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The right hand of great directors

May Contain Spoilers

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Awards season again. Last year, as you may recall, a many months pregnant Natalie Portman received the Oscar for Best Actress for "Black Swan." Her lithesome acceptance speech, without notes, thanked many colleagues she knew had helped her stand there. As both a lifelong moviegoer and a worker on films, my spirit lifted at these words: "There are people on films that no one ever talks about, that are your heart and soul every day, including Joe Reidy, our incredible A.D..." Along with so many others, I was thrilled by her sentiment -- and especially pleased for Joe Reidy.

Joe Reidy on the set of Scorsese's "Gangs of New York"

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We had worked together on "Talk Radio" (1988) when I served as a technical advisor to director Oliver Stone. That extraordinary experience was my first time observing an Assistant Director in action. (Before this, I couldn't have defined what an "A.D." -- or most of the 100 or so people listed in credits -- do in the long and challenging hours that occur before a film arrives in a theatre.)

Years ago, I pitched an article to the late, lamented film journal, Premiere. It was a cameo about Joe Reidy, tied to the opening of Martin Scorsese's film, "The Age of Innocence" (1993). My first story for the magazine, it seemed easy enough. Probably a nice bit achieved rather quickly.

Little could I know that the Scorsese film would be delayed around 18 months --- enough time for "Premiere's" founding editor Susan Lyne, who'd commissioned my piece, to depart, and for the magazine to be extensively redesigned, dropping 'Cameo.' But I always believed in the piece with its worthy subject; I'm incorporating some of that material here.

On an afternoon in the early 1990s I phoned Martin Scorsese. Our conversation was entirely about Joe Reidy, with whom he'd then collaborated on five films; I was also interviewing Oliver Stone about him. Scorsese was articulate and generous with his time, telling me of "a kind of trust. Joe has a kind of control and objectivity. I even appreciate hearing bad news from him because he knows how to deliver it. He reminds me of Edgar Kennedy, a comic actor in the Laurel and Hardy films, who was kind of the foil. He was known as 'the slow burn' - - he had a wonderful reaction of annoyance and anger, but totally kept in control. Joe Reidy reminds me of Edgar Kennedy's slow burn."

The Director's Guild of America offers this definition: "The First Assistant Director (A.D.) is the Director's right hand. A.D.'s are responsible for the assembly of all the elements needed for filming and for the daily operation of the shooting set. Their objective is to provide the Director with everything he or she needs to put his or her vision on film. Their duties are supervisory, organizational, administrative - and multifarious. Working within the structure that is governed by budgets, union and guild contracts, industry custom, and so on, they make schedules, attend to the cast, direct extras, oversee the crew as each shot is prepared, create detailed reports of each day's events, among many other things, and are looked to by cast and crew to solve the many problems that continually arise."

Many call Joe Reidy the best A.D. in the country. The first choice of top tier directors like Stone and Scorsese, Joe is always working, and his film credits are tough to beat: Stone (4), Robert Redford (3), Francis Ford Coppola (2), Ridley Scott, Steven Soderbergh, Adrian Lyne, Volker Schlondorff, Robert De Niro (1 each). And with Scorsese - now a whopping 13.

Reidy makes it look so easy that visitors to a set often ask, "What does that guy do?" On "Talk Radio," with his spectacles and longish, brown choirboy hair, the Ohio native seemed younger than his 36 years, and hardly the crucial participant that he is on every film. Stone once joked about "Joe's bland '50s look." "Roll sound, please," he calls out, invariably politely, or "going again." Dozens come to attention, instantly silent.

Reidy may have been born with an ideal temperament for this job but admits "I've practiced. It's important to create the absolute perfect atmosphere, a special place, for the director and actors to work. It can be quite delicate, like being a referee or intermediary." Or a psychiatrist, patiently smoothing the inevitable frictions among many colorful - and sometimes out-sized - personalities colliding on a movie set. None matters more than the director's, and for each Reidy "attempts to be a bit of a chameleon."

After NYU Film School, Reidy aced an arduous exam for the two-year Assistant Directors' Training Program sponsored by the Directors' Guild. The jobs followed. He describes the position as "like an aide-de-camp or the stage manager on a play -- the person caught in the middle, trying to please both the director, in helping accomplish his or her vision, and the producer, in accomplishing the production goals of the schedule, budget, etc."

About Stone, Reidy observed, "Oliver is interested in immediacy - the set, the actors, all of his surroundings. I don't need to know exactly what he's doing. In fact, he'd rather that I not; I could be sloppy anticipating him. What's next, he knows -- but I have to find out." Oliver Stone calls this "playing cat and mouse. He gets inside your head. That's the mark of a great A.D.: the ability to read your mind. You could get spoiled working with Joe, I think, like eating too much chocolate. You could get to a shortcut phase."

Reidy says Scorsese is a near opposite, and "in a way, very easy. Marty has a precise vision in his head, and he shares it with us in shooting the movie." "The Age of Innocence" brought special challenges. Adapting Edith Wharton's novel of America's upper class, circa 1880, meant portraying the etiquette of the day, including the proper method of hand-kissing, and such seemingly mundane actions as entering rooms. Reidy felt like he was "in a foreign country. The extras playing servants had to go in and out almost like Kabuki -- like shadows moving. Doing their jobs, yet being invisible." Very different from, say, "GoodFellas."

It's been many years since Joe Reidy and I had spoken so I used social media to reach him again. We go back and forth with emails, voice-mails, texts, the standard modern routine, until we finally connected by phone. Turns out he's still burning brightly (albeit with a bit less hair), A.D.'ing nearly 30 more big features, while also garnering Producer credits on some, Second Unit Director credits on others. An altogether admirable career in film.

