Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Indie Aesthetic - Then and Now - It's More than Just the Budget

"You cannot be a producer unless you accept that it's all your fault"*
-Christine Vachon

The making of movies has always been a large part craft as well as a large part art. I won't even attempt to offer percentages. So, it is only natural that those attempting to break new ground often met at the crossroads of new ideas and new technology.

Film history professors can talk about pioneers like Samuel Fuller, or any number of the noir guys who took those big, bulky cameras outside of the comfort of the studios and into the streets. Like most art, it's history of renegades is as old as the history of the art form itself. You can call Chaplin a pioneer  for the work he did outside of the studio system, and go forward and backward from Fuller's contemporaries to people as diverse as John Cassavettes and Roger Corman.

Then, there is the whole Easy Rider Raging Bulls crowd.

Those film history professors can break all of that down much better than I can; it's territory better left to them.  Suffice to say that learning to do more with less did not start with the digital era.

What I can talk about first-hand is my peripheral connection to the indie world from the late-1980s through today.

A number of things converged to make this the right time to write this post: my covering a pivotal year, 1994, in my last few posts; a wonderful interview with real producing pioneers, James Schamus and one of my personal heroes, Christine Vachon; and a post on Reddit about "no budget movies."

I remember the day Vachon became one of my personal heroes; it was when I read her quote, "It's all my fault. Now, can we just move on." It was like being hit with a proverbial stick by a Zen master, that moment of enlightenment. More importantly, it exactly put into words my description of line producing, which Vachon had done. It was one of those quotes that I wish I had said.

In their article, they very clearly address the cause-and-effect:

3. Consider your relationship to the dominant culture. The conversation started out with James and Christine remembering the first projects they worked on together: The Golden BoatSwoonPoison and Safe. In the ’80s, they remembered, no-budget filmmaking necessitated an almost counter-cultural aesthetic because it was impossible for these films to look like mainstream movies. Now, James said, DSLR production values mean that it’s easier for films to look good — “like good TV.” It’s also easier for films today to uncritically adopt the language of the dominant media culture. Independents should think carefully about whether that’s a good thing for them to do or not.

I don't know how many of those films you may be familiar with, but they all had an aesthetic that transcended budget, yet, the budget limitations played into that aesthetic. The two worked hand-in-hand.

If given a bigger budget by a Hollywood studio, the Leopold-Loeb story would never have been handled the way director Tom Kalin does in Swoon. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, the closest to a "Hollywood" film to reference it (albeit only by inspiration) takes an entirely different focus.

Neither of Todd Haynes' films mentioned, Poison or Safe, have big budget Hollywood counterparts.

For all of the "real world" today's reality shows try to portray, do any of them do a better job of taking  us inside another world than another of Vachon's producing successes, Larry Clark's Kids?

I don't think it is at all a coincidence that Haynes, Kalin, Clark, and their contemporaries like Todd Solendz are still making movies outside the mainstream. Kevin Smith is distributing outside of traditional sources. Joe and Harry Gantz, for all the success of "Taxicab Confessions," are currently raising money for their newest documentary on the unfulfilled American dream on Kickstarter.

It's important to note that for these pioneers, Indie film was not some form of "minor leagues" from which they hoped to be plucked for the "show," that "big league" being Hollywood. The budgets reflected a different sensibility for each of them, though not one they necessarily shared. If the digital revolution had never come along, they would still be finding their way in whatever system existed.

To a great extent, their budgets were, and remain, a reflection of their art. Unlike the Grunge movement in music, and the Punk movement before it, they were never co-opted by the mainstream; unlike the Easy Rider Raging Bulls crowd of the 70s, they didn't go on to become the trend-setters and new moguls, either.

The discussion of an indie aesthetic is important because there is no magic budget number that makes a movie a true indie. I have worked on films in SAG's lower budget categories - the Modified Low and, more recently, the Ultra Low - that were indies solely because of their budget. Their directors would have made bigger (and often better) films if they had a bigger budget - they just didn't. Nothing about the scripts themselves actually broke new ground, or separated them from their bigger brothers and sisters.

Conversely, most of the lists of best "indie" films of the 90s include films that, while commendable and often exceptional, were the "middle-class," where funds really didn't limit them or impact their look. Among them are all Coen Brothers films after Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects and American Beauty.

So, where does that leave the filmmaker coming up in the indie world today? As Schamus and Vachon suggest, it leaves them with big choices to make.

