Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Priorities - Set Safety - A Child HAS Died

There are points in the chronicles of the films I've worked on that I think it's appropriate to address a production issue at greater length, or expand on a point made in one of the production posts. This will be one of those posts.  I refer to these posts as "Priorities," the things we need to focus on in production. I try to post them at times that seem appropriate.  In light of the thirty year anniversary of a Hollywood tragedy last week, and the fact that there were safety issues on the Korean mini-series we are in the middle of chronicling, I thought this would be a good time to address, once again, set safety.

Character is what you do when nobody is looking 

A child has not died
-Alfred Hitchcock, upon seeing the frenzy that reports of being behind schedule and/or budget produced on set.

I've always loved the Hitchcock quote above, and I've used it myself to try to give people perspective on set when things are looking bleak.  Let's take a step back, folks.  A child has not died.  Our problems are not a tragedy.

Last week was a sad anniversary; thirty years since not one but two children, as well as veteran actor Vic Morrow, died because of the audacity and ego of director John Landis, and a system that made one man bigger in some people's eyes than common sense and the welfare of those involved.

Those not familiar with the specifics of the incident can read more about the anniversary, and the event, in
this good Slate article marking the anniversary.  The article talks about changes in Hollywood as a result of the tragedy.

What the article implies, but does not actually come out and say, is that Hollywood and the big money people who bank it finally decided that the risk/reward equation was not in their favor.  Any safety to cast and crew are likely considered a side benefit.

Hooray for Hollywood, and changes that inevitably make people safer.  It is reassuring that there are risk management people from the Studio who can act as advocates so cast or crew people who are concerned about their careers need not make the fateful decision that helicopter pilot made.

I don't work in Hollywood, but rather in the "dark" that is low-budget, indie filmmaking, and in that dark, character too often comes up short.

First, an important point.  Film sets are dangerous places, with big equipment being moved around by people who work too-long hours, and where stunts that seem risky - and often can be - are a regular occurrence. Even trained professionals doing everything correctly get hurt, sometimes seriously.  Many of the things cast and crew people do are inherently fraught with a risk that cannot be eliminated  We all accept that to be the case, and I'm not advocating here to expect 100 percent certainty before proceeding.

That is no excuse for the reckless lapses in safety that I know still go on every day somewhere on a film sets, and as the term "guerrilla film-making" becomes even more of a badge of honor, where crews are smaller and set protocol is scoffed at by first-time directors and producers, I fear that accidents will occur more often, and some of them will be serious, if not fatal.

My own brush with this came a year ago when I worked with a gaffer - who works regularly - whose foolishness resulted in serious injuries to him and a fatality on another set.  I won't go into specifics of either project so as not to bring further harm to those involved, but suffice to say that, when I met him a year after this accident, he was changed slightly, but not enough.

It was a set directed by a recent university graduate, who was careless in every aspect of his work, and had one of those egos that didn't care who had to sacrifice what to see his (weak) vision completed.  The DP was a hotshot who had rented a package way bigger than needed to spruce up his reel.  The assistant director was great, and helped keep the director in check as much as possible, with my full support.  I stayed involved with the project only because the producer was in very deep with his own money, and I didn't want to see him take a bigger hit than he needed to.  He was probably one of the nicest people I have met in this business, a person who put his spiritual convictions where his mouth and money was, which is truly rare.

The gaffer in question was a nice enough guy, who tried to be a go-between myself and the DP and director.  On more than one occasion, I had to shut down the director from asking ridiculous turn-around from the crew.

Make no mistake - turn-around is a safety issue.  Long hours may be the norm, but when added to short turn-around, they can lead to mistakes, and sometimes worse.

Film folk like to tell Teamster jokes, but anyone who hasn't driven on a few hours sleep doesn't appreciate the job done on bigger set by these folks.  On smaller, low-budget shoots, the irony is that those with the least experience and lowest pay - the PAs - are often put in the driver seat of set vans carrying crew and vehicles carrying equipment.  They are often not prepared for the hours or responsibility that is thrust upon them, and most afraid to speak up because they feel the most expendable.

For myself, I have always insisted that when PAs are driving crew, they be relieved of set responsibilities for at least reasonable breaks, and, when needed, naps.

Safe handling of guns on set has also been an issue in Hollywood over the years, with some famous deaths.  The proper procedure is known by any AD worth his/her salt, but I still see prop people screw with it.  I found myself sending a prop person off set crying after explaining for something like the tenth time that the gun was not to be left sitting unattended on set (she had assured me she understood proper procedure - and even explained it to me - during prep).  This time, I had to listen to a foolish DP about how "mean" I was to the prop person.

Whether the crew or cast member is male or female. there is a "macho" mentality on set that says "never say no" and "we can do anything."  Sometimes the pressure comes from the director or producer, or sometimes from not wanting to disappoint the crew.  When one of my better camera assistants pointed out safety issues to a gaffer on set, he was told to "stick to his department." (The safety issues included, but were not limited to, cable running through water, and this camera assistant also has G/E experience).

As AD, I am always looking out for actors, but sometimes they don't look out for themselves.  On the set of one film, the scene called for a (now rather well-known) actor to ride a motorcycle through the woods and pull a wheelie.  The actor insisted that, although he didn't have a license, he could do it. I wasn't as worried about the license as I was his safety, and asked the stunt coordinator (who I trusted) to try him out and tell me what he thought.

