Sunday, December 30, 2012
The making of 1999 was a great experience, but, like any film, not without it's challenges, one of which was that it was sometimes too good of an experience.
It can be a generalization to say that the atmosphere on the sets of comedies are more fun than on the sets of other genres, but not one without basis. The personality of the director certainly affects the mood on set, as does the collective personality of the crew.
The people who really count, though, are the ones in front of the camera, the actors. The greatest director in the world with the most talented DP and the best script is not going to make a good movie with bad actors. This doesn't mean the actors have to be big stars (although we had our share in that department), or long-term veterans (which surely Steven Wright and Buck Henry were). They just have to be talented, at least enough of them do.
Crews are aware of the needs of actors. You aren't going to be telling jokes and making light right before doing a scene where a father discovers his dead child. No, comedies allow for a little more room for levity, but sometimes, as an 1st AD, that is something you have to be careful of as well.
There are many hazards of being a 1st AD, one of which is that Murphy's Law, which rules on set anyway, will play tricks on you. I have no chronic illness that causes me to spend most of my day coughing, but for some reason, every AD will tell you that coughs have a habit of cruelly rising in your throat a second or two after you call "roll sound." The need to cough often seems directly proportional to the length of the scene, the longer and more quiet the scene, the more you need to cough.
1999 was, in many ways, a comedy of manners, updated from the Noel Coward era (more on the Coward comparison in the next post) to the dawn of a new era, the turn of the millennium. It wasn't the slapstick humor of Lucky Stiffs, a comedy I had done earlier. The main protagonists, played by Dan and Jennifer, were targets of the humor exactly because their characters were so serious.
Steven Wright, whose stand-up routine is all about his droll persona, brought a dry humor that started way before the camera rolled and lasted past cut, enough so that you would be accustomed to it and it didn't crack you up, but kept a smile on your face.
Matt McGrath, another fine actor who went on to a successful movie and TV career, had a character who was constantly sent into panic by his annoying father, played by Buck Henry. The scenes between the two were among the many that made it difficult to keep a straight face.
Then, there was Margaret Devine.
Margaret is certainly not as well known as many of the other young actors who were on that shoot. She had a nice role as one of the AA members in the Richard Lewis vehicle Drunks, and played Hugh Grant's assistant in Mickey Blue Eyes. She had a rather child-like voice, not unlike Kristin Chenoweth, and her Nick Davis seemed to find the perfect moments to have her inject herself in the proceedings. At the first words out of her mouth, I would immediately find myself consciously stifling laughter. I was certain that Margaret would be my undoing, that one day I would just burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter that would end with the cast and crew staring at me as I ruined an otherwise perfect take.
Luckily, that never happened.
Other supporting cast had a similar effect, if to a lesser degree, including Allyson Downey's well-dressed lady and Sandrine Holt's unabashed lesbian.
There were certainly serious scenes, even if, as with all comedies of manners, when seen objectively by the audience, they may be funny. One of these was a scene where Dan's character contemplates suicide. Dan's character had what we today would refer to as "first world problems," an existential angst that hardly seemed to warrant such drastic measures. For the actor, the scene could only be played with absolute seriousness, and we had a closed set for the scene. It was a very difficult scene for Dan, but one which he delivered very well.
Nick was more than the director and writer; he played a character who was videotaping the party, and he would often encourage improv. As an AD, it meant not letting the crew relax at the end of what they thought to be the end of a take, and to be aware of what Nick and the DP, Howard, were thinking and when they were done with a take.
I have spoken before of the natural tension that can develop between a DP and an AD, and that certainly was one of the challenges for me on this shoot. Howard was not a prima donna, and he was talented, but he had already been through one AD, and I got the sense that as he had been there from the beginning and I had not, he was determined to make sure that he controlled how things ran on set. With all the jumping around we did within the house, and the scheduling challenges of keeping a large ensemble, I tried to keep a tighter rein on the schedule than Howard would have preferred. He also had an annoying habit of suggesting that he wanted to change the order of scenes mid-day, even though the order had been clear from the call sheet from the previous night.
In thinking back on it, it was more of a nuisance than a real problem. We always found a way to make it work, and there was so much right with the project that neither of us wanted to get in the way of it. Howard had a strong background as a gaffer, his crew was fast, and I can't say that we were waiting on him very often.
Until I started to write this series on the movie, I hadn't seen the film since the crew screening. I remember my first impression was that the final product was not as funny as the either my experience on set or in dailies. Then again, I was so close to it at the time that maybe my expectations were for something different. In the next and final post on this movie, I will review it with the perspective I now have, as well as offer some final thoughts.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
"It's better to burn out
Than to fade away
My My Hey Hey"
Than to fade away
My My Hey Hey"
Neil Young wrote that when he was not even forty, in fact, still mid-thirties, in response to feeling that maybe his music was outdated in the face of the growing punk movement.
Young has always had a fixation on age, or maybe he was just more open about it in his writing than others. Aging is a fear for most people, but for artists, there is always the fear that the red-hot flame that burned brightly is not quite as bright.
Most people just call it simple mid-life crisis, but artists, well, we have to make it more existential, don't we.
In the famous Saturday Night Live skit, "Don't Look Back in Anger" (actually one of the Schiller shorts), an elderly John Belushi visits the graves of his fellow Not Ready For Prime Time players; ironic, of course, because of his opening:
"They all thought I'd be the first to go, because I was one of those, 'Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good Looking Corpse' types. I guess they were wrong."
When I watched it again recently, it really struck me, not because of the irony that Belushi actually was the first to go, but because my father always used that line. My dad didn't accomplish what he set out - he struggled with cancer for years before he died.
I have joked for years that I'd screwed two of those things up as well.
Neil Young's lyrics seem to me less about literally dying - though it has certainly been used that way over the years - than about being relevant as an artist. Is it alright to just linger and not lead? If Young felt that way then, one can only imagine how he feels more than thirty-five years later.
For me, now, there is a two-fold question: what have I accomplished, and just how relevant am I?
If you haven't already guessed by now, this is a birthday post. I will turn 55 on Christmas Eve 2012 (tomorrow, as I write this).
As for the first question, if you were to ask me what I've done that's important, I would hope it was the influence I've had on younger people I've worked along side. Besides a stint teaching at New York Film Academy, I have always tried to mentor younger assistants, interns, and the like. I think it is part of my responsibility, all of our responsibility, as artists, because none of us can truly say we didn't have someone do that for us. I don't kid myself that I am the reason any one person will make it in this business, but I like to think a number of people have a little more skill and a little more insight because they worked with me.
Along the way, I've certainly had an influence on some projects I consider important, projects that fill me with pride. Still, the cynic in me says all of those would have gotten done without me.
I am currently in a phase where I'm trying to focus more on my writing than production, and hopefully, I still have a mark to leave there.
The second question is harder for me; how relevant am I?
Hey, you combine holiday blues with angst of a birthday, and it can get pretty dark, you know?
The indie movie business that I have been a part of is at a crossroads, and many of us feel the sands shifting under our feet. I used to have a template for post production; now, its more like a proverbial Chinese menu, with one from Column A, and two from Column B, or maybe the other way around, or maybe some different combination.
The same is true of equipment and crew size; there is no doubt we can certainly do more with less in both areas, but can we do it and maintain quality? The logical answer is yes; but I'm not sure we are always accomplishing it.
I remember talking about a certain project recently, and thinking how the HVX-900 might be the best alternative, because it was often preferred for those doing a lot of hand-held because of it's balance. Then, I had to remember, I should be thinking of the HDX-900, it's newer counter-part, because few would chose video when they could go digital.
As I read the articles that constantly suggest that the digital cameras that were the darlings of cinematographers in the Spring seem dated by the Fall, I feel like we have truly reached that perfect Apple world, where, by the time you get this model computer out of the box, it's obsolete.
Obsolete. Now, there's a word that scares me just a bit, and I'm not thinking of equipment here.
