Friday, March 29, 2013

Priorities - Casting

There are points in the chronicles of the films I've worked on that I think it's appropriate to address a production issue at greater length, or expand on a point made in one of the production posts. This will be one of those posts.  I refer to these posts as "Priorities," the things we need to focus on in production.

As we just showed how not to cast with  "Plaster," I thought this was a good time to discuss casting.

After a particularly long casting session a week or two ago for a short film, the casting director I was working with said she never understood why there isn't an Academy Award for casting directors, and, frankly, I had no good answer. The more I thought about it, the more it made no sense.

If you want to make the case that casting is decided by the producer and director, understand that almost everything is ultimately decided by them, and that doesn't stop us from giving awards to those people. The last time the Board of Governors voted on it as a category was 1999, and the category was rejected.

Oddly, the Board of Governors has also rejected best stunt work  - repeatedly. I don't get that one either.

The issue of the award is not as important, though, as some of the misunderstandings about what one should expect of a casting director, what a casting director actually does, and what to look for in the casting process. Especially on the Indie level, which is the only one I can talk about from personal experience,

Let me look at some misconceptions.

"What is so important about a casting director. I know who I want for my film, and as for name actors, I know who the agents are. Why not just submit myself?"

First misconception is that casting is just about name actors or the stars of your film. Getting the leads right and getting mediocre supporting actors will show on screen.

One of the arguments I often hear is "Anyone can cast George Clooney or Brad Pitt. I don't need a casting director to tell me that."

No, you don't. Somewhere, though, there was a casting director who took all the small roles Clooney did and thought to put him on E/R., or cast Pitt in Thelma and Louise, or Denzel in St. Elsewhere.

More on this later.

On indie films, as for submitting to agents yourself, the connections a casting director has with agents is a huge help. The casting director I worked with on this short does a number of high-profile voice-over jobs, and a lot of big name actors are cast in these good paying jobs. Agents want to keep casting directors happy, because these sorts of jobs can be filled by any number of actors, and agents want to be sure they are getting the call.

That means they will read a script from the casting director that they won't read from an individual production company, especially a start-up with a first-time director.

"Won't the breakdown services be just as good for the supporting roles?"

It constantly surprises me how many new filmmakers are willing to throw big money at a few name actors, and then take whoever they get in supporting roles.

I co-wrote and produced a film called Town Diary. Our lead, through no fault of the casting director, turned out to be rather disappointing. He was an established actor, and it turned out he had a lot of preconceived notions of how a lead should carry a film, including telling the director how he would play it, regardless of direction.

Worse, he had zero charisma.

The casting director and her assistant had reservations; the director and I loved him. No one is perfect.

What saves the movie for me is the supporting cast. This includes the wonderful Angelica Page (the woman who poisons her child in Sixth Sense), veteran Bob Hogan (a staple on NY TV series, a recurring role as a Judge on Law and Order, and the guy for whom Colonel Hogan is named in Hogan's Heroes.) and Terry Quinn.

Yes, that Terry Quinn, from Lost, before that show hit the air. Terry was still a well-known actor (and a regular on X-Files and Millennium.). We were a small film on the SAG Modified Low Budget contract with a first-time feature director, and we got the perfect person for that, and other roles.

For the lead female, the agents submitted Vera Farmiga. Now, I won't say I regret not casting her because the woman we hired was fantastic (and every bit as pretty), but my director rejected Vera because she was "too sexy." Yeah, we'll talk later.

The supporting actors still make the movie for me (a LOT more on this movie in later posts).

For me, another big reason for a casting director is to get those actors who are "industry hot." I discussed this extensively in talking about 1999, which featured future stars Amanda Peet, Jennifer Gardner, Timothy Olyphant (in a really small role) and Dan Futterman.

I won't go over old ground covered in the post linked above, but over the years, from shorts to features, I met actors who later became famous. who were cast because the casting director knew who was "industry hot," people I would never have thought to cast.

Now that we've talked a bit about casting directors and their importance. let's talk about what to look for, and some common casting mistakes I see.

Isn't Hiring SAG Actors Too Expensive for A Low Budget Film?

It amazes me that when I talk to first-time filmmakers, I still here that they want to go non-SAG because SAG is "too expensive."

I cannot imagine someone setting out to make a movie and not being familiar with the SAG Indie Contracts, but I still get it a lot.

First, SAG doesn't charge as fee to become a signatory.

Second, if your feature is under $200K, you can hire SAG actors for $100 per day. If your short is under $50K, you can hire SAG actors on and not pay them upfront (they get deferred payment if you sell your short, but that doesn't happen often).

On both of those contracts, you can hire SAG and non-SAG, so, yes, your friends who will work for free can still be in the movie in small parts.

This is all well-known by experienced filmmakers, but the misconceptions I get make me feel obligated to point out the obvious for those just starting out.

It never ceases to surprise me that some young filmmakers are willing to spend what they need on fancy equipment,. but look to save on what they put in front of the camera.

