Tommy Burke, host of the Not Just Sunglasses & Autographs podcast, offers advice and talks about his more than 25 years experience as a First Assistant Director in TV and film production. Linda Frothingham, Chicago Hollywood, interviews Tommy during a Chicago TV Production Night special event. Proceeds from were donated to the cancer Wellness House.
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How Tommy Got Started
Tommy attended to Boston College, a non-film school that he basically attended for free, since his father was a teacher. There was no film program because the lower class people from Boston sent their kids to BC to get “upgraded.” They wanted their kids to be in suits and ties.
After college, Tommy went to Vermont and missed a job by a day, so he worked as a food rep. He returned to Boston shortly thereafter. Tommy didn’t know what he wanted to do and then learned what a PA was. He went through the Yellow Pages (this was before email and websites), and sent his resume out to nine people in the Boston area. One person responded. And, if it wasn’t for him, Tommy would still be a sales rep in Massachusetts.
Since Tommy didn’t go to film school, he had no idea what he was supposed to do. Tommy started by loading the equipment on grip trucks, and that was his start of knowing what to do on set. He began kicking ass as PA, and worked all over Boston. When Tommy decided he wanted to be an Assistant Director, people said, if you want to be an AD, you have to go to LA. Tommy was a PA on the film Mermaids with Cher and Winona Ryder. Johnny Depp was dating Winona Ryder. When Tommy got to LA, Johnny Depp said he wanted Tommy to AD his short film. He started ADing and was good at it.
In hindsight, he should have started as a PA in LA, gotten to meet people, then gone to second second, then second AD, and first AD. But he wanted to be a first AD, so he networked.
Tommy shares one of his favorite networking stories. He was a doorman at The Improv in Santa Monica, and worked for a man who hated his guts. (Tommy long hair, and the guy thought he was a freak.) Two years later, Tommy walked to his old college roommate’s apartment, and that the same guy was his new roommate. He became an accountant in the film business, and got Tommy on the TV series Crash on Starz. The producer for Crash became the producer of Chicago PD , where Tommy has worked season season 1.
Around 2003, when Tommy was working on a show, called Skin, he felt a lump under his arm. His old neighbor, who was an Air Force doctor, said, “Don’t worry about it. Just don’t touch it. It’ll go away.” Then he found lumps in a few other places, and had ten biopsies. Tommy drove himself home from surgery once, so he could get to work the next day. He found out it was Hodgekin Lymphoma. During treatment, Tommy worked 14-hour days, and did chemo at night. That shows his perseverance, an invaluable trait in this industry. He learned to network and to be nice – he got that trait from being in the restaurant business.
Being an AD
AD stands for Assistant Director. There’s the director and first assistant director. Tommy’s the foreman on the set. He inputs the script, schedules it, and keeps things moving. People will tell you he runs a tight set.
The biggest challenge of the job, Tommy explains, is personalities. He didn’t go to film school, but in the restaurant business he learned how to get along with people, how to move quickly, how to listen to people’s guff, smile, keep things moving.
Whenever Tommy hires a new PA, he doesn’t ask: What film school did you go to? He asks: What restaurant did you work at? That’s how you learn how to deal with personalities.
The great thing about the business is there’s a start and finish to each job. It’s prep a script, shoot a script, done. New script. Prep a script, shoot a script, done.
Although he has worked in film, Tommy’s personality is more geared for television. He’s likes when things move quickly, he gets bored. Features are kind of like baseball. There are pitches, a flood of activity, and then there’s an out and that’s it. Television is like football. Every day is all-out effort. You have eight days to shoot things. Features can go long. Television can rarely go long, because they have another director coming in.
Working on Chicago PD
Tommy has to read each script, because he’s the one who says when and where they shoot. For instance, he tells the location manager to find him a room, he talks to the director to find out what he’s looking for in the room. Then he’ll ask how busy they want it to be. Does he need 10 extras, 20 extras? He put that in the script and in the schedule, and puts out a call sheet. A call sheet is a piece a paper that says what they’re shooting that day. His second AD makes up the call sheet.