"This kid can't do that," is what he told me, and when my stunt coordinator tells me something shouldn't happen, it won't on my set.  I found myself literally with my legs astride the front wheel and my hands on the handle-bars while the actor argued he could do it and the director screaming at me.  Finally, we found something safe for him to do with the stunt coordinator doing the more daring stuff.

On the same shoot, which involved a lot of swimming, the 2nd and myself had to talk the lead out of going into the water AGAIN late at night while he had borderline pneumonia.  We put the heavy swimming off until he was better, but again, his concern for "letting us down" led him to keep telling the fool director he would go in again.  One more time, we were the heavies.

My key grip on that shoot was a serious talent out of Boston who was also a certified water safety person.  He was my go-to guy on all the swimming, and it was great that he was an ally on safety precautions in the water.

He had seen the "hero-actor" thing for himself on a shoot he worked in New England where the stunt coordinator had gone over and over the safe way for an actor to go over a bar during a staged bar fight during rehearsal, only for the actor to try and make it look "even better" during the take.  The actor wound up in traction with permanent injuries.

I know a lot of up-and-coming ADs and producers and such read this blog, and I put this out there as a lot of long-standing set protocol is being pushed aside - Safety First is not just a saying.  It has to be an oath, one so important that you are willing to sacrifice a job to protect it.  I know at least two excellent ADs who were fired for insisting on set safety (on non-union shoots, there is no DGA or SAG to protect you).  Both would do it again.

There is nothing ground-breaking in this post, and I'm sure there are pros who are reading this thinking, "oh, c'mon, everyone knows this." I would hope so as well, but that's what I see and hear on too many sets.

We live with the risks we have to take on set.  Those of us in positions of authority must insist on set safety.  People are literally putting their lives in your hands.  Be worthy of the responsibility.

*While American Evangelist Dwight Moody is credited with the quote "Character is what happens in the dark," variations abound and are credited to various people, including Jackson Browne, which I'm pretty sure is a mistake.  We all get the point.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

JB-San To The Rescue-Part 1-We are NOT the World

"We become not a Melting Pot, but a beautiful mosaic." 
-Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States and Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Working on multi-national and multi-cultural productions can be a wonderful, eye-opening experience, where  staff, crew and cast members come together in a beautiful mosaic similar to the one President Carter mentions; where various voices and tongues become a universal language as in the famous original "We Are The World" recording, where the different experiences of those involved come together like a symphony whose various sections join to resonate in one joyful noise.

This is not one of those stories.

If it's true that things that start badly, end badly, then it is also true that things that start weirdly will stay weird and, inevitably, end weirdly.

This is one of those stories.

As any of us freelancers can attest, the interview process can take place in an office or a Dennys or a Starbucks, but usually it involves us meeting with a prospective employer, information and questions on both sides, and a promise of a phone call or other contact to follow.

When I arrived at the large space on Greenwich Village's famous Bleeker Street, I was met by Mr. K, who was the managing producer for I was told was a mini-series for South Korean television.  There were desks scattered throughout the space, and people working at them.  After the shortest of introductions, I was introduced to some of these people, including a young man named Peter.  Peter had a bit of a Harry Potter look to him, even before the series was popular, and I was told that he was the production manager.  This, in itself, was odd, as I thought I was interviewing for the production manager position.

Peter greeted me enthusiastically with the typical "Welcome, aboard," and the secondary warning, "Boy, are we happy to see you."

With that, I was led to a desk that only had a phone on it.  "What can we get you to get started?" Mr. K inquired.

If you are looking back over the previous paragraphs to miss the part where we talked dates and specifics, don't bother.  We went straight from the greeting to "this is your desk."  Yes, this meant I was hired.

I took Mr. K aside to cover two things that had not been discussed, the first of which was salary.  Once we were both ok on that, I asked about Peter having the position I thought I was applying for.  Was he being replaced, and if so, why was he so happy to see me?

A quick discussion ensued where I learned that Peter had been hired as production manager, but that the size of the job was a bit more than he could handle alone, and that I would be coming on as his superior.  I quickly suggested the title of Production Supervisor for my position, so there would be no demotion for Peter, and that seemed to suit everyone just fine.  As Mr K., Peter, and I shook hands, one of Mr. K's assistants chimed in, "You'll be JB-san!"

To this day, I am not sure of how much of this was an attempt at a light-hearted way of saying "we respect you" (which is pretty much the literal meaning of adding -san to a name) or a deference to the fact that I was older than many of the people working there (though in the same age-range as some of the Korean production staff and Mr. K).

In any case, most referred to me only as JB, but the assistants who also acted as translators would often use JB-san.

Where to start?  A script?

That would not do much good, as there was not an English version of it (though there were English sides for the American actors who would appear in the NY portion of the shoot).  I would ask for an English translation of the script for much of the first week, and then with less frequency as production proceeded.  I never got one.

A budget?  Not to worry about that, Mr. K told me, try to do the best I could, and he would let me know if we could afford it.

This resembled the "lets spend as little as possible" budget that I always dreaded, because while we do always try to spend as little as possible, it leaves no framework from which to work.  I made that point, but, when it seemed not to take, moved on.

Pressing problems?  Shoot dates?

Those two were closely related.