Reidy tells me he hasn't worked with Oliver Stone since "JFK," but hopes to again sometime. "Oliver asked me several times but there was always a scheduling conflict." His most recent film with Martin Scorsese was 2010's "Shutter Island" (2010). "Marty's taking a break from me," he says, adding he feels they're "kindred spirits" and will do more in the future.

Recent credits include "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (the late Sidney Lumet's final film), "Revolutionary Road," "Che" (Parts One and Two), and "Black Swan," with "The Dictator" (2012) starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and "Premium Rush" (2012), written and directed by David Koepp.

Since he's not able to say much publicly right now about those upcoming pictures, I return to "Black Swan," that shape-shifter of a film this past year. Grossing $329 million worldwide thus far, earning 107 nominations and 46 awards, it secured Darren Aronofsky's place in he firmament of A-list directors for some time to come.

"Black Swan," Reidy says, "...was a very interesting experience. Darren, like Marty, is very prepared. He's an artist. And he's done his homework. He'd learned a lot about ballet before shooting started."

I comment that Aronofsky is still something of a "younger director," to which Reidy replies that he comes off "lots more experienced than just having done a handful of movies. He has a vision for his film and he knows how to achieve it. And working with Matthew (Libatique, Aronofsky's gifted cinematographer), their close artistic relationship was a pleasure to observe."

Reidy describes the film's two key locations, at SUNY/Purchase and Lincoln Center. Scheduling on the low-budget $13 million film had to work around the ballet season and all those holiday performances of "The Nutcracker." The stage at Lincoln Center was spacious, relatively easy to shoot in. But the dressing rooms! So much happens in Nina's tight, mirror-filled room. And they were all crammed in: Aronofsky, Portman, Reidy, Libatique (operating hand-held), trying to shoot in that tiny, reflective space. Reidy allows that visual effects were employed a couple of times in post-production to "erase" some inadvertent reflections of the working crew.

He also wondered as they shot how the film would come together. "Darren was pushing boundaries, mixing genres. You could tell the acting was excellent. Really tour de force. But how would the horror effects work? The story? You often can't tell when you're in the middle of shooting. We were doing such bold things. I didn't know."

The end result, the reaction? "I was just really happy about it. It was a wonderful experience."

I asked him to single out a particularly challenging film. Not surprisingly, he replies, "There have been many. "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), when we didn't have much money. And "Gangs of New York" (2002) --- there are two huge fight scenes and a riot (the Draft Riots of 1863) in that film."

To see what he means, one need only to check youtube for a few minutes of the first fight scene, where there are more than 300 people, running, falling, throwing knives and slashing at each other.

Reidy: "We shot that film at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, creating a real neighborhood...," which represented the Five Points neighborhood of New York, circa 1830s at the film's start, shifting to the 1860s by the end. "The majority of the crew were Americans and Italians. There were many months of pre-production. We started casting months ahead because casting, even of the extras, was very complicated." The people hired had to look the parts; as so many were Italian, lighter-complected Italians had to be found who were believable as lighter-complected Irish Catholics.

"It was a highly coordinated team effort, including my counterpart - an Italian First A.D., and another 8 or 9 Second and Third A.D.'s, speaking both English and Italian. We set up a stunt training camp, with an American stunt coordinator and an Italian stunt coordinator. The extras were mainly very skilled stunt people, who spoke mainly Italian or English, with a few Czechs and Slovenians, and a few American service people. Many had to be trained to use the period-appropriate knives and weapons. We broke the 300 or so people into groups of 50 or 100. Then we paired them off to be worked with together. And the costumes --- every costume was unique by design, and important. Even if they were background extras, they had to behave properly and look like they belonged there."

Within the huge cast, with co-star Cameron Diaz and supporting players such as Jim Broadbent, Liam Neeson and John C. Reilly, Leonardo Di Caprio and Daniel Day-Lewis have the central roles.

Daniel Day-Lewis (with whom Reidy first worked on "The Age of Innocence") "is always highly prepared. He inhabits his character, becoming the person completely. He took his costume home to get accustomed to it and kept his accent the entire shoot. He's a very serious person. Quiet, polite and stays somewhat off to himself to do his work." Leonardo Di Caprio (with whom Reidy has now worked on 5 films) "is a bit more engaged with the crew but also very prepared and focused. Daniel and Leo have the same work ethic and worked very hard, including doing hard physical training, for their roles on this film. I love working with both of them."

"Marty would pre-plan the shots, the angles, the intercutting, each section of a fight. Some scenes would be rehearsed, some tested. And then we would shoot. These scenes took weeks and weeks. So much was going on at once. And there was no green screen. No digitized people. It was all real."

And Joe Reidy, right under Scorsese, was responsible for all of it.

Were there fraught moments, times when something went really wrong? "Mostly, you worry about somebody getting hurt. We were fairly lucky...Otherwise, if you've prepared well and have a strong team, the fraught moments are really about a general pressure to get the movie done. Concerns are about being on time, getting a shot before you lose the light. The pressures of going over budget, over schedule. Pressure. All the time, pressure."

Shooting a film is "so much about relationships. A director needs to figure out how to use me and my experience. To see what I can do for him or her. And I need to read between the lines with a director, to anticipate what's needed or wanted before it's asked. I like to work in the European style, where the A.D. has some input into the creative aspects of the shoot. Otherwise it's mechanical, like a timekeeper or policeman, and less interesting to me. The communication on a film is always better at the end than the beginning."

And now -- after all this time in the industry - is he still as engaged by the work? "I have as much enthusiasm as when I started," Joe Reidy says. "I need to feel a movie speaks to me, is meaningful in some way, and that I'm working with a great director. That renews my faith in my job, and in cinema. I've been incredibly lucky. I've worked with some of the finest directors on some of the top projects. It doesn't get better than that."

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