Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Chain of Pain - Part 2 - Bad Day for Johnny

Fate can be a cruel mistress who toys with us, proof that sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel really is an oncoming train.

I think of the moving scene in The Perfect Storm, when the brave men of the Andrea Gail fight their way through what they think is the worst of the storm, only to be confronted by that giant rogue wave that they know they cannot overcome.

Stacey coming aboard made life on the film almost bearable.  As kindred production people, Van and Stacey got along great, and the producer and production coordinator loved her.  Things I requested from the production office got to me in something remotely resembling reasonable time, and she got the until-then awful crafty situation under control.

So it came that to pass that there was a day with four company moves.  As the person who had to coordinate this along with my other duties, and still having that one passenger-van, I came into the day primed to get it all done.

There is a masochistic element to being an AD, where the harder the day ahead seems to be, the more psyched you are to navigate it.  I know days when I had a large page count and tons of extras always got my juices flowing.

I was so ready for this.  I had a battle plan.  I knew that after the fourth move, our final location would include about twenty children, and the forecast for the night exterior was for rain.

Bring it on, I thought.

Van and I hit our stride and after the first three moves, we were about a half hour ahead of schedule.  The little I got to see of Van on set - I was always hustling the back set and one location behind him wrapping while he was onto the next set - he was in peak form.  There is that point as a First AD where you blow through everything - a newbie director, difficult DP - just keep truckin'.  Van was in a zone.

The only hold-up was that juggling all this had me behind on the call sheet for the next day, but as long as I got to the final location on time, I would be able to make it happen.

As things turned out, we had some extra day players to move, and as I put the last one in the passenger van, I realized there was no room for me even in the 2nd trip.  As I closed the door, I looked at the PA/driver and said:

"You drop the crew off and you wing right back here for me.  Don't stop for coffee.  Don't get out of the van.  Wheel around and pick me up."  He nodded with absolute understanding.

You know where this is going, right?

As I wrap the holding area (we had only paid for a certain number of hours) I realized the charge on my laptop computer was almost done.  So much for working on the call sheet while I waited.  No worries - as soon as I got to the last holding area, I would plug-in.

I wait.  I wait more.  Calls to the office.  We can't get hold of the driver - Stacey's call to the other location confirms he has dropped people off.  Where is he?

Stacey's relentless pursuit of the facts uncovered the fact that the idiot producer had taken the van from the driver, ignoring what I had told him, to pick up craft for the next day.

He had found a place where he could get it cheaply, so somehow that trip made it to the top of the priority list over getting the night done.  Van was on set with a ton of extras, fighting time and the weather, with no 2nd AD.

"JB," Stacey said haltingly.  "Van asked about the call sheet."

Stacey knew full well how frustrated the question would make me - remember, she had been my 2nd AD.  She got it.

Not one to give in, she improvised.  She had just hired a new PA that day from a shoot she had just worked on, a really bright young girl who was new to film but had smarts.

"Jenny has her own car, and she's going to pick you up in that. "  I love Stacey.

Of course, by now it's rush hour in Manhattan, and we have to get crosstown, a Herculean feat at any time, but punctuated now by the rain that has started.

Jenny is not just chipper - she is too chipper by half.  I am reminded of Lou Grant's line to Mary "You got spunk.  I hate spunk." Yes, another dated cultural reference.

We are moving at a snail's pace, and there is really nothing Jenny can do.  Her instinct, in this case, led her in the wrong direction, and that was to try and cheer me up.  She didn't exactly break into a version of "The Sunny Side of the Street," but I specifically remember her looking at the motionless bus ahead of us and saying, "Let's go, Mr. Bus.  JB wants to get to set!" and then smiling at me.

It was her first damn day, she had done nothing wrong, and Stacey said she would be a great PA.  I couldn't yell at her, so I held it in, held it in when she decided that our shared theater background meant this would be a good time to break out her collection of show tunes on the car's cassette player.  Yes, show tunes.

I thanked her and got out of the car about a block or two before we got to location, figuring that even with a cane, I could make better time than she could in traffic.  I was numb to the rain as I arrived, dripping wet, when Van looked at me hopefully and said, "JB, you have the call sheet right?"

I dejectedly had to tell Van that I did not, but he would have it shortly.  Man, did I hate letting him down like that.  He was busting his tail against all odds, and I wasn't holding up my end.   At that moment, that was the worst part - not the frustration, or the rain, or the show tunes.  It was letting my partner down.

