Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Freelancer's Life - When It Rains it Pours

Many things in the indie film world have changed, but some things remain the same, and one of those things is that when it rains it pours.

With short breaks, I've been a freelancer most of my life. I started pretty much as a stage manager in theater, and the minute I said yes to one play, two more offers would come. Often, I was able to juggle two at a time, rehearsing one while running another. During this period, more calls would come

Inevitably, when both would end, the phone calls would stop.

There have been incredibly busy periods in film as well. I can think of stretches of up to a year or a year and half at a time when I would go from one project to the next. For a freelancer, this is just great, and if there is a little voice inside of you that suggests you pass on one, there is a much louder voice that asks that little voice if he likes eating.

Some choices are easy, determined by which comes first. Others are hard and involve passing on projects that excite you, as I've shown here.

There was a busy period where I was offered the chance to work on a unique sci-fi short. At the time, I was ending one short and starting a feature. I talked with the producers about over-seeing the project and having one of my proteges producing, but the reality is that would never have worked. The project went on to garner a good deal of acclaim. Luckily, I am still good friends with the writer and producer, and regardless of the fact that it would have been very little money, part of me still wishes I had been involved with the project.

As line producer on an indie project, where often you are working with a first-time director, you are the guiding hand. This makes it very hard to do what, say, an AC or Best Boy Grip might be able to do, which is switch themselves out with someone else as competent. I am not suggesting that no one else can do what I do; I know way too many talented line producers personally, and even more by reputation, to think that is true.

Each of us has our own style, and we set projects up in a way that works for us, and might not work for another. That director puts himself or herself in your hands, and you can't just walk away.

There was a project I handed off after starting prep because friends, who I had line produced a movie with previously, finally got their financing. I had been with that project for a few years at that point. doing budgets, taking meetings, pitching investors. I had no choice but to stick with that project, and I did make sure the other project had what it needed and found someone good.

Both projects got released.

The best way to attract work is to try to take something steady. When I started teaching at New York Film Academy, I was able to juggle my professional schedule. Then, I was line producing a fantastic US-Tamil project, Achchamundu! Achchamundu! in Edison, NJ, and found that I was deciding between leaving set when I was needed and asking students who paid good money to switch their schedules one more time. Later on, my mother's illness conflicted with my teaching schedule.

I was absolutely ready to leave the freelance world when I took a job as Operations Director at Gun For Hire, and from Day One. I got other freelance offers. It was not hard to pass on them - I liked the job and I liked my boss. By the time Shooting Gallery. Gun For Hire's parent company, shut it's doors (a story for another day), I was off the radar in the freelance world, and gigs were nowhere to be found.

The winter, as it tends to be in New York, was incredibly slow for me. So, as I reached my 100th post here, and was ready to get to my review of Man of the Century and wrap up that series, I found myself getting swamped with requests for my time.

Right now, I have my foot in two worlds: writing, which has always been my source of enjoyment, and line producing, which has mostly been my source of income.

I am producing a short I am very excited about that is scheduled to shoot early April with a talented writer and first-time director. A person with a great project has asked me to do revised budgets for new investors. Then, yesterday, two people, one former client and one referred from a former client, called me about budgets within hours of each other. Both seem like exciting projects.

In the meantime, I am writing a revising a treatment on a horror script that I worked on for the rewrite, consulting on one other script with a novice screenwriter and helping a friend format a web series.

The end result is that I've had to read three new screenplays in the last two days, and all of them are unique, and frankly, all would make powerful movies. I've said in these pages before that I always think back to those days when I was stage managing and someone would hand me a script, and the excitement I had opening the pages and reading it on the subway the way home.

The only difference is now they email me and I'm reading it on my Kindle. Excitement still the same.

