Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Dream in the Drawer

Secrets are a dangerous thing, Ben. We all think we want to know them, but if you've kept one to yourself, you come to understand that doing so, you may learn something about someone else, but you also discover something about yourself. I hope you're ready for that.

-Nick Sloan (Robert Redford)
The Company You Keep

Much of this series has been about the past. This one is about the letting go of the past to move forward.

Writer/Director Ray DeFelitta talks about having a script "in the drawer." It is something his father, Frank, also a writer/director, told him.

For me, that script was my first screenplay, Never Waver. It was my first screenplay, and one that was close to my heart for many reasons.

It took me longer than any other screenplay, and I dd a great deal of research to finish it. My ex-wife, Maureen, was incredibly supportive, helping me with the typing and formatting before Final Draft was on the scene. It led me on a number of adventures to try and get it made.

The story was one I was passionate about; the story of a journalist involved in an ROTC bombing in the 1960s in which a woman was killed. It was now the Reagan 80s, and this journalist had run to Canada, hiding and working under a different name. The bomb was not supposed to be  real, and the journalist - David - never knew who planted a real bomb. When as former political mentor - a professor and one-term liberal congressman from NY is killed, and one of the members of David's group is accused, David decides he must find out the truth, at risk to the life he now has.

If this plot sounds a little familiar, it is because it is very close to the plot of The Company We Keep, the new Robert Redford film. In his film, Redford plays a lawyer now living under the name Jim Grant in Albany, NY. When a member of the Weather Underground group (Susan Sarandon)  he was a part of is arrested while trying to turn herself in, his life is turned upside down. In 1971, that group was involved in a bank robbery where a guard was killed. Jim, then Nick Sloan, has been named as an accomplice all these years, When a young journalist (Shia LaBeouf) finds him, he must find an old lover and member of the group (Julie Christie) to make sure the truth comes out.

You can look up more about the film at the link above, or the book it is based on at this link

I first noticed it because it was a return of Redford to the screen, and when I read the synopsis, I had mixed feelings. The plot, and more so the theme, were so close to the plot and theme of Never Waver. I tried a number of times over the years to get Never Waver made, and it never happened. It's not that I think someone stole my idea - clearly the author of the book did not see my script all these years later. It just makes me wonder if I would have gotten my script sold if I just kept at it.

The story of the lessons from the 1960s that are lost on people today (or, when I wrote it, the Reagan 80s) is an interesting one to me. The older you get, the more you realize we really are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past by forgetting the lessons - or so it seems sometimes. The parallels are everywhere.

It was with all of this on my mind that I went to see the movie, which did not bode well for what my reaction might be.I was even prepared to get up and leave if I found myself getting angry at any point.

That did not happen.

The script, and the movie, are good - really good. Besides the themes above, it is also a treatise on journalism in the age of social media, and in the aftermath of the disastrous coverage by both traditional and new media of the Boston Marathon bombing, it proves to be very prophetic.

This is also a big issue for me, as most of my best college friends went into journalism in some form, and I don't see a lot of the values we talked about in many journalists today.

The cast of veteran actors, from Sarandon and Redford to the too-rarely-seen Julie Christie, Nick Nolte Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Stanley Tucci and more, make you miss all the old pros who seem to be out of fashion (unless they are bringing them back for action movies to reprise themselves, such as Willis and Ah-nold)

The movie does a great job of showing the strain responding to big, passionate social issues takes on human beings and their personal lives.

The latter was also a theme of Never Waver, one that always haunted me from my days stage managing, and then stage directing, Hair, and the song "Easy to Be Hard"

And especially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice,
Do you only
care about the bleeding crowd?
How about
a needing friend?
I need a friend.

That song has always stuck with me, how fighting for what is right is so much easier if you can look past the human consequences and look past the sentient beings all around you. We humans are a messy lot, are we not?

As I was heading home, what struck me is what a better script The Company You Keep is than Never Waver - it just is. The difference is in the details, as it always is with writing.

I am a better writer than I was then, and it might have inspired me to take Never Waver out of the drawer and fix it, work on it, reshape it, and make it better. That did not happen.

What I felt on the way home was relief, the relief of letting Never Waver go. The underlying themes are something I might still seek to explore, but if I do, it will be in another script, another story. It is liberating. It is time to move on; it has been for some time.

