The Greatest (Assistant) Director You Never Heard Of – By Philip Smolen

I have always been a film credit junkie. From the day I could first read, I would always scan a movie’s credits and commit certain names to memory. The first name that I memorized was Ray Harryhausen, while George Pal was the second. This has gone on for almost six full decades. Directors, screenwriters, producers, key grip, and special effects – you name the position and I could rattle off the legends. To this day, I annoy my wife and family because I insist on staying at the multiplex until all the film credits have run their course.

But over the decades there was one name that I kept seeing on movie credit after movie credit. I’d see it year after year, decade after decade. This man’s career spanned more than 30 years in Hollywood, and he worked on more than 50 films. He collaborated with cinematic geniuses like Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night,” 1967), Sam Peckinpah (“The Getaway,” 1972), Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather Part II,” 1974) William Freidkin (“Sorcerer,” 1977), Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner,” 1982), Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II,” 1986), James Cameron (“The Abyss,” 1989), and Sam Raimi (“A Simple Plan,” 1998). On top of all this, he still managed to direct three of his own films, produce four others, and even act as a bit performer. Fellow cine-maniacs, let me introduce you to the one and only Newt Arnold (1922 – 2000).

Newt Arnold primarily worked as an Assistant Director (AD) or a Second Unit Director in motion pictures for 33 years. ADs are one of the great unsung heroes on a move set. They make sure that all elements of the movie production are on schedule. It is also their responsibility to inform the Director if there are any problems. But if you’re a good AD, you handle all the problems on the movie set yourself and let the director and the rest of the creative team do their jobs. The AD makes sure that all of the practical needs of the production are taken care of. An AD position is also the primary proving ground to learn the intricacies of film directing.

Second Unit Directors are different from ADs. They run their own team called (naturally) the second unit. Second units shoot auxiliary footage for a movie. Unlike film shot by the main director, second units usually shoot footage that doesn’t include the main actors. Typical shots for the second unit include close-ups, cutaways, and inserts.

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A Mainstay in Hollywood

Newt Arnold handled these tasks for more than three decades. His reputation as a man to count on must have been incredible. Newt’s ability to stay on schedule and keep a movie set from spinning out of control was probably second to none. Imagine for a moment that you’re a Hollywood director and you’ve got a major expensive film production coming up. You know that you need a top-notch AD or Second Unit Man to keep the set humming smoothly and keep the myriad of egos under control. Time after time Hollywood turned to Newt Arnold. The fact that he was hired to supervise more than 50 films speaks volumes about his talent.

Newt worked on every type of Hollywood film. He was there on big budget action films (“The Devil’s Brigade,” 1968) and teen comedies (“Sixteen Candles,” 1984). He was the AD on Westerns (“Big Jake,” 1971) as well as exploitation films (“Invasion USA,” 1985). He was so good that the volatile Sam Peckinpah, who was known to hire and fire crews on a whim, used Newt on five of his movies.


Directing his own Films

But Newt didn’t stop there. In his busy career also he directed three of his own movies. While none can be considered classics, they are all fun, campy, cinematic endeavors. His first was “Hands of a Stranger” (1962). The film is a retelling of “The Hands of Orlac” (1924) where a famous pianist’s hands are crushed in an accident. A renegade doctor surgically attaches the hands of an executed killer to the musician’s body. Later, the hands take control, and the pianist begins to savagely kill. While the movie is just your basic horror film, Arnold does populate it with good actors including a very young Sally Kellerman.

Newt’s next movie was another horror thriller, “Blood Thirst” (1971) which deals with a detective who travels to the Philippines to help solve a series of sex crimes. The film is trashy and shoddy, but for all of us trash lovers, it is still a hoot to watch. It was filmed in 1965 but not released until 1971.
However, in 1988 Newt made his action masterpiece. It’s the film that put Jean Claude Van Damme (“The Muscles from Brussels”) on the map. I’m referring to “Bloodsport” the supposedly true story of Frank Dux, an American military man who competed in the Kumite, an illegal and deadly underground martial arts competition. Dux became the first Westerner to win the tournament. While the supporting scenes are only adequate, Newt successfully films incredibly exciting fight scenes. They are one of the best examples of martial arts fighting ever filmed for a motion picture. The film was a smash sensation throughout the world and has remained so popular that it is now being remade as a big budget Hollywood blockbuster.

Newt Arnold passed away on February 12, 2000. To me, he remains one of Hollywood’s great unsung heroes. So the next time you’re watching one of your favorite Hollywood movies, keep an eye out in the credits for Newt Arnold. You’ll see his name more times than you’d expect.

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Selected Film Credits for Newt Arnold (as Assistant Director or Second Unit Director)

1. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
2. The Devil’s Brigade (1968)
3. The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)
4. Big Jake (1971)
5. The Getaway (1972)
6. The Godfather Part II (1974)
7. The Killer Elite (1975)
8. Sorcerer (1977)
9. The Jerk (1979)
10. Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie (1980)
11. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
12. Blade Runner (1982)
13. War Games (1983)
14. Goonies (1985)
15. The Abyss (1989)
16. The Last Action Hero (1993)
17. A Simple Plan (1998)
Director Credits
1. The Hands of a Stranger (1962)
2. Blood Thirst (1971)
3. Bloodsport (1988)

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Selected References

IMDB.com: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0036582 – Accessed March 30, 2012.
Wikipedia.com: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_unit_director – Accessed March 29, 2012.
Wisegeek.com: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-first-assistant-director.htm – Accessed March 29, 2012.