The Importance of a Great Assistant Director

Things are moving along and we are starting to fill out the rest of our crew for the upcoming shoot of Breakaway. One of the most important positions on set is the director’s right hand – the 1st AD. The fill this position, I called on the wonderful Whitney Nicole Shumaker.

 

 

I first met Whitney several years ago on a film called For Her

 

I was the cinematographer and she pulled triple duty as an AD, camera assistant, and also actress. The film was also the first collaboration with my producers Evelyn Lorena and Shannon Godly.

 

For Her (2013)

 

Whitney also became our savior on the set of Sprout, she wasn’t able to be on set our first day of shooting and we had barely made our day. She came on set the 2nd day and we were actually able to finish early!

 

Sprout (2015)

 

A great AD is invaluable. The right arm and left brain of the director, they organize the shoot, schedule, and make sure all of the on-set logistics are taken care of. A great AD takes your creative vision and puts you in the best position to succeed in crafting it.

 

Whitney on the set of Outdooring

 

Since the last time I had the opportunity to work with Whitney, she’s been busy ADing on bigger shoots. She’s had the chance to be the go-to AD for AFI film projects as well as several feature films.

 

The reputation of an AD that of a screaming drill sergeant. Someone who drives fear into their subordinates in an effort to make them move faster. I personally like to keep my sets calm but still functional. Whitney brings that same sense of calm and assertiveness to the AD position. She makes the working environment like a family project where everyone is involved and happy to be creating together.

 

When we met just yesterday evening, she reminded me again why she’s so great at her job. She came with the schedule already half-planned and with a litany of questions that helped us get Breakaway started.

 

It’s looking like we’re going to be shooting over the course of 4 days. It’s a 20 page script that takes place over the course of one evening and one location. That makes planning the shoot easier, but we want to be able to take our time with the film and make sure we get everything (plus a little extra).

 

Our plan is to shoot inside our pending location for 2 days where the majority of the story takes place. We will then shoot one evening outside for a long dialogue scene, followed by a separate day of shooting that involves a car rig.

 

We could try and rush everything in less time. But that would only hinder the final product which wouldn’t be worthy of all the time and effort we’ve put in thus far. With Whitney keeping us honest and organized, I’m even more confident we’re going to have the chance to create something special.

Using A Still Shoot As A Rehearsal

We recently had a still photo shoot for our poster. Our film is about people negotiating space, both in a relationship and in their own minds. So the style of our poster will embody that. Our poster designer and associate producer Shannon Godly uses a method of multiple exposures on film in order to achieve of showing isolation. Similar to her previous work:

 

We had our first of 2 photoshoots. This one was with lead actress Rae Olivier who plays Krys. Shannon set the mood with music, dimmed the lights, and we got Rachel into character.

 

In order for her to become Krys, we talked through the aspects of the script which is a first date. I led her through the emotions that Krys goes through during the evening – excitement, fear, regret and anxiety. With Rachel being such a physically expressive actress, each emotion was clearly visible on her face as we ran through them all.

Since we are shooting on film, it will take time to develop and I’m confident that the results will be fantastic. We shoot with our other lead Jamar Gant (who plays Wes) and I can’t wait to go through the process with him as well.

Even though this was a shoot for the poster, running each actor through the script is like a rehearsal. It helps both them and myself understand the emotions of the story and the characters. This will only help when we actually begin to shoot the film.

 

Breakaway

Sitting in the cold winter of Chicago, I sat down to write a story about a man and woman from different backgrounds on a first date. It was a simple tale of two people getting to know each other, but afraid to reveal too much and letting pre-conceptions get in the way of trying to understand someone.

Since then it’s become so much more than that. Diving in deeper, it’s about why we choose to keep parts of ourselves hidden from each other. The answer I think is in part because we’re afraid – of being judged, of not being good enough, of being hurt.

I myself was afraid to let people read it due to of all these reasons, and also because it was revealing something about myself. After speaking with a friend, I realized this short film about two people afraid to open up was making me realize who I am, who I was, and who I need to become. Not to hide, not to be afraid, not to lie by omission I’ve been accustomed to. And even writing this, part of me wants to delete it and forget I even started.

