be pretty annoying. We’re excited to make this thing. We don’t want to freak out because we’re filming a five-year-old holding a sparkler, but you know what? Somebody needs to. 

I wanted real bikers. I got real bikers.
That’s why when you hire an AD, yes, you want the person who’s going to be excited to work on your masterpiece and do everything possible to make it better. But if your plane is headed for the ground, you want the pilot who’s going to get it onto the ground, quickly and safely. Even better, you want an AD who does the things that keep the plane from going out of control in the first place.

I suppose I was fortunate to have learned that lesson early on when my AD quite literally saved my life. I hope my writing is dramatic enough to make you think seriously about it.

Brian Belefant is a copywriter turned director currently rooting around for his next assignment. Please call (503) 715 2852 or email 

Post Script: I sent a draft of this blog post to Laura Nisbet Peters, one of the finest (and funniest) Assistant Directors I know. She offered the following thought: 

"I’ve been in situations like that. The weirdness of it all is that the guy who hires you, and who may or may not hire you later, is the guy to whom you have to say no. Yes, the AD is the safety rep, but the director and the producers are his/her bosses. Accidents that shouldn’t have happened serve as the ammo you need for when you are alone standing your ground with only your tiny sling shot.”

Are you listening?