They Korean crew had shot everything but the NY portion of the show (the majority of it being shot in Korea).  This was to be the second production from this network that had location filming in New York, and the first one had brought very high ratings, so they were excited about trying again, but on a bigger scale.  Where the first production had covered just a few days shooting in New York, this would have between twenty and thirty days here, at a number of locations.

Aye, there was the rub.

Production was scheduled to begin the next day.  The production schedule was still being put together, but it was closely tied to locations secured.  A large board that had been hung on the wall showed all the locations they were seeking in the first column, with subsequent contact and other relevant info in following columns.  With the exception of the first column, there was a lot of white space.  They had not secured more than one or two locations, though they had some leads on others.

There were two problems that formed as one immediately; we could not shoot exteriors without permits from the New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Television (MOFTB for short), an while we could shoot interiors without permits, that still left the issue of where to park our trucks without the appropriate paperwork and, from the look of the board, we didn't have many interiors anyway.

It was mid-day, and while the procedure has changed over the years, getting permits for a feature film or on-going television show from the MOFTB has always involved reasonable but sometimes lengthy paperwork; insurance certificates, a schedule of what will be shot when (Schedule A), list of vehicles and license plates, etc.  Additionally, if police or fire department assistance was needed or requested (it was), a meeting would generally be scheduled with NYPD and/or NYFD.  Permits for parks and city buildings required requests to those departments with some lead time and sometimes additional insurance.

It was always best to do this as early as possible, usually about a month before shooting, but at a bare minimum, a week or two was needed.

They wanted to start shooting in about 16 hours.

I informed them of all this.  Peter chimed in that he had told them this, but they had not payed much attention.  Scattered meetings in hushed tones, and I was brought to the director and First Assistant Director.  In the first of many discussions that would take place through translators, I gathered that the director and First AD understood all of this, and didn't care much how it got resolved, as long as it was resolved.

Some things never change.

I tried my usual tact of befriending the AD, which was harder since it required translation and we were could not just speak privately.  I looked over forms and schedules and tried to piece together something that we could shoot the next day, all the time keeping one eye on the clock on the wall.

This was one of those many instances in my career where I wished I could clone myself.  I needed to be at the MOFTB filling out permit information, since I was the only person in the office who had ever done it and had any chance of getting it right.  However, I also needed to help put together a plan for the next day.  Staying to review the plans meant I almost certainly would not be able to go for the permit until the next day, and I would not be greeted with smiles and hugs when I started filling out paperwork that showed that  we had begun filming without a permit.

Anio (no) was the Korean word I needed to learn quickly.  No, you can't shoot there you need a permit, it's public property.  No, that location does not need a permit, because it is private property, but you don't have the permission of the owners, so, no, you can't shoot there, either.

This went on for a while - I insisted that Peter stop what he was doing and join us, because it was hard enough dealing with the translations without having to explain all this again.  Hakim also joined us.  He was the American who would be on set as something of a US AD.  He had been through all of this, and we finally agreed on something that could be shot.

This informal "production meeting" began the slow descent into chaos that would be all of our meetings.  I was assigned a translator, and translation would be going on while people continued talking in either English or Korean, such that the translators were always behind in the discussion, and it was never clear who was answering what question.  Was your "yes" to the question I just asked, or the one I asked five minutes ago, because I still didn't get an answer to that one. "Interior?"  Wait, I thought we were talking about the park scene?

I specifically remember a moment in another production meeting where the translator who was acting as my assistant began arguing with the translator who was acting as the Korean line producer's assistant.  The argument was in Korean, and the line producer and I were stuck standing there, both frustrated that we seemed to be afterthoughts in this argument and neither of our issues was being addressed.  We looked at each other probably the same way Cold War diplomats once did, smiling so as not to send a hostile message while having no idea what message was really getting across to the other side.

Woody Allen would have had a field day.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What's My Genre - The Selling of Paper Blood and The Rook

A while back, I watched a documentary that followed a few filmmakers at a film festival trying to sell their film.*  Some did, some did not.  Among those who did not get his film sold at that festival was John Sayles.

It was difficult to watch someone who wrote and directed films as good as Lone Star and Return of the Secaucus Seven standing on the proverbial street corner, skirt hiked up, hoping for customer.  If that can be John Sayles, how many of us are really ready to move up to call girl.

I was reminded of this after posting my production experiences on Paper Blood and The Rook.  While they were very different films with very different producer/directors, they had some common issues.

Most of my career has been spent on the spending side of the film production equation; my “elevator speech” explanation for what I do as line producer is have other people raise the money and I spend it.  The shopping analogy makes it sound like fun, but leaves out the part where you get to the register and your card is declined, and all those people are looking at you.  In my business, the people looking at you are the people who raised all that money who were sure that it was enough.

I had nothing to do with the raising of the money on either film, and in both cases, came on after pre-production had started.  I had nothing to do with the budgeting of either film, so the amount of money – or lack thereof –that I had to work with was not a result of poor budgeting on my part, but rather two sets of filmmakers determined to get started with their project and hope that their estimates on cost were correct.

While I can’t recommend that way of going, I’d be remiss to knock it.  In the independent film world, if every filmmaker waited until they had the amount of money they felt would comfortably complete their film, many wonderful indie films and careers would never have been launched.  Even on the Studio level, Coppola’s quote “There’s nothing creative about living within your means”  speaks to the gambler mentality that many filmmakers have, and often need.

