Press > Exclusive Interviews > Jason Roberts (Second Second Assistant Director: Escape From L.A.)




How did you end up being a First, Second and Second Second Assistant Director?

I started my production career early while I was still in High School. I worked for several years as an intern and then Production Assistant before being accepted into the DGA (Directors Guild of America) Training Program where they trained me to be a DGA 2nd AD (Assistant Director). After graduating from the program in the early 90's, I worked as an Assistant Director on a variety of shows. You can find my credits on IMDb.

How did you and Christian P. Della Penna (First AD) got acquainted and were you disappointed that the studio chose Martin Jedlicka as the Second Assistant Director instead of you?

I had worked with Chris Della Penna as his 2nd 2nd AD when he was a Key 2nd on Black Sheep which was a Chris Farley and David Spade comedy for Paramount. Artist Robinson was the First AD on that film. Chris asked me to be his Key 2nd but Paramount didn't think I had enough experience at that point in my career to handle what was then a bigger budget feature. So I told Chris that I knew a really top notch Key 2nd AD Marty Jedlicka and thought he would be a good fit with Chris. He was just coming off of True Lies which was a much bigger budgeted picture than Escape From LA so I knew the studio wouldn't have any issues with him. The only condition of bringing Marty into the mix was that I would be kept on the film as the 2nd 2nd AD. I wasn't disappointed at all. I wanted to do the movie and I found a way to bring a friend aboard and help put a really solid team together. Making movies is such a collaborative effort that being a part of the production team was enough for me. Both Chris and Marty are terrific AD's and really good hearted guys!

What exactly did you do as the Second Second AD on the movie?

I was in charge of setting the Background Artists (Extras) and helped run the production team on set. I also did the production reports and sometimes assisted with the call sheets.

Which scenes/locations/tasks were the most fun, hardest or problematic to work on?

Overall working seventy plus nights in a row was a challenge for everyone. I craved sunlight and had a lot of trouble getting any for five months! A lot of people started getting an orange hue to them probably due to lack of sunlight and vitamin D!

Many of the locations were difficult due to unforeseen variables. For example the part where Snake meets up with Pipeline before they get on the surfboards was one of our first days of shooting. It had been raining the previous few days before we started. When we arrived all of our production trucks got stuck in the mud and it took the transportation department a long time to dig them out. It also made it difficult to get access to the shooting areas with all the equipment. The actual surfing part of the scenes were shot on a green-screen. If I remember correctly we did that in the LA Coliseum tunnel. At some point we sent some surfing doubles to Texas to a new designed wave riding park (Flow Rider/Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort) to grab footage of them surfing on controlled waves. The main company wasn't there but I think that was what was cut into the footage of the actual water and feet on the boards.

I loved shooting the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills scene. We shot that at the P&E Lofts (Pacific Electric Building) on 610 Main Street in Downtown LA. It's been used on tons of movies. I've shot there on three separate movies myself. The cool part of that was all of the prosthetic effects we had done to the actors and background artists. It was amazing work by Rick Baker (Special Makeup Effects) and his crew. Really cool stuff. Bruce Campbell (Surgeon General of Beverly Hills) didn't even look like himself. So great. And Valeria Golino (Taslima) was super nice too.

Working on locations that were outside of LA proper presented traffic issues for the crew too. We would go to work in rush hour traffic and drive home as the sun was coming up in the morning rush hour traffic too. That was pretty miserable morale-wise. It was also hard to stay awake while driving which now taken as a much more serious safety issue these days. I do recall that I had the studio put up the PA's (Production Assistants) and myself at a hotel in Carson where we shot the motorcycle sequence and the Map to the Start Eddie meeting amongst other things. Since we were shooting there multiple days in a row and we were working too many hours to drive back and forth to our homes. So we were able to get some sleep and then as a team we would meet for lunch before heading off to set.

