Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Bet (or The Fall of Love) - Part 1- Who Could Ask For Anything More?

Days can be sunny,
With never a sigh;
Don't need what money can buy.
Birds in the trees sing
Their dayful of song,
Why shouldn't we sing along?
I'm chipper all the day,
Happy with my lot.
How do I get that way? Look at what I've got.

"I Got Rhythm (Who Could Ask for  Anything More)"
George Gershwin

JR and I were sitting at the screening of The Bet, and one phrase stuck in our head; "What would you do for $40 Million Dollars?"

It stuck in our head because it was intoned by the voice over in the trailer in a deep, pretentious and ominous tone, almost a parody of screen voice overs.

"What would you do for FORTY...MILLION...DOLLARS?"

How did it all start?

It was August of 1992, and JR called me.  We had a gig.

Wait.  Does this sound familiar?  It's August, and JR contacts me and we have a gig for the Fall?  Starts in September?  Preps in Late August?  (Un)Lucky Stiffs - Part 1 - Bringing Up Baby

There are differences this time.  We are still working with JR's basic crew, though we have a new AC; Lorelei is not available.  Jeff and Russell, our gaffer and key grip, respectively, are on board.  JR, Stacey and I have dinner, and we talk about Stacey coming on as 2nd AD.  There is no doubt she is a good fit and can handle the job. Done.

This time, Stan and his coordinator, Dianne,  will be coming on board from the beginning.  This makes a world of difference.  This was JR and my third movie together, and we had done a PSA in between, and now we knew that production had our back.

The film was written and would be directed by a man named Adam, who lived on a nice-sized estate in the New Paultz region of Upstate New York.  We took a tour of his estate, along with his wife, Isabella, before bringing the rest of the crew with us.  Almost all of the movie could be shot on the estate; Adam had written it that way.

For an AD, this is heaven.  No pedestrians or traffic to lock off.  We control sound.  Complete cooperation from the people who own the property.  Ample area for art department to work.  No mass company moves.  Equipment will be easily and securely stored at night, meaning the 2nd AD was not stuck there forever.

Adam and Isabella were a charming older couple, Adam being 70 at the time.  He was an educator and widely published author, president of a society dedicated to the study of a well-known author, and expert in a number of areas of literature.  In our first meeting, I felt like this was someone who I could talk with endlessly, especially since we shared an interest in the author Joseph Conrad, in fact, the screen adaptation of Conrad's Lord Jim is on my short list of favorite films.    The better known Conrad adaptation, of course, is Apocolypse Now, loosely adapted from his Heart of Darkness. We shared a love of theater; he had written and directed a number of plays.  We shared a background and respect for radio; this and two other works of his had been performed as radio plays.

I remember heading back in the car to NYC from that first meeting thinking how idyllic and wonderful this shoot would be.  The cast and crew would have to be housed nearby, but I couldn't imagine that would be difficult.  Stan and Dianne had done some research and I had promised to come up and search out hotels or motels soon.

We would hire most of our PAs locally to save the cost of housing, and the art department were a boyfriend/girlfriend who were local.    We met Rick and Lorrie during our first trip, and they had already begun work on the project.  From the first meeting to the end of the shoot, it seemed that any time I saw Lorrie, she was in the middle of  working hard, dusting herself off from something she was either crafting or painting.  Effort was not going to be a problem with this art department.

Culling the best from everything we did, we brought Matt, the director of Lucky Stiffs, on board as the editor of this project, and he did a bang-up job.

We added some new people to our usual crew, some who would stick with us for shoots to come.  I sat in on the interviews with Stan and Dianne - they both were involved in the interviews.  As previously stated in talking about Stan and Dianne, Dianne was much more than his coordinator.  She was a trusted partner who offered a sounding board for Stan, and she could disagree with him when he wasn't seeing something.  This was later something I sought to surround myself with, either in my immediate support staff, or in a person in the position of "assistant to" the producers, or sometimes both.

This was part of my training as a producer or line producer.  Over the course of time, you will be called on to make many decisions, sometimes simultaneously.  We all bring our collective experiences and observations - more commonly known as our baggage - with us wherever we go.  It's good to have someone you can trust who is there to let you not follow your instincts when those instincts will lead you to mistakes.  The thing you will find about "yes people" is that when something goes wrong, they are nowhere to be found.

As an interviewer, Stan was a male Barbara Walters, chatting with potential crew members in a fashion that put them at ease, so he could get them to reveal more about themselves.  The resume pretty much tells you what they have done; the interview is to discover who they are.

Some of the new people included a bawdy make-up artist named Vera; of  "good Nordic stock", as she would say, Vera was a woman who was friendly and flirty and confident, blonde and statuesque.  She embodied what I would later look for in a make-up artist; which is this: any make-up artist I hire should be able to apply make-up well, it's the basic.  What most people don't recognize is that the make-up artist is  pretty much the first person cast deals with when they report to work.  If they had a good night or a bad night, if they felt good about the upcoming scene or not, if they had a pimple or scar that had chosen the worse time to appear, it's the make-up artists who is going be told first.

I want a make-up artist who can be the actor's confidante, but also know when to cut the conversation and get them on set.  They should be able to make the actor feel great.  They should also know how to protect the actor from the craziness of production, without making the first team PA (the PA with the responsibility of delivering actors to set) or 2nd AD the enemy.

Vera did all of this, and more.  She was my smiling face when I walked in the door, she would make sure my day started out well.  I felt like I was special to Vera, like she really cared for my well-being just a little more than everyone else.  Her magic, of course, was that everyone felt this way.

Vera would become a usual suspect.

We hired a local stage manager named Jane to be the 2nd 2nd AD.  I love me my stage managers, and having someone local was a good thing, someone who knew the area and could take care of things when we were away.

In today's budgets, the AD department is too often given the short end of the stick, and the importance of a 2nd 2nd, a good key PA, are lost.  If producers find the money for a good 1st AD, they then think that anyone can be thrown in as 2nd AD, and 2nd 2nd and Key PA seem like luxuries to them.  There is a reason there is an AD department, and the AD can no more do their job without a good staff than a Gaffer would want to work without a trusted Best Boy.

Another one of JR's sound people, Larry, came on as recordist, and he brought a young, virile kid named Chris as his boom operator.  The significance of this will become clear later.

Christine, our incredible script supervisor, doubled as wardrobe supervisor, with the costumes designed mostly by the art department.  Christine heading the wardrobe department while doing script may seem strange, but she requested it.  She had started her career in wardrobe, so she was more than qualified, and this gave her more creative input.  Her creative contribution in other areas would be even greater as filming went along.

Her assistant in wardrobe was a pleasant, pretty young girl named Sonya.

The script is based on a short story of the same name by Anton Chekhov, which has actually had a few screen adaptations, usually as shorts.  The best well-known one may be this one with Robert Prosky.

This script adapted the story to America.  The basic story line is this; at a costume party, a wealthy businessman makes a wager with a young law student that he will not be able to spend ten years in prison, and if he can, he will get $10 million, which can balloon to the aforementioned $40 million with investments .  This means the young law student must risk losing his pianist girlfriend.  There is a mix of fantasy and reality, and a reversal of fortune.  For a small film, there were lots of elaborate costumes and special effects, and we all wanted to make sure the look was realistic and not cheesy.

I was one of the few members of our regular crew that was married, but Maureen understood perfectly that there would be times the job would take me away on business.  As Adam was older, we didn't try and shoot six day weeks, as we often did to save money.  This meant I was home for the weekends.

We weren't working 9 to 5, but this was about as close to being on a gig came to being a "normal" job.

Fall is a lovely time in areas like New Paultz.  It has some of the feel of a college town, so there are the newly arriving freshman.  The smell of the Fall always brings me back to my early days at NYU, walking through campus.   The estate was beautiful, and there would eventually be the turning of the leaves, that slight chill in the air that took away the oppressiveness of August humidity.

For NY crews, shoots like this can be a little like summer camp, for better and for worse.   You have to stay on top of them a little bit more because it's too easy to become complacent and relaxed and distracted.  Oh, look, isn't that deer nice?  Look, his doe is following him, how cute.

Hey, we're working here, okay?

In the back of my mind, I knew this was something to keep an eye on.  Still, with everything we had going for us, it seemed manageable, and, after all, this crew always worked hard while still being able to have fun.

Peaceful surroundings, nice people to work for, our usual suspects and some promising new members as crew.  Who could ask for anything more?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I Will Not Be Ignored

Lucky Stiffs was in the can, so it was once again time to try to get my pet screenplay, Never Waver, produced.

JR and I talked about what it would take to produce it ourselves.  JR had the equipment and the talent.  Truthfully, though, it wasn't going to happen.  Even back then, neither JR nor I were ever into making a movie just to get it done.   Trying to make movies on a shoestring didn't start in the digital age.  In those days - we're talking 1992 or so - the big thing was either pre-sales to home video, or films done with credit cards (we're into Kevin Smith time, and all those stories) or the great deferred (everybody works and, theoretically, gets paid later - right).

Movies that break through for little money have a way of making their way into indie lore.  It was 1992, and the famous ones were Kevin Smith's Clerks, and Rodriquez's El Mariachi.  The stories of shooting on short ends (unused film raw stock that was then resold cheaply) and getting equipment using your friend's film school ID were everywhere.  The problem is then, as now, the handful that got distribution received all the publicity, while, for most, to quote my friend and colleague Chris Kelley, the only projector they ever saw was Rank Cintel.  For the rest, there were credit card bills that still needed to be paid, and crew still waiting for their checks.

