Tuesday, January 31, 2012

(Un)Lucky Stiffs - Part 3 - Hookers and Hussies

Least my previous two posts on Lucky Stiffs suggest that all was gloom and doom, I should point out that, with a good crew and Matt's calm direction, we had a number of good days.  It was, after all, a comedy, and comedies can have intended, and unintended, humorous elements.

This post will deal with some of the lighter moments.

When I came back to NY, Maureen and I were living in NY's Hell's Kitchen (although the city fathers would prefer I use the newer title Clinton, I prefer Hell's Kitchen and all the sordid history that went with it).  This is the Theater District and just south and all-the-way west to the Hudson River, where after the theaters were long closed, entertainment remained vibrant.

We started the shoot with some locations in Brooklyn, along the waterfront, and in New Jersey.  One of the more talented PAs I mentioned, Stacey, was assigned to pick me up and get me to set.  Although technically the 2nd AD is first-on-and-last-off, this was still early in my career and I was motivated (in no small part by fear of failure) that I had to oversee everything.  Capricorns.  As such, I wanted to get there before the crew vans to make sure all was well.

The rides with Stacey were great.  She had started out in theater as a stage manager - just like me!  All these years, I have loved to bring stage managers into the AD department; the temperament and skill sets required are very similar.  The differences can be learned.

The two key things I look for in potential production people are intelligence and enthusiasm.  Stacey had  both of these plus leadership skills, maturity, and the willingness to take responsibility.

The first couple of days of any shoot tend to be exterior day, and ours were no different.  This is for a couple of reasons, many of which are obvious to production veterans, but I will point out anyway.

As you go later in the day, it becomes harder to start early.  This is because, even with non-union crew, you want at least a ten-hour turnaround for crew, and must have twelve hours for cast. You want to get those beautiful sunrise (or magic hour) shots done early.  You also want to shoot  day exteriors early to avoid weather problems later on.

On lower-budget films, these scenes often use little or no lighting, only diffusion and reflectors to control "available light" (also known as the sun).  This means it's a good chance to get things moving while the crew and cast settle in.

This also means that your early shoot days have those un-godly call times, such as 5AM or 6AM.  We had our share of these, and Stacey would be picking me up in front of the brownstone I lived in before sunrise.

Hells Kitchen, in those days, had its own special brand of graveyard-shift freelancers, known commonly as hookers.  As I would sit outside, there was one hooker who always passed on the way home.  She later told me that at first she thought I was a detective, especially seeing me getting into the car.  She thought the cane might have been a prop.

After a while, though, she felt comfortable coming up and talking to me.  Yes, her first question involved a date, but after she realized that wasn't happening, she took to just chatting with me.  We would talk about how each of our respective jobs was going - her bad nights were worse than my bad days.

Stacey stoically would pick me up as my hooker friend would wave goodbye.  Stacey's evil grin grew day-by-day, along with her "I'm not going to ask, JB.".  Once we would get past the snicker, we would talk production, and she always got me to set calm and prepared.

Once on set, there were not only the production issues but the cast.  There was talent, and there was insanity.

One moment strikes me as indicative of the insanity that went on behind the cameras.

The script revolved around a jewel heist.  Two young slackers want to plan the heist, and they plan it with an older "experienced" criminal.  Turns out they could have made a better choice, as their veteran had issues.

He also had a moll.

I find myself using some older, classic terms in this post; moll, hussy.  Today, we tend to be more graphic or judgmental.

Hussy and moll are two phrases from a by-gone era, but they better represent the femme-fatales in this movie.

The older, experienced thief was played by "Broadway Bobby" Downs.  Sadly, Bobby is no longer with us - more on him later - but he had a wonderful "Moll," who I will refer to by her character name, Angela.

"Moll" was a polite term used in the old studio days for the girlfriend of a mobster.  It's origin is multi-fold; it comes both from the suggestion that she carries a gun, and "moll" is short for Molly, an Olde-world euphemism for prostitute.

See how it all comes 360 degrees?

Our "moll" was not a prostitute.  Angela's fatal flaw was that she had the bad judgement to be dating Eddie Minuchi, the older criminal.  In the script, Angela came off as a busty, sultry and alluring woman in her twenties.

The first scene in the movie in which she appears goes something like this: Eddie and Angela pull up in a cab, Eddie has bought her lots of expensive presents (this is how he keeps her).  She is about to get out of the cab, the young guys help her.  When they open the door, she drops the presents, revealing her ample cleavage.  The guys ogle her and lose track of what they are doing, impressed by her cleavage.

Do you still wonder why we weren't at the Oscars that year?

These, as I point out, are the light moments.  The real road bumps?  Oh, they are ahead.

Monday, January 30, 2012

(Un)Lucky Stiffs - Part 2 - Location Location Location!

In a perfect world, the assistant director would go into his or her fortress of solitude, where they would prepare the perfect schedule.

They would take every element of their breakdown into consideration, then the projected shot-list or story-board, think about both the creative and logistical elements, and emerge with the perfect schedule.

In fact, the AD can do that.  Then, they wake up.

Once you have the perfect schedule, you start dealing with the other issues.  You try to bring the director on board with the schedule.  Unless they have some major reason why they cannot make it work, you try to show them why it will be the best flow.  Once the DP is aboard, you might work out a few more of the specifics.

You really want a crane?  Hmm, can we schedule both crane shots for the same day so as to not rent it twice?  Is that worth the budget difference of having the crane on two separate days because other factors don't make shooting those two locations on the same day cost or time-effective.

If you are doing a feature, and working with SAG actors who you are, of course, paying, you should not be dealing with actor availability.  On any budget above SAG Modified Low, you are dealing with drop/pick-up days - but that's for another blog.  Assume they are available all through the shoot, and the schedule allows you to shoot them out in the most efficient manner, which usually means the least number of days.

Once you have done all of that, you talk to locations.

In your perfect schedule, you shoot the hospital on Day 3, the deli on Day 5, and the nightclub scene on Day 10.

Locations informs you they have finally found the perfect hospital, the perfect deli (they will shut down for us, the aisles are big enough, and the price is right) and a nightclub the DP has shot before that could have come right out of the script.

The hospital administrator must be there, and Day 3 is a Saturday - they need it to be another day.  The deli is cool - as long as you can shoot at night - you are on a day schedule on Day 5 and turnaround won't work.  The nightclub already has their hottest band booked for your Day 10.

Your perfect schedule just became not-so-perfect.

The two basic schedules that get distributed are the shooting schedule, which is the long breakdown, and the more common one-line schedule, which gives everyone just the basic facts.  Because this paperwork gets revised, and to prevent confusion, the original color for these schedules is White, with subsequent revisions running Blue, Pink, Yellow,Green Goldenrod, Salmon, Buff and Cherry.  Sometimes the colors after Goldenrod can be slightly different based on paper available, preference, etc.

Colors are fun in pre-school.  On a film, it means things are changing, and unlike the 2008 Presidential campaign, Change is not good.  It means logistics have to change, people have to actually read the changes and adjust to them (as an AD, I can't wait until we go digital and can just install chips each of the crew members brains where we can make the change simultaneously. )

On Lucky Stiff, we had a hard-working location manager named Glenn, who had us working in locations in NY and NJ, with the help of the NYC Mayor's Office of Film Theatre and Television (MOFTV) and the NJ Film Commission, which even then had the great Davis Schooner.

The permit system in NY is relatively similar to back then, with some minor differences (some would call them major).  Briefly, you needed to lay out exactly where you were shooting, where you needed to hold parking, what you were shooting, and if you needed NYPD or NYFD assistance.   If your schedule changed, someone had to go to the MOFTV to change it.  Today, some of that can be done with a fax.  Then, it was not allowed.

Suffice to say changes meant lots of work and paperwork.

As an AD, I want to lock the schedule, and that requires locking locations.  That means signed agreements and guarantees.  They came slowly on Lucky Stiff; as such, as we got closer to principal photography, I was juggling to move locations we had to the beginning, regardless of whether it was the best order.  I just didn't want to find myself not knowing if I could shoot the day as scheduled a few days ahead (changing equipment, actors, extras, etc.).

My apologies to veteran crew who know all this - I try to write the blog for both pros and curious others.

Additionally, I had an art department that could not assure me that locations would be dressed for when I needed them.  Certainly, part of this had to do with the location issues.  However, coordinating the logistics of seeing that these locations got cleared and prioritized fell on the production manager.  Nothing was more important, or so one would think.

Rody, as most UPMs when there is no line producer, was responsible for managing the budget, and I certainly know how hard that is.  However, the process of monitoring the budget should never slow the process down - you make decisions and you move on.  Rody was slow in this area, in part because she did not have two key skills for the position; the ability to prioritize and the the skill to delegate responsibility.

