Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Unattainable - Part 3 - The Seat of Wisdom

Scripty Extraordinaire Melissa
"She comes in colors everywhere,
She combs her hair
She's like a rainbow.
Coming, colors in the air
She's like a rainbow."
-She's a Rainbow, Rolling Stones

My admiration for script supervisors was made clear in a previous post. When it came time to hire a script supervisor for The Unattainable, I reached out to Andrea, who is pictured in that post.

She was not available. I explained the complexity of the script; that we would be shooting in digital and 16MM, that the script would be broken down into present, past and voice-overs that were part of the lead character's imagination.

She gave me one name - that of our scripty above, Melissa.

I spoke to Melissa briefly, and then sent her out our latest copy of the script at the time.

At the time, we had not published a script, which was undergoing constant revisions, and continued to do so right up until and after filming.

In order to keep track of changes in all paperwork, starting with the script, a color code is used to distinguish revisions. In the case of the script, the line producer, AD and script supervisor will confer on whether the changes are few enough to just color code certain pages, or go to a new color entirely.

The guide we used was: white, blue, pink, yellow, green and goldenrod. The standard color code includes more colors, but in order to save us the cost of buying even more reams of different colors (remember, this same code is used for paperwork such as schedules, vendor and crew lists, etc) I cut it off at Goldenrod.

Coming, colors everywhere. It is, indeed, like a rainbow, with a wash of different colored paperwork.

This being a very low budget project, I had originally budgeted one day of prep for script supervisor, which clearly was not going to work with our complex script.

For one thing, there was establishing a timeline. Designers needed to know what happened when, hair and makeup needed to know if this was our leads now or five years ago, the AD needed to schedule so as to not constantly having us change set dressing and the rest during the middle of the day.

The director had a very clear timeline, and it was laid out on index cards along one of her walls. She would show it to anyone who wanted to reference the timeline. When I say it was laid out on a wall, it was an entire wall, floor to ceiling.

The prospect of carrying around the wall was, well, not very enticing. We needed something simpler.

We needed the right person. After getting Melissa's initial response to the script, I knew she was the right person. I knew we had to have her, and looked to get her together with our director as soon as possible.

Below is a somewhat edited and redacted (national security, proprietary information, and all that - very hush hush as they used to say in the spy movies) version of her first email explaining how she broke down the script.

I have attached my Short Form Breakdown by Scene Number below.  .  Everything after Sc11 is supposed to be chronological 

A few notes: 
1952 = Harry's birth year
1970 = Harry goes to Vietnam
1956 - 1975 = Vietnam War
10/1/2000 = FEMALE & Kevinbegin dating
10/15/2003 = Our story begins (Sc31)
2004 - 2006 = FEMALE & KEVINPAST
2010 = FEMALE & Harry's PRESENT

I will fill in the other details later.

Please let me know if you have any questions/comments/etc.


Here is the chronological list that (directors assistant) made yesterday:
PAST: (x)scenes
TOTAL: 124 scenes

The Short breakdown she refers to starts like this

Scene Location Characters D/N Date Time 1/8s ERT

Scene Location Characters D/N Date Time 1/8s ERT

Scene Location Characters D/N Date Time 1/8s ERT

1 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - AFTERNOON D10 Sat-10/08/2005 12:36P

1 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - AFTERNOON D10 Sat-10/08/2005 12:36P

1 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - AFTERNOON D10 Sat-10/08/2005 12:36P

2 INT. PRISON VISITING ROOM (FLASHBACK) - DAY D11 Sun-10/09/2005 2:10PM 2 5/8 2:37

2 INT. PRISON VISITING ROOM (FLASHBACK) - DAY D11 Sun-10/09/2005 2:10PM 2 5/8 2:37

2 INT. PRISON VISITING ROOM (FLASHBACK) - DAY D11 Sun-10/09/2005 2:10PM 2 5/8 2:37

3 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - DAY D10 Sat-10/08/2005 1:43PM 2/8 0:15

3 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - DAY D10 Sat-10/08/2005 1:43PM 2/8 0:15

3 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - DAY D10 Sat-10/08/2005 1:43PM 2/8 0:15

4 CREDITS OF FILM Z 1/8 0:08

4 CREDITS OF FILM Z 1/8 0:08

4 CREDITS OF FILM Z 1/8 0:08

5 INT. APARTMENT, EAST VILLAGE, NYC - DAY D17 Mon-09/20/2010 3:43PM 7/8 0:53

5 INT. APARTMENT, EAST VILLAGE, NYC - DAY D17 Mon-09/20/2010 3:43PM 7/8 0:53

5 INT. APARTMENT, EAST VILLAGE, NYC - DAY D17 Mon-09/20/2010 3:43PM 7/8 0:53

6 INT. BAR (IMAGINATION) - NIGHT Z16 Sun-09/19/2010 10:33P

6 INT. BAR (IMAGINATION) - NIGHT Z16 Sun-09/19/2010 10:33P

6 INT. BAR (IMAGINATION) - NIGHT Z16 Sun-09/19/2010 10:33P

7 EXT. HALFWAY HOUSE - NIGHT N16 Sun-09/19/2010 11:28P

7 EXT. HALFWAY HOUSE - NIGHT N16 Sun-09/19/2010 11:28P

7 EXT. HALFWAY HOUSE - NIGHT N16 Sun-09/19/2010 11:28P

This is a small part of the work Melissa did.

As we moved forward, Melissa's understanding of the script became crucial to every aspect of the shooting, and I have to say she was more involved in helping to get coverage and tell the story than most supervisors I have had the chance to watch work.

One day in particular that I remember was our Day 2. It was all meant to take place INT THEATER. At one point, the DP got the idea of shooting one section EXT in order to break up the shots and give us an intro the those scenes.

What time of year was it? Was she wearing a coat? If so, how heavy?

As our first team was discussing it, Melissa calmly looked at her notes and said, "It's January 20th, 2011."

End of discussion.

Her daily notes continued to not only help for editing, but helped me know details about what was happening during the day that would have been impossible for someone else to keep up.

I've waited some time for script supes to get me notes in the past; Melissa's were usually within two hours of wrap. She gave credit to some software she said she was using - I think she secretly created the software and just didn't want us to know. After my AD, she was the second person I would seek out when I came to set to get a sense of what was happening.

As with most movies, the color wheel kept on turning, with schedule revisions necessitated by actor availability (we were sharing our male lead with a TV show filming in LA) and locations.  My small but incredibly efficient production office kept us constantly with the proper color, as "Megan, what color vendor list are we on?" would be answered with something like "Pink, but don't publish that one yet - we're still revising it."

I often wonder if we make making movies too hard, if we secretly enjoy it more if it's more of a challenge. Somewhere, people work with those simple, boring scripts I referred to in the start of this series. As my long-time AD once said when we were doing a complicated dolly shot through every room in a house on an Indian-American co-production a few years back, "JB, remember when people used to point the camera and shoot? What ever happened to that.?"

Maybe it's me, and I'm just drawn to more challenging scripts, having become numb to the endless stream of scripts that just regurgitate the same, worn-out plot lines and characters.  Indeed, sitting through trailers for upcoming films the other day, I wondered if I was in a revival house, watching movies that were just remakes of older movies, either clearly or inferred.

What I do know is that on this film, on this script, I was glad to have this lady.