Hanging on to the past can wait for the days when I'm in a retirement home somewhere re-living past triumphs and defeats. I am a better writer who has lived more of life and has more to give to my work. Whatever my writing becomes, it won't be re-hashing of ideas I suffered through a long time ago, I worked those emotions and feelings out once, I gave them life in those old scripts, and even though they lived a sheltered life, never got to spend time in the outside world, getting through them helped make me the better writer I am today.

It's time to move on, and let the dream sleep peacefully in that drawer.

(The Clip below is not because Cheryl Barnes is not amazing in the movie, but because it was written as the character of Sheila's song. They changed it in the movie, one of many things that I hated about the film version.)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Plaster - Part 6 - Show Me the Money

"Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It's time to start thinking."
-Sir Ernest Rutherford, Noble Prize Winner, Physics

Here's a lesson in line producing you won't learn in any film school, and, hopefully, one you never have to put into practice. Call it "How To Responsibly Shut Down A Film."

It is unique to independently-financed projects. As I've repeatedly said, when Studio Films go over budget, they just do so on paper. When Indies go over budget, checks bounce, Literally.

It's the line producer's job to see that does not happen, and it starts with cash flow.

Before you, the line producer, ever started, you prepared a budget. In a perfect case, you prepared a budget based on the script, and then the producers went out and raised that amount of money.

In some cases, they have raised all the money that they could, and now want to know if they can make the movie. It's backwards, but it happens more often than you might think.

The challenge, then, is to give them a hard budget, along with hard decisions that need to be made. You'd like to shoot for 30 days? Sorry, budget says you can do 24. You want a helicopter shot? Sorry, you can't afford it.

You want to pay one actor $10K for one day's work? It's not in the budget.

As you have already seen, on Plaster, that last one got ignored. So did the one about making the schedule work, as our director wasted a good deal of time insisting that we try shots that either didn't work or took too much time. In fact, Jean-Baptiste, the director, claimed that the problem wasn't his lack of preparation, but rather, that two people experienced at doing schedules, myself and my First AD Susan, were wrong about how long it should take. This is not to mention the time lost while he tried to figure out scenes on set that he should have had prepared.

Add it all up, and it was clear to me that we did not have enough money to finish the film. Keeping close track of cash flow and reconciliation are important on movies of any size, but especially so on indies.

Even well-financed indies have accounting departments, but Stan Bickman, my mentor, had taught me how to work with a coordinator and an assistant to do most of the same work during production on projects under $1M.

Cash flow indicates how much you will be spending, by line item, per week. You project this from the very beginning so that you know where you are at any given point.

Reconciliation is a comparison of how much you budgeted, again by line item. versus how much has been spent.

No film comes in exactly on budget by line item, which is where moving money around comes to pass. However, you can easily see where there is no money to move.

On Plaster, we had borrowed all we could from post-production. The producer and director already knew they would, at best, have to raise more money once we got the film "in the can." Now, we were talking about how much of the film we could finish - it would not be the entire film.

The line producer, at this point, has a number of responsibilities.

He has a responsibility to the producers to not leave them with debt. That means you pay off all vendor and crew with the money you have left.

It is okay to put off some vendor payments for a short time, say, until the SAG Bond is reimbursed, or art department returns are done and deposits returned. It is not okay to put them off indefinitely with money that the producers hope will come in.

By nature, producers are optimists. That's all well and good, but reality must kick in. As line producer, I have a responsibility to my vendors. If they are not insisting on C.O.D., then it is because they trust me. That relationship also allows me to get the best deals for filmmakers. Once I burn that, I ruin my reputation, and I hurt the next filmmaker who is looking for a break.

You say, "hey, it was the producers who ddin't pay, not you." Uh, Uh.  The deal happened on my word; my reputation, not the first-time producers'. That makes it my responsibility.

There is also the responsibility to the crew.  On low-budget projects, crews are working for below their regular day rates, sometimes way below. They do that for me because they know I will take care of them, that they will get paid, and on time.

On low-budget projects, I pay crew by having them submit invoices the next-to-last day of the shooting week, and hand out checks on the last day of that week. Sure, on jobs using a payroll company for crew, pay is a week behind, and that's fine, but they are getting paid a good deal more. The trade off with me is that they leave that week's work with a  check for that week, they are never behind.