A UPM has many responsibilities.  We did not have a huge budget, but we had enough PAs, and there was enough money to have hired a production coordinator, who could have freed Rody up.  That, however, would have required her to a) communicate what was already being done with another person, and b) be able to explain what needed to be done.  Both required trust, and Rody was afraid that any admission that something had not been done was admitting failure.

All of this would have been frustrating enough if she had not decided that, having not done her job, she was going to interfere with mine.  She had never scheduled a feature film, yet would come up with her own ideas on schedule publicly after we were in motion on my schedule.

This requires some clarification.

I've said it before - ADs are possessive of their schedules.  That is because they have to take a ton of elements into account to produce the schedule, and the person who makes suggestions is usually just reacting to one or two elements.  If a move looks obvious, it often means there is some fact you don't know.

When I became a line producer and UPM, I gave prime responsibility for the schedule to the AD.  It didn't matter than I had been an AD - it was their ship now.  If I had suggestions, I made them in private, after hearing why they had it another way.  I did this, mind you, when in at least a few cases, the people who were now 1st AD for me had been 2nd AD for me before.  It didn't matter.  Prime responsibility now fell to them, and I respected it.

Rody never understood this line.  This led to confusion, and tension.

So, now the stage is set.  We are getting close to principle photography, and we have a schedule (revised multiple times before we get to Day 1) that has holes - scenes scheduled for which we do not have the location locked - or, in some cases, even agreed upon.

The first major decision I have to be involved with is whether we push back the starting shoot date.  There was a good reason to push back a day or two (I forget which it was) and we do that.  I do not, however, see how more time will change anything.  We have to start.  Pushing back seems easy, but I know it will bite us.

We know we will be done by, at latest, the second week in October now.  Someone makes a joke about Halloween.  Not funny.

We set sail.  We hope for fair waters, and to return safely to shore soon.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

(Un)Lucky Stiffs - Part 1 - Bringing Up Baby

I got back to New York in mid- August, the hottest and most humid time in New York.  The good news was that we weren’t going to start on Lucky Stiffs  until early September, and by then, the weather would be better.  The better news was that my original estimate, before breakdown, would be that we would wrap by the first week in October, before the weather got too cold.


The first people I met were Matt, the director, and Rody, the production manager.

Matt's background was as an editor, though he had co-written and directed one documentary.  For a director, Matt was a good editor.  He had clear ideas on what he needed for coverage, and he had written a simple, comedic story that he could get a handle on.   He was a veteran, one who knew the traditional way to make films, and for the most part, that was how I liked to make them.  Sure, we were low-budget, and the execution was different, but the organizational structure remained the same.

Matt was a pleasant, nice and decent human being.  Those are not always qualities associated with directors, and not adjectives I would use for a few I've known and a few I've worked along side.  Matt was in his late 30/early 40s, and past the ego  that sometimes drives young directors.  He wasn't worried about his next movie, or making a fortune on this one.  He knew the latter was unlikely, given the nature of the business.

He did not have an ego that needed to be stroked, and he didn't need to be king.  He was a successful editor, and would have a career in the business regardless of the outcome of the film.  He was comfortable.

Comfort is not always a good thing for a director or a movie.  A movie often takes on the personality of the director, and comfort for a film crew can lead to overconfidence.  A movie in production develops a psyche, it really does.  Bits and pieces of the personalities involved go into that psyche the way parents,  relatives, teachers and environment go into the psyche of a child.

It took a number of years in the business for me to come to my take on a production's psyche.  Over the years, I have kept a close eye on how this forms, making sure things never got too heavy or, for lack of a better term, too light.  Mostly, I have tried to 'biologically engineer' this psyche through the crew I hired.

Was this film a good fit for them, and how would they work with the other keys?

So, Matt added quiet and pleasant to work with to the mix.  I was never a screamer as an AD, but I'm a Capricorn, and we tend to suck up air in the room.  I'm much more laid-back now; I was much more front-and-center at that time.

You know JR and his main crew by now.  If you missed it, check out When JB Met JR - Part 1 - The Birth of JB.

I had a Second AD I had worked with before named Julie, and I brought on Chris Kelley from my class as 2nd 2nd AD.  This was a working relationship that would continue for some time, and CK (as we called him) and his personality would definitely be a part of the mix.

We had an earnest young PA who tried very hard but who always managed to wreak havoc who CK dubbed Satan's Child.  You will see why.

We had a young PA who became location manager and later became an integral part of our team.  She later went on to become a successful DGA First AD.

I met my mentor.

We had a hero named Shane.  Really.  He even had a little kid calling to him.

The cast included an actress in her mid-thirties named Antonina trying to play mid-twenties, a featured actor playing the "experienced" hood named Bobby who was more of a character off camera than on, and two cool young guys in the slacker roles.

Rody, the production manager, had a background in documentaries and covering her back, the latter of which included working closely and secretively with the production designer who she had brought  on board.

The production manager and the AD must work well together.  There are many films over the years on which I was AD that not only was the PM a partner, but a Godsend.  You make each other look good,  When I moved to more work as PM and line producer, I was the biggest fan of the AD, because I had been there, and did everything I could to have their back.

Rody was figuring her job out as she was going along, which would have been fine, if she had asked for help.  Instead, she covered mistakes and kept things a mystery until small problems became big problems.

This was not the perfect AD and PM marriage.

There was a natural, but not healthy, tension that developed.  Me, JR and his crew were one team; Rody and her production designer was another.  To be fair, all sides tried to make it work, but it got tense at times.

The first challenge we faced was the schedule and locations, which, in a perfect world, is a symbiotic relationship.  They are intertwined, and in the next post, I will talk about the scheduling and location securing process, and the rest of pre-production.

We were in prep, the child was born, and the psyche was being developed.  Stick around for the formative (weeks) years.

*As a treat for having entered the world of Lucky Stiffs, the classic screwball comedy - and maybe Grant's best - Bringing Up Baby

The Posts To Come - Truth, Lies and 35mm Film

Up until now, it's been pretty much a post or two per project.  We are now getting into a period where I did a number of features, and each of them will need multiple posts to cover.

Many of these films got limited, or in some cases, no release.  Some did better.

There is a line from Steely Dan's Deacon Blues that goes "They got a name for the winners in the world.  I want a name when I lose."  I don't consider these films losers, but many will not show up in any book on the indie film world.

They were the effort of just as much sweat, tears, and imagination as those films that went into indie lore,  and to quote Willy Loman's widow, attention must be paid.

I have tried, and will continue to try, to be positive.  I hate "reality" TV that is about casting villains.  You follow anyone around on a set for 12-20 hours a day, six days a week, and I guarantee they will come off as a jerk, myself definitely included.

Still, it would be dishonest for me to portray every project I worked on as a love fest.  That's just not real.

From here on in, don't assume that first name only means I saw someone in a negative light.  It just means that if I'm covering someone over a long period of time, I'm bound to say something negative, and this blog is not about bringing people down.

When a biographer came to an older John Huston to do the book called The Hustons (which I've mentioned), Huston gave the author his contacts, and sent him off with this:

'Tell them to be honest.  If they thought I was a sonofabitch let them just say it.'

I will be breaking the projects, starting with Lucky Stiff, into multiple posts, and they will be coming every few days - sometimes on back-to-back days.

This is truly Living in MY Oblivion.  This is my experience in the low-budget film world.  This is the reason I started this blog, to make sure there is a record of some of the great people and hard-fought projects that would otherwise go unnoticed.

I hope you enjoy.

Back to LA - I Am Not a Number - (But I Could Be 1A)

The following story is true.  The title of the film, as well as the names, have been changed or left out to protect the neurotic, the psychotic, and the petulant.

The city is Los Angeles, 1991.

I am there because a woman has sent me a dark, unique cerebral script.  She teaches film at a local California school, and we have a good conversation on the phone.

Have script I haven't seen one hundred times before, will travel.

This is part of the on-going flirtation I had with Los Angeles during this period.  My actress friend Annie had moved out there, as had some other friends.  Maybe Maureen and I would move as well.  If you've ever worked in film, you've thought about whether you should move to Los Angeles.

There isn't a huge budget for the film, but enough to get it done.  I was going to come on as production manager AND assistant director.  I had seen the really talented Paul Kurta do this on a feature I worked on in New York, and I had done it to some extent in on a few shorts, so it seemed okay.

The writer/director and the cinematographer were lovers.  They happened to be two women, but the lover/couple team is always a complex relationship on a film, regardless of make-up.  Often, it is one as director and the other as producer.  This was my only experience (to date, I might add) where it was cinematographer and director.  We will call the director Cheryl, and the DP Lynn.

The prep for the film went well.  I sat in on most shot-list sessions and many of the rehearsals.   Because I was not native to LA, I probably spent more time with the team than usual.  I really got to know them well, and was impressed by how much they supported each other.  Couples often try to hide affection on shoots; these two would hold hands during meetings.  What a good feel I got for this film!

