Sunday, August 5, 2012

JB-San To the Rescue-Part 2 - Lost in Translation

Production on Haebing*, the Korean mini-series on which I was now the US line producer, started less than 16 hours after I was hired, and the fun started right from the beginning.

Day One on any low budget film is like a first-date, with a lot of introductions and figuring out where everything and everyone stands, the First AD seeing what the director he has been in prep with for weeks is like on set, members of the crew who haven't worked with other crew members learning how he department head likes things, 2nd AD trying to make sure HMU is all cozy.  Lots of tentative steps mixed with, if there are old acquaintances, a few hugs and handshakes, and then off to the job at hand.

As line producer, it means a lot of double and triple checking the things that you already went over two or three times, to make sure they are actually working the way you want them to, and to make sure any little missteps are overcome as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

This, as you might imagine, bears little resemblance to how Haebing started.

I was in the office early with the hope that once I knew we were at least in motion, I could make my way to the Mayor's Office (MOFTB) to get the permit process started.  This would, inevitably, mean entering the MOFTB much as slaves and messengers approached royalty, with a lot of figurative bowing and even more mea culpas.

I know I should have come sooner.  Mea Culpa.

Yes, I know that the things I'm requesting require meetings with NYPD, NYFD, the Coast Guard (we had water scenes), the Parks and Building Departments.  Mea Culpa.

No, I don't expect shooting or scouting permits (more on this later) for my vehciles without the appropriate insurance, Drop/Add lists, Schedule A's, etc.  If my vehicles get tickets today, you will not be able to clear them.  Mea culpa.

Those were the mea culpas for which I was prepared.  As it turned out, there were more.

However, before I had the pleasure of lying prostrate before the rep and wondering how long it would be before I heard the first "JB, you've been doing this so long, you should know better," (Mea Maxima Culpa!) I was hit with bigger problems at the office.

The producers had contracted a local equipment vendor to provide a full truck with grip and electric equipment, as well as support camera equipment for their camera package.  This was a vendor that I never used, because they broke every protocol I have for vendors.

They would underbid other companies, then try to make it back with phony "loss and damage" charges.

They sent out faulty equipment and then blamed your grips and electrics.

They would charge you for equipment you ordered while sending "similar equipment" without telling you.

The company was run by two brothers, who had their mother working for them and a mangy dog.  Personally, I didn't even like the dog.

Still, the producer had an agreement with them, and had paid them one-third of the total in cash.  It seemed unlikely that I would be able to get us out from under the deal, something I had done on other shoots with this same company, which made me not their favorite line producer.

Peter and I got a frantic call from set.  It was about 7AM, and the truck was there, and the entire Korean (and American) crew was there, and the driver refused to unlock the truck.  It was too early to get the brothers who ran the company on the phone at the office, so I asked to speak to the driver.

The driver proceeded to inform me that the deal was that the 2nd third of the cash was to be paid today, and
if he didn't have it in his hands, he wasn't opening the truck.

Let me say that I understand that equipment houses dealing with new producers (especially those whose ties are overseas) are hesitant to give credit.  Today, where everything is pretty much done by credit card up front, it would hardly be an issue.  Mr. K had only recently established his production company, and was dealing mainly in cash.

I tried to reason with the driver.  It was 7AM, and my producer could not get him cash until his bank opened.  Let the crew start and he had my word that the money would come today.  I had worked in this town for years and never stiffed anyone, and if he had any worries and the money didn't come later, we could talk.

Before I could finish, the driver laid into a profanity-laced tirade saying he didn't know who (the expletive) I was and I could go screw myself; get the cash over there or nobody works.

There is no better way to shake off the morning haze than having someone attack and threaten you.  There are probably ways he could have put his request that would have led me to tell Mr. K that we needed to wait until the bank was open.

However, I already didn't like this company (we'll call them "France"), and now the driver had decided he was going to be a belligerent jerk, something that should not have surprised me.  Unfortunately for him, he also let on that he was a Teamster.

I knew France was completely non-union and would never pay Teamster rates, which meant the driver  was doing this gig on the side, without the knowledge of the Local.  Maybe he assumed since the crew was Korean I was a newbie and wouldn't figure it out.  He assumed wrong.

Although I did mostly low budget projects, I had a good relationship with the head of the Teamster Local in NY - we'll call him T.  I would call him when I started a project, let him know my budget, let him know what vehicles I was using, and that my rates probably wouldn't work for his guys.  If I used a bigger vehicle (or a HMU or production trailer), I would hire one of his lower-priced guys.

My honesty had put me in good stead, and we worked well together.

I picked up the phone and left a message on his cell phone.  "T," I said,"I didn't know you let your guys work   non-union for (this lousy production company)."  This guy just called me and said he was one of your guys and doing this job...."

Within five minutes, T gave me a call back.  I gave him the info, and where the vehicle and the driver were parked.  T sent some of the driver's fellow members over to "remind" the driver of his responsibility (and, subsequently, pull his union card).