There is no comparison of the pool of actors you will see if you are SAG as opposed to non-SAG. That does not mean every SAG actor is good, or no non-SAG actors are but your pool of talent changes.

If you are making a movie in any major city, shoot SAG. Period.

Looking for A Name

When looking for "name" actors, people either look too high, too low, or in the wrong places.

While low budget producers don't ask me about Clooney and Pitt, they will ask me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt or other industry hot young actors. Forget it, you missed the boat on them.

Others will not take having a name in the cast into account at all. I have never suggested casting someone just because they were a name, but having no one recognizable will not help you stand out when it's time to sell your film.

You can get recognizable names who are right for your film anywhere from the SAG Modified Low and up, sometimes even on the Ultra Low, if you set your sights realistically.

Think folks who were supporting actors in bigger movies, the antagonist in successful indies. If you are in NY or LA, recognizable faces from television. Many of these folks are looking for an opportunity to show a different side of their talent - give them that chance.

When Law and Order was shooting in NY, I found regular guest stars and recurring characters as good folks to target. Same would go now for Blue Bloods.

For indie filmmakers, too many think like Hollywood. You want someone to play a cop? Cast the guy who played a cop in this movie. A tough guy? Get the guy who played a tough guy three times.

For most actors, this is exactly what they are not looking for, unless the pay is right. When Chris Noth left Law and Order, the last thing he was going to play was a detective, yet this is probably what indie folks were sending to his agent.

Think of talented actors who have never played the type of character you are offering. While we are on type-casting....

Casting With and Against Type

Folks who have never acted may think actors are neurotic, unstable folks, and while there is an element of that, I would argue that it takes a tough center to continue to audition and get only a small percentage of those auditions.

I have often told actor friends who have never been on the other side of the table that very often they aren't cast through no fault of their own, but simply because they don't look like the picture the director has in their head.

For Town Diary. I had the deputy from Lone Star in my head when I wrote the role of the local sheriff. The casting director brought in a person who, if crafted from an online program, could not have been closer to what I imagined.

He also happened to give the fourth or fifth best performance.

It never ceases to amaze me how much some writer/directors cannot get away from the way they heard the lines in their heads - hence,  the dreaded line readings. I strongly urge young filmmakers to move beyond their own head, and let good actors show you other dimensions you had not imagined.

Beyond that, if the old girlfriend you wrote about was a blonde, and the best performance you see is a brunette, think seriously about adjusting, unless hair color is really important (Legally Blonde would probably not worked as well if it were Legally Brunette)

Similar for tall, short, etc. Also, unless the role needs to represent a certain ethnic group, try to think outside-the-box a little there as well. (One of Forrest Whitakers early film roles was for a character originally written as a Jewish dentist.)

Look for the performance they can give, not the performance they give in audition

It's rare on a feature that the actors have seen the entire script, more often only the sides. You cannot possibly think that the entirety of an actor's work is done just from this small sample. They are trying to impress you with this material, and sometimes may make choices that are wrong based on the short section of the script they have read.

What I'm looking for is how well they executed the choice they made, even if it is different from the choice I expected.

For any actor I like, I will always give a note with a different choice, even if I like the choice they made. My goal is not to get them to the perfect performance in the audition room. I want to see how they incorporate notes.

This is especially important in lead and major supporting roles. Resume will often tell you a good deal as well.

It's Not the 'Combine' - Past Performance is best predictor of future behavior

In professional football, there is this event called the 'Combine' where college athletes are put through a series of measurements: how fast the run the 40 meter dash, weight they lift, etc.

Old-school scouts will tell you that for all the measureables, they still believe the "eye test". What did they actually do in game situations in college?

In horse racing, there is a saying to never bet on a horse to do what he hasn't done. Lots of horses will put up great workouts in the morning, only to fade when challenged in a race.

For actors, I love when I have tape on an actor. Even if they are good, are all their performances basically the same character in different movies? Are they so cameleon-like that they are completely different from role to role?

Most actors aren't Meryl Streep - you will see a lot of the same character traits from role to role. In the old days, this wasn't considered bad. Humphrey Bogart basically had two character-types - good guys and bad guys - and most performances can be lumped as one or the other. but somehow, he still gave memorable performances.

When I look at tape from other shows, I look to see if there is a range. If there is, I have a better reason to believe I will see the range in this role.

Agents will provide tape, but today, you can also YouTube performances outside of the best selects that the agent sends - or just rent the shows or movies.

For me, actors that grow over time give you better performances in the long run. Look for them.

There are exceptions: genre movies (sci-fi, horror, crime) often do just fine with stock characters. The effects and stories are more the stars  than the actors. Comedies often can do this as well (has anyone ever used the words "range" and "David Spade" in the same sentence?)

There are also limits: no matter how much you go beyond "type", casting John Goodman as the hot young stud in Thelma and Louise would have probably failed - and did you really want to see him with his shirt off?

At this point, let me offer some rebuttal advice from someone who went to the grave with more knowledge of casting than I pretend to have, Elia Kazan. from "Kazan on Directing":

"The first thing you should do with an actor is not sign a contract with him. Take him to dinner. And take him for a walk afterwards."

