Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Bet (or The Fall of Love) - Part 5 - Back(Ground) and Forth

Pool parties (in the movie, that is)

The Bet was the easiest and most enjoyable of shoots for me as an Assistant Director, one on which I gained a good deal of confidence and experience on a movie that stayed on schedule and on which I had a good deal of input.

Making The Bet even more fulfilling for me was that while it had a number of intimate scenes with just a few characters, it also had it's share of party scenes.

I know ADs who love the challenge of stunts or action sequences, and I absolutely understand that take, but for me, I've always prided myself on having the background that looks real, adds dimension to the frame, but never takes away from the action in the foreground.

Those are elements that always catch my eye during a movie, the result of years as an assistant director and probably one of the reasons I don't get a lot of movie dates.  I tend to talk later over dinner about how great background looked, or rather, how it looked dull and boring, the crosses were straight across and not at angles that broke up the frame, or about how one background actor or another did something to stand out and take away from the main action.

I was watching footage from a movie shot in Cambodia on which I was post production supervisor recently, and one scene always bothered me, but I assumed it would be trimmed at some point.  The original editor (we replaced him for other reasons, but missing things like this were among them) kept two characters in front of the lead in the shot after they were done at the counter, and one of the characters kept looking back at the lead for no good reason.  It was distracting and screamed "look at me" and we eventually trimmed the scene to remove it.  Drives me crazy.

I have to credit Adam with dealing with me as a collaborator in these areas; we would spend time discussing these scenes over cognac the day before shooting.  Of course, how we shot those was largely JR's influence, and there were places where everything worked just great.

One was a decadent pool party that took place partly in the main character's head while he was hallucinating.  JR had the idea of shooting it from overhead, looking down at the party.  I proposed staging the action around the pool in something of a Marx Brothers-inspired sequence, where one action would lead to another and that one would set off the next.

I spent way too much time planning and laying it out the night before (I think I recall JR mockingly asking me "How is it going, Herr Director?").  In Europe, AD is considered a stepping stone to directing, but in the US, it is much more a path to producing, and ADs who show interest in direction are often seen as overstepping their bounds.

I have had directors who have gladly had me show them background, and then made mild adjustments, and directors who insisted on choreographing even the most minute part of the background.  It's all within their right, though on a DGA film, a director giving an actor direct instructions can lead to a costly upgrade.  There is a story around about Coppolla insisting on individually directing over 100 bg extras during a scene, and the SAG rep on set being able to get them all an upgrade.  How much of that is lore and how much is true I don't know.

Most ADs I talk to take pride in their background, and while anything that falls on frame part of of the directors vision, we love when we are shown enough trust to make it happen.

Part of this art, on low budget films, is making a handful of people look like a large number of people.  I remember once getting a rather small showing for what was planned as a big night club scene in a film, and I'm still proud that we made about 40 people look like a packed crowd in a rather large nightclub space.

We are also, still, responsible for staying on schedule, so while it may be okay for the director to tinker endlessly with his blocking for principles, the AD doesn't - and shouldn't - have the same free reign.  If the First AD appreciates being given some room by the director, he should also give some of that same room to the 2nd AD, who is often responsible for actually manipulating many of those background players.

I was lucky, as Stacey's background was also as a stage manager, and she and I thought alike and were on the same page in terms of blocking and terminology.

It worked well on most days, but the pool scene was just a step or two off, enough to make it seem forced.  I knew it, and I wasn't going to be the reason it we feel behind.  As I stood on a third floor porch, frantically on the walkie to Stacey to make changes as we did rehearsals and finally runs, Stan came up to me.  he watched a take that seemed worse than the last, and asked what I was doing.

I explained what I was trying to do.  He thought for a moment, then made a suggestion of a change I could try in the sequence.  It worked perfectly.  Wow, how did I miss that.  I started thanking him, and all he said was "you would have seen it eventually," and walked away.

That moment stuck with me over the years, in a business that is so often about celebrating "me," Stan was always willing to give the credit elsewhere.  This is something I have tried to emulate as I got to his position, the ability to support without taking credit, the ability to step aside and give the credit to someone else.

While things were going great for me, they weren't going as well for Stan and Dianne.  We stayed on schedule and were, for the most part, on budget, but there were things Adam and Isabella had not anticipated in their original budget for the film.  This is natural, and today, I always insist on any film I work on as line producer that the budget we work from be one I prepared.  I understand that the bottom line number needs to stay at a certain place, but all too often, directors who are first-time producers have prepared budgets that simply leave out things out of wishful thinking (I will go into budgeting in more detail in posts about line producing).

This was the case with Stan on this film, and he and Dianne, who were also living in the Big House with Adam and Isabella, and Stan soon became persona non grata with them, and by default, because she would support Stan, Dianne was as well.  I discussed this with Stan after the film, and we talked about how someone needs to be at fault for things the producers overlooked, and it would usually be the line producer or production manager.

One day, Isabella "accidentally" locked Stan and Dianne out of their make-shift office for hours of the day in an instance of spite that did nothing but make work go slower.  Producers can do things that, in the long run, go against their best interests if it makes them feel good at the moment, yet another instance of one of the hardest parts of the job being when the people you are working for become one of the main obstacles.

So things went, until we came toward the end of a shoot we all enjoyed just a little too much.  In the next post, I will talk a little about dailies and the putting together of The Bet, and the final screening.

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