It’s frightening, exhilarating, and probably one of hardest things I’ll do creatively up until this point. And that makes me excited to do the work it will take to see this through.

Casting for Diversity - You’re Doing It Wrong

Just recently, I was producing a film whose creator was adamant about having a diverse cast. When we began the process of casting we started showing the filmmaker actors with a variety of ethnicities, but were rejected because they weren’t all African-American. As we discussed this further it became apparent to me that we weren’t casting for diversity — we were painting people with a broad brush and on the road to promoting stereotypes. This made me take a broader look at how diversity is being looked at on-screen and unfortunately, the results are mixed.


There’s almost nothing more inspiring for a person of color than seeing someone who looks like you on-screen. It makes us feel represented and included. For years, people of color were treated like putting pepper in your stew — just a little brought out the flavor, but too much and you ruin the whole thing. There were two categories on screen — normal (aka White) and other. But as times have changed so have audiences — and the films that made the most money went from those with the most recognizable actor to the ones with more inclusive casts such as Get Out, Black Panther and The Fast and The Furious franchise. The lightbulb has seemed to have gone off, especially in the realm of television, and we’ve seen more content catering to audiences that prize diversity.

It is a word that’s present almost everywhere. From company initiatives to TED Talks to political discussions, the concept of diversity is finally being given the spotlight it deserves. In the entertainment industry, where I live and breathe, diversity is being talked about both in front of and behind the camera with the idea of increasing representation and enhancing perspectives. 

Working behind the scenes, I’ve noticed more and more creators of content desiring to also assist with increasing diversity on the screen. But sometimes, their methods are flawed.

Talking to actor friends of mine, I’m now hearing stories of “you were great, but we want our project to promote diversity so we need a (insert ethnicity) for this part.” Or even worse there’s still ones like“this role is supposed to be for a Latina, can you act more Latina?” And most the parts up and coming actors of color are being considered for are minor roles. But you can’t just dump in all the flavor just yet.

Hearing stories like this brings up my greatest fear —  the mission to promote diversity will eventually be weaponized into a calling card of fear and division that will knock people of color backwards. Just how the practice of Affirmative Action has been for decades.

So when the director I was working with became adamant that African-Americans be represented in every role of the film. I, along with my casting director, felt the need to push back against a misrepresentation. We saw that showing people of color was important and necessary to him. He wanted to cast parts to those he felt were not given equal representation. But I believe he, like many, had not really thought about why he was doing it and how the final results could be detrimental to a righteous intention.


Film is an examination of the human condition. The reason for championing diversity is to give those of us who haven’t been heard an equal voice in this conversation. But there is always the danger of speaking for someone rather than with them. You amplify your own perspective and voice, rather than give us a platform to show the world our own. You mold someone’s image into how you think it should be rather than allowing us to show you how we are. 

When a producer or director is looking to cast for diversity, they need to ask themselves:

Am I representing this community properly — showing the wonder and the blemishes?

Am I looking for the right actor or the pre-determined demographic?

Am I letting someone else tell their story or am I telling mine with a different color of skin?

Is what I am providing actually an opportunity?

Access to the stage should be given. But it’s helping no one if the players are still forced to conform to pre-conceived notions. In the new Ghostbusters Leslie Jones was given equal presence alongside her co-stars. But her character was still molded in the overused cliche of the loud, streetwise black woman. 

People are not a monolith — we have different backgrounds, perspectives, and quirks. It’s what makes us fascinating. So what we want is the opportunity to show that perspective. Rather than taking a role and pre-determining the gender/race/sexual orientation. We are looking for people’s eyes to be open to different interpretations of a role. We are looking to show the world represented with realism and balance.


In the documentary Robert Kennedy For President, we learn of a meeting between Bobby Kennedy, James Baldwin, and several civil rights activists. Over dinner, they begin to have a frank discussion about race in America that leads to a heated argument when civil rights leader Jerome Smith let it be known that he would never fight in the Vietnam War for a country that had continually treated him like a second-class citizen. Tempers flew and the meeting was heralded a disaster. But in the aftermath of that dinner something great occurred — the man who could have been president began to listen. And because of that willingness to begin to listen, great changes would occur in the nation.