Kazan famously worked with the earliest and some of the best of the Method Actors, including Brando and Dean. Kazan goes on in the book to say that actors can never get very far from who they really are, so don't cast them to go beyond who they are.

I would argue that this is not necessarily contradictory. Actors are people, and some have limitations.

One of those limitations for me is intelligence: it's a hard thing to fake. It is why you see so many of the same actors in the work of writers like Aaron Sorkin. I don't think you can give dialogue of a highly-educated character to an actor who is not that smart. It comes off like the old sci-fi movies where, when they wanted to ingenue to look intelligent, they put her hair up and gave her a pair of glasses. It rarely worked, and it is the same with men or women. Good actors can play characters who know less, but not more.

There are also those rare casting opportunities where the actor's life experience informs the role. In the short we were casting, one of the juicier supporting roles was a rock musician who is now successful telling off a record executive who he no longer needs. The guy we went with was a musician who had a lot of pain in that area that we could never teach or show.

I often think of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, where basically playing herself was better than anyone "acting" that role could have been, or Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy. In the scenes where he is kidnapped, the pain that comes with fame, especially the double-sword of fan adulation,  is something that very much comes through. Lewis clearly knew this from first-hand experience.

The thing about those instances is that they are, for me, the exception. A well-trained actor can find the essence of a character whose specific experience is very different from their own. When casting actors about I know little, I will look to their training and their theater work.

Let's go to the videotape!*

OK, it's not videotape any more, but always, always record the auditions.

For one thing, it is too easy to forget the specific audition after seeing hours and days of them. More important, the final product will be on film. Some actors translate better on film than in person. Additionally, I have often argued that the camera "loves" certain actors. That is a big part of what used to be called "star quality." Simply, if you can't take your eyes off the picture, you are in good shape.

This is something you cannot learn or teach, It's there or it's not. It's not even about being a good actor. When you take a good actor who also has that "thing", you have something special.

Casting a lead requires more than a good actor or actress

A lead has to carry a film. Some talented supporting actors have not reached the point in their career where they can carry a film, and good acting isn't enough.

I have seen this one too many times, and it was part of our problem on Town Diary. Our lead was a good actor, but his only other "lead" role was in a bad Melanie Griffith movie, and if I had bothered to watch it, we would not have cast him.

The best way to know if an actor or actress can carry a film is if they have done so before. I always look for leading roles in other films or in plays. It is a huge opportunity and also a huge burden, and not all actors (I use the term gender-free) are up to it.

Especially on an indie film, your lead will be working almost every day, if not every day, and for the most hours. Every other actor enters his sphere. Consistency of character, as well as character arc, are more difficult for your lead than anyone else.

Add all of that to that "watch-ability" factor mentioned above, and you will be asking a lot of them. Do your research and make sure this person can not only be good for one day, but for 25-40 days.

You are my soul-mate - at least for the next month

The relationship between director and lead is legendary. Hollywood abounds with stories of directors and leads who did not get along, and many of those times, the end result was good - or even great - despite, and sometimes because of, the tension.

For better or worse, it is a relationship. They don't have to be your best friend. Many of us can think back to  romantic relationships in our lives that was fueled by the different personalities, by the tension, sexual and otherwise. Tension can be used.

Still, that is hard. If you have a reason to believe the actor will be difficult, I highly suggest casting someone else. Even though actors are often on best behavior at rehearsals, some will give hints, little signs that the working relationship may not be good.

If you are a first-time director and the actor has a resume a mile long, there may also be a sense that they know more than you do, and they probably do. You are still the director, and while you need to take everyone's contribution as a part of the final product, it still needs to be your vision.

The give-and-take there is not something that can be quantified. If you are giving line-readings every day, something is wrong. You need to find a better way to get the performance from an actor. By the same turn, if the actor has decided to ignore you because he has a better idea, that doesn't work, either.

I have seen a number of lead actors chew first-time directors up and spit them out. It's not pretty, and once that dynamic enters, there is no winner. If the director comes down hard on the actor, there is a tension that is not good on set. If the actor gets away with it, the rest of the cast, and then the crew, lose respect for the director.

Some of this is Freudian. No, it does not mean the actor wants to marry their mother or kill their father (it doesn't mean that isn't true, of course) but that they may be reacting to a past traumatic experience; namely, having watched some other lead bully their way through a movie while they had to play second fiddle. Consciously or sub-consciously, they said to themselves, as they nursed their psychological wounds, "When I get my chance...."

Again, this is not just a theory, but something I have seen on more than one occasion.

With leads, think not only about the actor, but the person you are casting

This is hard to tell, but there are sometimes signs body language that tell you this might be the case. Is the actor condescending when responding to your note? Sarcastic? Does he cut you off when you are talking? If that is happening here, it will definitely happen on set.

There are probably dozens of aspects of casting I have left out, and they will probably come to me when I hit "publish" and thereafter.

