Tony Adler: Wisdom from a Lifelong Career in Film & Television

by Gracen Hansen (Originally published in Nectar News)

Tony Adler started his career in the entertainment industry from the bottom and worked his way to the top. From the first time he stepped on a set as a 21-year-old college graduate he knew he had found where he was meant to be. It was that moment that led him to working on some of our most iconic films and TV shows including American Beauty and The West Wing. However, breaking into the film industry is not an easy feat. Nectar News sat down with Adler (by Skype) to ask him some questions about his journey and what it really takes to sustain a life long career in the arts.

Nectar News (NN): What are the onset duties of a first assistant director?

Tony Adler (TA): Basically the first assistant director is in charge of the shooting schedule so that means the first assistant director is in charge of making sure that the company and the director can accomplish the days that they are scheduled to make. And in terms of communication, they make sure that everybody who is involved in the movie knows what’s going on, at what particular time, and what to anticipate when we’re finished with things, which direction we’re looking in… so he or she is really the communication liaison to make sure the set is moving and is functioning based on the schedule and everybody knows what they’re doing. I’ve always referred to the first assistant director position as the field marshal on the set.  

NN: How did you first get into the entertainment industry?

TA: Well, I graduated from Vassar College, and when I left college I had no intention of getting into the movie business. My father was a screenwriter and I was always sorta liked what he did, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was a theater major and had a minor in history, I wanted to become a lighting and set designer, and also to design lights for rock and roll shows. I got out of school and I went right to work. I got a job working as a technical director at a theater, little, tiny theater on 23rd street in New York. I was working for a couple of bands as their road manager, and I was working all the time! 21 years old, life was good and I was running around like a crazy person. I graduated in May, and sometime in July my father called me up and said, ‘what are you doin’?’ and I said ‘well I gotta work all night on this and then I have the rock club, gotta move in the van…’ the band was Bulovard Jacks, and he said, ‘listen, we have an old friend who’s directing a movie, and another old friend is producing it. The movie is called Ragtime, from the book by E.L. Doctorow the director is Milos Forman, you should go see these guys, they have lots and lots of jobs open.’ He knew I had read the book Ragtime and I was a big fan of Doctorow, so I said ‘okay, what the hell!’ I go down there and they’re building and set dressing 11th street between A and B, and all of a sudden I walked into Hollywood. I always loved movies, I was looking around like, ‘where have you been all my life’. I went and met with Mike Housner, and he offers me a job! I took the job because this was something I had to be around. I left that afternoon and thought, ‘I gotta do this’ I started work the next day, that’s it, that’s how I got started.

NN: What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career path? 

TA: This first thing I would say is ‘don’t be afraid to try anything.’ You never know what will impress you, touch you, move you, energize you… you never know what it will be, especially in the entertainment industry that will make your wheels turn. The second thing I would say is unless it’s completely ridiculous or heinous or rude, when people ask you to do stuff, make sure you understand what they’re asking you to do, and the second part of this would be to take anything and everything people offer up. Because when people are looking for someone to do something they are looking for someone with energy, and charisma, and the wherewithal to go get something done. That’s the thing that makes them promote you. You gotta walk into something thinking it doesn’t matter how many hours, or how long it takes, I’m gonna get it done, I’m gonna learn how to do it better than anybody. The third thing is, learn how to listen before you speak. I say that because too many people get involved with jobs where they’re not really sure about and then after a couple of days they think they’re resident experts. You will learn more by walking up and down a set, keeping your mouth shut and watching what’s going on around you. 

NN : What’s the most important thing to remember when producing a movie?

TA: Every movie is different. They are different because of the nature of the movie and the size of the cast. I don’t think there’s any one thing that’s more important than another except trying to finish the film on time, on schedule, and on budget.

NN: What is the difference between a first and second assistant director?