All of this means that I have had little time to attend to this blog. No complaints. I decided a while ago I would not rush posts and sacrifice quality for a schedule. This post, as a matter of fact, formed in my head last night as I took a break from the treatment (narrative is so much harder for me than script writing) and I figured if I was going to get that treatment done today, as promised, I needed to clear my head and get this post out.

So, here it is. The final post in the Johnny Twennies series will probably not come until next week. I appreciate those who follow here, and thought you deserved an explanation for the break.

Inevitably, somewhere mid-budget, the numbers will fill my head and I will need to write that post, but work comes first. The Yin and the Yang.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The First 100 Posts - Reflections in a Half-Full Glass

My previous post was blog Post Number 99, so I realized this would be Post Number 100 (knew those math classes would come in handy at some point). It seemed fitting that my 100th post would be a re-view - literally - of a film I am most proud of as line producer, Man of the Century (filmed as Johnny Twennies). I had not planned it that way, but it would have been a great way to "celebrate" the 100th post.

Then, by chance, I stayed up the other night and watched The Deer Hunter as part of TNT's 31 Days of Oscar. I had not seen the film in a while, and decided to look up some information on the "making of."

The combination of reflecting on the "making of" The Deer Hunter and the way some not-so-old films are being lost on some of today's filmmakers led me to think that maybe the 100th Post should look back a bit on the process of writing this blog, as well as offering a little advice and answering some questions that come up when people ask me when I tell them I'm a line producer.

Actual "instructional" posts are something I've avoided like the plague, with a few exceptions for a series I call "Priorities," which dealt with subjects like catering, the importance of script supervising, or set safety.

When I first started doing this blog, I felt there were a lot of experiences I had that might be of some use to those looking to make movies, but I really didn't want to create a "how to" blog. I have done some teaching at NYFA, but I always felt that most of the real learning in film happens on set, so rather than lecturing online, I decided that I would just go back through my career, as chronologically as possible, and tell stories.

Yep, tell stories. Just tell the stories of what happened a little bit at a time, and hope some wisdom, and certainly some entertainment, happened along the way.

No one of us has the whole story. When I started blogging, I was thrilled to find that there were veteran bloggers like The Hollywood Juicer who was doing for below-the-line a little of what I was trying to do, and he does it with such a special flair. He says he is going to try and put it together as a book - I've got my Kindle ready!

There were blogs on everything from being a PA - the best description of how to do sides ANYWHERE - to a totally unauthorized look at our industry from the bottom up, to being a script supervisor.

Not all the blogs were by old-timers or from NY or LA - I found my favorite blog on being a First AD to come from a charming, delightful and insightful young lady named Michelle in Austin, Texas.

All of my favorite blogs are listed on the right, though some are in the links section. I'll figure this web site thing out some day.

Collectively, over time, these different looks into the same prism are a good way for those starting out to gain some insight into the not-so-glamorous life in making movies, and the rest of us to read something and realize that, while we may indeed be crazy, we are not in this mess alone.

When I read Juicer's post on how not to handle a new airplane - or ostrich, for that matter, I suddenly didn't think losing half a day to a sleepy mule seemed all that bad.

When I first set up this blog, my fear was that I was becoming part of the "look at me" society, where we all not only expected those 15 minutes that Andy Warhol promised us but our own reality show. It was the laughs and insights of the other blogs that made me feel better about this, and I'm glad that I've done it.

Did I digress? Vin would be proud.
I took a long hiatus from the blog, when I just didn't feel good about where the industry was going, and maybe feeling a bit irrelevant. I've spoken about relationships in this business, and how hard they are to maintain, without, hopefully, getting too soap opera-ish at any point.

So, what does this have to do with watching The Deer Hunter? Like my favorite radio host, Vin Scelsa and his Idiots' Delight, digressing is part of the package with this blog.

I hadn't seen The Deer Hunter in a while, and had forgotten how slowly it moved, but how much that worked for the story-telling, at least for me. The wedding, which feels like a movie unto itself, almost feels like it was shot in real time, complete with a real priest, and, as I later read, real local extras who really got drunk, something I had experienced as line producer that didn't impress me at all when I was on set.

