Saturday, October 27, 2012

Opposites Oppose - Part 1 - Strange Bedfellows

There is an old saying that opposites attract. That is not always true.

A few years ago, I was reminded of this when I worked as line producer on a Tamil film shot in New Jersey where there were about six producers, from both the US and India, with about four different ideas of how the film should be produced.

There was nothing better as a line producer than having one producer ask you why we can't do things one way and isn't the other producer wrong to do what he wants, and then have the converse conversation with that other producer an hour later.

If that was bad, though, I found a situation that was ever worse in the mid nineties, when I was co-line producer on a project.

Because there were some really good people involved and it was a very worthy film, I will shorten names to protect, well, everyone.

There is a saying in football that if you have two quarterbacks, you really have no quarterback, and line producing is similar. The line producer not only prepares your budget, but also sets in motion the game plan for the the movie. Two line producers mean two visions for the movie.

Now, there are situations where it could work, where you have two people who have worked together and who are coming from the same place who choose to split up the responsibility. In fact, I know a few low-budget line producers who have situations such as this with their production managers. Even in those situations, where the two may be partners, they usually keep the titles of line producer and production manager separate. It helps to keep clear the chain of command, keep people from asking the same question of two different people.

I had worked with Z, the director, as a DP on another project. We spoke about this project, which I will simply call SOC, while on the other project. I very much wanted to line produce it, and Z very much wanted me.

Z is a very deep thinker, and the script for the film is Fellini's 8 1/2 with Woody Allen's New York intellectualism; a darker Hannah and Her Sisters with the sensuality explored more from the women's POV. If you're getting a little lost here, well, so did many people who viewed the film. As was my want, I once again was working on an eclectic film that some people loved and many others just didn't get.

To give you a better idea, some of the promotional material says the female lead character is, "determined to buck the materialism and spiritual sterility of modern society."

Boy, did that sell tickets!

This was never going to be a video game, which was fine by me. This was exactly the type of story that attracted me to the theater in the first place, and later, the type of movie I wanted to make.

As often happens, by the time Z was ready to shoot the film, financed in large part from his own pocket and work as a DP, I was on another project. We spoke a bit about me prepping his project while I was still on the other project, but that wasn't realistic, as line producer is not a part-time job.

Z hired someone else to line produce. Matt was a very capable line producer,  and we shared having worked with yet another line producer and production manager, Hank.

Matt and I could not have been more philosophically different. Even before I started working with Stan Bickman, my approach to production was always creative as well as practical, making sure we are following the vision of the director.

Matt had no similar interest, his priority being to keep everything as cheap as possible, He had come up through the production office, not the set, as I had, and he never appreciated the little things that make things go on set.

A simple example was vehicles. I always used cube trucks with lift gates. Matt would rent trucks with ramps. Anyone who has ever actually moved equipment understands the difference. I understood why the camera department needed to block out part of a truck for their use, almost like an office, and as such, never made them ride with G/E. We shot film, and no one should be near the loader when he was in the bag. The AC should never have to go around anyone else to get to a lens.

These may seem basic to union folk, but on low budget shoots, there were people like Matt, who would shove everything onto one truck. Wardrobe with G/E as well? Sure, it was cheaper.

Make no mistake about it; Matt had successfully line produced films that did get sold. He was not incompetent. His ships, as it were, did not run smoothly, though, He liked ADs who were screamers to keep the "help" moving. I was not a screamer, and never hired them.

Z felt an obligation to bring me on, given my early involvement. For my part, I tried to defer to Matt, who had done the ground work for the project.

We shared an office, with two desks side-by-side that faced the door, our backs to the wall. People walking into our office would walk through a door that pretty much was exactly between us, so I would be on their right, Matt on their left.

There was a long hallway leading to our office, and the production coordinator sat right outside our office, close enough that he could lean back and ask us questions, or we could give a mild shout to give him information.

Early after my arrival, the differences became apparent. I would suggest that there were items missing in the budget; Matt would insist they were luxuries we did not need. I tried to defer to him, and he tried to accommodate me, he really did.

