By Jaya Flanary
The students keep to themselves even though they have a common interest, and they know it. The industrial building – which stands alone on the Bellingham Marina – is cold from air conditioning. Local filmmaker, Scott Larkin, casually moves files around on his laptop.
Thick booklets are passed out with the bold words “Assistant Director” on the front page. Underneath, a definition: “A person who solves problems you can’t and one who does precision guesswork based on unreliable data provided by those of questionable knowledge. See also wizard, magician.”
Larkin learns everyone’s names quickly, then dives into the class, which was coordinated by Bellingham Film, a volunteer organization that is submitting their nonprofit paperwork soon and hopes to be a 501(c)3 by the end of 2018.
Bellingham Film aims to establish Whatcom and Skagit counties as filmmaking destinations that offer paid work to aspiring filmmakers. The next class offered is Intro to HD Makeup with makeup artist Sarah Rorvig on Aug. 20 and 21.
Larkin begins the assistant directing boot camp by learning everyone’s names and their favorite TV shows growing up, which ranged from “Scooby-Doo” to “Home Improvement.”
Everyone starts to warm up to each other as well as their mentor for the day – a man who’s intimidating resume lists a full-page of short and feature films he has worked on as a first and second assistant director, including “Captain Fantastic” and “The Messenger.” A wizard.
The program offers a variety of programs created and organized by Avielle Heath and Lorraine Wilde.
“I think the great thing about the boot camps is [that] if you’re not familiar, it’s a great way to get very familiar very quickly, whether it’s something you want to invest more time in or not,” Wilde said.
Their programs include three-hour boot camps, six-week workshops and a 10 month program called Script to Screen.
“Script to Screen was fantastic. I helped a bunch of very, very green students figure out how to run a film set,” Larkin said.
Larkin was not part of the planning process, so he only helped for the two-day shoot.
“There’s no better way to learn how to be on a film set and how to do the job well than to be on a real, actual film set,” he said. “That’s why it’s an effective program. [You’re] actually making something that you care about and is worthwhile.”
“He really knows the business and he has the patience and the temperament that you really need to work really well on a team,” Wilde said.
Larkin decided to work with Bellingham Film again for an assistant directing boot camp.
The boot camps are available to anyone and experience is not required. According to Heath and Wilde, it is important for all filmmakers, no matter what their desired position is, to learn about other set positions too.
“The key to being savvy on a film set is knowing what people’s job descriptions are and knowing who’s the right person to talk to for each thing,” Wilde said. “And how to have good etiquette when you’re on a set so you don’t get yourself in trouble.”
An assistant director is responsible for many logistics on a film set, including scheduling, maintaining order and taking care of the crew. Larkin was responsible for creating a three-hour curriculum to teach his complicated job to students of all skill levels.
“It was really difficult to figure out what was relevant and what wasn’t,” Larkin said. “But I just really decided to cover what I know and what I thought was important to know.”
Larkin knows a lot.
“You have to be a little bit of everything. Everyone says, ‘Fix it in post,’” Larkin said, referring to the common filmmaking solution to fix a problem in editing. “I say, ‘Fix it in prep.’”
Assistant directors are responsible for planning, scheduling and problem-solving.
“I’ll have back up plans to the back up plans. This is how insane it gets in my head,” Larkin said.
The work involves a lot of paper including call sheets and daily production reports. Each page has a plethora of information: crew call, sunrise, base camp location, shot list, actor information, special instructions and more.
“Is this too much information?” he asked the class. Everyone was intrigued – jotting notes and asking questions. Taking it all in.
He also discussed interning, climbing the industry ladder, the Directors Guild of America, job descriptions and time management.
“A film set is the craziest place in the world,” Larkin said. “It’s never what you think it’s going to be.”
Larkin spent a lot of time discussing safety on set, as it is an A.D.’s job to keep the crew safe. He talked about Sarah Jones, a camera assistant who died on train tracks in Georgia in 2014 while working on set.
“As the first A.D. you have to have the conviction to make that call,” Larkin said. As an example, he told everyone about an underfunded film he worked on that had stunts, danger, fire, gunshots, animals and minors. He walked off the set because it was “horrifically unsafe.”
The students were given a page of the film’s script. The scene was set in a pioneer town with a kid riding a horse and a hanging. Larkin had the students break down all of the elements, or what an assistant director would need to consider if given the script.
When a horse is involved, you need an animal wrangler. When a hanging is involved, you need to learn about safe nooses.
“You’re looking at it for what it is, all of these particulars on the script, and then you keep expanding and keep expanding and keep expanding. It’s almost infinite,” student Katie McGarry said. “It’s just incredible to see the amount of knowledge that [Larkin] has.”
McGarry, a previous actor who recently decided to get behind the camera, is familiar with Bellingham Film as she was the script supervisor on last year’s Script to Screen.
“[Larkin] was a dream to work with on set,” McGarry said. “He’s one of the most sought after first A.D.s in the Pacific Northwest.”
She found Larkin to be calm and respectful on set.
“We learned by messing up. We learned by relying on each other,” McGarry said. “I was invited even though I didn’t have any experience. That was okay because they were there to help us. I felt like I was in a safe learning environment, honestly.”
McGarry plans to participate in as many future boot camps as she can.
According to Wilde, they are looking into boot camps for grip work, script supervising, and sound. All events can be found on Bellingham Film’s website and Facebook page.
McGarry believes that the boot camps are “a steal” because Bellingham Film brings in instructors with incredible resumes. The assistant directing bootcamp, which took place on July 10 at The Bellingham Makerspace, was only $30.
“It’s really affordable, especially for somebody like me because I work in the service industry specifically so I can work on projects on the side,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of money, I can’t go back to school. I’m still paying student loans.”
At 9 p.m., when the class was supposed to be over, Larkin and Heath made jokes about going into overtime and if a meal was going to be provided, referring to film set overtime and food for a crew.
Larkin said he could stay for 45 more minutes, and the students, though many were yawning, were all determined to stay.
“Everyone grab a walkie,” Larkin says. He leads the students outside.
The sun is setting and the sky is pink. Squawking seagulls fly overhead and dumpster trucks leave the Sanitary Service Company across the street.
Larkin teaches everyone how to switch channels on the walkie-talkies and how to communicate with them on a film set. He sets up McGarry and another student as “our actors” and shows the class how to avoid being in an actor’s eyeline as a crew member.
A train blares by on the tracks. “I’m in the middle of a talk!” Larkin shouts in it’s direction, laughing.
Street lights flick on, one by one, as he tells his final advice.
“Look out for each other. Be kind to each other,” he says. “It will get you hired again.”
Larkin says the best way to end a day on set is with a hug and encourages everyone to do so. The students, who were strangers only four hours earlier, embrace.