I'm a practicing Zen Buddhist, but Sunday mornings for me is still a time I dedicate to practice, whether it be attending a service at a temple in Brooklyn, or dedicating a few hours to meditation and Dharma talks online. This post is an extension of that practice today. While I knew I had to write it from early this morning, I have let the words and themes come as I wrote it, not pre-determining how it will end and where it will go.
If I dig myself out of the birthday blues long enough, I can objectively see that the sands are shifting for everyone, and those younger don't have the perspective that time and experience brings.
Over the past year, I've spent more time keeping up on changes in the technology, not to mention distribution and all the rest, than ever before. I go back to some people I consider truly vanguard, like producer-turned-San Francisco-Festival-Director Ted Hope, but also, I try to listen to young people who keep up with this sort of thing.
Listening. It's an important skill. Actors are taught this early on; the good ones excel at it, the mediocre ones never get it.
I like to think that when I prepare a budget and/or a battle plan for a project now, I am taking into account the needs and limits of both people and equipment from past experience, and the possibilities of what lie ahead.
Sand shifting beneath us didn't start in the digital age, though it seems to be shifting faster now. I often refer to a quote by the great John Huston who, upon seeing Jaws, said that was the way he should have made Moby Dick. When told that the technology didn't exist at the time, he brushed it off, insisting, "We should have created the technology."
That quote fills me every time I am faced with a dilemma or challenge whose answer doesn't come from my experience. It's alright to look back, as long as you don't keep your head in that direction for too long, and, to borrow from the aforementioned skit, we don't do so in anger.
As the date of my birth tells you, I am a Capricorn. One of my favorite horoscope parodies for Capricorns is that we're not stubborn, we just know we're always right. There's a lot of truth in that. This is a business that requires ego if you are going to survive and get past all the doubt that the barrage of problems, miscues, and disappointments that are inevitable in a world where you are in some ways constantly reinventing the wheel.
I started to write that I am sorry if this post is even more schizophrenic than most, but that isn't true. I've come to take that as part of my prose writing style (it doesn't serve as well in screenplays). One of the advantages of getting older is you become a little more comfortable in your (not as taut) skin.
For all those days when I feel burnt out, I'm determined not to fade away.
Below, a link to the Belushi video.
Next post will return to the story of the film, 1999.
N.B. Very sorry for those looking for a review of the new David Chase movie.
Saturday, December 15, 2012
A number of years ago, a producer/director friend and I began using the term, "industry hot." We spent about a year developing a script, and as we were trying to secure the financing, companies would come with names of actors for the lead that they thought were, "hot", not necessarily sexy, but up-and-coming actors that they thought audiences wanted to see.
For many people, the new crop of young stars to hit Hollywood is epitomized by the now-yearly cover of Vanity Fair, where all those people who will soon be household names, or at least Vanity Fair thinks they are, can be seen assembled by someone like Annie Liebovitz in alluring poses. If they are women, they are likely in some form of lingerie. If they are men, more likely they will be dressed classically in GQ-type suits.*
Got to love the Hollywood double-standard.
The Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue started in 1995, and this year, Vanity Fair did a retrospective of the covers. It's kinda fun to see where they were right and where, um, they were not.
Of course, Vanity Fair cheats. They know who is cast in movies that are supposed to do well, and they talk to a lot of agents and producers and such, and can figure who might be making a big splash.
If you work in the indie film world, "industry hot" goes back even further, way before they make their way onto a magazine cover. There is usually a buzz among casting directors that someone is going to be a break-out actor, that everyone in the business knows them, and this is the time to gobble them up for your picture. You mention the person's name to a casting director or your friend at Tribeca, and they immediately perk up.
Inevitably, you have never heard their name, but in the backwards movie world, this makes it even better. It's like buying a penny stock that goes big - you were there first.
When I came onto 1999, I knew Steven Wright and Buck Henry. Both had trademark laconic, understated humor. Wright was well-known from the stand-up world, Henry as much for his persona on Saturday Night Live as for writing The Graduate.
The plot of 1999 deals with a bunch of self-important twenty-somethings at a millennium-eve party, with one of the major sub-plots being the exploits of one Rufus, who has decided he will start the new millennium with a new girlfriend. Being sophisticated, he decides to bring his current girlfriend, Annabel, to the party, where he secretly lusts after that obscure object of desire, Nicole.
Rufus is played by Dan Futterman, his girlfriend, Annabel, by Jennifer Garner, and Nicole by Amanda Peet. More on Dan in a minute.
As you read this, you surely recognize Jennifer Garner and Amanda Peet (if you need me to post another picture of them to know who they are, you don't watch many movies). Jennifer would go to be the kick-ass star of TV's Alias, while Amanda would get her big break opposite Bruce Willis in The Whole Nine Yards.
Before making this movie, Amanda's biggest part had been a role on the short-lived TV series C.P.W., Jennifer had appeared in a TV Mini-series called Dead Man's Walk. Neither of those appearances would have suggested the stardom they would achieve.
After this movie, Dan's most recognizable television role was as Amy Brenneman's brother on Judging Amy. Oh, and he won an Oscar for writing Capote (he was also executive producer), and writer and executive producer on HBO's brilliant In Treatment. Among the other guests that you might know are Timothy Olyphant, who is currently the lead in Justified.
As it turns out, this time, the producers were right. Many of these people did go on to become stars. The number of times that actually happens, as opposed to the number of times you hear it will happen, is incredibly small, so the fact that not one, but multiple stars emerged from the cast of this little-remembered film is truly amazing.
Anyone who follows this blog knows that I rarely use real names when there is as problem, so, you may have guessed the answer to the question that inevitably comes up when you mention big names like this, which is, "how were they to work with." The answer, across the board, is that they were not only excellent actors but perfect professionals and genuinely nice people.
I have had a few good experiences with future stars over the years, but as AD or line producer, when you hear someone is a "hot" young commodity, it often means trouble. It has been my experience that the actors (I use the term gender-free) who are the most trouble can often be those who are still on the rise, who have been told that the big break is right around the corner. Older, established stars are usually past the ego portion of their careers. Younger, emerging stars are often, like children, seeing just how much they are loved and just how far they can push things.
That was not the case with this cast, who were a lot of fun to work with, in fact, sometimes too funny to be around. More on that in the next part.
Just as most years, the Vanity Fair cover features actresses - and usually sexy ones - the two star names that emerge are Jennifer and Amanda. Jennifer and Amanda were not the only lovely young women on set, but they certainly did stand out. Because of the roles they played. Jennifer played a bit more plain and Amanda a bit hotter, but they were both quite lovely.
One of the odd things about being around beautiful women when you are working on a film, especially in production, is that it doesn't occur to you just how lovely they are. At least, that's the way it works for me. Maybe it's the old stage manager in me that just got used to being around other attractive people changing backstage, but a certain helpful defense mechanism kicks in for me that tends to block the sexiness out.
Trust me, its a good thing. It makes it a lot easier to focus on my work.
It reminds me of my favorite scene in the movie True Confessions with Robert Duvall and the late Ken McMillan. McMillian was a wonderful character actor that often played gruff Irishman - he had that look.
McMillian's character is telling his detective partner, Duvall, how he gets enjoyment out of checking out brassiere ads. At one point, he brags that he can guess the exact bra size of any woman he passes. In a moment of visual brilliance, director Ulu Grosbard has a rather buxom woman pass both of them. McMillan is so caught up in his conversation with Duvall that he never even notices her.
My first impression of working with the absolutely stunning Jennifer Garner on set? Her work schedule. Yeah, sad.
Jennifer was cast in a crucial role on our set, and a small role in a Woody Allen film (Deconstructing Harry), at the same time. There were a few times when the schedules of the two movies conflicted.
One of the many axioms my mentor Stan Bickman often repeated was never cast actors with conflicts, but, in truth, sometimes they are too good to pass up. We had booked her first, and, if the producers were jerks, they could have just insisted she stick to our schedule and that was it. It probably would have meant Allen re-casting, which would have been a shame for Jennifer . Getting to work on a Woody Allen film is special for any actor, and for one on the rise, surely, it would be horrible to lose that opportunity.