Soon, the strained attempt to be accommodating to one another and the suppression of what we really felt led to personal animosity. Matt, I must say, tried to hide it as much as I did, but it got to a point where not only did we not agree on how to make the film, we just didn't really like each other.

The walk down that long hallway became more difficult for people. They would walk in the door, ask a question, and often, get two diametrically different answers.  It was not long before the door got shut more and more often while Matt and I would try to resolve our differences.

One day, the office folk were having a typical NY conversation: what is worse, rats or roaches in an apartment. Someone brought up the point that when you have rats in an apartment, they will often drive away the roaches, or some such thing.

Granted, it was not the most pleasant discussion in the world, but film offices are not much different from other offices in that banal conversation often takes on a life of its own. Pretty soon, everyone was weighing in.

Our production coordinator stuck his head in and asked us our opinion on which was worse, and, at precisely the same time, Matt said rats and I said roaches.

The logic behind our answers is not the point; rather, as someone quickly pointed out, Matt and I could not even agree on rats and roaches. The office got quiet, and Matt and I went for a walk. What started as a silly conversation had highlighted what we already knew; that we could not agree on anything.

I was the one to go to Z. Matt could make the movie, I told him, and I certainly could make the movie, but Matt and I could not make the movie together. As Matt was there first, it was obvious to me that  I was the one to leave.

There were some above-the-line matters pertaining to cast and contracts that needed attention, and I agreed to stay on as an adviser  (we might have actually used that deadly term, associate producer), but running the film would be Matt's realm solely.

It was the only way to go. Z made no attempt to talk me out of it; our disagreements only brought more stress to the work that needed to be done, and Z was not a high-drama guy.

It was all very civil, and when I walked out the door, I was sure that I would not be seeing most of the crew again on that shoot until the wrap party.

If you've been following this blog, however, you know that my work on many of my projects read like a Law and Order episode, always with that twist. Sure enough, JB would be back.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"Quote of the Day?"

2nd AD's love coming up with the Quote of the Day for call sheets. Somewhere, there is a 2nd AD who is dying to use this one from Argo.

Tony: "You can teach somebody to be a director in a day?"

John:  "You can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Budgets Budgets Toil and Trouble

Sorry for the short break from the blog.

In the world of indie film, when it rains, it pours. The converse, of course, is that when it's dry, it's a friggin' desert.

In the past two weeks, I've been commissioned to do two feature budgets and schedules for investors. One has changed parameters a few times, as they now have some name talent that may be attached.

The other is for a film festival in Europe that will fund them as long as the budget is under $150K Euros. This means doing the currency conversion, which is easy, as Gorilla software, my preferred software, does this, as does EP.

I have put together different templates for features and shorts over the years in both EP and Gorilla. The film festival funding this project, of course, has decided that applicants need to use their budget template in Excel. It's a ridiculous template, more appropriate for shorts or commercials and music videos than a feature. They also lump the oddest things - location fees are under "set dressing." What's up with that?

The requests for these budgets came at the exact same time I got called to line produce a pilot for NICK Moms. Of course, they did. They would not have come when I was twiddling my thumbs hitting "refresh" on my Gmail in the hopes of seeing a job offer come my way.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not complaining.

I am actually very happy that they both came via a contact I've had for a long time, a really good guy who runs a studio in New York. It was, in many ways, a typical contact. This was a guy who I first spoke to about two or three years ago when I was line producing an impossible feature in Connecticut (don't worry - it will wind up here). I needed a location manager for a few select locations in NYC.

Brendan runs a great studio in NY, NYLAHD. Shameless plug? You betcha'. Somebody throws you work, you return the favor. Also, I've had two people I know work with them and tell me great things - plugs aren't cool if the referral is a bad one.

While Brendan was unable to location manage that shoot, he continued to refer possible location managers and gave me some location contacts to follow-up on. It's people like this that make you feel good about the business; people who don't just say, "what's in it for me," but who just genuinely try to help out.

