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).

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