Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Rook - Part 5- A Mule Shall Lead Them

Life has patterns and connections, if you chose to follow them.

There was a point where I found myself in Upstate NY for all or parts of a number of films, and after our experience on The Bet, I learned that The Rook would be shooting part of the film in upstate New York, in and around the Mohonk Mountain House on Lake Mohonk and the Mohonk Preserve.

The area was perfect fit for the script for two reasons; the preserve provided the timeless quality the script called for, a large  area where the eye could go look for miles and see no hint of modern culture, and the mountain roads provided the perfect introduction of the inspector to ride down to a Valley for the fictional town of Sutheridge.

The first picture above gives a hint of the road to be traveled, and how steep it was.  In the scene, a draft horse (pictured at top) was to pull a carriage down the road.  The draft horses that would actually traverse these narrow roads were closer to mules than thoroughbreds, and they were the only choice, as the more beautiful horses we might have chosen were afraid of the height and tight turns, and a slight accident could mean disaster.

We had employed the services of a carriage owner and a mule owner separately, and the two came together in perfect harmony in the morning.  Our schedule had us finishing all the work with both before lunch, but safety required that movement was slow and steady.  I had set up at a base camp at lower down on the mountain, making sure such things as lunch and other equipment and transport were in motion.

We sent a minimal crew up the mountain, and I was more than happy to leave the specifics of morning shooting in Van's capable hands, as not only did I have enough to worry about, but the truth is I have a morbid fear of heights.

I have been fortunate in my career as AD to never have to confront this fear directly, and most directors have never noticed that when we have shot on rooftops, I tend to steer clear of the edge.  It has always been a thought when I look through scripts (I also HATE bugs, and have been fortunate to not have to deal with excessive bug handling in my career) but never kept me from taking one.

I wasn't too concerned that we hadn't finished it all before lunch, as we had made up this sort of time in the past, and we were getting good footage.  I was inside our base camp, about to take a bite out of my lunch, when Van summoned me on the walkie.  I stepped away from my meal and came outside, only to be confronted by Van, Eran, the draft horse owner and the carriage owner mid-argument.

Here is what had transpired: we broke for lunch, and the draft horse owner had asked if the animals could eat.  Seeing no reason why they shouldn't, Van had OKed it - I would have as well.  At some point during the lunch period, Van tried to get a jump on things by getting the horses hooked back up to the carriage, and this is where the trouble started.

What neither Van nor I knew was that draft horses, once they finish eating, sleep for a good six to eight hours.  Good for them - I can never get that sort of sleep, and I guess the universe rewards these animals for their hard work by keeping their life simple: work, eat, relieve yourself, sleep.  I imagine this simple life keeps them away from the therapist.

Eran was upset with everyone: Van for not knowing the animals wouldn't be able to work after lunch, me for not checking, the owner of the draft horses for breaking our deal memo, which stated we had them for the day.  As deal memos were being discussed, I looked over at the animals in question, who were heading directly to, they would offer, a well-deserved nap.  Deal memos weren't high on their list of concerns.

This crystalized for me one of the great lessons of production, and that is that there is no textbook.  I don't know how many years of film school you would need to know that draft horses sleep after they eat, but clearly, we all were out the day they taught that lesson.  There were certainly many other unforeseen events in my film career, but this one stuck out as the prototype, the perfect symbol for the unavoidable problem.  I have used it to start every class on line producing.  The cynic could say we should have asked if they sleep after eating, or how many hours would they work on the day, but that is all hindsight.

I finally worked out a reasonable deal to have both the carriage and horses come back for the next day, with both adding only their cost and not another day in fees.  Eran was still not happy, not for the money but the principal of the thing.  Somehow, he still felt cheated.  Van was swift to figure out a schedule change that showed that by the end of the next day, we would be back on schedule.  Still sullen, Eran agreed, thought Van and I heard about it for some time.

Here, another JB rule was born, and that was that I don't take a lunch break, and, except for a bagel or a bite to keep the coffee from burning a hole in my stomach in the morning, I don't eat during the shoot.

Although I am third-generation American, my Italian and Mediterranean roots kick in here, and a meal is a time to sit and relax.  There is no relaxing for anyone in production during a shoot, and lunch is seen by the rest of the crew as that time when they can finally take you aside and ask questions, or for the director and/or producers to address issues they could not while we were rolling.  Rarely do these questions or discussions turn to congratulating you for the great job you're doing, or telling you how much they enjoy being on this shoot.

