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.

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