Lore gets ahead of reality, and the El Mariachi you may have seen in the theater (ok, you're too young to have seen it in a theater, I don't really hate you) did not cost $10,000.

As Ransom Scott says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Film school kids have that t-shirt that says "What I Really Want to Do is Direct."  While I have a drive to direct, what always attracted me to anything, from radio to theater to film, was writing.

I had sent out the script to people in New York, with little response.  I had done the LA thing (They Also Serve Who Paint Houses).  I wasn't ready to give up,

 I didn't want to make it on a shoestring, and I didn't like the idea of continuing to knock my head against closed doors.

Sorry, couldn't resist throwing in one of my favorite movie scenes, favorite because all of those characters, from Bill Murray's lovable loser playwright to Teri Garr's neurotic eternal acting student ("I cant play her.  She's a...she's a..woman) to Hoffman's too-Method actor are people with whom I was extremely familiar.

I went back to what I knew, and what I knew how to do inexpensively, and that was using the stage.  I decided that I would do a staged reading of Never Waver that I would direct, rent out a theater, and invite literary agents, producers, production companies, and actors I wanted for the roles.

One of those actors was Martin Sheen.  Oddly enough, on one of my LA trips, I actually met Martin Sheen in a coffee shop.  I can't remember which one right now.  Now, I wasn't stalking him.  This wasn't Martin Landau in Mistress, chasing Ernest Borgnine through a parking lot.

I think of that old David Letterman skit "brushes with greatness," where people told stories of meeting big stars that were funny.  The thing is, in our business, you meet big stars all the time, and it really is no big deal.  I was lucky enough to work on a set with Lauren Bacall, sat at a dinner with Tennessee Williams, and  have worked with lots of "name" actors.  It's just not something that phases us.

This was different.  This wasn't about a "name" actor.  This was about being face-to-face with the actor I wanted for my lead.  Of course, I had a copy of my script with me; the entire point of me being in LA at that point was to get my script produced.  I wasn't a fan looking for an autograph, or an actor looking for a job.  I screwed up the courage to walk up to him, briefly told him that I thought he was perfect for the lead, told him the characters name, and said I wouldn't bother him further as I set the script down and walked away.  As I recall, he smiled, and was very polite.

I am reminded of a horror scene an actress/bartender friend related.  She was with her aunt in a restaurant in NY, where my friend worked, when James Earl Jones sat down with his wife for lunch.  My friend's aunt was very impressed, and insisted on going over and speaking to Mr. Jones, who was very courteous.  That wasn't enough.  She dragged my friend over, and introduced her niece as a "very talented actress that you might want to work with one day"  My friend wanted to dig a hole and bury herself as she shook hands, but never so as much as when, reaching for an autograph Mr. Jones kindly signed, her aunt spilled his drink all over him.

This, and the "cool" factor, is why those of us in the business don't bother people in public.  In any case, I never heard back from Martin Sheen.

I was going to get my shot the old-fashioned way.  I was going to earn it.  I managed to put together most of the cast I wanted for the reading, but was still in search of the elusive young girl who is inadvertently killed in a ROTC bombing gone wrong in the 60s.  The girl had to leave an impression, as she causes the protagonist in the film to kill a Congressman/mentor, setting the action of the script in motion.

I finally settled on a model named Natasha*.  She was tall and all legs, and she just had this smile that was infectious.  I could see my protagonist being unable to get her out of his head.  Despite her chosen one-word moniker, she was not Russian - I think she was some Irish-American kid from Queens who thought Natasha was exotic.  Never mind, she was my ingenue.

The reading went well, but was sparsely attended, though many of the major players (those same guys who sent those form letters years earlier) sent whoever was available from their office who couldn't  talk their way out if it.  Hey, I was proud of what we did, and I kept in touch with many of those actors for years, getting some of them cast in films I worked on.

Even in my young, single days, models were never my type; too cold.  Still, there was something fascinating about Natasha.  We kept in touch, and I coached her some on her acting.

This was during a period where I was supplementing my income by doing some acting coaching.  I liked the term coach; I avoided the term teacher.  I don't know that I was able to teach very much to actors, at least not like the acting teachers I had met when I was coming up as a struggling actor, or as my friend Annie was now doing in LA, having studied under the venerable Sanford Meisner in Bequia.  I felt more like a personal trainer who was just pushing them to do what they instinctively knew how to do, but better and more effectively.

One of my students was a dancer at a place nearby called Flashdancers, and, no, it was no relation to the movie, as in the movie, the girls kept their clothes on.  These ladies did not.  One of the girls was - surprise, surprise - an aspiring actress, and she so thought my coaching was helping, she recommended me to her co-workers.  I'm pretty sure there was a period in the early 90s when I coached more strippers than any acting coach in NY.

I don't think they give out awards for that sort of  thing.

If you are wondering at this point what this has to do with a career in film, those connections are to come, one quite quickly, as JR and I were to soon strike up the band one more time and work together on a film that was shot in the Fall of 1992, what I call The Fall of Love, for reasons you will soon discover.

* I made the point many times in this blog that I have no intention of ever embarrassing anyone.  From what I can tell -and I've done some research -  the model/actress has since changed her moniker, or is no longer in the business.  Using her name here in no way will affect anyone's career.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Black Box

In the wake of an airplane crash, the National Transportation Safety Board searches for the black box, which hopefully tells them what went wrong, and helps to prevent future crashes.

Movies are a little different. We have production reports, which should accurately detail how each and every day goes.  Good 2nd ADs and 2nd 2nds keep detailed notes, and I have always encouraged them to write it down, even if they aren't sure.  If I am the 1st AD, I will call out notes (privately on Channel 2, or as private as Channel 2 is when other departments aren't spying) as they occur for my 2nd, because I may not have time to write it down.  Better to have a record of it than not - we can always sort out later if something noted is important or not.

There are other clues I look for as line producer or UPM, also from the production reports.  Set-ups, of course, are crucial.  I also look closely at the script notes: how many takes are we doing, how long are scenes running, what does the coverage look like, and, if we are shooting film, how much film are we exposing.  All of these things can give you clues, but they don't give you the answer.  Much like the Black Box, it's all in the interpretation.  Thankfully, on a movie, you (hopefully) have live witnesses you can interview to get more information.

Unlike plane crashes, we try to analyze the crash while the plane is still spiraling to the ground.

It's amazing the little things you will notice from production reports, especially the script supervisor's notes.  For instance, I line produced a film where I noticed that, for a scene that would run, say, one page, the masters would run two minutes or more.  Hmm, no matter how you cut the coverage into the master, that means the scenes will run a bit long.  Not a big deal for one scene; definitely a big deal when it's every scene.  I had a first-time feature director who had done shorts and music videos and thought he could just fix it all in post.

After two or three days of this, I sat the writer/producer/lead actor, exec producer, and scripty down and discussed this.  Indeed, her timings, and the way we were running, would mean the entire screenplay would run over 4 hours!  The time to fix this was now.  We needed trims to the script, I needed to see better shot lists, and we needed to get this under the control.  The director blew it off, and the writer/producer was unwilling to cut anything from the script.

Long-story short: the film, which I left because if they won't listen to you, there is nothing you can do, was a story with a past, a present, and a future.  It ran almost twice the length of the original shooting schedule and triple the budget (yes, the line producer who replaced me was very competent and the AD was very good - there is only so much you can do).  Worse, the final film cut out almost all of the past and future and just used the present; they only used about 40 percent of the movie they shot.

This was all predictable and avoidable.  They wouldn't listen.

I choose this point in the blog to address this because of the problems noted on Lucky Stiffs, and the eternal question we have of why things go badly at times on film sets.  Like in a plane crash, there are mechanical problems (like the dolly mishap, or, on other shoots, REDS freezing - they like to do that).  Also as in a plane crash, there is often human error.

Note that I say human error, not pilot error.  Depending on how you look at it, pilot error on a feature film is either the director or producer.  On studio films, the producer can fire the director.  On indie films, the director often is the producer, so that's not going to happen.

Also like on a plane, though, it may be the pilot that seems at fault, but it may begin somewhere else, a mechanic missing something faulty in the working of the plane earlier, for example.  By the time gets the pilot, it may be too late.

The  Hollywood Juicer , in his wonderful blog, has a classic article called The Circle of Confusion, that shares three disaster flicks - the happenings on the shoots, that is - that happened earlier in his career.  He also notes his surprise, coming from it originally as a naive kid in film school to these Hollywood shoots, that professionals could make these sorts of mistakes.

In the indie world, we look at problems on set and bemoan our lack of money, or sometimes write it off to the smaller budgets meaning smaller or maybe less seasoned crew, but is it really that?  Francis Coppola, who produced one of the most successful and, by most lists, one of the best films ever made ( be it Godfather I or Godfather II - you choose - I know it wasn't Godfather 3), took American Zoetrope through some very shaky financial times, with film after film that went over budget and did not recoup their money.  Spike Lee, an admired filmmaker, went  over budget on Malcolm X and  the bond company took it over for a time.

I could go on, but clearly having talented professionals and boundless money does not solve the problem.  Why, then, are movies so damned hard to make?