"Have you seen her all in gold(enrod - my edit)
Like a Queen in days of old
She shoots colors all around
Like a sunset all around"

For this shoot, no, I have not seen a lady fairer.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Moving Target - A Line Producer Looks Back at 2013

I have decided I am no longer going to produce films for my living.  To do so requires me to deliver quantity over quality. Or to not contribute as fully as I like since I won’t be fairly compensated.  Or to make something that is virtually guaranteed to not have the cultural impact it warrants.  Those are three things that I am refusing to be part of.
-Ted Hope, Truly Free Film

Last year at this time, as my birthday approached, I offered this somber look back through the words of Neil Young. This year, I reflect back through the words of Ted Hope above, and also my own experience this last year.

Much as I lamented last year, the business is still changing; more specifically here, I am referring to the business side of our business, the side of raising money and selling movies. My own small part in this process over the years has been as a line producer helping folks to raise money for a film.

This process is confusing to many people. The answer to "how much will it cost to make my movie" is not a simple or straight-forward one.

My first response is always, "How much can you realistically raise?" Without that answer, the rest of the work I do is meaningless.

On the indie scale, most scripts presented could be done on any one of a number of levels. There is the bare-bones level, the full-blown budget (if you had everything on your wish list), and any series of numbers in between. The answer usually lies in the middle somewhere, and I often discuss it in terms of the different levels of the different unions, if one is to even use union workers.

The union that is relevant to most projects is SAG, which has modifications of it's guidelines for New Media (web series and such), Ultra Low, Modified Low, and Low. A quick check of the SAG INDIE site will explain all this in more detail; suffice to say here that you can still work with union actors for less than general scale, depending on your budget.

The important numbers for this year to me are as follows: 34 budgets prepared, none has yet to raise the money. The other important number is 1: one feature that I actually shot this year, which I refer to here as The Unattainable, raised it's money from a budget prepared by the producer on the Modified Low Contract.

I know how people used to sell films on the indie level: regular investors, pre-sales, direct-to-video, etc. I don't know how they do it today, with distributors seemingly only being interested in no-budget projects they can pay insultingly-low fees to acquire, or larger budget films. One of the producers on this movie assures me there is a path in between, and I hope she is right, as she has done it before.

What all of this means is that work for folks like me is scarce, at least as it comes to actually line producing a film. I have no interest in line producing a film on a budget that requires me to bring on mostly film students and get almost everything for free. Additionally, one of my maxim's is that the work is just as hard on a bad movie as a good movie, so you might as well make a good movie. Too many of the extremely-low budget projects are just not very interesting projects, and at my age, if I'm going to put the effort into it, I want it to count.

On many of the budgets I prepared this past year, the numbers kept moving; hence, the moving target above. People would hire me to prepare a budget on one level, then get investors who swore they were ready to invest if they budget were either higher, or lower. For some people, they experienced both.  In almost all these cases, after chasing this moving target, the so-called investors did not come through.

As Ted Hope regularly points out, this is no way to sustain either an investor class for film, nor encourage experienced producers to make their living producing features. Almost all have the need to create some other form of "content" to keep afloat.

Two of the young people on my feature have approached me on learning line producing. Sad that they are afflicted with this dreaded disease to actually do this for a living, I will help them anyway.

Most crew seems to thinks producers make lots of money for less work than they do; on this level, in fact, the exact opposite is true. The producers on this film would have made more money and worked significantly less days and hours if they had worked crew. Money cannot possibly be the motivation for them; it is that determination and possibly-naive belief that this may be "the one," as a love-lorn friend of mine used to describe almost every boyfriend she dated for more than a few weeks.

In this atmosphere, I feel lucky to look back at my 55th year to have worked on one great feature where I worked with a great team, read some incredible scripts (which I still hope get produced), had the opportunity to work with some great actors and actresses and directed my first project, a short. My producers and director on the last project proved they valued experience that comes with age, and that was a nice thing to see.

This, for me, is what qualifies as glass-half-full. If it sounds less than optimistic to you, then you don't know me very well. The folks from my last film characterized me and my production coordinator with this picture below, from Despicable Me 2.

My coordinator was a cheery redhead. You can imagine which one I am.

Cheery is not the description of a person whose role is to very often say, "no," as is the case with a line producer. Crew thinks you give them too little; producers think you give crew too much.  Making people happy? Not as often as you like.

Every year, I wonder, as Danny Glover's character used to say in the Lethal Weapon series, if I'm getting too old for all of this. Every year, I find myself like Michael Jordan, threatening to quit more many times before it actually happens.

As Michael Corleone once famously said, "Just when I thought I was out, they PULL me back in." I expect I will be pulled in a few more times next year.

NB: Yes, I will still finish the Series "The Unattainable." I am trying to put a little distance between the end of the project and when I look back at it in order to have perspective, and with the added difficulty that as a line producer, NDA or not, so much of what I do is proprietary and I feel it is a breach to share, even if I don't mention the film or people specifically. Still, there are stories I can share, and I will in the days and weeks to come.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Smile To Go Before I Sleep

"Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day."
-A.A. Milne. Winnie-the-Pooh

First, my apologies for not following up on the series based on the film I just line produced, which I called, "The Unattainable." As it is for all production people, especially my hard working fellow producer (who is never afraid to drive a vehicle herself, help lug equipment or remember to thank people for their work), the days seem to never end, and the weariness persists even once the shooting stops, as there is the dizzying process of wrapping.

Though I knew that there was not going to be the time to do my full posts, which I like to make as thoughtful as possible, it was my intention to do short missives as we went along.

Even this proved to be difficult, as if I had a moment to write such a short note, I felt guilt at the idea of using that time to write an indulgent blog post, as others on the team were working hard to keep us going and get work done.

We have wrapped principal photography on that project, and I will now look back at it with a little perspective and try to relate the experience while it is certainly much fresher in my mind than the other projects from my past.

Before I get into that process, I will offer this lesson that good things, indeed, do sometimes come to those who wait.

There was a period around 1994 where I almost worked on three seminal indie films of the 1990s - Welcome to the Dollhouse, Spanking the Monkey, and Mall Rats (not a seminal movie, but Kevin Smith is certainly one of those filmmakers who define that era).

One post discusses my disappointment in not getting to work with Todd Solendz, who I consider a genius.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine - the actress from my play and short film - asked me to First AD a trailer for a short film.

She had done the play and the film for free, and I felt it only fair to return the favor, even if it meant working the day after we wrapped our film office on the feature. I was intrigued when she mentioned that one of the actresses was Heather Matarazzo, the lead in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

As my previous post on the subject tells, I felt there would be two difficulties shooting Dollhouse: finding a school that would agree to be represented in the movie, and finding a young actress at that delicate stage in our development when our egos are fragile enough to begin with who could handle the psychological abuse the lead character experiences.

When I saw the movie, I knew that the second problem proved no problem at all. Heather Matarazzo was brilliant in that movie, as good as any teen actress in any movie ever. As her career continued, she proved that this was not freak luck, that she was not only talented but willing to keep taking on challenges as an actress.

As with anyone who has been around as long as I have in this business, I've worked with many name performers, and names don't impress me. My Facebook page does not have the all-too-forced photos of me with these actors. This may not be true, but I always found it a little unprofessional to treat a fellow worker the way a fan might. Again, many of my co-workers do this, indeed, it is the norm, and this is probably just another one of my many personal quirks.

What does impress me is talent, and Heather is a unique talent. One fear of meeting someone whose work you admire is that they disappoint your higher expectations, that they are difficult to work with and not the special person you think they might be.

