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 rehearsed." 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.