Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Raymond Effect

“It’s alright to be subtle in film, as long as you’re obvious about it.”

If you think about books, movies, poems or songs that you love, many of them find a way of saying things that were right in front of you all along in a way that makes them clear.  The same is true of teachers, coaches or other mentors in your life.  Somehow, what they had to say just hit home.

These guides along the way in our life or career don’t come dressed in long robes, and they don’t appear out of nowhere with Yoda-like ease.  Hell, sometimes they are even younger than you.

This was the case on the same Columbia Thesis project I discussed in the last blog.  I was hired on as production manager, and Raymond was hired as First Assistant Director.  For those not familiar with the position of First Assistant Director, I will again paraphrase Raymond.  

He or she is the person you fire when you can’t fire the director.

Well, technically, that’s not the DGA (Director’s Guild of America) description.  An informal description might be the person who prepares the schedule, is responsible for keeping it, maintains that schedule on the set, and coordinates the work of the different departments.  The key tool is communication.

Every position on the set has a light bulb joke.  You know light bulb jokes: how many (fill in the blank) does it take to screw in a light bulb?   I’ve always been particularly fond of this AD light bulb joke.

“How many AD’s does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“Light bulb?  Nobody told me there was a light bulb in this scene!”

This gives you only a small hint at the oxymoron that can be the AD’s life, as he is responsible for many things that he does not have ultimate control over.

See previous statement on person who gets fired when you can’t fire the director. 

In fact, as line producer, I have fired AD’s who were not the source of the problem.  I got one of my best gigs, years later, as AD, because someone who was quite a good AD left the job in mid-show by mutual agreement with the producers, but more on that in later posts.

Raymond knew how to AD.  In fact, he made it look easy.  The AD and the production manager work closely together (hopefully), and I was intrigued by how Raymond was able to spot problems on the set almost before they would happen.

This was, remember, a student thesis film, so we’re not talking about big crews and big staffs.  In fact, the lofty positions Raymond and I held gave us the opportunity to do such glamorous things as the craft service shopping and scouting the next day’s location.  I still didn’t drive, so Raymond did all of the driving, and in those long hours in the van, I learned a good deal about how to organize a set.  Raymond not only knew more about being an AD than I did, he also knew more about my job than I did, not that he ever held that over me.

The van rides also revealed Raymond’s sardonic humor.  Some people are described as people who see the glass as half empty, others, half full.   I have come to see myself as someone who asks, “Do we really have to use that glass?”

Raymond’s temperament was much the same.

One night we are driving up Third Avenue in Manhattan and make a left onto 14th Street.   This is us still working after a long shooting day, long after everyone else is home sleeping.  We have an early call in the morning.  As we make the left, a police car pulls us over.  The police officer comes over and asks Raymond if he saw the sign that said; NO LEFT TURN.  Clearly, he hadn’t, and if you know the turn, there is no good reason why you can’t make one there.

Exhausted, Raymond just made the best argument he could.  “I’m from Los Angeles.  You can make lefts there.”

He wasn’t trying to antagonize the officer.  That’s just Raymond.  He sees the absurdity of life very clearly.  A little stunned by the simplicity of the reasoning, or maybe just confused, we got off with a warning.

It wasn’t until I became friends with Raymond after the shoot that I learned more about him.  His parents were both in the business; his father, a prolific writer and director, his mother, an agent.  There are many stereotypes of people who grow up in the business, and a lot of them are true.  Raymond was not the stereotype of someone who grew up in the business.  Rather than hanging out with the stars on his father’s sets, he took the time to hang out with the people who made everything happen.  That meant crew people and staff.  The fact that Raymond never talked about his background until I got to know him pretty well tells a lot about him.

Besides his talent in film, he also was an excellent pianist, and, I later learned, composer, with a great love and understanding of jazz.  I always had a place in my heart for jazz, and Maureen loved it, so we all got along great.