So, I choose not to eat during a shoot day, and wait until we wrap, often having a meal and a nice glass of wine (or something stronger on a particularly bad day) while shutting my phone and talking about anything but the day's work with those around me; my beloved if pitiful Mets, the weather, Carl Hiaasen novels, anything but work.

This has worried and/or infuriated many a caterer, in part because I often hire them, and they worry that if I'm not eating, there is some level of dissatisfaction with the food.  Assistants that have worked with me regularly are left to explain to others that I'm not going to eat while we were working, and to let it go.  I even had a location manager who, when she chose not to eat lunch, would refer to it as "taking a JB."

I don't expect to ever be immortalized in the manner of Abby Singer, but it will do.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Rook-Part 4-Meet The People

Films may not be sentient beings as such, but I have always believed that films take on a personality, and "The Rook" was very much shaped by the personality of its producer and director, Eran.

Although he often enjoyed a Bohemian image, Eran had a deep intellectual curiosity, which caused him to look beneath the surface of all things to get to the heart of the matter.  Consciously or not, he surrounded himself with people with similar inclinations.

Martin, the lead, is one of those actors who brings to his characters more questions than answers, offers more in what is not said than in what is said.  He became something of an indie icon during the 90s because he was featured prominently in Hal Hartley's eclectic films, which is part of what drew Eran to him.

Zack, our DP, would go on to direct a  number of intellectually-challenging projects, including a psychological drama that one reviewer called one of the most underrated indie films of the 90s.  He recently directed and shot a film about a bicycle caravan with the theme of "Money or Life" which travels across Europe to join protests in Prague against the IMF and World Bank,

Charlie, our gaffer, was a Vietnam vet who had served as gaffer on a number of Spike Lee projects, working with the often-difficult DP (and later director) Ernie Dickerson.  Dickerson went through ACs and gaffers like water at one point in his career, so the fact that he constantly went back to Charlie tells you something about how talented and astute Charlie was.  I would go on to work with Charlie as DP and camera operator on a number of projects.

Jan, our sound recordist, was also a writer and artist with  degrees in philosophy and comparative literature.

Sebastian, our production designer, was a world-class sculptor and artist.  It wasn't until the film wrapped and I got to know Sebastian outside of production that I not got to appreciate the real artist underneath all the paint and plaster that constantly covered him during the shoot, but alos got to appreciate the person.

I have already spoken of the script and our screenwriter, Richard.

Our AD Van, who I have mentioned extensively, was one of the first ADs I saw work to put not only politically-correct, but sensitive descriptions into the elements of the breakdown (is it that hard to refer to a character as "large" instead of "fat")  Since then, it has become more common, but I'm not surprised that Van is now on the DGA Board in Los Angeles.

Indie film is often driven by the enthusiasm of youth, but Eran had put together a truly veteran team of people that he genuinely enjoyed being around, and I have to say that it was one of the most satisfying situations I ever found myself in.

I have worked on films that "felt" important, and turned out to go unnoticed.  The Rook may not have gone onto widespread fame, but it did attract a cult following, and did get noticed by some critics and festivals.  I truly believe the final product mirrored the collective conscience of the key crew.

All of that depth can only take you so far, and in my next post, I will look at how a dumb mule could throw all these intelligent people for a loop, in a lesson that is right up there with any I ever learned.  It also was the start of another JB rule, and it happened not far from the Upstate New York adventure of The Bet.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

First Loves and Going Home Again

Remember your first love?  She was as beautiful as could be and and she loved you with all of her heart, and your time together was magical.  At least, that's how you remember her.

A more objective account might remind you of the fights you had, that weird thing she did with her eyes, and the fact that she left you for a second-string quarterback (not even the starter!)

Impressions of our first loves improve with time and distance, and so it is that when I think of my early days of working in theater as a stage manager, I remember how excited I was when I picked up my script and read it for the first time on the way home on the subway, and the comraderie I shared with those early casts, all of us pulling together to put on a show!  No doubt, the two-hour performances in front of ten people, the difficult actors or directors, the light board that never seemed to work correctly and the show you were embarrassed to tell you friends about because the script was so bad have faded in my memory with time.

Still, this is the way I remember my early theater days.