Just as I flew into a Tourettes tantrum expressing how I felt about the job and the producer and headed up the stairs to our second floor holding area, I saw the young girl who was rustling the kid extras at the top of the stairs.  They were behind, the kids were cranky, and she had deftly gone into babysitter mode, having the kids do a sing-a-long to keep them from thinking about how long they had been waiting.

Much like Bruce Banner once someone had made him angry, there was no turning back.  A better man would have restrained himself in the presence of these innocent tots, but I could not, and I can only wonder what their impressionable minds thought of the mean man storming up the stairs with a cane and an attitude.

They weren't going to like me.

Without losing the beat of her sing-a-long, the wrangler turned the kids around just as they were going to head down the stairs, and actually sang "Let's step back and let the busy man through."

They didn't need her lead - they were already flying in every direction and clearing a path.   I plugged in the laptop and pounded out the call sheet.  Van approved it almost without looking at it, which was very unlike Van, who would have me correct a missing comma in the element breakdown.

As Jenny sped off to make copies, I hurried to secure the lock-up and make sure that we did not lose one more moment shooting.  This included holding traffic for takes on busy NY streets, and to the credit of the PAs, they flew around and made it happen.

When we wrapped, we were around the corner from my apartment, and, more importantly, around the corner from Kennedy's, a truly wonderful Irish bar.  All of the bartenders were from Northern Ireland - knee-capping was spoken of as an honorable end for those who opposed the cause.

At the back bar was a bartender named Morris, a dapper gentleman with gray hair, a bow tie and handle-bar moustache.  I was born John, and always hated the name Johnny - I would never allow friends or relatives to call me that growing up.  Morris had taken to calling me Johnny, and he was so classy that correcting him seemed rude.  He was my favorite bartender there, and he ran the back bar, which was in a separate room from the main bar.

Van was too tired to go out drinking; I was too wound-up not to.  I decided to take two of the PAs, Jenny and Joe (they later became a couple) out for drinks.

"How was your day, Johnny" was Morris' usual welcome.  I decided to tell him, over the next hour or two and many drinks.  We were the only customers in that back bar on that rainy weeknight, dripping wet and talking a mile a minute.  We must have been a sight.

I was sure I'd run up quite a tab, but it was alright, I needed it.  When I asked him what I owed him, that wonderful man looked at me and said, "Sounds like you had a bad night, Johnny.  It's on me."  Of course, I left a hefty tip on the bar, but that wasn't the point.  It was the old-school bond between a bartender and a regular that one would probably never see today, and, truth be told, was extravagant even for that time.

Not long afterward, Van and I were asked to come into the office at the end of a shooting day.  Even the optimistic Van knew what that meant.

My original estimation of the situation proved true.  The producers asked Stacey to stay on, and she was much too professional to leave because we were fired - I would have been disappointed if she had.  She believed, as we did, that you fulfill your obligations.

She drove us home that night - she had now taken ownership of the production passenger van, trusting it to no one else.  She started kidding us about bringing her on and then leaving, and Van and I replied with, yes, a  show tune, albeit an improvised one.

Where ever we go - except tomorrow's set,
Whatever we do - except this job,
We're gonna go through it together - well, not exactly together.

After reminding us that we sucked, she dropped us off.

It was only a day or two later that remorse set in.  I started thinking that maybe there was something I could have done to make the shoot better for Van, that maybe I hadn't served him well.  Stacey and I had a serious talk, and I realized that even if I had been better - and I wasn't perfect - it would have ended the same way - badly.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Chain of Pain - Part 1 - Suckers at the Table

Listen, here's the thing.  If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.
-Mike McDermott, Rounders

The AD is the person you fire when you can't fire the director.

Raymond DeFelitta*

In his epic book on poker, Super System, Doyle Brunson talks about how what gut reaction really represents is all your combined experiences and observations, many of those observations being subconscious.

Shortly after The Rook wrapped, our AD Van was on to another project.  Three days before production started, he learned Annie, his regular Second AD, could not do the shoot.  He asked me to come on as 2nd AD.

One would think that if someone was a good 1st AD, they would automatically be a good 2nd AD.  That isn't necessarily the case, although it is often true, since inevitably one needs to have been a Second to move up to First.

