Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sometimes You Shoot the Bird; Sometimes the Bird Shoots You


Working in Off-Off Broadway Theater has a lot of rewards – money isn’t always one of them. This means you often find yourself in what is politely termed “support jobs”.

My on-and-off support job in the early 80s was working as a telephone interviewer for a pollster named Dick Dresner and Dick Morris. Morris you may remember from the time he was Clinton’s pollster, and then a GOP pollster, and then got caught in compromising pictures with women who were not his wife. Didn’t surprise me at all – Morris was always among the slimiest people I ever met. Dresner was a much better guy, and Anthony LaPaglia plays his character in a movie called “Spinning Boris”, which pretty accurately describes how he helped Boris Yeltsin’s political turnaround in Russia. Yeah, Dresner was that smart.

The job was great for me, because none of the people there had any interest in having a real job: actors and actresses, dancers, students, singers, and your basic non-conformists who just weren’t good at taking orders from “the man”. Eventually, I became a supervisor there, and, for a short stint when I tried my hand at a real job, Director of Operations.

My immediate boss was a woman named Barbara, who is now an ABC Consultant. Mid-forties at the time, she was a big, imposing, demanding woman. She also had a great heart. Luckily, she and I got along great, and she knew when I took the “permanent” position it wouldn’t last long. “You’ve got the job if you want it, but just tell me when you realize you don’t anymore.”

Mind you, for a “real job”, it was filled with people who hated authority. Dresner was a staunch liberal Democrat at the time, and we had people with FBI records as analysts, and a coding department run by a gay activist who used to have “leather Fridays” where the entire department would dress in S&M gear. As “real jobs” go, it was as comfortable as I was going to get.

Then, one day, I get “the call”.

“Hey, John, what are you doing?” (I wasn’t JB yet). It was Nancy J., my stage manager buddy. I begin to tell her, and she cuts me off. “ Yeah, that’s nice. Listen, I’m working on a movie now, and I need an assistant. Can you start tomorrow?”

Wow, a movie. I mean, I knew people who worked on movies, but I didn’t see myself doing it. I had never worked on one, which I explained to her.

“You never were a stage manager before I taught you, either. Its not brain surgery. I’ll show you what you need to know.”

OK, but what about my job? Nancy had an easy answer. “Quit.”

I didn’t know. Cushy job. Good salary. Benefits. Besides, I would have to talk to Barbara. How would she react?

So, next morning, I’m explaining it to Barbara, when she interrupts and calls Dick Dresner into the office. “Dick, John wants to quit to work on a movie.”

Dresner’s face lights up, he puts out his hand and says, “That’s a great opportunity. Should be fun for you.” He walks out. Barbara says, “Don’t worry. You can always come back here part time when the movie’s over.” I must have looked a little stunned.

“We never figured you’d last,” she says. “Just have fun, and call us when it’s over.”

I show up two days later (I didn’t want to really leave them high and dry). There is an empty desk with lots of paperwork on it.

“Hey Nancy” I say, greeting my old friend. Nancy gives me a big hug, then hands me a Call Sheet (assignments and times for everyone for the next day’s shooting). “I need 100 copies of these, with all the changes I’ve penciled in, and I need them collated with sides (the section of the script to be shot that day). The crew breaks in two hours, so we need to get them to set right away. After you make the copies, take them over to set yourself. Ask for the 2nd AD and give them to her.”

I didn’t know what a call sheet, sides, or a 2nd AD were, and she knew that. She also knew I’d pick it up along the way. Thus, my formal training in film began.

I was the Assistant Production Office Coordinator (APOC). Nice title, not many steps above being office PA. Lots of paper work, and this is before laptops, so lots of typing and Wite-Out.

Most of my time was spent in the office, or trading off paperwork with the 2nd AD (2nd Assistant Director) on set. Not a lot of my time was spent actually on set. Didn’t get to see much filming. I did, however, get to learn how a movie office works, and that was great experience in terms of becoming a production manager and line producer later on – better experience than I would have gotten as a PA on set.

The movie was “Q”. It was a Larry Cohen film. Larry was pretty much like Roger Corman, and did a lot of horror and genre pictures (“Its Alive”, “The Stuff” “Full Moon High”.) These weren’t art flicks, just standard stuff on a low budget.

“Q’ was about a giant bird that nests in the Chrysler Building. A two-bit, piano playing ex-con (Michael Moriorty) discovers the nest of this pre-historic bird, which has been unceremoniously eating people. He is determined to hold this information hostage from police (Richard Roundtree (“Shaft”) and David Carradine).

The first hint of the perils of working with all that movie paperwork came pretty early on.

In order to shoot in the city – any city – you need a permit. In NY, you deal with the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Television. Its one of the easiest offices to work with, but there are lots of forms to fill out, and they need to know each day where and what you are shooting, as well as what parking you want hold for vehicles. If you are doing anything involving closing off streets or firearms, the police film unit must be notified.