TA: The first AD (assistant director) is the guy who is hired by the director or producer and he or she is the person who hires the second AD who runs everything in the background. So the second AD works for the first AD, and sometimes you have many second ADs. I was on a show where I had four of them, each responsible for different things. They’re in charge of paperwork, ordering and setting the background, communicating with the office communicating with the actors. The main difference is the first AD is on the set next to the camera, next to the director, with the cast all the time, and the second AD generally get a lot of opportunities to walk away from the set and get done what they need to, in the trailers or in an office, wherever. They have to write the production reports from the day, make the call sheet, the second AD job is like Sergent Major, making sure that everything is going to be there for the first AD. A first AD is only a good first AD if they have good and trustworthy second ADs. 

NN: In your career so far, what do you consider to be your greatest success?

TA: One would be a political drama that I contributed on the pilot episode which was called The West Wing, we won a couple of awards and the show got made and was on the air for nine years. And the other would be a film with Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning called American Beauty. It was really hard with the budget and time. I had met with the director prior and he wanted to hire me because of my theater background. I got called into that movie and we won five Academy Awards and 5 Golden Globes. It was really hard, shooting that movie was really hard. But, we shot it, we did it, and in the long run nobody remembers how tough it was. 

NN: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?

TA: Yes, I’m working on something with a partner of mine. A couple of screenplays and one of them got greenlit a couple of months ago and we got funding and we are off to Texas and New Mexico to shoot the movie.             

Arts in the Andes

Originally published in NectarNews.

Ric Dragon is an artist and musician, and marketing and business consultant. He is also a serial entrepreneur . He began his career at SUNY/Purchase, where he studied visual arts with Nicholas Marsicano.

Soon thereafter he moved to Woodstock , N.Y. where he honed his craft as a painter and eventually became a pioneer in the internet and website business. He was formerly the founder and CEO of two marketing firms. In addition to having authored Social Marketology, a book on social media marketing published by McGraw Hill, he was a featured speaker at hundreds of events around the world. He has been an adjunct professor of marketing at NYU, as well as a guest lecturer at several other universities in the US. Dragon’s painting studio is currently located near Bogotá, Colombia, where he also occasionally performs in concerts of Handpan percussion. Most recently, Ric has founded an international art school, ArteSumapaz, approximately 3 hours Southwest of Bogota in the Andes Mountains (see: .

The mission of the school is: to nurture the creation of and the connection with art and culture in Colombia, through the respect for and inspiration of natural resources and community. ArteSumapaz exists to help heal the trauma of conflict and violence; to help artists realize new forms of perception and artmaking; and to improve the awareness of Colombia internationally.

ArteSumapaz was created on the premise that the arts can fundamentally enrich the lives of both artists and communities. Inspired by the examples of Black Mountain College, the Bauhaus, and countless communities, ArteSumapaz will provide an approach to arts education to aspiring artists in Colombia designed to open up new approaches to living and art. The cultural center is focused on a love of nature, and a concern for the exploitation of the planet. All activities will be held up to a philosophy of environmental sustainability, inclusiveness, and the idea that the sharing of culture is paramount.

We sat down with Ric (by Skype) and asked him a few questions about his journey and new social enterprise.

Nectar News (NN): How did you get where you are, and where are you, exactly, anyway?

Ric Dragon (RD): I´m not sure which analogies have made the most sense to me: to see life as having these great big chapters, or some Homeric grand adventure, in which we take off on monster and goddess-laden seas only to struggle to return to the home at the center of our hearts.

Belgian painter, Nils Verkaeren, a recent artist-in-residence

But how else to explain the fact that I´m now living in the Andean mountains, creating an international center for the arts in a country that was only recently embroiled in violence and conflict?

A little over 20 years ago, after I’d spent years at odd jobs to support my making art, the Internet happened. And what that meant for me at the time, was that I found a way to make money that was more lucrative and stable than restoring old houses. But then, I went on to throw myself into being an entrepreneur, going from our first employee to over 25 – and from one digital marketing venture to several.

Well, that was a journey in and of itself. One company was sold, another developed. I traveled the world as a speaker on digital marketing, wrote a couple of books published by McGraw Hill, moonlighted as a professor at NYU, all while running a marketing agency – until that funny thing happened that happens to many of us; I realized I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. An opportunity to sell my shares of the business came about, and I took it; although it meant if I was to live and focus on my art again, I needed to find a more affordable place than the US.