Consider this a primer.  There is certainly no shortage of advice on casting from bigger names than me. What I offer here are my experiences and observations.I welcome feedback, especially from your own experiences.  Don't be afraid to disagree! I promise to not invoke Production Infallibility.**

* A phrase that first entered the popular vernacular when NY sportscaster Warner Wolf used it on evening sportscasts in the pre-ESPN and SportsCenter days.

**I often joke that the Pope does not claim to be infallible, on to be infallible in matters of Church law. I sometimes invoke the same thing on set, admitting that while I am not infallible, I will claim to be in matters of production. As you might guess, that has a varying degree of success.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Plaster - Part 2 - A Hard Way to Make an Easy Living

"I know what this movie's about. It's about seeing the tits on the girl whose tits you don't care about seeing, and not getting to see the tits on the girl whose tits you want to see."
-Paul Newman's priceless review to Robert Altman on seeing Altman's The Player

Best tagline ever.

To those of us who have made a career in film, the old poker adage above applies; it’s a hard way to make an easy living.

OK, it’s not digging ditches, or any of those jobs you are likely to see on “Dirty Jobs,” like castrating sheep with your teeth. However, the dichotomy of the film professional is that we are willing to work 16 hour nights on 10 degree days, in part to avoid doing a “real” job.

The hard work isn’t what attracts us, of course. It’s either the lofty artistic muse who whispers in our ear, or the need to create, or the joy of seeing something come to life.

Then, there are those who are drawn to film for the perks, as they see it, for the adulation and sense of control and the “look at me,” whether it be as actor or director or producer.

The director and producer on this film were the latter. The director, Jean-Baptiste, fell into a very special sub-set of the latter, and those are the guys in see it as a cool way to pick up pretty women.

Now, unlike David Crosby, who famously said he picked up a guitar because it was the only way an unattractive guy like him could pick-up girls, Jean-Baptiste was a "player" and not the kind described in the movie of the same name.

The first manifestation of his inclination to use his position to pick-up women. He would regale Joey and I with stories of women he had gotten somewhere with the night before at some club by telling them that he was directing a movie, and asking when we could bring them in for auditions. Were the actresses? Hey, this is New York, and it’s not a stretch that some hot woman you meet at a bar or club either is an actress or model, or has those aspirations. I explained that it would be a waste of time to bring all of his potential conquests in, but this didn’t deter him. Although I am usually involved in casting, I often ducked out for the sillier moments.

One moment I would not duck out for were the auditions for a sultry Latina Madame.  As he and Joey drooled over the submissions, most of which accented what was highlighted in the ad - namely, cleavage - I explained there were SAG rules (not to mention professional standards) in auditioning for a role that would, in fact, involve both nudity (topless and some rear) and sexual situations (the character basically spends most of her scenes in an apartment screwing an another character in various parts of the room - up against the wall, against a kitchen counter- you've seen Showtime at night, you get the idea.)

There would be no full frontal nudity in the scene; this much we covered pretty quickly. Still, Joey and Jean-Baptiste were obsessed with knowing what these women’s breasts look like.

The SAG rules have recently changed to allowing performers to audition with pasties and a G-string if they like, but one constant remains from the old days - the producer cannot require a performer to be nude (in total or partially).

There are a number of complications here. One, too many aspiring actresses just see this as a necessary evil, and are more than willing to show whatever is asked to get the role. When saying this, I think of baseball Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson, who, when asked if he would have used steroids, said that he would hope not, but if he knew the hitters were using it and it gave them an advantage, he would have considered it. A fierce competitor, Gibson insisted he would never give his opponents an advantage.

The sexism that pervades the movie industry  has convinced female performers that “everyone else is doing it,” so they should as well, union or other regulations be damned.

Even as we expand ideas of gender, any count of nude scenes for women in movies and nude scenes for men will fall heavily on the former.

Joey and Jean-Baptise tried to make the case that since we would be seeing them topless in roles, wasn’t it prudent to see what would be showing. There are all sorts of ways to check that out without seeing everything. At one point, Joey asked if it would make it OK if his girlfriend was in the room so that it wouldn’t be all men.

Yeah, that makes it all better. Right. Sure. Sigh.

I like seeing attractive naked women as much as the next guy, in the appropriate situations, but auditions aren’t it, and having never been a frat boy even when I was in college, the American Pie version of sex is, frankly, not very sexy to me.

We got through the auditions with minimal problems, aside from the constant pouting of not being able to get a free show on the part of the producers. We chose a lady who clearly had what the role required, and, it would turn out, a good deal more. We will discuss  that when we get to the shooting of the movie.

Aside from casting, there was the issue of the Director’s assistant. Now, I always bring on an assistant for the director on features. A director has so much to think about that I want someone to take care of all things great and small that I don’t want him to be thinking about, from organizing files to keeping track of schedule to picking up his dry cleaning when I need him in a meeting. Note that the position is “assistant to” and not Assistant Director, the latter being a distinct position of running the set and has nothing to do with getting the director coffee.