I go back something Martin Scorcese was quoted as saying in the book, Scorcese on Scorcese.  I'm paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect that 'every time I come on set, and I see all these people and all this equipment, I think to myself, I'm not qualified to do this.'  Granted, this was shortly after he had close to a nervous breakdown but right before Raging Bull.

The point remains that there are a lot of moving parts, mechanical and flesh and blood, on a movie set.  We try to have contingencies for everything - cover sets for rain days, more than enough equipment if something goes down, etc.  It is even standard to build a contingency into a budget.

However, when you take all those mechanical moving parts, and add them to human beings at the control, the possibilities for delays and overruns are endless.  Oscar-winning actors can have bad days, where take-after-take may not work.  The hero car that got to set fine doesn't start.  The DP and director have the same idea in their head for the shot, but it just doesn't look like they drew it up, and a re-light is in order.  The art department ordered the prop in more than enough time, but Fed Ex broke it in shipping.  The costume designer is breaking up with her husband and her distraction is leading to sub-par costumes that have to be redone.

The human equation is not theoretical, and not so easy to determine.  I had two experiences hiring people who had previously been wonderful who turned out all wrong on another shoot.

A 1st AD who had just experienced the birth of his first child.  On our previous shoot, he was energetic and detail-oriented.  On this one, small things were slipping, and it culminated in a tech scout where he seemed to not know what scenes were being shot where.  It turned out the baby was keeping him up and he was getting no sleep.  One of the most unpleasant experiences of my career was this person whose wedding I had attended.  More on that in a future post.

The other was a location manager who had come on and saved a shoot I had taken over.  On this shoot, she was about three months pregnant, but assured me that it would not be an issue.  Once again, the blessed event of childbirth reared its ugly head to hinder the clearly more important task of making a movie.  Her mood swings made her impossible to deal with as a co-worker, and she wasn't finding us any locations.  Her foul spirit at the time made her termination a little more easy to bear.

If Dante was correct, I wonder what circle of hell line producers who fire pregnant women and fathers with newborns occupy.

Oh, and for the record, I discourage any crew or staff member of mine from quitting smoking during the course of our shoot.  I will gladly be supportive later; for now, smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Multiply these sorts of things times the 30-40 crew people on even a small indie shoot, plus the cast, and you get the idea of what human error can look like.

Certainly, all of this should lead us to despair, right?  Maybe not.

I have worked on far more movies that came in on budget than over budget.  I have worked on many films I am extremely proud of, including post supervisor on a movie shot in Cambodia on a 5d for less than $300K that looks like a million bucks just recently and films that have had major distributors and won major film festivals.

I told students that I learn on every movie I work on, and if you ever kid yourself that you have nothing more to learn, it's time to get out.  Each script is different, and has different challenges.  Your last film had lots of stunts, and you figured out how to do all of that?  Great, this film has no stunts but most of the cast are children.  Next movie is filming in the Gulf Coast during hurricane season, or animals abound, or you name it.

There is no cookie cutter, no template, no one-size-fits-all.  There are tried-and-true procedures, and you lean on them for all they are worth, because while there is no template, there is no need to reinvent the wheel either..  (Have I used up my quota of metaphors and analogies yet?  Now you know why I have trouble with Twitter).

What can you do?  It starts with taking time with the hiring process.  Find not only good and talented people, but people who want to be on this particular job, and are a good fit with each other.  The best DP in the world is not gonna work when you have a limited budget and he can consistently needs 60 minutes to get the shot "just right."  That AD might be very talented, but if his or her personality somehow doesn't mesh with the director, there are going to be problems.  We are humans, and we bring issues to the table.  In a business full of freelancers, otherwise known as people who have trouble with routine, authority and convention, let me tell you, the table is pretty overcrowded with issues.  I often say that my 'usual suspects,' my preferred crew, have their own issues, but since I know what those issues are, I find a way to work with them.  A good  team  means checks and balances, and someone will likely be there when an oversight occurs.

Some I have worked with might suggest I have issues, but I can't imagine that to be the case.  At all.  Really.

Those of us in production should be trying to find the right balance of rigidity and openness; no, I will not do something I have seen fail a dozen times before because you think it's a cool idea.  I believe in most of the conventions of film-making, and standard production procedures and practices. They have been developed over years, and those that stuck did so because they work.

There is, however, something to be said for the fact that you need to know the rules in order to break them.  There are times when the standard doesn't work or doesn't apply, and then you have to be able to adapt.

Hopefully, there will be more lessons along the way.  I will put out there all the things I know that work, and all those I have seen not work, so others can learn from mistakes already made when possible.  We will have a little fun along the way.  Stick with me, and you will learn everything you wanted to know about working with draft horses, snakes, the wonderful world of "mob actors" and a whole lot more.

Most of all, remember that the light at the end of every tunnel is not necessarily an on-coming train.  Matt, for all our problems, loved the final result of Lucky Stiffs.  Did you see that smile in the last post at the opening?  The same can be said for the people who made that movie where the final product was only 40 percent of what they shot; they got distribution and some nice reviews.  People don't tend to remember the days when everything went right, and, at the end, an audience  doesn't care, as long as the final product is good.

What if you are not the director or producer?  What do you have to look forward to on difficult shoots?  On even the worst shoots I have been on, I have met good people who I brought onto future shoots, good people who brought me onto future shoots, good people who became lifelong friends.  On other films I  learned something I used on future shoots.

Forget if the glass is half-full or half-empty and enjoy the water (ok, it's rarely water) that's in it.

Get all of that data from the black box, then get that next plane up in the air.  We have places to go and movies to make.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

(Un)Lucky Stiffs - Part 9 - This Slate only Goes Up To 9... this must be the last part of the story of Lucky Stiffs.

First ADs develop different ways to encourage directors to keep moving.  The last thing an AD ever wants to hear is "let's go for one more."  One of my encouraging jokes, as the takes rise, is that there is no room for double digits on this slate, so we can't go past nine.

So it is that this is, indeed, the last installment of the saga of Lucky Stiffs, easily the longest evaluation of a movie I doubt more than a few hundred people ever actually saw.

Once Stan came on board, moving things along became the priority, and everyone was on the same page.  One trick Stan taught me in moving along a director who was never sure was obvious once it was mentioned, and one that ADs had been using so long that it's a little embarrassing to admit it took me until then to realize.  Once you had a take that you could tell seemed fine, as soon as the director called "cut", call out for the AC to "check the gate, and if the gate is good," we're moving on to (call out next shot)."

Any experienced AD on a film set knows to do this, but at this point, this was only my second feature as a 1st AD, and I was still a little too deferential to the director to decide when to move on.  Matt, as with many directors, will always wonder about another take if left the option.  In essence, take the option away from them, and make them stop you and ask for another take.

Least you think that this is somehow disrespectful to the director, note that all the director needs to do is to ask for another take and he gets it.  This helped save them from over-thinking.

A few things need to be explained at this point.

Because we are in a digital age, it amazes me but I understand that there may be many of you who have only worked on digital sets, where the need to check the gate for a hair (or dust, etc)  is unnecessary.   One of the blogs I follow actually did a really nice post on the what "check the gate" really means beyond the literal. Check The Gate.

Matt could be indecisive.  Something else you need to understand is how we used monitors in those times, especially on low-budget sets.  While this may be an anathema to film pros, especially on bigger budget films, there was a time in the indie film world where DPs would warn you not to have a monitor on set, to have the director check the shot through the viewfinder when it is set up, and that the monitor just led to more discussion and a loss of time.

To some extent, this was also something DPs did in order to control the process.  It left the decision as to whether what was seen through the lens was good or not to them.  They liked that.

What you also have to understand is that playback was not as quick or easy as it is on a digital set, and that what you saw on the monitor did not necessarily reflect the lighting, as it does on a digital set, as it was not a true reflection of the speed of the film, aperture, timing, etc.  On a digital set, it's pretty much WYSIWYG.

JR and I discouraged playback.  Basically, in the time it took you to do playback, you could do another take.  Of course, on a film set, that also means exposing more film, which has a cost, but time is always your biggest factor, and you try to find a happy medium.  We both knew that not only the director, but others involved, such as the script supervisor and myself, needed to see the action and the frame during the take, not just before, so we always had a monitor up.

I will say that I see way too much playback today on digital sets, and it has become, for many directors and DPs, the crutch we feared back in the day.  There is a time for dailies.  Watch the monitor carefully during the take, know what you're looking at, and decide.  If in doubt on a digital set, it makes little sense (unless you are talking about a complicated set-up or stunt, reset for art department, etc) to sit, discuss, stop the replay - just shoot it again.   I guarantee you it is something I make my AD and director very aware of if I am the line producer, and something I drum into the director if I am the AD before we start shooting.  I emphasize this is done before we start shooting, because you want to avoid at all costs undermining the director on set at any time, or suggesting to the crew that maybe the director is wrong.

Wow, how ironic.  In explaining how "check the gate" was meant to help a director move on, I have taken a rather lengthy detour on this post, this last post, on the making of Lucky Stiffs.

So, we are now moving faster, which makes all of us happy; happy enough that some of the lightness had returned, lightness which had disappeared from the set when the loss of time was causing tension.

Matt was a pretty likable guy, and he liked the good feel and gentle kidding that went on with JR and our crew.  One day, in the latter stages of our shoot, comes to mind.