Many of my film friends have expressed frustration with the current state of indie film. Me too.
So it was that I got the opportunity to stage manage a hip-hop musical called "Hip Hop High".  One of the first things the director mentioned was that it was a cast of 15, including many teens.  I will not lie; my first thought was "how much Valium could I fit into a Pez dispensers?"   I had the image of out-of-control creatures at the mercy of hormones, or maybe spoiled stage brats, or both.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that none of that was true, that the cast, which ranges in age from 12 to 30s, most in early 20s, was among the most pleasant to work with I have ever experienced.  In any cast -  film or theater, there is always someone who gets under your skin.  In this cast, not a one.  Additionally, the director, musical director and producer were all seasoned pros without a trace of ego.

My last post talked about prima donnas in film , but theater has no shortage; indeed, the term started in musical theater (opera).  These folks - great.

One of the first things I loved about it was the chance to work with old tools - prompt book, stopwatch, etc.  I felt like Sweeney Todd with his knife back.

Monday night, we had a performance for potential producers and industry.  When you're working on a show, you can feel every little imperfection.  At intermission I could sense that the cast was feeling all the slight flaws, the moments they had hit better the previous week during a preview,  the places the energy could have been better.

The audience, of course,  doesn't know any of that,and there were no obvious gaffes.  The audience responded to the very original and entertaining music and the talent and energy this cast brings, and the response was enthusiastic.

I don't know if this show will get picked up; indeed,  I find it amusing to be working on a workshop looking to move to Broadway while on television enjoying the new NBC show SMASH, which covers a very different show on the same path.  Luckily,  we don't have half the same backstage intrigue.
After the show, the director, the producer/Creator of the show and a few cast members closed a small Mexican-themed restaurant in the wee hours discussing the play.  Man, it was one of those discussions that I thrived on in my younger days, esoteric and artsy with nary a mention of the sort of budget and nightmare issues that come up when line producing.

There I go again,  waxing nostalgic when in fact those gritty nuts and bolts issues will need to be addressed by the producers if the show is to move to the next level, and forgetting that we in film have these discussions as well.  The difference is, in part, the immediacy of live theater,  the feedback that doesn't go on hold for months of editing.

I don't know the next step for Hip Hop High.  In a few days, we will have a recording of the showcase courtesy of the producer, a prolific film and music producer named Zman.  I will try to share it here then.

Whatever the future of the show - and I feel it has one - I know I will look to cast some of these cast members in future projects of mine, and hope to work with the producers, musical director and stage director again.

Thanks for this indulgence.   Next post, its back to The Rook, where you will get to meet a very heady and esoteric crew.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Prima Donnas and Challenges Old and New

(Another post out-of sequence, in my attempt to also track what is happening now, and put it in perspective with my career.  My next post, on Tuesday, April 17th, will be about a current gig that brings back memories of my first gigs - in theater! The story of "The Rook" will continue a few days later)

In the digital age, short films have become increasingly more popular than in the past, and this creates some new challenges, while some old truths remain the same.  Old and new were part of the mix for me recently as assistant director on a short for a director whose work I really like.

The new is how reduced budgets allow for less expense on the technology, but also means less money and time spent on the production side.  My production staff consisted of a production assistant who was a friend of the director who does not drive and who had very definite ideas about what was and what was not his job, and a foreign-born friend of the art director who came along to help out with limited English skills and no set experience, but a great attitude and the ability to drive.  The latter was infinitely more useful to me than the former, a film school grad who kept talking about his “real” projects when he wasn’t reading a book on producing or sleeping on the couch.

Perhaps my “favorite” part about the lazy friend of the director was that he took all notes on his brand-new iPad.  This might have impressed me (though it is unlikely) had he actually done half of the things I asked him to do.  Evidently, lists on iPads are somehow harder to carry out than notes taken on a paper pad.  Who knew?

Of course, I had no Second AD, but here, technology comes in handy.  Gorilla Software, which is my preferred software to EP, creates a nice call sheet (I know they are working on even better ones and the ability to incorporate people’s current templates).  While it is not as good as the excel marvels my better 2nds use, I would not have the time to fill the latter out, so even having the ability to generate call sheets as soon as I switch the schedule is nice.