It was clear that some of the regular cast, like red-faced George Dzunda, were also drinking.

Sure, have another drink!

Similarly, director Michael Cimino tells a story of how DeNiro and Savage did a lot of their own stunts, and DeNiro once convinced Cimino that he could do the Russian roulette scene with John Cazale better if there were one live round in the gun. Even though they checked that it was not in the next chamber each take, the line producer in me bristled at such a stupid and irresponsible suggestion.

The production person in me thinks of all of this as irresponsible Method bullshit - just let them act. I've heard actors tell me that they had to be drunk to play drunk, and, frankly, I don't buy it. As for anything that even hints of a lack of safety, well, I don't have a lot of tolerance in that area, no matter how many times they checked the chamber.

I always think of the ADs on the sets of the Twilight Zone movie, where children and actor Vic Morrow were killed, or the death of Brandon Lee. Do those deaths still haunt them?

So, we come to the image at the top of this post. It most reminded me of working as a line producer, and the comment I mentioned in a previous post about a still photographer friend who told me that I frowned in all my production stills. I had a director - a wonderful guy - who I had befriended in prep, tell me one day on set, "JB, what's wrong? I never see you laugh anymore. You make me sad."

When people seek out the line producer on set, it's rarely to tell him or her how well things are going. The same is true when the phone rings. If the conversation starts out cheery, then, like the father of teenagers, my instincts kick in and I can expect that the conversation will soon turn to how I can steer more money to their department. Worse, that they have already committed more than we budgeted and now are just looking for some quick stamp of approval.

Going over budget was almost de rigueur for the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls crowd that inspired so many of us. The Deer Hunter's $15M final cost was almost twice its original budget. Coppola was famous for going over budget, not to mention dangerous set etiquette and general bad behavior (check out the documentary Hearts of Darkness on the making of Apocolypse Now some time).

It's odd when you start to think that if you had your "dream job" with one of those guys it would have probably been a nightmare for the line producer.

Line producing and being an AD means a lot of worrying. Wrap beer sounds great to the crew; it sounds like  the possibility of an accident, not to mention insurance issues, to a line producer. Actors doing stunts they might never have tried is macho to the actor; its a safety responsibility and an explanation in a production report for the AD.

Still, it's not the war stories that strike me as most important over these 100 posts, but the people, many wonderful actors and directors, but even more so, the crews. My grandfather was a shop steward, my dad a foreman, and I always remember my dad referring to those he worked with as "his guys." I've always taken a very personal responsibility for those who I hired, feeling proud when we did well together, and feeling awful when I felt I let them down.

This respect for the people I worked with led to my early decision to almost never using real names when talking about those that I didn't enjoy working with, or just talking about the failings of others. I never wanted this to be one of those places where disrespecting people and the work they do became a game or  a cheap joke.

Writing this blog has also told me something about an audience for any writing. I am amazed at how often tales I thought were more interesting got few hits, and tales I thought were routine would become popular.

It's been an emotional journey, revisiting triumphs and failures, and discussing some people who are no longer with us. The latter comes with age, an issue I discussed recently in a birthday post, and one that came up watching The Deer Hunter. Watching the baby-faced Christopher Walken and the radiant Meryl Streep after recently seeing Walken as a grandfather in Stand Up Guys and Streep as an aging Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, it certainly made me wonder what I'm going to be doing in this business when I turn 70, as Walken did recently.

Maybe my career path has led me to be more pessimistic than some others. I think I've been through burn-out at least twice as a line producer and come back from it. When working on a project recently with two good friends, I joked that one was a glass half-empty person and one was a glass half-full person. Me? I'm a "do we really have to use that glass" person.