Luckily, this was not the case with Heather. She proved to not only be a wonderful actress, but a real trooper, dealing with the difficulties of working with a super-micro budgeted trailer and a very small crew in a very tight space.

After doing a feature where we had a big crew and a lot of equipment, working with one grip/gaffer/AC, one person who line produced and 2nd AD'd, one PA, and everyone else doubling and tripling up actually felt like a relief. Furthermore, having to not worry about the budget and just making the day proved, if not relaxing, a pressure that seemed less stressful.

Meeting and working with Heather made it all the better, and I did relate to her the story of almost working on that project many years ago. I did so very late in the day, so as not to take away from her focus on the work in front of us.  At this point. she had volunteered to discuss other acting projects, so I felt it would not be inappropriate.

In a nice surprise, I found that we were both touched in the same way by a film that was ostensibly made for children, but touched every adult I know who has seen it: The Last Unicorn.

All day, she agreed to do things like stand-in for lighting or do things herself that would be done by others on a bigger set, and her input into the scenes was always spot on.

The day before, I had spent a day in my office doing Purchase Orders and getting out last minute checks as well as managing money, a line producer's biggest responsibility. Last night, I got on a LIRR train home, exhausted not from the day but from the collective work and hours of the last two months, but it was a good tired. The producer (the friend previously mentioned) and the director (a new friend) could not have been more appreciative, the crew worked well together with nary a complaint (something I cannot always say on bigger crews) and the experience made me feel good about what film-making, on a very small level, can be.

When I agreed to do the gig yesterday, it seemed crazy, and as I rode out on the train after closing the office, going over the shot list, planning the shooting order, what sort of masochist was I? Wouldn't resting be a better use of my time?

Today, as I head out to my Zendo to return to a little bit of normal life, I realize that there will be time for rest, that we who work in an field we choose and get to keep working in a field we chose are blessed, that every project, even if it is only for a day, presents an opportunity to experience something new and wonderful.

I am reminded that on every project. whether it goes well or not so well, good things happen, good people are met, there are reasons for smiles. Yesterday, on a shoot that was over for me in less than 10 hours, meeting the the talented Heather Matarazzo and working with some truly selfless, easy-going people brought me a relaxed smile as I drifted off into sleep on a Penn Station-bound Long Island Railroad car.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Unattainable - Part 2 - The Real Digital Revolution

"The telephone. which interrupts the most serious conversation and cuts short the most weighty observations, has a romance all it's own."
-Virginia Wolfe

When my mentor, Stan Bickman, died, his daughters sent out a memorial postcard. It was of Stan at a payphone, smiling.

For years, most pictures of any producer, especially a line producer, would involve a telephone. Whether it was talking to vendors or agents or staff or potential locations, there was always endless time spent on the phone.

The advent of the cell phone meant that a line producer was not tied to the office, that the phone time could also be spent heading to location or doing other things. I specifically remember a drive to Long Island from Manhattan where my assistant and I got into the car, said hello, and then were on the phone, never disconnecting, hitting the call-waiting button for a trip that lasted over an hour. We did not speak to each other again until we got out of the car.

For line producers of old, this probably seemed impersonal. I am sure many of them preferred to talk in person, and rued the day that telephones did as much to keep us apart as to bring us together.

Stan always said to always have cash on you when trying to lock a location or holding area. Psychologically, it is harder for someone to turn down cash in front of them than a location agreement or a check.

With one notable exception (Alex, from Handheld Films, who I have dealt with since he got there but have NEVER met - we both now feel its a sign of good luck and we don't break this) I have always made a point of meeting my vendors in person and shaking hands.

Having become accustomed to the phone. I am now just getting used to weaning myself off of it in favor of email or text.

Email makes sense: it means I have a "paper trail" of all conversations, which is helpful a)because it's easy to forget the details of one of `100 conversations per day, and b)well, it serves as CYA (the first two being "cover" and "your") if someone says they did not know.

Texts are quicker, though I hate them. Fat fingers and the need to put on my glasses.

My last feature was about 2 years ago, and even though much of my communication on that one included email, etc., I still dealt a good deal on the phone.

When things would get hectic, the constant ring of the phone - and of all the phones in the office - served as the ambient soundtrack to production.

Today, that sound is replaced by keyboards clicking. The way I used to dread answering the constant calls, I now dread being in a meeting for a half hour or more, and then coming back to "refresh" my email - I know there will be dozens. and there is no chain I am in that I can ignore.

This goes for everyone in production. There are nights my last email out would be at 2AM, I would wake up at 6AM, and there would be 10 emails. When does ANYONE sleep?

The communal response in the office is often something like this: I will be reading an email cc'd to others, and hear "Oh, my" (or often something stronger - a film office is not Mayberry RFD). I will know that my producer or coordinator is reading the same email, and reacting how I feel.

While the need for digital copies, shared dropbox for filing, etc. is absolutely essential, there are times (such as looking over a call sheet or production report, or reading a scene, or going over specs) that I still like to have a hard copy in front of me.

In many ways. fewer calls are a good thing. It's faster. Still, it does sometimes feel less personal to me, and then there is always the issue that level of disassociation allows people - myself included - to sometimes go into rant mode in an email they would not if they were just talking to each other. It's the same as flaming on the internet - people say things they would not if they were facing the person.

Tone is lost in an email, as is often sarcasm, a mode I likely go into too often when shooting. It is my way of keeping things light, but is easy to misinterpret. I'm learning.

I love the digital "paper trail." I really like being able to do a meeting with my tablet and not having to lug around my laptop (who ever thought that carrying a portable laptop would be described as a chore!).

So many of the digital improvements have made production better. However, I cannot help but be a little sentimental for the phone lines we used to set up in the office, with a "hunting" feature so that if the first number was busy, it would "hunt" to the second, etc ("Hunt" is a term the "Phone company" used to use). All of this is completely unnecessary in an age when everyone is on their cell.

Much as digital technology has made filmmaking more accessible, though I still think with something lost in celluloid, the digital world has many improvements, but with that intangible something lost. I find that people not only like what the technology offers, but seem to sometimes almost resent being called on the phone, or doing an in-person meeting. Who responds to voicemails anymore? If you want someone to get back, text them.

Alas, I never thought I would become nostalgic for the telephone, that original link to others. While my tablet and smartphone give me access to my crew, staff and set at all times, it also means that there is no time when I am not accessible. Not always a good thing, the inability to be out of touch even for a moment.

To use one of my absolutely favorite movie lines, one I think of often, and have used here before, from Inherit the Wind:

"Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.  
Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, "All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.
Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat.
Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline."

If old Henry Drummond thought that the telephone causes one to lose privacy and the "charm of distance," I can only imagine what that man behind the counter charges for our current digital age.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Unattainable - Part 1 - That's Not What Productions Are Made for

The script for our feature is based on a novel; more precisely, a book of aphorisms.

Aphorisms have a long and distinguished place in literature, going back to the Ancients. Wiki describes them as "an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic( concise) and memorable form."

This original script had a few key, diverse characters who muse on life, and centered around a main female character who is a  writer. We will call her Justine.

Justine has two important men in her life; her ex-husband, who we will call Kevin, and her long-time lover, who we will call Harry. By the end of the story, she has found a third man in her life, a theater director.

She loves them all in one form or another, and each fills a place in her life. Together with some fellow writer and artist friends, she explores on the nature of love and relationships and why we do - and need to do -what we do.