While shorts leave less of a staff (no office staff to help with sides and copies, for one), some old truths remain.  Whether you email them, print them, or both, forms are only as good as people reading them.  Most of the crew, including the director of photography, didn’t actually read the call sheet emailed, so referring to it becomes kind of useless.  The printer the director brought never made it out of the bag until day 2, though it was one of the first things I asked the friend to set up when we got there the night before shooting.  Wonder if the iPad deleted it?

In the category of old comes getting lost on the way to location, something we managed to do even with GPS (the fact that all of the phones using the GPS were low on charges didn’t help).  That, as one of my DP friends suggested, gets very old very fast.

I was reintroduced on this shoot to something that is probably as old as the era of movies, and that was the prima donna* Director of Photography.  We've all worked with them, and it reminds me of a story the insightful  blogger Schmudde shared in his blog,  Beyond the Frame about the exceptional cinematographer Sven Nykvist:

"A crew member with whom he was sharing a moment of relaxation turned to him and said, 'Sven. let's hurry, they need you.' Nykvist turned back and replied, 'No rush, without us, it's radio.'"

I will generally agree with Schmudde that the quote is brilliant, but then again, so is Nykvist and his work ethic in general.  To an AD working with a mediocre, at best, DP, it loses its luster.  I have seen too many mediocre DPs with one or two impressive credits to their name bully directors and approach  films as if it were their set, and it is when people with lesser talent take on the mantle of superiority that I take issue.

Digital cameras make it possible for people who would not know what to do with a light meter or how to load a film camera to call themselves DPs.  Not a knock on the technology - I just worked as post supervisor on a film shot on a 7D that was truly amazing, images to match anything I have ever worked on.  I also have had the pleasure of working with a number of talented young DPs who I have no doubt will reshape the future of cinematography, using new technologies in ways we have not imagined.

ADs and DPs butting heads is also a part of film , as both professions attract a certain number of people with God complexes, and polytheistic film sets tend to be untidy.  (Least I suggest that only DPs can be prima donnas, a good friend who was a DGA intern shares this story.  Part of her first job as DGA intern was to stand in the closest parking spot until the 1st AD arrived.  Once he parked, he would get out of the car and hold his arms up, and she would have to put his walkie and headset on him.  When he left, she was to do the same in reverse, taking the walkie and headset off of him.)  It's probably why I have always treasured the many DPs I've worked with who were not only talented, but team players, and people with whom I got along.

This DP had assembled quite a team, and luckily, they were talented.  The team included a camera operator, as the Prima Donna DP had no skills actually operating a camera.  While many DPs prefer to work with an operator, on a small indie level, most I know are talented operators, and on most of the indie features I worked on, they were their own operators.  This operator was not only talented, but great to have on board, which I came to appreciate during filming of a scene in a bathroom.

Bathrooms being shot on location have had the same challenges from the beginning of time, tight space and reflection.  I was not able to scout the location before we shot, but specifically asked both the director and DP about the bathroom on location before we shot, and Prima Donna DP assured both of us that it would work fine.

So here we are shooting the bathroom, and the tight space and the reflection make it difficult to get the shot right.  It's an emotional scene, and the first scene in the movie, so it's obviously important, or so you would think.  The DP, however, had done little preparation, and when I tried to figure how we could stop catching the operator in the reflection, her answer was "It's not my fault.  The door on the cabinet (with the mirror) opens the wrong way."

Wait, you were on the scout, right?  Did you not open the cabinet to see which way it opened?  Further, it won't matter to the audience that the cabinet opened the wrong way.  When open, the inside of the cabinet was poorly lit.  Again, the answer was the cabinet opening the wrong way.  I have only had DPs solve this problem about a million times in my career, and with bathrooms just as small.  Her answer, simply, was that it was not her fault.

The only person with an answer was her gaffer, the only person on set who understood lighting.  On more than one occasion, I heard him tell Prima Donna "don't worry about units - just tell me what you want," a good suggestion since she didn't know much about units or lighting.  I should point out at this point that both my gaffer and key grip  were amazingly talented and easily the hardest working people on the crew.  If not for them, the Minnow, as they say, would have been lost.

All of this confusion about the bathroom led to the poor operator having the camera (a RED) on his shoulder way longer than he should have.  Simple rule - once the camera is on the operator's shoulder, everyone focuses and busts their rear until he is able to take it off his shoulder.  Not a rule Signorina followed, as her frequent smoke breaks outside the cabin we were using could not be interrupted for such trivial things as an operator having the camera on his shoulder.  It also did not keep her from joking with the friends on the crew during these periods, completely oblivious to the fact that the actress was playing an emotional scene where she had just discovered her dead son.

