Monday, January 28, 2013

Johnny Twennies - Part 3 - It Took a Village

In looking back on the making of Johnny Twennies, I started where I always start, in looking over the crew list on IMDB. It reminded me of how much has changed, and how much has remained the same, in the making of independent films over the years.

The first thing that struck me was how many people we had not only in the cast, but on the crew. We were on a limited budget, but we had a very large crew. The audacity of the creators' vision was that they were trying to make a film on a limited budget on location that looked like the type of movie that used to be made with big budgets and crews on sound stages.

The film director's team on a first-time feature has all the possibilities for brilliance and disaster. It's rare that a first-time, indie film director will get to surround himself with a crew of nothing but old hands. Among the good that can come of this is unwillingness to see just how impossible the odds of accomplishing the goal may be.  There is nothing worse than a lot of grumpy naysayers  reminding a young, inventive director of why something won't work. With my experience, I still have to pray that I not become that guy.

At the same time, the folks around the director must be able to pull off their jobs - lack of fear doesn't promise good results.

We were doing an old-time looking movie, shot in the present with clear period elements. Getting that look just right fell to our director of photography, the then-young Matt Jensen, our production designer, Zeljka Pavlinovik, and our costume designer, Claudia Hill.

As with many relationships in film, I had lost track of those folk over the years, and following their careers was an eye-opening journey. Matt went on to DP a number of successful TV series, from CSI to True Blood to Game of Thrones. 

I remember Matt as rather baby-faced, and having boundless energy. Matt's previous work at the time as DP were a few shorts, but both Gibson and Adam liked the look of his films. Frankly, nothing in his previous work could have insured the outstanding black-and-white cinematography and authentic look of the film.

Maybe more surprising was my look at Zeljka and Claudia. Zeljka was faced with period elements that included  the home of Johnny's mother, which had to look like a dowager mansion out of a 1920s film (more on THAT HOUSE in next post). She accomplished this with a decent number of hands, but nowhere near the number she would have on a bigger budget.

Claudia had not only period challenges, but shear numbers. We had a very large cast, and the wardrobe was very specific. Many of the scenes had lots of extras. Somehow, Claudia always made it work.

If one were to judge by IMDB,  Claudia and Zeljka did not reach the  type of careers in film their success on the project should have predicted.

Filmmakers starting out set certain rungs on a ladder that they know will catapult them to those higher rungs. The truth is, the ladder keeps shifting. I have a friend who won Sundance, then took years before his next project was financed. There is no magic rung, no brass ring, no Golden Ticket that guarantees you future success.

Of course, one must remember that IMDB is not the end-all-and-be-all, not the final parameter of success.

Zeljka, for instance, is now the successful owner of an architectural, design and production team in Croatia.

Claudia is now based in Berlin, with her own line of clothing. Then, as now, her craft has been honed in the theater, from New York's acclaimed Wooster Group to a range of artists from Ariko Inaoka to musician Skuli Sverrisson.

Not successful careers? Don't believe everything you don't read on IMDB.

Our below-the-line help was amazing as well. We had a number of people I had worked with previously, including a great safety and grip person, my key grip, Dusty Rhodes, who was Boston-based but sometimes worked in NY. Dusty and I had adventures on a film that was less fun for me in Massachusetts, but more on that at a later time. He found ways to rig things that had as much creativity as anything any of us did.

I really believe that a big part of our success was the collective expertise we brought to the project, that different people with different areas of knowledge can overcome obstacles, and that spreads to every department. I worry sometimes that the smaller crews that even smaller budgets are dictating means emerging filmmakers today are losing for not having this specific input when fewer people are being asked to wear so many hats.

Oh, did I mention the director, Adam?

The relationship between director and crew is so incredibly interdependent; I don't think that has changed over time. A director needs a good crew, and, at times, a solid crew can help to carry a weak director. The problem is, that combination cannot make a great film; they're lucky if they make an okay film.

I cannot count the number of directors I have worked with in my career, but Adam will always stand out in my mind for a quality that so few have, and he had it right on his first feature.