This is a policy I started when I took over that project where the director had stiffed crew. The previous production manager on that project had trusted the producer/director, and that crew paid for that trust. I swore that would never happen to me - and it never has.

Anyone who has worked low-budget knows of folks who have waited some time after a production closed to get their last checks - or had their checks bounce. Not on my watch.

Filmmakers will beg you for more time. I know, in reading the work of both Christine Vachon and Ted Hope, that many of the great indies of the 90s got finished even after the original money had run out, that the producers were raising the last of the cash even as they were approaching the last dollar. That works if you have a solid fund-raising history -my first-time producers do not.

Further, the picture at the top of this post is too true on some productions. Anyone who has checked their ATM balance, thought they were fine, only to be over-drawn when an un-cashed check came due, knows how that works. To paraphrase the saying on checks - just because you have money left in your balance doesn't mean you have money to spend.

Vendors sometimes take a while to cash checks. I always have crew people who don't make it to the bank. One of my favorite crew folks - an assistant on more than one project, tended to deposit her checks at irregular intervals. That means, at any given time, she might have up to five, un-cashed checks. That money is  still in the bank, but it isn't ours to spend.

This is obvious, you say, Home Ec. 101. No one would be stupid enough to spend that money, you say?

You have never dealt with a desperate filmmaker.

So, it was, that I had to tell Joey, the producer, that we needed to shut down. He had begged and borrowed  what he could, and none of his sources were coming through. I pointed out that if we wrapped with no debt, he could take the footage we had to date and try to cut a fund-raising trailer. If he were mired in debt, that would be hard to do, as any potential investor would be scared off by a project with pending debt and possible civil action.

These discussions were all with Joey, the producer, as Jean-Baptiste, the director, would hear none of it. Of course, he was still collecting his check. By this point, there was a serious rift between the two partners, and disagreement as to exactly who had control of the project.

That was for them to figure out later. My job was to wrap us neatly, and wrap us neatly I did.

Oddly, months later, Jean-Baptiste contacted me, as if he and I had never had those conflicts over his work ethic. He blamed everything on Joey, and asked, if I would work with him to get the project off the ground. At that point, Joey was off the project.

This is a guy I had screaming arguments with on the street! It is amazing how folks are willing to put pride aside to get what they want, and he conveniently forgot all of our disagreements, hoping I could put aside the problems in our relationship and use my connections to finish the film.

When your potential girlfriend tells you that all of her previous boyfriends were jerks, you start to wonder how long it will be before you become the jerk. (Are you listening, potential boyfriends of Taylor Swift?)

The same goes with filmmakers who tell you that the previous people they worked with were the problem, and  especially in this case, since I was there to see with my own eyes how Jean-Baptiste had carried himself.

No, by the end I had enough of Jean-Baptiste and his way of working.

The other movie that goes into the category of unfinished films we will call Double, The circumstances could not have been more different, but the (unhappy) ending was the same.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston You're Our Home

"In Boston, they ask how much does he know. In New York, how much is he worth. In Philadelphia, who were his parents."
-Mark Twain

My own version of the quote above is "You know how old you are in Boston by whether people ask you 'where do you go to school' or 'where do you teach,'" a reference to all the colleges in the Greater Boston Area.

The events of the last week have brought back my own special relationship with Boston.

Growing up, English was my favorite subject, and Brother Louis (Marist Brothers) of Mt. St. Michael Academy was one of my favorite teachers. He was from Boston, with the accent to prove it, and a huge Red Sox fan. The year after Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown, he proudly played a 45RPM record (yeah, I'm THAT old) in tribute to him.

Here it is:

Sorry about that, but, hey, a little history.

I made my dad take one of his two vacation weeks on a inauspicious trip to Boston. On the way there, we got lost in the endless series of rotaries. We had tickets for a Red Sox game, and it happened to be a game that Vida Blue was going to pitch for the Oakland As.

It was 1971, and Vida Blue was the hot pitcher, on track to possibly win 30 games (he wound up with 24). His games were a big deal in every city, and Boston was no exception. The problem - there were hurricane warnings. On our way to the park, we saw people boarding up the windows.

They were not going to rain the game out; and we waited for about 2 hours in the rain. They finally got the game off, Blue was very human, and I don't remember who won. I loved Fenway.