It’s an easy position to fill, since it involves being around the director almost all the time, access to a director that a newbie is unlikely to get on a feature in any other position, with great potential for insight when their turn comes.

Not surprisingly. Jean-Baptiste loved the idea, and, even less surprising, she was a cute, hot blond. She turned out to be one of those he found in the clubs, and I never detected a concern for preparing for a directorial career of her own. Even better for Jean-Baptiste, she was attracted to him and very receptive to offering attention not usually required of the position.

Insert your own sexual pun here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Are you back? Good.

All of this would been a level of annoyance, but not disastrous, on it’s own. None of us are perfect human beings, and I’ve dealt with directors and producers with all sorts of annoying traits and quirks, and usually, you just let them roll off your back.

Here is where we return to the basic problem: Jean-Baptiste loved all the glory, but was not much for the guts. I would set up meetings with the production designer, and he would bellow and wail, but it was clear that he was making it up on the spot. Charles, my professional DP, said shot meetings went the same way. He loved discussing the cool shots, but the mundane issue of coverage bored him, and he would drift off and be useless once he had discussed the hero shots (some of which were either outside of our budget or just ridiculous).

Most meetings went like this, when he wasn't late for them, which he considered his prerogative.

Jean-Baptiste is not alone in this category; indeed, they are a category because there are too many folks who like the title and power of being a director, but are unwilling to put in the tireless energy that it takes to get it right. I had encountered these folks before, and would again, and I must say, my tolerance has not grown over the years.

If a grip put as little work into the job as guys like Jean-Baptiste and his ilk put into directing, they would be fired within a week, the offense being ever so more grievous because he had a position so many others would love, and would give so much energy and effort if given half the chance.

Time the director wastes is the time of everyone involved, even when those folk  are usually giving their all (hey, there are slouches everywhere). Usually, the money is tied up in the director, and the ax must fall somewhere else.  Often, that is the assistant director, and ironically, that would happen here, though in this case, it wasn’t Jean-Baptiste’s doing.

On one particular day, both Jean-Baptise and Joey were both late for appointments, and for a "good reason." Once again, they had been out late in the clubs, this time not searching for hotties (although I'm sure that happened as well) but trying to secure the services of a known actor.

See. this is one of those places where the anonymous thing is important. This actor has had some degree of success both before and since. He was a neighbor of mine for years who I saw all the time outside of work, and when he had it together, he could be brilliant, I mean. really special.

There were two problems: one, he wanted $10,000 for two days, which was outside of our budget, and would also mess with Most Favored Nations* agreements I had with other agents. Two, he was going through a period in his life when drugs were a serious issue, and not a good bet on a film.

I made both points really clear to the producers, that this would be a problem on a few levels. They agreed.

They then went out, found him in a club he frequented, and got him to sign a deal memo for $10K. Even better, they wrote him a check for part up front.

I love when they listen, you know.

In the next post, I will look at some of the consequences of Jean-Baptiste’s attitude during prep, as well as one of the more difficult firings I have ever faced.

Unlike on screen, behind the scenes in movies, the good guy doesn't always win, and, like some corporate situations, bad behavior is often rewarded. For them, movies are an easy way to make an easy living, even if it doesn't last for long.

*The term, Most Favored Nations, derives from trade agreements between countries, where, if one country is given an advantage, it must be given to all of them. In film, it refers to actor agreements (although I've used them in setting crew salaries as well) where an actor is guaranteed that no actor at the level of his character (and that can be spelled out in various ways) will get anything that any other level gets. Pretty simple, but can get complicated, such as "Actor X has Most Favored Nations status with all actors with the exception of...." Agents use them to protect their clients; producers use them to try to form an "ensemble" that all agrees to take less than usual with the proviso that everyone else is doing the same.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Plaster - Part 1 - Don't Let the Honeymoon Fool You

"Don't Believe What They Tell You at Denny's"

I mentioned the quote above in a previous post to highlight how easy it is to be enticed by the good first meeting, to believe that the folks you are about to work with actually get it, that they will listen to you when the time comes.

The reference further suggests that at first meetings (often at Denny's in LA at that time as I understand) everything seems peachy and cool.

In many ways, this is not unlike a honeymoon. Honeymoons are accepted as the happiest times for a couple, but if you examine them closely, even the best of them have hints of problems to come. Whether the couple gets past them is another story.

My mom tells a story of taking a vacation in Florida with my Dad, and that my father would chat with other pretty women and allow them to give him their numbers. She would often say, "I should have left him right there." (Note: They never divorced - they were married right up until my Dad's death). My Dad's version of the story is a little different; that he was just being "polite"and that my Mom over-reacted. Knowing both of them, there is enough truth in both; my Mom was overly-jealous, and whether he followed up on it or not, my Dad really enjoyed flirting.

The truth is that the hint's of problems usually exist right from the start, but the warm handshakes, jovial laughter and nodding heads of the producer/directors coming on the job lead you to believe what you want to believe from the bottom of your heart. These are the right folks; this is the right script, we can do this together.