Everyone knows the people who make the big bucks in the film business are those who can raise the money, and I don’t have a problem with that.  It’s true that I don’t particularly enjoy that side of the business, but it’s also true that I’m not very good at it.  It’s easy to envy those producers who put up the money, see their names up there in big, bold letters and then get to stand at the podium when awards are handed out.  It’s not as envious to be them when they are being turned down, or when they get the fourth investor only to have the first one drop out, or when the guy they took to lunch three times still can’t seem to get around to signing the check.

It takes a salesman’s mentality to be a producer at that level, always having your hand out, both to shake and to accept the check.  That is far from my strong suit.

All of that said, it also takes a lot of that same mentality to sell an indie film once it is completed, assuming financing did not come with distribution, and it often does not.  I have been a part of that on a number of occasions, not because I am any better at it, but because at that point, I was involved with projects and people I really believed in and was determined to see them get their films to a wider audience, and also have the opportunity to get to the next project. 

Inevitably, these were relationships with people like Donna and Phil and Eran and a few others that went beyond a business relationship to a friendship.

The frustration on the selling end can be even worse than on the investment end.  When you are raising money to shoot a film, you are offering a dream, a vision, a possibility of what could be.  Once you get to the actual selling and distributing of the film, the product is there for everyone to see.  Now, when they turn you down, they are not rejecting your dream, they are rejecting your consummation of that dream, your child.  This can be a lot harder to take, emotionally, for everyone involved, not to mention more frightful because, in the cases of Paper Blood, The Rook and other projects I’ve been involved with, producers have dipped way deeper into their pockets than they planned, and now recouping some of that money has a real impact on their life, on such questions as whether the mortgage or the car payments get paid.

Being involved with both films in a rather short period of time, I was additionally frustrated by the logic, or lack thereof, in those who chose to pass on the films.

Although I posted the stories in reverse order, I worked on Paper Blood first.  While the film had a mob element to it, and a heist element, it took a lot of clever twists and turns, and had a very “indie” feel.  After all, first efforts like Blood Simple and Reservoir Dogs could both be described as “genre” films, as heist-gone-wrong films, which is what Paper Blood is at its core.  Still, both were lauded in indie circles.

While good, Paper Blood is certainly not on a level with those films.  The point is that simply being a certain genre should not eliminate a movie from indie circles.  Still, when we approached many of the major indies, the response we got was they were looking for edgy, challenging films, and “genre” films like Paper Blood would do better in the direct-to-video market.  Similar responses came from many indie film festivals.

If this were true, The Rook should have been the darling of the indie circuit.  You don’t get more challenging in terms of story and look than The Rook.

While The Rook did have success at some festivals, many others turned their heads and, like those customers on that same proverbial corner, drove on by, looking for their pleasure elsewhere.
A good deal of the feedback suggested that the unique plot and look made it hard to categorize, and that was a problem.

But, wait?  Didn’t people tell the producers of Paper Blood that it’s clear definition and category made it not quite an indie film?  Shouldn’t the lack of specific genre have been a plus on the indie circuit for The Rook?n

The word we got back, often, when being turned down for festivals was "edgy" - they were looking for something more "edgy".  We got similar feedback from indie distributors.

The beauty of the word "edgy" is that it has no meaningful definition when it comes to trying to write, direct or produce a film.  If it means "different", well, every filmmaker thinks their film is unique.  Simply because the film is being made by a different filmmaker, the most derivative movie will be different.  If it meant that the film dealt with worlds or individuals ignored by the Hollywood system, both films would have qualified.

Frankly, I defy anyone to tell me why one film is "edgy" and another is not.  Hell, if exploring different worlds qualified, Hobbits would count.

Another similarity with the two projects was that in funding the films and preparing for production, both producers had gone with leads that should have helped them with distribution.

Eran cast Martin Donovan in the lead of The Rook.  Not only is Martin a talented and incredibly subtle actor (and now director), but he was what we liked to call "indie hot."  He had been featured in two of indie hero Hal Hartley's films, Trust and Simple Men.  While Hartley is hardly a household name, he was highly regarded at the time as a leading indie filmmaker and someone to watch.

The Sopranos, and the phenomenon it became, had not yet happened, so casting Frank and Vinny Pastore did not capitalize on any of that popularity, but Frank's name and face were certainly known from the Scorsese films.  If Paper Blood were a genre, film, then Frank's mug on the cover of the poster should have meant something.

Frank isn't a star, you say?  Let me introduce you to the funding world we were dealing with in the early to mid-90s.  When you were trying to get pre-sales - something that rarely happens today - you were told to go out and get a "name", which, on the low budget circuit, normally meant finding a supporting actor from bigger films or television.  Lance Henriksen and has-beens like Eric Estrada were high on the list of people you were meant to attach.  The Bruce Campbell's of the world paid their bills from this sort of advice. These second (or third) stringers still had clout in foreign markets, which drove sales for many a project funded from those sales.

In this decidedly low-rent version of "names", Frank's should have come shining through.  It did not.

None of this is new to the film business, and I point it out here not because I am shocked that it existed, but more to point out to some of the (undoubtedly) innocent eyes out there that think there is a beautiful and loving indie-film world that welcomes the new and the different with open arms, that is above the coarse machinations of Hollywood that the "indie" world can be every bit as crass as the Big Guys.  As JR and I used to say, we knew we were hookers, we just wanted to be call girls one day.

