Summer 2009

The Big Picture: Filmmaking Lessons From a Life on the Set
(Thomas Dunne Books, 256 pages, $25.95)
By Tom Reilly

The Big PictureAssistant director Tom Reilly started as a DGA trainee on Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories in 1979 and worked with Allen for the next 16 years up until Mighty Aphrodite. Since then, he’s worked with Taylor Hackford, James Toback and James Foley, among others, acquiring a depth of knowledge and experience that makes The Big Picture, his guide to working both on- and off-set, one of the most valuable books of its kind. Unlike many similar volumes, this one feels like a labor of love, a lifetime’s experience generously distilled into practical advice for assistant directors—tyros and old hands alike.

Reilly starts with the vocabulary of the set, moving on to the perils and rewards of location versus studio shooting, the vicissitudes of chang-ing light, working in awkward locations, period shoots, and setting back-ground performers. Re-garding the banes of the ADs existence such as actors who prefer to block their own shots, he says “actors should act, directors should block.” He also thinks small, listing the kinds of things an AD should never have to go home and fetch mid-shoot. Reilly keeps everything in his trunk from actors’ sides to call sheets, sunscreen, maps, power bars, fisherman’s waders for river shots, even a wet suit—you never can tell, he says, so bring everything.

A chapter on choosing a great cinematographer is especially illuminating in analyzing how the look of Allen’s movies changed with every new cinematographer from Gordon Willis’ visual austerity and tableau setups to Carlo Di Palma’s more questing, fluidly mobile camera, and Sven Nykvist’s Bergman-influenced respect for the close-up as facial landscape. Throughout the book, Reilly conveys a sense of being in the room with his directors, and his clear, unadorned prose should forewarn and forearm any newbie stepping on set for the first time.

Review written by John Patterson.


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