1st ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
MATRIX: What brought you into film?
JAMES: When I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of films because my father was a big film buff. At school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left, so I went to university and had a lecturer there who was like a mentor, I suppose. Upon completion of university I started in film, beginning as a third assistant director and went up progressively to become a first assistant director. When I first started I worked mainly on Australian films, but then as time drew out, more American productions would come to Australia so I’d work on those. And then THE MATRIX came.
MATRIX: Initially, how did you get involved in THE MATRIX?
JAMES: What I’d been doing for a while was 1st ADing [First Assistant Directing] on a few Australian small films. Then a guy [Colin Fletcher] who I always used to be a second assistant director for, who’d been working in the Australian film industry for a long time, was going to 1st AD THE MATRIX, and he asked me how I would feel coming back and being a 2nd AD again. THE MATRIX was, up to that point, one of the bigger films that had happened in Australia, production and money wise, so I said, “Yeah that’d be good.” I was interested so he sent me a script and I thought that sounds really interesting, so we started off on THE MATRIX together. Then he called up one day, probably about six weeks into production, and said he had to go and have some tests on his heart, and asked if I was okay to run the floor for a day until he come back. He called me back that evening and said, “Hey, look, I’m not coming back, it’s your job if you want to do it.” I absolutely thought the studio would want to bring somebody in to complete the film, but they didn’t, and I got on pretty well with Larry and Andy, so I just continued on as 1st AD. It was challenging, I have to say, just because I’d done a bunch of visual effects work, but never anything as complex as that.
MATRIX: There are innumerable differences between the first MATRIX production and the second, what are some of the key differences you’re finding between them?
JAMES: The first MATRIX was all filmed in Australia, which is a huge difference to start with. They initially came to Australia to film the first MATRIX because it was the only way they could get it made for the amount of money they needed to get it made for. Now, with the success of the first MATRIX there is more money, so we’re getting to film a portion of it in the United States, which is basically a big freeway chase. It’s being shot in the United States because it needs to be shot in the United States, given the logistical difficulties of finding big freeways in Australia, a mass of left hand drive cars and the amount of people and stunt performers we’ll need. That’s the first difference, the second is that we need to do a whole lot of visual effects work which needs to be completed in the United States. That gives the visual effects company time to get a jump start on that, which is what they didn’t get in the first production. So those are, initially, the differences between them.
MATRIX: One thing that I’m seeing is that no one knew or really cared about THE MATRIX the first time round.
JAMES: That’s kind of true. There were always the people involved with making it who were very concerned, but the stakes are definitely up on this one. The first one was groundbreaking, people expect a lot more this time, so there’s definitely an expectation.
MATRIX: An Assistant Director is involved from the beginning to the end of a production, what do you do in a production during the different stages?
JAMES: On a very basic level, an assistant director is, as its title – the director’s assistant. That means you’re responsible for all the mechanics behind the camera coming together in one unified force, so on any particular day you’ve got everything there available from each different department ready to be filmed. Getting that vision for the directors is, essentially, your task.
To start off, in pre-production you’d be given the script and they’d go, “Here’s the script, this is how much money we’ve got, this is approximately how many days we think we can afford to shoot for. These are the actors we’ve got; some of them are available now, some of them aren’t. These are the locations we’ve got, some of them are available between these dates and that date,” and your job is to bring all those combined elements, whether they be monetary or logistical or availability of actors, all together in a unified and, hopefully, concise way for filming.
In regards to this picture, it’s a bit different because there are two together, so they’ve got a definite idea of how much money they need to spend. They’ve got an equation of how many days they think they need to film for, which is basically, take the first film, and because there are two films, double it, and that will be the schedule. But these films on paper are much bigger than the first one ever was, much more complex. That is the equation they’ve used, but it’s not an exact equation obviously.
MATRIX: Talking about the increase in scope, we saw what became of the storyboards for the first film, and now they’re in the pre-production process of creating storyboards, with double the artists therefore double the art. What’s your sense, seeing it as it’s being boarded?
JAMES: The first film came as a package almost, because it had been in development for so long: here is the script, here are the storyboards, let’s make the film. This is more organic, you might say. In my experience, it’s an unusual situation to find a film of this size storyboarded out in such detail, especially a Hollywood film. With these guys you can basically take the storyboards and that’s what they’ll shoot, which is a complete luxury. It makes a vast difference to getting out there and someone standing there and going, “I wonder what I’ll do now?” You’d be surprised, on a lot of bigger films, how often that might go on with a lot of money at stake. So it’s great to have the storyboards there, but for a film like this, and for the first one, I think it’s absolutely essential, otherwise it would be impossible to do. Even though we haven’t got the storyboards for the third film yet, you can get a really good sense from the first one and from the storyboards of the second, what the next lot are going to be like. I think it’s great to have the storyboards, and it’s fantastic to see the films develop.
MATRIX: As 1st AD you work closely with Larry and Andy Wachowski; how is it working with them?
JAMES: Well, I’m back. I’m back because I think their vision is fantastic, they know what they want and they’re great people to work with. They’re very collaborative, they make the filmmaking process enjoyable and a joy, there’s no screaming and shouting. They’re prepared and they know what they want to do, what they need to get, and they’re realistic about it. You come across some people who stand in the middle of a set and scream and shout, usually with those people it’s because they’re not prepared and they don’t know what they’re doing. This is a vastly different experience – the first one was, hopefully the second and third will be as well.
MATRIX: Has the pre-visualization aspect of this film altered your job in any way, or made it any easier?
JAMES: What I would say about the pre-visualization is that it is fantastic. It is still in early stages, but it will absolutely help: you’ll go out on set, you’ll know exactly how it’s meant to look. Whole scenes will be completely pre-visualized, so it’s a fantastic thing to have, I think it will make my job easier, anything that you can have prepped beforehand will make it much easier. Car chases are a very time consuming thing to shoot, just because of the amount of people that you need and you’re always out on the road. There’s a lot of, usually, complicated rigs for the cameras that need to happen. Especially with this particular car chase: there’s an inordinate amount of crashes and stunts, so it will be really time consuming, anything that you can have prepped beforehand will make it much easier.I’m happy about the pre-visualization, I have to say.
MATRIX: We’re in 2000 right now, filming starts in 2001, we’re still a ways from seeing the first sequel in the theatres; what do you have to say to the people who have to wait?
JAMES: It’ll be worth the wait because of the scope of these two films and what they’re trying to do, and because these sequels aren’t just a tack on. The sequels are not just, “Okay the first film was really successful, we made a lot of money, let’s make a lot more money doing two and three.” I think they were always envisaged, whether they were completely fleshed out in Larry’s and Andy’s heads as a trilogy or, at least, as three films. The scope and coherence of the films is definitely worth waiting for, and they take the characters a lot further. They’re not just a hokey tack-on to the first one because it was a success.
MATRIX: Thanks James.
Interview by REDPILL