Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Film, Sans Director

My next project was a rather short one, not a short film, but a short project.

Some have commented that I tried to be positive about people in this blog, and I have, in part because when I come onto a project and people tell me how horrible others are, I always wonder how they talk about you,  I have seen this many times.  That, and the fact that film is a collaboration, so it's rarely just one person that was crazy when things go wrong.

So it was that I was hired to production manage a feature that had ceased operation after about a week, and the director was trying to revive it.  In our meeting, he went on and on about what a jerk the original DP was, and the original production manager, and the original AD.

I took his evaluation at face value; I had no other point of reference.  What was disturbing was the fact that both of those people had not been paid for the time they did put in on the project.  Firing people and choosing not to work with them any further is one thing, not living up to your financial obligations for the time they were on the project is something else.

The director did not dispute the days owed, but constantly put off paying them for one excuse or another.  Even though they had not been hired on my watch, I felt a responsibility to see them paid.

I used the hiatus time to hire a new director of photography, and a new assistant director.  As we were planning, I found a non-stop string of problems the director had with even the new people I hired, and there were missed meetings when the director found himself unavailable at the last minute.  This was annoying, but I chalked it up to him still being frazzled by the experience to date, and I've always cut directors who were also producing their own film some slack.  If the artistic pressure was not enough, the  financial pressure caught up with them.  In some, this manifests as a form of paranoia where everyone is out to get them, to cost them money, to the point where it is personal.

Over the years, I have really tried to see interactions that go badly in film as simply part of the business, and not take it personally.  It's not easy, and long hours and pressure lead us to take things very personally, but there are many times over the years where, once outside of the immediate situation, my impressions of people changed.  That will be the case on the next feature I will talk about, The Rook, a film that holds a special place for me.  A relationship that started out very tumultuously ended up being a very special one in my life, both in the business and outside of it.

On this particular film, though, that was not the case.  I will simply refer to the movie as The High.  The story line involved African-American students who hold a racist teacher hostage.  The film was written and directed by a White filmmaker, and that shouldn't have meant he could not have handled this material well, but he didn't.  It's a rather bad film.

The director of photography I went with happened to be the brother of a more well-known DP, and a very helpful person in terms of bringing assets to the project that we would never have been able to afford.  His generosity was lost on the director, who still felt he was being ripped off.

After about two weeks of planning, we were finally ready to shoot.  The first scene was one in the school room, and setting up the room with key cast and about 30 extras involved a good deal of planning, but it almost went perfectly.  Everything and everyone was there on time, with one exception - the director.  He was nowhere to be found, and repeated cell calls to him went unanswered.

Given that he was already under budget constraints, the AD, the DP and myself tried to rough in the set-up for the master scene.  Mind you, I'm not talking about a few minutes late - I'm talking its an hour past crew call, and the director is not there, and not answering his cell.  We all figured it we at least got the master for the scene up and lit, he could always make adjustments when he got there.

On low-budget projects, actors often come expecting disorganization, and if they sense that they are right, things go badly.  The DP and I did our best to act as if the director not being there was due to a last minute emergency, and did everything in our power to calm unhappy cast and extras.  We also did everything we could to shield the director from any criticism.

All of this good will went to waste once the director finally arrived, almost two hours past call time.  He gave no excuse other than "I was busy," but more upsetting was his reaction to us having tried to get some work started, work that would help save him time and money.  He walked onto the set, and began loudly cursing out me and the director of photography, telling him how bad the lighting scene and asking me who I thought I was to set up the scene.  Mind you, all we "set up" was set dressing that had been discussed with the production designer, and shooting in a direction we had discussed when we had scouted.

"No one does anything until I say so, is that clear?" was his response.  When he was finished with his rant, he suggested to the DP that he, the director, would now explain how he wanted the scene lit.

I waited for him to finish.  The DP was somewhat in shock, not knowing how to react.  Mind you, this is a DP who had pulled a lot of favors to get him extras he could not otherwise afford.

There are a lot of things I can look past, and I gave him a few chances to calm down, which was just met with more profanity.  Finally, in front of full cast and crew, I announced, "Mike (that was not his name), I want to thank you for finally joining us, on behalf of those of us who were here on time and ready to work  two hours ago."  I then turned and apologized for his behavior to the cast and crew, and stepped outside with him.

I explained that this was my last day, but before I left, he was going to go to pay me for prep - he could keep the money for that day, and that he would pay the DP and the AD and those who had worked in prep before I left.  He was also going to hand me checks for the previous AD and DP, which I would get to them.  I also explained failure to do so meant I would inform the crew of his past history with not paying crew, and there was a good chance they would walk on him.  After much gnashing of teeth, he agreed.  I did stay and make sure we got through the day - that was my responsibility to the people I had brought on the job.

Again, bad situation, but not a completely bad outcome.  The DP and I went on to work on other projects and remained friends for some time, as was the case with the sound recordist and a few other members of the crew.

Next, I take over another movie in trouble, but this time, with much better results.  Enter, The Rook.

1 comment:

Kangas said...

Yeah, there's a lot of this type of shit going around, especially in my area. I will NEVER understand a director walking onto a set late without a GREAT reason.

I will NEVER understand taking favors for granted. It's hard to believe how many people in the biz are so unprofessional...