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!)

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