The filmmaker who I pushed back against did open himself up to the opinions of myself and my casting director — he began to listen. The film was given a diverse cast of all ethnicities, including white, in roles where the actors could be seen as characters, not representatives of their skin color. And to date it’s giving the director his most successful festival run of his young career. 

Because we stopped, we listened, and that is what we want on-screen diversity to accomplish.

Why the mixed perspective matters on the screen

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the late 80s, there were only 2 other kids I knew with interracial parents. There were very few families in our small neighborhood of other ethnicities, but we still stuck out from from seeing as how we didn’t all “match”.

On television, there was no one who looked like me or my parents. So the closest media figure I could relate to was He-Man. In my 5-year old brain, he had brown skin and blonde hair — so he must have been biracial. Plus he saved the world from evil and that was pretty awesome. Other than that, any other media representation of being mixed or being an interracial couple was treated as a “special episode” or a one time media event. I didn’t let this bother me, but I was aware that my upbringing was not considered “standard”.

So when the great Spike Lee was about to release the movie Jungle Fever, I was very hopeful. Even though just an 8th grader, I had seen all of his work. I saw that he was getting audiences to understand racial issues on a deeper level. And I thought that audiences would now be taking a deep look into interracial relationships, like the one of my parents and the other mixed kids I’d come to know.

Now in the spirit of fairness, I’ve only seen snippets of the film since the year this film was released. So this article is only about my initial reaction in the theater. And there are some great moments in the film, from the commanding performance of Samuel L. Jackson to the timeless Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. But I will be speaking in the central narrative of the film.

I went to see it with my older brother. He was my frequent escort to Spike Lee films and all things rated R. We sat down and watched with excitement as the lights dimmed. And as I watched that excitement changed. I became confused — which turned to disappointment — and then anger.

On the way home I reflected on what I’d just seen — a story about a successful black architect who’d left his family for his secretary, who was white. No one accepted their relationship, but of course they wouldn’t. The very start of it was doomed to fail and to me blaming it on racial differences was just a cop out. When you leave your spouse for your secretary, usually it doesn’t work out.

On a deeper level, I wondered what this film was saying about interracial relationships. Was it just a momentary infatuation that was destined to fail? Was it saying that dating someone of another race was hurtful to your own?

But mostly, my anger was with the idea that this film hadn’t approached subject of interracial relationships and two people coming together with the same nuance and respect as his other films. It was as if it wasn’t worthy of that and it filled me with such a great disappointment.

How much of this was the filmmakers and how much was the studio or other outside influences is always hard to say. But the feeling it caused was all the same. I’d been hopeful that finally my upbringing would be explored in the theaters of America — but it hadn’t. It was background, filler, a conflict to be overcome and return to the status quo. The depths of our experience had been glances over yet again and still relegated to the category of “other”.

Now fast forward to today, and we’re beginning to be normalized. According to the PEW Research Center, 1 in 6 newlyweds are married to someone of a different ethnicity. So unsurprisingly, it’s no longer an aberration to see an interracial couple on screen. But we still haven’t been given equal status. Most interracial couples are found in the genres of comedy, horror, and sci-fi. Probably the most well known on-screen couple in today’s media is June and Luke from the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale. Whose backstory is almost identical to Jungle Fever — a successful man of color leaves his wife for a woman of another race, who he might not ever see again. And let’s not forget the Cheerios ad that caused a massive uproar recently.

So while we’ve made progress, the envelope needs to be pushed further. We need to see more interracial couples on screen being taken seriously and explored with the same nuance and care as couples of the same ethnicity. We need more Blue Valentine’s and 500 Days of Summer featuring diverse couples being depicted as real people with the graces and flaws we all share. And the mixed kids like me going to have to be the ones moving it to the forefront. Because if art is a reflection of life, we need to help everyone catch up to where the world is heading.