When I met the producer and the producer/director for Plaster*, they had an interesting script, which basically took place in and around one run-down apartment building in the Bronx. As I think back on it, the script was a little cliched, and a little generic, but I thought it had enough going for it that a director who understood the material could bring it out.

Both the producer - we'll call him Joey, and the director - let's call him Jean-Baptiste, were excited to have me on as line producer. I had been referred by folks as having experience doing low-budget, urban films. 

The origin of these reps are interesting. Later in my career, I happened to make a mob film or two, and people thought that was a specialty. The rep here came from doing Walls and Bridges and from my relationship with John Rosnell, who had done Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn.

At one point, it had gotten confusing enough that, while in LA, I was called to a meeting for Assistant Director in an area of LA that was mostly Black and Hispanic. When I walked in the door, there was surprise, which I soon learned was from the fact that I was not African-American. This was an assumption the folks made. There was no bias - just surprise, enough so that they insisted on driving me home (not driving, I took the bus) out of fear for my safety walking in their neighborhood. I found this odd, that they were making assumptions about me walking through the neighborhood I would never make. I explained that I lived on the Upper West Side in a mostly Dominican neighborhood in NY, and did not ever consider it a problem, but driving me home made them feel better, and, hey, why turn down a free ride.

My understanding was that Joey and Jean-Baptiste were co-producers. Later, Joey would insist that only he was the producer and that Jean-Baptiste was only the writer and director.

Here, a seed was planted for a problem to come. They had a production company set up, an LLC, as is required, but had not had the the production company option the script. In cases like this, where the writers were also principals of the production company, often the option would be just a token formality, like buying the rights for a dollar.

For those new to the business side of film, unlike other forms of writing, once the film is optioned, the production company - and not the writer - own the copyright. As far as I know, film is the only art form that does this, and it says something about what the industry thinks of writers.

Formality or not, it must be done. SAG insists on seeing a Chain-of-Title (to know that the company signing as signatory is indeed owner of the property). Further, you never want a writer to be able to pull the product later.

While they claimed not to have a problem with this, actually getting an agreement signed took weeks. The more they put it off, the more I sensed there was some hesitancy on both parts, to settle on the terms of the agreement. They would up signing a very vague agreement just to get the chain-of-title done, but one that would later lead to disagreements between the two.

They knew that I was friends with Charlie Houston, who was the gaffer on The Rook. Charlie and I had done some commercials and shorts where he was Director of Photography, and I knew him to be a brilliant DP, as well as a great guy to work along side. I was more than happy to bring my old friend Charlie onto the project, and also brought his wife on as production manager. I had worked with Sally (not her real name - for her protection, not because she wasn't fantastic) before, and thought the fit would be good.

I never regretted hiring Charlie. If anything, when the bad days came, it was nice to have him at my side. Charlie was the first person to sense trouble. Among his favorite expressions was that, in this business, if you aren't paranoid, you aren't paying attention. How true this has turned out to be.

For my First AD, I chose a guy - John was his name (real, but hey, there are a ton of "John's" who are ADs, so it hardly reveals who he is.) John and I had been a great team on a previous project, and I thought we would be on this one as well.

That turned out not to be the case. More on that in the next post.

Both Joey and Jean-Baptiste had backgrounds in acting. They were also friends. Joey considered himself an equal creative partner; I don't think Jean-Baptiste always saw him that way. Joey assumed Jean-Baptiste would have little say on the financial side; needless to say at this point, Jean-Baptiste felt differently. Oh, he was fine with staying out of the day-to-day financials, but he wanted definite input into budget as it affected his pay and where money was to be spent. 

How much of Joey's money was tied into the project, I don't know. Clearly, he brought most of the money, though, again. Jean-Baptiste often claimed that his rep as an actor (no, he isn't famous) attracted some of the investors.

If there was a lesson to this post, it is to look honestly at potential problems right from the beginning; not to be fooled by the sense of comradery that arises at first impressions. If there is a question or concern, deal with it, if not at that first meeting, very soon afterwards.  I am much more of a skeptic now than I was then, and Plaster is certainly part of the reason.

This is a delicate balance. If you offer them nothing but negativity and suspicion in initial meetings, they would be right in being leery of you. The challenge is to earn their trust - and earn it quickly - so that when you push them to make decisions they are putting off, they understand the need.

If the seeds of discontent were sewn early, as we got into pre-production, casting, and hiring, ominous and threatening saplings sprouted everywhere, as we will discuss in Part 2.

* As mentioned in previous post, names are changed here, except where indicated.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Not All Movies Have Happy Endings

"Do you like foreign films?"
"With subtitles?"

"I hate those types of films."

"Me, too," Cliff says. "Mostly because-"
"No happy endings."
      -Silver Linings Playbook

From Marcus Welby* to St. Elsewhere** to ER to House, and from the early days of movies right through today, there is a scene we all know.

The anxious loved one waits in the hospital. The doctor walks into the room, often covered in blood, and says something like this:

"I'm sorry. We did everything in our power...."

