Interview - Film
velvet andrews, assistant director
Velvet Andrews recently completed the Assistant Directors Training Program (ADTP) that she started in 1998. During the program, Ms. Andrews worked on several television shows including Melrose Place, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and The X-Files as well as the feature film The Haunting. Prior to entering the ADTP, Ms. Andrews worked for 2 years in Seattle as a news writer for Northwest Cable News. She is a graduate of the University of Washington at Seattle.
NOTE: though the interview focuses on the Assistant Directors Training Program, much of the article is quite enlightening about the film industry and the role of assistant director, in particular.
This interview first appeared in the Entertainment Employment Journal, which is available at the Career Resource Library or online for a fee.
Entering The Program
Before you were accepted into the program, did you have an idea of what position you wanted to land?
I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn't actually know that the people who did that were called assistant directors. When I read the application, I knew this was exactly what I was looking for. After that, everything fell into place.
What was the application process like?
I sent in an application and was then invited to Los Angeles to take a test with other applicants from all over the country. A few weeks after that I was notified I had moved on to the next level called the Assessment Center. The Assessment Center is where four people watch you interact with about 8 other people in a room. They gave us several scenarios and a timeline in which to resolve some problems. It was an opportunity for them to see how the problems were ultimately resolved and who became a leader in the group. They call you that same evening to let you know if you've moved on to the final interview.
How long did the whole application process take?
I turned in my application in November and learned I had been accepted into the program the following June.
Working As A Trainee
What is the main purpose of the program?
The main purpose of the program is to produce qualified and highly trained people as assistant directors. The assistant director is a key position that holds a great deal of responsibility. The better trained and the better prepared we are, the better off an entire production is going to be.
How did you prepare for participation in the program?
The training program suggested that we read a few books including Getting To Yes and another book about what assistant directors do, The Film Director's Team. In addition, I had read quite a few general books about the entertainment industry and different aspects of it. How many trainees work on each project? There is only one trainee on each project. How long does it actually take to complete 400 hours in the program? 18 months is typical. In addition to the 400 hours, in your first year you are required to attend seminars with a variety of guest speakers every other Saturday.
How much time does a trainee spend on each project?
It can vary, but typically if you're assigned to a television production you stay for 50 days. On a feature production it will be for the length of the film.
Do trainees get a choice of projects to work on?
You have no choice as far as what projects you work on.
Entering The Industry
Describe the duties of an assistant director?
The main duties are organizing, managing and communicating. An assistant director organizes a script and helps communicate with the crew what needs to be done to complete a shooting day. It's essentially giving directions to an entire crew whose jobs are very segmented and very compartmentalized.
How many hours did you work during a typical day?
15 hours was average.
Who did you mainly work with?
The majority of my time was spent with the actors. Primarily just making sure the actors knew what was happening. Trainees tell the actors when to get ready in makeup and hair, in wardrobe, when to come to the set for rehearsal, when to come for shooting call and when to break for lunch. Trainees also get to interact with the crew and act like assistant directors. They get to set the background - working with the extras. That's another big responsibility of the assistant director.
How much of what you did was actual work versus simply observing others?
One of the great things about the program is that they throw you in there and you're very hands on. I love the fact that on my first day I didn't know what half of the words they were saying meant, but they still threw me in there. I think that's the best way to learn.
Did you mostly stand or sit?
The ADs stand "90%" of the time. I cannot emphasize the importance of good shoes.
What were the other physical aspects of the job?
I think the other hard thing to deal with was the lack of sleep. If you're lucky, you get 5 or 6 hours sleep a night. I had adapted to that by my second week into the training program.
What was your usual calltime?
I typically came in around 6:00 a.m. or earlier and came home around 10:00 p.m. You have your weekends. Even though the hours are excessive, if you really love this business it doesn't seem that your days are that long. You get to see fascinating things and you meet interesting people. Overall you have a great time.
Who supervised you?
The 2nd assistant director.
What was your least favorite part of the trainee job?
The worst has to do with the food service for the actors. If you didn't get the food just right, then you would hold up production because that actor was not going to come out of his room. You realize that some of the petty things in life are really, really big in the production world.
What was your favorite part of the trainee job?
Most of my best experiences were working with the crew to get a shot set and then having it all come together. Directing extras can be extremely fulfilling as well because you're creating an atmosphere out of nothing.
How different were the production crews you worked with?
Extremely different. In this business, you become a lot more sensitive to people's personalities than I think you do in other businesses. Coming from a news background, I've seen people at their worst and at their best. Because people invest so much of their lives in this business, crew people are a lot more sensitive to each other.
Did you learn any special skills?
One of the most important things that you learn about is the paperwork and the union rules. As an assistant director you are responsible for upholding all the union rules and there are many unions behind every production.
Where did you learn the most?