All of this is beautifully laid out in the book. Presenting this on screen is slightly more difficult.

When I first read the script, I was intrigued by the wit and depth of insight. Many of the scenes were two or more characters presenting their struggles through these musings. The play had been originally scheduled for 18 days, at a modest budget (budget numbers always being confidential, even without an NDA). While it seemed a challenging schedule given the script pages covered, I thought we could accomplish it, as scenes with two to three characters talking, no stunts, etc. tend to be rather easy to film.

My first hint that this would not be the case was my first almost 3 hour meeting at a coffee shop with the director, A bright, organized, prepared woman with an incredible visual sense and background, she revealed her visual references. While there would be the literal action of the scenes, there would be sub-text, presented through voice-overs that were more "temporal," to use the words of my amazing script supervisor.

Every draft of the script improved the movie exponentially. Following Murphy's Law that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, every improvement made the script more difficult to shoot. Additionally, the producers and director had hired an experienced Director of Photography with an ability to bring exactly this type of movie to life, but also wanting and needing the proper time to get the beautiful shots I have since seen in dailies.

Additionally, constant changes right up until beginning of shooting make the schedule a moving target; never a good thing for production.

Here is an irony I have learned from years of making movies. Boring scripts are easy to shoot. As someone who has budgeted 34 scripts in the past year, the easiest for me is when there are few characters in few locations mostly talking. For the line producer breaking down a script, two characters talking for 6 pages in one location - preferably something simple like a park bench or their apartment - means a quick breakdown, budget and turnaround of both.

It also makes for a movie most people will sleep through.

The nightmare in breaking down a script is many short scenes in many locations. You are adding many more sheets, and scheduling becomes difficult because of company moves and the difficulty shooting out performers.

This makes for a fast-paced movie people that will keep people sitting up in their seats.

So, there's the rub. Boring script; easy for production. Challenging, engaging script; challenging for production.

All this got me thinking of the quote from John Augustus Shedd that a DP friend of mine keeps in her room: "A ship is safe when it is in harbor, but that is not what ships are built for." It's the challenge we are always presented with, whether we realize it or not.

On this film, we are definitely not in harbor.

N.B. Because production has kept me insanely busy, I have not been keeping up the blog as I had hoped. With luck, I will catch you all up over this holiday break.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Unattainable - A New Series

"Man approaches the unattainable truth through a succession of errors"
-Aldous Huxley

These pages have been blank for a longer period since I restarted the blog a while back because I am currently, once again, line producing a feature.

The changed world of indie films is not a pleasant one for line producers. While digital has made filmmaking cheaper, it has not changed the fact that certain costs - food, gas, tolls, vehicles, etc - are inevitable and have not gone away. Additionally, I refuse to do a movie with unpaid interns in paid positions. There is a place for interns, where they can learn and move up and you can utilize them in places you cannot afford to hire. That should not be your key grip, or, for that matter, set PAs.

The combination of good scripts being unable to raise the proper amount of money, bad scripts being done for silly figures, and scripts being shot in a range I am unwilling to work on, I have turned down more work than I have taken the last few years, making my living mostly preparing budgets and breakdowns and doing shorts.

This all changed when I got a call from producers who had just been greenlit for a film on the SAG MODIFIED LOW budget. As I consider budgets proprietary, and I also have an NDA, I will not and will never discuss budget publicly. It's low, but not so low as to fall into that bottomless pit known as "guerilla filmmaking."

Needless to say, about the only moment I have not been working the past four weeks - we started shooting yesterday and were in prep until that point - have been the few hours when I sleep. Not being a martyr. The same can and should be said for my producers and the director, all of whom have been great partners and, just as important, incredibly good human beings.

Not always easy to say about the people you are working along  side.

I will catch you up on prep, and then do a day-by-day diary. Unlike my long, winding posts on the past, the present will fly by, a brief thought here or there to let you know how it's going.

Those posts will start tomorrow - hope they give a little insight into what a line producer thinks and does

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Great Man Directs - Part 2 - The Best and The Brightest

"I feel my job is to create an atmosphere where creative people can do their best work."
-John Frankenheimer

I love the picture and quote above for so many reasons.

Along with Billy Wilder, John Frankenheimer is one of my favorite directors. His work in the early days of live television dramas in series like Playhouse 90 was about as good as it gets, yet his work never got bogged down in one period, he was constantly growing and changing, so while his career starts with these old anthologies, they go through a film career that starts with classics Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May, and go right up to Ronin with Robert DeNiro and Reindeer Games with Ben Affleck. While he was best known as an action director, the drama in his films was what was most compelling, and no two of his films look alike.

Oh, and he directed one of my dad's favorite films, The Train, with Burt Lancaster. My dad would scour the TV Guide (no "channel guide" on the remote - and no remote!) for it, and, much to my mother's dismay ("How many times are you going to watch that movie?") he would never miss it when it played on one of the old movie channels (then WPIX and WOR in NYC - this was WAY before cable).

He also started as an assistant director, and is one of the rare folks who went the route from AD to director in the US, a path much more common in other countries.

Next, I love the classic pose. In today's WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) world of film-making, one can trust the monitor to tell you precisely what you will see. I remember DP's in the 35MM age telling directors not to worry about the lighting because the monitor didn't show that. No more.  There was a time a director had to collaborate and work with his Director of Photography and then trust him, as the only one following the image was the trusty cameraman, and that through the small eyepiece.

In those days, figuring out shots could work by using your hands as a "frame," later, viewfinders did a better job of that.

This leads to the quote, which gets to the heart of filmmaking, which is collaboration, and, in turn, trust.

One of my motto's for successful filmmaking is :"Hire good people and let them do their job."

Most people would nod at the first part of that statement, fewer take the second part as seriously as I do.

I've spoken of my process of choosing crew as well as casting; because, in this case, as it would be very small, there were fewer concerns, but they were more important.

The casting decision had been made when I did the play; I cast a woman who I had worked with on her short film, a film she wrote, directed and acted in called The Retreat. I was also very impressed with her in a short called Resolution of Two, in which she played a much different character.

The female lead, Elizabeth, was crucial, as she drives the story. I was sure Chelsea was perfect for it, so I saw no need to audition people for the role. Was there possibly someone who would impress me more in an audition? Surely. However, how would I ever really know what they were capable of the way I did with Chelsea. Watching someone work, you know so much more.

She had done a lot of film, and no stage. That didn't bother me; I had directed stage and knew I could work with her on those things she needed. She turned out even better than I could have imagined.

For the role of her husband, she suggested Jimmy. After he auditioned, I thought he was a good fit. The fact they had worked together was a big plus for me. Before I made my final decision, Chelsea shared that they were a couple, and living together. From my perspective, that was only a plus, but I appreciated her professionalism in being straight about it. He did have stage experience, and also worked in the business as an editor.

From my perspective, and that of just about everyone who saw it, the play had been a success. That is why Dennis , the executive producer of the series, asked if I wanted to shoot it as a short. I had worked with Dennis on a reality show a year earlier, and on one of them, I was story producer. When I first cut it, it was a good, professional, story - and not too exciting. We discussed it, and, though not convinced, I re-cut it as a reality show, and from the first moment, I knew he was right. I knew there was a better story there, and Dennis pushing me helped bring it out.

A sample below - it is in multiple parts on Youtube if interested.

Dennis was the impetus behind making this a short, though I also have to thank Deepika, who did a great job producing the play, and Laura. the master organizer working with Dennis.