I don't pretend to be enough of a visionary to know what those new indie ground-breakers will look like. I do know that the fact that it is shot on digital alone will not make it new and different.  Many of the Hollywood blockbusters that are using the same formula they have always used are using digital, and many of them, not so well, in my book. It always amazes me when I see a movie in a theater today with a lazy special effect that was done better when the technology was not what it is today. I fear that laziness will set-in and become a mindset.

As line producer, I get many scripts from first-timers who tell me how much they can do now that they can shoot on their beloved RED or some other new camera. Then, I read the script, and it's the same script I could have read ten or even twenty years ago. Imitation and more imitation.

That is not to say there is no innovation in the movies coming out today; I just have yet to see one that stands tall at that crossroads of technology and creativity that I mentioned at the beginning of the article. Most of the  truly original movies I've seen the last few years were original because of the content, and could have been produced on film just as well.

I omit the horror genre altogether, not because it's not worthy, but because it's a genre that has always done more with less; digital just makes it much less. If you think a surveillance cam and "Paranormal (fill in the number)" is the new aesthetic, then the makers of The Blair Witch Project deserve a lifetime achievement Oscar. As borderline un-watchable as I find Blair Witch, I have to credit them and admire their imagination - and that was on film.

One movie that points in the right direction was shot on film, and is now almost seven years old, and that is Brick. Personally, I hate the term neo-noir, because if you look at how many times that segment of the crime drama has been re-invented, we are certainly onto neo-neo-neo-neo-neo-noir by now.

One of the choices director Rian Johnson made on Brick was to open the doors of of a genre that spent most of its time in dimly-lit rooms and long alleys in the dead of night, draped in keenly crafted shadows. Johnson let the genre play outside in the daytime, opening up the possibilities of working with available light, something that can still be done on film with the right cinematographer. If you want to see what can be done with film and available light, including interiors, check out Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1991)or Jon Jost's All the Vermeers in New York (1990).

Johnson took his financial limitations and turned them into advantages. We had seen all the great shadows and creepy interiors and hard men and loose women. Johnson moved that sensibility to high school, and in one of my favorite scenes, puts a typical cop/PI scene into detention hall, and moved much of the murder and mayhem outside in broad daylight.

I'm sure one day soon, there will be the definitive cellphone camera movie; I just haven't seen it yet.  I will be the first to embrace a truly original script that marries perfectly with the new technology. I should also point out that I don't spend a lot of time running to some of the edgier film festivals out there, and if a reader has seen what they think to be this perfect marriage, I would love for them to share it here.

A new indie aesthetic will rise, that's for sure. I'll be waiting.

*If you're even thinking of being an indie producer, and you haven't read Shoot to Kill and A Killer Life, then don't be surprised that many of the answers to questions you will always find yourself asking have already been asked and answered.

Friday, September 21, 2012

1994:The Wonder Year - Taxicab Confessions - Part 2 - Backseat Undercover

We learned about love in the backseat of a Dodge,
The lesson hadn't gone too far
-Harry Chapin*

Context is everything, and when looking at the first season of "Taxicab Confessions," the only season I can speak of from first-hand experience, it is important to remember that it originated on HBO as part of their "America Undercover" documentary series.

"America Undercover" was the series that early on brought us documentaries like "Death on the Job, " "Asylum" "Skinheads: USA Soldiers of the Race Wars,"  and "Multiple Personality Disorder: The Search for Deadly Memories." These were meant to be gritty looks at the unpleasant side of life most of us were never meant to confront.

Somewhere along the line, they began to lean to the more salacious, with shows like "Mob Stories,"  "Atlantic City Hookers: It Ain't E-Z Being a Ho" and "Hookers and Johns: Trick or Treat".

Not surprisingly, audiences showed more interest in the latter. Pornography and horror are two genres that clearly show that we enjoy watching the the seedy, dangerous and unpleasant side of life if we also get a little titillation to sweeten the mix.

It was in this atmosphere that the powers at HBO and "America Undercover" embraced "Taxicab Confessions." If one were to describe reality shows as revealing people in the midst of bad behavior, then "Taxicab Confessions," is a reality show. However, I know that Joe and Harry Gantz, the creators, looked at it from more of an anthropological angle, or an answer to that definition of character that is what we do when we think no one is looking.

As smart producers, they also had an aim to please, and I think the first episode was a balancing act. Subsequent episodes seemed to give in much more to the prurient, culminating with people finally having sex in the cab some years down the road.

