Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Party Like It's 1999 - Part 1 ...When the Big Man Joined the Band

"When The Change was Made Uptown
And the Big Man Joined The Band"
Bruce Springsteen
Tenth Avenue Freezeout

So, this post, this turning point in my career, starts with an Assistant Director getting replaced; and a good one. As I have pointed out, this is a more common occurrence than you might think.  As a matter of fact, it became something of a recurrent theme, as my first gig as First AD came replacing someone.

In this instance, it was someone I knew, and a very good Assistant Director. I never found out the reason for the change, but got a feeling it was mutual and not acrimonious. The brief introduction to the project by the producers did not include any scathing indictment of the previous AD, and my brief conversation with the previous AD did not come with recriminations of the producers. This was, at least, a good sign.

The movie, 1999, was about a party on the eve of the millennium, which was then a little bit away. It was being directed by Nick Davis. In speaking of my old friend, the talented writer/director Raymond DeFelitta, I pointed out how it was years after I first met him that I realized that his father had been in the business. Similarly, 1999 was long-wrapped before I discovered that he came from an industry family, and I mean, a
"breeding on both sides," as they say in horse racing, that would have impressed anyone. His father is film director Peter Davis, his paternal grandparents were both acclaimed screenwriters, and his maternal grandfather was the legendary Herman J. Mankiewicz.

I've worked with people who had a fourth cousin that was an assistant editor on a Scorcese film that reminded you of this hourly, and the fact that it never came up once in all my time with Nick says a lot about his character. The only equivalent I can think of is someone failing to tell you they were a Kennedy.

I did know there was something special going on. Here was a director without any lengthy resume shooting a film with some actors I knew, comic Steven Wright and The Graduate author and Saturday Night Live regular Buck Henry. I was also told that some of the young actors on the shoot were "up-and-coming," what I used to refer to as "industry hot." (much more on that in subsequent posts).  I certainly was not familiar with them. While IMDB had been around for a few years at that point, it was certainly not the industry standard it is today, so checking people's credits still had some mystery.

To the logistics of the movie:

All of the action took place in one townhouse. We were shooting the main action on 35mm, but director Davis, himself a documentary filmmaker, would also be a "character" who shot home movies on video, and that footage would also be used.

The townhouse was three floors, with most of the action on the first and second floors. Production and holding for actors was mostly on the third floor, so it would not have to be struck constantly. Because the party happens over one night, continuity was a big issue. We had to bring back most of the extras for background - it would make little sense to see different people in the background in every shot at a party that happens over one night. As I will also go into with subsequent posts, there were actor conflicts.

All of this meant I was walking into a lot of logistics to deal that had to be addressed without a real feel for how it was being handled.

On my first day, the producers walked me through, and introduced me to the two 2nd ADs, who had not been let go. One of my first decisions would be whether to keep the 2nds or replace them.

This was a hard one. I figured they knew a lot more about what was going on than I did, and that could be helpful. When these sorts of parting happen, however, producers sometimes like a clean break. All of the reasons to replace them would have been political. Would they resent me? Would it make the producers happy? Should I bring in someone loyal to me?

If you think politics has no place on a film set, well, good luck with that.

I did not have someone waiting in the wings. I had been PM and line producer more than an AD recently, so I didn't have a regular second, and my calls to the few seconds who I trusted turned up people who had either moved up to First AD or were not available.

Talk about good fortune.

I decided to give the two, Amy and Brian, a chance. If nothing else, they could guide me until I found replacements.

We didn't exactly shoot in sequence, but we tried to stick to it somewhat, so there was a lot of striking set, moving to the next one, coming back to the first. Not my preference from either a logistical or scheduling perspective, but, hey, we weren't there to make things easy for the 1st AD. I already had the luxury of one building to deal with; I was not about to complain.

So it was, a moment I will always remember. The PAs were responsible for striking sets and clearing rooms for the next set, while art department dealt with the details. We had a lot of PAs, almost all of them without much experience. It amounted to a lot of "hands," which was exactly what I needed as we wrapped one set and were moving on to the others.

Neither Brian nor Amy were shouters, which was good. Over the years, I had developed a calmer demeanor, and always hated screaming on set. It just sets such a bad mood, but, we were still in the age when, as one co-worker once famously said to me, an AD was often thought of as "a grip with an attitude." Sure, on DGA gigs, this would be ridiculous, but on the low-budget indies, we were doing our best to establish demeanor and rules in the absence of anything on paper.

I got on walkie and calmly said, "Hands, please." There was some shuffling and scuttling, but not in the way of movement into the room, certainly not as fast as I would have liked. I also only heard my two ADs reply with, "copy."

Now, this is a major annoyance with newbies on walkies, PAs who don't "copy." It means I don't know if you heard me and are just not doing it, you lost your walkie, you're "on a mission" (someone else in charge has you doing something) or just fell asleep in the corner.

I get back on walkie: "I need hands, please. PAs, please copy." Static.

As a deep sigh was leaving my lungs, I feel the movement erupts like a volcano. Over walkie comes this voice, calm but firm, only slightly raised.

"I heard JB call for hands. Is there a reason no one is copying?"

Next came an immediate string of "copy that"s, followed by PAs running into the room. Before the ones who were just outside the room made it in, there was Brian, my 2nd, having made it down two flights of stairs moving things and directing PAs.

In bad Rom/Coms, this is when they backlight people and play violins. Don't get me wrong, Brian and I are happily straight, but I took one look at this calm big man, making things happen, and I thought, "you're not going anywhere."

When working as a 1st, chemistry with your 2nd is important. It is even more important when you line produce and UPM and need to work with a 1st AD. The problem with 1st ADs who move up to UPM or line producer is we tend to either expect our 1st ADs to work like us, which is unrealistic, since no two people are alike, or we tend to micromanage. The solution is finding someone whose style may not be exactly like you, in fact, who can complement you with their difference, while respecting them.

This was that guy. A big man with broad shoulders (I later learned his friends called him "Biggs") he was nonetheless always calm and quiet, but when he needed to make a point, everyone listened. He commanded respect because of how he dealt with problems on set and, more importantly, how he dealt with people. We've worked together many times over the years, and never, not once, has anyone come up to me and asked, "why did you hire him?"

Truth be told, I think those same people liked him more than they did me. That's just fine by me - I tended to agree with them.

I love the calm Brian brings to a set. If I come on set as line producer, and things are a little off, I look at Brian, he will shrug his shoulders, then give me a succinct and simply explanation, one that I know that I can trust without an ounce of defensiveness.

Amy was very good as well, but had a very different personality. It was okay, they did complement each other, and I wasn't about to replace either of them.

Yeah, right then I knew what that look Springsteen gave the late/great Clarence Clemons meant. If you ever saw them live, you saw it, and never so much as when Bruce would sing those lines above, "..and the big man joined the band." It meant that finally, everything fit. It's the line I always thought about when Brian would have his first day with us on any shoot.

So, we were a team, a team that would work very well together, on a very creative and funny movie.

This was the beginning....

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