University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 1/1995
The Assistant Director's Cut

     A movie-making career could be described as a series of
close encounters of the brief kind. Weeks of intimate interaction
on location in Indiana or Hawaii or New Orleans or some remote
locale and then the "goodbyes."
      "You have these very close professional relationships for a
short period and then you just go your separate ways," says John
Rusk, Delaware '79, a freelance assistant film director.
     Rusk has worked with Madonna in A League of Their Own, Jeff
Bridges and Rosie Perez in Fearless, Julia Roberts and Denzel
Washington in The Pelican Brief, Dustin Hoffman and Ren Russo in
Outbreak, and, most recently, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in
Twelve Monkeys.
     Next up is a film called Albino Alligator, "a cross between
Pulp Fiction and Dog Day Afternoon," says Rusk, who graduated
from a Directors Guild of America apprenticeship program in 1987.
     Work on the set is "non-stop, from the time you show up-an
hour before everyone else-to the time you leave-an hour after
everyone else," Rusk says.
     And, it doesn't begin or end there. Months before anyone
ever calls "action," Rusk is sequestered in his Wilmington, Del.,
dining room, buried under paper and Post-It Notes, poring over
what will eventually be a multi-colored, bar-coded, hard-bound,
day-by-day, hour-by-hour shooting schedule. This schedule, though
constantly updated, becomes the filmmakers' holy text, right
alongside the script.
     "It's my job as assistant director to find the most logical
and efficient way of shooting from a cost standpoint," says Rusk.
"You've got to think 15 moves ahead and prepare for any
contingency. My job is to organize and plan, and to communicate
those plans to everyone involved. If the director says, 'Bring on
the dancing elephants,' I've got to have them ready and
     Actors, like elephants, have to be available precisely on
demand, and that requires a savvy scheduler with a sharp eye for
the bottom line. In Outbreak, for instance, Hoffman and Russo had
to be present (and thus paid) pretty much the entire time. But,
astute planning made it possible to shoot the more limited roles
of Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman in a brief spell. When
only committed for a short time, big-name, big-draw actors can be
hired for a reasonable sum, which is where logistics blends into
cost/benefit analysis, Rusk says.
     Days are mapped out in minute detail. In For the Boys, where
James Caan and Bette Midler played entertainers aging over three
decades, Rusk had to pencil in extra hours for make-up. And,
whenever he works with kids, he has to follow the various states'
child-labor statutes. "There are thousands of parameters like
this," Rusk says.
     After the actors, then factor in the crew: Make-up, special
effects, stunt-doubles, set, lighting, art, cameras, location,
meals, transport. On Outbreak, the crew numbered 180; on Twelve
Monkeys, 120. Rusk issues a daily "call sheet," specifying
everyone's assignments for the next day. "On a shoot day," he
says, "all 120 people, instead of bugging the director, come up
and bug the assistant directors."
     Then there are the extras-Rusk's specialty. In Outbreak, he
had a townful of "plague victims" to be coached, coordinated and
suitably equipped with blank stares, bleeding sores and weeping
buboes. "That's the kind of thing where you really have to get
your act together as an assistant director," he says. In Pelican
Brief, Rusk was ringmaster for more than 1,000 revellers partying
down Bourbon Street, at $65 to $100 a day, each.
     "I always wanted to get into the movie business," Rusk
remembers. "My aspirations were to direct. At the University of
Delaware, I concentrated on photography and TV production
courses. I also took film studies, fell in love with Hitchcock,
Chaplin and Orson Welles.
     "Finishing up at Delaware, I assumed I'd go into television.
I worked at Delaware Technical and Community College, making
educational tapes and industrial stuff, then did the same thing
at Delaware."
     The impetus to try his hand at features came while on
vacation in Ocean City, Md., where Rusk watched a Sissy Spacek
movie, Violets Are Blue, shooting on location. Impressed with the
first assistant director, Rusk chatted with him and then applied
for a two-year apprenticeship in New York. The rest is celluloid
history, available in your local video store.
     An assistant director's job is more about production
management than artistic control. "It's frustrating for those of
us who feel we have creative instincts," says Rusk, who would
like to direct, though he knows jumping from assistant to
director is rare. "I'd still like to do it," he says. "At the
same time, I don't know if I'd like to spend the necessary 16
hours a day, six days a week. I'm sure I've already lost seven
years of my life just from my 10 years in the movie business."
     Those years have been tough for his wife and children, too,
he says. Rusk says he considered moving to California in search
of a more regular lifestyle ("Working on movies in L.A. is like
living in Wilmington and working for DuPont," he quips), and on
more extended trips, they even put the kids in California
schools. But, they finally decided that north Wilmington is as
good a home as any. "It's so easy to make movies on location,"
observes Rusk. "I'd be 'out of town' wherever I lived."
     Looking back on his decade in the movies, Rusk is most proud
of Dead Poets Society and Fearless-two of the three films he's
made with Australian director Peter Weir. "Peter Weir is not only
one of the most amazing directors, but one of the most amazing
people I've ever met," Rusk says. "He's brilliant. You're not for
working for Peter; you're working with Peter. He has a vision;
some directors don't have a clue."
     In Dead Poets Society, Rusk recalls, Robin Williams was so
funny on the set, improvising from the pages of a National
Geographic, that the crew was incapacitated, and they had to
suspend production for a day.
     Fearless, the story of a plane crash and its emotional
aftermath, remains his absolute favorite film. "I see a lot more
of my contribution on screen," explains Rusk, citing his work
with the extras and the set. "I met someone not long ago who'd
actually been in a plane crash, and she said it moved her, which
meant a lot to me. She said what we did was right on the money,
visually and emotionally."
     Whatever the film, masterpiece or moneyspinner, Rusk still
gets a kick seeing his name scroll up on the credits. That's
because despite the long hours and the long shoots, the dreary
hotels and the hazards of working freelance, the occasional
finicky star or feckless director, he's still very much in love
with the cinema. Proof of it comes when you ask if there's
anything he really hates about movie-making.
     "Yeah," he says, without missing a beat. "I don't get to go
to the movies enough."
                             -Steven O'Connor, Delaware '95 Ph.D.