Many operators would have been cursing up a storm, but not a peep was heard from him, something that earned my complete respect.

The other reason the DP was not engaged with the scene was she knew it wouldn't wind up on her reel, so it didn't really matter, as that seems the only reason she was on this shoot.  There were three scenes which concerned her, one of which was a Magic Hour shot.  The rest were just there, I guess, to connect the three scenes that she could show to others.

If there were any doubt about the "important" scenes, she made a big deal of announcing, prior to the shoot, that it would take "at least" two hours to light each of these scenes, and later, her estimate revised upward.  Thanks to the hard-working and talented Grips and electrics (dolly grip - also great), their set-up times were shorter than that, but we still got to the time she suggested and passed it as she made endless and needless adjustments, adjustments she hadn't taken a second to actually plan, it seemed.

I have seen DPs who were shooting their reels before, but the feeling never stops irking me.  For them, the current shoot is a mere pit stop along the way of a race they intend on winning, one that brings awards and acclaim and bigger money.  All of the latter is fine; to some extent, we all hope that our good work will bring us more good work.  However, for these DPs, what it means is that time doesn't matter, and if we have to do endless takes of their favorite scenes and the director has to cut other scenes later, that is just fine.

A film set is a team, a collaboration, which can be the best part about this craft or its downfall, the fact that one key member being out-of-step can hurt an entire project.  DPs shooting their reels also bring along a lot of attitude, as it helps to deflect any criticism of the crazy amount of time they are spending on set-ups.

This, I learned was true of her on other shoots, as a hard-working and talented camera person I know who worked with her shared that she would often scream at her team and remind them who was in charge.   In all lines of work, people who have to remind you of who is in charge usually are not very good at earning respect, since if they were, there would be no need to remind others.

I could say that Prima Donna DP made this an unpleasant experience, but that would not be entirely true, as I once again got to meet a lot of the great people I mentioned.  I am sure she will go on to some level of success if her crew continues to follow her and make up for her short-comings, but it doesn't matter, because I know the other people (including the director, who has already directed and produced some very nice material) will go forward, because they not only are very good at what they do, but a joy to work along side.

That is also something that never changes; that no matter how bad a situation on a given shoot can seem, there are always, always good things to take from it, and more often than not, it is the good people you do meet.

* While the origin of the term "prima donna" comes from opera and its literal translation of "first lady", I use the term here without reference to gender, as I often use "actor" for both male and female performers.  Consider the closer definition this one from our friends at Merriam-Webster; "a vain (or undisciplined) person who finds it difficult to work as part of a team."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Rook- Part 3 - Who Killed the Chauffeur?

"One day Bogie came on the set said to Howard [Director Howard Hawks], 'Who pushed Taylor off the pier?' Everything stopped" 

-Lauren Bacall, By Myself and Then Some

Bacall, above, is referring to the maze-like plot of The Big Sleep, in what has since become a wonderful bit of Hollywood lore, spurred in part by the response from the author of the novel when Hawks and the screenwriters inquired into the answer.

"They sent me a wire ...asking me, and dammit, I didn't know either," Chandler recalled in Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane's The Raymond Chandler Papers.

I have always resisted the temptation to take this response at face value, not sure that Chandler wasn't being cute, or whether the question was irrelevant to the plot for him.  Owen Taylor's murder is just a plot device to keep detective Phillip Marlowe from dropping the case, and it clearly didn't matter to Chandler who killed him.

On one level, this story tells you everything about what is wrong with the Big Studios today.  I'm not saying that the Studios in their heyday did not interfere in negative ways; indeed, much of the confusion on the plot of The Big Sleep was due to the Hays Code, which prevented the story being told as it was in Chandler's novel.  However, today, some focus group would have sent this movie back to editing room based on its twisting plot, and a good deal of the fun of this noir classic would have been lost in the "fix".

Sometimes mysteries are good; other times, not so much.

Plot was something of a mystery on The Rook,  and, if you ask me, it's part of its appeal.  Oh, the "who-dunnit" aspect isn't all that hard to figure out, but exactly where and when "Sutheridge" may be is another matter altogether.

