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.


Kangas said...

You should name names. You know, just for the fun of it. :)

Are most of these people still working in the biz today?

JB Bruno said...

One day, I probably will.

Neither the producer nor the director are active, as far as I can tell, though with the VOD and other non-theatrical markets, who knows.