They don’t really have time for reshoots. If Dick Wolf, who controls the show, wants a change, they change it. For continuity they have a person called the producer director. The writers are in LA, and not on set, and it’s the same crew for Tommy’s eps. There’s a different AD staff for the odd and even numbered episodes. Tommy is the odd AD. He does scripts 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, etc. While he is prepping, the other one is shooting. When he is shooting the other one is prepping.
(Tommy mentions he technically hasn’t been hired yet for next season, but it’s likely. The thing about this business is you’re not guaranteed any work – seven years ago, he was driving a truck. Btw, Tommy has been hired for this season of Chicago PD.)
As an example of how to break down a script, Tommy uses the room for this talk as an example. Two people are in a room talking about the film business. Tommy will break it down, based on when the people in the scene work. He inputs it into a computer program, and puts it in a schedule.
Episodes are typically not shot in consecutive order. They shoot all the scenes in the same location at the same time, because you load in the equipment once. Time is money. It’s very expensive. One of Tommy’s strong points is he was a grip, he knows how to load trucks, and he’ll do whatever it takes. If he moves quickly, his team will move quickly too.
The show’s Unit Production Manager is Bob Rolsky. He is the one who watches the money. Tommy is good at keeping the hours down, which is great for the budget. For example, at the beginning of the day Tommy would say something like I think it’s going to take us an hour and a half to two hours to shoot this scene. If he’s not done with the scene in 2 hours, he’s responsible for his time.
There are about 200 people on set. There are always people working. There’s craft service. There’s people in front, a lot of accountants.
In film, the AD is aligned with the director. In TV, the AD is aligned with the producer, because there are several different directors. He’s pulled scenes, and told the director they’re done if they try to do too many takes. One or two takes per scene is usually very good..
They’re allowed eight days to shoot each episode, but if they have big scene, they might do eight and a half and do a double up day. A double-up day is when episode is starting and another one’s finishing, so they add more people to the crew and have two crews going at once. They can’t share stages or actors. They have to time it just right.
They have actors they own and guest players, and they try to keep the guest players to one or two days, because they’re more money. Working for a big company (NBC), they’re not supposed to work more than 14 hours. At 14 hours and 1 minute the studio calls and says, What are you doing? They get mad. So Tommy goes 13:30 or 13:45, which includes lunch.
Tommy calls overlaps with the other Chicago shows “prisoner exchange.” They had a four-way: Justice, Med, Fire, and PD all sharing actors. He got all the ADs in a room and said you’re not leaving this room until everyone had a schedule they could work with.
On Monday they start at 7am, and they go later each day because of turn around. Actors have 12-hour turnarounds, so when they release them on the set, they have 12 hours before they can call them back, and that doesn’t count their hair and makeup. They may not get an actor back for 14, 15 hours. He puts all of his night takes on Friday, since the days keep getting later.
First thing when everyone gets in is a cast reading. Tommy likes to have them made up ahead of time. They’ll come in, and go over the script. The actors may make suggestions for where they are placed. After they work out what they are doing, they’ll have a blocking rehearsal. The crew comes in and see where they actors will sit. Stand-ins may come in while the actors get microphone wired. Camera, lighting, camera assistants, grip, set dressing all come in. You see where the scene is going to happen.
Tommy thinks they are pretty close to the reality that’s Chicago. On Chicago PD they have some of the best technical advisors in the business, making sure they do all the police work as accurately as possible.
Then, there’s the food. In this business people get hurt all the time. They work long hours, they have heavy equipment, they do stunts, flip cars, but no one’s ever starved on the set. They have breakfast, then they have a snack mid morning ( it could be sandwiches, it could be hot dogs), there’s a catered lunch, and if they go late, they have a second meal. It’s quite spectacular.
The first job Tommy did in LA, he worked for 36 hours straight for free. You don’t have to go that crazy, but working for free is how you meet people. Then, when someone gets a paid show, they want to hire you, because they know they can trust you. Start by paying your dues. And networking.
In the next episode of the Not Just Sunglasses & Autographs podcast, Tommy answers questions from the audience. Stay tuned.
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The Not Just Sunglasses & Autographs podcast is hosted by Tommy Burke, who has been working in TV and film production for more than 25 years as a First Assistant Director. Download the podcast, listen on iTunes, and write a review.