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.


Kangas said...

Lots of sound advice. Too bad most people will ignore it. I try to help out some of the brand-new indy guys in my area...they think they can start shooting their movie without even having a finished script...

Ludicrous. To see them wasting money is pretty infuriating.

And re: Smoking. I'm not hiring any more smokers, whether they're actors or crew. Too much time trying to hunt them down because they "stepped away" for a quick smoke. SO tired of that...

JB Bruno said...

Thanks for feedback Kangas. It drives me crazy as well when prep is overlooked. There is often such a rush to get to the creative, fun part sometimes that they don't lay the right ground-work. More frustrating is when you have seen a mistake before, tell them, and they don't listen.

As for smoking, I hoped my comment there would come off as tongue-in-cheek, suggesting I didn't want to deal with people's issues when they quit smoking. :) I don't smoke, and never have.