Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Rook - Part 1 - Meet the New Guy



“After a half hour, remove your jacket; after the second half hour, loosen your tie; after the third, roll up your sleeves; after the fourth, muss your hair a little.  At the end of the day, you should look utterly exhausted, and everyone will say you are a hell of a stage manager.”

Bert Gruver, The Stage Manager's Handbook

I read the book quoted above over 25 years ago, and it still sticks in my mind.  It comes at the end of a book that goes into all the nuts and bolts of the job of stage managing; then, on page 213, Mr. Gruver turns humorist, offering a survival guide for the real world the stage manager will face.

His point was that since people didn't really know what you did, if you look like what they expect, you must be doing your job.  Look the part.

The same can be said of a UPM or Line Producer, and, to some extent, the First Assistant Director.  People know that the UPM and Line Producer worry about the money, the First AD the schedule, but beyond that, often not much else.

What they expect in all of those positions is command of the situation at hand.  Change at this level usually means things are going poorly.  Much like managers in baseball, the degree of responsibility of the person involved as opposed to the players (crew, director, etc) is a matter for debate, but the fact remains that they are being replaced because there were answers they didn't have, and you, as the new person, better bring those answers, and the sooner the better.

I came to the producer and director, Eran, on the recommendation of one of the associate producers and original editor, Alan.  He noticed on my resume that I had helped another project (that I will discuss after this one - it was shot first but released later), he knew the people involved, and they had assured him that I would be a big help.

Eran lived in a very large loft, that also served as the production office, and it was more than big enough;  indeed, he had chosen it precisely because he could use it for both purposes, as he had other films planned.  The production designer was a sculptor named Sebastian, who worked with his girlfriend.  This was Sebastian's first film, though the results would suggest otherwise.  Sebastian lived in a loft across the hall, which also served as the de facto art department office.  Together, we had the entire floor of the building.

I met Eran and Alan on a day off after week one, and they definitely felt the production manager was in over her head; they had hired someone without a lot of experience at that level who was moving up.  It always amazes me that people will put a novice in charge of controlling their money in order to save money.  Can anyone imagine a start-up corporation bringing on an accounting student as CFO in order to save money?  No.  Production manager on a film?  Sure.

The rationale is that since the budget is smaller, there will be less that could go wrong; though nothing could be further from the truth.  When a major film goes over budget, numbers get printed in red as opposed to black, losses are written-off against profits on other films, and life goes on.  On small indies, going over budget means checks bounce and everything stops, so in many ways, experience is even more important because of the consequences involved.

As is often the case on these small projects, the budget that was prepared was more of what I call a Wish Budget - the amount the producers wish to spend on each line item rather than a reflection of the reality of what each line item would cost.  Of course, it failed to include other line items, including those items that would be obtained for free - and we all know the high cost of free.

On the day I got there, Eran and Greg were looking over dailies on a  Steenbeck  in a closet-sized room that was the editing suite.  Welcome to the good ole days of post production.  The footage didn't make much sense to me - there were people in what looked like period costumes and odd set pieces, but I hadn't yet read the script, and assumed that it would all make sense once I did.

That assumption would be challenged soon enough.

The outgoing production manager and Eran agreed that she would stay on in a minor capacity for a bit (she would decide against that after a day or two, which was for the best).  After getting Alan and Eran's perspective on what was going wrong, I got Cindy's (I don't remember her name - Cindy will do), which obviously did not put her at fault.  From her I got that Eran was an inexperienced director who had made the poor choice of following the advice of a stubborn First AD, Van.

I got the entire low-down on Van (from her perspective) on our trip out to set as she drove.  She had tried to change schedule with him, but he would hear none of it, and all he did was complain to her about things that were not being done from the production office side; he was, she pointed out, part of the problem and not part of the solution.

I had a copy of the schedule, and some things made immediate sense, others are different than how I might have done it, but my background as an AD told me there were certainly elements of scheduling that Van knew that I did not.

ADs are as possessive of their schedules as Linus is of his blanket, and for good reason.  As I pointed out in previous posts, as AD, you have to take all variables into consideration, where the person who takes a quick look at it is either just seeing one perspective, or just seeing it from their department's point of view.  ADs hate having their schedules questioned.

There was also the second obvious problem, which was the rift between "production" and the AD department, which included a very good second AD named Annie.  This is something that occurs more often than it should.  Many ADs do not see themselves as part of production, and so see themselves as separate from the production and the production office, leading to tension and a blame game.  Food arrives late for lunch?  AD says, "hey, I told production, it's their fault."  Same with other problems that can arise with transportation, equipment and other issues.

Technically, the AD in this situation is correct; these sorts of things should be handled by the production office.  My issue is not with the delegation of duties as much as the attitude; it's not good for crew to see a rift between the production office and PM and the AD.  Their jobs overlap so often that it's important that they be seen as a team, and that they work together.  Tension and division does neither side any good.

My first encounter with the AD department was when Annie, the 2nd AD, met us when we arrived on set.  She was professional, but I sensed a bit of a chill, no doubt a result of me showing up with Cindy.  They were shooting when we got there, so I took the time to talk with Annie privately for a bit about how things had been going from her perspective.  First ADs are stuck by camera most of the day, so if you want to know what is going on behind the scenes, talk to the 2nd AD; they know where all the bodies are buried ( or are about to be buried, as the case may be).  Also, I knew if I ingratiated myself with the 2nd AD, good word would get back to the 1st AD.  Human dynamics aren't that hard to figure out.

Again, I got the word about transportation and food arriving on time.  I realized that part of this was an inexperienced UPM not challenging a budget that was penny-wise and dollar foolish.  We added a vehicle and made some common sense upgrades regarding food.  Eran was skeptical, but he had asked for a new perspective, so I got some more rope than my predecessor may have.

One of the most important things when taking over a project like this is change; people need to see a tangible difference.  Little things like the craft table looking better and lunch being on time can make a difference with the crew, and the added transpo helped both the director and AD department see that things could actually run more smoothly.  Little things matter; Mussolini won the hearts of a nation by simply getting the trains to run on time, though I try my best to avoid most other comparisons between my management style and Mussolini's, as my upside-down  hanging skills are not up to par.

When we broke for lunch, I introduced myself to Van.  I knew the look on his face; "oh, great, someone new who is going to try and tell me how to do my job."  Without a doubt, schedule would be something we would have to address, and he took out the stripboard, and we started going over some things.  As expected, there was resistance to even considering any changes and exasperation.

I took him aside, and said, look, I knew things weren't going well, but as an AD, I knew what he was going through, and I promised to have his back and do my best to support the AD department on set.  I don't think I impressed him very much that day, but over the course of principal photography, and even after this film, he and I would become good working partners and friends.  He is easily one of the best ADs I've worked with, and I'm happy we worked all of that out over time.

So, the work began.  Being the new guy buys you a little time, but not forever, and next post, my initial head-butting with Eran, the director, and my introduction to the office production staff and the interesting accounting process to date.

No comments: