The Business that I Love: An Interview with 3rd Assistant Director, Lisa Jemus

LISA JEMUS is a 3rd Assistant Director based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and is a member of the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC).

Lisa Jemus, 3rd AD w/walkie in hand! Photo courtesy of Lisa Jemus.

Lisa and I met in 2009 at a producing workshop in Ottawa, Ontario, and I just wish we’d had more than a week together so I could pick her brain!  Luckily, we’ve stayed in touch and she was kind enough to do an interview for Her Film via Facebook and email.  I was keen to do this interview with her because there is such little information out there about what a 3rd AD actually does! (Note: In the U.S., a 3rd AD is often known as a “2nd 2nd Assistant Director.”)

Lisa Jemus has recently worked on  the feature film Drift (which releases February 21, 2011 in the U.S.) and the TV movie The 19th Wife.  Please see below for links to further reading.

On to the interview!

Her Film: How did you first get started in film?

Lisa Jemus: I had just graduated from film school and volunteered with our local film commission office putting together location photos.  Through them I found out about volunteering at the AMPIA awards and there I met a guy who was working on the mini-series In Cold Blood as an Assistant Location Manager.  He asked me if I would like to volunteer to help him put together photos for the show, which of course I did!  And within a week or two he offered me a paying job on the show as a location scout.  It was a very long shoot so I was also hired as a location PA, and assistant location manager of second unit.   My experience is a good example of what you know and who you know.  Film school got my foot in the door, and going out and volunteering got me the “who you know” part!

HF: What attracted you to the position of Third Assistant Director, and what does it entail?

LJ: Oh man, this is a big question!  I LOVE my job as a 3rd AD.  I feel it is the career I was born to do.  When I was in locations I thought I loved it, and an AD asked me if I had ever considered AD’ing, to which I said (while tying up a garbage bag), “Oh no, I LOVE locations, I’ll never do anything else!”  And by the way, he is a very good friend of mine now and loves telling this story.  He said, “That’s too bad, you’d make a really great AD.”  After he said that, I started to pay more attention to what the AD’s actually did, and I started to really like the look and sound of that department.  I liked that they would oversee all aspects of the film, not just one singular department.  I’m a bossy person, I suppose, so this was a good fit for me!

The 3rd AD is responsible for:

  • Co-coordinating the actors getting ready for their days work, we have an office in a trailer among the actor’s trailers, along with hair, make-up and wardrobe.  This area is called the circus and it is in a separate area from the set. The actor arrives for work and we greet them and fill them in on what is happening that day, and then let them know when hair/mu are ready to see them.  We also are their ears for what is happening on set.  They are in their trailer much of the time, so we keep them informed as to how the set is doing and when they are needed.  The big thing is making sure the actor is ready to shoot when the set is ready for them.  Nothing gets a 3rd AD in bigger shit than when the set is waiting for an actor.  This happens a lot when you are first starting out, but nothing gets you trained faster than getting yelled at!
  • The 3rd AD is responsible for the Daily Production Report and it details all of the cast and crew hours, the amount of film shot, any equipment that was used. It is what the accountants and studios use to calculate how much money the production spent that day.
  • We also run a portable production office with anything anyone might need in terms of office-y type functions. And if we can’t do it, then we can mediate between the office and set if the crew person cannot get to a phone.
  • Our bosses are the 1st and 2nd AD.  We make sure that they have all they need so they can run the set and get the call sheet done.

“I LOVE my job as a 3rd AD.  I feel it is the career I was born to do.”

HF: When you look back on your career up until this point, what are you most proud of, and do you have any regrets?

LJ: I am most proud of the reputation that I have built over the years.  I love everyone I work with and my job, and try to be the most positive “me” I can be at work.  I feel like everyone is working hard, everyone is tired, and there is always someone there who was there earlier and has to stay later and is more tired than you.  So, I try to lift people up instead of tear them down.

I can’t say I have any regrets with my career, it has all unfolded as it was meant to, and I am grateful every single day to be a part of the business that I love.

HF: What do you consider the best, and the worst, part of the job of a Third Assistant Director?

LJ: The best part of my job is that I get to work with some amazing actors.  I mean really amazing.  I have had the good fortune to work with some actors that I have admired since I was a young, and in some cases was able to get to know them quite well, in a professional way.  This is a great perk to my job.

One of the worst parts of my job is that I get to work with some amazing actors that I have admired since I was young.