There was talk about that happening during the first season, and it is here I will begin to address questions I have received over the years when I reveal I worked on the show, which certainly showed me the power of television. I have worked on dozens of feature films, but if you were to ask my extended family what I have done with my life, it starts and ends with "Taxicab Confessions."

So, here they are, all those questions you wanted to ask, or that many people have asked me over the years. All of these answers apply to the first year; I simply cannot speak to the rest.

Did people know they were being taped?

Simple answer: no. Over all the rides we did, not once did we ever tell people we were taping them before the end of the ride - not once. We didn't put words in anyone's mouth, or encourage them what to say.

During the ride, Joe and Harry followed in a van, listening to the ride. The taxicab drivers, who were real drivers who had to have hack licenses, were not professional actors, though they turned out to be damned good, Joe and Harry would prompt them to either pursue a line of questions or to drop it if they felt it wasn't interesting. The drivers did a lot of a improvising, and much of that was for the best.

This is one of the many things that separates "TC" from reality shows - these people did not know they were being taped, and so had no incentive to improve their image or establish a "character."

C'mon, really? They didn't notice at all?

In order to get a quality image, extra lighting had to be put into the cab. The bullet-proof divider was also removed, This gave the drivers the perfect explanation for the extra lights - that the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was trying out better lighting to see if it helped with safety. This was the first show of it's type, so, unlike rides on "Cash Cab" now, where people get in and guess, "Oh, my God, is this that Cash Cab," people had no reason to believe they were being taped.

So much for a more innocent time.

Did you pay people?

We never offered money to encourage people to sign, and we certainly didn't pay them to embellish their stories. There was one ride where the customer was paid $100 by the producers, but it was not to get her signature, It was one of those many rides that I wish had made it into the cut; it did not.

The woman was a hooker who revealed that she had a young daughter and she had AIDS. In 1994, that was still a death sentence.

When the driver asked if she felt guilty turning tricks and possibly spreading the disease, she said she knew she was going to die, and needed to put as much aside for her daughter as she could before that happened. She was neither proud nor repentant, just realistic. Now, that's reality.

I remember watching the ride, and I still get chills as I write this. It was as sad as it was brutally honest. In today's reality television, "brutal honesty" can be something as simple as confronting someone for not doing the dishes. This was the real deal.

As with other rides that were not used, I have no idea why it wasn't chosen. Maybe the HBO legal department was concerned - we had a lot of back-and-forth with them.

The producers gave her money out of their pocket simply out of concern for her. Everyone was moved.

Were there any rides that you wanted to use but the people would not sign?

I do not think so, An irony that arose is that the few people who were difficult about being taped were boring rides that we would not use anyway. This included one obnoxious female lawyer who threatened to high heavens about her privacy being invaded, even when we assured her that without her signature, we would not and could not use her ride. I really wanted to say to her that as boring as she was, it was unlikely we would consider it anyway.

Is the story from the paramedic about the subway car true?

If people remember any ride from that season, it was this one. It was so powerful that Homicide: Life on the Streets did an episode around it with Vincent D'Onofrio, simply called "The Subway", for which he was nominated for an Emmy.

For those who don't remember it: when asked what was the worst things he had seen, he tells of a person caught between the subway and the platform, the bottom half of them twisted. They are still alive, in fact, not in pain, but the truth is, once the train is moved, their body will untwist, the organs permantly damaged, and they are going to die. They are asked if they want to contact loved ones. (LINK Below - it won't embed)

That guy told a number of stories, and all the same way. He had no reason to make it up. I've had people tell me that it was more urban legend, but the specificity with which he recounts it, and his point about people of 'all ages, even young people' makes me believe it.

I never doubted he would make the episode. None of us did. I still think that story may have been what got the show the notoriety it later achieved.

How come there were so many hookers, transvestites, etc?

We weren't interested in "Gee, I had a long day at the office," - and viewers would not have been, either.  The rides were all at night, and many of the best ones were as the clubs and bars were closing, The cabs spent a lot of time down by the Meatpacking District, where you were going to find more colorful characters.

Did you go on the rides?

I did very few entire rides; more parts of rides. Years of being in production makes you a bit jaded, so that the "action" of being on set is not as important. I needed to be at the office most of the day, and you can't be up day and night.