Years later, I'm stage managing for a theater company made up of mostly soap actors who wanted to do real, serious work. They were called The Actors' Collective (and, later, changed the name because a more famous theater company had the same name - we were not that company). The only performer not in a soap was a young actress named Mercedes Ruehl, who later won an Oscar for The Fisher King.

I remember a performance of Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone by Terrence McNally. Mercedes played Nedda Lemon. In a scene with Tommy, they are meant to almost kiss, but then not. That night, the way the play was going, the only logical thing was for them to kiss. Mercedes was incredibly in tune at all times, and they did.

She was always wonderful to watch.

The company had a summer place in Martha's Vineyard, a place I fell in love with almost immediately. Among the odd things I remember from that trip was sitting in a beautiful restaurant, right by the water, having dinner. A few tables over were Tip O'Neill, then Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. and Senator Ted Kennedy. We had the same waitress, who seemed unimpressed with the two of them, but very impressed that she had the cast of one of her favorite soaps as customers. We got the preferred treatment. It was a reminder of the power of television, which brings characters into our living rooms; something I would be reminded of years later when my family, for all the movies I have done, were most impressed by my involvement on Taxicab Confessions.

In subsequent years, I would vacation every summer in Martha's Vineyard, and eventually got involved with an avant guarde theater company where I acted and stage managed. Because of the cheap air fares (I think People Express, then New York Air, would do RT NY-Boston for about $19 off-peak) I would spend part of the week in Boston, living near Kenmore Square, a truly great place to party.

When I got married, I dragged my poor ex-wife to Martha's Vineyard and Boston for our honeymoon.

I remember 1986, when my Mets famously beat the Red Sox after the miraculous comeback in Game 6 of the World Series, I spent time razzing friends from Boston on the phone for days.

One of my most interesting times as an AD was on a film called Floating, with Norman Reedus, filmed in Massachusetts with a mostly Boston crew.

Those years have made Boston a second city for years. My love of the Mets goes hand-in-hand with my dislike for the Yankees, so my AL team has been the BoSox for some years.

So, as I watched and read, along with the rest of the world, as Boston became something else this week, a city under siege. It started with scenes of blood and mayhem early, and SWAT teams and military rolling through suburban neighborhoods late.

Additionally, the bombs at the end of the Marathon resulted in many amputations, something I am sensitive to as a bi-lateral amputee below knee. My operation came at the end of a long illness, so it was not traumatic, To think of the emotional pain on top of the physical challenges to athletes participating for nothing more than personal improvement is difficult for me.

In the days and weeks and months to come, there will be a lot of hyperbole, and I will leave that to others. I can only relate what Boston has meant to me, and that what I will carry forward is not their pain, but the resilience I know they will show, just as we went forward after 9/11 in NYC.

If anything, I hope it brings people together. One of my few reservations about my time in Boston was an underlying tension between races. This was years ago, and I hope that tension has eased over time. I truly hope that the positive that comes of genuine pride in country is not used by the meanest among us to shift hate from one group of "others" to another.

If you want to help:

I would rather remember a united Boston this way.

* The title of this post comes from the old Standells' song "Dirty Water," but, beyond the refrain "Boston You're My Home," the lyrics didn't work for me.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Plaster - Part 5 - Not A Dry Eye In the House

"When I come home baby,
And I'm working all night long
I put my daughter on my knee
And she says  'Daddy, what's wrong'
Fool To Cry, Rolling Stones

There are no absolutes in film production. Great movies have bad days. Lousy movies have good days. On the best productions, there are people who make things harder. On the worse productions, there are good people doing their jobs.

Even on films that don't get finished, there are sometimes great scenes that you wish had seen the light of day.

In discussing casting, I mentioned that the producer. Joey, and the director, Jean-Baptiste. had gone out and gotten a signed deal memo from an actor for $10K. The actor was quite good and special, and known enough to be worth that much money, but it was a bad idea for a number of reasons.

It was outside of the pay structure we had established with Most Favored Nations agreements with agents. It could have led us to having to renegotiate with actors we already signed. We got lucky on this one.

It was outside of our budget. This is worth discussing.

Hollywood productions go over all the time. For most of them, it is just paperwork. Money is moved from one production to another by the studio. Yes, there might be consequences and raised voices in meetings, but at the end of the day, as long as the final product does well, it is not a big deal.