Let me explain, there are some people that I never ever want to work with because I want their actor “persona” to be firmly in my head and not in real life.  Even the most incredibly talented and great actors I have worked with I see differently when I watch them on screen now.   It’s very distracting because I got to know them on a fairly personal everyday level.  It kind of takes you out of the world they are trying to create.  Like I would never want to work with Al Pacino, or Robert DeNiro for example.  And sometimes someone I admire the hell of ends up being a total jerk.  Well, you can imagine what THAT does  when I’m trying to watch them in a movie!

HF: What’s your process in deciding if you want to work on a particular project? Have you turned any down which you wish you would have taken?

LJ: Mostly the decision-making depends upon my family.  I have two young daughters and a husband who is also in the business, so it is very difficult for both of us to work at the same time.  It all depends on how long the shoot is, and who is available to look after our girls.  Most of the time I turn down what is offered because it is not the best decision for my family.  I am first and foremost a mother and that is where my priority is.  But when all of the stars align and I DO get to work, then watch out! This is when I really get to connect with that side of myself that feels productive; it also let’s me use a part of my brain that I don’t normally get to use.

HF: Your IMDb credits list is long and impressive and you’ve worked on many Canadian films and shows as well as some big-budget Hollywood films. Two of your films are currently in post-production, one by writer-director Gaby Dellal from England. Most of your work has been with male directors — can you tell any differences between how female and male directors interact with cast and crew?

LJ: Well, thank you!   I am very lucky that I can have both [a career and motherhood], and I have been able to have many years at home with my children, while at the same time a great career in the film business.

I have only worked with one other female director in my career, and that was Kathy Bates on the Fargo TV pilot in 1997.  I was in locations then, so I did not have many dealings with her, but people respected her because, HELLO she’s Kathy Bates!  But even as a director you could see that they saw her as “director” and not as “actor” for her role on that show.  I only worked for a few days on Waska (in the U.S., Drift) with Gaby [Dellal], so I do not have much perspective there.  But what I really remember is that she was AMAZING with the two little girls that we had on set the days that I worked.  I mean incredible!  They were about 4 or 5 years old and she was very sweet with them, and PATIENT!  She also entertained them when there were long set-ups and they just adored her.  She was also able to get great performances out of them, which is not easy to do with children sometimes.  I think the perception is that female directors, and possibly females in any power position in any business, are super bitchy.  I would have to agree to a certain extent.  The film world is predominantly a man’s world, and women have had and are still having to prove that we have what it takes to get a movie made.  I heard great things about Kathryn Bigelow the director of The Hurt Locker.  My colleague worked with her in the past and said that she was incredible.  That is always fantastic to hear!

HF: In your filmography, some of the films and television shows indicate “daily.” What is the difference between working as a Third Assistant Director, a Daily 3rd AD and a Daily Assistant Director?  Would you recommend one over the others to someone who might be contemplating entering the film industry to work “below the line”?

LJ: The difference between “Third Assistant Director” and “Daily 3rd AD” is that in the former position you are the sole AD that works the run of the show.  A Daily 3rd comes in for just daycall and is not responsible for the paperwork, the actors being processed, etc.  You come in on a big actor day or a huge extras day and use your skills as a 3rd to help out.

Someone starting out in the business can get in as a production assistant in the office, or location department, or sometimes in another department all together.  But locations seems to be the most common way to start in the business.  In Canada our locations departments and AD’s work a bit differently.  Our locations are responsible for lock-ups, the 1st AD would let locations know what the shot is, but the locations PA’s and Key PA’s would be physically responsible for keeping the area quiet and clear of bogeys (people that inadvertently walk into the shot).  From what I understand in the States the AD’s are responsible for this and your AD departments are HUGE!  When I worked with the 1st AD on Jesse James [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford], he was shocked that we only had 6 people in our department (which is a large AD dept up here), he said that it was not uncommon for them to have 10 or 12 AD’s at any given time.  That was a total shock to us.

If a person wanted to be an AD you really should start out as a locations PA and pay attention to what the AD’s do, and then once you get to know a few of them on a show you can ask them if you could shadow them for a few hours or a day or two.  Then decide if you would actually like to do the job.  This will show that you are super keen and have some initiative, and the AD’s will remember that in the future when they are looking for extra people on big days.

HF: You work out of Calgary, Alberta where a number of Canadian films and TV shows, as well as American films, have been shot. In 2009 when we attended a producing workshop together, you indicated that Calgary frequently functions as a service hub for Hollywood pictures. How would you characterize the state of the film and television industry in Calgary today, and what do you think its prospects for the future are?