The plot of the film is something like this; John Abbott, a devout religious man who is serious to the point of seeming humorless, is a detective and an official from a central theocratic government.  He is sent to a dreary industrial down of Sutheridge  to investigate the murder of a previous female investigator.  He encounters a revolution and a number of cryptic clues ( the working title of the film, "The Circle in the Square", was a reference to one of those puzzles).  The story is set in an intentionally ambiguous time period, where horse-drawn carriages take people to places that have archaic versions of modern devices, such as computers, telephones and inter-office communication.

He is met in Sutheridge by the same local official who met the last investigator, Bob Brice, whose loyalties come into question during the investigation.  Abbot's ultimate fate is determined by his own rigidity.

Neither writer Richard Lee Purvis or director Eran had any desire to explain the contradictions that existed in the story; rather, they reveled in them as part of a deeper philosophical discussion.  This led people to either love or hate the movie, depending on how literal they were.

The pejorative term that both plots shared at one time or another is "convoluted", which often means the reviewer wasn't interested enough to figure it out, or that the film didn't entertain them enough to care.

Mysteries are good for plot, but bad for production people.  Whether you are an AD or UPM, your most precious and important time is prep, where you lay the groundwork for how the movie will be structured.  I previously discussed that in breaking down a script, I like to go over it enough times that I feel like I even know it better than the director.  (How To Be an AD in BC)

As UPM or line producer, I start with a budget I prepare that is not only a financial plan for the movie, but a blueprint that determines all parameters of shooting.

On The Rook, I was reading this crazy script before and after long work days, working with a schedule I had no involvement with, and a budget that was more like a rough draft.

I soon learned that there were better uses for my time than trying to decipher the plot.  One day on set, I was siting with Martin, our lead who played Abbott, and John, who played Brice.  I asked them a question about the plot, and both admitted they had stopped considering that particular point some time previous.

There were no cables to Richard Purvis.  I addressed a plot question to Richard some time after the film was shot, and his response was like one of the puzzles in the film; I got off the phone knowing less about the plot than before, if that was possible.  The closest I got to an explanation of the time period was "it's a vision of the future as seen from people in the past."

As a viewer, this makes it possible for me to watch this film endless times, and the DP Zack and production designer Sebastian created a look that the Village Voice positively compared to Brazil.

As production manager, I put deep understanding aside and satisfied myself with the elements of the script that affected shooting, and making sure we had all of those.

The less satisfying mystery was the budget, and the accounting.

One of the first things I would explain to students in discussing preparing a budget is that there is no line item known as "petty cash," or at least there shouldn't be.  Cash is a form of payment, like checks or credit cards, and you wouldn't create a line item for "checks", but somehow, people feel comfortable creating a catch-all category called "petty cash."   A more accurate term might be "those things I can't really think about right now, but I know we'll spend it someplace."  This is not to be confused with a contingency, which is, well, those other things you know will come up but you can't really think about right now.

I went about unraveling the mystery of our budget, which began with figuring out how much we had already spent, and Mr. Chandler would have been proud of the mystery there.  The checkbook was a bit confusing, but I could usually put vendor or contractor's name with a line item.  Credit card receipts were a little trickier, with some from places that could have been for any number of things, but this was just a matter of picking a line item.

Big costs, such as equipment, became a fun game of matching invoices, both paid and pending, with checks or credit cards.  This was like the Monday NY Times Crossword Puzzle, challenging, but if you know what you're doing, it can build confidence for subsequent days, which become increasingly harder.

If these big costs were like the Monday Crossword, cash expenditures, aka petty cash, was like Saturday's NY Times Crossword, a cruel invention of  the sick mind of Will Shortz where hyphenated hip-hop slang intersects with French interpretation of Greek mythology.

Eran had assured me that we had each and every petty cash receipt, and that turned out to be true.  When I requested these receipts of the production coordinator and her assistant, she was quick to hand them over.  Rather than the neat top sheets, numbered and listed by line item and followed by pages of receipts taped or stapled in order, what I got was two big, brown paper grocery bags, filled to the brim with streams of white paper that were, indeed, receipts.  Notes written on them?  Not a chance.  They pretty much looked like a larger version of your night table when you empty your pocket after a long day; I was just happy there were no gum wrappers.
Very Good

Not Good
From Raymond Chandler at his home in Hollywood to Will Shortz in whatever leather-and-shackle filed abode he dwells in to my production coordinator, the look was the same, the look of "glad you're here, have fun figuring it out."