It was interesting to go on the rides, but, much like filming a narrative, there is a lot of 'hurry up and wait.' For every ride that was interesting, there were a ton of yawners, just like people coming to watch the "excitement" on a film set get quickly bored watching two characters walk down three stairs and saying the same line twelve times,  It's not as exciting without the editing.

What part did you play?

I had no creative input or contribution, per se. I logged tapes, made sure the folks had supplies for the rides, followed up on paperwork and was a liaison with HBO, including any legal questions we had for them. The biggest impact I had, if any, was using my budgeting background to make the case that we could do the extra days Joe and Harry wanted for a minimal amount of money, a case I made to Sheila Nevins. I always found that laying things out on paper made it easier for people to say, "yes."  Did they wind up using rides from those extra days? I don't remember.

Any rides you wish they had used?

The mean side of me makes we wish that they had used the ride of the guy I referenced in Part 1, the one who was cheating on his wife and said he would "be able to talk his way out of it," by the time the show aired. I would have liked to have seen that.

There was a violin player who closes the show - most of his ride is used with credits over. His was an extremely long ride, and one of my favorites, and I know the creators and the rest of us loved watching it. I wish more of it had been used, though I understand why it wasn't.

Felicia went on to do what I did for a few years; not surprised, she was very bright. I met one of the production coordinators from a few seasons later, who had his own stories, but I won't share those, as I can't verify them.

I know when the show began to lean more heavily on sex and alternate life styles, I became less interested, which is probably why I am the perfect person not to be in focus group for a reality show. I'm not the least bit prudish, but I find the fantasy of sex more exciting than the raw truth to watch, which most of us can attest seems nothing like it does in the movies, either porn or romantic, being less athletic than the former, and less soft-focus than the latter. I've always appreciated the sexual tension of movies like the original The Postman Always Rings Twice, where there was very little doubt what was going on, and you didn't have to be a genius to imagine what happened next.

Call it documentary or call it reality TV, I'm proud to have worked on "Taxicab Confessions," and think the world of the talent of Harry and Joe Gantz. I'm glad they had a very good narrative television show in "The Defenders," and look forward to the work they will continue to put out there. I thank them for giving me a peek into a world I was not familiar with, and for proving to the non-artistic side of my family - which is pretty much all of it when it comes to blood relatives - that I did have, yes, a real job.

NB: I noticed that Joe and Harry have a Kickstarter for a documentary entitled "American Winter" about the working poor. I never push people to support Kickstarter projects, but do pass along those that I find of interest - what you do is up to you. Link is below:

*C'mon, you really thought I was going to get through this series on "Taxicab Confessions" and not work this in?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

1994: The Wonder Year - Taxicab Confessions - Part 1 - The New Reality

"Oh, can you see the real me,  can ya?
Can ya?
Can you see the real me, can ya?

-The Who

On the HBO show Cinema Verite, the 1973 PBS show featuring the Loud family, titled An American Family, is credited as the first reality show. While communications professors might agree, there was not a rash of similar shows to follow in the Seventies. The show is credited with inspiring MTV's The Real World 19 years later, which might be the better template for the mindless reality shows that now fill our airwaves.

I certainly wasn't thinking of the Louds, or even MTV, when I got a phone call from two brothers from San Francisco in the Spring of 1994. They were going to be doing a show for HBO, and they were looking for a production coordinator.

The pair were Joe and Harry Gantz, and at first meeting, you would hardly think them brothers. Joe was a photographer whose work had received some acclaim, serious to a fault. Harry, to me, was an aging hippie, not a pejorative in my book. I had always gotten along with people who fell into that category, from the talented director of "Hair" and other plays, Tom O'Horgan, to the puppet-theater creators I had worked with in Allentown, PA.

It would take me the run of the show to realize how well they worked in unison, how where one ended, the other began. Truth be told, I never got that close to Joe, a really talented guy with laser-like focus that I found to not always be approachable. I was much closer in personality to Harry, and since he handled a lot of the logistics, I spent most of my time working directly with him.

Joe Gantz, Harry Gantz

We met at a little Italian espresso place on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, at a time when before Starbucks became the interview halls for those sans office.

I sat as they explained the concept to me. They would put five wireless microphones and a few (I forget the number) lipstick cams in a taxi. They would pick people up, and tape the ride, then pick the best ones for air.

Nice idea, I thought, but, frankly, I didn't see how it was going to work. First, what interesting ever happens in the back of a taxicab, unless the guy in the front seat has a Mohawk haircut and talks to himself in mirrors. I kept that reservation to myself, something I learned from recent experience.