Followed by:


It would be nice if someone had a record of these scenes, and how many times the above dialogue was offered verbatim.

On the production side, not every movie needs to be a happy ending. Many productions go out not with a bang, but with a whimper. Last day of production comes, and the AD pronounces:

"That is a picture wrap on (last actor working). (Applause)."And, that is a picture wrap on (name of movie).(More applause).

Sometimes, that applause has multiple meanings, both for the actor and the picture.

Of course, there is still post-production and getting it sold and all that, but the movie is in the can (at least until reshoots and pick-ups). Some movies may not see much of an audience beyond the crew screening, but, hey, they got done

Then, there are the ones that don't get done.

The ones that don't get done are either never mentioned, or they become the stuff of legends; Terry Gilliams Don Quixote movie. or Jodorowski's Dune are among the latter.

For low-budget indies that do not finish principal photography, there are no cool websites. There is no film lore. Much like the 2nd favorite pet in the house, they are wrapped in a trash bag and tossed in a shallow grave in the backyard (not to mention the ignominious end to many a misunderstood Goldfish, gone in a rush of water meant to carry away less beloved matter.) No shoebox, and surely no tombstone for these.

The last series on Man of the Century was about one of the highlights of my career, though I can only take a very small credit. The following posts are about two projects - they never became movies - that never made it to the end of principal photography, and I can hardly accept a majority of the blame.

The Yin and the Yang.

Indeed, like in those medical dramas, I, and many other good and talented people, left that operating theater, bloodied and, yes, maybe a little bowed, able to say that despite our best efforts, the patient was lost.

With these two films, I need to go back to my rule here, which is that when mentioning people in an unfavorable light, I will use other names, to protect, well, let's just say "to protect" without the presumption of innocence or guilt.  We will call these projects Plaster and Double.

One had a very talented director, but from a commercial background. The director on the other was an actor with, let us say, different interests.

Even bad movies can amble along, hang on and let the respirator keep it going, make it over the finish line. Before a film flatlines, there are warning signs. The patient is lost when the folks in charge refuse to heed those warning signs and the entreaties of the people who understand them.

The two movies failed for very different reasons, but one thing they had in common was the unwillingness to listen to good advice, and not just my own. This is not an, "I told you so," because I was not the only one who saw the end coming, and not the only one to try and prevent it.

There is a new TNT show called Monday Mornings that revolves around meetings held at a hospital to review patients who were lost. It features one of my favorite character actors, Alfred Molina. I've only seen two episodes so far, but, so far, so good.

Yes, right there in the pilot is one of those scenes mentioned above - in fact, two, one in a flashback with one of the surgeons.

The point of these reviews is to examine what went wrong, and, hopefully prevent it from happening again. Consider this your Monday Morning, a chance to see what went wrong in projects that did not get completed, so that maybe some project - maybe yours - may live.

So, maybe, this doesn't happen to your movie:

*Go ahead, say it - you are too young to remember Marcus Welby, MD. It should have a footnote in TV history as probably the last of the "kindly doctor" shows, the cynicism of our age making those types of shows as impossible to believe as the perfect lawyer shows such as Perry Mason. Today, we like our heroes not just flawed, but in constant distress. See House.

**One of my favorite all-time shows, and one of the most inventive shows ever. The producers of E.R. have often said their show doesn't happen without St. Elsewhere blazing the trail. There are some direct character parallels - the Clooney character on E.R. with the Harmon character on St. Elsewhere, and the David Morse character on St. Elsewhere and the Anthony Edwards character on E.R.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Johnny Twennies - Part 6 - This One Is Just Right

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away"
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery (writer)

Less is more.
-Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (architect)

If writing is all about rewriting, rewriting is all about doing more with less. In fact, everything about the making of a film seems to be about doing more with less, from the screenwriter trying to be more sparse to the editor encouraging the director to remove that wonderful scene that no longer serves the story.

Ah, but cut too much and the audience is left with questions that detract from their enjoyment of the story. To quote an old friend and one of my favorite filmmakers, Ray DeFelitta, who once reminded me that in film, its alright to be subtle, as long as you're obvious about it.

Maybe it was that larcenous little girl, Goldilocks, who said it better than all the artists and philosophers who, even when taking what was not hers, decided she would work her way through everything until she found what was "just right." 

I always wondered how popular culture could herald a bratty little girl guilty of breaking and entering, wanton destruction and larceny just because she was pretty. Then again, we have Lindsay Lohan.

What I always loved about Man of the Century was that it knew exactly what it set out to do, and didn't try to lay it on too thick, didn't try to be an epic. It understood the genre it was spoofing, and that those wacky early talkies were rarely very long, and made sure they exited, stage left, before you caught your breath.

"This porridge is too hot," she exclaimed.
So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.
"This porridge is too cold," she said.
So, she tasted the last bowl or porridge.
"Ah, this porridge is just right," she said happily, and she ate it all up.