What of the next 100 posts? There is so much left to discuss, more highs and lows, from getting to produce a feature I co-wrote with two good friends, to losing one of those friends to cancer; from my least favorite times with directors to a core crew of young people I came to think of as my kids (they would HATE this reference) who really brought back the joy in this profession for me.

There will be more time worrying about budgets and schedules, and times where I was able to enjoy the more creative side of this business.

What will it all add-up to? As Peter O'Toole says in one of my favorite movies, Lawrence of Arabia, "Nothing is written " As with the first 100 posts, I'm just going to keep recording the experiences as I remember them, and leave it to others to determine what it all means.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Johnny Twennies - Part 5 - Killing Eli's Wife

You Can't Get There From Here

I'm told that the phrase, "You can't get there from here," is attributed to people in Maine, pretty much as a way of mocking their road system and general demeanor.

Having only been to Maine once, I can't speak to the authenticity, but as a New Yorker who has lived in and worked in Boston, I can certainly appreciate that the cruel and inhumane system of "rotaries" common in New England are a maze designed by someone beyond evil, possibly the cruel NY Times Crossword designer, Will Shortz.

On Johnny Twennies, we found that good intentions are not good enough to necessarily get someone to set in an efficient, timely and comfortable manner.

One of our actresses was one of the Grand Ladies of the Theater (as well as film and television) Anne Jackson. A brief summay of her roles, including a Tony Nomination for Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night and successful Broadway runs in plays from Tennessee Williams Summer and Smoke to Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers does not do her career justice. Screen credits include Lovers and Other Strangers and The Shining. Younger audiences may best know her for a great recurring role as a feisty judge on TV's Law and Order.

Below are pictures of Anne with her husband, screen legend Eli Wallach, in their younger days, and when Eli received the Governors' Award at the Oscars in 2010.

With husband Eli Wallach then....

toasting Eli at the Oscars in 2010

When we worked with Anne, she was just about 70 years of age. A normally spry woman even at that age, she was not in great health at the time.

Regardless of her health, given her age and length of service, everyone from the producers to myself to Stan and our coordinator Dianne were determined to make her trip to set comfortable.

All of her scenes took place at the home of the lead character's "mother," the location in Long Island I previously referred to as The Money Pit.

This was one area we did not try to save money, and Stan and Dianne made arrangements with a reputable car service to pick her up at her door and take her to location, and with a Long Island car service to do the same the moment she was wrapped, so she did not have to wait for any other actors and/or crew.

I need to point out that this was not a requirement or request either from Anne or her agent; we did this because we felt it was the right thing to do. Anne could not have been nicer or more accommodating.

This was pre-GPS days, when we still printed maps and such. Once arrangements were made, Dianne plotted out detailed maps as well as printed directions from her home to set. These were faxed to the car service, which assured us their driver knew the way. We were taking no chances and insisted that the driver take our directions along.

I should also point out here these were our directions to set, and we got there with no issues regularly.

The first day of the car service, the driver shows up late. We scold, but we need to get her to set comfortably and there is no time to switch car services. The driver proceeds to get lost and, after many phone calls back and forth, gets her to the set late, upsetting both for us and for Ms. Jackson.

To make matters worse, on the way back, the LI car service arrives late.

We change car services for the second day. They take a "short cut" to save her time in the car; they get lost.

Unwilling to trust her transportation to chance, we send our reliable 2nd AD with a 7 passenger van to pick her up and take her to set. We know he won't get lost.

We do not anticipate that he will get a flat on the way to set.

It was somewhere around this time that I am in the office and a call comes in to Dianne. Listening to Dianne's side of the conversation without hearing the other became a habit over the years, and some of them were truly entertaining.

"Oh, my, I'm so sorry, sir."

"Surely, you can speak to Mr. Bruno."

Without saying anything else, she hands me the phone. I didn't have time to make the connection, until I heard that unmistakable voice.

"What are you trying to do, kill my wife?"