All of this talk of "what genre is this" got me thinking of the old TV show "What's My Line," and one of the fun guests on that show, Alfred Hitchcock.  (Do check out the clip above) As you surely know, Hitchcock never received an Oscar as director** for any of his films, and his only personal acknowledgement from the Academy was the "we're sorry we screwed up before" Lifetime Achievement" award he received.

Much of this was due to the fact that his movies were considered genre films, suspense films and thus somehow beneath the voters of such awards.  Of course, this is ridiculous, but the movie industry, big and small, has never been as good at anything as it is at shifting the ground beneath your feet.

You played by the rules and we still don't like you?  Okay, we'll change the rules.  That still remains true today.

Hitchcock, by many standards, was an indie-filmmaker.  His budgets were far below those traditional studio films for much of his career, and even at the height of his success, the Studios saw him as more of a hired gun than one of their own.

People who saw either The Rook or Paper Blood can add their own opinions of the final product.  If selling is not my strong suit, being objective about films I've worked on is.  Paper Blood is not on the level of the very top crime dramas, and The Rook does not stand with the very best experimental films.  If they were not great films, they were, at the very least competent films (I would argue that both were better than competent - I'm trying to be objective here), something that I can't say for both many genre films that found quick sales and many indie films that received much praise.

One final common ground between the two films is the issue of the title, and it says something about the respective filmmakers.

The Rook was filmed as The Circle in the Square.  Told by many prospective buyers that the title was too confusing, Eran chose a simpler title, though, in terms of telling the story of the film, it's equally confusing.  That was Eran's usual reaction to being told what to do.

Paper Blood was sold to its original distributor as West New York, and can still be found under that title in some places.  Paper Blood had duel meanings; the paper (securities) that Frank's character sold led to blood, and when spoken, the title sounds like "Pay for Blood", not an accident.  This, too, seemed too confusing to prospective buyers; somehow putting "New York" in the title, and then suggesting that it was somewhere geographically outside of it, made it more appealing.  Don't ask me to explain it.

The markets are certainly different and more varied today, though the skeptic in me thinks many of the old systems still exist, even if in different forms.  Just like before, though, the struggle doesn't end when the cameras stop rolling, and I thought a snapshot of what it was like at that time would be enlightening.

Just remember that film-making is a world where breaking the rules will lead to one set of obstacles, but following the rules doesn't guarantee very much more.

*I cannot find the title, having looked on Sayles' IMDB of films where he is featured.  Maybe it was part of a TV series.  Sorry I don't have more info.

**Yes, Hitchcock's films did win Academy Awards in other categories, notably Rebecca, which won Best Picture.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Go "Pope of Greenwich Village" on Them - Unwritten Rules, Etiquette, and Put Down the Phone

This blog deals mostly with a life sentence served in low-budget production hell, and I try hard not to deviate.  On rare occasions, I feel we both deserve a weekend pass, and while this post deals only tangentially with working in film production, I think the opportunity to talk about a now-overlooked film and film-watching etiquette is worth the exception.

Much like baseball, where there is the rule book and the "unwritten rules" that have little to do with actually playing the game (don't talk about a no-hitter in progress, don't steal a base when way ahead, etc) there are rules about how to act on - and sometimes off - set.

The wonderful blog "Totally Unauthorized" covers many of the more common ones.

The list is probably a lot longer, and I'm sure I would miss many.  As a matter of fact, I would encourage readers to add to the list here.

One of the things for me as line producer or AD on sets that are often non-union in terms of crew is to keep the rules of courtesy from the union world that should be honored regardless of if there is a union rule to mandate it.

They include such things as making sure meals are no later than six hours from each call, that meals provided are legitimate hot meals (no, pizza and Chinese take-out do not count) and a vegetarian alternative does not mean salad.

Whether there are meal penalties negotiated (and smart non-union crews get this out of the way up front on most shows), you never have a crew wait for a meal, even if you are in a shot, without asking the designated shop steward (a term I use even on non-union sets) for a "courtesy".

Production eats last when meals are served.  I've spoken before about how I rarely eat lunch when working - my preference - but on the rare occasions when I do, I eat after the AD department and PAs have eaten.  There are a lot of people in first team who cannot get away from camera, and they shouldn't have to compete to get a meal, and I feel as line producer, its on me to set a good example for the PAs.

The blog mentions that "Quiet" does not mean you continue to talk in a whisper.  It should be added that many ADs, myself included, will often add "Settle Please", a sure indication that the noise you make walking or moving things is just as bad for production sound as your talking.

It amazes me that I would even post such obvious things, but the digital world has brought out a ton of first-time producer/directors that actually need to hear even these basics.

Here, I would like to address one of the more obscure ones, so obscure that it actually takes place not on set, but in a movie theater.  That is the rule that you sit through credits, all the way through credits.

Like most unwritten rules, it certainly has a basis in courtesy and common sense.  The people whose names are up on the screen worked hard to get there, in positions behind the camera just like the one you hold, and they deserve to have you sit there while their credits role.  As I write this, it sounds both natural and ludicrous.

I mean, it might be cool that my Aunt Marion sees my name up on the big screen, but does anyone really care, and do I really care if someone in Iowa sits there and sees my name on screen while others are filing out of the theater?  Does a small hair on the back of my neck go up every time someone "disrespects" me and heads for the exit after the final frame of a movie I worked on?  Not really.

