June 8, 2009

Interview with John Wildermuth, First Assistant Director, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

FILMFATHER: As a first assistant director (AD), what are your roles and responsibilities?
JOHN WILDERMUTH: Someone asked me that once and I simply said I’m responsible for helping the director by managing the crew. A producer was nearby and said, "Are you kidding? He tells a crew of 300 mooks what to do every day!"

As a first AD, I’m the director's right hand. The director is responsible for overseeing all of the creative aspects of making a film, and it’s my job to help him or her realize their vision. I’m responsible for making sure everything and everyone is there for each scene. I begin two to five months ahead of the start of photography, breaking down every scene in the script and creating a shooting schedule. It’s like a giant puzzle that’s continually changing and evolving as locations are found and actors are hired.

On Pelham I had five months of prep, beginning with a two-week scout of New York City locations with [director] Tony Scott, executive producer Barry Waldman, production designer Chris Seagers, and location manager Janice Polley. We started with an MTA track safety class so we could scout subway stations and tunnels with active trains all around us. I also worked on hundreds of versions of the schedule as we continued to scout and figure out how to shoot each scene in the most exciting and efficient manner.

Once principal photography begins, I’m by Tony’s side every minute of the day, helping manage all the elements needed to shoot the scenes on the schedule. I have a staff of 10 ADs and production assistants to help speak to the crew and direct all the background action, cars, and stunts. Often, the script is being re-worked and I continue to change the shooting schedule to accommodate any revisions. For Tony, I type up notes each night to help him prepare for what we’re shooting the next day.

FF: What’s the biggest difference between the new version of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and the 1974 original?
JW: The original Pelham is a quintessential New York film and set the template for action movies that continues to this day. It’s a classic film, but today's audiences are different and Tony was looking to do a "re-invention" rather than a traditional remake.

The new Pelham takes place in a post-9/11 New York City. There are no longer Transit Police [like in the original Pelham] because the NYPD now has authority over the MTA. Also, Denzel Washington did not want to play a cop. Tony is notorious for his extensive research, and he’s always looking for real people to base characters on for his movie. Denzel's character is an MTA executive under investigation for taking a bribe on new train contracts. He's demoted to a train dispatcher pending the outcome of the investigation, and he just happens to be on [duty] when the call comes in that Pelham 123 has been taken. John Travolta's character is also based on a real person, a smarter and more dangerous man than the classic Robert Shaw character. I won't say any more because I don't want to give away too much.

FF: In addition to being an AD on Pelham, you’re also an associate producer. What additional responsibilities come with that?
JW: This was my seventh film with Tony, and my involvement in his projects is on a much deeper level than just being an AD. Most films today have an executive producer, the hands-on person overseeing the project from start to finish. Usually, this person is a former AD, having learned the nuts and bolts of filmmaking from the ground up. Although I desire to direct my own movies, I do help produce [the films I work on], and the associate producer credit is a recognition of the role I play on Tony's films.

FF: You mentioned you’ve made seven films with director Tony Scott (including Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and Domino). What draws you to work with him so often?
JW: Tony is the most challenging director I’ve ever met. He’s also the hardest-working director in Hollywood. I’ve been drawn to him time after time because he challenges me to be at the top of my game every single day. The experience I’ve gained standing at his side and helping him make his movies for 14 years has given me a lifetime of experience from one of the modern masters. I’m planning on using that experience to direct my own films and follow in my mentor's footsteps.

FF: At your blog, you often write about time spent on film locations versus time spent with your kids when you’re home. How hard is it balancing the two?
JW: When my children were young, it was hard to be away from them, but it was also easier for them to come with me. I was still married to their mother and, for example, on Spy Game they came and lived with me in London for six months. As they get older, I’m finding it increasingly challenging to be away from them. They are 10 and 12 now, and it’s painful to go so long without seeing them. I’ve tried to take several months off between projects in recent years to give me more of a balanced life, as movies with Tony are 7-day-a-week jobs. I’m doing a movie now which shoots in Vancouver – a shorter project with a director who doesn't work 7 days a week and is allowing me time to fly home to Los Angeles on some weekends.

FF: Your IMDb page says you worked on 1992’s School Ties. My wife has a huge crush on Chris O’Donnell, so she’d kill me if I didn’t ask what he was like on the set.
JW: Chris was great, a super-nice guy! I was able to re-schedule some scenes so he could go to New York to audition for Scent of a Woman, and you know the rest. I'm happy that he’s gone on to have so much success, because I think he really deserves it.

FF: What’s your next project? You mentioned on your blog last month that you were scouting locations for a movie based on the Marmaduke comic strip…
JW: Yes, I’m working on Marmaduke; we start filming in July in Vancouver with some scenes to be shot in southern California in September. We’re using real dogs, and the visual effects team from Beverly Hills Chihuahua will animate their mouths to make them talk. It’s a lot like a 1980s John Hughes movie, with the dogs playing out their high school scenes at a local dog park. This movie is way outside the box for me, but my kids have been asking me for years to work on a kids’ film and I just couldn't pass up the opportunity. The movie comes out around Easter 2010 and I’ll write about my experiences on my blog this summer.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 opens Friday, June 12.


joe said...

So how'd you score an interview with that guy??? Are you famous?? Should I ask for your autograph? I only ask because hollywood directors don't normally give interviews to just anyone. Like me.

Jim @ CoolStuffForDads.com said...

Very cool interview, great questions (and answers)!

Gemma said...

What a coup! Congrats, grasshopper.


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