It was the voice I remembered from the evil bandit in The Magnificent Seven, Clark Gable's cowboy partner in The Misfits, the lecherous Sicilian Silvio in Baby Doll and Don Altobello in The Godfather Part II.

In an odd way, it was the fascination of talking to one of my screen favorites that struck me before the scolding. I had actually met Eli Wallach in passing at a local restaurant we both frequented on the West Side of Manhattan, and had spoken to him one time over the phone.

I was producing some play, and we were thinking of getting Eli Wallach. This was back in the 80s, and even though he was an established star, the contact info for him if you wanted to cast him was his home number with Actors' Equity. He would answer the phone, talk to you, and then, if interested, pass you on to his agent. I found this fascinating.

For the record, he turned it down.

If he was underwhelmed in our first conversation all those years ago, he was even less impressed now. I can't remember the conversation word-for-word, but the phrases, "I'm sorry," "we will fix this," and "I understand, Mr. Wallach." came up often.

To make matters worse, on set, where Anne was fighting a cold, many of her scenes took place coming down the long staircase that was so crucial to our final scene. We used stand-ins for any run-throughs, and even planned shots to minimize her time up-and-down the stairs, but it seemed no matter what we did, if something would go wrong, it would be when she was halfway down the stairs, having to climb them again for the next take.

This is humorous now, because Anne is not only still with us but, now in her late 80s, still a treasure. Her performance, in the end, was really very good.

What made it even more peculiar was that right after we wrapped, a Law and Order episode aired where Sam Waterson has all he can handle in chasing her (as a judge) up a long set of courthouse stairs before she upbraids him for some miscarriage of justice she perceived him to be perpetrating.

I swear, she practically bounced up those stairs, and this could not have been shot more than a few months previous.

A short time later, I ran into both of them at the restaurant I mentioned previously. They were having dinner with another couple, and Anne called me over to introduce me. When she mentioned the film, Eli turned, with that big grin that age has not changed, looked at me, and said, "Oh, so you're that guy." He then laughed and invited me to join them, which I did for only a brief moment before excusing myself, not wanting to interfere with their dinner.

Given all the good guys and bad guys Eli's characters had taken out or ordered taken out over the years, I wasn't going to over-stay my welcome.

Below, a video that tells you something about the love - and the humor - they both have.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Johnny Twennies - Part 4 - The Money Pit

Stairs! Ha! A Staircase! We have stairs.
-Walter (Tom Hanks), The Money Pit (1986)

One of our major locations was the home of Johnny's (the main character) mother, Madame DuFroid, played by award-winning actress Anne Jackson. The character was crafted as one of those older, turn of the 20th Century dowagers. Her house had to look the part, a lot of which could be accomplished with set dressing.

Some of it needed to feel real. Middle-class homes just are not architecturally correct in many cases. It's a low-budget cheat that would have diminished all of our other efforts.

The house we eventually found had all the right elements, including a beautiful skylight by the entrance, a chandelier, and the staircase. seen above.

Like poor Walter from that forgettable Tom Hanks/Shelly Long comedy (is there any other kind of Shelly Long comedy?), we needed to dance on those stairs , literally. There were many cool scenes in the house, but none was more important than the grand ending, which was a party that happened in front of these beautiful stairs in that scene pictured.

The original Money Pit
A little research tells me that the term, the money pit, actually goes back further, to a place named Oak Island, in Nova Scotia. In 1795, there was an excavation of a depression in the ground. Early signs were that maybe there were hidden treasures that lied beneath. From that time right up until the 1960s, various and sundry expeditions tried to unearth this "treasure," amounting only to a lot of money 'sunk' into this excavation (which flooded on numerous occasions) as well as, sadly, many lives lost.

At least, no grips were lost in the making of Man of the Century. That was the good news.

I mentioned in the last post that Adam, our director, was great at prioritizing. He knew what he could lose and what he needed, and he had a clear idea of how the movie would look at the end, as did Gibson. It was essential; we had set the audience up for 90 minutes, creating this world, and anything cheap or cheated would have been destroyed the illusion, and the movie.