So, the priority was getting at least a big picture of how much was spent - Eran could certainly tell me how depleted his account was - and figuring how much we had remaining and how we were going to finish the film .  I did set up a two-fold system, one for accounting for past petty cash, and another for accounting for how we would track it moving forward.  The ladies of the production office became efficient versions of Bob Cratchit, assigning receipts based on a legend I provided and bringing those in question to me while also keeping the machinery of the movie, like sides and call sheets, in motion.

When you're in production, it's no time to look back, and no time to indulge in mysteries.  The mystery of the plot took a back seat to making sure we had what we needed to shoot today, then tomorrow, then the day after; the mystery of where the money was spent would not be solved before we figured out how to spend the money we had left.  It's not the way you draw it up on the drawing board, and it's not the way you teach people to produce, but it's the reality of making a movie under difficult circumstances.  You need to have rules, but you need to be able to adapt.

For the record, I have a pretty good idea of who killed the chauffeur.

The Big Sleep - Book Store Scene

Great artists can take limitations and turn them into advantages.  The Hays Code prevented writers from being sexually explicit, so the great ones found ways to to be clever and seductive in ways the censors would pass, but the audience would still enjoy.  The scene linked above from The Big Sleep has always been one of my favorite examples of this - do you really need to be told what happened during the time lapse?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Rook - Part 2 - Coffee and the Rules

Tony: I have to break one of your rules, boss. Number six: never say you're sorry. I let things get out of control in the hotel room. 
Gibbs: Ah, it's covered. Rule eighteen. 
Tony: Oh, yeah. It's better to seek forgiveness than ask permission. Am I forgiven? 


The rules of Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS are so much fun because we all develop our own rules in whatever our profession, though we don't always go about numbering them.  In Season 3, Gibbs tells Ziva there are about 50 rules, but as of Season 8, not all of them have been revealed and numbered.*

For most of us, these rules just develop over time, and it's hard to tell when they came to be, but every once in a while, we can identify exactly when they went into the Book, when they were codified, when we finally felt the need to put them into words.

After that first meeting on set with Van and his team, I came to understand that a few things needed to be addressed, and one was the schedule,  I certainly didn't make the rule that time is money, but it's true nonetheless, and there was one set that Van and I both agreed should happen earlier rather than later.  I will address the plot of the film later - it deserves its own post - but the scene involved a good deal of art direction, as did most of the film.

Sebastian and Andrea, his girlfriend, were basically a two-person art department.  As we moved forward, I would offer people to help them, but Sebastian, a German-born sculptor and painter by trade, was great at what he did, but wasn't accustomed to working with a staff or training people to do what he did, and further, he was, in many ways, making it up as he went along.  The script involved a vision of the future as seen from people in the past, so many of the images that had to be brought to life were born in the heads of Sebastian, Andrea and Eran, not standard furniture that could be rented or purchased.

This set was a lot of work, but Sebastian assured me that it could be ready in a day or so.  I later realized that Sebastian was just hesitant to ever say no, I was new to the job, and he wanted to do his part, so it turned out that he and Andrea pretty much worked two days and night without sleeping to get it ready.  Had I realized that, I might not have pushed so hard, but I took him at his word that he could get it done, and, indeed, he did.

Eran was another matter.  Eran was Israeli-born, a nice and caring person who was fascinated with images and the arts in general, and very knowledgeable in most of the visual mediums.  He could be engaging and  charming.  All of these were traits that you would have to get to know Eran well to understand, because he often did his best to come off as boorish, rough, and difficult.  I always thought this was a shame, because if you got to know him, he was one of the nicest and most interesting people I've met in my lifetime.  I would see this often when he went to film festivals or was promoting the film; he could charm the Hell out of one person, and piss off the next, and, in both cases, that was exactly the way he wanted it.

I later came to realize that Eran didn't want to shoot this scene earlier because he hadn't really wrapped his head around it, but instead of admitting that, he leaned on the fact that Sebastian could never have it ready in time.  It would take forever to explain the logistics of why it was important to shoot early, but all I remember is that it was, that Van and I agreed it was, and that Eran had fought us.  Still, when we both presented him with it, he grudgingly agreed to shoot it the when we suggested.

My second day on the job would be in the office, trying to set up my space, see how the office was running, and start to get a handle on the budget.  I did some prep at home, but was still in the office about a half hour before call time, which was a little later than I would normally arrive there.