There was one moment during the motorcycle sequence that stands out for me. We were doing a half mile insert car shot. We had about 300 background artists to set from one end to the other. I remember John said he would be back in 45 minutes once everyone was set and everything was ready to go. So Marty and I each took half the background and he took the front half or first 1/4 mile of the run and I took the back 1/4 mile run to the end. I set up really anarchic background action. I am talking about waaaaay left field kind of stuff. Fights, rapes, bondage scenes. General anarchy reigns type thought. Once I had set everyone and had it set the action to happen as the insert car was driving by, I told Marty that I had to head to base to work on the call sheet or some paperwork stuff. He said, "Okay." Chris wanted to do some test runs and check everything out before John came back to set to make sure everything worked camera and motorcycle-wise with all the elements working minus the SFX (Special Effects) but including the background action. Marty told me he would run it with Chris and make any changes before John came back. So I head to base. About ten minuets later I get a call from Marty on my radio freaking out. I rush back out to set and he proceeds to tell me that my action is out of line. He said I can't set such violent BG (Background) and that I had to change it. Just as he's telling me this we get word that John is coming to set and were going to shoot. Marty looks at me and says that he's going to make sure that John knows it was me and that in the movie he'll figure out a way to state this background action was not set by him. I tell him it'll be okay. Anyway, I head back to the start of the run and John jumps up on the insert car with Chris and they do a run where John sees the action. I'm at the start with Marty and when they get to the end of the run I hear Chris call me on the radio. He tells me to rush over that John wants to talk to me about the background. I thought, "Oh no. Marty was right and I'm screwed, I am in for a beating." So we bolt over to the end in a golf cart, I get out and John is standing on the insert car looking like Patton. Chris is right next to him. He looks down on me and says, "Did you set this background action?" I told him, "Yes, sir.", thinking he's going to yell at me for messing it up so bad. Instead he says that he loved it and to amp it up more and in fact try to get more of that on the first part of the run too! I couldn't believe it. I don't know if my look to Marty was as much as his look to me was at the same time! But we all had a laugh about it afterwards!

The end sequence where everyone gathered at "Magic Kingdom By The Sea" was fun to shoot. We did that at Universal Studios on their backlot in the Back to the Future square. I remember working with Central Casting on getting the look right for that. Jennifer Bender was our background casting Director (She now is the head of Central Casting and runs the entire operation). I told her I wanted every kind of person that never gets cast for any other shows. The ones that no one wanted. We conceptually asked for a scruffy/homeless/any kind of gang related tough look. We booked 300-500 people for a week. With the exception of the model type girls we didn't want any pretty people or faces on this show. On the first day as we were getting everyone ready for the scene (this entails moving each background actor through: Hair, Make-Up, Wardrobe, Props and finally into a big circus type tent for a meal before heading to set.) I found the two biggest most intimidating background guys I could find. These guys were built like linebackers for the Oakland Raiders football team. Really tough hard looking guys. So while everyone is busy getting everyone ready, I pull these guys aside and tell them that I am going to give them a pay voucher for the day but not have them work. I asked them to act up in front of everyone during the point of the get ready process where I explain everything to everyone of what we would be doing that evening. I told them that I was going to fire them in front of the whole group of 500 hundred people and to talk back to me once and then leave when I threatened them with security. They agreed to help me out with this little plan and in turn I also promised them I would give them other work days on the movie. When it came time during my speech to all the background artists, these guys were causing trouble and talking loudly and not paying attention. Doing exactly what I had asked them to do. So I stop my speech and told them come up to where I am standing in front of everyone. They were towering over me. I asked for their pay vouchers. They handed them over to me and I ripped them to shreds and threw them on the ground. I told them to get off the lot that they were fired. They protested just that little bit and I threatened to call security. Then they left with their heads slung low. Every single other background actor was staring at my with their mouths open. They couldn't believe that this shorter AD stood up to and handled the two biggest guys in the tent. I turned to everyone else once they had left and told them that I don't want to have any problems with anyone or they will end up with the same thing, fired with no pay! I said they better pay attention and keep their heads up since a lot of action was going to be going on. I'll never forget that moment since about 99 percent of them stayed in line that whole week. You have to remember these people weren't cast very often and I had to think outside the box to keep them in line. Then it was easier at that point to keep them interested though each night too. Sometimes you have to think outside the box.