In the studio days, this would have been a build. Hell, today, if it were a film with any budget, it would have been a build. Camera and lighting would want to be able to fly away walls, find the perfect spot to set lighting. Art Department would be able to control everything in the frame.

We didn't have that type of budget, but it needed to look as if we did, which meant finding the perfect location. After looking at many homes that didn't look quite right, we saw our dream house.

It had everything we needed. It was almost too good to be true.

Yes, it was too good to be true.

A director, DP, or production designer walks through a house like this and thinks, "how wonderful." A line producer walks through a house like this and imagines how many things we might break or damage and what it will cost us.

Our still photographer, a German-born girl named Birgit (I'd found her when she was tending bar,and no, I wasn't scouting locations or photographers) used to complain that she could never get a picture of me smiling; that no matter when she took a picture on set, I seemed to have my palm to my forehead in full worry mode.

We line producers are not a happy lot.

The home owner had pretty much approached us. We had made it known through the Nassau County Film Commission (one of the best on the planet, BTW) that we wanted such a home, and the owner had contacted us.

As we walked through the home, I knew two things: this was going to be the place, and it wasn't going to be cheap.

Nothing we had seen matched it; I could not even think of trying to convince the producers to go somewhere else. The owner was very much aware of the value of her place. Everywhere there was marble and antiques and newly-finished floors, etc. After a lot of negotiation, we agreed on a figure as a fee that we could live with and that made the owner happy.

Of course, that was not the end of it. As with any location deal, we agreed to restore to exactly the way we found the place, and we would correct any damage.

While we had insurance, insurance has deductibles, and they are usually laid out as "per occurrence." That means that if we break something in the kitchen on Day 1, and something in the living room on Day 3, those are separate occurrences, unless we can somehow connect them. That means we will also have to pay up to the deductible, which was $1000 each time.

The owner insisted on a deposit to cover the deductible, not an unreasonable request. I personally hate deposits. Once someone has money in their hands, it's hard to get them to part with it, even if it isn't technically a payment.

I had a rather large crew, and a really good one. These were not bulls in the proverbial China-shop, and Dusty, my key grip, was especially keen on making sure equipment was handled in a way that no damage was done to the property. One of his more amazing feats was his rigging above and around the skylight by the door entrance, a rig that would have made Leonardo DaVinci proud. It involved bringing in a special crane just to get the scaffolding where we needed it without attaching to walls, ceilings, etc. I kept looking up at this ornate skylight, sure that something would fall through it any minute, but that never happened.

Zeljka, our production designer, and our locations and production team worked extra hard to make sure everything was handled carefully, that floors and walls were properly protected. I could not have asked for a better crew.

Still, we were there for a number of days, and lots of people and lots of big equipment over a number of days, and little nicks are bound to happen.

Every time I entered the house, the owner would point out some "little thing" that had happened. We had lots of pictures, but I still swear that many of those "little things" were not things done by us. Others seemed exaggerated.

I once joked that it would have been cheaper to just blow the house up, and have the insurance rebuilt it, and pay one deductible. Of course, it's not like I would have really done that (even with all my connections from mob movies!), but the thought did cross my mind.

That deposit we gave her?  Ha ha! We never did see that again. Indeed, we even paid a little beyond it, not wanting to get into an extended legal hassle, and wanting to keep good relations in the community. To this day, I swear the owner basically did a new remodeling on our dime, but sometimes that's just the cost of doing business.

The only consolation I have is that the location looks fantastic on film, which, in the end, is what it's all about.

One of the other costs of the location was transporting cast and crew that far outside of the city each day. Gas, tolls, vehicles, time lost; they all added up. It also lead to some unexpected difficulties getting one member of the cast to set, and me getting a phone call (and not a good one) from a screen legend!