Of course, I was reminded of something another LA indie film person told me - never believe what they tell you at Dennys.  It was an LA thing, and I later grew to respect it, and you can trade Denny's for any NY coffee house to cover the idea that nothing is ever as rosy as the first meeting leads you to believe.

The lead actress brought a lot to the table; the male lead, not so much.  The short was called The Artist's Wife (title slightly altered) and the man, who was featured in a soap out there, was very much a supporting role.  He was good enough, but there was no growth or depth in his performance.

When you are trying to UPM and AD, a good Second AD is essential.  Lack of budget means we were only paying a stipend, so I split the responsibility between two bright up-and-comers, leaving some of the UPM paperwork to one, and the other took on the 2nd AD paperwork.

As we got closer to the shoot, the DP would express her concern for the director, who was working the usual long hours.  Was she stressed?  Yes, but that was not unusual for a director close to rolling on a film.  I thought she would be alright, but also felt good that her partner was there on set as part of the creative team.

The lead actress had established herself as a solid character actress in bigger films.  She did a great job.

The lead male actor was, to be polite, passive aggressive, and as with some actors like him, left the heavy lifting to his agent.  I worked out the deal memos, which included giving him single card credit in the opening titles after the lead.  This was a short, and it was generous, but we all agreed it would work.

Both the actor and actress were on lower SAG rates.  While she made more, their rates were comparable.

All of this will become relevant soon enough.

The first day of principal photography, I am like a fire warden in an overcrowded bar - I expect the worst.  This is a good mind-set, as anything short of a Titanic-like day seems like a success, and I know when to deploy the lifeboats.

We set up for the first shot, and the director and DP are arguing.  Hmm, I haven't seen this before.  They were so close in prep.  I'm sure this will improve.

It gets worse.  By mid-afternoon, they are screaming at each other and I am clearing set to keep the disagreement in-house.

The lead actress is siding with the director and making things more uncomfortable.

We work through Day 1 like this, and things just get tenser.

Finally, we wrap Day 1.  I'm spent.  I want to get the director and DP into a room and get this worked out.  Before I can do that, the DP takes me aside.

"Have you seen Cheryl?" she says.  "She seems so stressed.  We really need to protect her more."

Oh, really?  Maybe if you weren't screaming at her on set, she would be less stressed.  No, I don't exactly tell her this.  I am thinking it.  I see this as an opening to make tomorrow better.  We go for dinner, the director lays her head on the DPs shoulder.  All is well.

Hey, maybe today was an aberration.  At least, tomorrow will be better.

Yeah, right.  Day 2 is a repeat of Day 1.  End of day is the same - all love and comfort.

There is one difference.  As I have pointed out, this was the days when beepers were more prevalent (and less costly) than cell phones.  I'm being paged with a 310 (LA) number.  Hmm, have to call later.  The young lady who is helping me PM comes to me on set.

"The agent for the lead actor needs to talk to you.  It's urgent.  He says he keeps paging you and you don't call back."

I know it was urgent - the 310 number was followed by a "911" at the end.  That meant it was an emergency.  Was the guy's wife sick?  Mother dying?  Oh, my God, I should have called back.

When we break for lunch, I call him back.  The conversation goes something like this:

"Hey, JB. How is Jack doing?"

"Pretty well.  What's wrong?"

"It's about the call sheet."

Let me explain something.   Remember I mentioned how breakdowns work in earlier post?  In order to get info on that little strip, you assign each character (and actor) a number.  That number represents the character.  You cannot keep fitting the character name everywhere, so you assign a number.

Generally, somewhere in the # 7 to # 10 area, you are getting into a subjective area.  Which character should be higher?  Different AD's might break it down differently, based on either shooting days, script pages, importance to the story, etc.

The #1 and #2 characters are easy - or should be.

"Jack (I'm making up a name for the actor) is upset.  You have him on the call sheet as # 2"

"Right.  He is right behind the lead."

"You know, males normally get higher ranking."

"You've read the script, right?  It's called 'The Artist's Wife'.  That means the story is about her."

"See. that's what bothers him.  It's about him, too."

"Well, yes, it is, but it's more about her, you know, the Artist's Wife?"

"Ok, I see why you assigned her #1.  You're trying to give the girl a break."

"No.  She is the lead.  That's why I assigned her #1

"Do you know who my client is?"

I want to say a two-bit soap actor, but I don't.  Circumstances to the contrary, I try to work with logic and facts.

"We've already worked out his billing and money in the deal memo.  Number on a call sheet is just paperwork."

"To you, its just paperwork.  To him, well, it really affects his attitude to come into work every day and see he is number 2 on the call sheet."

I almost drop the phone.  He must be kidding.  No, he isn't kidding.  This jerk of an actor has really asked his agent to have this discussion with me.

"Look, she is # 1 on the call sheet, he is # 2.  It's paperwork, and I'm not changing it."

"OK, I see where you're coming from.  It's all good.  I have an idea."

"What is that?" I ask.

"What if she is # 1, and he is, like 1A?  That could work, right"

What's in a number, really?

After lunch, the actor asked me if his agent had spoken to me.  The old stage manager in me kicked in - firmly, but politely, I told him I had spoken with him, and nothing would change, and I would appreciate him acting like a professional and not bringing it up again.  I gave him a look that made it clear I was not kidding.  I wasn't mean or nasty, just firm.

The short turned out well, and the tension between the DP and director was a little less on subsequent days, in no small part because I took the DP aside and said that Cheryl didn't just need support after the day was over, but during it.

After the shoot, the director asked me to teach a seminar in production at her college.  I loved it.   Passing on what we know is part of our job.  

While I am undecided as to what to do next, JR contacts me.  He has a guy who wants to do another feature.  He sends me the script.

Some things don't change.  Even then, I read scripts in coffee shops.  I was living in West Hollywood, so I was at a place on Sunset.  Don't recall the place, only remember it wasn't Duke's.  Went to Duke's early on, but found it too hip for me.

I was a ways through the script when I went to the men's room.  When I came back, there were three headshots on my table next to my coffee - and I could swear one of them looked like my server.

I love LA.

The script, Lucky Stiffs (real name) was a comedy about three bumbling hoods and the hot gang moll who joined them.  It wasn't very deep, but it was a comedy, and comedies are so much lighter and more fun on set.  

It was mid-August, and we would start filming in September.  I would have the prep time I needed.  I would be working with my buddies, my crew, on a comedy in the Fall, my favorite season in New York.

What could go wrong?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Great Blog - It's an AD thing...

As much as I try to do my bit for mental health in this country, talented young people continue to go into the productions side of the film industry.

If they are going to endure the pain, they deserve our support.

One of them is a great young AD in Texas named Michelle.  She has a wonderful blog called "It's an AD thing you wouldn't understand."  She has posts ranging from discussions of the nuts-and-bolts of production, to the daily woes on set.

She posted a production tic-tac-toe a few months back that had many of my friends howling.

If you enjoy my blog, I'm certain you will enjoy hers.  I follow her here, but I see her blog doesn't come up at the top of the blogs I follow, so I hereby provide you the link below :


We AD's may seem strong and commanding, but we need love, too (if you prick us, do we not bleed?  Well, yes, but we'll wait to get first-aid until after we get the shot).

I especially have to thank Michelle for exposing my blog to the Schmudde's  blog  Beyond the Frame, and getting some love for my post, When JB Met JR - Part 3 - We Must (Not) Shoot Today

Thanks for following my blog, and show your support to Michelle's as well.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When JB Met JR - Part 3 - We Must (Not) Shoot Today

"If you want good news, hire family."
- JB Bruno

Yes, that JB Bruno.  Me.

I'm not exactly sure what the rules of blogs are; after all. this is the internet, which is all about expressing individuality, and, lets face it, the arguable premise that what each of us has to say is important.  In that light, I think quoting yourself is just fine.

I connect certain quotes with certain production heroes of mine.  In each case, the quote expresses that person's unique style while being universal.  I will get to these in good time.  For this post, however, I have to stick to a quote that I know I originated.

Anyone who has ever worked with me has heard me use this line, and any former student of mine heard it in my introductory class.

I don't know if I started using it when I was an AD, or when I started line producing, but it was in my head for a long time.  Film is all about collaboration, but film runs like an army.  It's not a democracy, and after taking all opinions into account, one level head has to make a decision.

For different reasons, the AD and the line producer find themselves telling people facts they have to hear, but often do not want to hear.  If you want someone to tell you how great everything is going, your family is a good bet.  They are there to prop you up, to boost your spirits, to make you feel good.

The easiest analogy for  me is a doctor.  Imagine going to a doctor who didn't have the heart to tell you that you needed a new heart? Too literal?  Eh, maybe, but you get the point.

Making a decision means that if it's wrong, responsibility falls on you.  If you can't handle that, then you can't handle responsible positions.

Sometimes, you have nothing to do with the horrible problem, but are merely the messenger.  History tells you what happens to messengers of bad news.