We were shooting in a very large, empty warehouse, which was also the art department's work and storage area.  We were trying to get this particular scene while art department was doing a major build for the the next day's set (they never did catch up, really), so we had to coordinate them holding the work when we were ready for takes, but I would sometimes let them keep working through our rehearsals to make sure they were ready with this set for tomorrow.

Final rehearsal, I want to move, and I call out that picture is up, and to hold the work.  Well, by now, they had listened less and less to the walkie, and between the grips moving equipment and the art department trying to work to the last second, it was difficult to get the place quiet.  If you've ever been an AD, nothing is more annoying, and it didn't take a poker player to tell how annoyed I was at this point.  Finally, after repeated calls on walkie and a little tough love from my 2nd 2nd CK, the place is finally quiet..

Ok, deep breath, and we are ready.

All of a sudden, our master of voices, our gaffer Jeffrey, goes into Elmer Fudd: "Be berry berry quiet.  We're hunting Bwunos (my last name)!"

I want to be mad, but the first person to burst out laughing is Matt, our director.  As I am looking incredulously at Matt, as if to say "don't encourage him," Joe, our 2nd AC, who naturally had a cartoon-hyena-like laugh, starts laughing loudly and uncontrollably.  JR, my buddy, goes into Elmer Fudd imitation Shhhhhing people.  The actors start laughing.

Great.  It didn't cost us more than a minute or two, which was no big deal in the grand scheme of things.  In the first part of the shoot, I would have been upset, because we had lost so much time.  Now, I couldn't help but laugh along - along with my usual threat to murder Jeffrey if he did it again.  Jeffrey and I had an on-going, friendly, one-upsmanship thing on set, and he had gotten me good!

Odd that all these years later - we're talking twenty years - I still remember that particular moment.

Stan's influence was very helpful, from the first day back shooting.  We were having a meeting in the office, while crew was coming and going ready to leave in the vans and vehicles for set.  My ride, on this day, was supposed to be in a van with Satan's Child,  Someone rushed him, and rather than realizing it was probably a bad idea to leave without the 1st AD, he took off.  That was Satan's Child.

I walk into Stan's office furious.  He smiles, pulls out the keys to the production vehicle he added during the break, and says, "No problem."

We drive to set, and the discussion, which was part of an on-going discussion, was about being calmer.  In the time between that movie and now, I've become a Zen practitioner and I've gotten older, both of which have served, to use an old phrase, to "mellow me out."  Then, I was pretty much a caffeine-driven, high-energy, emotions on my sleeve person.  Stan spent a lot of time explaining how and why I had to relax, and it sank in.

Of course, that first day led to a challenge for both of us.  We got to set, and asked where production was set-up.  Julie and Chris, who were already there, had found the perfect location for production - on the third floor.

As someone with two prosthetic legs, I've come to accept that Murphy's Law properly puts production either a flight down or a few flights up.  It makes sense - you want the printer and other discussion that goes on away  from set, and unlike G/E, there is not a physical reason to be next to set.  If this confuses you, ask your favorite grip about dragging equipment up or down a flight of steps.

Stan, who had one-lung and used an inhaler, looked at me at the base of the stairs and said, "I'll race ya'."  It was the way Stan could take an unpleasant situation and make it all okay, even funny,

Did I mention that by now, with the break and the understanding people don't work on Thanksgiving (yes, Thanksgiving!) we were now into December!  We started prep with people in shorts, and now, we had mostly night exteriors to be filmed along the piers of the Brooklyn waterfront.

In the gallows humor that abounds on set, a few of my G/E started wearing Santa hats.  Nah, baby, we WERE NOT going past Christmas.

I don't have to tell film pros how little fun night exteriors are, and if you are East Coast, and, more specifically, NYC, you know what night exteriors by the Brooklyn waterfront are like.  If Man's irresponsible behavior was going to lead to Global Warming, the selfish part of me wishes it had started earlier.  We were looking at frigid nights in the teens before wind-chill.

My approach to brutal weather was just to stay outside.  Once you get cold enough, or wet enough, it doesn't really matter anymore, and this was as cold as I ever have been on a shoot before or since. My gloves kept my hands marginally functional, and I knew if I ever started taking off the winter gear in front of a warm heater, I wasn't going to want to go outside.  So, I stayed outside during lunch, during breaks, and just let people come to me.  My PAs loved me because it meant if I were going to stay outside, I could do fire watch, and they could warm up inside.  I didn't see the point of two of us freezing, and these kids were outside long enough standing in one spot as it was.  You don't see a lot of First ADs on fire watch.

The last two nights, specifically, involved the climax to the movie, including an ambulance, multiple police cars, prop cars, and the end of a wacky chase.  For both nights, we had "cop extras".  In NY, that meant, often, cops (or their relatives, or retired cops) with NYPD  uniforms (we paid extra for that).  You have to cover their precinct lapel, and, obviously, they can't carry real firearms, but it's great because they know how to carry themselves like NYPD and you don't have to explain it all.

We also had our share of odd extras, including one off-duty cop who carried a cat-of-nine-tails with him.  He explained that he was an insomniac, and to relax at night, he would practice using the whip on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Somehow, they all found me.  Doesn't the NYPD have a psych eval?  He was on each of the last two nights (and somehow worked his way onto a subsequent shoot with me, despite my best efforts), and it was kinda creepy watching him with a wild "yahoo!" as he practiced with his whip during breaks.

The very last night involved a very complicated chase sequence finale.  It wasn't The French Connection, but it was complicated.  Getting everything to go exactly when I wanted involved me on bullhorn, as well as communicating on walkie to others to cue cars, etc.

As we approached the  martini  for not only the night, but this entire long shoot, we were third time through the walkie batteries, and we had fewer and fewer that were hot.  Additionally, the bullhorn I was using was starting to go.  As I looked at the horizon, as one does on night shoots, I saw the slightest tinge of blue, which meant we were not far from losing night cover (the sun would rise, making it impossible to shoot a night scene).

That would mean we were going to have to come back, and, let me assure you, that was not going to happen on my watch.

I had two of the grips help me on top of the roof of a car, cane and all, where everyone could see me.  As I tried to get attention over the bullhorn, the bullhorn almost completely went out on me.  I threw the bullhorn to the ground, and shouted "First position!" at the top of my lungs.  My erstwhile ADs repeated my commands at the top of their lungs, as I called for sound to roll, for each car to go ("hero car go!  police car one, go!, etc).  As is often the case, one action set off the other, so I just  needed to get the action in motion.

Completely hoarse at the end of the night, as daylight was about to break, I looked at JR, he smiled and nodded.  I looked at Matt.  He smiled and said "Hey, JB, you know what?"  I knew where this was going - the joke about someone else calling "It's a wrap!" instead of me.  Matt started laughing, and with what little voice I had left I shouted to Matt "Don't even think about it!"   I started giving the send-offs to our main actors ("That's a picture wrap on Bobby.  That's a picture wrap on Antonina...") each followed by the appropriate applause, and finally, only one season and I don't want to think about how many days later, arms raised triumphantly,

"That's a wrap on Lucky Stiffs!"

Pictured above, the male cast of Lucky Stiffs with Brooke Shields at the opening. Director Matt is far right in white suit .

Saturday, February 11, 2012

First, You Have To Make the Movie - Stan's Guest Blog

N.B. - Stan is sadly no longer with us, and though he was open to innovation, I can't see him being introspective enough to write a blog, or even a guest blog post.  However, if I did convince him to write one, it might be something like this.  It includes so many of the stories he and I shared, as well as his producing philosophy.  Most of the words are his, in one form or another, and ALL of the stories are true.

JB has asked me to write this guest blog, and I don't know if there is all that much to say.  Basically, it all comes down to this - first, you have to make the movie.

That sounds simple, but I am constantly surprised by the number of people who just don't get it.  The worst thing in the world is when the biggest obstacle to making the movie is the people who you are working for who should be most interested in getting the movie done, and done right.  Instead, they get caught up in all sorts of silliness and, yes, pettiness, that has nothing to do with the movie.

Roger Corman, now, he understood this.  Keep focused on getting the movie done.  That's why I left my job in the accounting department at the studios to work with Corman.  I didn't go to USC Film School to be an accountant, and with Corman, you got to start where you could do the most good.  For me, that was as producer of two films that were part of a teen double-bill, High School Big Shot and T-Bird Gang in 1958.  The trade-off to the big title was that your money was tied to how well the movies did.  My pay on each of them as producer was a flat fee of $500, but I got 13% of Big Shot and 17% of T-Bird Gang, which is where I learned that percentages, after take-out aren't really worth it.  I eventually sold back my shares to both of them to Corman for $375.*

Now, High School Big Shot had Tom Pittman in it.  This guy was going to be the next James Dean, I'm telling you.  JB  and even his buddy John Rosnell don't get it - Rosnell used to kid me that the only way Pittman was like Dean is that they both died in a car crash.  I had shares in Big Shot and a stake in another movie he was supposed to do, and if that had worked out ...well, what's the use of going on about what could have happened; it didn't.

The late 50s and early 60s were pretty busy for me, including "Machine-Gun Kelly," starring Charles Bronson; "Wild in the Streets," starring Richard Pryor; and "The Intruder," with William Shatner. I was production manager on some of them, like  "The Cry Baby Killer," which was Jack Nicholson's debut film;and "Beach Blanket Bingo" and others with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello; and "The Trip" and "The Wild Angels," both starring Peter Fonda.

