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?

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