I had done more 1st AD work on small projects, and had only been a 2nd on one feature, before I was 1st AD on my first feature, Walls and Bridges, so I pretty much was the exception to the rule.  The 2nd AD runs the backset, something I could do very well.  They also handle most of the paperwork, not my strong point. It's not that I don't know the production paperwork, I'm just not naturally a paperwork person.  Additionally, I wasn't the fastest typist in the world at that time (writing constantly has made me a much faster typist).

Van was undeterred.  Van was very much a details person, and a person who had set routines, and didn't like change.  He felt more comfortable with someone he knew.  What a long, interesting trip it had been, from Van not wanting to talk to me on my first day as production manager on The Rook, to feeling he needed me on this film as 2nd AD.

I loved working with Van, and thought we would be a good team, because our different styles complemented each other, and we were on exactly the same page about the big things, especially our belief that professionalism was not a function of budget, and that we could run even the lowest budget project in a professional manner.

Of course, on this film, we would not have any influence on the production side, and this turned out to not be a good thing.

My first day was the production table read meeting, which is sometimes called (I understand) an elements meeting.  I am a stickler for it as AD or LP, and I usually put aside an entire day for it.  The AD runs the meeting, and its mandatory for all production heads.  We go from scene to scene, read the scene, and then go around the table dealing with production issues with the department heads.  Scene reads "Billy gets into the car", the props master is asked if we have the car, what it looks like, etc.  We determine that the actor playing Billy can, indeed, drive.  DP is asked about car mounts, camera car, etc.  So it goes.

It's not as easy a meeting to run, and run properly, as most people would imagine.  Inevitably, people who are not as involved get bored, and everyone feels there is someplace else they need to be and something else they need to be doing.  If you hit a long stretch where one department is not involved, they want to just move on.  I have pretty much banned cell phones, so I don't have people walking off during the meeting taking a call, but its sometimes hard to do with the producer, for whom I make an exception.  Assistants or seconds can come in if something must dealt with during the meeting.

For all of that, it is important to hit each scene, cover each item.   This is the last chance you will all have seated in the same place without the pressure of making the day, and things that seem obvious are exactly the things that will screw you if you don't ask the question and don't deal with them.

At some point in this meeting, it struck me.  It wasn't anything specific, it was just a gut feeling, that the producer, who was a first-timer, was setting Van up to be the fall guy.

We were at the table for more than a half hour, but I knew we were the suckers.

I got the feeling that he did not respect Van or intend on letting Van run the set the way we both felt a set should be run, that he didn't really understand that the AD's job was not, as one person once described it to me, a grip with an attitude.

Van was not a screamer, and I had no patience for screamers, but clearly the producer saw the AD as simply some sort of wagon master whipping the crew to keep them at break-neck speed.

Van and I went for dinner that night, and I told him my feeling.  He didn't see it at all.  Van was always an optimist,  certainly more so than I am, and I hoped he was right and I was wrong.

Day One I learned how some of the cost-cutting done by the producer would hurt us.

The entire production office consisted of two people, the producer and his production coordinator.  If the producer had little experience, the coordinator had none, though he was as a much nicer person.  The producer was young, snippy, and arrogant.

Even at that time, the production office would typically have those five-line phones, and at least three phones.  This would be an absolute minimum, and most of my offices had more.  Those phones would "hunt" (that is the phone company's term for it), so if one line was busy, it would go to the next line.

What this office had was two phones, and, in one of the best examples that we were in trouble, the producer  chose to NOT get call waiting, because it cost a little more.  This was a classic example of being penny-wise and dollar-foolish.  Of course, with the high cost of cell phone rates at that time, they weren't going to pay for a cell phone on set, so I had a beeper.  In the beeper days, an emergency call (something that absolutely had to be dealt with) would get a "911" at the end of it, to distinguish it from just suggesting that you call back when available.

The combined result of these cost-saving measures was that I would get pages from the office with 911 at the end of them, have to find the closest working pay phone, then call, only to get a constant busy signal because there was no call-waiting.  Often the busy signal was actually a result of the coordinator paging me again.

This process meant I often got important information very late, in some case, I didn't get it until someone was actually sent to the set with a message from the office.

We had barely improved on the carrier pigeon.

It was ridiculous, and would have been laughable if it wasn't so frustrating. 

The least favorite part of the 2nd AD's job for me was preparing the call sheet, as it was for most people.  The process, for those who don't know, is that you prep the call sheet with all the information you have from the schedule and the breakdown of the elements, and propose call times to match for crew and cast.  You then show a draft to the AD for their input and approval, and make changes until it gets approved.

Often information throughout the day leads to changes; long days to call time being pushed back, scene missed needs to be added, along with its elements, etc.  Information needs to go back and forth not only between people on set, but also with the office.

Not being able to contact the office meant that getting the information I needed was delayed, and getting the call sheet to Van was delayed, and anyone who has ever been a 1st or a 2nd knows how frustrating that is for both people.

Additionally, I had to coordinate company moves, and I had no UPM or location manager or other help on set.  Of course, I had one passenger van to do the moves, so I was constantly sending 1st team ahead, and having to wait for that van to return to get the next group there, and, inevitably, this lead to delays.  Surprisingly, though, we were not far behind schedule as the end of the first week approached, but we were behind.

If we were struggling on set, the coordinator was so far over his head that he was struggling even more.  Nothing ever got to set on time from the office, in no small part because the coordinator was doing too many things at once and would often have to wait for the producer to get off the phone to make calls that needed to be made.

One morning, as we waited on something we needed to start shooting, I explained to the producer that this could not continue, this for maybe the umpteenth time.  This producer was one of those people who was more concerned about who was to blame than how to get things fixed, so he finally agreed to add a person, if he could find someone with experience that would work for the low rate.

Luckily, I knew just the person.  I called Stacey, my friend from the films I had done with JR.  Stacy, who had worked as location manager and 2nd AD with me, had also worked as production coordinator in the meantime.  She was incredibly well-organized, was capable of turning chaos into order, and she knew how I worked.  All of this made her perfect.

I woke her at about 7AM, and she was showered, dressed and in the production office about an hour later.

Stacey took hold of the office, and things got slightly better, but now that the office was covered, albeit with a slight increase in cost, the producer would focus on anything Van did as an excuse for why we were behind, including rookie errors by the director.

This set up some interesting days, and one so frustrating that it still is clear in my mind all these years later, a day that had everything, including four company moves, rain, overtime, and children, and an overly-chipper new PA.

*Follow the link with Raymond's name for his perfect description of "the chain of pain."

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Rook - Part 6 - Crows and Confusion


'Do you realize they've distanced themselves from the church?'' he says. ''They don't even believe in the tempting. The spiritual reunion.'' This is the most detailed description we hear of the dominant religion of this time and place. 

NY Times Review (1999) 

The quote from the NY Times review above gives a good deal of insight into the end of production and the afterlife of The Rook, which, in terms of my career, was almost more important than the shoot itself.

Principle photography ended with our adventures in Mohonk, shooting not only along the mountain but in the  pristine wooded areas below, which worked for the sense of timelessness.

We came in pretty much on schedule.  While the original hope for the budget was even lower, the final costs after the first cut of the film was a lot less than films that are shot digitally today, this for a film shot beautifully on 35mm with great art direction that, to some extent, became a cult classic.

 I went on to do movies with  Van, our AD, and Zack, our DP.  Charlie, our gaffer, was an important DP and camera person with me on future projects.

What influenced me most for years to come, though, was my relationship with Eran one of those instances where things that seemed like problems turned fortuitous, beginning with the arcane state of petty cash accounting previous to my arrival.

I recently worked on a small art film project as AD where the line producer neglected problems on set, with the excuse that he was dealing with the budget, which should be part of the job, not the entire job.  I kept us up-to-date with our current expenses, made sure we had enough money to finish the project, and worried about where the money spent previous to my arrival fell later.

Once we wrapped production, I stayed on to help with post-production, and spent time finishing up the accounting.  Those days were less stressful than production, and where I truly got to know Eran, the director, as an artist and a person.

Eran had no interest in doing what others had already done, and while this led to a certain level of frustration for him, it matched elements of my personality.

All my life, whenever I got bored, I moved on; schools (transferred high schools after sophomore year because I no longer felt challenged), majors, apartments, relationships (sadly), and mostly jobs.  While freelancing has it's financial problems, it should mean each project is a chance to start anew.  Unfortunately, line producing can be a grind, especially when people's idea of being innovative is copying other innovators.

Eran was unique, and if he found something that worked, it meant it was time to move on.