As I used to say in my line producing class at NYFA, when productions go over budget on small, indie films, checks bounce. I should have added "or the movie doesn't get finished."

Productions constantly rob Peter to pay Paul.* Money needs to be moved around. When it cannot be moved around, the phrase "we can take it from post (production)" rears its head. What that translates to is "hopefully I won't be here when the shit hits the fan," or, "it's gonna be someone else's problem."

During production, post-production becomes that great land of enlightenment when all good things will come to pass. Sound problem? Fix it in post. Continuity problem? Don't worry, we can cut around it. Went over budget? We can take it from post.

There is an incongruity in the above suggestions. If you are dumping all you problems to post, then post will probably need more money, not less. Unless you know there is more money coming from somewhere, it's a recipe for either not finishing the edit of your film to get it to a distributor, or taking short-cuts in post that negatively impact your product.

The more reasonable solution is what families do in budgeting - they put the money where it's needed, and then decide that they can do with less somewhere else. Money can - and should - be moved from one line item to another when it serves the production, not dumped randomly but with some rationale. One useful example is the relationship between art department and locations.

If you can find a location that needs little dressing, you can take that money from art department. IF, on the other hand, you find a space that is cheap, but has almost nothing, then the money you saved on the location needs to go to the art department to dress it properly. That sort of movement of money makes sense.

If paying this fee to one actor had meant an ability to not spend more on other actors (because we already had a "name" we wanted) that could have worked. If we were still in the process of funding the film, and getting that "name" got us more money, that is certainly okay. In fact, this is the ethos behind the theory that "name" actors don't cost a production money; that their potential worth at the box office will off-set the cost enough that investors are willing to fund the project at a higher level.

Joey and Jean-Baptiste hoped that this was the case with this actor - who we will call Reggie. In fact, they had wrung the Money Tree bare. There were no more leaves. We were now officially $10K over with no way to make it up.

Then, there was Reggie.

While Reggie was - and is - an incredible actor, he had drug dependency issues at that time. Thankfully, he has long-since cleaned up his act, and those issues are very much a thing of the past. At the time, it was an issue, as it was on our production.

On the day of the shoot, the actor was late by a number of hours, and when he arrived, he was in no shape to work. We rescheduled the scene for the next day, having lost a good part of that day working around him.

To his credit, he took his responsibility seriously. He took me aside - we knew each other from previous work - and said he would stay in one of the apartments we were using as sets in the Bronx, so as to insure that he would be there the next day. Further, he said being away from his usual contacts would guarantee that he would be in better shape the next day.

The next morning, indeed, he was a different person.

The scene was one where he played a guy who had gone to prison, and missed the birth of his daughter. When he comes back and sees her for the first time, she is about five years old. She doesn't know him, and is scared of him at first. She runs away from his embrace. He is heart-broken.

Movie crews become jaded, and are rarely moved on set. As one is not watching a movie, there is no context, and with all the lights and trappings, there is no "magic."  There is no sentimental music. There is no editing, bringing the attention of the viewer where it needs to be at any moment. Unlike the theater, there is no context, no lowered lights. There is no mystery.

In this context, I have rarely seen a crew member cry. Forget that weeping could ruin a take; it just rarely happens.

This was different.

Reggie was beyond wonderful. There was no trace of the actor; he was the character.The child actor was perfect as well, but it was Reggie that made it happen.

During the master, as I looked around through my own watery eyes, you could see members of the crew covering their mouths and nose to prevent openly weeping. I cannot remember a case where this many crew members were moved like this during the shooting of a scene, and to this extent. It continued during coverage, as Reggie kept pulling out emotions from even deeper on his single and close-ups.

It was a special moment on a project that had it's fair share of problems. This day - and this scene - weren't one of them.

In the poem by 8th Century Zen master Shitou Xiqian known in the East as the "Identity of Relative and Absolute," a central part of Zen liturgy, the following phrase appears:

Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness,
Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light....

Within the darkness that was Plaster, this day was the light; however, within this light, the darkness of the budget problems would not go away.

"She whispers in my ears so sweet,
You know what she says?
She says, 'Daddy. you're a fool to cry
You're a fool to cry,
And it makes me wonder why."

