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.


Michael Taylor said...

Excellent post. Over the years, the people I've hired were those who did a great job regardless of the circumstances -- and I met most of them working on various low-budget nightmares. Those who are motivated to work hard and do a professional job under the worst of conditions are worth their weight in gold.

I've always tried to deliver that same level of professionalism to those who hire me. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't, but it's crucial to make the effort. You never know who's paying attention, and how it might pay off down the line. Besides, once you make a habit of doing good work, it sticks with you. After a while, you even won't be able to do bad or sloppy work and still look at yourself in the mirror.

And that's the kind of person everybody wants on his or her crew.

JB Bruno said...

Thank you as usual for your input and insight, Michael. I don't know why this is the case, but the connections that have been most influential to me in my career came on projects that were certainly difficult, and sometimes ridiculous.

As people throw the terms "guerilla" and "no budget" like they were terms of honor, and the set structure we knew crumbles, I think its important to remember the basics.