If we were, say, three quarters of the way through the day, and had done only half the work, he could look at his shot list, strike a line through a few shots, change a few others, consult with Matt, and, for time, Brian, and have a new plan in no time.

I have seen veteran directors freeze, so locked into their plan that once that plan was interrupted, all they could offer was fire and brimstone, or fear and panic. Not Adam. Just as he and Gibson were fearless in moving forward with a Black&White movie, Adam trusted his preparation.

This is not to suggest that he compromised when he needed to stand firm, but, for me as line producer, seeing him flow with the punches made me want to fight even harder to get him every frame of footage he wanted.  The crew, too, could sense he was trying to make things work, and it made everyone better.

I remember reading Martin Scorsese, in his book, Scorsese on Scorsese, saying something like this: "Every time I walk on set, and look around at all these people, and all this equipment, I think to myself, 'I'm not qualified to do this.'"

The quote is from memory - may be off by a word or two - but he made this statement after he had success with Taxi Driver. I often share this quote with young filmmakers, suggesting that if you ever are not just a little bit nervous, I worry about you.

I think of the three types of directors the great British stage director, Peter Brook, described in The Empty Space.  They are the Good Director, the Bad Director, and the Deadly Director, and I think the analogy works perfectly - maybe even more so, for film. I'm paraphrasing a book that changed my career path, but from memory.

The Good Director comes prepared, communicates well with his/her staff, and inspires. The Bad Director comes relatively unprepared and seems lost. Inevitably, the crew and cast, sensing doom, rally together to help to pull the production to at least an acceptable level.

Then, there is the Deadly Director.

Everyone likes the Deadly Director. He/she jokes with the crew, shows off a little of what they know, probably quotes other famous directors, and. for sure, has all the professional "lingo" down pat. They walk, talk and even smell like a real director. Everyone feels comfortable, seeing no need to step outside their comfort zones.

The results are, as you might imagine, well, Deadly.

A pretty good summary, there. Two of out three chances, you lose. Even my biggest gambler friends wouldn't like those odds.

We hit the jackpot.

That doesn't mean that everything was smooth sailing. For one, while I was correct that having Stan's expertise around would be a great help, I had not predicted his declining health. We were not long into the shoot before Stan's emphysema, which he always had under control with an inhaler, had gotten worse. By the first week of production, Stan and Dianne were coming to the office with a small, portable oxygen tank. There were days Dianne would ask me if it were ok for Stan to work from home.

This was personally and professionally difficult for me, and difficult for Stan and Dianne. Stan knew it did not look good that I had recommended him, and now he did not seem to be in the best shape. Still, I am convinced that Stan brought a good deal of invaluable advice and help, and I am thankful for the patience and professionalism of Adam and Gibson in trusting me.

Much of the New York City filming went well, but we knew one of the trickier locations would be the mother's mansion. Finding a location that was affordable, close enough to the city, but had the grand staircase, chandelier and other aspects we needed within our budget was not going to be easy.

In Part 4, we will explore our time in  - The Money Pit.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Johnny Twennies - Part 2 - Everything Old is New Again

Don't throw the past away
You might need it some day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again
-Peter Allen

In fashion, they call it retro when long-gone styles return to popularity. In film, it's just a constant.

The "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" crowd were steeped in film history, some even taught film. In Scorsese on Scorsese, the director from that group talks about influences not just in terms of movies as a whole, but even breaks down shots that inspired specific shots for his movies.

The maverick darling Quentin Tarantino talks endlessly about films that influenced him.

The animation series that broke the ground for the irreverent, clever adult series today, The Simpson, is steeped in not only old television but old styles of entertainment. Studies have been done on the "Cape Feare" episode, which is an inception inside an inspiration inside an inspiration.

The episode is directly inspired by Scorsese's remake of the 1962 pulp classic  Cape Fear (my personal preference). Sideshow Bob has captured Bart and is about to kill him. Bart's last request? That Bob (Kelsey Grammer) sing all of H.M.S. Pinafore by the 19th Century songwriting duo Gilbert and Sullivan - which he does!