I spent some time, as did Brian, coordinating with Jennifer and Allen's production people. They were really good about it as well, not pulling rank on a lesser-known set of producers and director.
As previously mentioned, scheduling with a large ensemble cast is challenging, and I have to credit Brian for helping me keep all the pieces of the puzzle straight.
One of the ways you can tell which stars have risen is taking a look at the promotional art. The box-cover now for 1999 is a picture of Amanda Peet, in all her loveliness, in a very tight dress. Definitely will get more attention than any picture of Stephen Wright.
Now that you have a look at the cast of characters, both in front of and behind the camera, in Part 3, we will discuss more of the actual making of this almost-lost indie, and how things played out on set.
*In a bit of irony, in 1996, the issue did feature men. Among them were some correct calls, like Leonardo DiCaprio, and some short-sighted ones, like Skeet Ulrich and Michael Rapaport. After his success with Higher Learning and some other indies, Rapaport was not a bad guess - just a wrong one. His name kept being shoved at us for a romantic lead in a movie we were developing. While a good actor, Rapaport could not have been more wrong for a romantic lead that was, on top of everything else, written as Hispanic. It was this ridiculous piece of casting advice that led my partner and I to start talking about "industry hot."
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
"When The Change was Made Uptown
And the Big Man Joined The Band"
Tenth Avenue Freezeout
So, this post, this turning point in my career, starts with an Assistant Director getting replaced; and a good one. As I have pointed out, this is a more common occurrence than you might think. As a matter of fact, it became something of a recurrent theme, as my first gig as First AD came replacing someone.
In this instance, it was someone I knew, and a very good Assistant Director. I never found out the reason for the change, but got a feeling it was mutual and not acrimonious. The brief introduction to the project by the producers did not include any scathing indictment of the previous AD, and my brief conversation with the previous AD did not come with recriminations of the producers. This was, at least, a good sign.
The movie, 1999, was about a party on the eve of the millennium, which was then a little bit away. It was being directed by Nick Davis. In speaking of my old friend, the talented writer/director Raymond DeFelitta, I pointed out how it was years after I first met him that I realized that his father had been in the business. Similarly, 1999 was long-wrapped before I discovered that he came from an industry family, and I mean, a
"breeding on both sides," as they say in horse racing, that would have impressed anyone. His father is film director Peter Davis, his paternal grandparents were both acclaimed screenwriters, and his maternal grandfather was the legendary Herman J. Mankiewicz.
I've worked with people who had a fourth cousin that was an assistant editor on a Scorcese film that reminded you of this hourly, and the fact that it never came up once in all my time with Nick says a lot about his character. The only equivalent I can think of is someone failing to tell you they were a Kennedy.
I did know there was something special going on. Here was a director without any lengthy resume shooting a film with some actors I knew, comic Steven Wright and The Graduate author and Saturday Night Live regular Buck Henry. I was also told that some of the young actors on the shoot were "up-and-coming," what I used to refer to as "industry hot." (much more on that in subsequent posts). I certainly was not familiar with them. While IMDB had been around for a few years at that point, it was certainly not the industry standard it is today, so checking people's credits still had some mystery.
To the logistics of the movie:
All of the action took place in one townhouse. We were shooting the main action on 35mm, but director Davis, himself a documentary filmmaker, would also be a "character" who shot home movies on video, and that footage would also be used.
The townhouse was three floors, with most of the action on the first and second floors. Production and holding for actors was mostly on the third floor, so it would not have to be struck constantly. Because the party happens over one night, continuity was a big issue. We had to bring back most of the extras for background - it would make little sense to see different people in the background in every shot at a party that happens over one night. As I will also go into with subsequent posts, there were actor conflicts.
All of this meant I was walking into a lot of logistics to deal that had to be addressed without a real feel for how it was being handled.
On my first day, the producers walked me through, and introduced me to the two 2nd ADs, who had not been let go. One of my first decisions would be whether to keep the 2nds or replace them.
This was a hard one. I figured they knew a lot more about what was going on than I did, and that could be helpful. When these sorts of parting happen, however, producers sometimes like a clean break. All of the reasons to replace them would have been political. Would they resent me? Would it make the producers happy? Should I bring in someone loyal to me?
If you think politics has no place on a film set, well, good luck with that.
I did not have someone waiting in the wings. I had been PM and line producer more than an AD recently, so I didn't have a regular second, and my calls to the few seconds who I trusted turned up people who had either moved up to First AD or were not available.
Talk about good fortune.
I decided to give the two, Amy and Brian, a chance. If nothing else, they could guide me until I found replacements.
We didn't exactly shoot in sequence, but we tried to stick to it somewhat, so there was a lot of striking set, moving to the next one, coming back to the first. Not my preference from either a logistical or scheduling perspective, but, hey, we weren't there to make things easy for the 1st AD. I already had the luxury of one building to deal with; I was not about to complain.
So it was, a moment I will always remember. The PAs were responsible for striking sets and clearing rooms for the next set, while art department dealt with the details. We had a lot of PAs, almost all of them without much experience. It amounted to a lot of "hands," which was exactly what I needed as we wrapped one set and were moving on to the others.
Neither Brian nor Amy were shouters, which was good. Over the years, I had developed a calmer demeanor, and always hated screaming on set. It just sets such a bad mood, but, we were still in the age when, as one co-worker once famously said to me, an AD was often thought of as "a grip with an attitude." Sure, on DGA gigs, this would be ridiculous, but on the low-budget indies, we were doing our best to establish demeanor and rules in the absence of anything on paper.
I got on walkie and calmly said, "Hands, please." There was some shuffling and scuttling, but not in the way of movement into the room, certainly not as fast as I would have liked. I also only heard my two ADs reply with, "copy."
Now, this is a major annoyance with newbies on walkies, PAs who don't "copy." It means I don't know if you heard me and are just not doing it, you lost your walkie, you're "on a mission" (someone else in charge has you doing something) or just fell asleep in the corner.
I get back on walkie: "I need hands, please. PAs, please copy." Static.
As a deep sigh was leaving my lungs, I feel the movement erupts like a volcano. Over walkie comes this voice, calm but firm, only slightly raised.
"I heard JB call for hands. Is there a reason no one is copying?"
Next came an immediate string of "copy that"s, followed by PAs running into the room. Before the ones who were just outside the room made it in, there was Brian, my 2nd, having made it down two flights of stairs moving things and directing PAs.
In bad Rom/Coms, this is when they backlight people and play violins. Don't get me wrong, Brian and I are happily straight, but I took one look at this calm big man, making things happen, and I thought, "you're not going anywhere."
When working as a 1st, chemistry with your 2nd is important. It is even more important when you line produce and UPM and need to work with a 1st AD. The problem with 1st ADs who move up to UPM or line producer is we tend to either expect our 1st ADs to work like us, which is unrealistic, since no two people are alike, or we tend to micromanage. The solution is finding someone whose style may not be exactly like you, in fact, who can complement you with their difference, while respecting them.
This was that guy. A big man with broad shoulders (I later learned his friends called him "Biggs") he was nonetheless always calm and quiet, but when he needed to make a point, everyone listened. He commanded respect because of how he dealt with problems on set and, more importantly, how he dealt with people. We've worked together many times over the years, and never, not once, has anyone come up to me and asked, "why did you hire him?"
Truth be told, I think those same people liked him more than they did me. That's just fine by me - I tended to agree with them.
I love the calm Brian brings to a set. If I come on set as line producer, and things are a little off, I look at Brian, he will shrug his shoulders, then give me a succinct and simply explanation, one that I know that I can trust without an ounce of defensiveness.
Amy was very good as well, but had a very different personality. It was okay, they did complement each other, and I wasn't about to replace either of them.
Yeah, right then I knew what that look Springsteen gave the late/great Clarence Clemons meant. If you ever saw them live, you saw it, and never so much as when Bruce would sing those lines above, "..and the big man joined the band." It meant that finally, everything fit. It's the line I always thought about when Brian would have his first day with us on any shoot.
So, we were a team, a team that would work very well together, on a very creative and funny movie.