Both projects he referred to me are good scripts with seasoned pros putting them together. I really hope they get funded.

I have a love/hate/love/hate/love relationships with budgets and schedules.

I love the income between gigs.

I've come to hate starting the input and breakdown, then trying to figure out the perfect schedule. When I was younger, schedules were like crossword puzzles, cool challenges. Now, I pretty much dread them. They are still like puzzles, only ones where I wish I could cut the pieces to make them fit.

The writer in me loves the intricacy of the script. The AD in me hates that phone conversations and parallel action mean more breakdown sheets to enter. The line producer in me looks at a the schedule and says "those two guys have no lines in the diner scene. If they weren't there, I could shoot them out in one week." Not very artistic.

Of course, once I DO figure out the perfect schedule, I get this warm glow. At my age, that's no small feat. I love.

Then I have to start the budget. I'm not naturally a numbers guy, and my ex will tell you that budgeting my life isn't my strong point. Films? That one I got. Hate going line item by line item, but that's the way it gets done.

A budget is not just a bunch of numbers, it's a game plan for your film. Once I have finished it, I hate that the right way to present it is with detail notes; but once I've done that, I love the feeling of satisfaction I get from knowing I have fully planned out a film from start to finish.

Both of those budgets are done now, pretty much. I meet with the filmmakers tomorrow, and will probably tweak them after we talk, Getting to know their priorities and how they plan on attacking the film needs to be part of the conversation.

I should be sitting here, basking in the glow of victory, getting ready to send my left brain to a nice warm beach and drinks with fruit and funny straws while revving up my right brain to get back to a theater play I am writing.

Instead, I'm taking a deep breath, because last Thursday, a novelist called me. He found me on the web, and wanted to know my thoughts about producing a short he wrote. He sent me the script, and it's a dark, funny, satire. He even wants to shoot on 35mm, which truly made me happy.

Next step - schedule and budget for the short!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Corporations Are Not People - Film Productions Are

"It will be nice to be working with proper villains again."
-Basher, Ocean's Eleven

The words of the safe-cracker from Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven (not to be confused with the "Rat Pack" Sinatra-Martin vehicle) are the perfect expression of the experience of making films, television, and the like.

This expression updates the way I used to describe the process of assembling crews and my favorites, which was The Usual Suspects. The title of another heist film originates, of course, from the famous line in Casablanca, which also refers to the criminals routinely arrested when any sort of crime were to take place.

Why, I started to think, were all of my thoughts on working with film crews references to a criminal underclass?  Why, not, say, the Shakespeare quote popularized by the story of the men who fought together on D-Day, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers?"

The answer may lie in the subsequent line from Henry V: "For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be never so vile."

Those of us who work in the we work in the creative arts, in any capacity, from director to third electric to production intern, have a bit of hubris, a touch of pretension, and possibly the onset of delusions of grandeur.

What we do is noble, yes, but we do not save lives or change the course of history. On that level, I side with Charles Barkley, who said of being a "hero," "I am not a role model."

No, my crews are a messy lot, and being a bit of a mess myself, it's probably why I love them. The people I choose to work with certainly have their quirks, but they are quirks I can live with, and as with most of us who grow older in relationships, you learn to accept the quirks of your mate and are reticent to learn the quirks of others.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to do a one-day shoot for a pilot for a cable network that allowed me to bring favorites of mine from two generations in my career, from a 1st AD I first worked with in 1998 to a gaffer who I met about a year and a half ago when he was right out of film school.

Much of the times I am covering, the 90s, were an era where, no matter how low the budget, I was able to work with many of the same people and offer a reasonable, if not great, rate. That meant that if you were a 1st AD, you could work with the same 2nd AD for a while, and a gaffer could keep his regular best boy and grip, etc.

We are now in a transitional economic phase with digital, and often rates are just not there to bring your regular crew aboard. My AD tells me of a feature he did where they did not budget a 2nd AD for him, where he was expected to break in a bunch of interns for support. In fact, over the past two years, I don't know that he has been able to bring on the same 2nd AD more than twice, if that.