Current animation bad-boy Seth MacFarlane (American Dad, Family Guy) not only opens Family Guy with a clear send-up of classic TV show All in the Family, but regularly references vaudeville, barbershop quartets, and old musicals, from Stewie and Brian's Road To Rhode Island, a tribute to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby popular road movies to having Stewie dance with Gene Kelley.

These innovators don't live in the past; they take what the past taught them to create something new and fresh.

Johnny Twennies, which would be renamed Man of the Century* on it's release, was not a musical, but like many movies from the Golden Age of Cinema, had music in it.  The music is mostly a throwback to the era of the 1920s that is where Johnny seems to dwell, even though he is living in the 90s.

Adam and Gibson cast the movie from both young rising stars and movie and theater veterans.

The young performers included the lead characters friend, a "cub reporter" played by Anthony Rapp, just off his success in Broadway's Rent. Twennies love interest was played by the lovely Cara Buono, who has had success both on Broadway and has been a regular on television series The Sopranos and Third Watch, and received a Emmy nomination for her supporting character of Dr. Faye Miller on Mad Men.

Both Cara and Anthony were great to work with, but I got the biggest kick from the older stars that were cast. Among them was veteran New York character actor  David Margulies and impressionist and actor Frank Gorshin. Gorshin was a staple on 1960s television variety shows, doing impressions of everyone from Burt Lancaster to George Burns, who he later played on Broadway, but may best be remembered as The Riddler on the campy television Batman.

Margulies as the confused mayor in Ghostbusters
Gorshin as "The Riddler"

As Johnnie's mother, who is a product of the turn of the 20th century, we had the lovely Anne Jackson, who may be best known to audiences today as the doctor in The Shining, and also had a recurring role as a judge on Law and Order. That is a gross short-hand of her career in theater, film, and television, but as with many industry vets, much of their work is in supporting roles. She is seen below with performing legend and husband Eli Wallach (more on this in a later post).

Many jazz legends appeared in old movies in that were not musicals playing musicians, from Hoagy Carmichael playing piano for Lauren Bacall in To Have or Have Not, to Dooly Wilson's iconic "Sam" in Casablanca.

Johnny Twennies had Bobby Short, a cabaret legend.

Here is a fun piece of nostalgia featuring Bobby Short - raise your hand if you understand the campaign and even remember Shelley Hack!

The crew I put together also had a pairing of old and new.

I knew I needed an AD that would bring no surprises, and hired Brian Bentham, my 2nd AD from 1999, as 1st AD.

In the time between that movie and Johnny Twennies, Brian had worked on 1st AD on other films. In fact, Brian had been hired over me for a film where both of us appeared for interviews!

As one of my other former 2nds who later went on to 1st AD for me and others, Chris Kelley, once reminded me, "If you meet the Buddha along the road, you must kill the Buddha."**

One Buddha I wasn't killing just yet was Stan Bickman. my mentor. Not surprisingly, Stan was one of my references. When I was looking for a production manager and a production coordinator, I waded through resumes before the thought occurred to me: What if I hired Stan and his regular coordinator. Dianne?

Ok, maybe this was playing it a little close to the vest, but why not? If I were looking for someone with experience who I could trust, who better than the man who had taught me so much?

I approached Dianne first to see if it would be awkward for Stan to work for me. If Stan was my Gibbs, he would have smacked me across the back of the head. A job is a job, Stan would say, and who gets mad at being offered work?

Interesting, because in Buddhism, a whack is the vehicle for transmission of the Dharma in many koans. Can this possibly be the inspiration for the whack on NCIS? Then again, maybe I'm reading too much into all of this.

Gibson and Adam didn't miss the peculiar nature of the hiring. When I gave them the name of the production manager, they looked at me quizzically, wondering about the series of events where Stan referred me and then was hired by me. I had never hired Stan before, and pointed out, truthfully, that it wasn't even on my mind at the time of my hiring. Still, I understood how it looked, and only relied on the fact that Stan would do such a wonderful job that it would soon be forgotten.