* The interesting etymology of a phrase that is used less and less today, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul. My dad used it all the time.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Plaster - Part 4 - Who Let the Dog Out?

"I don't know what her problem is. She takes her shirt off to do a voice-over. The country could draw her tits from memory."
-State and Main, David Mamet

While Plaster was never completed, it was not without it's memorable moments.

You would think that for a film not to finish, it had an incompetent crew, but nothing could be further from the truth. Charlie, the DP, did an excellent job, and our grip and electric department was led by a gaffer who is now a premiere DP in her own right.

As an AD, Susan was just the ticket. Exactly as I expected, Jean-Baptiste was enticed enough that she could get away with things that a male AD never could have accomplished. 

One of my personal favorites was how she would find Jean-Baptiste when he disappeared from set, which was often. He was under the misconception that the director was only needed when we were actually rolling or for brief descriptions of shots that he wanted.

If he was not to be found on set, it was a good guess that he was off releasing tension with his "assistant." Susan took an unusual approach to finding him; she would bark into the walkie. When he first asked what she was doing, she said it was the easiest way for her to find a dog.

Jean-Baptiste took it as a compliment, indeed; I think he took it as her flirting with him. She knew that tension would keep him on enough of a "leash" that she could make sure he was around when she needed him. Definitely not a tactic you'll find in the DGA guide - but it worked.

If Susan was the good cop, I was definitely the bad cop on this shoot. The opportunity to direct a feature is a privilege; to watch someone squander it was infuriating. His indecision made things harder for everyone, and when he made decisions, they often were bad ones.

For novice directors, the phrase "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" becomes a mantra. They have seen creative directors use unique shots, and think it's all about crazy shots. As anyone who has worked in the business knows, innovative shots still have to serve the story. Weird shots done for the sake of looking different are just a sign of an amateur.

Together, we all tried to help Jean-Baptiste see this, but there was a limit. 

One day, while Charles was taking a break, Jean-Baptiste described a shot to Susan and I that, well, definitely left an impression. He definitely wanted it hand-held, and from the POV of someone in a rocking chair. The shot would start with the camera operator in a squat, looking up at the subject. From that position, he would "rock" back and forth, then get up and follow the subject. 

This was all with a heavy 35MM Panavision camera. It would be difficult with a steadicam; it would take one of those Russian Olympic weight-lifters to pull off with the Panny camera we had. The move would be shaky enough; the rocking back and forth, on a big screen (remember, we were shooting on 35MM with the intent of distributing in theaters) was likely to physically make the audience sick. Besides, we asked, how would we cut with a corresponding single from the standing subjects POV?

That, Jean-Baptiste had not thought through, but he knew he wanted it handheld and moving as well. Susan and I contained our laughter until, that is, we left the room to describe the shot to Charles. I can still see Charles standing there, eyes wide open in amazement, as Susan and I described what Jean-Baptiste wanted. Because neither Susan nor I could contain our laughter, Charles thought we were pulling his leg, so we got to see his reaction again as Jean-Baptiste explained it to him.

When Charlie tried to explain the physical problem, not to mention the editing problem, Jean-Baptiste was furious that we were being "insubordinate." He insisted he would do the shot.

While we relished the idea of watching him fall over under the camera, we had a safety obligation to him - and to the camera. When he insisted, we said we would show him only if the ACs could keep their hands on the camera the entire time. Jean-Baptiste squatted, and we lowered the camera. The ACs never let it out of their hands, but as soon as most of the weight was on him, he fell over. Of course, the ACs held onto the camera, so it neither fell on him nor fell to the floor.

A series of events such as this one left us behind schedule, and my patience with Jean-Baptiste was getting thin. After a blow-up with him on the street outside the housing project where we were filming, I spoke to the producer, Joey, and insisted that he stay on top of him on set, as I was not about to fight him to make his own movie. Joey agreed, and it was here that Joey started sharing that it was he, and not Jean-Baptiste, who was in control of the money, that he was calling the shots. I wasn't so sure.

After our adventures in casting, I  knew the scenes with our hot, busty Latina would be challenging. I worked out the nudity clause with Jean-Baptiste and Joey separately from the actress, who we will call Carla (not her name). We assured her that she could wear a flesh colored thong, as we would not be seeing that region. The scene started with her in a shower, she throws on a sexy kimono, and then winds up in the arms of one of her "dates" as they bounced around the room. 