LJ: Okay, well, if this isn’t a loaded question I don’t know what is!  Basically, in Alberta, we are struggling.  We are, at present, competing with other jurisdictions in Canada and abroad for service productions looking for the best tax credit.  We are working hard with our government to make our incentives more competitive and hopefully we can come up with an arrangement that brings us onto a level playing field.  We also need a studio here.  We are the only province, I believe, that does not have a purpose built studio, and that is something that could really help round out our industry.  But many are rightly afraid that it would lay empty most of the time and end up as a very expensive warehouse space.

I am never going to give up on the Alberta Film Industry.  Never.  We have a lot to be proud of.  We have won the most awards in all of Canada and our crews have been lauded by many high power players in the business.  One of the most complimentary, and hilarious, kudos given to our crews was by an article written down in LA about how tough our people were up here on the mountain in the winter while shooting Inception. The comment was that no matter how far the needle went below zero, there was always some dude wandering around on set in shorts.  That killed me… BECAUSE IT’S TRUE!

HF: As a Canadian, is it more important to you to work on projects which are Canadian, or does cultural or national identification come into play at all when deciding to take a job?

LJ: No, not really.  I look at the caliber of people around me, it doesn’t matter if they or the project is Canadian or not.  But I will say that working on Passchendaele made me especially proud as it was a Canadian story told by a Canadian company, and it was the largest, at $20 million, ever made in our country.

HF: The casts of some of the films you’ve worked on include Whoopi Goldberg, Graham Greene, Christopher Plummer, Mira Sorvino, Brad Pitt and Kathy Baker, among other big and respected names. How do you juggle the egos and expectations of actors who’ve been in the business for a long time and might be big stars?

LJ: I find that many of the uber famous people are often times the easiest to deal with.  When I first took the job on Jesse James [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford] I had no idea what to expect with Brad.  He had worked with many of my colleagues 10 years prior on Legends of the Fall and they all said he was awesome and “one of the guys,” so I really didn’t think too much about it.  I worried more about the people around him, like his assistants, bodyguards etc. that can, at times, be the real problem.  But I learned very early on in my career to not have any expectations whatsoever before meeting and working with a famous person because my relationship with them will be unique and not based on any other experience.  For example, the first time this happened to me was when I knew I was going to be working with John Cusack.  I heard he was a total d**k, and so I had myself prepared for dealing with him being a jerk.  Well, I couldn’t have had a more opposite experience with him!  We TOTALLY hit it off and got along like we’d known each other our whole lives.  We reminded one another of people we went to high school with, so it was one of the best times I ever had working on a film for that reason.  From that day on I made a vow to not listen to any hype before hand and just go in fresh and look at them as an actor who has a job to do.

“I learned very early on in my career to not have any expectations whatsoever before meeting and working with a famous person because my relationship with them will be unique and not based on any other experience.”

Brad was lovely, but you could tell that he was extremely famous when you first met him.  He kind of looked at you but through you, you know what I mean?  And when he walked into the building the very first time he walked straight to the rehearsal hall without looking left or right or glancing at anyone.  It was like he had blinders on.  Later I would learn that someone described it to him like putting his “shield up,”, and that was exactly what it seemed like.  I cannot even imagine what it would be like to be that famous, and we saw first hand what kind of fame he had.  After a couple of weeks, though, he totally warmed up to all of us and was a lovely, funny, totally normal down-to-earth person.  When I had my first meeting with producers about him they told me he had no assistants, only a security guard and a make-up person.  “Oh GREAT.” I seem to remember saying to myself.  That meant a whole lot more work for the rest of us when he ended up needing this, that and the other.  Well, he was THE MOST low maintenance actor for all his superstar-fancy-pants-ness.  I mean really really low.  And just easy going, and pleasant, and you could tell he really just wanted to be treated like everyone else.

The most difficult cases, and thankfully there have been just a few, have been with the up and coming actors or the has-beens.  The up and comers and has-beens have the largest and the most fragile egos and are constantly reminding you of who they are or were.  UGH.  It is EXHAUSTING.  But at all times we stay professional and let it roll off of our backs, because the job will end and you will never ever have to see them again.

HF: Does ego-management work any differently with directors? You’ve worked with Canadian, British and Kiwi [New Zealand] directors.  Do cultural differences ever become an obstacle?

