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Jurassic Park's Assistant Director Reveals the 4 Big Lessons He Learned from Steven Spielberg
How many people can say they had a front-row seat to the birth of immortal cinematic history?
Very few people can truly boast of having enjoyed a front-row seat to the birth of cinematic history. John T. Kretchmer is one of those people. As the first assistant director on Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (now streaming on Peacock), he had a direct hand in crafting the game-changing blockbuster that resurrected dinosaurs onscreen and ushered in a brand-new age of digital effects.
Chatting with SYFY WIRE over Zoom, the filmmaker remembers the moment he knew everything was about to change: "Halfway through the shoot, we were in dailies and he [Spielberg] said, ‘I have something to show you guys.' He showed us the reveal of the Brachiosaur, where it gets up on its hind legs and chews something from the tree. When I saw that, I knew this was going to be a monster hit. We all did. It was so photorealistic and so believable and not stop motion-y. It looked like a real live creature."
Beyond getting a leg up on CGI and its practical applications in mainstream filmmaking, Kretchmer also found himself in the enviable position to learn storytelling craft from an undisputed master of the medium.
"There are many great directors, but I don't think there's anyone who can tell a story and get an audience's emotions in tune with what he's trying to say more than Steven Spielberg," adds Kretchmer, who has gone on to direct an impressive slate of TV shows himself, including episodes of Riverdale and Charmed. "That is an innate gift. I don't think that's something he can teach anyone. It has made me, as a director, sensitive to the desire to affect the audience. I think he taught me four great lessons..."
What Jurassic Park First AD, John T. Kretchmer, Learned from Steven Spielberg
1. If you love what you do...
You'll never work a day in your life! That's certainly true for Spielberg, who exuded "an unbridled enthusiasm for filmmaking," Kretchmer remembers. "He was just as excited as he was on the very first time he picked up a motion picture camera when he was a teenager ... It’s so refreshing to see someone still so enthusiastic about the process and the excitement of making movies. It was very inspirational."
2. Concentration is key
While in pre-production, Spielberg told Kretchmer that he wanted to make the movie as quickly and efficiently as possible. Indeed, that's what happened, as Jurassic Park wrapped principal photography 12 days ahead of schedule and under budget.
"That means there's no goofing around, there's no sitting around and shooting the sh-t," Kretchmer explains. "You’re there to do a job and you should always be aware of what is happening at the time. How can we move faster? How can we get this shot and move on to the next one? That is also enormously refreshing and gave me a great discipline — both as an assistant director and as a director."
Spielberg's laser focus is even more impressive when you consider the fact that he pretty much had to go straight into production on Schindler's List once Jurassic Park wrapped. And that's not even mentioning all the films and shows he was producing for Amblin. "I never heard him express frustration or dismay at the other things he had to do," Kretchmer notes.
3. Don't get too committed
Spielberg didn't earn a reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers of the last century for nothing. His eye for framing and composition are legendary for a reason. Whenever a certain shot wasn't working out, the director simply suggested another one, oftentimes making a suggestion that proved to be even better than the original.
"I was always concerned that he would say, 'Well, God dammit! I’m Steven Spielberg, and it's your job to give me what I want! I don't want to hear that you can't do it!’ He was the exact opposite of that," Kretchmer says. "If I said, ‘Steven, we've tried as best we can and we can't do this because of XY and Z,' he would immediately say, ‘Okay, well, let's try this! Let’s put the camera over here! Let's do this and lift it up and move in this way!’ More often than not, this new idea was better than the previous idea. That was a huge lesson for me as a director — to never stand on ceremony. Never fall in love with a shot because there's always another way to do it. And oftentimes, it's better."
4. Total perfection is impossible
The final lesson Kretchmer took away from Jurassic Park is closely tied to the second: if you're holding out for perfection, then the movie will never get made. "He shot the movie like a director shoots a television show. He would rarely go over seven takes, he would print one take and he’d move on, which was very different than many film directors I worked with who would do take after take after take."
Spielberg, of course, famously got his start on the small screen by helming episodes of Night Gallery, Columbo, and the made-for-TV movie Duel. However, it would take the expensive shoot and underwhelming performance of 1941 for the director to embrace a leaner, meaner philosophy for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
"I just found that, by not doing 15 takes on each shot, but by doing only, let's say, three to five takes, I was able to get a lot more spontaneity into the film with less self-indulgence and pretentiousness," Spielberg wrote in a 1981 issue of American Cinematographer.
"Every shot doesn't have to be perfect," echoes Kretchmer. "Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good. If it's good enough and you know when it's good enough, move on. Steven was very much of that school."
Spielberg only broke that rule once at the very end of Jurassic Park's principal photography. The final setup of the entire film was nothing fancy: a simple retake of Richard Attenborough for the scene early in the film where John Hammond pops some champagne and convinces Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) to visit his new biological preserve on Isla Nublar.
Except the director kept asking for one take after the next. They were on the 16th go-around or so when Kretchmer finally pulled Spielberg aside to ask what the hell he was doing.
"I say, 'Steven, enough!’ And he says, completely seriously, ‘You don't understand, this is my drug.' He couldn't let go. And you have to understand, in six weeks, he'd be filming Schindler's List in Poland. It wasn't like he was going to retire or take a year off. But he was so in love with the filmmaking process, he didn't want it to stop. I literally had to pull him off the set and say, ‘That's it. You got it.’ And he agreed, he just didn’t want to stop. It was very sweet and endeared him to me. It was also a life lesson, that you can never really lose that love and enthusiasm for that job, which I hope I haven't lost in my career since then."
Jurassic Park is now streaming on Peacock alongside The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park III, Jurassic World, and the brand-new LEGO Jurassic Park: The Unofficial Retelling. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Jurassic World Dominion can be purchased from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.