Wednesday, February 15, 2012

(Un)Lucky Stiffs - Part 9 - This Slate only Goes Up To 9... this must be the last part of the story of Lucky Stiffs.

First ADs develop different ways to encourage directors to keep moving.  The last thing an AD ever wants to hear is "let's go for one more."  One of my encouraging jokes, as the takes rise, is that there is no room for double digits on this slate, so we can't go past nine.

So it is that this is, indeed, the last installment of the saga of Lucky Stiffs, easily the longest evaluation of a movie I doubt more than a few hundred people ever actually saw.

Once Stan came on board, moving things along became the priority, and everyone was on the same page.  One trick Stan taught me in moving along a director who was never sure was obvious once it was mentioned, and one that ADs had been using so long that it's a little embarrassing to admit it took me until then to realize.  Once you had a take that you could tell seemed fine, as soon as the director called "cut", call out for the AC to "check the gate, and if the gate is good," we're moving on to (call out next shot)."

Any experienced AD on a film set knows to do this, but at this point, this was only my second feature as a 1st AD, and I was still a little too deferential to the director to decide when to move on.  Matt, as with many directors, will always wonder about another take if left the option.  In essence, take the option away from them, and make them stop you and ask for another take.

Least you think that this is somehow disrespectful to the director, note that all the director needs to do is to ask for another take and he gets it.  This helped save them from over-thinking.

A few things need to be explained at this point.

Because we are in a digital age, it amazes me but I understand that there may be many of you who have only worked on digital sets, where the need to check the gate for a hair (or dust, etc)  is unnecessary.   One of the blogs I follow actually did a really nice post on the what "check the gate" really means beyond the literal. Check The Gate.

Matt could be indecisive.  Something else you need to understand is how we used monitors in those times, especially on low-budget sets.  While this may be an anathema to film pros, especially on bigger budget films, there was a time in the indie film world where DPs would warn you not to have a monitor on set, to have the director check the shot through the viewfinder when it is set up, and that the monitor just led to more discussion and a loss of time.

To some extent, this was also something DPs did in order to control the process.  It left the decision as to whether what was seen through the lens was good or not to them.  They liked that.

What you also have to understand is that playback was not as quick or easy as it is on a digital set, and that what you saw on the monitor did not necessarily reflect the lighting, as it does on a digital set, as it was not a true reflection of the speed of the film, aperture, timing, etc.  On a digital set, it's pretty much WYSIWYG.

JR and I discouraged playback.  Basically, in the time it took you to do playback, you could do another take.  Of course, on a film set, that also means exposing more film, which has a cost, but time is always your biggest factor, and you try to find a happy medium.  We both knew that not only the director, but others involved, such as the script supervisor and myself, needed to see the action and the frame during the take, not just before, so we always had a monitor up.

I will say that I see way too much playback today on digital sets, and it has become, for many directors and DPs, the crutch we feared back in the day.  There is a time for dailies.  Watch the monitor carefully during the take, know what you're looking at, and decide.  If in doubt on a digital set, it makes little sense (unless you are talking about a complicated set-up or stunt, reset for art department, etc) to sit, discuss, stop the replay - just shoot it again.   I guarantee you it is something I make my AD and director very aware of if I am the line producer, and something I drum into the director if I am the AD before we start shooting.  I emphasize this is done before we start shooting, because you want to avoid at all costs undermining the director on set at any time, or suggesting to the crew that maybe the director is wrong.

Wow, how ironic.  In explaining how "check the gate" was meant to help a director move on, I have taken a rather lengthy detour on this post, this last post, on the making of Lucky Stiffs.

So, we are now moving faster, which makes all of us happy; happy enough that some of the lightness had returned, lightness which had disappeared from the set when the loss of time was causing tension.

Matt was a pretty likable guy, and he liked the good feel and gentle kidding that went on with JR and our crew.  One day, in the latter stages of our shoot, comes to mind.

We were shooting in a very large, empty warehouse, which was also the art department's work and storage area.  We were trying to get this particular scene while art department was doing a major build for the the next day's set (they never did catch up, really), so we had to coordinate them holding the work when we were ready for takes, but I would sometimes let them keep working through our rehearsals to make sure they were ready with this set for tomorrow.

Final rehearsal, I want to move, and I call out that picture is up, and to hold the work.  Well, by now, they had listened less and less to the walkie, and between the grips moving equipment and the art department trying to work to the last second, it was difficult to get the place quiet.  If you've ever been an AD, nothing is more annoying, and it didn't take a poker player to tell how annoyed I was at this point.  Finally, after repeated calls on walkie and a little tough love from my 2nd 2nd CK, the place is finally quiet..

Ok, deep breath, and we are ready.

All of a sudden, our master of voices, our gaffer Jeffrey, goes into Elmer Fudd: "Be berry berry quiet.  We're hunting Bwunos (my last name)!"

I want to be mad, but the first person to burst out laughing is Matt, our director.  As I am looking incredulously at Matt, as if to say "don't encourage him," Joe, our 2nd AC, who naturally had a cartoon-hyena-like laugh, starts laughing loudly and uncontrollably.  JR, my buddy, goes into Elmer Fudd imitation Shhhhhing people.  The actors start laughing.

Great.  It didn't cost us more than a minute or two, which was no big deal in the grand scheme of things.  In the first part of the shoot, I would have been upset, because we had lost so much time.  Now, I couldn't help but laugh along - along with my usual threat to murder Jeffrey if he did it again.  Jeffrey and I had an on-going, friendly, one-upsmanship thing on set, and he had gotten me good!