Similarly, the DP on this shoot could not bring on her usual IA crew. There I was lucky, because the gaffer, Adam,  I brought on, while non-union, is just great. He brought on a crew that was wonderful as well.

The rates were not exceptional, but they were reasonable, and it was great to have two people from different times in my past with me on the shoot.

As with any shoot, we had our challenges (see "hiccups") and unforeseen situations, but we made it through them, and everybody was happy at the end of the day, including the director.

It is here that I get to make up for generalizations that I make about "this generation" of filmmakers. I have more than once been known to say (in this blog as well as in my work) that there are too many people calling themselves by titles that they have not earned. Among these are "producers" who come out of over-rated schools that just might have their campus around Washington Square in Greenwich Village, and DPs who could not, to quote myself, "read a light meter if their life depended on it."*

Like cliches, generalizations may come from our experiences and have some basis, but they also unfairly characterize an entire group of people.

Years ago, I worked on a one-act play called Chucky's Hunch with the late, great Kevin O'Conner. The Obie-winning play was being done with two other one-acts, one written by a playwright from Yale Drama and directed by another "Yalie"

The director for Chucky's Hunch and the third play, Leonard Melfi's Birdbath, was Tom O'Hogan, a man as lovable as the big, happy dog he used to walk around the Village. He was not only bright, but considerate and warm with everyone in his circle.

Then, there was the Yalie director, who none of us liked. From the moment he walked in the door, he felt he was above all the difficulty of doing this "small" production Off-Broadway. The playwright, on the other hand, was one of those young artists who was always smiling, thrilled to see his work on the boards, and every time one of us did what we were supposed to do, would effusively thank us.

A week before opening, Kevin did an interview with the Village Voice during which he was, well, it was not the best of circumstances, and much more open than it would have been a few hours and many drinks earlier. Kevin started going on about the good old days in NY theater, and then about these "fuckin' pretentious Yalies."  He was talking about the director.

Sure enough, the first one to read it was the poor playwright, who certainly thought this was our impression of him.

So it is that I know when I make that light meter comment, one of the people who takes the most offense is the gaffer I brought on. This is a guy who has worked in every capacity in the camera, grip and electric department, and has also done excellent DP work. He has a great eye, and a great feel for what looks good.

He is also the first guy to help out even before he is asked. He keeps - I kid you not- a database of every manual for every camera, every generation, currently in use. He shares this database with everyone and anyone in his circle.

We needed a specific monitor that we were having trouble renting; Adam (the gaffer I speak of) found it inside of an hour for me.

I never worked with anyone from the "good old days" who was smarter or more dedicated than he is. In a short time, he will, I imagine, be one of those people I will be seeking out to hire me.

He has payed his dues and then some.

It is here that I remember that some things never change, and one of those things is that every project, for better or worse, is about the people who work around you,  and about who you are as a person and a professional.

The organized chaos that are film shoots lead us all to wonder at times, "What the hell am I doing here." On the best or worst of shoots, what you owe to the people working with you is your best effort. You depend on each other, and when you allow difficult conditions to lower your standards, you are letting down people around you.

Some of the best people I have met, and some of the longest relationships that I have in this business, are with people who I met on abysmal shoots, shoots that were pure hell. All of those people worked hard every day.

The other reason you do this is for someone even more important - yourself. Once you allow yourself to lower your standards once, it becomes easier the next time. Pretty soon, your standard of professionalism has dropped, and you have become the people you formerly were discrediting.

When I taught production at NYFA, one of the first things I would say is that, "Professionalism is not a function of budget." I fight hard to see that people are treated with the same standard of respect on the smallest of shoots that I do as they would be on a big budget project. No, I cannot always provide the same amenities, but I respect work rules like meal times, turnaround, length of work day, and safety concerns. Those don't get skipped because of the budget.