I said in the last post that I had been a snob about how I would direct my first project, that I would want a full crew. So, why did I let go of my resistance to a small, almost-no-budget project?

We were shooting what amounted to two scenes (I added a scene to the play) in one location with two people. I saw how it could be done if we had the right DP, and that right DP was Adam Richlin. I had worked with Adam as a producer, but never as a director, but I really believe he is one of those young DPs who is going to be a star.

He has worked other positions on crews for me, including AC and gaffer, and that was even more reason why I liked him. Some people dabble at a lot of things and are master of none. Adam has, in the (relatively) few years he has been doing this, made himself as master at every position. which only makes him a better DP.

Too many DP students come out of film school calling themselves DPs, when they haven't worked their way up. Adam is just the opposite. You know how baseball announcers always pine over players they call "throwback" players, guys who remind them of the hard-working players of the past? In the best sense of the word, Adam is a "throwback" DP, old-school, call it what you want.

He gets it.

With all of that, he also is as sharp about the latest gear, and how things work, as anyone. In that respect, he reminds me a little of my old friend, John Rosnell, who we used to jokingly call "Geppetto" after the fictional character who tinkered and made Pinocchio. Adam knows the ins-and-outs of gear as well as anyone I know.

He brought with him two amazing folks,  a gaffer and an AC, and together, they were like an army.

I sent Adam two things - a script lined with what I saw as my shots, and an example of how I wanted to do my singles. which, in many cases, were more like dirty twos, favoring one character. The example, from Frankenheimer's directing of Days of Wine and Roses for Playhouse 90, can be seen below.

This is a style Frankenheimer employed in other shows as well, singles that clearly favored one character but still had the reaction from the other. Profiles. Done badly, it looks like clunky, stagy soap opera. Done well, and cutting well, it can tell more of the story in a fuller manner.

I actually thought Adam might fight me on it, as it's an odd framing. He made it work, and got why I wanted it immediately. However, when he thought it didn't work, he would push for clean singles, and in at least a few instances, he suggested it just as I was thinking the same, that this style wasn't working for these lines.

That's collaboration.

Trust was important, as we only had the on-board monitor, and once I saw the original framing, I had to trust that Adam was getting what we discussed on moving shots, or with character movement. This may seem like heresy to those who only know digital, but monitors are not as old a convenience as many might think. I love video village as much as the next guy, but I worked many 35mm films where the DP would get to see the shot through the camera lens, then leave it to the DP.

The shot list was a guide for me. Knowing what I wanted. Adam and I went back to my age-old favorite method.


This does not mean I do not encourage people to do shot lists or storyboards - it is essential homework. For me, however, once that guide is established, I like to leave room to see how it plays in the room. This is a truly personal preference, and, admittedly, I am always thinking of how best to capture the performance and tell the story, not "how can I get the coolest shot."

A story is a living, breathing thing, and I think forcing actors to stick to pre-determined actions can lead to losing some spontaneity.

I'm sure the above will be misinterpreted as "you don't need a shot list or storyboard." I encourage you to read what I said again, but will accept what comes.

It is, in part, why the DP earned the respect they get - they were not just an extension of the director; they were, indeed, directing the photography. I think I asked Adam to see playback three times all day, and one of them was for the final shot, which had many moving parts. I had to know that I had my ending. Other than that, I trusted him, and looking at the footage now, I know I did the right thing.

If I regret anything, it was not bringing on a script supervisor. I have preached the importance of one, and yet, at the last minute, thought I knew how I wanted to cut well enough that I could work without one.

It was a mistake, one I realized early on in the day. It is not that I was concerned with continuity - I'm sure we got that - but rather, that one more objective eye, and notes for things you can't remember.

Still, my theory of how I wanted to shoot prevailed. Hire the best and brightest. The phrase was made popular by the title of the David Halberstam's brilliant book on President John F. Kennedy's cabinet. and it referred to the strong belief of our youngest President that bringing the best informed leaders from academia and industry would lead to good policy.

Halberstam's title was meant ironically, as he felt these "whiz kids" relied on great theory rather than practical application, and that those choices led us to the war in Vietnam.

I use the term genuinely, and with genuine thanks to those I try to have around me, and to trust their choices.

More about the shoot in the next post. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Great Man Directs - Pt.1 - The Long Road to Overnight Sensation

"Movie directing is the perfect refuge for the mediocre."
-Orson Wells

My first job on a film set was as a production assistant on the 1981 film The Fan (the one with Lauren Bacall, not to be confused with the 1996 version with Wesley Snipes). My first directing job came on a short called The Yellow People earlier this month.

Thirty-two years from PA to Director. Think I'm rushing things?

We all know that by-now (in)famous expression, "What I really want to do is direct." It was quite the popular t-shirt for a while, and even wound up as the title of a book.

I had a PA wear one on set once; I really really wanted to fire him, but could not come up with a good enough excuse.

When you've worked in film as long as I have, you invariably get asked things like, "Have you ever directed a film?" and, if answered in the negative, "Don't you want to direct?"

Especially if you  have worked on the production side, as producer and assistant director, the question comes up.

I've never really had a good answer, short of a sidebar answer, which was, "I'd like to direct my film, not someone else's," by which I reference all those folks I see on set, from PA to producer, who seem determined to tell the director how to do their job.

As both First AD and line producer, I have walked my share of first-time directors through the process, and sometimes even a little more, but I always made a point to offer advice when asked, or, if it were a matter of keeping a director from making a mistake, offering the advice in private. As I said in the article linked, the crew must believe in the director, for better or worse, and if you do anything that undermines the director, even if unintentional, you undermine the movie.

More importantly, the director is the one who will be judged on the final product, and I always figured if they were going to be taken to task for problems with the film, they deserved to be judged for decisions they made, not those made by others.  Besides, I have often seen "mistakes" turn out to be creative and compelling, so who is to say.

Alright, that doesn't quite answer the question.

What attracted me to the arts in general was writing, not directing, and I've had two scripts of mine produced as features (albeit one was ghost-written). Another is in development. That has helped to fill the artistic side of me.

Then again, I have directed theater, and, for a while, back in the Eighties, directed a good deal of small, Off-Off Broadway and regional theater. That transition, from actor (very briefly) to stage manager to director, was much quicker.

In large part, the reason I did not have the same path in film is simple: money. The reason I work more as a line producer than a producer is that I have neither the inclination, nor the stomach for, the money-raising side of the business. My few attempts have been frustrating and unsuccessful.

Theater was a little different. There always seemed to be some small production looking for a director, and once I started, I got more offers. In film, the chicken-and-egg Catch-22 - if you want to direct, someone needs to see a reel, and how do you get a reel if you haven't directed - is in full force.

As costs have come down in the digital age, I could, of course, have just gone out with a friend or two and shot something on some low-end digital camera.

Frankly, I am too much of a snob for that. If I had done it, I would be a hypocrite, having often described these ventures as self-indulgent ego stroking.

Now, before you hit the keyboards and spew venom at me while explaining that you have done just that, and I am just being a snob, let me remind you that I already said as much. If I did something, I wanted it to look professional, which means I wanted a real DP and a real crew, and for it to look up to my standards. I will fully admit that this is my hang-up, and I say more power to those who have done it and who find it fulfilling.

I would not.