A former Second AD of mine, who is now an incredibly successful First A.D., told me this question from the DGA Trainee test.  I think its a great example of the latter dilemma.

You are a DGA intern and are sent to the trailer of the director to get three questions answered.  When you get to the trailer, the producer and director are in a heated argument.  Because the questions are important, you knock on the door.  Although still angry, you get the director to answer two of the questions before you forget to ask the third.  You walk outside the trailer and, as the door closes, you remember that you had to get an answer to the third question.

What do you do?

The answer is easy and obvious when it's a theoretical question; not so easy when you're standing outside that door.

If you cannot immediately and unequivocally say that you would turn around and go right back in, maybe the AD department isn't for you.

My situation on Walls and Bridges was a combination bearer-of-bad-news and Murphy's Law.

A majority of the scenes on the film had limited characters, and we did a good deal of the filming in Nassau County, which is the closer Long Island county to Manhattan.  On this particular day, we were filming about as far out in Suffolk County as we had on any day, and we had a large number of extras.  Organization for the day had been in the works from early in prep, and all of those plans were working perfectly.  This would be one of the top two or three most expensive scenes in the film, but it was all coming together nicely.

Most of the extras were still signing in when things turned bad.  JR rolled on a smaller portion of the scene that did not require extras when we heard a funny sound coming from the camera, a crunching sound.

For those not technically proficient in 35mm cameras, crunching sounds are definitely not a good sign.

JR was a tech whiz.  He said he hoped he could fix the problem, and to let him work alone and uninterrupted somewhere.  I found a room and put a PA outside it with instructions that no one was to enter.

Meanwhile, I worked with my 2nd AD to make sure that once camera was back up, everything would be ready to roll.

Minutes passed, and minutes turned into more than an hour.  All the while, Uzo, who was not only directing this drama that was close to his heart but who also made a healthy financial investment in it, keep coming up to me.  We would be able to shoot today, right?

To be honest, I hedged a little.  I said that if the camera was workable, we would be prepared to make up the time lost.

The if went away in a heartbeat.

I went into the room that JR was sequestered in, and it was a sight I had not seen before, not seen since, and don't expect to see again.  There, on a series of  tables, were many, many pieces of the camera.  The lens had shattered, and the broken glass had worked its way all through the camera body.  Humpty Dumpty was in fewer pieces after that unfortunate fall off the wall.

It is amazing that JR could take a camera apart like that, and more amazing that he could put it back together.

I feared the worst, but without having to ask, I got my answer.  I think I only got as far as "So, JR...." when my good friend looked up from the patient and shook his head.  How long?  The answer was a few days.

I just nodded my head and did the first of many "dead man walking" trips.

"Uzo.  The camera is down.  I'm going to have to wrap us for today."

Denial is the first stage of grief.

"We are shooting today, right?" Uzo asked.

I was more specific.  We were not shooting today.  We were wrapped.  I had not called it yet out of deference to him, and as we were not close to a full day yet, no one was going into overtime.

Make no mistake.  We were wrapped.


"We MUST shoot today!"

I started explaining to Uzo that we could not shoot without a camera (he knew that - but grief is a bitch).

"I DO NOT care about the camera.  We MUST shoot today!"

This may be one of my favorite all-time lines from behind-the-scenes of a film.  It is ludicrous on its face, yet completely understandable given the situation.


Yeah, this is where it gets ugly.  An erstwhile PA, who had recently graduated from NYU, suggested that he could get us a camera.  Uzo loved this solution.


First, we were almost three hours from Manhattan, so if  he got his school to agree (highly unlikely) it would be six hours round trip.  It was also a 16mm camera and we had been shooting on 35mm.  Conforming them would be ridiculous, but, then again, the discussion was ridiculous because we weren't doing it.

Uzo started talking enthusiastically to the PA.  At my suggestion, the 2nd AD removed him from the room.

I'd like to believe me opposition to capital punishment was without exception, but then I remember this incident.

"Do you realize what this will cost us?" Uzo asks me.

Depression, and, yes, I do.

I guess we got to acceptance, but I don't remember it right now.

Squashing dreams is not my business, but squashing unrealistic solutions that sound good at the time is part of my job.  There were other contributions from the peanut gallery, but my job now was to see that the day cost us as little as possible and to wrap us in an orderly fashion.

I've sometimes thought if this film thing didn't work out, I could hire myself out to hospitals to be the guy to tell the family that their loved one was gone.  Nah, there is no upside to that one.  At least movies have given me many happy moments.


Ok, this isn't really an epilogue per se, but I always loved when "epilogue" would come up at the end of the 60s series, "The F.B.I" with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.  All the Quinn-Martin shows used it at one point.  Never heard of the show?  Here's a peek:

Probably the most famous Quinn-Martin epilogue"

Today, I am working as post producton supervisor on a wonderful film shot mostly in Cambodia on a 5D that tells a great story and looks great.  The producer and director are anxious to get the post process finished, as am I.  Today, for the umpteenth time, I've had to tell them it will take a day or two longer.  After firing the worst editor imaginable, who was hired before I came on board, we have actually made good time, but not as good time as they would have liked.  It's costing them money.  I feel for them, but, again, today, I had to remind them that getting it right was the priority.  All these years later, doesn't make me feel any better."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When JB Met JR - Part 2 - Through the Walls and Over the Bridges

Walls and Bridges was my first feature as a First AD, and it held its share of challenges.  For what would become the norm rather than the exception, I was working with a first-time director, Uzo, who previously had established himself as a talented print art director.

Some films push the envelope; Walls and Bridges didn't even have an envelope.  The story revolved around a successful African-American commercial artist who has a moral dilemma around the work he is doing with his clients.  He confides in a young White nun who works at a youth center. They fall in love, she leaves the Church and they get married.  His family does not approve, and complications ensue.  At one point, when she is in the hospital and pregnant,  they get into an argument and he hits her.  It isn't in any way indicative of their relationship, but if you want to challenge an audience, have the Black husband hit his pregnant White wife who left the Order to be with him.

Many of the scenes were highly-charged, and I still remember trying to calm a hospital administrator who asked what the scene was about while we were working in a vacant wing not far from a working wing of the hospital.

"Screaming?  Oh, yeah, she screams, but not for long.  Why? Um, they have a disagreement."

When dealing with locations, you try to be truthful, but deal in the truth they can handle.  We knew we wouldn't have a lot of takes of the blow-up before we would get shut down or at least severely restricted, so it was a rough day.

There were other rough days, like the night we were filming on a street corner in Harlem.  We had police assistance, but a crowd did gather around.  I had  the following conversation with a guy who came up to a corner we were blocking off to film a scene where the lead character, Trent, is shot.

HIM: "Hey, what are you guys doing?"
ME: "Just a little movie."
HIM:"Really?  How long are you going to be here?"

It turned out the corner we were filming on was "his office," as he described it.  I did the math quickly, and made a snap decision on what his business was.  I informed him that we would be there all night, accompanied by the police, and maybe he wanted to take the night off.  In the process of talking with him, I shook his hand, and put a $20 bill in it "for his inconvenience."  Did I have to do that?  No, but I found that you get more with honey than with vinegar, and $20 was a small price to pay for him walking away quietly.

He thanked me, and seemed to get it.  Then, he turned around, and said that he didn't like to take anything for free, and that he could give me $20 worth of what he was selling, and that maybe I would buy more?

Was he kidding?  No, I wasn't interested in buying drugs, but thanks very much, now go away.

He got really upset.  What did I think he was selling?  I told him I didn't know, but I probably didn't want it on me, and hey, I said jokingly, I'm working and don't indulge when I work.

"Hey, man, you think I sell drugs?  You think I'm some crack dealer?"  I assured him I didn't know what he was selling.  He proceeded to pull out a pocketful of small pieces of paper.  On each of them was a pre-paid telephone card code.  What he sold, you see, was stolen credit card numbers and stolen pre-paid phone card numbers (this was a big illegal business pre-cell phones, when people depended more on pay phones).

He emphatically made the point that he only sold these (albeit, stolen) card numbers, and would never consider selling drugs.  After a short speech about the evils of drugs and the pariahs drug dealers were in the community, he handed me two slips of paper.  "They're worth ten dollars each," he said angrily.  "I don't take no hand-outs."  With that, he walked away.

Got to admire a man with principles.

Later that night, we were rehearsing a scene where a gun is fired.  When we did the first run-thru with the prop gun, one of the onlookers behind the barricades yelled out, "damn, my piece is bigger than that."  How reassuring.

After some initial problems, we actually hit a good speed at one point in the shoot.  We had an incredible sound recordist named Bill Kozy, who, while he is still an excellent recordist today, also does quite a bit of theater and film acting work!