(NN) Why Colombia?
My criteria were this: affordable, politically stable, and a healthy creative community. That could have been Buenos Aires or Mexico City – but an early visit to Bogotá gave me the feeling that I’d found my home.

(RD) So, I’d found my home. I’d rented a gigantic space, and gotten back to painting. At the same time, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d been nurturing a plan to give back – to create some sort of alternative school for young Colombian artists. You see, in my own artistic growth, I’d had the privilege of studying with some wonderful teachers. They themselves were the legacy of that time in New York of real process-based art; as well as that phenomenon of the Bauhaus as it hit the shore of the US in the form of Black Mountain College, Cranbrook Academy, and other experiments in education.

So, I bought a car, and with the help of a friend who wanted to practice driving, went on a mission to find the place. One day, as we were coming down a hill, I saw a broad swath of pastureland, flowing down a mountain side into a narrow valley. I didn’t know at the time that it was a 280 acre finca (or farm) called Hacienda Australia. It had been one of a few of the original coffee plantations of Colombia, but had been converted in pasture land for cattle. It also turned out that yes, the owner wanted to sell, but unfortunately at a price well beyond my budget. At the same time, the owner, has been involved in some philanthropic ventures, and has been supportive of the project, and willing to lease us the property while we find the means to purchase it.

(NN) What exactly is the project?

(RD) So, as I mentioned earlier, the original idea was a sort of alternative art school. But this incredible place suggests that we visualize a bit more audaciously. We’ve formed a non-profit entity, Fundacion ArteSumapaz, with the objective of creating that school, but also an art park, artist residencies, performing arts center, along with a reforestation and agricultural project.

Sculpture parks exist aplenty in the US and Europe, but nothing of the scale, say of OMI in Ghent, NY, or even a part of Storm King, exists in Colombia. It’s a magic time, if you will. The country has only recently – about ten years ago – settled down after 50 something years of violence. You know, after the Gulf war, the US government put incredible resources into better understanding PTSD – what happens to those who directly experience violence – but also those who experience that trauma secondarily. Based on that science, an argument could be made that there is a fundamental trauma in the people here in Colombia.

It sounds grandiose, perhaps, to speak of saving the world – there is global warming, an ocean of plastic, poverty and war – yet if we can help to give hope and alternative ways of thinking to a nation of people that has one of the largest populations of displaced persons in the world – perhaps we can help to heal some more fundamental problems. And if we can do that here, in Colombia, perhaps it will be an inspiration to people beyond these borders. And yeah, save the world.

(NN) What are your biggest accomplishments and milestones thus far?

(RD) That’s such a fun question, because from my years in business I learned to become very metrics-oriented, with KPIs (Key-performance-indicators) and all that stuff. So that’s what came to mind – because, indeed, we have a whole chart covering the wall with those numbers. But Colombia is a different world, and sometimes you have to slow down, and manage your own frustration over missed deadlines and such.

But in the bigger picture, I can also happily relate that we’ve accomplished so much in less than six months here at the center: we’ve finished building out a communal studio, and mixed exhibition and concert space; we have several international artists stay and create work; and we’ve made countless good connections. I’m particularly satisfied with some of the connections we’ve made here in the local community. It’s primarily agrarian, yet so many people have connected with us with real interest in art and music.

(NN) What are your next big challenges?

(RD) Oddly enough, I see my 20 plus years as a marketing executive as having been training for this: managing a non-profit organization. A lot of the basic organizational science is the same, but then there is this whole other component; we need to raise a chunk of money over the next five years to acquire this property and to develop the programs. We need to find individuals with passion for each of the core areas of our programming. And we need to simultaneously put into place the infrastructure to create a sustainable organization.

But on a more human level, my personal challenges are, too, how not to get grouchy when things go wrong, and how to take the personal time to continue my focus on my own painting. But really, it’s a beautiful challenge, every last bit of it.