This was the beginning....
Sunday, December 9, 2012
So far, this blog has gone from my college and theater days, to my introduction to film, through the films of the early Nineties that formed who I would become as a film professional. From there, we looked at some missed opportunities, establishing how I would work, my introduction to Reality TV and Taxicab Confessions.
Because I was determined to not let sequence get in the way of staying relevant, we have occasionally jumped to the present, which I think helped put some things in perspective.
We now enter 1996 and 1997 and two films that, ironically, have subjects that bookend the 20th Century. The first one was 1999, a film I took over as First Assistant Director. The story is about a party on the eve of the New Millennium. We shot on 35mm film, but also on 8mm to represent home movies. The second was Man of the Century, a musical that deals with a contemporary man who lives like it is still the Roaring Twenties. We shot this in Black and White, to get a feel for the era.
In order to show the ups-and-downs of the business, I have shown production with all it's warts. In order to not be one of those people who trashes others, I have, for the most part, avoided using real names where calamities were involved.
On these two films, I can actually use real names, because, while there were certainly challenges, they were both very good movies with very good people.
The films, together, brought beginnings and endings. I met Brian, who would be my 1st AD for many features , on the set of 1999, where he was the 2nd AD. Brian and I still work together today. Man of the Century would be the last film that I got to make with Stan Bickman, my mentor.
1999 went largely unnoticed, though it featured a number of huge future stars. Man of the Century went on to win the Audience Award at Slamdance.
As I was line producer on Man of the Century, I can take a little more credit for the movie we made than 1999. I was as proud of what we did with Man of the Century as any film I ever made, and, with all due respect to other filmmakers I have had the pleasure of working with, it is the one I point to when people ask 'just how good can a low budget movie be?" This includes a film I later produced and co-wrote.
These are two films I've been waiting to discuss, and I hope it will be as much fun for you as I know it will be for me.
At many points along the road, we may think, "this is going to be a turning point in my life," but the truth is, only time determines those turning points. These two films were certainly a turning point for me.
The last few weeks have been spent rewriting a horror film, so I haven't had the time to do the blog properly. In the past, I sometimes rushed posts, and, if I am honest with myself, I was not as happy with the writing as I could have been.
For those who began their careers in the past decade or so, these films are probably not on your radar. They should be. Both are quality projects with great directing, great casts, and fun scripts.
This was Nineties indie film-making at it's best. Enjoy.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Some jokes lose all value when the reference becomes archaic.
As indie producers follow the spiral downward in terms of pay for crew, I have already had some DP friends joke ,"Will shoot for food," and, sadly, they often are not far off, given some of the rates.
I'm old enough to remember people joking that someone wanted to "pay them with Green Stamps," and recently, this thought came to me when I accepted barter in exchange for some work I was doing.
First, an explanation about Green Stamps.
The reference is to S&H Green Stamps. The way it worked was a number of supermarkets, department stores and other retailers would give you these Stamps along with your purchase. The stamps would go into books, and the books could be traded in for items.
As with most "rewards" programs such as this, the work was hardly ever worth the effort. To get anything of real value - you know, more than a new toaster, for example - you needed to amass an amazing number of books, not to mention the embarrassing process of having to put them into the books. Like postage stamps, they had to be moistened on the back.
I can still remember Mom, with the sponge on one side, the books on the other, and stamps in the middle. She created a small assembly line. Remember, our parents were from what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation," that had grown up during at least part of the Great Depression. Getting value from everything was important. If some company was going to give something away, they were going to be there to take it.
Even then, however, some people saw how the process outweighed the rewards, and the joke about allowing others to pay you in "Green Stamps" arose from people offering something of little value for barter.
Usually, this is the reference that comes to my mind when I see these "job" notices that offer "meals, IMDB credit, copy of the film and a chance to work with other filmmakers." Nice, except all of those things should go without saying, and in no way change the idea that many of us do this for a living. These are not really forms of compensation - and I already have a toaster.
Now, my case was slightly different, and, to my mind, worked out not so bad at all.
There is a filmmaker who has had a number of projects over the years that required a budget to raise funds, and he has repeatedly come back to me. These were good projects; there is no reason they should not have been funded. One, a feature, had gone up and down the budget ladder in what would look like a Marx Brothers movie if it weren't so sad. The script, based in part on his life, was a good tale of a young man who marries an older woman, who expects them both to live a high life, and keeps them both living lavishly.
The townhouses and rich lifestyle they chase made it impossible to do this in the very low indie mode, say, below $1 million. We budgeted it for the least we could imagine. Then, a big name producer and director wanted to get involved, but, of course, that that upped the budget, so we revised it upward. The result? It's too big a budget- can you cut it?
I've been on this roller coaster before, and while it is frustrating for me, it is more frustrating for the filmmaker. Reasonable changes I do for free - I can't justify making someone pay every time someone wants to tweak something in one direction or the other. In this case, each of the changes was so drastic and so much work that while I charged a good deal less for the revisions, I did require an additional fee.
There were also two other projects, one a documentary, as yet unfunded. Each time he paid me.
This time, he needed something simpler, and asked if I could do it for a little below my regular rate. I really felt bad for the guy - these were all worthy projects, and all he saw was money going out.
"Just give me a number," I told him. I knew he would be fair, and while it was way below what I would have charged someone else, it was more than reasonable.
He works at the Metropolitan Opera, and asked if, in exchange for accepting the lower end of the range we discussed, he could throw in a pair of tickets to the opera.
It was a new production of a contemporary piece, and while I don't ever get to go to the opera any more, I lived with an opera singer, was married to a musician and once directed for a young opera workshop. Sure, I would take the tickets.
Accepting the tickets also allowed me to do something nice for the camera person who is one of my favorite crew people who let me crash at her place when Hurricane Sandy left me with no power for a while.
She had never been, but asked "Can we get dressed up?" Sure, I told her. "Don't let me down," she said, and on the day of, when I reminded her of the time, she reminded me of the promise. There was a little history.
She has her own camera, and a few years back. I line produced a Live from the Artists' Den show for PBS.. I hired her, but told her that the producer wanted all the camera operators to dress in formal wear. She was the only female, and was glad to do so. "Are you going to dress up."
I didn't have the time to change, but joked that one day I would dress in my teen 70s attire - full bell-bottoms, dickey, etc. Now, most of you may have seen pictures of your folks in bell-bottoms, but dickeys, in their late-60s and early 70s incarnation, were not false tuxedo tops, but rather false turtlenecks. No, I cannot describe why this ever became a fad, and, to borrow from that current fashion reality show, few of us made it work.
Well, even at my Mom's place, most of those clothes are gone, and, sad to say, what may remains no longer would fit. I've gained more than wisdom over the years.
My friend was worried that I would renege again, but, as the picture below can attest, I did not.
When one of your friends and crew people is also a lovely opera and dinner companion for the evening, let them joke. It's certainly rare that I get to dress up, and there's joy enough in the charm of good company.
The opera that evening. The Tempest, by Englishman Thomas Ades, was written only a few years ago, and this was the first time I got to see a composer conduct his own work (in no small part because most of them are dead).
The opera was wonderful, the coloratura who sang the spirit Ariel being among my favorites.
The next week, my producer friend had another spare pair of tickets, this time to Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera. This was a more old-school production, but again, marvelous voices.
Two wonderful evenings of entertainment in return for a small discount. Not bad at all.
Of course, I hope that the general work environment does not become one in this digital age where barter becomes the norm, but heck, I can't complain. I didn't even have to lick any stamps.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
How Far Will This Mom Go To Protect Her Turf?: Watch this video of a mother in her natural habitat trying to save a seat on nickmom.
Sometimes, they rope you in to being in the shot. I was line producer on a series of pilots for Nick Moms.
In this episode, myself and my long time First AD Brian Bentham are the two "Dads." Much like on set, Brian is the real star and I'm just a supporting player - the guy in the mustache and beard trying to act in the last row.
To paraphrase My Cousin Vinny - yeah, we blend.
Sometimes, they rope you in to being in the shot. I was line producer on a series of pilots for Nick Moms.
