Team effort: the evolution of a film memoir

Veteran filmmaker David McGiffert on his debut book, Best Seat in the House

When I decided to take a break after working for 33 years as an assistant director on feature films, I didn’t realize at the time I wouldn’t be going back. That came into focus gradually as I immersed myself into a family life that had increasing been occluded by the demands of my job. My wife Shannon and I had two young children, Evan and Natalie, who at the time were 10 and seven years old.

Some aspects of life evolve subtly. In my case, I am brought back to something that happened during a Parent-Teacher Association raffle held one Saturday evening at Natalie’s elementary school in a suburb of Los Angeles. A large group of parents wandered through a series of meeting rooms sipping wine and looking over an impressive array of gifts that had been donated for the parents to bid on in an effort to raise money for the school.

From across one of the rooms I watched Shannon, standing on tiptoes, sign the top line of one of the many bidding sheets taped to the walls. Each person who signed the sheet afterward would raise the price of the item. When I asked her a few minutes later what she had signed up for, she answered, “Oh honey, don’t worry, I was just getting the bidding started, no one had signed that sheet yet. I think it was for two free gymnastics lessons at some little gym out in Agoura.”

Several hours later, when everyone gathered to see who the highest bidders were, we were awarded two free gymnastics lessons at Monarch Gymnastics in Agoura. No-one had raised Shannon’s bid.

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A few days later, I asked our daughter Natalie if she would like to go out to the gym and take a look around. She shrugged, “Okay.” At the time, Natalie, who did her homework and ate her meals standing up, was termed a high-energy child. That afternoon, Shannon and I parked in front of a drab industrial building with a brightly painted Monarch butterfly sign over the glass doorways. Inside, we were shown to the parents’ viewing area where we watched one of the coaches show Natalie around the gym. As they stopped near a girls’ team training on the balance beam, I noticed another coach leaning against the opposite wall of the gym scrutinizing every move Natalie made. She caught my eye because this was no superficial examination; her attentiveness was focused and purposeful.

A few minutes later the woman appeared beside us. “Is that your daughter?” she asked, looking across the gym at Natalie. We both nodded. She paused, considering. “I was wondering if she would take one of those free gymnastics lessons with me. I teach rhythmic gymnastics and I think I could do something with that girl.

At the time there was no way we could have known this casual question would set in motion a dramatic alteration, not only to Natalie’s destiny, but to the future of our whole family. Shannon and I answered simultaneously, “What’s rhythmic gymnastics?” We had never heard of this unbelievably challenging, exacting and luminously beautiful woman’s sport that would come to dominate our lives for over a decade. A few days later, after she took her first lesson with this enigmatic Ukrainian coach, Natalie never looked back as she set out on a 12-year odyssey that finally ended in 2016, at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where she competed as a member of the USA National Rhythmic Gymnastics Group.

Over those 12 years, as Natalie trained and competed, her arduous learning curve eventually grew to a time-consuming six days a week, 52 weeks a year training schedule and I always accompanied her. I picked her up at school and drove her out to the gym, where she would do her homework and practice for hours. Shannon, Evan and I accompanied her to endless competitions up and down the west coast on weekends as she won five regional championships during the first six years she competed. It finally dawned on me one day that I had become my daughter’s assistant director.

In 2012, when she was asked to become a member of the USA National Rhythmic Gymnastics Group, I moved with her to the outskirts of Chicago where the national team trained. Eventually as our son Evan qualified for a fully funded four-year college scholarship at Cooper Union in New York City - his hard-won contribution to helping us all - we leased our home in the hills outside Los Angeles and Shannon joined Natalie and me in Chicago.

It was during the long hours spent in the gym as Natalie trained in Chicago, that I had time to reflect on my unexpected transition to another way of life. It was then I first realized what I missed the most about working in film were the people. It’s difficult to describe the breathtakingly wide range of personalities who work in the film business. Looking back, I understood for the first time that most of my life’s education had been acquired as I worked around not just a wide array of talented directors, producers and unit managers but the thousands of hardworking and brilliant men and women who actually make the film, the members of the film crews.

Partly to use my time productively in the gym, but mostly because I wanted Evan and Natalie to know why I was gone so often when they were little, I began to write a series of short accounts for them; experiences that made me love what I did.

The narratives that I began in 2012 evolved over time into a manuscript of sorts, but I had never considered making it a book until a few years ago when I showed it to some friends who were still working in the film business. It was because of their encouragement that I began, for the first time, to imagine how the material might become a book.

The learning curve that emerged at that point made it feel as though I had gone back to school. There was a lot to learn. But along the way almost magically, mentors appeared who helped me and inspired me. One of these was Wayne Byrne, an author and film historian who lives in Ireland and who I have still never met in person. You would never know that if you could hear the patient and experienced advice that he has given me over the last three years. Wayne is the person most responsible for my education about book writing and beyond. The ‘beyond’ part is the fog bank of the publishing world that few neophytes are able to fully comprehend when they first approach it.

After a few years of trying, Best Seat in the House: An Assistant Director Behind the Scenes of Feature Films miraculously found a publisher tolerant enough to answer my endless questions and confident enough to allow me to create a book the way I wanted it to look. Tell that to most published authors and they will raise their eyebrows...it doesn’t happen often. Ben Ohmart, the owner/publisher of BearManor Media, patiently guided me through the exacting process of editing and typesetting. Although he is a man of few words, his words count.

The experiences I describe in the book have to do with the people who inhabited my working life for 33 years, starting in 1969, with Tony Foutz, the director of a film called Saturation 70, who not only gave me my first job on a movie set but who opened a window into the world of filmmaking where everything becomes possible.

I go on to describe how Peter Fonda, in the early weeks of directing Idaho Transfer, a futuristic sci-fi film, suddenly out of nowhere, asks me to become his assistant director. The experiences continue over the next three decades as people come into my life that often made me stop in amazement, incredulous at the turn my life had taken. Although it is not well known, assistant directors are almost always hired by the directors or producers they will work for, but there were many instances of calls to interview for films where I had no idea how the directors who wanted to speak with me had even known I existed. People such as Sydney Pollack, Paul Newman, Cameron Crowe, Bob Zemeckis, Tim Burton and Milos Forman, along with many others, seemingly out of nowhere just appeared, and all the while there were the hundreds of crew men and women who worked on these projects with such expertise and imagination that I have never been able to forget them.

As I am finishing this article, I can also see that almost certainly I would never have found the opportunity to share these experiences if my wife had not bid on those gymnastics lessons, my daughter had not found the sport of her dreams and my son had not been so willing to give up endless amounts his precious free time as he accompanied us to years of competitions.

So now, the book, which consists of 85 chapters with 78 photographs and illustrations, has been released. Talking with Ralph Nelson, a talented and generous photographer friend who created the book cover for me, I joked that it’s almost as though Frankenstein’s creature has suddenly risen up and taken off on its own to wander through the literary hamlets of the world and, at the moment, there’s really no telling exactly what will happen next.