I know the technology has changed, but it always changes.  A lot of the early films I worked on were in Black and White; it was cheaper.  When color came in, it was great for audiences, but it was lousy for low budget filmmakers.  I mean, in the old days, if you wanted to to cut to an air battle in a war movie, you just dumped in stock footage from the government news reels - it all looked alike.  With color, that didn't work anymore, you actually had to shoot something - or pay for it somewhere.

JB complains about battling with budgets in art department, but that has always been the case.  I did a movie with Corman once where the art department gave me the expected cost of a 35 foot lizard; it was way more than we wanted to spend.  I asked them to come back with the cost of, say, a 10 foot lizard.  If you came home to a ten foot lizard, you would be scared, right?  See, but Corman understood - people wanted to be amazed, and as cheap as he was, he understood it was worth the extra cost, so we did it.

That's what I mean when I say, first, you have to make the movie.  People think production managing and line producing is all about cutting costs, but if you don't make the movie you set out to make, what's the point?

Not that we didn't watch the budget.  We would always shoot stunts late, in case the actor got hurt, we still had the rest of the footage.  When we needed some extra bucks in a small town, and we needed extras, we would put up signs that said: "Want to be in a movie - only $10!"  See, people weren't so fancy then, and people in small towns didn't always understand that they should be getting paid instead of paying us.  They would line up around the block to be in the movie, ten-spot in  hand.  Worked for everybody; they got in a movie, and we off-set our costs for lodging and all.

Actors complaining?  Please, happened all the time.  I was the AD on Mama Bloody Mama with Shelly Winters, and at one point, when she got into the whole Method thing on set after I had said "and, we're movin' on", she complained to me, "We're not making a movie.  We're making a schedule."  She didn't forget me, either.  When she wrote that book about all the husbands she had gone through, including the ones she outlived, she gave me an autographed copy with the inscription, "To Stan, From Shelly - You're Next."  If it sounds like a threat, it was!

Raising money a problem?  It was always a problem.  I saw the movie "Mistress" with JB, and it had this scene where the producer, Martin Landau,  meets the guy in a meat locker to try and get the money raised.  I actually had a meeting just like that once!

Cash talks.  I taught this to JB, always bring cash on scouts and on set.  When you are talking to people, and you put cash on the table, it's that much harder for them to walk away.

I once did movie for this mob guy that was all cash.  I would tell him every week how much we needed, and these two big guys would come to the office with suitcases and drop it off.  I asked if they wanted me to sign for it, but they said that wouldn't be necessary.  They understood that it was unlikely I was going to run off with it.  If the Feds think they have penalties for embezzlement, they got nothing on the mob.

Funny thing about that movie.  The guy only made it to put his girlfriend in the movie.  At one point during the movie, she started having an affair with the lead actor.  The mob guy found this out after the movie was completed.  He asked me for the reels of film from the movie.  He took them all out to sea, and dumped them in the ocean.  That's right, every penny was lost, which didn't matter to him, as long as she never got to see herself up on screen.

This is what I mean by the people who should be working with you working against you.  Like, there was this dentist who had made enough money that he wanted to make a movie.  He had a script, and it had to be shot on location.  So, we get on location in this small town, and we build the sets and fly out the cast and the crew and everything.  About halfway through the shoot, he comes to me one day and says, "Pay everyone through next week and send everyone home."  What was he talking about?**  We had everything we needed to complete the movie!

He looks at me and he says, "Jack Nicholson came to me in a dream and said, 'You're not a director, you're a dentist,' and he was right."

That was it.  Movie over.

Then, there was the time where I was production manager on a movie for a husband-wife team.  They come to me and say that their psychic adviser has told them that we need to finish on a certain date or the movie will have bad karma.  Bad karma, really!  The problem was that the date was  about 4 days short of what we needed to finish the film.  I try everything to explain we can't do this, it will ruin the movie.  They don't believe me, they believe the psychic.  They beg me to find a way.  I open up the stripboard - this is after about 45 minutes of explaining and I'm getting nowhere - and I pull out all of the strips from the board on the last four days.  Mind you, these are random scenes.  They could be anything - the most important scenes in the movie.  In my frustration, I joke "See, we could do this and we would end the movie on the day your psychic wants."  They smile, pat me on the back, and say, "We knew you would find a way."

Sometimes, they just don't get it.

What I don't get is all the paperwork today.  JB is really good with all the permit stuff that the Mayor's Office in NY has.  He says its a good deal, because as long as you have insurance and you go through all this rigmarole and you get to park where you need to.  I told him we always used to get to park where we needed to in New York.  We would have our locations guy tell us where we wanted to park, then I would go to the lieutenant at the local precinct, ask who needed to be taken care of, and we would drop off a package with cash.  No permits, but we didn't get any tickets.***

I'm glad JB does budgets and schedules now using that software - it's a lot quicker than we could do it, and a lot less typing.  JB gives me too much credit sometimes.  Yes, I did show him how to budget a film line-by-line, but he used to help me out by providing the schedule on his software, which saved me work.

I am a stickler about a lot of rules, not so much ones that don't matter as much.  Some things you just have to use common sense.

JB and I were doing a PSA once for the American Dental Association, and we had these twin infants. We only needed one at a time, but you use twins when you can with infants because one or the other tends to get tired or cranky.  Well, both these kids were cranky, and I suggested to JB that if someone had a joint on them, you could just blow a little smoke in their face and it chills them out.  JB laughs and goes on about child labor laws and all that, and I know all these things, but what works works, and maybe it would be something the mother could use at home.   I did it with my daughters and my cat, and they all turned out alright.****

Rosnell likes to kid me about my size, but I kid about it before he did.  I used to like to play poker - a guy has to relax, you know - and it was legal in Los Angeles at these poker clubs.  We didn't have cell phones or beepers, but as producer or production manager, my assistant at the office used to need to know where to reach me, even in off-hours.  Now, when you would do this, if they tried to reach you, the place - be it a poker club or a restaurant or whatever - would page you.  There were a lot of movie people in those clubs, and I didn't want everyone looking up and saying, "Oh, Stan is here," so I used to use the pseudonym Duke Manicelli.  Had a nice ring to it, don't you think?  Well, you should have seen the faces on the big goons who were security at the clubs when they would wait for Duke Manicelli, and he turned out to be this little Jewish fellow with glasses.

JB and I worked on more than a few things together, and he will tell you more about that.  He just wanted me to tell you a little about how we used to do things in the very old days.  Well, there it is.

* The facts about the money Stan made on these films are courtesy of the a book by Fred Olen Ray, a producer in his own right, called The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors.

**"What are you talking about?" was Stan's common reaction to odd situations.  It was usually accompanied by him throwing his hands in the air, palms out.

***Stan would tell this story about bribing police - he wouldn't use the word bribing - almost quixotically, with a nod to how much simpler the old days were.

****Stan didn't drink at all by the time I met him, and I don't know if he did when he was younger.  He didn't mind having an occasional joint after work, though.  He had emphysema and only one lung, and had found a doctor in LA who taught him how to smoke it through his nose without it going into his lungs.

N.B. For how I met Stan, and his initial influence, click here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

(Un)Lucky Stiffs - Part 8 - The High Cost of Free

Stan Bickman had a long career in low budget films.  In many ways, he was the master of low budget films, having left the Studio system in the late 1950s to produce for Roger Corman.  As far as low budget resumes go, it doesn't get much better.

I came to learn a lot about Stan, and you will, too, as this blog continues.  I thought rather than start with Stan's war stories or colorful bio - and it certainly is that - I would let you meet Stan the way I met Stan, knowing only that he was now in charge of production of Lucky Stiffs, that he and JR had worked together on a low-budget horror film, and that he started working with Corman

Stan set up in his own office in the production office, with Dianne now coordinating.  Dianne was a producer in her own right, but loved working with Stan and, as much as any of us would, loved Stan.  The first time I went into the office to talk to Stan, Dianne led me in with a smile.  She had been going over the details of the accounting and how vendors and other issues were set up with Rody.  Stan would watch the big picture; Dianne the details.  White manila folders newly labeled were everywhere.

Stan asked Rody and Dianne to leave, so he and I could talk alone.  Stan was short of stature, with short hair and bifocals.  His classic stance was arms folded, looking over his bifocals at you.

He and I had a lot to discuss.  As previously mentioned, JR, Matt and Stan had been talking privately, and I felt left out.  I was 34 years old, but in many ways, after years in both theater and film, this was early in my career.  A DP I often worked with once said that in this business, if you aren't paranoid, you aren't paying attention, and in the game of hangman, the AD always has a couple of lines drawn.

Rody had no set experience, Matt was quiet, and JR liked having me worry about keeping the set moving, so I had grown accustomed to running the show.  It was clear that falling behind in the schedule and the new regime meant that was going to change.

Stan and I started talking about schedule, and although I don't remember the exact discussion,  I know I was a bit defensive.  Stan put that all to rest with a balance he had perfectly tuned: no-nonsense honesty  and the ability to acknowledge fault and move on.  Once something was fixed, it was not discussed again, and it wasn't held against you.  This is a balance that I have sought to replicate my entire career.

Stan said something like this: "Look, I wouldn't be here if everything was going right.  This is a mess. You've let your second fall behind on the paperwork - get that fixed.  The schedule isn't working.  JR told me all about the location and budget problems, and those are my problems now.  The schedule problems you and I are going to fix together."