I learned this about two years ago when I tried to work with two friends to get a web-series off the ground. Web-series can be done very inexpensively today, and often are, and, to me, many of them look like it. When I budgeted how I wanted to do the web series, it came out to $20K per episode, with all crew paid something, if not a lot, and solid art direction.

My partners, two dear friends, pointed out that this was ridiculous, and, in hindsight, they were surely correct. They could not see spending anywhere near that amount of money, and I could not see shooting it any other way. Again, you shout "Snob!" and, again, I reply, "Guilty!"

Hey, I'm a Capricorn, and one of my favorite descriptions of Capricorns is that they aren't stubborn, they just know they're always right. It is exactly this sort of winning personality that explains why I'm divorced (from one of the most patient people you will ever meet) and have not directed previously.

So, how did it come about that I wound up directing a short on an incredibly micro-teeny-limited budget? You notice, I cannot bring myself to say "No-Budget," a term that is so mis-used that it is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

I am, by trade, a line producer, the guy who does the budget. You bought a prop? That's money. You paid for a hard drive? That's money. You bought expendables? That should be in the budget. As such, I cannot call something "no budget" when any money was spent on it.

We did, however, spend very little, and that is in part a tribute to the producer, and the kindness of some very professional people who did it for a song.

This all came about, oddly enough, because of my involvement over a year ago with a reality show, and a producer on that show who spends very little time talking about getting things done, and a puts a great deal of his time actually doing things. He is a one of the real good guys, the type of people who always saw how something could be done, optimists; basically, the opposite of me.

I worked on a reality show over a year ago, and through that connection, he offered me a slot directing a play for a one-act festival, and that play became the short that I directed. How unlikely that reality TV, never one of my favorite genres, and theater, my first love, came together to provide my first film directing effort.

That's the short version of the "how it happened," though, as usual, I took long enough to get to it.

In the next post, the people who made it happen, the script, and how it all came together. For once, I will be able to share information about the actual shooting, like the script, set pictures, etc, and, down the line, when the editing is done, I will share that here as well.

Oh, and for those of you who think the title of this series, "The Great Man Directs," is self-aggrandizing, I direct you to the film on which it is based, a really good 1956 film called The Great Man, itself based on the novel of the same title by Al Morgan. It is \a less-than-flattering portrait of a successful television and radio show host who turns out to have been quite a bit less than the sum of his parts, played by the wonderful Jose Ferrer and rumored to have been based on Arthur Godfrey. Links provided because if you work in the entertainment business, you should know who these folks were, especially Godfrey, who, while it seems not than a wonderful person (my dad never forgave him for firing singer Julius LaRosa - on air live!) was an influential figure.

Arthur Godfrey
Jose Ferrer, in probably his most famous role, Cyrano

Hopefully, I won't wind up like Joe Harris.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Blast from the Past

For those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning, or who have gone back and caught up, you will remember the series of posts about a very influential period of my life - when I was the First Assistant Director on Lucky Stiffs. The link should help you catch up ow if you like.

Our sound person - Bill Kozy (in the back - second from right) sent me this Polaroid (yes, you read that right - Polaroid) which was taken by our 1st AC, Lorelei (kneeling next to camera and razzing someone OS).

This was the first crew I worked with regularly; this was JR's crew.

I wrote a lot about the DP, John Rosnell (JR), including how close we were for many years.

I don't know why I was not in this photo

Monday, September 23, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods - All's Well That Ends Well

"Love All, Trust a Few, Do Wrong to None"
-W. Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well
There are skills we start out with, skills we acquire, and skills that are a little bit of both.

I don't know if it's time, or being worn out over years from conflicts important and trivial, or just a part of my personality, but I have long since stopped carrying grudges.

Everyone comes to projects with baggage, and sometimes your baggage and my baggage make for a bad combination. Crew people have been screwed by producers; producers have been let down by crews. For every person we worked for who was appreciative, there were those who hardly noticed.

If you carry all that baggage with you, you carry a lot of regret and anger, and, frankly, it's just not worth it. I explained this recently to a director who thought certain crew and cast "disloyal." Maybe he was right; maybe not. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, or, at worst, just assume I will not work with them again, and let it go at that.

I've documented the difficult relationship William, the director, and I had on Floating. It was business, and, at times, it was personal.

After Mary came on as line producer, things definitely got better. At the very least, we were not antagonistic to each other; at best, there were times we would share a good moment. In between, we were civil and respectful to each other.

On the last day for key crew or cast, the AD will do "send-offs." announcing, "That's a wrap on (fill in person here)." Everyone claps, sometimes enthusiastically (for those we love) or at least politely (for those who we loved less).

On the last day of principal photography, the AD gets to say "and that's a wrap on (name of movie)." Emotions tend to run from regret that you would not see these people again soon (or maybe ever), to mentally dropping to your knees that this travesty is over.

When I did the wrap for everyone, and got to the end, William and I looked at each other. We could have just shaken hands, fist-bumped, or given a polite wave. We did indeed shake hands, and then, simultaneously, we wrapped our arms around each other and hugged.

I don't know why we I did it, and I don't think he knows why he did it. It just seemed right. One of the grip/electric guys actually said "I need a picture of this." That produced a genuine laugh from all of us.

Hey, it wasn't Nelson Mandela raising his hands with the representative of his former persecutors, F.W. de Klerk, at the end of Apartheid (pictured above) or one of the symbols of the U.S. during the Cold War, President Richard Nixon, who had been a Cold War Hawk since his Senate days, reaching out to Mao Zedong, China's leader and as much as anyone the symbol of Communism (pictured below).

History is filled with such reconciliations. Perhaps it is in our biology. Scientists have suggested that the physical responses we associate with anger - adrenalin rush, etc -  last approximately two seconds; yes, that is two SECONDS. That means that in order to remain angry, we have to work at it. As such, it seems only natural that we try to find a way to make our lives easier, to let go of anger.

Still, given what we had been through, it certainly came as a surprise to many, and probably to William and I, that we had let go to that extent.

Often in these pages, I have made the point that, at the end of the day, the final film is not necessarily reflective of the time on set. Films that are fun to make are sometimes awful; films that were brutal can be great.

If I am fair, this is a very good movie, William is to be commended. I highly recommend it to anyone, and especially to those who are current fans of Norman Reedus and his work on The Walking Dead, or older fans from The Boondock Saints.

Speaking of that latter film, which helped to propel Norman to a bigger audience:

Before we knew that it would be a good film, we were determined to have a good wrap party, and William and his dad provided a good one. The celebration went to the wee hours of the morning, and everyone was full of that combination of joy at the culmination of work done together, and, well, alcohol.

As the sun came up, Norman had to leave, heading off for his next film. He left with a few of the other guys who played his friends, but only Norman was going to his next film  that day, while the rest would be able to crash and rest.

We put Norman on a plane directly from the party; he said he would sleep on the plane(my first phrase here was "crash on the plane" - I thought better of it). Wow, I thought, what will the next project think of him, as their first peek at him would inevitably be less than flattering.

That film, it turned out, was The Boondock Saints, and if the film, it's cast, and the stories that came out of it are any indication, they knew Norman would fit right in.

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. Given the pressure that time, money and reputation, as well as the fear of seeing a dream die, that this business produces, not a bad philosophy at all.

N.B. A busy summer lead to a slow time with this blog; my apologies. In return for your patience, the next few posts will be something a little different - posts of some of the current projects that have side-tracked me. Then, we will go back to all of those intervening years that I still have to cover!  

