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First Assistant Directors on ‘Guardians,’ ‘Wonder Woman,’ ‘Spider-Man’ Discuss Challenges

Variety logo Variety 4/5/2017 Terry Flores
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Here comes summer — along with a new crop of superhero movies.

And working behind the scenes to get those pictures made are the largely unsung heroes of film production: the first assistant directors without whom chaos would reign on the set and little would get done. That’s because first AD’s run the entire production process — handling logistics and keeping everything on schedule and, everyone hopes, on budget.

Here are three of those who rode herd on the production of the summer’s most anticipated mega-budget movies:

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” Disney / May 5 First AD: Lars P. Winther

Writer-director James Gunn is back at the helm for another space adventure with everyday nice guy and superhero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as he discovers the true nature of his parentage.

Winther, who has multiple Marvel Studios projects under his belt, including “The Avengers” and “Ant-Man,” weighs many factors when he creates the production calendar. Among them, actors’ schedules, the supplying of visual effects, and set construction.

“For me, a lot of it is dictated by the actors’ timetable,” he says. “As much as we’d like to shoot in continuity, sometimes they’re only available at certain times.”

Winther notes that CG characters such as Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper, in the second film) can be shot earlier “so the VFX team can have more turnover time to create them.”

Much of “Guardians 2” was filmed at Pinewood Atlanta Studios. The opening scene was scheduled on the first day of filming, with more complex sequences coming later in the shoot.

“Gunn is a very meticulous director, so everything is thoroughly planned out,” Winther says. “But if we can plot it so the actors can get into the flow of their characters and story, it makes for a better experience while supporting the director’s vision.”

“Wonder Woman,” Warner Bros. / June 2 First AD: Tommy Gormley

For Scottish-born Gormley, a combination of factors made “Wonder Woman” particularly challenging. “It was kind of a road movie where the action kept moving through different landscapes and places,” he says. “It was also a period film, which always has its own complications.”

Directed by Patty Jenkins, the movie explores the origin story of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, as she discovers her full powers — and her destiny — while fighting outside the world she was born in.

The film followed an ambitious schedule. It took over London’s Trafalgar Square to shoot scenes from the 1918 Armistice that marked the end of WWI. Later, Castel del Monte and other sites in the Apulia region of Italy served as locations for Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s island homeland. “If there wasn’t a big-scale period location we could go to, we invented one,” Gormley says.

Gormley, whose credits include “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” notes that the production benefited from Jenkins’ strong vision. “She always understood the narrative drive, and having a director like that is a huge help on a complex film like this.”

“Spider-Man: Homecoming, ” Sony / July 7, First AD: Liz Tan

Following the character’s appearance in Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War,” a young Peter Parker — aka Spider-Man, played once again by Tom Holland — tries to balance normalcy with his new Spidey identity in the Jon Watts-directed film.

The massive shoot, which began by capturing Parker’s school days in New York, unfurled under the auspices of first AD Liz Tan, whose earlier credits include work as second-unit first AD on all of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films.

“Being on a project of this size, the schedule can become a jigsaw puzzle where you’re constantly moving things around to see how it fits,” says Tan of “Homecoming.” “We started at the school partly because it was near the summer holidays, but it also allowed Tom as Peter Parker to ground himself in the world of his mates before going into the superhero side of shooting.”

Tan tried to deliver the best schedule for the director to achieve his goals while also giving the actors dramatic continuity. “I was fortunate to have second AD Brian Galligan,” she says. “He was my Cliffs Notes guy.” Tan also credits UPM Leeann Stonebreaker and executive producer Patricia Whitcher: “They were fabulous resources to me.”

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