My favorite joke with Bill was that "sound isn't important in this scene."  We all have heard the lies that men tell women; two of the biggest lies told on set are "sound is not important in this scene," and "we'll fix it in post."  Those words are always said by people who will definitely be nowhere in sight when the problem comes up in post.  Bill was the first of many talented sound recordists I've worked with, and the difference that it makes in post is immeasurable.  One of the biggest things that hold up small indies is bad sound, and the cost of fixing it in post is so much more than taking the moment to get a wild track or get that room tone on set.  Bill was great at working with me to move on when we needed to move on, and to be insistent when that was needed.

Still, I got a great deal of pleasure out of playing with him and telling him that sound was not important in a given scene, where he would make a sheepish face and say, "aw, don't say that JB."

The other lie, that "we will fix it in post" is told to the script supervisor.  I dare say that there are "gorilla filmmakers" (I HATE that term - more on that in later blog post) that have never dealt with or understood the value of a good script supervisor.  The job of the script supervisor is both creative and clerical, big picture and minute.

Of course, when it isn't "fixed" in post, and a character's scar moves from one side of his face to the other, or the cigarette he is smoking magically gets longer, it is the script supervisor who is left cringing at the screening.

We had an exceptional script supervisor, Christine Gee.  Christine went on to work on numerous projects - she was the script supervisor for the run of The Sopranos, among others.  She also taught script supervising at Brooklyn College.

Christine often functioned in an unofficial role as den mother; always available for help when needed, a source of encouragement, and also, when needed, a stern voice of reason.

Christine was the first to point out that we were shooting too many entrances and exits that would later get cut - she was correct.  This was part of the big picture.  I think it was during discussion with her that JR, or someone, referred to the film as "Entrances and Exits."

When we shot those entrances and exits, though, Christine knew every detail.   Remember that we were shooting film, so we had no instant dailies.  One day someone gave the address of an adjacent house as one number, and Christine said it was a different number.  "I can check my notes, "Christine said," but I don't have to.  I know its (this number)."  The other person wasn't so sure, and wanted to bet on it.  Christine was sure.  When dailies came back and her instinct was confirmed, she didn't gloat - just quietly put her hand out for the bet to be paid.

Small picture.  We didn't question her very often after that.

My time on that film, and others to come, made me something of a traditionalist.  In a digital indie film world now where jobs can overlap departments and directors sometimes don't even realize what each position does, (I am so sick of seeing notices for an AD/script supervisor - they are totally different jobs!) I was fortunate to work with a great staff and crew on modestly-funded projects.

The next blog post will finish the story of Walls and Bridges, with a lesson in one of the unpleasant parts of production.

(N.B.  As I post this today, it is Christine Gee's birthday, so, for the first time, I will make this the Christine Gee Tribute Post.  Happy Birthday Christine!)

Monday, January 23, 2012

When JB Met JR - Part 1 - The Birth of JB

We now move into my work in the early 90s (you were how old?  no, I don't want to know).  It is the period that began to shape who I became as an AD, and later as a production manager, line producer and producer.

After all the talk of the lengthy prep work I discussed in the previous post, my first feature as an Assistant Director was on a film called Walls and Bridges, where I took over after shooting began for a young lady who was fired (you thought I was kidding about that getting fired thing?  This wasn't the last time, either!).

Now, there is an interesting twist to coming on a project to replace someone who was fired.  They want to like you, they really really want to like you.  Why?  Because the person who got fired gets the blame for everything that went wrong up until that point, which works well if you come on and everything goes  fine.  If, however, you come on and things still go badly, then everyone has to take a deep look in the mirror, and people would rather not do that.

I never met the girl I replaced, and what I did learn of her was from the Director of Photography, John Rosnell.  John and I would go on to become the closest of friends, and we would do four more features and countless commercials and PSAs together.  It was through John that I met the person I consider my mentor as line producer, and, later, it was with one of John's partners that I co-wrote my first produced feature.  Those connections mean that no one shaped my career more than John did, in so many ways.

John owned his own camera, a 35mm beast that was the same camera that has shot Clockwork Orange.  It was huge and heavy, and I joked with John often that we needed sherpas to move it.  John was part tough, rugged individual who carved his own path, part cowboy, part geek who invented or fixed or adjusted every piece of equipment he owned, part sci-fi nerd, and full time train enthusiast who had an elaborate train set at his warehouse in Hoboken.

Today's owner/operator DPs usually have digital cameras.  John had a 35mm camera, a 16mm camera, and an equipment list worthy of a small rental house.  One could shoot an entire feature using just his equipment, and John shot a number of them, more than IMDB lists because not every producer back in the day was up on including information.

John will probably best be remembered for the feature Straight Out of Brooklyn, by Matty Rich.  It was one of those feel-good stories (the movie, not the plot) of the early 90s indie scene.  Seventeen-year old Black kid from the housing projects in Brooklyn's tough Red Hook area raises money through family, friends, listener donations from a radio station plea and credit cards.  Lots of credit card movies back in the day, and while the urban myth often led to the reality of a movie seen only by family and friends, that was not the case for Straight out of Brooklyn, which won numerous awards, among them a Special Jury Recognition at Sundance.  The film's official budget was $450,000, though it was shot for a good deal less, and after release by Samuel Goldwyn company, it reportedly made close to $3 million.

Of John's cinematography, the Daily News compared the opening sunset over the city as the way the bigger-budgeted Dick Tracy should have looked.  John could do amazing things behind bear of a camera.

I worked with some other owner/operators of their own equipment in the 90s, and frankly, many of them were hacks whose only concern was the check they would get at the end of the show.  That wasn't John.  He fought hard to make the director's movie, and he watched out first and foremost for his crew, who often got paid before he did.  There were times on Straight Out of Brooklyn when John paid crew out of his pocket while Matty was raising money to continue.  That was John.

I don't think John particularly liked ADs.  It was part of John's personality to lead, and he always thought he knew the best way to shoot things, to plan things.  However, we got along immediately.  Unlike the previous AD, I did not have my head "buried in paperwork" as John would describe her.  I deferred to him on things technical, asked for his input on things, but kept the schedule running as smoothly as I could (more on that later) and, in the end, took a burden off of John.  He realized life could be good if he only had to shoot and not try to do my job as well.

That doesn't mean John didn't like to remind me of my place at times.  One day, when he assumed we were done, he said "that's a wrap."  I made it clear, in no uncertain terms and in a very stern message to the crew, that only the AD called wrap.  Indeed, on any set, this is true, but I think I went on about it just a little longer than I needed to.  Touchy, anyone?  When I belabored the point, John and members of his crew would take great joy in calling "wrap" under their breath at various points throughout the day.

John's crew became part of my first set of usual suspects, or, more accurately, I became the production guy on a crew of techies.  This is kinda like being the straight-man singer in a Marx Brother's movie.  

There is a lot more to talk about regarding this movie, but that will take a number of posts.  I thought it was important to introduce this important person in my career fully, so that later interactions will make more sense.

Among John's crew were the lovely Lorelei as assistant camera and general girl-Friday for John, a second AC, Joe, who had a hyena-like laugh, Russell, a key grip who seemed  more like a general handyman at times, and a young gaffer who has gone on to quite a career as gaffer and DP himself, Jeffrey Eplett.  Jeff had a great sense of the lighter side of set, and could crack the crew up at any time with anything from his dead-perfect Wookiee to his interesting impersonations of famous people doing lines in unexpected movies.  My favorite was probably Jimmy Stewart playing Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.  It gives an interesting insight to how Mr. Stewart would have delivered the line, "you get a love letter from me, you're fucked forever!"

It was also on that film that I became "JB."  As much as it might seem a reasonable assumption that I gave myself that name out of hubris, that is not the case.  Besides Mr. Rosnell and me, there were a few other "John's" on the crew and staff, and it got out of hand pretty quickly on walkie.  It wasn't long before I became "JB" and John "JR" while some other "John's" went by their last name.  Between this film and another I did with John, I started referring to myself as "JB" with vendors, and soon, that was it.  People knew me as JB and not John, and so it began.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How To Be an AD in B.C.

or How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love the Computer

You know the stories.  No matter how old you are, and what generation you're from, you've heard the stories.  Your father had to walk five miles to school in the snow.  Your mom learned math with an abbacus.  We used the old math before the new math, and then we did the new math by hand - long division and all that.

There are no singers these days like when we were young either Rudy Vallee or  Frank and Billie, or, for a different generation, no one like Janis and Grace Slick.  Ok, the latter is absolutely true and I don't want to hear any discussion on it.

In any of these stories, two things remain unquestionably true; first, that we had it harder, and, second, for some inexplicable reason, that somehow harder meant better.

One of my mentors stared producing in the 1950s, and did so up until his death in the late 90s.  When I would complain that we needed more of some technology, whether it was computers or cell phones (back when there were production cell phones and it wasn't just assumed that everyone had one) he would meet me half way, understanding that time never stopped.