Still, it's now a part of my DNA, and I cannot walk out before the last "thank you" has come and gone, and, for reasons that are entirely irrational, I look upon those who file out during credits as boorish miscreants.

My adherence to this code has annoyed my share of dates and even an ex-wife.

If this unwritten rule seems somewhat whimsical, others are not.  Movie theaters have even taken to reminding people to shut their cell phones and refrain from texting during the movie (the latter being redundant if the former is followed, but clearly some people need very explicit instructions).

So it was the other day that I was in a theater, watching a movie, when the woman across the aisle from me and the woman next to me felt a need to text from almost the opening credits.

As far as I could tell, neither one of them was a heart surgeon on call for emergency transplants, and neither was carrying "the football" referred to in all those Cold War movies that needed only the President's finger to even the score in the event of a nuclear attack, the only excuses that I could think of that would excuse this rude behavior.

It made me wonder in a world where we are accustomed to all of our entertainment being "on demand" in one form or other how much longer people will appreciate the shared experience of sitting in a theater and watching a piece of entertainment from start to finish together.  Yes, it's great that we can watch the latest Adam Sandler movie on our iPhone or Andoid device on the bus on the way to work (or at work, for that matter - there is nary an Adam Sandler movie that requires that much attention).  Still, there is something special about sitting in a theater with other people and sharing the laughs, the gasps, and sometimes the tears.

That experience should be respected.  Text, play Angry Birds or do your nails for all I care if you are watching a movie on your own.  When in a theater, respect that others would like to suspend their disbelief and their contact with the world outside for a brief period of time.

However, as that shared experience still exists, people choosing to participate in this communal event should at least have the basic courtesy to suspend their incessant texting or Facebooking or whatever they are doing until the movie is over.

As I fumed, one of the best examples of pulp entertainment of my generation came to mind - The Pope of Greenwich Village.

Some movies transcend time, others are milestones for their era but fade soon afterward.  The Pope of Greenwich Village shares a place with movies like Ragtime as big hits during their time that are often forgotten today.

Pope was a screenplay by a hilarious writer named Vincent Patrick based on his novel of the same name.  It takes place in NYC, and deals with a heist by bartender Charlie (Mickey Rourke) at the encouragement of his cousin, Paulie (played in the movie by Eric Roberts).

This was before both Rourke and Roberts needed to see their careers "revived" after a string of bad movies and bad off-screen choices; indeed, anyone judging from the reaction to the film at the time would have thought both would go on to stellar careers.

The book caught my attention because I could relate to these characters, and, specifically, the character of Paulie.  Paulie was the type of guy my dad used to describe as someone who "could screw-up a wet dream."  We all had a relative like that, for me, it was my cousin Bobby, who I loved dearly.

Bobby served a short time in Vietnam before my uncle pulled strings to get him out and got him a job with the NYPD.  After crashing more than one police car, and somehow failing at even desk duty, Bobby moved on to other less-successful ventures.

Paulie was that sort of screw-up.  Shortly after the heist, Barney, a safecracker, is appalled to find that Paulie may not be smart enough to not spend all the money right away and keep his mouth shut.  Charlie tells Barney an entertaining story in the book about how Paulie would hand toll-booth collectors a hundred dollar bill and tell them to "keep the change" in order to impress dates.

It should be noted that Barney was played in the movie by the late Kenneth McMillan, a favorite character actor  of mine who contributed in a big way to movies like Ragtime (where he plays the guy who starts all the trouble) and True Confessions, (where he plays Robert Duval's chatty partner).  Both of those are also movies long forgotten by most

The movie also boasts one of the best performances as an Irish "broad" in a movie.  A cigarette dangling from her mouth as she she sips her morning drink and examines the Racing Form, Oscar-winner Geraldine Page has two scenes in the movie that, on their own, are worth the price of admission, as she gives a spot-on portrayal of some of type of older Irish women I knew in Hell's Kitchen.  In one, she tells a pair of crooked detectives that her son, Walter, was "tough as nails, and he didn't get it from his fatha"

If Rourke was trying to be a Paul Newman in the movie, Roberts was doing his best James Dean.  After the heist goes horribly wrong, a local mob boss decides to punish Paulie by deforming him in a most original way, a modern version of cutting off a thief's hand.

This led to a scene that became noteworthy not only for its importance to the plot, but for Robert's serious over-acting.

"Charlie, they took my thumb" became almost a parody of Method acting where it is least called for, and a moment that had the exact opposite effect on Robert's career than he might have imagined.

In another pulp movie, a character refers to "get(ting) Medieval on " someone's ass, and I couldn't help but think, while watching these two ladies texting, that the appropriate punishment might be for someone to "go Pope of Greenwich Village" on them.

BTW, they both walked out during the credits.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Paper Blood - Part 3 - Just Say Yes

Some posts have easy, magical inspiration for their theme, something that lifts them beyond merely being the bucket into which another week of venting blood is spilled.

Some posts need a little help. 

As I was putting together this post, which concludes my time with Paper Blood, I was facing one of those awful times when no theme actually came to me, and I was staring down the barrel of a gun loaded with the prospect of putting up a post that simply said, “..and then I did this, and then I did that”

You, my reader, and I were spared this fate when I did my weekly reading of one of my absolutely favorite blogs on anything, but especially production, Michael Taylor’s Blood Sweat and Tedium: Confessions of a Hollywood Juicer.

