How to Become a 1st AD + Manage a Film Set

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Making a film set run efficiently takes a lot of teamwork and first assistant directors play a key role in ensuring everything happens without a hitch. Working with directors, department heads, cast, and crew, 1st ADs like Nicolas Harvard keep things organized and create the shooting schedule for a film.

Harvard has worked as a 1st AD on films like “To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean,” “Whiplash,” “Hell or High Water,” and “The Circle.” He spoke with Backstage about his career, the advice he has for aspiring 1st ADs, and what he wishes everyone knew about his work.

What does a first assistant director do?
Starting in pre-production, we break down the script scene-by-scene and create a shooting schedule. We organize and lead the department heads and cast through location scouts, production meetings, rehearsals, fittings, etc. Once production starts, we run the set shot by shot, hour by hour, for the duration of filming. 

What was your first production job?
While I was in Paris for college, a family friend who was working as a 2nd AD asked if I wanted to come run basecamp for them. I said, “Sure! What’s basecamp?” I spent that summer working the trailers for Jeremy Irons and Fanny Ardant on what ended up being Franco Zeffirelli’s last movie, “Callas Forever.” 

How did you get started as a 1st AD?
After college, I moved back to LA and answered a Craigslist ad for an AFI thesis film looking for someone to work for free as a 2nd AD. That first job led to three years of really hard work that landed me in Jordan as the Key 2nd AD on “The Hurt Locker.” My first 1st AD job was shortly after that.

What’s your process like when first approaching a project?
I first take a few days to familiarize myself with the script. I break it down using my scheduling software and make sure to write down any questions I have for the director and producers. The same script could be shot a million different ways depending on who’s making it, so I ready myself for the influx of vision I’m meant to absorb and execute. 

“You really need to get a PA job and just work, work, work.”

What training do you have? What training does someone need to become a 1st AD?
There’s no school for what we do, really. If you go to film school, you’ll graduate with a slight edge because you know what a movie set is, but you really need to get a PA job and just work, work, work. Alternatively, you can apply for the DGA Trainee Program. It’s very selective, but if you’re accepted, the guild trains you and gets you hired on film and TV productions. At the end of the two-year program, you’re admitted to the guild as a 2nd AD.

How do you find work?
There are a couple of directors I’ve been fortunate to work with repeatedly and I know a lot of producers. I start calling around when I’m getting close to the end of a job. I also have a below-the-line agent.

What is a typical day like for you on set?
Typically, I start the day by blocking the first scene with the director and the cast. We show the crew what we’ve come up with during a marking rehearsal. Before the actors step away to let the technical crew set up, I hold a safety/schedule meeting. We discuss the day’s work and potential hazards to be aware of. Once we’re rolling I push the day along as best I can with my AD and PA staff, anticipating shots and scenes that lie ahead. And that’s what we do, all day every day! Scenes made up of shots, one after the other. At the end of the day the director, director of photography, and I talk about the next day’s work and we decide on a way to start so that the rigging crews can arrange the gear to help us get up and running quickly.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
Being away. That’s what I tell all the high school and college kids that are interested in working in the movies. It’s essentially joining the circus.

What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about your work?
I wish everyone knew that 1st ADs are passionate about other things than the schedule. Sometimes when the director is ready to move on, I still ask them for another take because I think we can do better on the other stuff: the cars, the background players, the special effect that didn’t quite land.

What skills are essential to have to become a 1st AD?
You definitely need to like problem-solving: math problems, logic problems, how to pack your car when leaving on a camping trip. If you don’t find pleasure in challenges, this is not the job for you. To be a great 1st AD, it helps to love films. Directors, producers, and [DPs] will always prefer working with someone who is a film lover and a filmmaker. 

Do you have any advice for someone’s first day on the job?
Be confident in what you know, and don’t be embarrassed by what you don’t know. I’m constantly learning from actors, grips, electricians, props people, camera assistants, stunt people, craft service people, locations assistants, etc. As a young AD, I would find myself out-experienced by everyone. I listened to what they had to say and I used and adapted a lot of their advice. 

Also, speak up. The first time I ever ran a set, the key grip came and whispered into my ear “Hey, you have to be louder. We can’t hear you."

What do you look for when hiring your team?
A good attitude and an appetite for hard work. Those two qualities outshine experience for candidates seeking to work on my AD staff.

What advice would you give aspiring 1st ADs?
Get a PA job and work with the ADs on set. Tell them that you’re interested in becoming an AD yourself. Learn about the requirements to join the DGA as soon as you start working. And just work, work, work. It takes a little bit of blind faith, but hard workers with positive attitudes will be successful.

Want to learn more about working on a film crew? Visit Backstage’s crew hub!

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Lisa Granshaw
Lisa Granshaw is the associate editor at Backstage.
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