Stan took out the stripboard, and he and I started going over it.  Stan had not only been a producer and UPM, but an AD, and he was good at analyzing schedule.  The more we worked on it, the more comfortable I felt.

The second thing I learned about Stan was he had absolutely no need to take credit.  It was amazing how empowering it was to have someone who clearly knew more than I did make you feel like decisions he was heavily involved with were your own.  That was something that later served me not only with ego-driven directors, but with production people moving up that I was instructing.

He would hear nothing of my disagreements with Rody.  Past was past and there was no time for it.  This was something I learned later in the shoot when he caught a mistake on the call sheet that I had missed.  My second had written it, but it was my responsibility to approve the call sheet before I gave it to Stan, and I had missed it.  I never mentioned the 2nd and said it was my mistake and it wouldn't happen again.

Stan smiled, handed the call sheet back to me with the mistake circled in red marker, and said, "Good.  There's no competition for the dunce cap today.  Tomorrow someone else gets it."  That might not sound reassuring, but, again, it was no-nonsense acknowledgement of a mistake and then letting it go.  In a business that has its degree of back-stabbing and a permanent stake in the blame-game, it felt great to know where you stood, something else I strove to emulate throughout my career.

As far as the budget was concerned, Stan found places to cut the budget, but also places where we were being penny-wise and pound foolish, and it was costing us time.  Stan had a production car at his disposal so he didn't need to rely on one of the crew vans when he was needed somewhere.  In an era where you couldn't change the call sheet in Google Docs on your smartphone, this was very important, and something else that became a staple for me on films I line-produced.  Time is your biggest cost, and don't nickle and dime yourself.

Once Stan and I had cleared the air on the past and settled on how to move forward with the schedule, the biggest hurdle remaining was still locations.  Stacey was now location manager; one of the beauties of low-budget filmmaking is that talent can rise quickly, and Stacey was talented.

So it was that Stan led a meeting with Dianne (who, as usual, was taking notes), JR, Matt and I.  For each potential location, Stan wanted to know every detail.  When he asked about the cost of one location, Matt assured Stan it was free.

In a moment that is burned in my mind, Stan slid his bifocals down on his nose, looked up over them and asked a question that was a definitive Stan quote that I have often repeated:

"How much is this free location costing me?"

Ah. free.  Don't we all love that word?  I'm not talking here about free as in freedom, as in our huddled masses yearning to be free, or free at last.

I'm talking about the "free" that goes against everything the Elders told us - that nothing in life is free.  We see evidence to the contrary every day, don't we?

If we buy one, we get one free!  Oh, right, if we are buying one first, it's not so free.  First one hundred callers get one free!  How come we dialed right away, and we never seem to be among the first hundred callers?  Online, we just click here, and we get something free!  Sure, we have to give them our email and get spam for the next hundred years, but it's free, right?

In low-budget filmmaking, there is no word that potential producers yearn to use more than free.  You look in their rough budget, and they are getting so many things for free; they must be, because they put zero next to the line item.  All those books about making your movie for a dollar a day - you've seen those books - tell you that you can ask around and get all sorts of things free.

Stan understood what he liked  to call "the high cost of free."  My friend can lend me his camera for free, but it only has one lens that goes with it.  Can you shoot a feature on one lens?   Need a 1st AC?  My friend will do it for free.  No, she doesn't have that much experience, but she did it in school.  Should be fine.

Nowhere, however, is free more freely used than in locations.  We can use my friend's store for the deli scene.  We can only shoot it for three hours at a time, and we need it for nine hours, so we'll have to go back three times, but that can't cost us money.  Oh. right, more like five times because of set-up and strike.

My sister's apartment would work for the scene, and she'd let us have it for free.  Her landlord?  Do we really have to tell them?  Sure, its their property, but it's her apartment.  What could they do?

Matt went through a few of these, and we decided what was worth the free and what was not.  Finally, we came to a house.  Matt knew he had Stan here.  His uncle in New Jersey had a house in NJ we could have for free.  Yes, it wasn't that close to the city, and there was gas and tolls, and time lost traveling and not shooting, but this was his favorite uncle, and he would let us have all the time we wanted.

Stan conceded.  Let's take this free location.  Evidently, it might have been his favorite uncle, but it was clearly not his favorite aunt.  She hated having us there, started freaking out before lunch, and we had to cut a lot of shots to wrap early before everything we did shoot was lost to continuity.

But, it was free.

I was reminded of this just a few years ago when I was production managing a short for a very experienced TV news producer.  We needed a house for 8 days (including prep and wrap) for a very good short she wrote, with the intention of using it to raise the money for a feature version of the same story.

After a long search, she thought of her childhood friend.  Both women were in their fifties. professionals, and had gone to elementary school together.  The friend actually suggested her house, and I was at the kitchen table when we discussed the deal.  I had suggested making a $500 offer, to cover the inconvenience.  We settled on no fee- they were dear friends - but the director handed her a check for $2000, to cover the deductible on the insurance, just in case there was any damage.

At first, the friend said it was silly and actually slid the check back, but eventually agreed, assuring us that it was just a precaution, and under no circumstances would she cash the check.

At the end of Day Three, she came up to the me and the director.  (Names changed) "Sally," she said, "I just thought I should let you know I cashed the check.  You folks work such long hours, and it's been just crazy for Jack (her husband) ."

Boom.  No damage to the house, and we had discussed the hours and the fact we would probably be in every room.  The best part.  "Thank you, Sally.  We gave it to Jill (her daughter) so she could have a little spending money on Spring Break.  You know how tight things are these days."

Sally didn't say much right then, but in her understandable rant to me later, she did say something about how she wouldn't be upset if Jill choked on a Jello shot.

Yes, the $2000 was a reasonable cost.  Very often, you can get very good deals.  Just don't assume anything will ever be free.

Now that you've met Stan, I will post a "guest blog" from Stan - if he were around to write one, and if he were to even consider writing a blog if he were.  Then, on to the conclusion of Lucky Stiffs (yes, it had a conclusion).

Monday, February 6, 2012

(Un) Lucky Stiffs - Part 7 - Down Goes JR

Philosophers and clerics will tell you at the worst of times that there is a universal plan that we cannot see, and, at those times, we are tempted to tell them to go to hell.  So it was that what seemed like the worst night of the shoot became a defining positive moment in my career.

For all my joking about this crew, they were good, very good.  Safety first was more than just an expression on our set, and when I wasn't preaching it, JR was.  Most DPs will tell the gaffer what they want and then walk away until it is close to done; not JR.  This was mostly his equipment and his crew and he watched over both at all times.

One piece of equipment that didn't belong to JR was the dolly, which was a rental from a reliable vendor. Let me take this opportunity to talk a little about working with vendors.

I was not the PM on this shoot, so I didn't make the arrangements with the vendors, but I did on a number of other shoots subsequently, and the vendor for the dolly was one JR had worked with before and that I worked with after this shoot.  They were good and reliable.

In an era when budgets are cut today even more so than they were then, and new vendors coming along every day, there is a temptation to take the cheapest price.  Avoid that temptation.  If you find a good vendor, and they give you a good price, stick with them.  Never do this - use one vendors' quote with another vendor to get the second vendor to give you a cheaper price.  This is a small business, and if you think vendors don't talk to each other, think again.  They may be competitors, but they will sometimes sub-contract from each other, and employees go from one company to another.  Word gets around.

I treat my vendors right, and expect the same from them.  When I send back a piece of equipment, I don't want an excuse - I want a replacement and no questions.  I have more than a few vendors who, when negotiating, will get to the point where they just will say, "JB, what can you afford?" and if they can make it work, they will.  They know if I have a little bigger budget I won't undercut them.

People forget that vendors are people, too (this is one of those rare occasions when I will agree with Mitt Romney and Citizens' United).  I had one vendor who resold film that had a rough stretch when he was quitting smoking, which affected his mood.  He lost a few clients who didn't appreciate the attitude, but he had been good to me in the past, and I let it go.  He never forgot it.  There were times when he delivered film I needed to set, on nights, on weekends.  Once, when we were scheduled to pick up film on a Monday, but went through more than I expected on Thursday and Friday, he delivered it to me in New Jersey on a Saturday in a tuxedo - he was heading to a wedding, but made a stop to drop off my film.

That's the type of relationship I have with vendors.

Conversely, there was a vendor out in Queens, NY who would routinely offer a better price, then switch out equipment you requested for the closest thing he had, tell you it would work, and had equipment that was poorly kept.  I never worked with them once they burned me the first time.

So, we come to the night in question.  The camera was on the dolly, and our key grip and best boy were using the hydraulics to raise the dolly.  JR  was in the seat with the camera, Lorelei was on the dolly protecting camera.  My grip department had done this a hundreds of  times.

I was off-set when I got word over the walkie to come to set - there had been an accident.  It was a freak accident, to be sure, one I haven't seen or heard of before or since.  Something went wrong with the hydraulics, and JR was literally shot off of the dolly with the seat.  When I got to set, JR was on the ground, his hands wrapped on around the camera, and Lorelei was beside him.  JR had not let go of the camera, and Lorelei had not let go of JR.

Lorelei was a little bloody and shaken up, but she was okay.  JR was badly shaken up, and his back was in great pain.  Both were covered in oil from the dolly's hydraulics.