Still, when the moment was right, he would come up along side me on set and start a discussion that went something like this:

Him: Gunga Din
Me: Great Movie.
Him: It really is, isn't it?
Me. Absolutely.
Him: No cell phones then, you know.

The movies changed.  The modern device changed.  The haiku remained the same.

I worked regularly with an AD a little older than myself who right up until a few years ago used to argue for hand-written call sheets, argue that with a blank call sheet, a clipboard and a pen everything was quicker than doing it in Excel.

I'm not that old school.  From early on, I embraced early versions of Movie Magic in helping to break down, schedule and budget a script, and I would never go back to trying to write a script in Word with pre-set tabs rather than use something like MM or Final Draft (no less the old typewriter and crumpled paper days).

 I'm far from a tech whiz - my first "smartphone" was too smart for me the day I bought it and my younger assistant had to show me how to answer the phone.  Still, I do not miss the "old days" before computers (B.C.) became a staple on every set.

However, as we are about to go into a period where I was AD on a number of projects that shaped my career, I thought it an appropriate time to explore some of the ways, in those early computer days, we used to approach the work in the A.D. department.

Rumors to the contrary, I'm not old enough to remember the very old days when all of this was done on manual typewriters, though let me say this.  Anyone who has been around a set, or more so, a production office, knows that one of the promises of technology, that it would reduce paper or paperwork, just ain't so,  If anything, I think the ease of making changes has led to us making more of them, and creating more paperwork.  If you watch very closely on set as the third draft of the call sheet is circulated for approval, or the second set of sides are handed out after key crew loses the first one, you will see a tree in the background, quietly weeping.

So, how I used to approach a project as A.D, with many of the things I do still similar.

First, I read the script numerous times.  First read was just to get the story.  Second read would prepare me to start numbering the scenes.    Then, and this may be a little anal, I would go through the script for each element for one pass and highlight it in the appropriate color.  Highlighting in color was standard, but I would do one pass for characters, one for art department, one for special effects, one for stunts, etc.  This meant I went through the script numerous times.

Then, I would hard-write out breakdown sheets with those elements.  The next step would be for a 2nd AD to take the breakdown sheets and create a stripboard.

Now, stripboards are still used today, at least in name, but they mostly just exist in cyber world.   We might print them out, but few in the indie world actually carry an actual stripboard.

Then, and for many many years before, stripboards were actually wooden charts with cardboard strips of many colors that would represent a script's production schedule.

Here is a good video of most of how the old process was done - watch if you're really interested - its less boring than me describing it:

Below, from a film museum website (which I am not affiliated with - buy at your own risk).  It shows some of a handwritten board from Close Encounters:

The modern version, whether you use EP or Gorilla Software (my preference) is infinitely easier, and I don't think you lose anything, in fact, the linking gives you more information more quickly in the end.

If you look closely at the above Close Encounters cast header, you will see lots of movement, arrows, and, yes, that marvel of yesteryear's technology, white out.

Ah, do I remember fondly being the 2nd AD, sprawled out on a floor, trying to write tons of information on tiny strips and, if you got them wrong (or things changed, as they are known to do), using white-out or white strips to correct (which the AD always hated).

You rarely saw a 2nd AD without white-out on their fingers.

No, I don't miss the old days.  Yes, computers and the new software are better - by far.  If there was something to be said for the old days, it is that after going through the script all these times, I really believed the AD knew every aspect of the script and the scheduling inside and out.  I believe to this day that I knew the specifics of scenes better in those days than the director did.

In the next few blog posts, I will get into the gigs in the early 90s that really set the table for what these low-budget indies were for me.  I just wanted to give a little overview of the process, then, so you would appreciate.

Of course, some things NEVER change, as is evident from the wonderfully clever video below, made by a current frustrated AD (language warning!).  No matter how you get out the information, people have to READ it!

(A note.  It is totally coincidental that while I had this blog post in my head for some time, I wasn't able to get to it until yesterday, when I was running around without my laptop.  The ironic result is that the first draft of this was written, by hand, in a notebook.  I can only look at it and realize how many poor production members will be spared having to decipher my illegible handwriting).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Just Sit on the Bed

(N.B.  I said earlier that I would not be a slave to timeline.  This post is one of those examples.  It is a theater story that I recently remembered that happened much earlier than the events in the blog currently, but I thought it was a story worth relating.  It is also an opportunity to talk about a few of the many unsung heroes in the acting community.  Enjoy, and think of this as one of those mid-season repeats – new episode soon!)

Although I spent time as an acting coach and have directed actors in theater, I was never a very good actor.  The last time I acted on stage was in the mid-90s when a fellow I mentioned in the last post, Chris Kelley, asked me to play Jesus appearing on a Springer-like talk show.  It was wonderful and scary.

Acting is easier to explain than to accomplish.  I don’t know the exact percentage of talent to training, but both are needed.

This incident took place during a period where my support job was working as a subscription assistant at New York’s Roundabout Theater.  The Roundabout is known for its great revivals, and this was during the period when Gene Feist was the Artistic Director, and The Roundabout had two stages, one on 23rd Street, and a smaller one on 26th Street off 8th Avenue.

I have been a huge fan of Harold Pinter since I first studied his plays in college, and I saw most of the best productions of Pinter plays in New York.  Among my favorites will always be 1980 Broadway production of Betrayal with Blythe Danner, Raul Julia and Roy Scheider, directed by Peter Hall. 

You could not ask for  a better combination of talent; Pinter’s crisp and biting dialogue, Hall’s insight and surgical precision, and three different but remarkable talents, all of whom are under-rated when discussion of great acting comes around.

Blythe Danner’s work is always so seamless as to seem effortless – it most certainly is not. 

Roy Scheider is able to give as nuanced yet powerful a performance as any actor; witness his portrayal of the Fosse character in All That Jazz, where Scheider, who is not even a dancer by trade, plays one of the most accomplished dancers and choreographers of all time without, please pardon the pun, missing a beat.  His raw power flourishes in such gritty films as 52 Pick-up or The Seven-Ups, his performance is over-looked for its contributions to The French Connection and Marathon Man

Rarely has anyone played a shell of a man with more gusto – one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite films.  Scheider carries power and pain - often, literally - in almost every scene.

He later tells the girl (and I’m doing this from memory – my apologies if I’m off by a word or two), “I can’t make you a great dancer.  I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer, but if you stick with me, I promise I’ll make you a better dancer.”  He manages to make it seem like the nicest complement imaginable.

Then, there is Raul Julia.  His untimely early death robbed us all of one of the truly great talents.  He had some great movie roles, including those in The Eyes of Laura Mars, Tempest, Kiss of The Spider Woman, and Romero.  He was the quintessential Gomez Adamms.  His exceptional talent was best displayed on stage, where I saw him within a few years do Two Gentlemen of Verona and Three Penny Opera.  I remember thinking when I saw him in Two Gentlemen that I’d never seen a sexier human being, man or woman, and to this date, that is still true.

The consummate scene in the film is this one.  The best friend has been having an affair with the wife for years, and the husband knows it.  This scene shows the brilliance of Pinter’s dialogue.  The husband is talking about being on a motor boat – and is not talking about being on a motor boat at all.  It is at a lunch with his best friend, who he knows has been cheating with his wife.  During it, he describes the motor boats in Torcello, and the way they go “whoosh, whoosh” through the water.  Each time, the physical expression of going through the water is the embodiment of his anger and betrayal from both of them.

That scene isn’t available ( I will spare you the one version of it on Youtube – it is from a beginning acting class -  and I like you too much to subject you to it); here is the one where he gets his wife to admit to the affair.  Pinter’s use of language is also on display here:

It is this hidden meaning of every action and word that brings me to a rehearsal of Pinter’s The Caretaker at The Roundabout.  The production, from 1982, was directed by Tony Page  and featured Anthony Heald and F. Murray Abraham.  Heald has been a talented character actor his entire career, often playing villains.  Murray is probably best remembered for his performance as Salieri in Amadeus, for which he won an Oscar.

Here is a wonderful scene from the excellent 1963 movie:

As a subscription assistant, I was usually far from rehearsals, but I was a big Pinter fan, and learned that Pinter would be attending a rehearsal.  It was the first time that Night of 100 Stars would take place in New York, and Pinter was in town for the event.  Gene Feist was kind enough to allow me to watch, as long as I stood in the back of the large theater and remained silent, which, of course, I agreed to immediately.

Pinter’s own quotes can lead to the mystery that surrounds many of his plays, especially his early work.  Wiki points out this oft-related quote:

"I went into a room and saw one person standing up and one person sitting down, and a few weeks later I wrote The Room.  I went into another room and saw two people sitting down, and a few years later I wrote The Birthday Party.  I looked through a door in a third room and saw two people standing up and I wrote The Caretaker."

Now, that's helpful!

