Saturday, January 28, 2012

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?

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