We called an ambulance immediately.  CK, my 2nd 2nd, knew how close JR and I were, and he let me head to the hospital with him and wrapped everything on set, as did my 2nd AD.  I insisted that Lorelei be taken to the hospital as well, although she kept saying she was alright.  Safety is the responsibility of the AD, and I was not going to take any chances that Lorelei was more badly hurt and just didn't know it.  Veterans will also know that for insurance purposes, this is a workplace accident that must be reported immediately.   Julie, my 2nd, was with me filling out the accident report and keeping track of everyone's condition.

Yes, it would normally be left to the 2nd AD to wrap set, but CK was more than able to handle it, and Julie wanted to be with us.  Also with us was Stacey.

What none of knew at the time was that Stacey and JR had become a couple.  We were a tight-knit family, so it was quite a chore to keep a thing like that a secret, but they both wanted to maintain a professional tone on set, and felt it best none of us know.  Now, with JR hurt, the pretense was not important.

JR would recover from his injuries, but would need some time to rehabilitate - at least a week.  I had a quick discussion with Matt, and there was no issue - we would take a hiatus while JR recovered.  We would not attempt to shoot with another DP.  There was also the issue of repairing the camera.

Yes, we could have gone on with another DP and another camera.  It was an option, and at the end of the day, it was Matt's call.  None of us wanted to do that, but we would have understood.  To his credit, Matt made the call mostly out of loyalty.  I will always have the greatest respect for him for that.

The hiatus led to a good deal of soul-searching.  The schedule was a disaster, and in another world, I must be honest, I might have been fired.  No, I was not the reason we were behind, but as I have said before, when things are going badly, the first one to go is usually the AD, especially when it had to do with schedule.

Matt realized the problem went higher.  Much of the schedule juggling had to do with the problems with the art department and locations, and neither were in my control.  That didn't make me feel any better that the schedule was far from optimum.  There were days, to be honest, that I would make a change and then wonder if I should have done something else.

It is impossible to make perfect decisions in less than perfect conditions.  That said, I've always thought it was important to be honest with yourself about your own performance, and I wasn't thrilled with mine.

On top of that, I kept thinking about the accident on set.  The vendor insisted there was nothing wrong with the dolly.  They tend to do that, if only for insurance purposes.  To this day, I doubt the fault was with the crew.  In times like this, no matter how much you know there was nothing you could have done, when it is your responsibility, and on top of that your friend, you doubt yourself.

All in all, this was far from a high point in my career.

I point all of this out not as a mea culpa, but the blame-game that sometimes goes on in this business leads many people to assume that as long as they can blame something on someone else, they can avoid responsibility.  If you go through your career like that, you will never really learn anything.  I did a good deal of self-evaluation.

From a selfish perspective, I worried about my fate.  At one point, JR had a number of meetings with Matt where I was not invited.  That didn't do much for my confidence.  It was after one of those meetings that JR patted me on the back and said that changes were happening, but I was not to worry.

Yes, the question of whether I should stay on did come up, I later found.  However, JR stood up for me, Matt knew how much I had done to help us, and one other person, who was asked to evaluate the situation, said that I should stay on.

That person was Stan Bickman.  Stan and his assistant, Dianne (she was a production coordinator in title, but much more than that in fact) came on board.  Stan would be the line producer.  Rody would stay on - Matt was loyal - but in a much diminished capacity.

I had heard a lot about Stan from JR, who had worked with him before.  Stan was almost 60, and had been in the business since the early 60s.  I will devote the next post to talk about Stan, his background, and his influence on the shoot.  Over many posts to come, you will see his influence as my Yoda, my Obi Wan, my mentor.

I was certainly sorry that JR got hurt, and that we were in such a bad way, but had that one horrible night not happened, I would not have the career I have today.  I learned so much from Stan over the years I cannot count.  I learned about both being an AD, and later a UPM and line producer.  Stan had done all of those things.

More on that in future posts.  For now, we were on hiatus, and it was into early November.  No one dared joke about Thanksgiving.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

New Blog - The Spin-Off

This blog is a look back at a life in low-budget indie films, and I try to stick to that, and how that influenced my life.

That focus keeps this blog in the past for some period of time, and it is not possible to know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.

However, I do work in film today, and the issue of the effect of digital on movies is a topic of great interest.  I have discussed this topic with a lot of people across a broad spectrum, and there are widely varying opinions.

I wanted to explore that in a blog, so I started a completely separate blog referenced under My Blogs - "Don't Call It Film"

The first post is called "Just Don't Call It Film".  Feel free to check it out, and join the debate over there.

Meanwhile, we will continue to saga of Lucky Stiffs (very 35mm) in a day or so here.

Just Don't Call It Film

(Un)Lucky Stiffs - Part 6 - I Need A Hero!

We were behind schedule, and it was now looking as if we would be going into the third week of October.

We had bad weather, un-cooperative dogs, possessed PAs, wacky lead actors and just about every challenge we needed.

With all of these obstacles, we also needed to do stunts; fights, gunplay, car chases and more.  This was a  screwball comedy about a heist gone wrong with many double-crosses, and most of those ended up with physical comedy and comedic violence.

We had nice actors, but none besides Bobby were seasoned pros, and Bobby was far from physically-adept.

If these stunts were to go well, and work within our schedule and budget challenge, we would need a real pro to help us with the stunts, someone with skill who could work with people without physical skill, someone who could give audiences a thrill without giving the AD a heart attack, someone who embodied a daredevil with unquestioned safety.

We needed a hero.

He rode a motorcycle, not a horse, but he rode to our rescue and his name was Shane.

His bio starts, "In 1982, a young man named Shane "Butch" Grier saddled up his motorcycle, cleared his bank account ($200 in cold hard American cash), and drove 1563 miles from Tulsa, OK to the Big Apple to pursue the stunt end of the film and television business."  The logo for his company, United Stuntman's Association, Ltd. (USA) had a representational American flag, and that logo was on the back of his denim jacket.

This was a superhero costume I could like.

Every question from him ended with "Sir", and every greeting from him came with a firm handshake.  He had a young son, maybe 10 or 11 years old, who rode behind him on his bike, and looked like a mini-me version of him, complete with the hero stance; arms folded or at his hips, shoulders square, head held high.

When the kid would stand by the motorcycle and refer to his dad ("You have to ask Shane") it was like right out of the movie.

As Lorelei, our 1st AC, said in mock Hollywood swoon one day, "Ah, Shane."

He worked with another guy Michael who everyone called Critter.  Together, watching them set up stunts in a scene, making complex choreography look simple, was pure art.  They would assess what the actors could and could not do, and make the most of it.  Matt and I would have suggestions (Matt with principals, me with background) but when we were on stunt days, it was his show.

While I loved Shane most of all, let me say this about stunt people.  In all my years in the business, I've worked with tons of people in every department, and, as in life, some are better than others.  Some are lousy in their jobs, or can be difficult or rude or have a bad attitude.  That's just life.

Not stunt people.  I've never met a stunt person I didn't like, who wasn't professional and courteous as well as good at their job.  The irony is that for all the daredevil stuff they pull off, and all the risks they take, no body is more serious about their work or about safety.  They have to be, or people get hurt or even killed.

One of the biggest challenges of complex stunts and fight scenes is adrenaline.  In the times I've heard of actors being hurt on set - and crew people have told me some gruesome stories - it always involves an actor who, after having been warned of how to do something safely in rehearsal, gets his adrenaline going and tries something extra during a take.

Shane and Critter knew this, and did a good job of keeping the tone calm on set.

One of my favorite days with them was a day we were blocking a car stunt.  We needed someone to sit in the car next to Shane as he did the stunt for the first time for camera blocking, and my actor's stand-in looked a little afraid.  I volunteered.

Before you think this is where I tell you what a brave soul I have, let me preface by saying I think I only have been on a roller coaster once, and I guarantee you my eyes were closed the entire time until I faked being brave at the end.  I'm terrified of heights, cannot walk over high bridges, and look away when a car drives over one that is close to the edge of the bridge.  I cannot even watch bungee jumping, no less would I try it.

However, I felt completely calm with Shane.  He went over how to strap myself in, and then, in the calmest voice imaginable, went over all the steps to take in case something, like a crash or the car rolling over took place.  The list was pretty ugly, and you would think this is where I bailed, but coming from Shane, it was like a stewardess asking you to turn off your electronic devices  - just part of the routine.

All of the stunt days went well, to the point where we looked forward to it.  Pictured below are Shane (still with mustache)  and Critter today - 20 years later, 20 years older, and they still look like heroes to me.

And, yes, I just had to add this - enjoy the Eighties haircuts and choreography.  Shane, this is for you.

Friday, February 3, 2012

(Un) Lucky Stiffs - Part 5 - Broadway Bobby,Sarge and Satan's Child

Back on Terra (somewhat) Firma, after surviving our encounter with Asbury Park (Greetings From Asbury Park), we proceeded with the mundane business of getting this puppy in the can.

We filmed a few days in an abandoned prison in New Jersey.  Low budget films are always in search of the elusive abandoned (fill-in-the-blank) location.  It means you will have the location all to yourself, and, if all works out, for a reasonable price.  After all, the place is no longer in use. How cool!

Yeah.  The thing is, if it's no longer in use, it also means a number of other things, like no one has cleaned it in some time, and getting power is something of a challenge, and when you ask someone there if something works, you are just as likely to be met with a shrug as a real answer.