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods: Drop Me in the Water

"Some are reputed sick and some are not. It often happens that the sicker man is nurse to the sounder"
-Henry David Thoreau

Ok, when we move on from this movie and the pond, I will move on from Thoreau and Emerson. Promise. 

As the title of the movie might imply, a lot of the time was spent in the water; specifically, Norman spent a lot of time in the water.  Both Norman and Chad's characters were talented high school swimmers, and besides spending time lounging by the pond, their characters also competed against each other swimming. It was part of how they bonded.

There must be something about male adolescence and water. From a young Al Green wanting someone to  Take Me to the River, to Neil Young shooting his baby Down By The River, to Springsteen remembering Mary's body tan and wet as they went down to The River and wondering if a dream's a lie if it don't come true, or if it's something worse, right up to The Decemberists filling their cup Down By The Water  (see, and you thought this old guy didn't know any modern music!)  there is something mystical about the creek, the river, the pond, the reservoir.

Maybe it goes back to the biblical  image of baptism and rebirth, or maybe it's just about young men with over-active hormones seeing what young women look like with wet bodies. Probably it's a little bit of both.

We kept putting Norman in the water, and it wasn't biblical or stimulating. Western Massachusetts in the Fall can be chilly, and the water was downright cold. Add to that a very physical shoot and working long hours, and near the end, it was really draining for Norman.

Because of turnaround (the time needed between wrapping one day and starting the next, for those not in film) a lot of the night shoots by the water were near the end of the shoot, when it was even colder. According to a doctor, Norman was very close to having what used to be referred to as "walking pneumonia." Whatever it was, he was sick.

This is an important point for young filmmakers: actors are not moving props. When you decide to work ceaselessly, it takes a toll on actors, especially if they are expected to be doing physically draining scenes. Norman was about as fit as anyone I have ever met, but it was still a lot to handle.

We set up a few tents, and heaters, and did the best we could to keep him dry and warm between takes, but the reality was that we needed a lot of footage of him in the water. Not only did he never complain, he refused to slow down, pushing himself pretty hard to make our days.

I tried to walk that fine line between fulfilling one of the first responsibilities of the Assistant Director - making the schedule - and fulfilling "the prime directive" - safety.

In the end, much as an athletic coach sometimes has to trust an athlete's ability to manage pain, it was clear to me that while Norman was pushing, he was also realistic about his limits, resting whenever he could while still getting in all the shots.

Of course it wasn't much fun for us to be out in that weather either, and a string of night shoots is never fun. Your body clock never really adjusts to working at night and sleeping during the day; the answer is more just about breaking your body clock so it stops complaining.

Believe me, none of us were going to complain with what Norman was working through, remembering that all the while, he had to play a tough, strong, athletic young man on screen. He kept us going.

For people who are fans of Norman now from Walking Dead, it is hard to describe what it's like to see an emerging artist just starting to be aware of their powers. Much like young writers, musicians, etc., the work may become better crafted and more mature as time goes on, but there is still something special about that early work, an energy that is hard to describe.

At the time, I was probably more concerned with just getting it all done, but I was still lucky to have been there for that, and I will always admire Norman for it.


For my part, this shoot was one of the few times that my own challenge became an advantage.

The character of Norman's father, played by Will Lyman, had lost a leg in the car accident that killed his wife. Bitter and feeling useless, he had spun deeper into depression and alcohol, acting very much the invalid, refusing to do much outside his wheelchair and spending a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.

Will did an incredible job of not making this a caricature, always letting his entire personality shine through. One challenge for him came in a scene where he tries to learn to walk with an artificial leg.

Whatever issues of frailty came up for Will's character I had long since gotten over with my own condition as a bi-lateral amputee below knee. The mechanics of putting on a prosthetic I knew very well, as it's something I do a number of times a day.

The prosthetic the prop folks got for Will was a very old one, one that was no longer being used even in the late 90s, no less the better ones we wear today.

The one they got him was one which used a strap, which is only used today in certain situations, replaced by a suction device that is actually more secure.

older leg

Newer leg with suction cup and lock

In any case, this was the leg we had, and almost no one knew exactly how it worked.

Some of the crew knew I used prostheses, some thought so but weren't sure, some did not. Because of the cosmetics, unless I roll up my pant legs, it isn't obvious.

I have never made an issue of hiding it, nor have I felt the need to announce it, but this was a time it came in handy.

On a break, I took Will into another room and showed him how mine worked, and how he would put his on. Mystery solved.

One of the humorous notes at this point was Bill, our director. I didn't ever tell Bill, and he didn't know. As we were not on particularly good terms, I didn't see us needing to bond over this point. Once the character had the prosthetic, Bill would constantly ask if it were possible, say, for him to walk up steps with it, or other simple tasks that any amputee learns early on in rehab.

Will, to his credit, would just smile, having seen me go up and down not only steps but hill and dale around our beloved pond. Some of my crew would chuckle. No one filled him in.

One of those moments when, as Thoreau mused, the sicker man was nurse to the sounder.

For my younger readers, another blast from the past.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods: Come, Feel the Noise

"Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment"
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

We were shooting just miles from Walden Pond, on another pond, and the image above, and Thoreau's commentary on it, are what comes to people's mind when they think of that part of the woods.

Nature. Beauty. Listen closely, and what will you hear?

A distant bird's chirp? The crack of a branch as some small critter crosses it?  A breeze rippling along a pond? Maybe.

An airplane flying overhead? Dogs howling? Construction? Music blaring from a neighbors party? More likely on our shoot.

We were about 10 miles from Hanscom Air Force Base. Most residents owned at least one, if not more, dogs. It was Fall, and most of the local residents were doing repairs and additions to their homes before Winter took over, and also getting in their last chance to hold parties in their backyards.

Added together, we had about as much chance of getting a quiet take as one would in Times Square.

I particularly remember one touching scene between Van (Norman) and his father (Will). Their relationship was contentious, but this was that special moment when they really connected, when they felt each others' pain, when they put the past behind them and moved forward.

It's not a scene you want to do twenty times; there are only so many "special moments" in them. Sure, we could get coverage, but we wanted one. nice, beautiful master shot, which meant we would need quiet for at least 3 and a half minutes.

By that point, we had a rather complex system in place of PAs stationed by folks homes, where they would bring in their dogs during takes as well as hold on use of construction equipment while we shot. For the most part, they were very polite, friendly and accommodating.

The Air Force, needless to say, was not about to work around our shooting schedule, nor were they about to give us a timetable of flights.

We were about 45 seconds into a take when I heard a dog barking. Was it loud enough to ruin our take? Could we fix it in post? All of my senses were alive, my "spidey-senses" kicked in, as I watched the take and listened to this dog, wondering if this was a good one.

When the director called cut, I immediately sought out the sound mixer, who was not in my line of sight during the take, a take that was absolutely perfect and heart-wrenching.

"Was the dog a problem in that shot?" I anxiously inquired of our sound mixer.

"No, the dog wasn't a problem," he said in the calmest of voices. "The plane drowned him out."

We had been dealing with these sound issues all along, and our mixer had long ago come to accept that this was just the way it was going to be.  Meanwhile, I was so fixated on the dog barking that I had completely missed, well, the airplane. "Spidey-senses," indeed!

Yes, we had to shoot it again. It worked out great in the final scene (which I don't want to show here, as it will be lost when you see the movie - and you should see the movie).

What it does remind me of is this, from Living in Oblivion, the Tom DiCillo film that inspired the title for this blog. Somehow, on that one perfect take, something affects the shot....

