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."