Running The Show: Tommy Gormley’s Guide To Being A First Assistant Director
by Margaret Chrystall
If anyone knows the answer to the question in this session’s title, it should be Tommy Gormley, who has worked in the role on over 50 films – including the latest Star Wars movie out in November.
Scot Tommy started his career alongside his dad, director Charlie Gormley who worked on Bill Forsyth mvies as well,Tom Conti and Helen Mirren-starring Heavenly Pursuits and films such as Down Among the Big Boys with Billy Connolly.
He has gone on to work on some of Hollywood's biggest films as first assistant director - including both the latest Star Trek movies, two Mission Impossibles with Tom Cruise and epics like 2012.
At the XpoNorth session, Tommy answered questions from Alain de Pellette and the audience after outlining how his career had gone from working on small independent films to moving up to taking the first assistant director and co-producer on major films, from Elizabeth: The Golden Age with Cate Blanchett and on to five films with JJ Abrams – including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, his latest.
Along the way, he revealed how over time the responsibilities of the vital role on the movie set has subtly changed.
Asked about the resources and loads of paper that used to be part of the film-making world, he said: “Now the big driver is security.
"On a film recently you were given an iPad and everything is on that and it’s controlled by a 'big brother' somewhere else.
"They can wipe the script from the iPad or take it off you. As first AD, you are meant to be the conduit of communication, so it's very tricky and counter intuitive to what I used to do."
Now, Tommy explained, even having script was becoming a thing of the past as security concerns increased with companies anxious that details of upcoming films aren’t released before the movie is ready to go.
On Star Wars, he said there had been four scripts on red paper that spent most of their time in a safe.
"If you ever tried to transcribe it, there is a little code in the script which means they would know later it came from your script. Paper used to be everywhere but call sheets and scripts are rarer.
"These sophisticated tracking devices mean that id there were a leak, the companies could quickly work out which copy has been leaked from.
“On Star Wars you lived in terror of your script getting out.”
Tommy – who won a BAFTA Scotland last year for outstanding contribution to craft –answered a questioner confirming that there are Scots in many different movie-making roles out in Hollywood.
“It’s amazing actually, I don’t think I’ve been on a film anywhere in the world where someone from Scotland hasn’t turned up, whether it’s a carpenter or one of the wardrobe staff and there are some very high profile ones as well though they’re under the radar to the average person.
"Guys like Pat Doyle is an amazing composer who has worked at the highest level, then there’s David Balfour who is the most amazing prop master in the world."
And having explained the role of first assistant director – a lynchpin in keeping the movie on track and often a director in everything but name - Tommy shared some of his best and worst moments from life on set.
Asked if there were moments in films that might not have happened if it hadn’t been for his presence, he took the audience back to The Four Feathers which starred the late Heath Ledger and for one scene had a cast of thousands.
“CG has changed things a little bit, but the film was a war epic - and it may not have been that successful, but it was a pretty good film, I think.
“In it we had a battle and we had about 2,500 to 3000 extras and 300 camels and horses for a month, doing a battle scene.
“In that whole sequence, there are only two or three CG shots and that would never happen again because basically now the producer would say to you ’50 horses and CG the rest’.
“Nobody would ever get that much stuff again, but we did - and it nearly killed me making that film.
“We were filming in Morocco at 110 degrees.
“At eight in the morning, 2000 people were ready to work in costume - this is in a country that then had no telephones - and taking coaches to each village to bring the extras in.”
And another question asking about hairy moments, reminded Tommy of the one-off stunts that leave you holding your breath and thinking ‘I’m pleased it worked because if it hadn’t I’d have had a very short career’. One of those occasions was working on Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise.
“Tom Cruise insists on doing all his own stunts where he can and In Mission Impossible 4 there was one with him when he is coming down in a parachute and gets stuck up a lamppost and a truck is coming towards him and he hits his parachute, hits the ground, the truck jacknifes and slides over him and doesn’t crush him to death and he gets up and runs away.
“It worked out, but ironically, if you watch the film now, you can’t tell it’s him it could have been a double.
“He still to this day does that stuff because it matters to him.