One day, we are to shoot a scene where cops are on top of the Chrysler Building, shooting at the “bird,” whose POV is shot from a helicopter. As such, if you were to watch the scene being shot, it looks like policemen shooting at a helicopter. Even in the pre-9/11 days, this would be disconcerting.

The Chrysler Building is also in Midtown Manhattan, and because it is tall, the top is very visible for miles. Since Nancy was stuck in the office, I was the office rep on meetings with the Film office (along with the location manager, or his assistant).

On the day before the shoot, we went over all the specifics again. The scene would be shot around 2PM. We would have P.A.s stationed in various spots around the building, as usual. Local precinct, would, of course, know about it – it was the job of the Police Film Unit (then known as “TPA”) the “policemen” were, firing blanks.

Standard discussion was whether police assistance (actual cops on the scene) was requested. This is standard for when “shots are fired” so people don’t think it’s a real crime in progress. In this case, however, since all of the firing was going to be on top of the building, and not at street level, the consensus was that a few police on the street, as well as one or two on the roof with us, would cover it.

The consensus was wrong.

As with most days, it shooting ran late, and we didn’t start to shoot the scene until near 5PM, when people were getting out of work. The “shots fired” attracted people’s attention, and pretty soon, people were ducking into buildings. Others called 911, who notified precincts in the general area, some of whom (for reasons I do not understand to this day) were not aware of the filming, so, now, real cops are approaching the building with guns drawn while “gunshots” are heard above and a helicopter is flying low and “in a strange manner” (remember, we are filming from the helicopter, so the pilot is circling and maneuvering to try and get the best shot).

The end result? General panic.

We made the front page of the Daily News. The News Building is right across the street from the Chrysler Building, and their employees were among the first to call this in. The local TV news the night before ran the story. The Daily News ran the story and an editorial about how irresponsible film crews were allowed to take over the city.

The problem? We had done everything by the book. While we certainly made as many mistakes as the next film – which translates to many per day – this wasn’t one of them. Remember, the police had agreed that we didn’t need more cops assigned to the scene, and since there is no fee for it, we would have been fine if they had assigned more.

Politics then crept in. Mayor Koch, one of the targets of the article, called the producers, who came down on Nancy’s boss, Paul (the production manager and assistant director). Pretty soon, we were all called into a meeting with the Mayor. I explained to all involved from our side what happened before the meeting. Paul’s basic response was to keep quiet during the meeting and let Koch yell at us, and promise to never do it again. That’s what we did.

That was not the end of adventures with “birds”, guns and helicopters.

However, Nancy knew set was the more fun place to be, so one night, she sent me over for the end of the day’s filming. She gave me some things to do – including handing out a lot of money in small bills (nothing more than a $20) in petty cash to a few people to dispense on set. In theater, this was like the entire budget for some projects, and I was carrying it around in Central Park at night.

The scene was the last scene after a very long day for the cast and crew. It was a night shoot, the day had started around 3PM, and it was now about 4AM. In a few hours, the sun would be coming up, which meant, like it or not, the filming was over.

The scene was one where Moriarty, playing the con, tries to prove to the cops, played by Roundtree and Carradine, that he can control the bird. He cannot. The bird comes down, takes a swipe at him, he ducks at hits the ground, the cops shoot at the bird. Pretty straight forward. Once again, the helicopter shot the birds POV, and would be called in to “swoop down”.

This time, we had lots of police with us. They, too, had worked a long day, and like everyone else, they were looking forward to going home.

The helicopter comes in, swoops just like it’s supposed to, and takes off. The “cops” shoot at it. All good, right? Uh, no. Michael Moriarty doesn’t duck. The scene is no good and we have to shoot again. Paul Kurta calls in the helicopter. Again, it swoops. Again, the “cops” shoot.

Again, Michael doesn’t duck.

Larry Cohen walks up to Michael and asks him if there is a problem. As serious as he can be, Michael says he doesn’t understand his motivation for ducking.

Crew members who hear this are torn between containing their laughter, and being pissed they still have to be out there. Kurta and Cohen are worried that daylight will come, and we will lose the shot. Al Cerillo, one of the best helicopter pilots around and certainly the best in NY for years, is shouting “what’s going on” to Kurta on the walkie.

David Carradine puts down his prop rifle. He walks over to Moriarty, walks him away from Cohen, and puts his arm around him. It’s so wonderful to see an actor coming to the aid of a fellow actor.

“Michael,” he asks, “if a bird with a 20 foot wingspan was hovering over your head and reaching down to grab you, wouldn’t you fucking duck!” To make his point clearer, he grabbed Michael by the collar and began shaking him.

Actor to actor, Michael seemed to come to a newfound understanding of the scene. We barely got it in the next time around.

Oh, don’t look for the scene in the movie. It was cut.

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