Writers sometimes say that a work is “inspired” by another work to give credit to the other work; other times they say that to prevent a lawsuit when the original source would be obvious even to most casual reader.  Others avoid the obvious altogether; I dare anyone with knowledge of Leonard Melfi’s  play “Birdbath” to not cite it as the source of the play, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” later adapted to a Al Pacino/Michele Pheifer vehicle.

Chalk this up as the first of the above options, to the extent that I have chosen as my sub-title the Juicer’s own title for the article.  As they say, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The below-the-line perspective the original article offers is that there are many instances when it is not only easier to accommodate a request from another department than to rather than find a reason why you shouldn’t be doing it, but that it also reflects better on your boss, which in turn, makes everyone look better.  The bigger perspective was that on a well-oiled crew, things like that just happen naturally, and the result is a better experience for everyone involved.

My perspective as line producer and assistant director is a little different.  I may inform prospective employers that “if they want good news, they should hire family,” but the truth is, they are still writing the check, and while it remains my responsibility to let them know when something is either beyond the pale of what is possible or wise, I owe it to them to at least try.

In order to be able to say “no”, you have to have delivered “yes” at least a few times when it would have seemed impossible.

Donna and Phil had not heard “yes” a lot before I came on to Paper Blood, and often they saw “no” after being told “yes”.

I was at an interesting point in my career, way past the invincibility I felt early on, where I saw my talents as capable of overcoming every obstacle because I had beaten back so many, and not yet at the stage where I had tasted defeat so often that I saw nothing but the pitfalls of every course of action, and certainly at my current stage, where I have more than a little perspective to navigate the highs and lows.

Paper Blood came right on the heels of a Korean mini-series that I will address in subsequent posts.  For now, suffice to say that “winning” was defined as moving forward every day with everyone in one piece, and a big factor in that was Peter, a young production manager who still believed anything was possible.  I wisely brought Peter with me on Paper Blood, and it made for a good mix.

One of the usual bug-a-boos was locations; with promises made to Phil or Donna that didn’t come through, or came through with strings that made “good deals” not such good deals. 

Sometimes line producing is about knowing when to delegate, because it is impossible to do everything at once, and if you try to do everything, important things will get missed.  The flip side of that equation is that there is nothing that is not your responsibility, so when a location falls through, it is unacceptable to look to the location manager.  It needs to get done, and with Peter’s help and my contacts, we did.

Like many actors who spent much of their time as character actors, Frank Vincent could be difficult as a lead.  This was a pattern I’ve seen over-and-over again across the years, the constant supporting actor feeling a need to throw his weight around now that he was the lead, the way he had seen other leads do.  For Frank, this covered everything from big-picture items like plot points, to day-to-day concerns like craft service.  One of my favorite Frank-isms was “The water budget on Goodfellas was more than the entire budget for this film.” There is nothing better on a low-budget film than to be reminded that you are not only low-budget, but really low budget, especially when you are providing more than the minimum in creature comforts.

Thinking back on Frank in that film now, I have to laugh.  Things that seemed very difficult to me at the time seem minor now; the funny moments remain.  One was Frank explaining the trunk scene in Goodfellas – you know, the one where Pesci stabs him in the trunk after he realizes he isn’t dead yet.  Frank told one of the very-impressive PAs, “That looks easier than it really is – getting stabbed, shot and beat-up like that.”  If my old partner had described Steven Hill as a great chair actor, maybe someone should credit Frank as a great trunk actor.

Vinny Pastore also offered a funny moment.  I had the pleasure of working with Vinny on another movie, albeit one that was never completed, named Two.  It’s a shame that movie never got done; Vinny had a chance to show off his “non-mob” side as a blue-collar husband. 

One day I was headed to set, and Peter shared a message the office had for someone on set.  “Tell Vinny that his wife called,” is what I heard.  The message was actually for Victor Collechio.

I met up with Vinny on the set that day, which was a golf driving range.  Vinny was playing a mob boss who was angry with Frank’s character, and he was supposed to show his anger in his golf swings.  The appropriate anger was there, but not necessarily at Frank’s character as much as Vinny’s style was pretty much Charles Barkley on a bad day.  Any contact between club and ball was purely coincidental.  In the movie, the scene works really well, even if not as intended.

After I passed the message to call his wife along to Vinny, he almost dropped the club, and responded, “My wife?  I haven’t heard from her in years.  Did someone tell her I was working?”  Vinny was referring to his ex-wife, who, I understand from Google, he is working with again these days.  The reaction was still priceless.

Paper Blood was distributed under another name, and, for a well-made genre film, took quite some time to sell, though it did get distribution. The completion of Paper Blood led immediately to Phil, Donna and I trying to get funding for one of the other scripts Phil and his writing partner Steve had ready to go, but that would not materialize for many years. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Paper Blood - Part 2 - The Dossier Scene

I'm going to share a secret with you, but I suspect that, in one form or another, it's a secret that many people carry with them.  By sharing, I hope that others can come forward and tell their stories.

When I approach putting together crew on a film as line producer, I think of myself as Jim Phelps from the old television show Mission: Impossible.