I would also start my association with some new crew members on this shoot, but more on that as explanation of the shoot continues.

In the meantime, we had assembled quite a cast and crew, and were ready to begin production.

*In this blog, I often refer to movies I worked on by their original title, when I can remember them; hence, these posts are titled "Johnny Twennies."

**While this sounds blasphemous - or at least disrespectful, it's origin is actually from Buddhist teaching. See more on it here.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Johnny Twennies - Part 1 - Do You Dream in Black and White?

"Oh, my life is in Black and White,
Like an old time picture show"
                                                  - Black and White, Roseanne Cash

Who wouldn't love a 35mm film in Black and White that hearkened back to the early days of talking pictures, when screwball comedies had wise-cracking but charming leading men with a soft-spot for just the right dame and cool dance numbers?

After the success of The Artist, one would think that love for old movies would make a nostalgic nod to those film a natural.

In the late 90s, when two young men approached me about an independent film they wanted to shoot called Johnny Twennies, it didn't seem that obvious.

Personally, I loved the script on first read. Most scripts that were a throwback to classic films were noirs, modern attempts to be Raymond Chandler.

This script was an homage more to the movies of Ben Hecht like His Girl Friday and the original The Front Page (1931) ( not one of the many remakes, such as the popular Billy Wilder version with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau). It also had an interesting and unique twist; it was not set in the 1920s, but rather in contemporary New York (late 90s) with a lead character, Johnny Twennies, who lived and dressed as if it were the 1920s. A reporter, he still used an old typewriter, rode around on a bicycle, treated women with respect, and saw the world as one with clear good and evil - black and white.

Of course, there was a girl; in keeping with these screwball comedies, actually two: one that you knew he should wind up with, and one that seemed all wrong but might wind up getting him in the end.

When I met producers Adam Abraham (co-writer/Director) and Gibson Frazier (co-writer/Lead Actor), it all sounded too good to be true. This was exactly the type of script I longed to be a part of, but would it actually look like the script, or just another of those bad send-ups that we still see so many of today, especially from film students?

Film students was exactly the extent of their experience, as well. They had collaborated on a very clever short that Adam had written and directed as his USC thesis project called Song of the Sea, a cruise ship musical comedy. Johnny Twennies would have music as well, some original, all reminiscent of the music of the 1920s. Could a first time feature director, with an actor who had never been a lead in a feature, actually pull this off, all while wearing the multiple hats of producers/writers/director and lead actor? .

While respect for the proprietary nature of budgets precludes me from discussing the actual budget, suffice to say that we were going to be doing a musical with period costumes and set dressing and more than 50 speaking roles on 35mm film for less than films I budget on digital today.

What reassured me was their smarts, their level of preparedness, how thoroughly they had researched and planned, and the fact that they were fully aware of how difficult this would be. They had a good deal of confidence, but it wasn't based on naivety or bluster, as I have often encountered.

If I had to go up against the long odds of pulling this off, these were certainly elements I would want on my side. Something about them told me that if I did my job right as line producer, they had what it took to get this job done.

They had done a great job of financing the film from friends, family and associates. This was no pie-in-the-sky dream. They had worked hard at making it a reality, and in the very early stages of prep, we had to wait for money to be released from escrow at the point where all the money was raised.

It was at this point, while the guys were paying bills out of their pockets, that a group of investors offered them an influx of cash and a bigger budget, with the caveat that the film be shot in color, and not Black&White. It was an offer that would have been too good to refuse for a lot of first-time feature filmmakers. I can't honestly say whether I would have stuck to my guns the way they did, but they made a clear-sighted decision to eschew the offer and make the film they set out to make.

These are the type of bold choices that indie filmmakers always discuss, mostly because the offer is never really out there. When the check is staring you in the face, the decision becomes more difficult.

