David McGiffert's name has been on the credit rolls of some of Hollywood's best-known films: "Rainman," "Tootsie," and all the "Back to the Future" movies. He has worked with A-listers including Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Jim Carrey, Richard Gere, Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Woody Harrelson and a long list of others. But now he's working with a celebrity of a different sort: His 15-year-old rhythmic gymnast daughter who has her sights set on making the U.S. National Team.
Let's just say this up front: You don't see many Hollywood dads walking away from "the life" to give their kids the gift of time. Yet without David's involvement, there's no way that his daughter Natalie, a 10th grader at Malibu High School, would have been able to participate in the world of competitive rhythmic gymnastics, said David's wife Shannon. The couple also has an older son who is a high school senior.
Over the last eight years, Natalie has traveled to Prague, Slovenia, Bulgaria and repeatedly criss-crossed the U.S. for competitions and special training camps. And right by her side is her 70-year-old father, who spent more than three decades in feature films "to learn how to facilitate his daughter's gymnastic life," he said jokingly. In the last year alone, he's logged almost 50,000 miles to get Natalie to competitions, training events and the gym six days a week.
At the heart of every good assistant director -- McGiffert was Sydney Pollack's go-to AD -- is an master multi-tasker who can solve problems before they occur. So now instead of finding a way to reschedule the week's filming to allow Tom Cruise to be able to attend the Academy Awards, he anticipates and resolves every detail of his daughter's needs. He drives a minimum of 120 miles a day just to get her between school, the gym and home again. He accompanies her on every road trip, to every competition, every training camp. He also manages all her travel arrangements, helps design her leotards (costumes) and gets them manufactured, keeps her in shoes -- which she burns through at a pair a week. (Don't get McGiffert started on the expense of upper-level training. "Unlike the rest of the world where the government pays for high-level rhythmic gymnastics training, in the United States it is an entirely parent-funded sport," he said.)
McGiffert was about as surprised as anyone about his career change. He recalled filming "The Interpreter" in New York City, a project that would take him away from home for six months. During the shoot, he flew home to surprise Natalie at her seventh birthday party. He literally left the party at Chuck E. Cheese to head straight back to the airport. Natalie told him later that his visit home was the "best birthday gift ever."
That did it. When "The Interpreter" was wrapped, he decided to take a month off to be with the family. "I needed to be a Dad," says McGiffert. "I was missing out on my kids growing up."
A month later Natalie's intensive training began, and McGiffert never went back to work. "If I wasn't with her full time, she couldn't do the sport," he said.
Natalie got into gymnastics quite by accident. A year earlier, McGiffert and his wife had attended a school fundraiser that included a silent auction. Shannon saw that no one had bid on two free gymnastics classes, so she wrote her name down, telling David that "no one likes to be the first name on the sheet -- don't worry, we won't win it because someone will outbid us." She was wrong. David recalled taking Natalie to the gym to see if she wanted to take the free lessons, and while the seven-year-old was wandering around, a Ukranian coach took notice of her.
"She literally looked Natalie over and then approached us. She asked if Natalie would use one of her free training passes for a rhythmic gymnastic lesson with her," recalled David. "She said, 'I think I can do something with that girl.'" Natalie still trains with the coach, Marina Kukhta.
Natalie competes at the highest level and in February won the USA Rhythmic Invitational Gymnastics Competition in Colorado Springs. She's been the western regional champion for five of the past six years. She trains 27 hours a week and carries a full school workload, doing much of her homework on the car rides between school, home and the gym.
For her Dad's career jump, it was like one switch clicked off and another one went on. "Up came the lights -- just in a different area," he said. He knew nothing about the sport, what the training entailed, "or frankly, what my daughter's hopes were. It's a partnership of trust," he said. "I am with her every day from the time I get her at school -- 1 p.m. -- until she goes to bed at 11 pm. She gets less sleep than anyone else in the family."
How can McGiffert afford to be his daughter's full-time chaperone? He saved his pennies over decades of working in film and lives frugally by Hollywood standards, never trading up to the mansion or taking elaborate vacations. "I'm in the gym with her, I book her flights, I fly with her everywhere she goes," he said. "I give her the best possible context to prepare herself to compete without the drama. I am constantly anticipating what her needs will be and getting things done before they become an issue."
Perhaps he hasn't switched careers after all.