Let me be clear: at no point do I think of myself as Ethan Hunt, the Tom "this-is-me-as-a-serious-driven-person" Cruise character who updates the IMF team.  To be honest, I had forgotten that in Season 1 on television it was Steven Hill as Dan Briggs, before the producers decided that they could not deal with Hill's insisting that as a devout member of the Jewish faith, he could not shoot on the Sabbath, covering after sundown on Friday through Saturday. (Many years later, Law and Order creator Dick Wolf found a way to make it work, and Hill's Adam Schiff, clearly modeled on longtime Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, is still the most believable, New York District Attorney and the one I think of when I think of L&O). A film producing partner of mine once called Hill one of the great "chair actors" of all time, largely because unlike actors who like to strut their stuff, most of Hill's best scenes seemed to take place when he was seated.

Everyone remembers the opening, the Lalo Schifrin theme, the match, and maybe even the weird places Briggs and, later, Phelps, would go to listen to that tape that would self-destruct.  Fewer may remember my favorite scene, one that was even given a name - the Dossier Scene.

In that scene, Phelps (Briggs is pictured above) sits in his very nice apartment and pick his team from a dossier that had many pictures (it never seemed weird that most of them were professional actor head-shots?).  The ones he did not choose took on added meaning over the years, becoming a status symbol for people involved in the studio and production to be included among them.

Week after week, he inevitably chose the same people.  After all, neither the lovely Cinnamon Carter or the elusive Rolland Hand (real life husband and wife Barbara Bain and Martin Landau, respectively) were ever rejected.  Spock (Leonard Nimoy) showed up after a time, and there were the other regulars, but if a new person was chosen for the mission, that person inevitably became like the non-starring character beamed down from the Enterprise on Star Trek - doomed to be the one who didn't return just to make the point that not everyone makes it back.

While I don't think everyone thinks of themselves as a the leader of the IMF, I suspect that many people go about their business thinking about fictional characters that might represent them.  How many dissatisfied postal workers thought of their boss, "he wouldn't like me when I'm angry," or cheap private detectives following cheating husbands saw themselves as Sam Spade, or people writing obits on some small town newspaper wonder if their editor realizes that they have a "spidey" sense.

For me, it was Mission: Impossible, except that unlike Briggs and Phelps, I sometimes picked the photo that I should have set aside.

Many people don't appreciate how much crewing a film is like casting a film, finding the right mix of people who complement each other.  It is not just about collecting a group of "all-stars," as there are times when talented people have different styles or personalities that make them a bad fit, and to some degree, I was guilty of ignoring this on Paper Blood.

Phil, the director, was a talented shooter in his own right, not to mention an excellent editor.  On smaller corporate projects, he could work as a one-man band, and that allowed him to move quickly without
having to explain what he was looking for to many people.  Jonathan, his cinematographer, also worked best with few assistants.

I was brought on the project by Greg, who was associate producer and first assistant director.  He was also friends with Phil and Donna, Phil's wife who was also one of the producers, along with Steve, who wrote the script.

I came on board late in pre-production, and I immediately fell in love with Phil and Donna.  They were generous and kind people who cared about the people around them.  We shared basic sensibilities about how people should be treated, something that was not always the case on other projects, where ego led certain producers and directors to think they had been annointed by some film god to make a movie, and all others should be happy to serve them.

Ray was a gaffer who I had known from the time he was a best-boy electric, and he worked with some members of JRs crew, notably Jeff, JR's gaffer.  Our running joke about Ray was that he could find juice (electricity) in the desert, and I don't doubt that he could.  Ray was an expert and a perfectionist,, and people on other projects loved Ray.

Ray also loved Ray, and was very aware of how good he was.

Like many a gaffer, Ray saw himself as a cinematographer down the road, and he had shot some small projects.  As such, he considered himself a partner with the DP, Jonathan, an artist.

Jonathan and Phil considered him a gaffer, and that led to some issues.

For one, while Ray was very good, he would often take a little extra time to do something special.  I remember one night in particular when I thought we were lit and ready to go, and Ray was still lighting.  Ray and I got along well, so he shared with me what was causing the delay - a gobo of a bird and nest in a tree.

This may not sound ridiculous on the surface, but if you knew Jonathan, and especially Phil, this type of thing would drive them up a wall, and I couldn't disagree with them.  For one, I could barely tell if it would even read in the scene, and it wasn't something Phil cared about in the least.  Phil felt this sort of thing was costing him time with his actors, which was his main concern.

Another problem that developed was that while Phil and Donna tried to be inclusive, Ray very much thought of the grip and electric department as his team, and they felt the same way about him.  A very unnecessary feeling of "us" and "them" developed, where the grip and electric team felt that they knew better than Jonathan and Phil, and that wasn't healthy.  Phil, for his part, didn't see why, as director,  he needed to impress the grips and electrics, and, of course, he was right.

It could have made for an ugly situation, but as I was close to both parties, I was able to smooth things over, with the exception of one time when I seriously thought Phil and Ray might come to blows.  They did not, and the tension I described would not have been obvious to anyone who was on set for a short period of time.

Phil developed a dislike for big crews, something that would surface again on the second project I did with Phil and Donna years later.

Ray was good - very good - he was just not a good fit for that project.

Sometimes I worry that I am have a little dinosaur in me, and my love for traditional crew set-up ignores what can be accomplished with fewer people.  Slowly, I'm getting over that, but at the time we did Paper Blood, I was still a big believer in the big, full, crew, and if I'm honest, I don't think it served the film well.

While I remained close with Phil and Donna for years, there were other places where our styles didn't meld, and other challenges, which I will cover in the next installment.