LJ: I do not have as much dealings with directors so I cannot really answer that question well.  But I will say that the directors that take the time to get to know everyone in the AD department are the ones that we all remember the most with fond feelings.  They really see that we are in their department – we are their assistants!  And you can feel that they appreciate what you do for them as a team.  One of my favorites just happens to be a Quebec director named Michel Poulette who directed “Agent of Influence.” He was a true gentleman and treated every single person on the crew like they were his honored guests.  He had a blooper reel done of the show and had a big screen TV ordered that we smuggled in on the last day of shooting, then we had a big wrap party at the studio.  When we all gushed at how surprised we were at the blooper reel he smiled and humbly said, “It is the Poulette way.”  He was very sweet.

HF: What would you consider to be the most important skills to have or learn in order to be a good Third AD?

LJ: You must have impeccable  people skills!  That is the number one most important skill.  The other important skill that you must have is to be a good anticipator.  This is often one of the hardest concepts for people to get because it is not an easy thing to train.  Talking with many other AD’s this topic comes up a lot.  This is often times one of the things we will notice in a new AD that we work with.  If you find that in your daily life you are the person that “thinks ahead” and anticipates people’s needs even before they do, you would make an excellent AD.  You have to be able to think on your feet, and be organized.  It also helps to have a bit of a bossy streak, I like to call it “leadership skills” but really, it’s being bossy.  If you naturally like to organize a group of people and have a people-friendly way of doing that, you would be good AD.

“…[F]ind what you are truly passionate about, and what your natural talents are and then find a department that is a good fit for you.”

HF: I’ve heard filmmakers say that film is something you have to love in order to do it right. How important is it for you to love the work you do? And do you?

LJ: I love my job more than anything I have ever done, other than being a parent.  My job is literally my dream job from when I was 10 years old.  You have to love the film business or you would never be able to withstand the hours, the physical effort and the politics.  The hours are brutal, but for us it is just another day at the office.  We are on our feet for 90% of the day, and with a walkie in one ear and a cell phone in the other and several people talking to you in person and all at once, it would be easy to get overwhelmed.  But for many of us, and I am one of them, this is the best feeling.  When the s**t’s hitting the fan and it is so busy and the sun’s going down, you really have to be on your toes.  Sometimes you are, sometimes your not, but when you are?  That’s one of the best feelings ever.

It all boils down to the people.  I am very lucky to work in Alberta as we have a very small crew base, only about 3,000 people, and so at any given time we are working with people we have known for years and that makes us like an extended family.  You are not constantly trying to prove yourself to anyone, everyone knows you and knows your strengths and weaknesses.  We are all there to cheer each other on, and hold one another up.  There are times when the job gets so hard you think you might have a breakdown, and next thing you know a driver who is a good friend, or make-up artist who is like your mom is giving you a hug or a pat on your shoulder and reminding you that it’s just a movie.

Lisa Jemus on the set of a feature film in Alberta, Canada. Photo courtesy of Lisa Jemus.

HF: What advice would you give to people, particularly women, who want to get into film as “below the line” crew members?

LJ: I would say that as a woman, be professional and ambitious, and believe in yourself.  Don’t be intimidated by men in the business.  The majority of the men are wonderful and see you as an equal… some don’t.  They just want to get into your pants.

Sit back and find what you are truly passionate about, and what your natural talents are and then find a department that is a good fit for you.  Have you always loved clothing design?  Then work in the wardrobe department!  Have you always had a flare for make-up or hair?  Contact the union and see how you can get on the permit list.  Like to blow-up stuff?  How about Special Effects?  And there are more and more women in the camera department.  In fact, one shoot I worked on recently had a female director/producer AND a female Director of Photography.  I hugged them both and told them how proud I was to be working with them!

Three of the best Executive Producers I have ever worked with are women, and everyone admired and respected the hell out of them.  There is really nothing a woman can’t do on a set.  I am always excited to see women in the electric or grip department, not a traditional role for a woman on set, but they work just as hard or harder than the guys and are just as strong.  I love seeing them out there. Especially when they are the Best Boy Grip or Elec.  Their very title is a window into how much of a boy’s club the film industry used to be!

HF: What are your goals as a filmmaker and how are you working to achieve them?

LJ: I don’t see myself as a filmmaker at all.  I am just one of the people helping make the vision of the filmmaker appear on the screen.


Take a look at Lisa Jemus’s extensive IMDb filmography.

Read more about the Alberta film industry and filming in Calgary.

Learn more about what a 3rd Assistant Director does:

Skillset (UK site)


Career Directions (Ireland site)


Many thanks to Lisa Jemus for her patience and cooperation in doing this interview for Her Film!

edited 11-5-10