While working on the smaller budget certainly presented a challenge for me, my respect for the two of them, which was high at the start, now went through the roof.

They had done their job; now I owed them the best team I could put together. In Part 2, I will talk about assembling that team, their casting choices, and the pre-production period.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Party Like It's 1999 - Part 4 - Tears of A Clown

"Andrew, I hate to say this. You are in danger, in real danger, of becoming one of those bitter old men for whom sarcasm is not just a mode of expression, but the very fabric of life itself. "

When  Harold Goldman (Buck Henry) issues this warning to his son, Andrew (Matt McGrath) , he could easily be offering advice to all of Andrew's friends as well. This is a party on the eve on the Millennium, filled with twentysomethings who should have very comfortable lives, but who refuse to be happy, burdening themselves with what has now popularly become known as First-World problems.

If Woody Allen's neurotic New Yorkers are constantly looking back and fretting decisions they have made, Nick Davis' characters are fretting mistakes they have yet to make, and unfulfilled lives they have yet to live.

It isn't as if Davis isn't aware of how ridiculous their worries are, but he refuses to treat his characters as the butt of cheap jokes, either. Dan Futterman's Rufus Wild can be a pompous ass, whose biggest worry seems to be that he does not yet have a legacy at an age when other "geniuses" had already made their mark on history. He is about to let the best thing that ever happened to him, his girlfriend, Anabel (Jennifer Garner) walk away, seemingly just for the sake of change, and yet he is so afraid to make any choice in his life that he doesn't know what to do when his fantasy girl (Amanda Peet) practically offers herself to him.

"How can you keep your hands off of me? " she asks, voicing a feeling we have as well.

Sylvia, a singer played by Margaret Devine, is about to give up singing to become an ear doctor, and later leads the group in a sociological experiment of wearing words hung around their neck and seeing how it affects them emotionally.

Besides Henry Goldman, the only other older character is Goatman, played by comic Steven Wright with the same wry, sardonic twist his stage persona carries.

What Nick Davis realizes is that, much like someone with a psychosomatic illness, the pain is still real for these people, and so while we laugh with - and at - these people, we also feel for them. At least three of the characters in the film flirt with suicide, and Davis is deft enough to have us believe that a tragic ending is very much possible.

On set, while filming, most of these moments were just funny, very funny. When broken into moments like Sylvia explaining why she has always cared about ears, its hard not to laugh.

As with a lot of the great indie films of the mid-to-late nineties, 1999 was a movie that wanted to know why that generation really wasn't as happy as it should be.

In the end, I think it makes 1999 a much better movie, if one that was not as funny. The warning Harold offers to his son concludes:

"I know these men. They run from the world, they hide their feelings, they don't even know how unhappy they are. They are not well."

The film gives a nod not only to the neurotic comedies of Woody Allen, but to the sophisticated ones of Noel  Coward in a different era. Suki, played with equal parts empathy and dry wit by Sandrine Holt, even  uses a long cigarette holder and wears a cloche hat reminiscent of the flappers headwear of the 1920s.

Indeed, it is the plea Davis is making to his characters, and one that rings true.

So many of the actors named above give performances that allow an audience to care about them, even if that sometimes dampens the comedy.

If there is a flaw to the movie for me, it is the editing, which seems a bit disjointed at times in a way that doesn't serve the story. That is similar to a feeling I had the first time I saw the film screened.

Anyone who enjoyed the comedies from that period that refused to just play for laughs, such as Welcome to the Dollhouse or Spanking the Monkey, will find the time viewing this movie as well-spent. For others, a glimpse of future stars Futterman, Peet, Garner and Olyphant will be enough reason to check it out.

Unlike outside reviewers, I can't pretend to be objective. I liked the people involved and I liked the project. My overall experience was positive, and I got a good deal of laughs out of this viewing. However, anyone who has followed my blog knows that I do not labor under the illusion that everything I worked on was a classic.

I don't think it's an overstatement to say that 1999 is a lost gem from that era, and worth checking out.