In this episode, myself and my long time First AD Brian Bentham are the two "Dads." Much like on set, Brian is the real star and I'm just a supporting player - the guy in the mustache and beard trying to act in the last row.
To paraphrase My Cousin Vinny - yeah, we blend.
Monday, November 19, 2012
Back in March, I told about an old boss of mine, Dave Tuttle. Dave had a long and successful career as a line producer before becoming a key figure at Gun For Hire, the production arm of Shooting Gallery, and a big part of that company's success (and no part in the part company's subsequent failure). Dave will be featured in a documentary about Shooting Gallery's meteoric time, titled Misfire: The Rise and Fall of Shooting Gallery.
I said in that original post:
" Dave Tuttle was a former producer and line producer who conceived and led Gun For Hire, and there wasn't a person who worked for him who didn't rave about the experience. He disproved the idea that good guys finish last, or that you could either be good and efficient or a nice guy. Dave was both, and in late 2000, he hired a guy who had been through the indie line producing wars and was ready for a "real" job - me.
I was almost 43 then, and probably older that what the position suggested. Dave didn't care; he saw what I would bring to the job. Ageism - and every other ism - is alive and well in the film business, but Dave looked past it."
I also said that Dave was the best damn boss a person could have.
This post adds little to the film part of the story - my apologies to those who only come here for indie film stuff, which I usually try to provide. It does talk to that great boss - and person.
As that article and a CNN report told, Dave now makes a living selling pies. It does well for him because he makes great pies with a lot of love, but certainly has not made him rich.
Thanksgiving is without a doubt the biggest time of year for pie makers, the time when their steady flow of income becomes a flood of income that will cover the slow times for a small business owner.
At a time when others would be cleaning up - and who can blame them - Dave decided to give back. While this should not surprise anyone who knows him, it is more than a token gesture. It gets to the heart of giving.
Dave posted this recently on his Facebook page:
"After speaking with friends who brought meals to those so severely affected by Hurricane Sandy and her aftermath, I decided that I too must reach out to those who lost so much and still lack the basic necessities including daily hot meals and comfort food. I have decided not to bake pies for sale this Thanksgiving, instead my family and I will bake as many pies as we and deliver and serve them on Thanksgiving Day to our neighbors in need. I know many of you may be disappointed that you will not have your pies on your Thanksgiving table however I feel this is something I must do. I am thankful for your continued support and thankful that I can help those in need of comfort."
Dave lives in Upstate New York, and had friends and neighbors who were hard hit.
On Thursday, though, Dave will be venturing from home to donate some of those pies he is donating to a warming tent in Far Rockaway.
I was displaced for two weeks by Hurricane Sandy. A writer/director friend of mine was out of his home, with his family, for the same amount of time. I know many across the film community in New York who were put out, including a location manager and college buddy who had severe damage to his longtime home. Some are still without power.
Hurricane Sandy was no small inconvenience. Although some would like to act as if it is over, it is not for many of my colleagues, not to mention so many others.
As heat and hot water have not returned to my place, I'm writing this from the home of a long-cherished colleague and crew member, who has generously opened up her home with no reservations for me. For all the pain this storm has brought, it has also brought out the good in people. I have seen so much unselfishness, and it's truly heart-warming to know that those you work with are truly friends.
Here is a chance for you to do something good as well.
Besides those pies Dave is donating, someone suggested that people could "sponsor" pies, so as to help even more people.
Dave posted how to do so below. If you can find it in your wallet and in your heart, I hope you do so. It's called comfort food, and many people can use a little comfort this year.
I will try to spend part of my time as a volunteer for those displaced.
May all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
Hello Friends, What a great idea, "sponsoring pies" -great way to pay forward - over 20 pies sponsored and counting. Many of you have asked where you can send a check for your sponsorship here's the info:make checks payable to Dave Tuttle, 94 Grand Street #5AA, Croton on Hudson, NY 10520 . We are all in this together!
Friday, November 16, 2012
"I used to be Snow White...but I drifted"
There is no actress in the history of cinema who is more quoted on the subject of sex than Mae West, who spent a career dodging and finding ways around censors.
After years in vaudeville and on stage, her first film role came in the 1932 gangster film Night After Night, at the urging of her friend, George Raft. According to her bio, she had a good deal to do with how her role was re-written and directed, including one of her more memorable lines, in response to "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds."
"Goodness had nothing to do with it," she famously replied.
Few remember that when she made that notable film debut, she was 39 years old. That's right, 39 years old. In film after film for a decade or more afterwards, she continued to play a sexual object of desire.
Marlene Dietrich made her film debut in Germany at the age of 21, but her Hollywood debut at the age of 29 (Morocco), and was noticed for her roles as prostitutes in Dishonored, Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus. She, too, continued to play sexual creatures well into her late thirties and early forties.
Yes, the role of ingenues have always gone to women in the early twenties, sometimes a little younger, as with Lauren Bacall's sexy 19-year old performance in To Have and Have Not. However, Hollywood in the early studio days assumed that their male audience would be attracted to women, and didn't think it odd to cast women in their thirties or even older as sexy leading ladies.
Today, there are better roles for women once they get past their early twenties, but still not near as many as there are for men. They hit what I call "The Actress Sabbatical."
You know it when you think about the careers of the current "hottie" actresses. Some young actress will seem to be the hot love interest in almost every film for a certain period - Salma Hayek, Jessica Alba, Halle Berre; before them Charlize Theron, Uma Thurman, Cameron Diaz. Then, suddenly, without notice, their appearances become a little scarce, until the point at which they play - sigh - the "other woman", or worse, the "friend."
I call this transitional period from ingenue to character actress "the actress sabbatical," as if there were some lush island nation where they are allowed to tan and wait for more mature roles to arrive.
These are for the stars. For everyday working actresses, and especially indies, they go from playing the girl in the nude scene to the "young mother." As someone who has many actress friends, that first offer of a "young mother" can be chilling. It means that casting directors no longer keep your photo in that pile of "hot," sexy actresses.
This is not to say their are no roles for women being love interests into their thirties and beyond; certainly there are. Today, though, we have actually developed new terms for them, "MILFs" or "cougars."
Reviewers seem genuinely surprised when someone like Diane Lane can actually be seen as sexy and a little older, sometimes - heaven forbid - being attractive to younger men.
Meanwhile, as actress Greta Scacchi (The Player) once said, "Hollywood will accept actresses playing ten years older, but actors can play ten years younger."
The double standard hardly needs much explanation, and is hardly new. Indeed, one of the more famous screen romances, Bogart (44) and Bacall (19), would not have happened if not for the constant pairing of older men as appropriate suitors for younger women. While I would never suggest that Cary Grant or Clark Gable or any of those folk were not dashing into their older years, it's not like female stars of the same stature were always afforded the same luxury.
If some were to suggest that younger women are naturally attracted to older men, let me share this story. I loved the movie Atlantic City. For those who may not remember the 1980 Louis Malle film, Burt Lancaster plays an old, ex-gangster named Lou who helps a young croupier, played by a (then) young Susan Sarandon. Well, Lou wasn't quite the big shot gangster he imagines he was; not really a hit man but a marginal numbers guy. Still, he offers his protection, and even at 67 years old, Lancaster was still charming.
I was in college at the time, and mentioned to my date that it was absolutely believable that Lancaster and Sarandon (then 34) would have a brief sexual encounter. Her response can basically be boiled down to one word: "Eew!" further dispelling the notion we males like to foster as we get older that women find age attractive.
All of this is by way of talking about one of the more interesting aspects of my return to SOC.
One aspect of the movie features the lead character, a young woman bored with her life and trying to find something new, in a relationship with a nihilist older theater director, played by one of New York's wonderful character actors. In one scene, she finds herself in a threesome with another woman and this man. We will call the actress playing the other character Eve.
When I looked it up recently, I was surprised to find that when SOC was shot, Eve was in her early forties. Fit and attractive, she could easily have passed for mid-thirties. In her younger days, her good looks and figure had led her to roles as dizzy blondes, even though she was quite the opposite. In addition to one noted film appearance, she had established herself in many Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals as a fine singer.