I remember a couple of other moments that stand out. One day I was the photo and hand double for Steve Buscemi (Map to the Stars Eddie). I was his hand in the movie that put the red nail polish dot on the disc. I also doubled him in the car on a wide driving shot. What can I say, we were pretty much the same size and the clothes fit me! Marty and I were two of the robed guys chasing Snake and Taslima from Beverly Hills. I also put my dad in the movie. He's in the opening sequence when the earthquake strikes LA. He's the guy running at union station with the briefcase just before it blows up. I also put my step-brother in the movie too at the end sequence. He's one of the two guards with the black masks that drag A.J. Langer (Utopia) into the scene. It was funny because it was so cold out at Ventura Farms that all the masks fogged up. It was already hard to see since they were tinted and we were shooting at night, combine that with very uneven ground and small trenches my step-brother and the other guy tripped bringing her in a couple of times.

How did you work with the extras and do you have other fond or interesting memories of working with them. Did you have any problems with any of them for instance?


Other than finding a few of the Background Artists asleep around the sets in the abandoned cars, I didn't really have any issues on the movie. Everyone was excited to be working and John and Chris created a very well run set. Everyone had a job to do a knew where to be.

I work well with the Background Artists. Setting background action is one of the most creative jobs for an Assistant Director. When done well it enhances every single scene. Imagine any movie without the background and just the actors. Those scenes will lose the believable atmosphere and the won't have the same feeling. The AD's work is tangible and it's right there up on the screen. So there is a ton of creative satisfaction to that work. I treat everyone with respect. I don't yell and scream or push and shove. I try to uplift people to give the best performance they can for any scene. It's in the best interest of the movie to make sure that a background actor knows how they fit into a scene and how they can subtly enhance it. Remember being part of the AD department is managing the crew. We are the only department that has to get people who sometimes have never been on a set before perform perfectly on camera from the get go. That can take a lot of skill and sometimes requires a little magic and tricks up your sleeve to make it happen.

On Escape From LA I remember picking the different gang types. There was one guy in particular. William Peña (Jacket Mescalito). He actually got a line in the movie and a few small moments. He was the guy who picked up Snake's jacket at the end of the motorcycle sequence and later Snake retrieves it back from his dead body before getting on the chopper. He had a great look and a great attitude. I made him and one other guy the leaders of the "Mescalitos". That's what we called them. Robin (Michel) Bush (Costume Designer) did a great job of designing this semi retro zoot suit look mixed with a Mad Max/WWII type vibe. Those guys lived their characters and really brought a lot to each of the scenes. They were great on camera. I loved working with everyone one of them.

How was the experience working with the cast and crew and what went on behind the scenes?

Getting a chance to continue my working relationship with Chris Della Penna was something I wanted to do. As an AD finding a production team you can be a part of is one of the best feelings in the world. I think most AD seek that. There is a comfort level of knowing your team has your back and vice versa. Since this was Chris' big break moving up to 1st AD, I wanted to be on that roller-coaster with him. Working with John Carpenter was a treat. I loved Starman, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live and of course Escape From New York. Having the opportunity to work alongside him and Kurt Russell who was and is just plain cool was a big part of my desire to do the movie in the first place. Kurt didn't have an entourage and was very accessible to the crew. He's a what you see is what you get type of guy. He was always kind and sincere. John had his moments but overall was a Director with a vision for the movie. It was his baby through and through.

The crew bonded and worked strong together to get through the tough schedule. Everyone was at the top of their game so it was hard since you had to keep up with them but also inspiring as a learning experience too.

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?