As a practical matter, I was curious how they would get releases from people. This was before the spate of shows that made people celebrities for acting stupid on television, before everyone was aching to prove Mark Twain correct, that it was better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Sure, it was the height of the newly-minted "trash TV" shows, such as Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, and the late Morton Downey Jr., who I always found the most fascinating of the bunch if only because he was such a character himself that I always expected as much weirdness from him as from his guests. I always assumed it took forever for those shows to cast and find those people, and that once they did, they probably paid them decently to look like fools.

We would not be casting people, and we would not be paying them, the brothers informed me. They had first tried this sort of thing out with a short they had done in San Francisco, where they would set a camera on a street corner, pick people at random, and ask them about their lives. The concept was more fleshed-out than that, but they had tested it, and it worked. Furthermore, they had done a pilot on a shoestring for HBO the year before, and it had worked out well.

They already had a contact with a taxicab company in Queens. One cab would be outfitted by Mitch, the technical director who had done the pilot the year before. The two would follow the cab in a van, where they could listen to the ride, as well as communicate with the driver, a real taxi driver, via earpiece. At the end of the ride, a woman riding with them would get out of the van. The driver would have explained the basics at the end of the ride, the woman would seal the deal and get a release, which we would also tape for verification.

Having a young woman was crucial, they had learned, since both men and women signed more readily when a young woman approached them than a man. There would also be a PA to help.

I was to help find the PA and the girl getting the releases, as well as find them inexpensive office space. They would ride for 30 nights straight - sunset to sunrise. If mama always said that nothing good happened after midnight, our reality was that nothing interesting happened before sunset.

The young lady we found, Felicia, went on to production coordinate for the show in subsequent years.

I worked mostly during the day, reviewing tapes, looking over their notes, helping prepare them for the next night, filing, and being the go-between with HBO. I went on parts of some rides in the beginning, and on one or two full evenings later on to get a feel for what was happening.

The executive producer for HBO was Sheila Nevins, and one of the uncredited handlers on the project was Susan Benaroya. While I always consider specific budgets to be propitiatory, I can say that whatever you think the budget was, it was significantly less, certainly less than almost any of the low-budget features I had worked on. Both Nevins and Benaroya had backgrounds at PBS, and as such, understood how to manage the relatively-new documentary division of HBO on a small budget.

The original office space I found was tiny for what we were paying, and I felt cutting into money that could be used elsewhere. I lobbied for an office at HBO, and eventually, an available space opened. The new space was hardly bigger, but the proximity to people at HBO and the fact that we weren't paying for it freed money elsewhere.

I also helped negotiate the rate, and everything else, with Mitch. It seemed like during the filming of the pilot, some tension had arisen between Mitch and the brothers, the origin of which I was never able to objectively track down.  All three were consummate professionals, but over long hours, these sorts of things pop up from time to time. The three have subsequently worked incredibly successfully over the years, so I assume those tensions were worked out after the first year. That year, I acted as a bit of an intermediary, something I had done many times in my experience as line producer and assistant director.

Once we started, I found everything Joe and Harry had said to be true. I was amazed at the number of people who signed releases, even after revealing embarrassing sides that most of us would prefer to keep to ourselves.

Time and time again, I would watch a ride in the morning and think to myself, "He is never going to sign," only to find the person in question cheerfully signing away their image.

One of my favorite examples was a well-dressed man who got into the cab with a younger woman who was clearly not his wife. She seemed to know he was married, as they actually joked about being out on the town, and how the wife would never know.

Sure enough, when they got to the end of the ride, there is Felicia with her clipboard. He asks when it will air, and Felicia gave him the closest to what we knew, which was about six months later on HBO. "Ah, six months, I'll be able to talk my way out of it by then," he said.

For legal purposes, there was some concern that he may have been drunk - he certainly had been drinking - and I was asked to follow-up with him the next day. I caught up with him at his workplace on the phone. "Oh, you're the television folks from last night. That was cool." He assured me again that there was no problem with his release, but he did ask if he could contact "that cute girl with the clipboard."

In  Part 2, I will answer some of the more common questions people have asked me about Taxicab Confessions, as well as talk about some rides that did not make it on the show, including one that was truly heart-breaking.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

1994-The Wonder Year:The Ones That Got Away - Pt. 3 - "Spanking the Monkey"

Caan with co-star Alan Arkin in Freebie and the Bean

"I said, 'This is burgeois, middle-class horseshit.' I mean, 'Cut to the kid crying.' Oh, please. F*ck you."