I've covered most of the topic here in one way or another before, but I wanted to address it again while I am feeling hopeful for the future of our industry, when working with a dedicated crew and two dedicated production assistants and a hard-working intern. The DP was also someone whose work goes back to the 90s, and to see crews from two different eras working together at peek efficiency was really good for me, enough to keep me almost chipper, a description few of my co-workers would use for me.

All of this comes at the perfect time for me, a time when I have become increasingly critical of the emerging economy of the industry, where some producers have tied the lower costs of equipment with lower respect for what it is that crews do. It almost seems like they are saying, "I can get the camera so much cheaper, then the work of the 1st AC must be worth so much less."

Really? The production teams has to work just as hard to make sure that the van gets there on time, and copies of the call sheet are done, which insures that everyone actually knows where they are to be and when. That HMI didn't get any lighter for the electric, nor the dolly for the grip. Pulling focus did not get easier for the 1st AC, and God-help the 2nd AC who drops a lens.

One of my favorite words in this industry is "courtesy," as in, "can I get a courtesy over here," when referring to something to shield glare from a monitor or one's eyes, or a "courtesy pick-up" when production is not required to provide transportation, but does so.

In both of the cases above, the "courtesy" provided, while not mandatory, is and should be expected; not providing it is not really an option.

One of the insightful below-the-line blogs, The Hills are Burning, provides a good guide to newbies of exactly what courtesy is on set.

Still, it is such a delightfully and unexpectedly quaint word for a very gritty business. It conjures up images of high tea at five, not salsa at 4AM.

I know many people just starting out read this blog, and I hope you will remember this when you are working for some producer who has overlooked you, where crafty is day-old bagels and lunch is pizza and turnaround is something people vaguely remember. Look around you, and I guarantee there are some people who are working just as hard as you are, who care just as much as you do, and those people are looking around as well, wondering who they want to work with again.

Make sure one of those people is you.

Enough happiness and light. Next post, its back to the 90s, and a shoot on which my partner and I could not even agree on rats versus roaches.

*I decided early on that blogs have different rules, so it's cool to quote myself. It's not like anyone else is going to do so soon.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lawrence of Digital

Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored

This afternoon - almost all of this afternoon, by the way - I sat in a theater and watched the digitally-restored version of one of my absolute favorite movies, Sir David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia.

There was a time I would have assumed no film person would not have seen this great film, but recently, I seem to encounter many people in the film industry whose knowledge, appreciation and interest in film leaves them thinking Quentin Tarantino is "old school."

If you follow the link at the top of this post, it will take you to some information on how the digital restoration was done. In one of the segments leading up to the presentation in the theater, there was a segment on the process, and why scanning it at 4K delivered 'as much of the information the filmmaker intended' as possible.  As Sir David is no longer with us, and the post facility mentioned nothing of mediums, I took from the clip that this process did more to bring the original information that is on the film print than any other process can do.

My background is in production, not tech, and while I fully understand both the process that delivered the original print (I've actually edited on film, and regularly worked with the best labs in the world on films I line produced or produced) and the basics of the post process, I usually leave the "tech talk" to geekier and better-trained people than me.

Google geek-dom away, and feel free to offer techie insight in comments.

I was not old enough to have seen the movie when it first came out in theaters; my parents were wise enough not to take a 5-year old to a movie that ran more than four hours with intermission.

I was neither as wise nor as compassionate 24 years ago when I dragged my (then) wife to the restored showing on film in theaters. No, it was not the reason for our eventual split, at least not directly.

Trying to compare the two experiences is difficult. I cannot trust my memory to match images over that span of time, and as much as I love the film, I see no chance that I will watch a digital and film projection back-to-back any time soon. As my (now) ex suggests, I have too much free time, but not that much free time.

I can say that watching it today, there were many things I had not noticed before. Some were technical, some were elements of scenes I did not remember.

My ex noted at the time that for a movie that long and expansive, there was not one woman in it. That amazing fact always stuck in my head. Watching it today, there are, indeed, no speaking roles for woman - not a one that I noticed, and I was looking. There are women up on a hill in one shot; and there are women with their backs to us when they come to Auda's (Anthony Quinn) tent the first time. The other women I noticed did not speak, well, because they were dead, bodies at the site of massacres.