Much is made of every action, every pause, every word.  The Caretaker is the story of two brothers, Aston, who is mentally-challenged, his younger brother Mick, and a homeless person Aston brings home, Davies.  The play follows the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in power in the small flat the brothers’ share once Davies is brought home.

In the scene they were rehearsing that day, Aston first brings Davies home.  He proceeds to allow Davies to sit on Mick’s bed.  Much has been made of this over the years, and Heald broached the subject directly with Pinter, asking how Aston having Davies sit on his bed signified the changing dynamic in the apartment, an affront to Mick and a challenge to his control.  Heald was very enthusiastic in his question; he went on for a bit in great detail and it was clear he had done a good deal of thinking on the subject.

Everyone waited as Pinter sat and gave it a good, long consideration – a true Pinter pause!  Finally, he revealed the secret.

“I don’t know.  The old man is tired, and Mick’s bed is closer to the door, but I guess all that other stuff can be true as well.”

It was just closer to the door?  Really?

It was like climbing a mountain to seek wisdom from some great sage and finding that the answer was simple and you knew it all along, and maybe that was the brilliance of it, and maybe Pinter was being playful, but I will always remember that moment as a good example of how sometimes the answer to a given scene is right in front of you the entire time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Beginners Mind, Beginning Again - or the Great Reboot

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind

After my operation and the frustration of not working while recovering, I was anxious to get back to work, and this time, really put my focus more on film.

My degree was in Dramatic Literature, and I had never studied film, and was starting to feel a little behind the curve on film sets.  I had worked my way up through every job imaginable in theater, and that was what made me so confident.  In film, I was on the production side, and always dependent on people with more technical knowledge.  With this new opportunity, I went back to NYU and took their Six Week Intensive, as well as a screenwriting course. 

Remember what it was like to be a freshman, the excitement of being on campus for the first time?  Being back on the campus of NYU, walking past students in Washington Square Park, but older now, all those feelings came back to me.   Even NYU’s ugly purple logos looked good to me.

I took a number of things from those few short weeks. 

One was our next to final project.  They would choose two scripts, and then split the class up to shoot two versions of each script.  In one night, I wrote a story of a bookie that desperately looks to collect money owed him.  It was, to be kind, homage to David Mamet.  Hey, it was a class project and we had little more than one night to write it.  I love Mamet’s style, the way he invents his own language that is a slang that we think we know but we don’t.

One of my favorite examples of Mamet’s dialogue is from American Buffalo:

"Lookit, sir, if I could get a hold of some of that stuff you were interested in, would you be interested in some of it?"

The other students loved it, and it was picked as one of the projects to shoot.

The catch was that whoever wrote the script could not direct it.  I am thankful for that to this day.  Watching someone else interpret my work gave me insight into the collaborative process of film, and respect for the fact that the written word is only one stage of the process.  One scene brought this clearly into focus.

The scene was one where the bookie goes to a priest who owes him money.  Yes, in my scripts, even the priests were a little shady.  The priest gives him a small part of what he owes.  The bookie is frustrated, but says to the priest “OK, Father, well, if you can’t pay me, at least pray for me.”  I think I wrote the dialogue a little better than that, but I don’t quite remember it verbatim right now.

One of the directors was French, and in his interpretation of the scene, he didn’t change a word of dialogue, but the action of the scene was different.  We open on a close-up of the bookie saying those same words, but, when we go wide, we see that he is holding the priest’s face over a steaming hot pizza.  He lets the scared priest go as he walks out angrily.

I never conceived of the scene this way.  It was my words but it wasn’t my scene.  It was better; much, much better.  I can’t tell you how much this has helped me not only as a writer, but as a producer working with first-time writer/directors .  The auteur in the independent film world is much lauded, but the collaborative process and the ability to bring others’ creativity into your vision makes for a better tapestry and more energy.  One of the great ironies of filmmaking is that it needs to be one person’s clear vision, but it also needs others input to achieve that vision. 

Then there is the issue of taking credit.  We had two German girls in the class, and they could not have been more different.  One was very serious and studious; the other, a model who wanted to be a filmmaker who could not be more flighty.  Stereotypes come from somewhere, and they both represented their own stereotype; the serious, unsmiling German and the ditzy model.  They were friends, and the serious one would sometimes admonish the model to be more serious, to which the model would reply, “Oh, don’t be so German.”  When you’re cute, you can get away with a good deal.

Writing something in English was difficult for them, and the more serious one asked if I would help them write the script they were to submit for the final project.  I forget how many final projects were chosen, but there were few, and if you wrote the project, this time you did get to direct.  I had written my own project – this one better than the last, and had the time to work with them on their project, which was more abstract.

Of course, their project was chosen, and mine was not.  No good deed…

It wasn’t entirely disappointing, though.  Once again, I got to learn a skill I would not have if I had directed, which was editing.  This was old school – you know, where you hung up strips of film?  You’ve heard about it, I’m sure.  I’ve edited on Final Cut, and, no, I wouldn’t go back to cutting film, but it did force you to make harder decisions.   This was the first time I learned a sense of pace and timing.  Overall, I would say it was a very satisfying experience.

There were other good things that came out of that class.  Our teacher, Thierry Pathe, had a very down-to-earth approach to filmmaking, which I always related to better than complex theory.  Sadly, Thierry passed away in 2002.  I also met a few people I would later work with, including someone who would become a great friend, Chris Kelley.  See, I gave his full name, so you know that good things are to come about him, and, indeed, we would work on a number of projects together for more than the next ten years.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

In the Land of the Blind...

...they say the one-eyed man is king.  Don't know the similar analogy for legs.

In a previous post, I referred to an injury that affected both legs. 

The pain increased, and after meeting with a number of top doctors, we realized the only realistic option was an amputation below-knee on both legs.  My prognosis for a normal life was much better with prostheses, and, indeed, I have never regretted the decision.  I could not have moved on in my previous condition.  I will spare my readers the entire rehab process, but will share one incident which drove me.

When I was in rehab, I saw a man with his wife and two children being helped up onto a board.  He had been sitting on his stoop one day, and was the accidental victim of a drive-by shooting involving a drug deal gone bad.  Wrong place, wrong time.  He would always be paralyzed from the neck down.   I was determined that day that I would never complain about my situation, as I was going to walk out of that place.

I was going to move on from this, but realized that by doing so, it would seem like I was avoiding the subject, so let me deal with all here, as opposed to dealing with it in every other posts.

Frankly, it’s been a source of pride over the years that while I know actors and other craftsman that were bi-lateral below-knee amputees, I don’t know anyone who worked as a First Assistant Director who worked with prostheses.

In the beginning, I wouldn’t discuss it with potential employers, though I walked with a cane.  I used to make a joke that I couldn’t catch PAs, but I could trip them.   OK, I never actually tripped a PA, but I thought about whacking one with it (and definitely a production designer or two).

That was a joke I made because I felt I had to address it during interviews.  Film is, in many ways, a bastion of stupid prejudices.  I remember having women who worked with me as 2nd ADs who couldn’t get respect from male crew because they weren’t used to taking instruction from women.  I have a friend who is a very talented AD who I know for a fact was turned down for one job because he was Black.  This was with an established television actor who was directing.  Thankfully, both of these things would be rare today, but they point to the fact that in many ways, film can still be an old-boys network.

I rarely had problems with people once on set, though.  As I got older, I would feel more comfortable taking a chair when AD on an interior.  In the early days, I would never take a chair, and if I got really tired, would pull up an apple box, which seemed more manly and acceptable.  The reality of prostheses is that they don’t hurt – I mean, they’re hard plastic and steel – and my legs got tired where the prostheses rested much the same way an AD without prostheses would have their feet get tired after being on them all day.   I once read that the Directors Guild of America had done a study that ADs had a life expectancy of something like seven years shorter than the average male (this was when most of them were male), and much of this came from time on their feet, stress, and inability to use rest rooms when needed.  None of this was different for someone with prostheses.

I was an AD on a feature once where the main character’s father had lost his leg in an accident.  This movie was shot near Walden Pond, and was especially difficult for me as it involved a good deal of going up and down hills and time on sandy shores, neither of which are particularly good for prostheses.  Still, I never failed to get anywhere on time.  In fact, I had a habit of pacing a lot, especially on this shoot, where the director and I did not get along at all.

One day we were doing a scene where the father, who was not really an amputee, had to put on an artificial leg.  He had no idea how to do it, of course, and they had chosen a very old model that no one would use anymore anyway.  I took the actor aside before the scene and showed him how to work with it.  When we did the scene where he was to walk with the prosthetic, the director made a comment how someone with an artificial leg (only one mind you) couldn’t possibly do stairs.  This amused the actor, and many of my regular crew, who had seen me go up and down stairs and hills with two artificial legs over and over.

I will share the funnier stories having to do with my situation when I can tell them in context, especially given the characters involved.  For the time being, suffice to say that I consider myself lucky to have worked in this business my entire life, and given everything and obstacles others have, I have no complaints.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

They Also Serve Who Paint Houses

“I’ll think about it” means nothing in L.A.