“But to have the biggest movie star in the world literally dangling off a cable with a 40 tonne truck having to jacknife and slide over him without killing him and the AD is also head of health and safety on the set..." Tommy laughed.
"If it goes wrong it’s the end of your career as well as having a dead Tom Cruise.
"Those kind of moments are slightly stressful, but when you do achieve it there’s an incredible rush of relief!"
Tommy was asked how it feels to work on a film like Star Wars.
“Awesome … I’ve done a lot of big movies but there is something about Star Wars, it is so iconic.
“Even having done Star Trek and Mission Impossible and lots of big movies, there’s still something about it.
“I think there’s something about my psyche as well - I remember being nine years old on Renfield Street in Glasgow, queuing round the block to see Star Wars.
“So to be on set with Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill - and for all of us – it was staggering.
“And that never wore off during the filming and for JJ too – we’d be going ‘Can you believe this?’.
“Every moment seemed more laden with meaning than the last and because it was very important to get it right and there would be so many upset people if we didn’t, there was something by osmosis that felt more challenging.
“And it was also great fun!
“I think we were all aware of carrying the burden not to mess up, but you can tell us how we did in December!”He was asked how the role of AD changes between America and the UK.
"I think you are very aware when you are out there at Warners or Paramount or Universal that it’s a business when you see these huge lots and huge offices.
"You're aware more of the machinations of it being a machine, whereas in the UK or in Scotland you feel it is more of a hand-knitted thing that we love.
"You are more aware over there that it is an industry, it truly is a big machine."
And will the UK ever get to America's level, Tommy was asked and gave what might have been a slighltly surprising answer for sme people.
"The UK is the busiest place in the world right now for shooting movies.
"There are very few films shooting in Los Angeles, they are all in London or Vancouver or Atlanta or New Mexico, wherever there is a cost benefit, they’re always very fluid and cost sensitive and looking for the best deal.
"We could bring them here because we could be cost advantageous, they are very cost sensitive and they will go wherever the best deal is. At the moment the UK has figured that bit out so you can’t get studios based in London for love or money.
"But the business comes and goes. I remember being here in the 90s and there were tumbleweed going through Pinewood, but at the moment it is extremely busy here. So Hollywood has come to the UK for the time being."
But Tommy is worried by the state of the screen industry in Scotland.
When asked about how people can train to become ADs, he said: "I hope it comes across that I’m a huge enthusiast for our industry, but with the Scottish film business as it exists at any given time I’m always slightly nervous of being the pied piper figure who says ‘Come and join the circus!’ for all these lovely young folks out there who want to do it
"Are you doing them a disservice because – is there enough for them to do?
"I think at the moment the situation for drama – TV or film – in Scotland, is woeful and that should be a matter of great concern to all of us.
"One of my soapbox moments is that when I was starting out 21 or 22 there was a London film and TV business and in Glasgow there was a real Scottish film business and bigtime TV drama and there were movies and the fact that we have been totally outstripped by Wales and Northern Ireland is beyond scandalous."
Tommy was asked if he felt Scotland building its own studio would "save" the Scottish film industry.
"Maybe," Tommy mused. "But it’s not a catch-all, that building a building will solve all our problems. I think it’s many things and I suppose it’s been a bugbear of mine because since I’ve been 21 years old we’ve been discussing it.
"Truly a studio is a vital building block of film-making. There’s not a film in the last 15 years that didn’t use a studio or need one.
"You get films coming to Scotland, they do a bit of filming and they come here for three weeks, do a bit of Skyfall, then leave. They come for two weeks do a bit of George Square for World War Z and they leave. We’ve got amazing scenery. Great crew. All the stuff.
"But unless you have working facilities, it’s very hard to bring movies to Scotland.
"There’s not a one-stop solution, there’s more to it which involves great producers and a government which is pro- film-making and many other things but it would not be a bad step. No matter where it ends up I wish it would happen sooner rather than later."
For Tommy by then, there will be new projects. He is working out budgets for a couple of new films.
“And I’ll be working with my own company Little White Rose Films with my wife Sarah Purser, though I’m not sure what the next thing is.
“But trying to get good Scottish content on screen – hopefully that will come to pass.”