OK, this is the point in the post where I need to do this, remembering that there will be those here who have not seen it.

********SPOILER ALERT**************

Don't know if protocol is needed for spoiler alerts fifty years after a movie premiers, but, now, you can't say I ruined it for you. Guilt assuaged.

There are certainly elements that I do not remember from the last time I saw it, which was more recently than that time in 1988 but at least five years ago.  The detail of things like the composition of the desert floor and the wardrobe is clearer than I remember, especially the changes in the texture of the desert from sand to harder surfaces. The lighting, especially on faces, is amazing, and this is not because of some post trick, as is often the case today, but because of the brilliance of the original cinematography, at a time when gaffers and cinematographers had to depend on light meters and their understanding of how film is processed to get a desired affect. The digital restoration process certainly serves these elements incredibly well, probably better than a new print might do at this point.


For those who worry that this is the point at which I start to talk about how much better things used to be, you are correct, to some extent. Shoot me (but know you will not be the first person to have thought of doing it).

Hey, as a production person on set today, I love the fact the WYSIWYG in digital monitors today. It makes it easier for me - and everyone - to see what you are getting. It has also, from my experience, made some - and I stress some - DPs, gaffers and such lazy. It just has. There, I said it.

Now, I know many many many incredibly talented folks in both those areas today, but I also know people who today call themselves directors of photography who could not have been third electrics when I first started.

When the movie ended, I spoke with two ladies who enjoyed the movie while sitting behind me. One mentioned that there were a few shots that she originally assumed were CGI before remembering that process did not exist in 1962. They were rather knowledgeable film-goers, and pointed out how amazing the back-lighting of characters was.

There is, indeed, one shot that I can remember in this version, where Lawrence walks indoors from outside, where he is so skillfully separated from the desert that it does, indeed, look like it was shot on a stage with green-screen behind him. Anyone who knows the history of the production of Lawrence of Arabia knows that was not the case, and the incredible hardship the cast and crew went through working on location in the deserts of Jordan.

The other thing that has always struck me about the movie-making is that, unlike many "epics," the film works both as a big, sprawling story and an intimate look at a man being torn apart by the difference between his image of himself and the reality of who he is. As Omar Sharif's Ali reminds him, he is just a man.

This got me thinking of yet another difference between an epic like Lawrence of Arabia, and what separates it from both the epics of yore and the video games/studio blockbusters of today.

It has patience. It takes time. There are a number of scenes that give an idea of the expanse of the desert, that allow things to happen in close to real time. A modern studio mogul, or, more likely a committee of eggheads who understand nothing about movies they don't rent, would say that an audience will not sit through it, and cut the length of those scenes. Doing so would remind us that we are watching a movie, and not give us credit for appreciating the way the unfolding action holds our attention. No one in today's screening seemed bored at any moment.

Those who know the film know there is a scene where Peter O'Toole's Lawrence is tortured by the Turks. The actual torture scene is thankfully left mostly to the imagination, which makes it so much more effective than a lot of blood and gore. When blood appears some time later on the back of his uniform back in Cairo, the horror of realizing that these wounds, both physical and psychological, have not healed is that much more powerful.

The way that scene plays shows another aspect of Lean's brilliant story-telling. Dryden, the politician played by Claude Rains, is standing behind Lawrence. He first notices the blood. The British general, played by Jack Hawkins, is in the process of reprimanding Lawrence for not wanting to go back to "Arabia." Instead of Dryden saying "hey, his back is bleeding," or acting shocked, he merely calls Lawrence's name. When Lawrence turns to address him, the general can then see the blood, and his mood changes. No one had to remind Lean to show when he could tell.

It got me thinking of the latest Christopher Nolan Dark Knight effort. Better certainly than the cookie-cutter video game/movies that permeate the landscape today, it's attempt to delve into the mind of it's tortured and beaten lead is nowhere near as powerful.