This got the attention of one of the brothers.  When one of them called me, irate, I told him that, from dealing with me in the past, he should have known better than to have some punk driver blackmail me.  He didn't like the word "blackmail", so I repeated it.

"Now," I said, "if you want to continue with this job, let's talk about a new deal, or your driver and your truck can just sit there and you won't see another dime.  Your call."  I hung up.

I have bluffed in the past, but I wasn't really bluffing now.  Mr. K was a little freaked out, worrying he would not be able to shoot, but I assured him that even if we lost a half-day or a day, it would be worth it to go with someone else if the brother didn't change his tune.  Time was of the essence for the Koreans, and another day was not in his plan.

Before this discussion went too much further, Rick (the brother at this company) called back.  We negotiated a new deal, and I had Mr. K send over the revised amount (in cash) as soon as the banks opened.

Mr. K was very happy; Rick, not so much, but still getting a good deal, and he knew it.  Peter, my production manger, was impressed.

Starting the day as a hero was great, but the accolades would have long faded by the time I made it to the MOFTB.  My reception there was quite different, much as I expected.

Look, in the end, the folks at the MOFTB want to help you make your movie.  They know that newbies get it wrong very often.  I was almost at a disadvantage, being a veteran, because I could not plead ignorance for myself, but did use that defense when discussing the producers.

After accepting my penance like the good Catholic-raised (turned Buddhist) boy that I was, and a few calls back and forth to Peter to figure out the paperwork, I left the MOFTB with a permit to shoot and some tags (for vehicles) for our fleet - and we did have a fleet of vehicles.

We had two vehicles to move crew, plus cars to scout location, plus cars for the producers, plus vans and cube trucks outside of the one we rented from France.  It was an ever-changing fleet of vehicles, large for a production of this size.  Over time, Peter became the transportation coordinator (in addition to other responsibilities he had), and keeping a handle on it was no easy task. As we added or dropped a vehicle, information had to go to MOFTB (at that time, you could not fax the changes - they had to be brought over. That has long-since changed) tags had to be picked up or sent back.

This was one of the many cultural differences for the Koreans.  From what I was made to understand, once you went through a lengthy paperwork process in South Korea, you could basically park wherever you wanted.  Police would even tow and clear cars from the streets you needed to shoot.

I have never gone about checking the procedure in South Korea for myself, but this was not the case in NY, and it took a toll on us.

There were two types of permits then, shooting permits and scouting permits.  Shooting permits were for vehicles that would be part of production on days of shoots, and their permits were tied to where and when you were shooting.  Scouting permits, which were scarcer, allowed people to park at any LEGAL parking spot while scouting locations.

The latter scouting permits no longer exist, in large part because so many productions improperly used them as "free parking" stickers like diplomatic plates, which they were not.

The Koreans never really grasped the system, basically never getting past the word "permit".

As a result, we got lots of tickets, and, worse, we had vehicles towed.  Some were towed because they were at fire hydrants or bus stops or crosswalks (all definite no-nos).  Some were vehicles with shooting permits that they decided to use for scouting, and were no where near where we were shooting.  One was towed for being parked on a curb; another because the driver hid the permit in the glove compartment so no one could steal it (unfortunately, the nice parking enforcement officer that day was not psychic could not intuit that there was a permit in the glove compartment).

It got to the point where Peter would send a passenger van to the Impound Lot in the morning with two drivers - one to drive the passenger van back, and one to pick up whatever vehicle had been towed.

While the Koreans were not learning "permit", I was learning enough beginner Korean to get through the day.

The first three expressions I learned (after ano) were:

yaw bo seh yo - hello (how are you?) informal.

kamsahamnida - thank you

jam can man yo - Please hold

The last one, which I pronounced something like "chomka manyo" was for those times when I would pick up the phone and the person on the other end spoke only Korean.  It was a signal to stay on the line while I got someone who spoke Korean, that is, if they understood my butchered translation.

Day One I learned that language was not the only oral difficulty. We had the entire crew - Korean and American - eat together on Day One, and I had the day catered by a very good caterer.  In my "kumbaya" world, I guess I hoped this time together would help to bind the crew.

Unfortunately, it was all American food, and it made many of the Koreans sick.  So much for good intentions.  Afterwards, we did split meals, as the American crew was not a big fan of Kimchi or the other spicy foods the Koreans liked.

Still, we got some footage in the can on Day One (they were shooting on tape), no one got hurt, we had our permit (even if we did not have specific permits for each days shooting yet), some tags, and were learning each other's customs.  The American grip and camera guys were in sync enough with their Korean counterparts that actually filming was relatively smooth.

Mr. K, the director, and the Korean line producer were all pretty satisfied so far, and I was feeling a little more confident that this might go better than expected.

Yeah, right.  Stay tuned for Day Two and more.

*Haebing is a Korean female name.  I still, to this day, can't tell you more about the title.


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