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.

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