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.

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