No, I am not knocking Nolan's film-making. He is very talented. Truth is that Lawrence is the exception even for movies of its era, and before. It's also true the larger part of the audience for spectacles like Dark Knight would not appreciate or have the patience for it. The irony, I think, is that the true aficionados that made the whole Batman series popular to begin with would probably eat it up.

When you're spending a couple of hundred million on a "project," those numbers would not be enough.

My experience in the film-making process also drew my attention to something Martin Scorcese said in the into to the film, which is that Sir David was trying to re-edit the restored version right up until it made it to the screen in 1988.

This reminded me of something I heard many years ago from a friend who was an assistant editor on Francis Ford Coppola's own sprawling epic, Apocalyse Now Redux. Coppola's multiple endings and original fight over the first release of the movie, and then Redux years later, with the "director's cuts" in-between, are testament to the fact that a director on any film, from Studio to Indie, sometimes has trouble letting go.

The assistant editor shared she once heard Coppola, near the final stages, say, "It's not over, but it's  done." Anyone who has tried to convince a director that they didn't need to re-cut their movie one more time can relate. This goes for everything from the quirky feature I worked on, The Rook, to a short I worked on more than two years ago that the producer tells me went through three edits and is still not done.

The phrase that comes to mind is: just because you can, doesn't mean you should. At some point, someone needs to say, "Step away from the editing console."

Lawrence of Arabia will soon be out on Blu-Ray, and the current version is certainly well-worth watching. Hey, the good folks who made the movie don't need me to hype it for you, and it is no fault of their's that the experience will probably not match today's theatrical presentation. In fact, I saw it at the Regal Union Square Cinema, and the sound could have been better and may be better in your home.

Some things are destined to never be as good as you remember them. For me, the feelings I had today were just as strong as the first time I saw this film. Young filmmakers, do not take from this post that Sir David Lean did something you cannot do; don't put it up on a pedestal to be shown at museums, rather, I just encourage you to set your sights higher than the fare that passes for "great" in many corners.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Priorities - Feed the Beast (Catering and Craft Services)

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.

Napoleon said that an army marches on it's stomach. A film crew is nothing if not a small army.

My "priorities" series has covered serious subjects like script supervisor coverage and set safety. At first glance, the issue of feeding cast and crew does not rise to the same level of importance.

Or does it?

Of all the things I have seen go badly or be mishandled on a set, what should be the simplest, feeding the crew, seems to often be one of the biggest causes of grief.

Let us start with some basics.

On union crew sets, or sets with reasonable budget, catering and craft services should not be an issue. In this article, I will address problems on low-budget film sets.

This entire blog is named after the wonderful film satire on low-budget films, Living in Oblivion, which appropriately opens at dawn. After the issue of 'where to park the grip truck' is addressed, the next question that comes up is about the age of the milk being used for coffee, a question that later impacts a crucial scene when the DP gets sick.

In the digital era, where many of the things we took for granted on a film set are no longer true, the following has become a laughable addendum to many a Craigslist or Mandy notice for crew where pay is minimal or non-existent.

"Food and transportation provided." Variations tell of great food being offered.

All of these notices miss a basic point, which is that providing meals on a film set is not a courtesy, it is an obligation.

Let me repeat this.

Providing meals on a film set is not a courtesy, it is an obligation.

What newbie producers fail to understand is that unlike your traditional nine-to-five office job, the cast and crew on a film set cannot decide that they prefer a noon lunch to a one-o'clock lunch, or whether they should go fast food or brown bag it. A film cast and crew is hostage to the production schedule; they eat when and where production decides.

This may mean they are in the middle of a remote area, or breaking for lunch at 3AM. Lunch on non-union sets is often a half-hour from last man (crew, not production) through the line, and rarely a full hour.

If properly arranged, this meal happens no later than six hours from the end of breakfast, or whatever passes as the meal when cast and crew arrives on set.

This means that production is, and should be, responsible for the meals provided. That includes deference to food allergies and dietary concerns, including vegetarians.