When you take over a location that was most recently inhabited by rodents, there is little good to say for the place.  The prison location near Hoboken, NJ was no exception.

One of the amusing things about filming in the prison for a few days was that it held some insight into the personality of our set.  Anyone who has been on a film set knows that the First AD is front and center; they are the one calling for silence, the instruction to "lock it up" (no one allowed to come into frame),  the call to "settle" (stop walking, hold the work, and making other non-verbal sounds), calling the roll (briefly, roll sound, roll camera,) and the echoing of the director's instruction to "cut".

In our case, we had a rather quiet director in Matt, and somewhere near the end of our third and last day in the prison location, one of our contacts asked how I thought things were going.  I told him we were getting everything we needed, and it looked like we would wrap on time.

"But, are you happy with the footage you are getting?  Is this the way you envisioned it when you started directing this?"

My active set presence contrasted with Matt's quiet lead, and I realized that this guy thought that I was the director.  I explained how things worked, and he asked who the director was.  When I pointed to Matt, he seemed surprised, as a number of people, including JR, seemed more demonstrative.

One of those people was my 2nd 2nd AD, Chris Kelley (CK).  CK, who I had met in my NYU class, was a broad-shouldered Irish-American from Boston with a wicked sense of humor.  I used to pace the set back and forth with my cane, and CK once looked up and said "Prisoner requests permission to wish walkin' boss a happy birthday."  The 'walkin' boss' thing stuck.  (If you don't know the movie reference, look it up !)

If I was the prison walkin'  boss on set, Julie, my 2nd AD, was good cop.  She was cheerful and efficient.  The way I had my team work, she also did most of the paperwork (including generating production reports and call sheets, the latter being standard domain of the 2nd AD) and was my contact with the production office and talking with other departments.  That left CK as my guy on set, doing lock-up and managing the PAs.  CK became, depending on how you looked at it, my bad cop, or, in mob terms, my enforcer, but he was an enforcer with a humorously sarcastic edge.

CK could be heard reprimanding PAs who didn't respond quick enough on walkie with something like "this is yet another opportunity for you to reply, copy" or a telling a PA having some trouble with a lock-up "let's try the type of lock-up this time where you don't let anyone through."  He had a style that kept people on their toes with just the right touch of humor that most people, myself included, loved him.

It was fitting, then, that it was CK who dubbed one of our PAs "Satan's Child."  It was this film school graduate's first feature film, and he had a lot to learn.

Remember earlier I mentioned that Stacey had just that perfect combination of intelligence and enthusiasm?  Satan's Child was one-for-two, with the one being the latter.  He was the type of PA who would rush off on a mission (run) when you had only gotten through half of the description of what you needed, meaning he would get to the van and then have to come back.  He would take every trip off set as if he were an ambulance driver in a Hemingway novel, screeching as he pulled out  of his parking area, very much half-cocked.

It was on his return from one of those runs when he literally ran up to CK at lunch to see if there was anything else he could do for him and almost knocked CK's lunch out of his hands.  CK put his fingers as a cross, as in an exorcism, and shouted "away from me, Satan's Child!" and so the nickname was born.

One of Satan's Child's responsibilities often was transporting my first team actors, as he didn't mind doing repeated runs, enjoyed discussing the movie with them (think the PA in the movie Living in Oblivion on amphetamines) and took the job of getting them where we needed them on time very seriously.

Our actors were Jason and Lane as the younger robbers, and Bobby as Eddie, the older (though not much smarter) robber.  By this time, Stacey's abilities had gotten her promoted to assistant location manager, and, as with all her jobs, she was very good at it.  It also meant that I had other drivers to set.  This was fine with me - as long as I didn't get Satan's Child.

It was on one of these days that I was waiting for my ride, which was a little late.  Nothing bothers me more than late, even though "late" to pick me up was still early for my call time.  As I am pacing my apartment and on the phone with the production office, my doorman buzzes me and tells me there is a detective downstairs looking for me.  What could this be?  I ask him what this is about, but he says the detective can only speak with me.  I grab my set bag and head downstairs.

There, in my lobby, is Broadway Bobby Downs, a big smile on his face.  It's not that I didn't have a sense of humor, but I don't have one when I'm late, and this did not endear me to Bobby.  Even worse, when I get to the van, there is Satan's Child driving.  Save me.

Satan's Child is a young White kid with long hair and a do-rag.  I make the mistake of reminding him we are late, which is greeted with a response of "No fear, JB!" and a screeching turn around my corner, which quickly leads to a screeching halt behind a real police car, who has pulled over another car, presumably for a traffic violation.  Both officers were out of the car, and the way they had pulled up behind the other car, it was impossible for us to get around them.

I rest my forehead in my palm, knowing we are going to be even later.  Satan's Child (lets call him SC, for short, though we didn't sue that) has a metal band screaming on the radio (a rock-and-roll child myself, I prefer something more calming on my way to work) and is talking a mile-a-minute, as is Bobby.

SC looks over at me, and even though he isn't the most perceptive person in the world, he can see I am not happy.  He tries to reassure me that he will make up the time, and I don't look any happier.  Right then and there, he decides its time for action!  He starts honking his horn at the police, and, when they turn around, confused at what idiot is honking at police officers, they see SC behind the wheel of a mini-van  motioning with his hand for them to move and yelling out of the car that he has to get his boss (indicating me) to set.  Bobby, dressed in a pseudo-mob outfit, is urging SC on.

At this point, I'm thinking of how quickly I can get a hold of the production office from the police station where we are most certainly headed, and where do I begin to explain this to the officers.  I have to get the actors to set, but I am more than willing to leave SC in their good care.

To my surprise, the officers start laughing, and one of them pulls the car forward so that we can get by, and laughs as he waves us on.  I guess they figured anyone stupid enough to do something like that had to be legit.

Of course, I should not have been surprised at SC's lack of understanding of how to interact with an emergency vehicle.  One day we are filming on a long, winding country road in New Jersey, where we have permission to hold traffic during takes and rehearsals.  SC is at the furthest point.  Just as I call for us to lock it up, I hear fire engines.  Sure enough, I see fire engines headed in the direction of our shoot. I turn to CK and tell him to clear the road - obviously, you do not ask a fire engine on the way to a fire to wait for you while you do a take.  Well, this was obvious to most of us, but there was Satan's Child, his hands in the halt position, trying to stop the fire engines!

Before I can yell "Get him the hell out of the road!" CK is storming toward him, yelling all the way.  Satan's Child was confused, but the sight of CK rushing toward him screaming gave him a hint that something was wrong - and that we weren't rolling.  He moved aside, and the fire engines roared by, me with my hands in the air motioning "I'm sorry" as they did.

Later in the same day, Bill, our sound recordist, mentioned that he was getting the sound of cow's mooing.  SC actually asks CK if he should try to quiet them.  CK later told me that he was going to tell him to hold their mouths shut, but he was afraid he might really do it.

Cows were not our only animal problem.  During one part of the gang's getaway, they are chased by a  German shepherd, who catches up to one of them (Lane) and bites his arm.  All three of them are wearing Halloween costumes (it was part of their disguise for the robbery - get it!) so it was easy to pad his arm for the dog to grab.

Those who have worked with animals will tell you that in cases like this, you will often use two dogs that look alike, in case one is difficult, tired, etc.  We had a father/son combination. I forget the son's name, but the father was Sarge.  The scene involved the robbers running down the stairs, and then the dog chasing right behind them.  The timing was tricky enough, made even more tricky by the fact that dad and junior had completely different temperaments.  Sarge was like Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens looking to take a quarterbacks head off; junior was like a ballet dancer out for a weekend jog.  With him, the scene would be my guys running down the stairs, followed by a long pause, followed by junior finally loping into frame.

Needless to say, junior spent a lot of time watching dad from the sidelines.

On our final take before lunch, Sarge nailed it.  He wound up on Lane's arm, Matt called cut, and we would all soon be off to lunch.  All, that would be, except Lane, who still had Sarge in his arm, refusing to let go.  Though the padding prevented Sarge from breaking the skin, having an enraged beast clutched to your arm is no fun.  To his credit, Lane was good about it, joking while expecting that Sarge would let go soon.  The trainer repeatedly ordered Sarge to release with "Aus!  Aus!" ( many dogs are trained in German - it had nothing to do with them being German shepherds).

Finally, the dog released.  The trainer tried to convince me of how well-trained Sarge was, releasing on command.  From what I could tell, he only finally let go after a few minutes because his jaws got tired.

Never been a big fan of working with animals.

Things went on this way for a while, with the location and art department issues still looming over our heads.  I was forced to change the schedule so often to keep up that Stacey, now location assistant, once shredded a soda can with her bare hands as I sadly informed her that she had to go back to her location contacts again to change things.  At that moment, although she was too professional to admit it, I'm sure she wished the soda can was my throat.

With all of this, I did want to take an opportunity to show a few pictures of Broadway Bobby Downs. Bobby drove me nuts by staying "in character" as the villainous Eddie Minucci, even when we weren't shooting, but he was one of those actors who lived to do this, even though making a living at it was far from easy for him.  I mentioned that this blog, in part, was to pay tribute to a lot of forgotten soldiers of the low budget wars, and the pictures below will give you an idea of the costumes, and serve as a small tribute to the late Bobby Downs.