-Karen (played by Rene Russo).  Get Shorty

So here’s the thing.  If you work in film or theater, there is this constant comparison between New York and Los Angeles.  You know all the clich├ęs.  People in LA are plastic.  New Yorkers are heartless.

Like everyone else in this business, I spent time here in NY and time in LA.  Like everyone else, I had a screenplay, or, like everyone else, should I say I had screenplays.  Though I was born and bred (I always loved that term – what am I, a racehorse?) in New York, these two incidents, years apart, represent my interaction with the differences in the screenwriting scene in New York and Los Angeles.

I found myself in theater because I loved English and I loved writing.  I loved everything about writing.  I loved, and still love, research, and I think I loved research more when “google” was not a verb, not a word, not even a thought.  It is easier, but it’s not about easy.  It’s about the whole process;  having one book in a library leading you to another in a bookstore to some microfilm in the main library on Fifth Avenue in New York.

The first full-length piece I wrote was a play.  It was called “The Beast” and it was about Aleister Crowley.  Before you assume I am some demon worshiper, I was more fascinated with Crowley the man, the Charlatan, the guy who would do anything for a buck and use religion as his excuse.  It was the Eighties, and there was a lot of that (and still is) on the holier-than-thou preacher side, and I was fascinated by this guy who literally sold out his country, England, for a price to Germany in World War I, and got believers to put up money to support a “religion” he didn’t believe in for a moment.  He made money by being called the worst man in the world, and reveled in the attention it brought him.  He watched the woman he “loved” go mad after being bit by a bat, and though he professed himself a superior mountain climber, he abandoned a group of fellow climbers, leaving them to their death.

Crowley was a Mamet character running around in turn-of-the-century England. 

I researched a civil trial he instigated where he sued a newspaper for calling him the ‘worst man in the world’, not because he was offended, but because there was a possible buck in it.  The trial became about his character, which was in no way good for Crowley.  I found trial transcripts in the NY Public Library, saved on microfilm from an old London newspaper.  As a mentor of mine used to say, you couldn’t make this stuff up.  At one point, one of the opposing attorneys challenged him to turn him into an animal.  It was great stuff.

That said, “The Beast” went nowhere.

Undeterred, which is another way of saying I couldn’t take a hint, I wrote a script called Never Waver.  This time, I was shooting not for the small theater crowd, but for the big time – movies.   This was my first full-length screenplay.  Loosely inspired by a true incident when a one-term liberal Upper West Side Congressman is killed by a former student, Never Waver was a story of a former “true believer” from the Sixties who fled to Canada and remained in hiding after an ROTC bombing went terribly wrong and someone was killed.  He was not responsible, but he was the prime suspect.  He came back to “Reagan’s America,” where Abbie Hoffman now said he didn’t trust anyone under thirty to find the truth.

I still think it was a good story, but, hey, I wrote it, what do you expect me to think?  My reference to True Believer is because it is the film that most reminds me of the script, though the stories are very different. 

I spent a lot of time writing this script in bars.  I wrote a lot in bars because it allowed me to observe other people and feed off that energy.  I also wrote a lot in bars because I liked to drink.  The romantic notion of writers feeling the pain of the common man with every sip worked for me as well.

Geisler: Mayhew, some help, the guy's a souse! 
Barton: He's a great writer... 
Geisler: A great souse! 
Barton: You don't understand... 
Geisler: Souse! 
Barton: He's in pain, because he can't write... 
Geisler: Souse! Souse! Can't write? He manages to write his name on the back of his paycheck every week! 

-Barton Fink

The script is finished, and I start sending it out.  I send it to all the “indie” film companies in New York, all the “indie” film companies in Los Angeles, and to as many agents as I think might like it in either city.  Maureen, ever supportive, helps me get the script typed and copied.  She is temping, and a much better typist than I am, and I’m not working with screenwriting programs.  This is somewhere around 1987, 1988. 
We get responses from New York that look something like this:

“Thank you for considering (company) for your project.  We are not looking for new material at this time, but please keep us informed about your progress.”

You get it.  They are never going to represent you or produce your film, but, on the odd chance that someone else thinks it is good and decides to go forward with it, hey, keep them in the loop, because then they will be interested.

This reminds me of something I once heard writer and director John Sayles say at a script-writing conference.  He had many short stories before his success with Return of the Secaucus Seven, and they were almost all rejected repeatedly.   After Return of the Secaucus Seven, many of the same publishing companies approached him, and a collection was published. 

Sayles’s quip : “It’s amazing how much better my short stories got once I was successful.”

From the Left Coast, I got a much more promising letter.  It was from a company that had a few indie hits, and although they had a big office in LA, their main office was in London.  They showed more enthusiasm, and when I suggested I could come out and meet with them, the person who sent the letter suggested that would be a great idea.

Wow.  They liked me.  They really, really liked me.

I was nervous before the first meeting, but not afterward.  The person I met enthusiastically told me how much he enjoyed the script, so much so, that he wanted me to meet with his boss, who subsequently met me enthusiastically, and set up a meeting with his boss.  This was all happening within a few days, and it had finally happened.  All those days and nights writing, all that typing and copying  and collating, and now, finally, I was going to be recognized.  Inside of two weeks, a meeting was set with the head of the company.
This was the guy whose name you saw on the door.  This was the guy magazines interviewed about the company.  He was the  guy, and he was in from London and was going to meet me.

The meeting went something like this.  He started by telling me that he hadn’t read the script yet, but all of his people told him it was very good.  I should be very proud of my work.  There was one catch – his company didn’t produce scripts like this – ever.  They had no intention of producing scripts like this any time in the near future.  If I ever had another script that was nothing like this script, I should send it to them.

Thanks for your time.  Handshake.  Nice meeting you.

It was the same brush off I got from the NY companies, only many meetings later.  I learned later what I should have known, that it was the job of these people to take meetings.  It’s what they did.  It didn’t mean anything.

That was my first taste of the difference between the business in New York and the business in Los Angeles.

So, it’s now some time later, and I have my second full-length screenplay.  It is called Chump Change, and it’s about a guy whose father was in the same union he was now in and the way the union was selling out the workers to the evil company.  It was On The Waterfront with skyscrapers.  It was very much a tribute to my dad and my grandfather, both of whom were honest shop stewards in places where honesty wasn’t always valued.

More time in bars.  More time typing.  More time copying.  More time mailing.

I am about to go out to Los Angeles for other reasons when I hear from an agent in Los Angeles.  He is sure that he can sell my screenplay.  No, he doesn’t want any money up front or anything sleazy like that.  He will, however, need copies of the script – lots of copies.  I don’t remember the exact number, but we are talking, I kid you not, boxes full of scripts.  Maureen and I sitting on the floor of our large Upper West Side studio apartment collating and binding in just the proper fashion, with the brads bent back so no one gets cut, etc.  Scripts stacked into boxes; boxes packed securely, boxes  taken to the Post Office. 

I’m in Los Angeles, I think for my friend Annie’s wedding, though I am not sure right now.  I know I’m not there just to meet the agent, but while I’m there, why not drop in?

Before I go out to see him, I remember watching this local news cast where they did a man-on-the-street interview segment with random people, asking them how their screenplay was going.  These are random people – post men, door men, shoe shine people, business women, women with their little kids, construction workers.  The great part is that so many of them actually do have screenplays.

What most of them don’t have, though, is an agent.  I have an agent.  

Geisler: Look, you confused? You need guidance? Talk to another writer. 
Barton: Who? 
Geisler: Jesus, throw a rock in here, you'll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink: throw it hard. 

-Barton Fink

I head out to the address on a slip of paper, and, a few buses later, walk up to a house.  Ed Begley Jr. and I are the only people who don’t drive in Los Angeles.  The New Yorker in me just never learned. 

Can this be the right place?  It’s outside of Hollywood proper, outside of Los Angeles proper, in a suburban house.  On the lawn by the driveway are painting supplies, not easels and watercolors and oils but rollers and ladders and paint pans.

Maybe he is remodeling?

I ring the door bell, and he is pleasant enough when he comes to the door, until he realizes who I am.  Then, he is a little embarrassed.  I am out here with no car, and he really has no choice but to invite me in.

Once inside, I see boxes, boxes like the ones Maureen and I had sent.  Our boxes were there, but so were other boxes, all of them with screenplays from authors like me.  The house was filled with them.  The guy explained that he really did have connections, and though he hadn’t gotten any sales yet, he just knew that he would get one soon.  Until then, he was paying the bills by painting houses.

He reminded me how much he loved my script.

In New York, I knew waitresses that wanted to be actresses, and bartenders that wanted to be directors and cab drivers that wanted to be rock stars. 

I had to go to Los Angeles to find a house painter who wanted to be a literary agent.