Z hired her for her talent, not just her looks, and since there was nudity involved in the scene, he offered her early on the option of having a body double as the type of courtesy he might offer a star of any age.
She would hear nothing of it, insisting on the integrity of the role, and maybe just a bit because she rightfully was still very proud of her fit body.
So it was that I arrived on the day of shooting that scene to find the crew standing around in the hallway. It seemed that Eve was complaining about the work of the make-up artist and the body make-up involved.
The old stage manager in me quickly figured out that the problem was not with the make-up artist, nor necessarily with Eve doing a scene with partial nudity, but doing the scene where the other woman was somewhat younger.
This might seem vain to some, which is why I opened this article with an explanation of what it can be like for actresses getting even slightly older (I refuse to call anyone of any gender in their mid-forties "old"). Because of my experience in the area, I spent about twenty minutes talking with Eve, after which everything went fine, and she is wonderful in the final scene.
Veterans will tell you that nude scenes are far from titillating on a film set; they are cause for problems. To properly protect the actors privacy, they are closed sets, meaning only essential personnel can be in the room. This means that anytime you need someone else in the room - a grip or electric to make an adjustment, a prop person, etc - time is taken to get everyone covered up, then the person, who would normally be right by, is summoned, they come in, everything resets. There is little sexy about taking more time than usual to get a scene done.
Additionally, the First AD has to take time to think about when to schedule it. After meals is always a bad idea, for some reasons the reader can imagine. Late in the day, the actors may be tired. First scene of the day, which is my preference (so it can't wind up getting pushed back to past lunch) means a slow start to the day.
I should again note that the problem was not one of Eve being concerned about showing skin, but rather the specific situation. The problems I've had with nude scenes have almost always been with actors, who are asked to show much less, rather than actresses. We men often talk about women's vanity, but from my experience, male vanity is a much bigger problem.
It is also a comment on our business that women feel routinely required to disrobe at some point in their career, where men consider it a special occasion. Think about it. How many times have you watched a "morning after" scene where the woman steps out of bed topless or completely naked, only to have the man remain safely under the cover.
In other areas, Eve was not shy about her body. We were filming at night in the Meatpacking area of Manhattan at a time when it was not a place for chic restaurants and clubs, but rather for cheap (and often tranny) hookers and crime.
Our set was a few blocks from holding, and Eve was hanging in holding a scene or two before she was required on set. She was dressed in very short cut-offs, a tight, skimpy blouse and high heels. This was her own wardrobe, not wardrobe for the set.
"I need to talk to Z," she said, as she headed for the door. "Eve," I said, "wait a second. I'll have the PA drive you over."
"JB, it's only two blocks. I can walk it."
I knew she was perfectly physically capable of doing the walk, but was concerned that her attire might attract unwanted attention. Certainly, Eve was not naive, but seemed not to be worried.
Watching out for my actors is always part of my responsibility, and although I was not acting as one of the producers, I knew what P, our AD who had asked me back, would think of me letting Eve walk to set under those circumstances.
I found a way to politely suggest that I never let talent "walk" without escort (a 1st team PA should always accompany talent in any situation when heading to set, so there is no confusion as to their whereabouts). As that PA was currently on set, I walked her over.
Eve has since crossed to other side of that "actress sabbatical," though more in television than film. Ironically, one of the places where an actress can transcend the bias against older women as sexual creatures is soap operas - ask Susan Lucci - and Eve started a recurring role on a soap in 2011.
Dealing with these situations with Eve was my only "producer-related" work on SOC after my return, the rest of my time dealing with the more mundane concerns of locations management, the details of which have faded from my memory. My time spent with the lovely and talented Eve remains one of my fonder memories of that period.
As I write this in 2012, I am encouraged that while we still have a double-standard regarding age and sexual attraction between the genders, that gap is closing, maybe even to the point where we get back, one day, to a time when a 40-year old Mae West could tell a 29-year old Cary Grant, "Come up sometime, and see me." (Yes, that is the correct line) and not be called a "cougar" or "MILF", but simply, an attractive woman.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
I know how Michael felt.
After I spoke to Z, I finished up some things I was working on, gave Matt the information he needed, shook hands, and agreed to follow up on some things at home. I expected I would visit the set at some point to say hello and see how things were going. After all, besides Z, there were people I knew or had helped bring on working on set, and I did want the project to do well.
There was a huge weight lifted from me. There are enough difficulties wo\rking on any project that personality and philosophical differences are not needed. I did not expect to be on set again until things were smoothly underway and I would not be a distraction.
Matt brought on a strong woman named P to AD. P - and she was actually known as that due to her long first and last name - was a perfect choice. She had been UPM and/or AD on some of the more important indies of the period. Soon, she had eclipsed Matt and was also a producer on the film.
She and Matt got along fine, as long as Matt did what she said. Not long into production, though, Matt's inclination to go for the cheapest option meant that P had little production support on set, and that was not going to work.
The call from "P" went something like this.
"JB, Z and I have been talking, and we think you could help us on set. Let me be clear about something; I don't need another producer. We have enough cooks. I need someone to basically location and unit manage, to make sure the day-to-day stuff gets done. If you don't mind getting your hands dirty, we could use you."
"Is Matt okay with it?" I asked.
There was a deep sigh, and then, "Matt has nothing to say about it."
It was clear who was in charge, and as we talked, Matt and I would have little to do with each other. I would be on set, and he would be in the office, which he preferred to set, anyway.
There are DPs who come up through the camera department, and DPs who come up through grip and electric. Similarly, there are line producers who come up through the office - office PA, APOC, Coordinator, UPM, then line producer; and then there are those that come up through set - PA, 2nd AD, First AD. Matt was the former; P and I were the latter.
It worked for everyone. I had a lot of respect for P, and over the years, I've learned how to work with other ADs and UPMs, respecting them and letting them do to do their jobs and me to do mine. P and I would have no ego or overlap problems.
Two of the people I had recommended to the shoot were Joe and Jenny.
Now, Joe and Jenny were the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern* of many of my projects. I had met them both on a previous nightmare project previously discussed, where Jenny was the perky new production assistant who drove me on a very, very bad day.
The two of them were cute, all-American kids, always chipper and smiling, the PAs who would always volunteer first when any task was at hand and then thank you for letting them do it.
Stacey had recommended Jenny in the first place, and Stacey and I often joked that we wished Joe and Jenny would just hook up already. They would smile and coo at each other, but we figured, to put it in teenage terms, that they had never gotten much past first base. They were actually stuck in an elevator once together for almost two hours, and emerged with not a smudge.
How they maintained their innocence working on film sets eluded Stacey and I. Then again, maybe we were wrong; maybe the two were insanely passionate lovers who hid it well on set.
Sometimes there is too much free time, and these are the things that come to mind.
I took a cab to set, and the first person I saw was Joe. He was standing tall on lock-up, alert as ever. He perked up as I got closer.
"JB, what are you doing here?"
That was the first time I used the line from Godfather III.
"Just when I thought I was out, Joe, they pull me back in."
"Cool, JB, Cool."
As soon as cut was called, I walked past, and I heard him announce enthusiastically on Channel 1, "JB is on set!"
I retained the associate producer title. but P and I were very clear on my duties. I immediately started getting crafty in order, seeing that trash was properly disposed of, sets were restored, and company moves went smoothly.
Yep, my hands were back in the dirt. I remember the first time I asked Jenny if she was ready to whisk first team to the next location on a company move, she replied, "Super copy that, JB!"
Ugh, still perky.
Then again, part of me hopes she has not grown into an old cynic like me.
There was something cathartic about getting back to my roots, handling the nit-picky little messy stuff, not worrying about big-picture issues like were we going to run out of money or make the day. P had those well under control.
Unlike Michael Corleone, there would be no pressure on my chest, no shortness of breath, no calling out to my brother. C'mon, I could never improve on Pacino's emoting, anyway.
In Part 3, some fun stories from the personalities of SOC (as I am referring to this film) now that I was back on set.