Sometime after the student film was over, Raymond told me he was making a short that he hoped would get him into AFI, and asked if I would do production work on it, including AD.  I wasn’t at all sure I could do it, but he assured me that I could.  He gave me pointers on breaking down a script, on using index cards to represent the different shots in the scene so you could switch the order around easily, on keeping the set moving.  Some of this later came more naturally to me than I thought; for instance, dealing with actors.  My years as a stage manager had made me different from many of my colleagues who had only worked in film, whose take on actors could be summed up from the exchange below from Mel Brook’s The Producers:

Leo Bloom:  You can’t shoot the actors.  Actors are not animals.  They are human beings!
Max Bialystock:  They are?  Have you ever eaten with one?

Okay, I have had more than one actor that I wanted to shoot.  In most cases, however, my background as a stage manager handling people and pressure came in helpful.

Raymond’s script revolved around the figurative and literal children of a blustery real-life novelist.  I don’t know if Raymond would want me to share the name of the novelist here.  Some of the better scenes in the short included the novelist coaxing a homicidal prisoner who was a talented writer to accept his offer to get him out of prison by offering to show him pictures of the Challenger disaster, and that same writer, when he got out of prison, stabbing a waiter for seemingly no reason. The latter incident mirrored one that actually did happen in that author’s life. 

You are allowed to do the math.

Yes, this was a comedy, and a very funny one.

There was another scene in the film that is relevant, and that is one where two lovers wake up post-coital to realize that they are both children of the same author by different mothers.  The girl was played by Annie, my friend from that bad melodrama years earlier.  I remember we shot most of that scene early morning, and with the hot lights, the early hour, and the fact that Annie played most of the scene in bed, she had all to do to keep from falling asleep between takes.

There is one other lesson I remember from that shoot, and it has to do with picking the right locations.  Our budget was limited, and keeping to it was part of my responsibility.  We found this one location that Raymond thought was perfect, but they wanted a little more than was in our budget.  To my eyes, it was just a big empty space, and we could find something like it cheaper somewhere else.  Raymond was sure that this was the right place, though, and worth the extra money, and when we screened the film, he was so right.  Over the years, I’ve developed the ability he already had then, to see locations not for what they were but for what they could be.  

It also was something that I grew to learn as line producer, that sometimes you need to find someplace else to save when something is going to make such a difference on screen.

A few years later, I was in Los Angeles looking to sell a screenplay that I wrote.  Raymond, who had grown up on both coasts, met me for lunch.   Raymond greeted me dressed in mostly black, still on East Coast attire.  When I commented on the weather, he said, “Yeah, another damn sunny day in Los Angeles.”

It was when we discussed his opinion on my screenplay that he offered the quote at the top of the blog.  He hadn’t gotten one of the points I was trying to make in the script, and my defense was that I was trying to be subtle about it.

“It’s alright to be subtle in film, as long as you’re obvious about it.”

Once I got past the usual defensive reaction we all have when someone critiques our work (Oh, c’mon.  Don’t lie.  You know you do!) I realized how right he was.  Over the years, it has really stuck with me, and its advice I’ve given on a number of occasions.

For all his talent, Raymond went on to do alright for himself.  He got into AFI, and his student thesis project, Bronx Cheers, went on to be nominated for best live action short.  His first feature as writer/director was the beautiful and powerful Café Society.  Two Family House won the 2000 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, among others.   His hilarious City Island won the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award.

Hey, I could go on with his bio, but I have a better idea.  See the blog list to the right?  Raymond DeFelitta's blog is prominently displayed for a reason.  It started as he chronicled City Island, and it’s a great look at the journey of making an independent film from the inside.  It’s also a lot more than that, because Raymond has not only a vast knowledge of film and its history, but for all his knowledge, he never makes it sound academic or boring.  I don’t think Raymond could write anything that wasn't entertaining.

If you paid for film school, his blog will expand on things you enjoy in ways you had never imagined.  If you didn’t pay for film school, well, stamp yourself your own degree when you finish his blog.

What the hell, if you spent all this time reading my blog, you would be out of your mind not to be reading his.

Oh, and that screenplay that I wrote, the subtle one?  There is a lot more on that one later on in the blog. 


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