As a producer and AD, I absolutely love the fact that SAG requires a nudity clause. In years previous, directors would tell an actress that they would show one thing, only to pressure an actress and change that on set. There is a lot of pressure on any actor/actress to please the director, and that often led to awkward situations. With a nudity clause, there can be no misunderstanding. I make sure the clause is quite detailed, to the extent of being downright clinical.

Hey, I have no problem with any degree of nudity. I did a film where two men had to appear to make love, and we spent quite some time describing genitals, positions and angles. I just want both parties to agree.

The nudity clause makes it fair for both parties. I always tell performers that if they have reservations, tell me when we are working on the clause, not on set where everything will stop. I respect performers; I expect them to respect our time on set as well.

Additionally, as anyone who has worked on set knows, any time there is nudity and/or a simulated sex scene, the set should be closed to minimum personnel needed. That number can vary - especially if there is dolly work, etc. but should never be more than needed. Additionally, "video village," where there is access to a monitor, should only be for those who need to be there during takes (lighting and art folk may need it during set-up).

Common sense - and common courtesy - are the basic rules.

Carla was a talented, trained actress who had a lot more assets than just her buxom figure. Jean-Baptiste didn't see the role as anything more than a "hoochie Mama"

Charles and I did all the right things to make her feel comfortable, and, along with Susan, made sure that as soon as we cut, she had a robe. Charles would take time showing her on the monitor what was and what was not in frame.

On a professional set, most crew have been through nude scenes, so everyone  tries to make it go smoothly, keeping respect for talent in mind. 

So, Susan, Charles and I had set a good tone as we worked our way through the coverage, when somehow, the ample amount of skin we were seeing was not enough for Jean-Baptiste. In the middle of a take, he starts shouting out one of his keenest directorial flourishes: "More tits! More tits"
Well, that was clear enough.

Thankfully, Carla was a real trooper, and just started laughing. It broke the tension for all of us. She stood, arms on her hips, wearing just the thong, looked at Jean-Baptiste and said "is this enough for you?"

She was in her early twenties, and her maturity was refreshing. One day at lunch, she came up to me and thanked me for, along with Charlie and Susan, watching out for her. We laughed about it, and, all these many years later, she and I are still good friends. Yet another example that good things can come from even the worst projects, and to always be your best.

There is much talk about women and nudity in film, but it has been my experience that men have much more of a problem with nudity. Carla was doing the scene with an actor a good fifteen to twenty years older than her named Richard.He had a long track record as a character actor on films large and small. 

For all of her nudity, the only thing we saw of Richard was his butt, and not even all of that. Still, there was barely a take where Richard would not ask us what we were seeing, and if it was okay. You would have thought that he was the one being fully exposed. One of my lasting images from that shoot was Carla trying to make Richard feel better about the nudity.

Lest I suggest that we only did nude scenes, there was a scene with a well-known actor that moved all of us, but not before a predictable problem. More on that in Part 5.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Plaster - Part 3 - When They Just Have to Go

"All I know is, I pass people on the street these days, and they don't know whether to say hello or to say good-bye."*
-Billy Martin on his multiple firings as baseball manager

With the exception of people for whom power is a drug, there is nothing good about firing someone.  There are varying reasons for firing someone, but there are times it has to be done.

Over the years, I have had to fire people for all sorts of reasons, some of them odder than others.

One of the most interesting was a guy who was best boy electric on a short. It was Day One, and at call, I went around and introduced myself to crew members I had not met. As is standard, I had hired the keys, but let them bring on their regular people. You want a crew that has worked together.

As they were off-loading the Grip/Electric truck, one guy waved to me. "Hey, I'm Sam. Best Boy Electric."  He was on the truck, and I went to shake his hands just as someone handed him some heavy bit of equipment. He smiled, and we did a short salute, instead.

A few hours later, Eric, the gaffer, came to me and said, "I need a favor from you. I need you to fire Sam." It was a typical Day One, and I was putting out fires. but I hadn't noticed any particular problem with G&E.

"Which one is Sam?" I asked. Hey. you have a big crew, you don't remember everyone's name the first time, and we only had that brief moment.

"He's my best boy."

"Didn't you bring him on?" I asked.