"It's not a movie. Who wants to look at four institutional walls?"

-James Caan on turning down, respectively, the leads in Kramer vs. Kramer and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

James Caan used to have this pat line during interviews that producers should have paid him to read scripts and then immediately produce whatever films he turned down.  There was a period of time when he famously turned down not only the two Oscar winners above, but roles in Blade Runner, Apocolypse Now, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While he was turning down a good deal of the seminal movies of the Seventies (with the exception of the ones he did make, of course, The Godfather I and II), he was taking films like Freebie and the Bean and Slither.

I've made my share of "Slithers." I probably would have made Freebie and the Bean for a chance to work with one of the most over-looked comic (and, for that matter, serious) actors of all time, Alan Arkin. If you have any doubt about that, I have one word  for you - serpentine.*

While I do have films that I am proud of, some of which received some level of success, I don't have a Godfather.

Still, whenever I would see Caan use that line, I would think of the movies that I lost due to ego (Welcome to the Dollhouse), turned down for another (Mall Rats), and the one I turned down for money, Spanking the Monkey.

Two of them,  Dollhouse and Spanking the Monkey, were among the better indie films of that fertile 90s period.  All three of them would have given me the chance to work with great directors.

Having documented the misses on the first two, it's time to talk about Spanking the Monkey and David O. Russell.

David O. Russell

When I read the script, it had a different title, not Spanking the Monkey, though, for the life of me, I cannot remember it. Much like Dollhouse, it covered coming of age and sex in a way rarely addressed, especially the elements of masturbation and incest.

It says something about the nature of films, and the process of bringing them to the screen, that in both Dollhouse and Spanking the Monkey, the humor was not apparent to me on first read. Dark comedies often to not read funny, which is only another reminder that the script, while an essential backbone to a good movie, is only words on paper until it is filmed (and, then, of course, recreated again in the editing room).

In either case, I thought it was a daring and strong script, but I had read many of those. This had something more going for it that made me sure that it would not only get distributed but probably see good coverage; namely, the wife of writer/director Russell, Janet Grillo.

Janet Grillo

Janet was a producer on the project, and even then, I was quite aware that she was an executive at New Line Cinema. If I had missed it, David and one of his other producers pointed it out to me when they offered me the position of production manager.

I liked the script. I had heard good things about the director. I knew it would be released. What more did I want? How could I say no?

Here is the rub.

The movie would shoot for four weeks in Upstate New York. While everyone had a lot of faith in David Russell, they were not willing to sink a lot of money into the project, so the entire crew was working deferred.

For those of you not familiar with how deferred works, it goes like this. Usually, they will work out a rate at least close to union scale (or at least a lot better than most low budget indies) but the catch is, you only get that money if it is distributed. Also, it is rare that crew is ever in what is referred to as "1st position," namely, the first ones to be paid if it sells. That distinction is, understandably, left for the investors, who have risked the most.

Crew would usually angle for second position, but on this film, crew was actually third position, behind, I believe (and I could be wrong on this) the actors. That meant a lot of people were getting paid before crew would see their money.

I had never worked deferred, because, to me, it always seemed like a shell game. Previous to Spanking the Monkey, I knew of no one who ever got paid from a deferred gig. (In fact, I don't personally know of many who have since).

Now, at a point in my career when I had established myself, I was going to work deferred. Part of me felt like a schmuck. The other part of me knew that with Janet Grillo and New Line behind it, this was not your typical wish-and-a-prayer deferral.

The added pressure was that my marriage was not going great at this point, with a lot of the tension coming from the long hours and lack of communication. Four weeks away was not going to help it. Four weeks away with no paycheck was going to be even worse.

In fairness to Maureen, my (now ex) wife, she never said anything like "If you go I'm outta here." She left the decision to me.

The deciding factor was per diems.

It is standard practice that when a crew goes on location, they are provided a daily stipend to cover meals not provided on set (and other expenses). On the lowest of the low, I had paid crews at least $20 a day per diem, and usually more like $25 or $30.

For SAG actors (and union crews, which this was not) that would have been an absolute.

They were not offering a dime in per diems, saying that food for meals offset would be "provided." Yeah, I had heard this before.