He worked closely with the original co-producer Alan to edit the film, using a combination of intimidation and support that was his trademark.  That cut lead to a very successful experience at Mystfest, where The Rook took awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay.  Eran and the movie were very well received at that festival, and it lead to our first direct-to-video sale.

Like most filmmakers, Eran sought theatrical distribution.  In many cases, this means making the movie more palatable for a wide audience. Not Eran.

Reviews and reactions fell into three categories: the good, the bad, and the confused.

The  good sounded like this:

"This picture looks as though it were written by a committee, but not your usual group of Hollywood honchos brainstorming in the backlot of Universal Studios. The panel would be composed of Franz Kafka, Soren Kierkegaard, Jules Verne, Sigmund Freud, Edgar A. Poe, and George Orwell. They'd bat around some ideas for a fiction, cramming their signature elements helter-skelter into a one-hundred page manuscript. The novel would eventually fall into the hands of Richard Purvis, looking to compose his first feature screenplay, and Eran Palatnik, seeking to direct his first feature movie. A limited budget would allow these two fellows only eighteen days to shoot the genre-bender which, in just 84 minutes, could be classified as noir, sci-fi, horror, political, or what-have-you, but not comedy, as the dialogue lacks humor and its principal performer never smiles. "


Turns out "The Rook" is better than you might expect, an intriguing detective story whose pieces come together only in the concluding moments with a production design that mixes clothing from the early 19th century with outfits of 1950s design and positions a computerized office against the English countryside circa 1800. (Harvey Karten, PhD)


The Rook is effectively atmospheric, and there are occasional scenes that function as pointed political commentary...(Reelview)


"The most inventive art direction since Brazil" (Village Voice)

The bad sounded like this:

But the narrative never comes through with the information -- any information -- so the experience of this generally soporific 84-minute film is that of being teased and abandoned.


...but the main story doesn't work. The film is dull when it should be engrossing, and the material is stretched ridiculously thin to reach feature length. Donovan, who typically plays understated roles, virtually vanishes into obscurity -- Cross has no personality. (Reelviews)


This sluggish bundle of stylized anachronisms is intended as a genre-leaping mind puzzle, but even the most patient auds will give up the game long before its drawn-out denouement. Look for a quick move to video.(Variety)

In both the good and the bad, there was the confused:

 We also never know who the revolutionists are, what the revolution is about or where (some imaginary country?) all this takes place. (Greenwich, where Abbott lives, is apparently not far from the town of Sutheridge, where the film takes place. And the murder victim is from Carmel, but something tells me that's not in Northern California anymore.) O.K., it's an allegory, but of what?  (NY Times)

Confusion continued with the title, and even this PhD gets it wrong (oh, how confused he is!):

Palatnik means for us to figure the significance of the movie's title, and if I may take a stab at it...a rook is the chess piece representing the castle, in this case the particular citadel of Kafka's story which was made into the film "The Castle" in 1968. Rudolf Noelte's movie starring Maximilian Schell is, like "The Rook," an appropriately vague filmization of the novel in which K, a land surveyor, is called to a castle for work but (like John Abbott, at least symbolically) is unable to gain admittance. (Karten/IMDB)

In fact, this is the inspiration for the title:

These members of the  crow family work as a unit to solve problems, but one of the more interesting aspects of their behavior is how they reportedly deal with dying members.  They will surround them, then kill them.  As usual, it had nothing to do with one might expect at first glance, namely, the chess piece, though chess would seem the more obvious reference for a mystery.

Eran's response to all of this was to completely re-edit the film with at least two different editors over the years, at no small expense, and the re-edit, if anything, made it more mysterious.

Eran and I went on to attempt other projects, but finding a script that inspired him was difficult.  Eventually, we wrote as script together, an erotic-romance piece called Avalon of the Heart, and I will document the experience of writing that and chasing the funding in a future post.  That would come way down the line.

Working with Eran was always challenging, but never boring.  He liked it that way - and so did I.

The next challenge I would face would be one of my few experiences as 2nd AD, a job that does not match my skill set well, and it was with the First AD on this film, Van.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Update Coming in A Few Days

An apology to those who follow this blog regularly.  I have been having laptop problems the last two weeks, and found creating new posts with the Blogger mobile app (on my phone) - well, my fingers are too fat for manuscripts on the phone.

New Blog post completing the story of The Rook coming in a few days - promise!