Let us get this straight. Salad, alone, does not constitute a vegetarian option, and if your other "vegetarian" option is a dairy-based pasta, you are failing to realize that dairy-based foods are heavy and poor choices for an intermediary meal; that many people beyond childhood are lactose-intolerant, and that dairy is an animal product, not appropriate for vegans.

Again, if you were on most traditional jobs where an hour lunch of the employee's choosing were the norm, this would be the problem of the employee. Because you are determining the where and when of meals, this is your responsibility.

First meal, or "lunch," which can happen at some very un-lunch-like times, must be a hot meal. That excludes cold cuts and tuna sandwiches. Again, folks, remember that the crew, especially those folks carrying that heavy equipment, are expending a good deal of energy, and that needs to be replenished.

The tradition also states that while Chinese take-out and pizza are acceptable as second meal (the meal owed if crew is still being asked to work six hours past the end of first meal), it should not be considered acceptable lunch fare.

As with many of my posts, this is the point at which veterans roll their eyes and ask, "Why do you have to explain this? We all know it."

In fact, many of the up-and-coming producers do not know these basics. For the rest of you, go to the Cliff notes.

Having addressed lunch, lets talk about breakfast and craft services.

I cannot tell you how often I have seen producers get craft services wrong. On The Rook, my wonderful Assistant Director, Van, and I would go out at the end of a long day to replenish the craft service table because our PAs in charge of craft services kept failing to provide basics.

What are the basics?

Coffee. Caffeine is needed for people who do not get the proper rest. which is all of us in film. Tea for those who do not drink coffee.

Again, where budget permits, you should be hiring a craft service person, someone who does this regularly and will devote their time to getting it right. If that is not an option, then at least have a dedicated PA, or rotate PAs for that position.

In the last few years, I have often gotten this reply when a PA was faced with a large coffee pot and a can of coffee: "I buy my coffee at Starbucks. I don't make it." Here is a hint. The only variables involved are a pot, probably a filter, coffee and water. You have mastered Avid color correction in film school and calculus in high school. You can change lenses on a RED blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back. You can write code for your webpage.

In short, you can do this. Go on your Ipad and Google the instructions from the coffee pot manufacturer if the internet assist makes you more comfortable. If need be, I will even take the time to show you - the first time.

DO NOT depend on those boxes from Dunkin' Donuts or even Starbucks. An hour or less after they hit set, they will be cold, people will stop drinking it and you will be tossing it. Not good for the crew and not cost efficient. Everyone loses.

Cold Water bottles for crew is a must. Raise your hands if you need a lesson on how the body needs to be hydrated to function properly.

Healthy alternative. One of my contemporaries, who came up old-school, always stressed having donuts and various offerings with sugar to keep people going. The health nut in me rebelled, but I have no problem offering this to those who will not come around to a healthier life-style. For the rest, there needs to be fruit, legumes (nuts and such) and veggies on the craft service table.

One of my favorites for crafty is miso soup. Yes. it has a high sodium content not good for those of us, like me, who have high-blood pressure. However, it is an inexpensive snack that serves as a valued part of breakfast in much of the Asian world because of its restorative properties. and it offers energy without the crash that accompanies sugar.

One of my fondest shoot memories was of a film we did in Massachusetts where crafty was done by an aging hippie couple. Once the wife discovered that I loved her homemade miso soup, she made a point of bringing it to me on set (I was an AD on the shoot and often did not make it to the craft service table).

Which reminds me: if you are a PA, when you decide to go to crafty, remember the folks on first team and stuck by camera like the DP, operator, AC, not to mention talent, scripty, the director, and, if you like getting hired on the next shoot, the First AD. We remember.

All of the helpful tips I offer here do not need to cost production anything beyond what bad catering and crafty offers. No, three-day old bagels do not constitute a reasonable breakfast offering, but alternatives that do not cost much more are available.

If catering and crafty are taken seriously, there is no reason why this needs to be a problem. If they are not, watch out.

As with all of my posts, I welcome suggestions and creative solutions others have found.