Johnny Twennies, the lead character, encounters a number of dastardly schemes as he makes his way in cheerful, 1920s style through 1990s New York. Much like those early talkies, and later Ben Hecht* scripts, none of those transgressions are as important as whether or not he gets the girl, and the right girl.

A number of the reviewers discussed the length of the film:

"The trick of a movie like "Man of the Century" is to keep its pins in the air and to string out the joke for as long as possible. The movie comes up with just enough silly variations on its premise to keep it afloat until its desperate madcap finale at a stuffy '20s dinner party."

Two things are impressive about the script, which Frazier co-wrote with writer-director Adam Abraham: First, it takes what might have been just an appealing gimmick and keeps it bright and thriving for the length of a feature film; and second, there isn't a line wasted. Virtually every sentence out of Johnny's mouth is identifiably from the '20s or early '30s.

Mick LaSalle, SF Examiner

Modern filmmakers love to make homages to those early crime films, and especially their later counter-parts, the Noirs. Often, though, they simply don't have the ear for the snappy dialogue, writing unintentional poor parodies.

Adam Abraham and Gibson Frazier surely got it just right, not just recycling old lines, but coming up with original snappy dialogue of their own that perfectly fit the style.

"Say, you keep riding me like a streetcar, you're going to have to pay the fare."

They also used it to perfectly play with meaning in modern society. When Johnny rebuffs his girlfriend's advances:

Samantha Winter "Are you gay?"
Johnny: "Sure, I'm gay. I'm gay as a day in May."
Samantha: "Well, are you bi?"
Johnny: "By myself, mostly"

It's a neat trick to keep the premise of a movie like this going, this guy with a 1920s style seemingly oblivious to what is going on in the 1990s, completely untainted by its cynicism. If the movie ever stops to take a breath, the whole thing falls apart.

Luckily, it doesn't, which leads to the second thing the movie got right - Gibson Frazier.

"This chair is too big," she exclaimed.
So she sat in the second chair.
"This chair is too big, too," she whined.
So she tried the last and smallest chair.
"Ah,, this chair is just right," she sighed.

At its best, this sort of dialogue only sounds good from people who get it. From Roger Ebert's very positive review:

"Gibson Frazier...has a natural affinity for this material. You can't fake rapid-fire screwball dialogue. It has to be in your blood."

It certainly is in Gibson's blood, and I've seen him handle it not only here but in other film and television appearances. Gibson is a well-trained theater actor first and foremost, and like Willie Mays gliding for a well-hit ball, he makes it look much easier than it is.

As co-writer, Gibson made sure the dialogue fit his character well. Something he and co-writer Abraham also got right, which many young writers get wrong, is having distinct voices for all the characters. Johnny's patter sounds all the more crisp because of the modern, and often profane, language around them. Feel good movies like this are usually afraid to go past PG language, but the writers understood that it was Johnny's contrast to the modern world that made this funny, that if all the characters sounded like him, or were dumbed-down, this is nothing more than a short that runs too long.

Making a feel-good comedy with an assortment of characters that could have come from a Scorsese mob movie is no small feat. Adam and Gibson pulled it off.

Papa bear growled, "Someone's been sleeping in my bed."
"Someone's been sleeping in my bed, too," Mama bear said.
"Someone's been sleeping in my bed, too, and she's still there!" exclaimed Baby Bear.

Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed "Help!" and jumped up and ran out of the room"

Ok, so Adam, Gibson, and a talented crew made this unique and well-made films. In the indie world, that is "bearly" (pardon the pun) half the battle. They were doing something outside the norm. Would they get away with it and make it safely into the forest of distributed films, or be eaten like so many good films, swallowed up and spit out by a system that often feels like a lottery?

(N.B. Ok, I never did get how the bears are somehow the heavies in this story, and Goldi gets to yell for help. Isn't it the bears that were violated? Never mind.)

Like most faery tales, this one has a happy ending. While Man of the Century did not make it into Sundance, it did make Slamdance, and wound up winning the Audience Award. That led to it's eventual release by Fine Line (though, as with most distribution stories, it was not that simple or quick, but that's not my story to tell.)

Critics seemed to like it as well. As LaSalle in the Chronicle said, "It's sharp and irresistible, and there's no other movie like it." Indeed, maybe until The Artist, I don't think there was.

I can watch it again today and thoroughly enjoy it, and I highly recommend it to fans of that style of movie. Give yourself over to a fun ride for 77 minutes. It is available to rent on Netflix, though, sadly, only on DVD and not for online. (Full Disclosure: I don't now, and never have had, profit participation. I was paid just fine on the shoot, so I'm not hawking it for personal gain.)

I love Ebert's wrap-up line:

"You review a movie like this, and you don't want to email it to the office. You want to get on the horn and ask for rewrite, sister - on the double, see?

*When I think of Hecht, I think of The Front Page, and its many versions, but that is a small blip on the screenwriting career of Hecht. Just scrolling down the IMDB list linked doesn't do him justice, either. Take the time to watch some of the films he wrote and over so many decades and different eras and you will begin to appreciate his craft.