One of the difficulties with being part of production management, whether it be line producer, or UPM, and even the assistant director, is that you have responsibility to those above-the-line, the producers and director, as well as though below-the-line. If meals were not provided, and I was not given the budget to assure it, then I would be the one answering to crew as to why they weren't being treated properly.

This now went beyond my concern for my own welfare, and went into that area of both responsibility and reputation. Many first-time producers and directors become one-time producers and directors. The villain the crew remembers are the members of the production team - did they look out for them. While this sometimes seems unfair, if you want to be one step away from the top, then take the responsibility that goes with it.

I called David directly. If he could come up with per diems, I would do it. The answer was "no."

In fact, it was more than a "no." It was a "how silly are you to ask." The hairs that were now at attention on the back of my neck told me that this was not someone who particularly respected crew. That was going to be a problem, if I was right.

Those hairs were correct. I know, from people I was friendly with who did work on the shoot, that the first weekend break, certain crew people were left there without sufficient food or money to provide it.

My sense about Russell seems to have been borne out in countless incidents later in his career, with Three Kings and I (heart) Huckabees. To be fair, I did not hear anything of that nature from the crew on Spanking the Monkey, with the exception of the food situation.

The crew did eventually get their deferrals, albeit long after the film received it's acclaim.

Neither the AD, nor the original PM, nor the line producer worked with Russell again. (Though the AD did go on to work on Living in Oblivion - something I would have died for). So much for "just do this one for me and the next one will be bigger." That is a line, much like deferral, that I have always detested. If there is anything I have passed along to people about low budget indies, it is that, if you are going to take a gig, take it for what you think this gig is going to do for you. Often, the director won't have the control to hire you on the next, bigger, gig, and that is assuming that his promise was sincere in the first place.

It is very likely that, outside of a nice check over a year later and another merit badge for working on a well-known, successful and important movie, I would never have worked with Russell again, would not have hobnobbed with Clooney and Wahlberg on Three Kings or Tomlin et al on Huckabees.

For the period I was turning down the three important films I covered in this and the last two posts, I was basically doing my version of Freebie and the Bean, Slither, and Rollerball.

Maybe this is what James Caan felt like. Nah, he still had The Godfather.

* There is hardly a moment Arkin is on screen that is not drop-dead funny in The In-Laws.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

1994-The Wonder Year:The Ones That Got Away - Pt. 2 - "Welcome to the Dollhouse"

"Yo, Weiner, you better get ready, because at 3 o'clock today, I'm going to rape you."
-Brandon, Welcome to the Dollhouse

I can't swear that the line above was exactly as it appeared in the movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse, when I received a script to consider, then entitled Middle Child, in 1994. I remember there being a reference to meeting  by a tree, but, in any case, it was not the mere appearance of the word rape that caught my attention.

Other scripts, both theater and film, had dealt with the subject of rape, but rape was not the subject of this script. In fact, what caught my attention was not the threat of rape, but rather that, in the context of the story, it was not a threat at all, but more akin to a date with the hot guy at school, and a date that Dawn Weiner, the 7th grader to whom it was directed, was actually hopefully anticipating.

Coming of age stories are grist for the mill of films in general, especially indie films. One wondering about the insanity that is our business would also wonder if anyone who made a film actually had a happy adolescence, but I guess all those people went on to become CPAs, or something akin.

So many things made this script stand apart. First, this unattractive, unpopular girl is the victim of the type of emotional abuse both at home and at school that she makes Carrie look like a head cheerleader. Any attempt to deflect this abuse is only made worse by the fact that her older brother is almost, if not more, unpopular than she is.

I was being considered as line producer because I had a mutual friend with one of the producers (at the time), Jason Kliot. I had the reputation of being able to do a lot with a little, and producers Kliot and Joana Vincente had a similar reputation with their company, Open City Films. Ironically, I firmly believe that this would be reason why I did not get the job.

I had made good movies, mediocre movies, and, well, a few clunkers.  What I had not worked on was a movie that was a critical success on a big scale, even for the burgeoning indie movement. 

To put it in context, it seemed like the time of miracles.  All around me, I saw films with minuscule budgets and sometimes razor-thin plots succeed on what seemed like nothing more than an edgy "feeling". Brothers McMullen, Clerks, and El Mariachi were all examples of this.

