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.


Kangas said...

Hey, still reading! They're definitely entertaining. Keep it up!

JB Bruno said...

Thanks much, Kangas. I try :)