Odd that all these years later - we're talking twenty years - I still remember that particular moment.

Stan's influence was very helpful, from the first day back shooting.  We were having a meeting in the office, while crew was coming and going ready to leave in the vans and vehicles for set.  My ride, on this day, was supposed to be in a van with Satan's Child,  Someone rushed him, and rather than realizing it was probably a bad idea to leave without the 1st AD, he took off.  That was Satan's Child.

I walk into Stan's office furious.  He smiles, pulls out the keys to the production vehicle he added during the break, and says, "No problem."

We drive to set, and the discussion, which was part of an on-going discussion, was about being calmer.  In the time between that movie and now, I've become a Zen practitioner and I've gotten older, both of which have served, to use an old phrase, to "mellow me out."  Then, I was pretty much a caffeine-driven, high-energy, emotions on my sleeve person.  Stan spent a lot of time explaining how and why I had to relax, and it sank in.

Of course, that first day led to a challenge for both of us.  We got to set, and asked where production was set-up.  Julie and Chris, who were already there, had found the perfect location for production - on the third floor.

As someone with two prosthetic legs, I've come to accept that Murphy's Law properly puts production either a flight down or a few flights up.  It makes sense - you want the printer and other discussion that goes on away  from set, and unlike G/E, there is not a physical reason to be next to set.  If this confuses you, ask your favorite grip about dragging equipment up or down a flight of steps.

Stan, who had one-lung and used an inhaler, looked at me at the base of the stairs and said, "I'll race ya'."  It was the way Stan could take an unpleasant situation and make it all okay, even funny,

Did I mention that by now, with the break and the understanding people don't work on Thanksgiving (yes, Thanksgiving!) we were now into December!  We started prep with people in shorts, and now, we had mostly night exteriors to be filmed along the piers of the Brooklyn waterfront.

In the gallows humor that abounds on set, a few of my G/E started wearing Santa hats.  Nah, baby, we WERE NOT going past Christmas.

I don't have to tell film pros how little fun night exteriors are, and if you are East Coast, and, more specifically, NYC, you know what night exteriors by the Brooklyn waterfront are like.  If Man's irresponsible behavior was going to lead to Global Warming, the selfish part of me wishes it had started earlier.  We were looking at frigid nights in the teens before wind-chill.

My approach to brutal weather was just to stay outside.  Once you get cold enough, or wet enough, it doesn't really matter anymore, and this was as cold as I ever have been on a shoot before or since. My gloves kept my hands marginally functional, and I knew if I ever started taking off the winter gear in front of a warm heater, I wasn't going to want to go outside.  So, I stayed outside during lunch, during breaks, and just let people come to me.  My PAs loved me because it meant if I were going to stay outside, I could do fire watch, and they could warm up inside.  I didn't see the point of two of us freezing, and these kids were outside long enough standing in one spot as it was.  You don't see a lot of First ADs on fire watch.

The last two nights, specifically, involved the climax to the movie, including an ambulance, multiple police cars, prop cars, and the end of a wacky chase.  For both nights, we had "cop extras".  In NY, that meant, often, cops (or their relatives, or retired cops) with NYPD  uniforms (we paid extra for that).  You have to cover their precinct lapel, and, obviously, they can't carry real firearms, but it's great because they know how to carry themselves like NYPD and you don't have to explain it all.

We also had our share of odd extras, including one off-duty cop who carried a cat-of-nine-tails with him.  He explained that he was an insomniac, and to relax at night, he would practice using the whip on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Somehow, they all found me.  Doesn't the NYPD have a psych eval?  He was on each of the last two nights (and somehow worked his way onto a subsequent shoot with me, despite my best efforts), and it was kinda creepy watching him with a wild "yahoo!" as he practiced with his whip during breaks.

The very last night involved a very complicated chase sequence finale.  It wasn't The French Connection, but it was complicated.  Getting everything to go exactly when I wanted involved me on bullhorn, as well as communicating on walkie to others to cue cars, etc.

As we approached the  martini  for not only the night, but this entire long shoot, we were third time through the walkie batteries, and we had fewer and fewer that were hot.  Additionally, the bullhorn I was using was starting to go.  As I looked at the horizon, as one does on night shoots, I saw the slightest tinge of blue, which meant we were not far from losing night cover (the sun would rise, making it impossible to shoot a night scene).

That would mean we were going to have to come back, and, let me assure you, that was not going to happen on my watch.

I had two of the grips help me on top of the roof of a car, cane and all, where everyone could see me.  As I tried to get attention over the bullhorn, the bullhorn almost completely went out on me.  I threw the bullhorn to the ground, and shouted "First position!" at the top of my lungs.  My erstwhile ADs repeated my commands at the top of their lungs, as I called for sound to roll, for each car to go ("hero car go!  police car one, go!, etc).  As is often the case, one action set off the other, so I just  needed to get the action in motion.

Completely hoarse at the end of the night, as daylight was about to break, I looked at JR, he smiled and nodded.  I looked at Matt.  He smiled and said "Hey, JB, you know what?"  I knew where this was going - the joke about someone else calling "It's a wrap!" instead of me.  Matt started laughing, and with what little voice I had left I shouted to Matt "Don't even think about it!"   I started giving the send-offs to our main actors ("That's a picture wrap on Bobby.  That's a picture wrap on Antonina...") each followed by the appropriate applause, and finally, only one season and I don't want to think about how many days later, arms raised triumphantly,

"That's a wrap on Lucky Stiffs!"

Pictured above, the male cast of Lucky Stiffs with Brooke Shields at the opening. Director Matt is far right in white suit .

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