*While the reference to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern literally refers to the two messengers sent from the king to spy on Hamlet in Shakespeare's play of the same name, I have used this reference for years not as duplicitous fools but rather observers who watch without comment on the lunacy around them. I probably need to find a better literary reference, but it works for me, and I'm not ready to change yet. Suggestions welcome.
Saturday, November 3, 2012
I was working on Opposites Oppose (for those who missed Part 1) but thought it important to post this timely blog on the devastation that is Hurricane Sandy, as it affects me and my fellow New Yorkers.
I live in an Evacuation Zone A, which means I should have gotten the Hell out when they said to do so on Sunday. Like many others, I thought, sure, it will be a little rough, but I'll gut it out.
My only personal experience of living through a hurricane in the eye of a storm was in Miami in 1999. I can't say what hurricane it was, but know it was a doozy.
I was staying in South Beach shooting an insane movie with Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew. the details will come later.
On the night of the Hurricane, my hotel in South Beach lost cable - yeah, not the worst thing in the world, but my NY Mets were in the playoffs, and fellow Mets' fans will tell you that it hasn't happened often enough for us to miss. Myself and two other NYers on staff convinced a cab driver who was as crazy as we were to drive us across the bridge into Miami to watch the game at a pub.
We had to hold onto each other to get to the cab, then do the same at the bar. We found an equally common-sense-challenged driver to take us home. The worst of it was going - as the wind pushed us around as we crossed the bridge, and the rain was so hard we couldn't see out the windows. All that saved us is that no one else was stupid enough to be coming the other way.
Earlier that day, the office staff had asked to go home to the other side of the bridge for a day or so during the storm. The line producer, and not the human being, kicked in, and I told them we had so much to do before shooting began later that week that I really needed them to stay.
When the production coordinator pointed out that it was unsafe, I told them I would make arrangements to put them up at the hotel. the APOC (Assistant Production Office Coordinator) said, "JB, we would rather be at home, with our partners and family (I'm paraphrasing)."
"Dorothy wanted to go home, too," I said, "but she took care of what she had to do first."
I thought it very clever at the time; the office staff was less impressed with my wit. After realizing that we were going to not get much done as we were discussing this rather than working, I let them go home early, with all the "kindness" of Scrooge.
CUT TO: Me in my apartment this past Monday night. I had bought all the provisions I would need in case I could not get out a few days, and was prepared. Power was shut earlier in the afternoon, but I was ready with battery-operated lights and more than enough food and wine.
I took it lightly until the wind and the storm surge came. The building literally shook, at first from the wind, I thought, but that was not the case. I looked out the window and saw what literally (yes, it's Joe Biden time) looked like a river rushing down my street. The tree in front of my house split and fell into the middle of the street, thankfully not into my apartment.
Over the next few hours, I watched as the water got higher and higher, rising to at least five feet and just about reaching the first floor landing.
I was seriously rethinking my decision to stay, but at this point, even if I got through to 911, they weren't going to send that needed boat to rescue the idiot who failed to heed the warnings. I was reminded of this wonderful episode of West Wing, and the master actor, Karl Malden.
(Youtube does not allow embedding of this clip - if you cannot see it from the link above, just go to Youtube and search "West Wing Karl Malden". If you haven't seen it, it's both a great message and a great performance.)
I had heard all the reports, and prepared a go-bag in case the worst happened. Still not too sharp, my biggest concerns were a) I can't swim, b) I'm afraid of heights, if they were to do a helicopter rescue (yeah, THAT was gonna happen) and c) how do I keep my laptop from getting wet if I am saved. It has all of my budgets and work on it (though some is backed up to cloud).
My concerns were not necessarily in that order.
As I am writing this, I made it through. I was amazed at how calm everything was in the morning; just a slight breeze and clearing skies. Could this really be that much different than just twelve hours earlier? I looked out my window, and the water had completely receded. I had made it through, but would be lying if I said I wasn't scared.
My power has been out all week, and getting around is insane. Still, I have nothing but thanks, as so many others have lost so much in this storm. I broke my heart to see all or people's lives on the sidewalk as I walked to the nearest bus on Wednesday. Although there were things of greater value out, it was the toys that made me the saddest.
Sad children have always been the thing that literally brings me to tears. Maybe as an adult, I figure we get what we deserve, for better or worse. How do you tell a kid he can't play with his beloved toys anymore? After all, the kid must think, I've done nothing wrong. Why am I being punished?
If that seems trivial, it's still what my thoughts were.
During the worst of the storm that night, I thought about my thoughtless response to my office staff so many years ago. Maybe this wasn't Hurricane Sandy, but Hurricane Karma.
As a practicing Zen Buddhist for many years, I don't see karma as some sort of tit-for-tat, some scorecard where good and bad deeds are tallied, and something is sent out to you for each.
It stems from the Buddhist belief that makes the most sense to me, that I think of with every breath as I mediate, as I follow that breath in and out.
Separation is an illusion.
There is no "us" and "them," no "me" and "thee." That breath I take in is part of all of existence, and when I let that breath go, I share it. We are a part of everything, and everything is a part of us. With that being the case, how could our actions not affect us? We are contributing - or taking - from the same well.
Hey, I'm no monk. I can only express it as I see it. Every time I talk about my relation to Zen, I feel there is Buddhist scholar somewhere cringing because I got it wrong. Sorry, but that's all I got.
Next time, I'm sure my answer to the office staff would be different. Without a doubt, the image of that rushing water outside my building will come rushing back. Age takes away many things, but it should at least leave us with perspective.
I thought it more important to get this message out, so deep are my feelings for all those affected right now. I write this from the apartment of a dear friend and excellent camera woman, who has generously offered her place while she is away. Her flatmate kindly had sheets and even DVDs to watch as I arrived, this woman who does not even know me extending what comfort she could.
I know back by my apartment, and throughout the city and beyond, many others are not as fortunate. If this reaches one single-minded person somewhere, who thinks that whatever their occupation may be is more important than people's lives, and makes them think again, then I am happy that I wrote it.
As my email signature says, from dharma combat*, May Your Life Go well.
*For the sake of simplicity, I have chosen to link the Wiki explanation of Dharma Combat. Another example is linked here. I took part in this at my Zendo more than once, and it's a truly charged experience. Basically, it's an exchange between student and master, between masters, or, as my Zendo practiced it, also between students. At the end, we use the phrase "May your life go well." I always loved that as a way of ending any communication - so simple and yet says so much.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
A few years ago, I was reminded of this when I worked as line producer on a Tamil film shot in New Jersey where there were about six producers, from both the US and India, with about four different ideas of how the film should be produced.
There was nothing better as a line producer than having one producer ask you why we can't do things one way and isn't the other producer wrong to do what he wants, and then have the converse conversation with that other producer an hour later.
If that was bad, though, I found a situation that was ever worse in the mid nineties, when I was co-line producer on a project.
Because there were some really good people involved and it was a very worthy film, I will shorten names to protect, well, everyone.
There is a saying in football that if you have two quarterbacks, you really have no quarterback, and line producing is similar. The line producer not only prepares your budget, but also sets in motion the game plan for the the movie. Two line producers mean two visions for the movie.
Now, there are situations where it could work, where you have two people who have worked together and who are coming from the same place who choose to split up the responsibility. In fact, I know a few low-budget line producers who have situations such as this with their production managers. Even in those situations, where the two may be partners, they usually keep the titles of line producer and production manager separate. It helps to keep clear the chain of command, keep people from asking the same question of two different people.
I had worked with Z, the director, as a DP on another project. We spoke about this project, which I will simply call SOC, while on the other project. I very much wanted to line produce it, and Z very much wanted me.
Z is a very deep thinker, and the script for the film is Fellini's 8 1/2 with Woody Allen's New York intellectualism; a darker Hannah and Her Sisters with the sensuality explored more from the women's POV. If you're getting a little lost here, well, so did many people who viewed the film. As was my want, I once again was working on an eclectic film that some people loved and many others just didn't get.