My resume was starting to get long, and it was getting to that point where I started to think, "What am I doing with my life?" I was starting to feel like Jack Lemmon (or later, the actor his spirit invaded, Kevin Spacey) in all those mid-life crisis movies (which seemed to last forever, from about The Fortune Cookie to Save the Tiger).

It goes beyond the feeling that life is slipping by, that the hourglass on your masculine prowess (and, with it, your physique) is getting bottom heavy.  You are in a field where people make their mark in their twenties, and you are already past the age where you can be a wunderkind.  

What ever happened to those heady high school and college days, when you were often "the smartest guy in the room" (or, at least you felt that way).

It was with this unhealthy attitude that I approached my interview with Jason, Joanne, and Todd Solendz. 

A line producer needs to be a take-charge guy, and I'd learned to turn interviews around, to take charge of the interview by coming in prepared with how I was going to navigate this ship, asking more questions of them than they did of me. 

This often worked very well, giving the exact impression I wanted - "Wow, this dude knows what he's doing.  We better hire him"

If it were the right approach, it was the wrong room.

First, although I only met Todd this and one or two other times, anyone who has met him knows that it is unlikely that that are the smartest guy in a room with him.  Todd has all those things you expect in a great artist - both book knowledge and a keen insight into the human condition, a perfect compliment of head and heart, and certainly a very agile mind.

Jason graduated summa cum laude from Amherst, and was a Fellow at Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris; Joana had  Masters Degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of Portugal.

Beyond that academic prowess, all three were veterans of the film wars.  Todd had survived an unhappy fling with studio films with his first feature, Fear, Anxiety and Depression. Jason and Joana were two of the real pioneers of not only getting creative small budget indies made, but distributed with Open City.

To take the other side of that old poker maxim from Rounders, if you look around the room and everybody there can be the smartest guy in the room, well, you, are the "other guy".

I started by expressing how much I admired the script, which was not the least bit flattery. I had never read anything like it. It was clear that the writer and force behind the script had a great intellect, but also that this man who was only two years younger than me clearly had an ear for the cruel language of middle-schoolers in a way that seems familiar all these years later, but was rarely if ever seen in any film at the time.

When they got around to what I thought would be the difficulties of the logistics of the script, I mentioned the two that struck me; where would they find a school that would let us shoot there if they read the script, and where would they find a girl the right age who had the self-confidence during her own puberty to handle the image-shattering action and dialogue of the script.

The answer to the latter clearly came in a remarkable actress, Heather Matarazzo, who later has made public her own personal struggle in school with the lack of acceptance of her sexual feelings for other girls.  Clearly, this, and naturally strong character, had toughened her for anything the script offered.

More importantly, she saw, as Todd did, Dawn's strength and confidence and pride in being different.

My background in Dramatic Literature and love of structure usually makes me pretty good at understanding both the spine and themes of a script, but missing this was only one of my misinterpretations.  Upon meeting Todd, I immediately assumed that he "was" the character of the older brother, the "king of the nerds." 

Gender had confused me here, and I missed the obvious; that much as Tennessee Williams is Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Todd is Dawn. He is not the victim older brother, but the fighter "middle child".

The school location did turn out to be a problem, but the line producer who eventually was hired, Priscilla Guastavino, was a tough lady who I would later work with on a few projects. She got it done.

There was one area that I turned out to be correct, and that was in questioning Jason and Joana's suggestion that it be shot on 16mm to save money. My work with JR and on other projects had convinced me that the cost-saving measure many used at that time - shooting on 16mm and then getting it blown-up to 35mm if it got sold - was a bad choice, one that seemed to invite failure.

I had a good deal of success shooting 35mm using resold raw stock, which has to be differentiated from the even cheaper "short ends" method.  I would only use stock that was still sealed and resold back to a broker that I knew, not those that were repackaged from full loads. I had a very reliable broker, and had never had one frame of bad footage  (a fear many producers had with even resold).

I made an argument for not shooting 16mm, and though I turned out to be correct, and the film was shot on 35mm, I could see in the eyes of Joana and Jason that if I hadn't failed the interview before, I had certainly lost them here.

Other producers ultimately came aboard; with them, a bigger budget and shooting on 35mm.

As a postscript, a few weeks later, Todd called me, asking for a reference for Van, the AD I had worked with on The Rook and the ill-fated Corman film. Of course, I gave him a glowing reference; of course, he didn't get the gig either.

Of all the projects that slipped through my fingers, I most regret not working on this ground-breaking film with a great indie pioneer in Todd Solendz.