Sound was not our only struggle, and in the next post, too much time in the water, and a scene too close too home.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods: Why Can't We Be Friends?

"Can't We All Just Get Along?"
-Rodney King
When you're an only child, as I am, being liked is important; sometimes too important. With no siblings who are required to spend time with you, a lack of social skills insures a lonely childhood.

However, as I have observed and discussed with only-children, there is also a fierce sense of independence (not to mention a need for alone time, but that's an issue for another day).

No one is loved by everyone, but this is a business where you are going to work with all types, so if you cannot adjust, cannot let things go, then life is going to be hard. I know producers, ADs, and, for that matter, crew people, for whom every situation is a battle, a test of wills.

It's a rough way to get through a career.

All this by way of trying to understand why Bill, the director on Floating, and I just never got along, not from Day One. The simple answer was that I was always right and he was always wrong; that I was a wonderful, open human being and he was a spoiled kid with a sense of entitlement who had rarely been told "no" in his life. That would not only be simple - it would be a gross oversimplification, and not really the answer.

Part of it may have been the age difference, and the natural tendency of those fresh out of college to have a disdain for authority, on his part, and a lack of patience for explaining why things need to be done a certain way on my part.

The truth is, there are people who rub us wrong. In most situations, you can just avoid that person; as AD and director, that is not an option.

Early on, Bill took a certain delight in defying me on simple procedure. I remember a day when I was getting the keys in motion for one scene when, over the walkie, I hear the wardrobe assistant announce that another scene is coming up next. Yes, the wardrobe assistant.

When I calmly and politely went into HMU (translation: stormed into HMU) to find out why the wardrobe assistant took it upon herself to announce the next scene, and to ask her in a reassuring and loving tone not to do it again (okay, maybe not so loving and reassuring a tone), she quickly pointed out that Bill had just been there, and asked her to announce the next scene he wanted to shoot. When she pointed out that was not what was on the call sheet, he told her that he would correct me later.

Needless to say, Bill and I had a discussion about how things run on set. There are a million reasons why the schedule needs to be the domain of the AD, mostly because he or she knows all the little details about why a specific order works. That is not to say that someone else, say the DP, can't point out to the AD why something else might be good right now, and certainly, if the director really wants to change the order, this is a discussion with the AD, and every attempt should be made to take his needs or concerns into consideration.

The moment I tried to explain this to Bill, it became a "because I said so and I'm the director" moment. Bill had a lot of those, which, when this is the first thing outside of class you have ever directed, is not a good attitude.

From that moment on, we went from a mild dislike to a test of wills. If you have ever been on set where something like this starts happening, it makes things difficult for everyone. I leaned on my professionalism, my experience, and just being older, to try and make it better, but, in retrospect, I'm sure I could have handled it better as well.

One area I was not going to give in on was safety, and Bill (who, BTW, was also an only child) liked to ignore this as well. Being buddies with the three guys playing the locals (Norman, Jonathan and Josh) was really important to him, and so he took every opportunity to show them how cool he was.

There was a scene where Norman's character (Van) rides a motorcycle, and does so quite fast. Norman didn't have a license, which didn't particularly bother me, as we were in the middle of the woods. He also didn't seem to have extensive experience riding, though he insisted he did.

Norman really wanted to do his own motorcycle stunts; he was a hard worker and I respect him going for the reality. So, there was me, and there was Bill and Norman. I chose what I thought was a reasonable middle ground; I would leave it up to our stunt coordinator, who was a seasoned stunt rider.

Our stunt guy told me that he was okay with Norman doing standard stuff, being the guy to ride off, but absolutely not for the stunt. Neither Norman nor Bill was happy with the decision, but I literally stood in front of the bike, legs straddling the front tire, hands on the handle bar, explaining that I would not let Norman start the scene unless he agreed to stop as soon as he cleared frame and to let the stunt rider do it.

He begrudgingly agreed, but, after having clearly discussed it with Bill on the side, took off to do the stunt once he started going as Bill encouraged the DP to keep shooting, making it clear he had planned to ignore me all along.

That night, Bill and the producer (his father) and I met. I was prepared to quit, and was sure he was prepared to fire me, which was fine by me.

However, my 2nd AD, Christine, was instrumental and making it clear to me that it would be a mistake for me to quit, and assured me that I was helping in ways I didn't see. I was fed up, and not the least bit concerned that if I lost the respect of the crew, if it seemed that I was not in control, there was no point in me being there, and it would even be detrimental.

To Bill's dad's credit, he handled it great. He made it clear to Bill that I wasn't going anyplace, and that he (his father) had put a lot of money up to get this done, and he wanted someone with my experience.  Bill was going to learn to work with me.  He also realized that one of the original producers who was trying to do everything was not strong enough, and that without that, Bill and I would always be bucking heads, that I was making too many of the production decisions.

It was at this point that he brought in Mary Feuer, who I had worked with in different capacities on other films. I respected her, and was happy to have her on. That didn't mean she always took my side, or always agreed with me, but the day-to-day got much better, and she was the right person for the job.

Having gotten that pretty much out of the way, we still had an idyllic setting filled with dogs, airplanes, and construction, weather that did not cooperate, too much time in the water and finishing the film on time to get Norman off to his next project. More on those in the next post.

NB: Sorry for the delay in getting this post out - next one should be sooner. Thanks for the patience!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Not Dead Yet

"Francisco Franco is still dead."
-Saturday Night Live

One of the morbid aspects of our society is that when we don't see or hear from people in a while, we assume they are dead.

Saturday Night Live had, as part of their "News Update," had would occasionally use the line "Francisco Franco is still dead," a reference to the number of mistaken reports of his death in the media before he was actually dead.

With celebrities, there is always that game of "Alive or Dead."

One of the funniest moments in the documentary of comedian Don Rickles, called Mr. Warmth, is when Rickles is talking about the people in the pictures on his wall. Rickles was about 80 at the time of the shooting, so it makes sense that many of his contemporaries were now dead.

As Rickles looked at the photos, he would identify them as follows: "Dead. Dead. Almost Dead. Dead...."

Don Rickles is thankfully still with us, and so am I.

For the first time in a very long time, there has been a month gap in my posts. While I try to deliver at least one post a week, I never wanted to let the quality suffer by just churning them out.

In the past month or so, I have directed a one-act play (which is now being discussed as being shot as a short film), prepared a large number of budgets for people (and I still am), did a rewrite on a script, and found time to take an intensive meditation retreat at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Templar, New York. The latter was a necessity as part of my Zen practice, which is about all that keeps me sane in this very insane business.

Oh, and I prepped a short film which got postponed a week before shooting (actor problem). (See reference to why I needed retreat above)

Through all of this, almost every day, I was determined to write the next part of the blog series on the film Floating with Norman Reedus and Chad Lowe. Every day, something came up. As I write this, I realize I need to get ready to go out and see a show with a talented young actress I know who happens to be the daughter of the my favorite casting director  (and one of the truly good people in this business, Judy Keller).

At 55, you may be able to include me in that game of "Alive or Dead" at some point in the future - but not yet. Still here, and busier than ever. I came home to two more people looking for budgets, an offer to First AD a very long short, and an offer to maybe go on a shoot in Alaska in the Fall.

Oh, and there is still that short that got postponed which we will be shooting - well, sometime.

Fear not - determined to get the next post out in a few days.

While you wait, enjoy below: