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.


Kangas said...

Wow, these are some crazy great stories. I don't know whether to believe them, but they're definitely entertaining. If they're made up, the attention to detail is excellent. :)

JB Bruno said...

Hey Kangas. Thanks for leaving a comment. They are true. I can understand the skepticism. Odd part is that Stan had to be prodded to tell them, and he found most of them as rather normal. Crazy seems relative after a while.