Well I have a pretty crazy story that I don't think I ever told anyone, well except for A.J. Langer. Might as well tell it now. Originally John had cast Kate Hudson as Utopia or at least was planning to. I think Kurt was in line with that too. This was during prep. But Goldie Hawn, her mom said, "No way.", she was staying in school and not going to be a full time actress yet. I guess Kurt and John agreed with her. The only problem was that we were starting production and didn't have an Utopia cast yet. Since that character wasn't scheduled to work right away John and Debra Hill the Producer had time to cast the right actress. While we were shooting in Downtown LA for a two day period they had the studio bring in about 20 actresses. The ones that weren't in LA were flown in from New York and London. They held auditions for them in a trailer in basecamp. They needed them videoed, so for whatever reason I drew the short straw and video-taped all of the auditions for them. Which means I was in the trailer with John, Debra and each actress as they came in to audition. Once each audition was over and the actress left, I would sit quietly while John and Debra discussed them. I remember one of the actresses was Bridgett Wilson who is married to Pete Sampras the tennis player. Anyway, during these discussions Debra and John would complain that none of the actresses were hitting the right moments in one of the three scenes that they were auditioning with. I took a mental note of that to see if any of them did that. There was a break when John and Debra were called to set. So I stepped outside to get some fresh air and tell the next actress that they would be back shortly. I got to talking with her and she seemed super cool. As we were waiting for John and Debra to get back I asked this actress if she would like some unsolicited advice. She said, "Sure.", so for whatever reason I told her what John and Debra had been looking for in the three scenes and not getting thus far. Simply stuff I overheard them talk about in the trailer. To this day I don't know why I did that, it was very out of character for me. Anyway, John and Debra come back and we go into the trailer and this actress auditions for it. She leaves and John and Debra are excited that this girl hit the right notes and gave a good audition. They pretty much decided on the spot but went through a few more auditions to solidify it. That actress was A.J. Langer, who got the part. I want to clarify that I didn't get her the part at all. She did all the work and gave the best audition, but I thought it was pretty neat that my advice might have helped just a little bit. A.J. was very cool with me on the movie and we became friends. And here is the crazy side note to this already surreal story, A.J.'s best friend was this girl named Susie. And Susie was A.J.'s de facto friend/assistant to help her on the movie. Since we were shooting nights, I hired Cast PA drivers to get the actors to and from set on the long hours. One of my buddies was A.J.'s driver/cast PA. His name is Kevin. Well Kevin and Susie fell in love and in the intervening twenty plus years are married with two lovely children. So I would also like to think that my actions cause the stars to align for them too!

What do you think of the movie personally?

I think it's good campy fun. Not as good as Escape From New York as it had some underdog feeling that made you root for him the whole way through. Maybe because that was new then. I always have high hopes for the projects I work on. You have to believe in them when you are in the midst of it working so many hours and giving so much of your time day in and day out. You always give it your best effort and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. I think the majority of the shows I worked on in the 90's don't hold up anymore. The advancement in CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and other film technology has opened up the possibilities of so many different realities that wasn't possible back then. So a lot of the VFX (Visual Effects) shots from Escape From LA look a little cheesy and retro. It wasn't even ground breaking back then. So all in all it was a little bit disappointing.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

At the moment I am the First AD on a series for Fox called Orville. It is Created, Produced, Written and Stars Seth MacFarlane. I still bounce around from movie to movie as an AD. Strangely due to reshoots, VFX post-production schedules and the ever shuffling of releases. I have six projects coming out this year. Just recently the Scarlett Johansson movie Ghost In The Shell was released. I did the US portion on that one. Next I have Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight opening in June. Then sometime in September I have a Doug Liman and Tom Cruise movie coming out called "American Made". Although I think the title may change for that one. Then I did Angelina Jolie's latest Directorial effort which is called First They Killed My Father. We shot that in Cambodia and I think it's a really special project about the Khmer Rouge's take over of the country and the subsequent genocide of their people. It's told through the eyes of a nine year old girl. That should also be out in the fall. Finally I did an Alexander Payne movie with Matt Damon called Downsizing. I think that is going to be released in December. Orville by the way will be out in the fall on TV.

I enjoy hiking with my wife and reading and photography as a hobby. We have been traveling a lot lately too.

I have also been giving back by teaching at schools and doing online seminars about the mechanics and art of being an Assistant Director. If anyone is interested they can check out my webinars at: Stage32.com in their education section or just go to these:

https://www.stage32.com/classes/The-Mechanics-and-Art-of-Being-An-Assistant-Director
https://www.stage32.com/webinars/Industry-Spotlight-60-Minutes-With-Jason-Roberts-Transformers-5-Jurassic-World Downsizing




Escape From L.A. AD Team:

Left to Right: Mauritz Pavoni (PA), Erica Pearce (PA), Tobia Minckler (Uncredited PA), Benjamin Zura (PA), Christian Clarke (Key Set PA), Jason Roberts (2nd 2nd AD), Christian P. Della Penna (1st AD), Martin Jedlicka (2nd AD), Jorge Baron (DGA Trainee)

Thank you for your time, Jason.

Photo By Robert Zuckerman/Provided By Jason Roberts