I walked in, my coffee and bagel in hand.  Like Gibbs, I like me my coffee, not just as a pick-me-up, but I love the taste of really good coffee, so buying a cup on the way to set or the office is essential for me, because I never trust the PA in charge to make a legitimately good cup of coffee.**

KATE:  (after spilling his coffee) What do you put in your coffee?
GIBBS:  Coffee
KATE:  OK.  I'll just go down the hall and get you another cup.
GIBBS:  (Disdainfully) That's...not coffee.

My feeling exactly.  Good coffee - black, no sugar, the way God intended it.

I walked into the production office and to my desk, a desk I had yet to really make mine, a desk that had I hoped would be my home for the rest of the shoot.  On my way to the desk, the production office coordinator and her assistant looked at me with that "dead man walking" look, that "poor guy doesn't know what he's in for" look.

"Eran called for you - a few times."  Yes. it was before call time, and yes, I could have been there earlier, but I had tried to catch up on some of the things I needed at home, and thought coming in a half hour before call time was alright.  Clearly, I was wrong.

The night before, I had been there late, with Eran and Sebastian, looking over the set, which was close to finished, we all agreed.  I just assumed that in the time between then and now, we would all be happy with the set.

I called the set cell phone, and got Annie.  I asked her to put Eran on, but the next voice I heard was a whisper.  It was Van.

"Man, Eran is really mad.  He hates the set.  He thinks it was a bad idea to shoot this today, and I already had to hear it from him. but, he is really mad at you" (The term wasn't mad - it was more colorful).

Van suggested that I talk to him later, but I would have none of it.  I was never a big fan of slow death - if I'm going to go, make it quick, and let me know it now.  Getting yelled at?  Not a problem, I'd been there before.

Eran got on the phone, and the expletive-laced conversation had to do with me pushing him to shoot a scene he told me was not ready, my bad judgement, how I had screwed everything up.  I reminded him that the night before, we all agreed the set was close.  Then, it happened.

He started with how he had just fired another production manager, and suggested it might have been a mistake, that maybe, he should have kept her and now he should fire me.  Without missing a beat, I remember my response.

"Eran, I haven't taken my breakfast out of the bag yet.  If you're going to fire me, let me know, so I don't get comfortable.  I'll go out and enjoy my breakfast in peace.  If not, I'll make you a deal."

"I will never threaten to quit, and you never threaten to fire me."

There it was.  A rule was born.  The justation had probably started years earlier, when I was a supervisor at the political research company, sitting in front of my boss, Barbara, with my fellow supervisor, Maria, who started crying when Barbara lit into us for a mistake for which we were both responsible.  Barbara's reaction?

"I can cry too, Maria."

Barbara was a good friend, but a tough boss.  You could make a mistake - just don't blow smoke.  Admit what you did wrong. and we deal with it.  Try to cover it up, and there was Hell to pay.  Threaten to quit?  You'd be out the door in a few minutes.

A few crew people on this shoot, as I understood it, had threatened to quit if things didn't change.  This was the atmosphere.  None of us liked this.

Over the years, the rule worked both ways.  I never would threaten to fire anyone; no one deserved to have that hanging over their head.  At the point I didn't think you were the right person for the position, I would let you go; nothing personal.  Don't threaten to quit; if you really don't feel the situation is one you want to be in, I respect that and leave.

The rest of the conversation wasn't pleasant, but we moved past it.  Later, when Eran and I became as close as brothers, we would joke about the encounter.  Eran respected that I stood up to him.  I wasn't sure that I wasn't going to be fired, but I wasn't going to spend every day worried about it, either.

Which Gibbs' rule to invoke here?  Not sure, but the closest might be Rule # 6 - Never apologize, it's a  sign of weakness.  Of course, as many websites point out, it is a rule Gibbs breaks at least six times over seven seasons, and one I certainly broke on more than one occasion - but not this one.

So, what was plot of The Rook? Part 3.

*When referring to Gibbs' rules, I knew I would be able to find a fan site where they were all notated.  In fact, I found more than a Google page worth of sites devoted specifically to the "Rules", people annotating Season and Episode, and sometimes specific context.  Research is served by the fact that some people have too much free time.

**The logo for Gibbs coffee is a take-off on Starbucks, but the producers did not seek product placement from the Evil Empire,  The cup says "Hot Brewed Coffee".