March 10, 2003
March 17 -- our Renaissance Man is off to cover Chris Rock's new movie so he'll be back on March 24 with an all-new column. In the meantime, enjoy a Guinness or three and have a Happy St. Patrick's Day.
A movie set is a throttling cacophony of noise, bustle, and panic. Frantic technicians buzz between takes, scrambling for spike tape, snapping stills, primping actors, snatching a quick cup of joe. Cell phones cackle their elaborate tones, announcing urgent news of a childís newly-dead pet turtle, run over by a car just moments before, and no, Mommy canít come home right now to help, and what the heck was the turtle doing in the street, anyway? Actors query each other for crossword puzzle clues, and extras twitter amongst themselves as the leading man struts his princely countenance casually just feet awayÖ
When First Assistant Director Michael Lerman calls for quiet on the set, silence falls like a wet wool blanket as far as the ear can hear.
When Michael Lerman talks, people really do listen, because that means itís on. Weíre going for picture. All the pieces had better fit, or somethingís going to be said about it. As A.D., Lerman is responsible for a latticework of duties that include but are not limited to coordinating the intricacies of the shooting dayís schedule, keeping production rolling at a brisk clip, and giving the director and cinematographer an assisting eye to make sure all the elements of a shot are properly arranged before the film starts flowing. In other words, Lerman is pretty much responsible for everything he surveys.
His slight, wiry frame and dogged eyes speak volumes about the care and concern that movies extract from oneís skin. The night before last, he was at the hospital for some sort of exhaustive condition, but today, heís back on set. His speech is brisk, his movements are calculated. No moment is ever lost in this guyís day. He looks a bit like a featherweight boxer, embroiled in a fight heís enjoying for its challenge and salty flavor. He carries himself like a realÖ
An Interview with 1st Assistant Director Michael Lerman
Antony Teofilo: How long have you been doing this kind of work?
Michael Lerman: Iíve been in the business for about seven and a half years.
AT: How did you get your start?
ML: I moved to New York City, knew no one, didnít know what I was doing with my life. I had graduated from college the year prior, and was thinking of going to film school because I had no other way to break into the business. I started interning. In Manhattan, they have something called the techie list for film, television, and broadcasting at the Mayorís Office. It lists all the shows in town, all the movies, all the television work. I went door to door asking anyone if they needed any help. I worked for free for awhile, then I started [to work as a Production Assistant]. As Iím sure you know, everything is about networking. You meet one person, and as long as you do a good job theyíll hire you on their next gig and introducing you to their friends.
Leading The Way - 1st A.D. Michael Lerman with Director Kevin Smith and Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond in tow on-set at Paulsboro High School.
AT: Can you talk specifically about the jobs you worked in the earliest days of your career?
ML: I [was a Production Assistant] for about a year, going from job to job. I worked mostly on commercials and music videos. Then someone gave me my big break which was 2nd 2nd Assistant Director, which is the 3rd position in my department. I was dealing with talent, making sure all the actors were comfortableÖgetting them through hair and make-up, mostly on little indie productions in New York. Then I started 2nd Assistant Directing, and about six months after that I started First Assistant Directing.
AT: When you finally made your break as a 1st Assistant Director, did you start working on big movies immediately?
ML: I was the 1st A.D. on a lot of small jobsÖone million dollar to three million dollar budget range. I was lucky enough to do some good, interesting work with some good directors. I did a film called YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, which was back in í99. It was a great break for me to work with Kenny Lonergan on a job that was such a great film. That helped a lot. Itís interesting what one good movie will do on your resume. I started getting calls to work with Hal Hartley. I got to go to Iceland and do a movie with him recently. I worked on MONSTERíS BALL, which was another great project to work on. In the last couple of years, I started to do bigger projects.
AT: Are you in the union?
ML: Iím Non-[Directors Guild of America]. Thatís a big issue for an A.D. The assistant directors are in the same guild as the directors, so I can only do jobs where directors are not guild members.
AT: Why did you choose not to join the union?
ML: Itís put me in an interesting situation. I didnít join out of choice. I like to do small films as well as bigger films. Plus, I donít compete with that many other A.D.ís, so Iím kind a big fish in a smaller pond, which I like. Itís good for a freelancer like myself.
AT: How did you get hooked up with JERSEY GIRL?
ML: When I got the call from Kevin to come and interview for this, I was shocked. Iím a big fan. Itís a great script. I was very excited to get this opportunity.
Getting The Job Done Ė Michael Lerman gives direction on the set of JERSEY GIRL.
AT: You mentioned that for a while, you worked for free, or for very little money. How did you survive during that time?
ML: On my fifty dollars a day? Iím the kind of guy who just doesnít need that much. I still live like I did when I was in college. As long as I can eat and drink and have a girlfriend by my side who doesnít really care, Iím fine. I was pretty self-sufficient. I lived out in Brooklyn and paid about $700 a month rent. I lived week to week. It was very busy in the mid-nineties in New York. In the early nineties, it was dead. There was a lot of work, so it wasnít hard to keep working. As long as I kept the paycheck coming, I was fine.
AT: Can you put a quantity on how many days you work in a year?
ML: Thatís hard. Iím always working. Iím kind of a workaholic. Iím not that happy when Iím not working. Up until last year, I pretty much worked jobs back-to-back. Last year was a little difficult because there was a Screen Actorsí Guild strike that was supposed to happen, and the Writersí Guild strike. I knew there was going to be no work starting in July, so as soon as MONSTERíS BALL wrapped, I picked up and went over to Europe and did the whole backpacking-hostel thing. I got back at the beginning of September hoping to get back to work. Then September 11th happened, and that really affected film production in New York. Itís just really starting to get back to normal now.
AT: What the most difficult aspect of being a freelancer?
ML: I just try to work on quality scripts with directors that I respect. I want to work with people that I want to be associated with. Being a freelancer is stressful because you never know when the next job is going to be. When the movie is over, and youíre sitting home flipping through the channels, sitting on the couch, you start thinking youíre never going to work again, no matter how successful you are.
AT: If youíre nervous you may never work again, how do you pick your jobs and avoid doing any project that pays?
ML: You have to be confident, and comfortable with yourself. When you get a script and you start getting calls for a job that youíre really not interested in because [the movie is] nothing new and itís not interesting, you just have to be able to say, ďIím not available.Ē You have be able to hold out. Iím still learning, but Iíve found itís invaluable to keep working on quality projects because they snowball.
Sit A Spell - Michael Lerman commiserates with Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond between (very low) shots.
AT: As film professional, what would you say are the keys to getting more and more work as you make your way upward?
ML: Work ethic is very important. Iím still a young guy. I just turned thirty. But I donít know how a lot of these guys do it. I have no family. I have no wife. Iím able to go and see the world. Iím at a good age to do it. But if the day ever comes, and I [decide] to get married and have children, I donít knowÖit must be very hard to maintain both a work life like this, and a family.
AT: Where do your ambitions lie ultimately in the industry?
ML: Eventually, Iíd like to sit down, take three or four months off and write...see what happens with that. If I wrote something that meant something to me, Iíd possibly be interested in directing it. Iím not that interested in directing other peopleís work. If I ever had a pet project, Iíd be interested in [getting it made]. Weíll see if that ever happens.
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