Tony Adler: Wisdom from a Lifelong Career in Film & Television

by Gracen Hansen (Originally published in Nectar News)

Tony Adler started his career in the entertainment industry from the bottom and worked his way to the top. From the first time he stepped on a set as a 21-year-old college graduate he knew he had found where he was meant to be. It was that moment that led him to working on some of our most iconic films and TV shows including American Beauty and The West Wing. However, breaking into the film industry is not an easy feat. Nectar News sat down with Adler (by Skype) to ask him some questions about his journey and what it really takes to sustain a life long career in the arts.

Nectar News (NN): What are the onset duties of a first assistant director?

Tony Adler (TA): Basically the first assistant director is in charge of the shooting schedule so that means the first assistant director is in charge of making sure that the company and the director can accomplish the days that they are scheduled to make. And in terms of communication, they make sure that everybody who is involved in the movie knows what’s going on, at what particular time, and what to anticipate when we’re finished with things, which direction we’re looking in… so he or she is really the communication liaison to make sure the set is moving and is functioning based on the schedule and everybody knows what they’re doing. I’ve always referred to the first assistant director position as the field marshal on the set.  

NN: How did you first get into the entertainment industry?

TA: Well, I graduated from Vassar College, and when I left college I had no intention of getting into the movie business. My father was a screenwriter and I was always sorta liked what he did, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was a theater major and had a minor in history, I wanted to become a lighting and set designer, and also to design lights for rock and roll shows. I got out of school and I went right to work. I got a job working as a technical director at a theater, little, tiny theater on 23rd street in New York. I was working for a couple of bands as their road manager, and I was working all the time! 21 years old, life was good and I was running around like a crazy person. I graduated in May, and sometime in July my father called me up and said, ‘what are you doin’?’ and I said ‘well I gotta work all night on this and then I have the rock club, gotta move in the van…’ the band was Bulovard Jacks, and he said, ‘listen, we have an old friend who’s directing a movie, and another old friend is producing it. The movie is called Ragtime, from the book by E.L. Doctorow the director is Milos Forman, you should go see these guys, they have lots and lots of jobs open.’ He knew I had read the book Ragtime and I was a big fan of Doctorow, so I said ‘okay, what the hell!’ I go down there and they’re building and set dressing 11th street between A and B, and all of a sudden I walked into Hollywood. I always loved movies, I was looking around like, ‘where have you been all my life’. I went and met with Mike Housner, and he offers me a job! I took the job because this was something I had to be around. I left that afternoon and thought, ‘I gotta do this’ I started work the next day, that’s it, that’s how I got started.

NN: What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career path? 

TA: This first thing I would say is ‘don’t be afraid to try anything.’ You never know what will impress you, touch you, move you, energize you… you never know what it will be, especially in the entertainment industry that will make your wheels turn. The second thing I would say is unless it’s completely ridiculous or heinous or rude, when people ask you to do stuff, make sure you understand what they’re asking you to do, and the second part of this would be to take anything and everything people offer up. Because when people are looking for someone to do something they are looking for someone with energy, and charisma, and the wherewithal to go get something done. That’s the thing that makes them promote you. You gotta walk into something thinking it doesn’t matter how many hours, or how long it takes, I’m gonna get it done, I’m gonna learn how to do it better than anybody. The third thing is, learn how to listen before you speak. I say that because too many people get involved with jobs where they’re not really sure about and then after a couple of days they think they’re resident experts. You will learn more by walking up and down a set, keeping your mouth shut and watching what’s going on around you. 

NN : What’s the most important thing to remember when producing a movie?

TA: Every movie is different. They are different because of the nature of the movie and the size of the cast. I don’t think there’s any one thing that’s more important than another except trying to finish the film on time, on schedule, and on budget.

NN: What is the difference between a first and second assistant director?

TA: The first AD (assistant director) is the guy who is hired by the director or producer and he or she is the person who hires the second AD who runs everything in the background. So the second AD works for the first AD, and sometimes you have many second ADs. I was on a show where I had four of them, each responsible for different things. They’re in charge of paperwork, ordering and setting the background, communicating with the office communicating with the actors. The main difference is the first AD is on the set next to the camera, next to the director, with the cast all the time, and the second AD generally get a lot of opportunities to walk away from the set and get done what they need to, in the trailers or in an office, wherever. They have to write the production reports from the day, make the call sheet, the second AD job is like Sergent Major, making sure that everything is going to be there for the first AD. A first AD is only a good first AD if they have good and trustworthy second ADs. 

NN: In your career so far, what do you consider to be your greatest success?

TA: One would be a political drama that I contributed on the pilot episode which was called The West Wing, we won a couple of awards and the show got made and was on the air for nine years. And the other would be a film with Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning called American Beauty. It was really hard with the budget and time. I had met with the director prior and he wanted to hire me because of my theater background. I got called into that movie and we won five Academy Awards and 5 Golden Globes. It was really hard, shooting that movie was really hard. But, we shot it, we did it, and in the long run nobody remembers how tough it was. 

NN: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?

TA: Yes, I’m working on something with a partner of mine. A couple of screenplays and one of them got greenlit a couple of months ago and we got funding and we are off to Texas and New Mexico to shoot the movie.             

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