To give you a better idea, some of the promotional material says the female lead character is, "determined to buck the materialism and spiritual sterility of modern society."
Boy, did that sell tickets!
This was never going to be a video game, which was fine by me. This was exactly the type of story that attracted me to the theater in the first place, and later, the type of movie I wanted to make.
As often happens, by the time Z was ready to shoot the film, financed in large part from his own pocket and work as a DP, I was on another project. We spoke a bit about me prepping his project while I was still on the other project, but that wasn't realistic, as line producer is not a part-time job.
Z hired someone else to line produce. Matt was a very capable line producer, and we shared having worked with yet another line producer and production manager, Hank.
Matt and I could not have been more philosophically different. Even before I started working with Stan Bickman, my approach to production was always creative as well as practical, making sure we are following the vision of the director.
Matt had no similar interest, his priority being to keep everything as cheap as possible, He had come up through the production office, not the set, as I had, and he never appreciated the little things that make things go on set.
A simple example was vehicles. I always used cube trucks with lift gates. Matt would rent trucks with ramps. Anyone who has ever actually moved equipment understands the difference. I understood why the camera department needed to block out part of a truck for their use, almost like an office, and as such, never made them ride with G/E. We shot film, and no one should be near the loader when he was in the bag. The AC should never have to go around anyone else to get to a lens.
These may seem basic to union folk, but on low budget shoots, there were people like Matt, who would shove everything onto one truck. Wardrobe with G/E as well? Sure, it was cheaper.
Make no mistake about it; Matt had successfully line produced films that did get sold. He was not incompetent. His ships, as it were, did not run smoothly, though, He liked ADs who were screamers to keep the "help" moving. I was not a screamer, and never hired them.
Z felt an obligation to bring me on, given my early involvement. For my part, I tried to defer to Matt, who had done the ground work for the project.
We shared an office, with two desks side-by-side that faced the door, our backs to the wall. People walking into our office would walk through a door that pretty much was exactly between us, so I would be on their right, Matt on their left.
There was a long hallway leading to our office, and the production coordinator sat right outside our office, close enough that he could lean back and ask us questions, or we could give a mild shout to give him information.
Early after my arrival, the differences became apparent. I would suggest that there were items missing in the budget; Matt would insist they were luxuries we did not need. I tried to defer to him, and he tried to accommodate me, he really did.
Soon, the strained attempt to be accommodating to one another and the suppression of what we really felt led to personal animosity. Matt, I must say, tried to hide it as much as I did, but it got to a point where not only did we not agree on how to make the film, we just didn't really like each other.
The walk down that long hallway became more difficult for people. They would walk in the door, ask a question, and often, get two diametrically different answers. It was not long before the door got shut more and more often while Matt and I would try to resolve our differences.
One day, the office folk were having a typical NY conversation: what is worse, rats or roaches in an apartment. Someone brought up the point that when you have rats in an apartment, they will often drive away the roaches, or some such thing.
Granted, it was not the most pleasant discussion in the world, but film offices are not much different from other offices in that banal conversation often takes on a life of its own. Pretty soon, everyone was weighing in.
Our production coordinator stuck his head in and asked us our opinion on which was worse, and, at precisely the same time, Matt said rats and I said roaches.
The logic behind our answers is not the point; rather, as someone quickly pointed out, Matt and I could not even agree on rats and roaches. The office got quiet, and Matt and I went for a walk. What started as a silly conversation had highlighted what we already knew; that we could not agree on anything.
I was the one to go to Z. Matt could make the movie, I told him, and I certainly could make the movie, but Matt and I could not make the movie together. As Matt was there first, it was obvious to me that I was the one to leave.
There were some above-the-line matters pertaining to cast and contracts that needed attention, and I agreed to stay on as an adviser (we might have actually used that deadly term, associate producer), but running the film would be Matt's realm solely.
It was the only way to go. Z made no attempt to talk me out of it; our disagreements only brought more stress to the work that needed to be done, and Z was not a high-drama guy.
It was all very civil, and when I walked out the door, I was sure that I would not be seeing most of the crew again on that shoot until the wrap party.
If you've been following this blog, however, you know that my work on many of my projects read like a Law and Order episode, always with that twist. Sure enough, JB would be back.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
2nd AD's love coming up with the Quote of the Day for call sheets. Somewhere, there is a 2nd AD who is dying to use this one from Argo.
Tony: "You can teach somebody to be a director in a day?"
John: "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."
Tony: "You can teach somebody to be a director in a day?"
John: "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."
Monday, October 22, 2012
Sorry for the short break from the blog.
In the world of indie film, when it rains, it pours. The converse, of course, is that when it's dry, it's a friggin' desert.
In the past two weeks, I've been commissioned to do two feature budgets and schedules for investors. One has changed parameters a few times, as they now have some name talent that may be attached.
The other is for a film festival in Europe that will fund them as long as the budget is under $150K Euros. This means doing the currency conversion, which is easy, as Gorilla software, my preferred software, does this, as does EP.
I have put together different templates for features and shorts over the years in both EP and Gorilla. The film festival funding this project, of course, has decided that applicants need to use their budget template in Excel. It's a ridiculous template, more appropriate for shorts or commercials and music videos than a feature. They also lump the oddest things - location fees are under "set dressing." What's up with that?
The requests for these budgets came at the exact same time I got called to line produce a pilot for NICK Moms. Of course, they did. They would not have come when I was twiddling my thumbs hitting "refresh" on my Gmail in the hopes of seeing a job offer come my way.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not complaining.
I am actually very happy that they both came via a contact I've had for a long time, a really good guy who runs a studio in New York. It was, in many ways, a typical contact. This was a guy who I first spoke to about two or three years ago when I was line producing an impossible feature in Connecticut (don't worry - it will wind up here). I needed a location manager for a few select locations in NYC.
Brendan runs a great studio in NY, NYLAHD. Shameless plug? You betcha'. Somebody throws you work, you return the favor. Also, I've had two people I know work with them and tell me great things - plugs aren't cool if the referral is a bad one.
While Brendan was unable to location manage that shoot, he continued to refer possible location managers and gave me some location contacts to follow-up on. It's people like this that make you feel good about the business; people who don't just say, "what's in it for me," but who just genuinely try to help out.
Both projects he referred to me are good scripts with seasoned pros putting them together. I really hope they get funded.
I have a love/hate/love/hate/love relationships with budgets and schedules.
I love the income between gigs.
I've come to hate starting the input and breakdown, then trying to figure out the perfect schedule. When I was younger, schedules were like crossword puzzles, cool challenges. Now, I pretty much dread them. They are still like puzzles, only ones where I wish I could cut the pieces to make them fit.
The writer in me loves the intricacy of the script. The AD in me hates that phone conversations and parallel action mean more breakdown sheets to enter. The line producer in me looks at a the schedule and says "those two guys have no lines in the diner scene. If they weren't there, I could shoot them out in one week." Not very artistic.
Of course, once I DO figure out the perfect schedule, I get this warm glow. At my age, that's no small feat. I love.
Then I have to start the budget. I'm not naturally a numbers guy, and my ex will tell you that budgeting my life isn't my strong point. Films? That one I got. Hate going line item by line item, but that's the way it gets done.
A budget is not just a bunch of numbers, it's a game plan for your film. Once I have finished it, I hate that the right way to present it is with detail notes; but once I've done that, I love the feeling of satisfaction I get from knowing I have fully planned out a film from start to finish.
Both of those budgets are done now, pretty much. I meet with the filmmakers tomorrow, and will probably tweak them after we talk, Getting to know their priorities and how they plan on attacking the film needs to be part of the conversation.
I should be sitting here, basking in the glow of victory, getting ready to send my left brain to a nice warm beach and drinks with fruit and funny straws while revving up my right brain to get back to a theater play I am writing.
Instead, I'm taking a deep breath, because last Thursday, a novelist called me. He found me on the web, and wanted to know my thoughts about producing a short he wrote. He sent me the script, and it's a dark, funny, satire. He even wants to shoot on 35mm, which truly made me happy.
Next step - schedule and budget for the short!