The closer I was to the set, the more I learned. People who work with the actors, it's called running first team, will tell you a lot of times they get stuck in "base camp." That's where all the actor, make-up and wardrobe trailers are located. You can get struck in this "trailer land" and feel really out of touch with what's happening on the set.I took care of whatever responsibilities were assigned to me on each production. But, I was always on the set whenever I could possibly be there. I was so hungry to learn I just tried to soak up everything. I think I've learned an amazing amount since I first started the program.
What are the advantages of being a trainee?
The entire crew knows that you are there to learn, but it was surprising how many people were willing to teach me. People were forthcoming and willing to share information. Because you're a trainee, they are more open to saying, "What do you want to know'?"
Overall, did the program mentor exceed your expectations?
I can't say enough good things about it. The experience exceeded my expectations. I recall standing on different studio lots or on different sets and thinking this is really incredible.
What did you see as the key to getting the most out of the trainee program?
The number one thing is your attitude. As a trainee you have to swallow all the pride of knowing how smart and capable you are. Sometimes you have to go in there and do things that you wouldn't really like to do, but it's part of the job. The second thing is to really take good care of your health. Investing in good shoes, sleeping whenever you can, eating well and just generally caring about yourself.The third thing is to rely on your personal support base - your family and your loved ones that are there to back you up. That's really the fuel that gets you through more than anything else.
Are trainees compensated during the program?
The pay is on a scale starting at around $500 a week where every hundred days you get a little bit more. You're working so many hours of overtime that you get a check that is enough money to pay your rent. And you always have money to spare because you eat on the set and you don't have as much time to spend money. Honestly, I would have done it for free. I never complained about the money I was making. I heard so many crew people complain that they make so little money. But in comparison to the rest of the world, people in the movie business make a lot of money.
What positions can people end up in after they complete the program?
The Assistant Directors Training Program is not a training program for directors per se. They train assistant directors who often move up to become unit production managers and producers later down the road.
What was it like once you completed the program?
Although I understand the overall process of production, I have much more to learn. The great thing about it is that more doors are opening as I progress. I like that it's not an open and shut kind of job. It's what you make of it.When you're done with the program, the most outstanding part is that you get to join the Directors Guild of America (DGA). It's a dream come true, really. It's not automatically guaranteed, but they rarely deny a trainee the right to join.
If you hadn't gone through the program, how would have gotten into the DGA?
Essentially, you would work as a non-union assistant director and you would have to accumulate a certain amount of days and then submit that information to the DGA. But, even if you fulfill those requirements, they don't have to let you in the Guild. Another route that people take is working as a production assistant. They're supposed to learn all of the things that an assistant director does, but because of union rules they're not allowed to do what assistant directors do. They can work all of their days and if things go well, they can join the DGA. But, they still may not know all the things that they need to know to be an assistant director. I would never knock anybody who got in without going through the training program. But, there are definitely benefits to go through it. It definitely makes you prepared in a more expedient manner.
What kind of work are you now able to perform?
I'm qualified to work as a 2nd assistant director. Most commonly people start out as 2nd 2nd assistant directors. That's a great position to be in.
Have you secured work yet?
I start tomorrow on Once and Again. They actually called me shortly after I had worked for them as a trainee to see if I was available, but I was not done with the program yet. You have to finish the program before you can accept any work. They called me again after I was done. They're really a terrific crew and I had a great experience working with them.
Having worked on both film and TV projects, did you have a preference in terms of which area you wanted to work?
Many people working in production, if they had an opportunity, would prefer to work in features. There's a grander scale to features; sometimes you get to see more exciting locations and you get to see some amazing sets. In the television world, the work is more stable.
What factors did you consider when you accepted your position?
One important factor is that a lot of work is going out of town. And, I don't think it's realistic for everyone in production to be able to work in features. I hear people talk about television like it's second-class. But there are some extremely creative people working in television. They're working with a lot more limitations than people have in features and I think there's a lot to be said about that. Being creative with what you have to work with makes people better filmmakers. You can learn so much from working in television. The two things that are most important to me are the quality of the show and the people that I'm working with. I have found it on this show.
And you feel the DGA training program prepared you for your current position?
I definitely think so. I didn't just want to work in the business for the hype of working in the movie business. I'm not in it for the fame and fortune. I want to go to work everyday and enjoy my job and be good at it. That was more important to me than anything else. I am so honored to be a member of the DGA and to have gone through this program. I think it can be very difficult and that it can be hard on people. But at the same time, it's very prestigious to me. And I don't think there's anything else like it.
What advice would you give people who are considering applying for the program?
Only do this if you are one hundred percent sure this is the type of the work that you want to do. Even if that means that you're like me and you didn't have a background to really know what it was all about. You have to go into it fully committed and give it a hundred percent. I've worked with people who went through the program in 1968 or earlier that are still out there doing amazing things.
What is your career goal now that you have completed the program?
My goal from the beginning was to do well in the training program and to become one of the best assistant directors out there. And that's still my goal. One of the most important things to me is to build a good reputation. I didn't realize how truly important that was. It's really such a small world. What comes around goes around. I come from a professional background and I like to be very professional. I want to continue learning, get some good jobs and have a quality career as an assistant director.