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.

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