"Yeah. yeah, he's a good guy but he's wrong for this gig. I don't know what I was thinking, " Eric continued.

"Why don't you let him go? I certainly will back you up," I suggested.

I couldn't do that," he said. "He's my friend, and besides, I work with him all the time." Eric tapped me on the shoulder, and, as he walked away, said "Thanks a bumch, JB.  Appreciate you not mentioning that I asked you to do it. Better if you do it soon, too. I have his replacement for tomorrow meeting me later."

What was I supposed to say to him? That brief salute in the morning was the extent of our interaction. What could I possibly suggest was the reason.

I went up to Sam, prepared for a tirade about the injustice of it all. I told him that we had someone I wanted to bring on, and we didn't need him, but we would pay him out for the day. His response :"Hey, whatever, man." This time we shook hands.


Two years later, I am doing a feature with a large crew, a lot of day players and a swing crew. Eric  has replaced the Best Boy Electric, and he is helping me fill the swing crew. I'm doing introductions when I notice one of the guys looks familiar, but I can't tell from where. I ask the usual question : "Have we worked together somewhere?"

"Yeah, man. this short, a few years ago. My name is Sam. You may not remember me because you replaced me after a few hours."

I must have momentarily displayed my unease in this moment of recognition. Sam smiled and assured me, "It's cool, man. It's all good." We shook hands again.

They should all go that well.

I saw recently where that a major league manager had to demote his son to the minor leagues, and decided to tell him over dinner. I understand it didn't go well. Had the manager spoken to me first, he might have reconsidered.

My original First AD on Plaster, John, was someone who I had a good time working with on a previous project. We had also become friendly outside of work; I was at his wedding.

John had a newborn baby a week or two before prep, and while it may have been a blessing in the big picture, it was negatively affecting his work during prep. He was late getting me a schedule, his breakdown had mistakes, and other parts of his paperwork and decision-making were questionable.

When I took him aside, he admitted that he was getting no sleep at home, but promised he would get up to speed.

He didn't.

The final straw was a tech scout that went horribly. The AD leads the tech scout, explaining what will be done where. John was all over the place, and at one point, he misidentified which scenes were in which apartment.

To make matters worse, the director and I already had a tense relationship with Jean-Baptise because of his work ethic, and he was now able to throw in my face that "my guy" was off-the-mark.

John had to go.

While firing someone I knew off-set was difficult, it did not delay my decision, and I would have done it in either case. Because I felt for his specific situation, I thought it would try to break it to him as a friend. It was a horrible decision: had I just kept it business, it would have been difficult, but quicker.

I told him to come in late and, instead of meeting me at the office, meet me at a nice restaurant for lunch. I wanted to let him avoid the "dead man walking" trip after leaving my office.

As soon as we got there. he started apologizing for the scout. He knew he was screwing up, and he brought a new schedule and paperwork to show that things would change. One thing about firing people: I take a long time before firing a key, but once I've made the decision, nothing you say or do will change it.

His desperate presentation was interrupted by the waitress, who took our order. I ordered a drink and said, hey, don't worry, you can have one as well. He said it was a work day, and he would pass. He wanted to be on his game. I changed mine to water as well. Mistake number 2.

After he finished, I just went to it. I told him I was letting him go, and then explained why. I made sure I got the term "letting you go" in there before he could say anything.

"Are you saying I'm fired?"

Now, I realize why the protocol for a health professional telling a family member about a loved one passing is to use the word "died."

I thanked him for all his hard work, but assured him he was fired. By then, it was too late. It seemed like it was up to negotiation. It was not.

He went from re-explaining how things would change. to pleading, to leaning on our friendship.

"JB, you know I have a young child. I turned down other work to take this gig. What am I supposed to do?"

There is a right way to let people go. Be professional. Remain unemotional. Be clear. End the conversation quickly - it is not negotiable. If we are not paying through a payroll company, I hand them a check. If they will shake my hand, great. If not, show them to the door. It's not personal. It's business.

If the pleading and unfair use of a newborn child was bad, what ensued was worse. Working his way through the stages of grief at the speed of light, John moved quickly to anger. He stood up and started screaming at me, telling me what an awful human being I was before storming out, drawing the attention of everyone in the restaurant.

Whatever Ring of Hell Dante had for folks who fire new dads, I was apparently heading there.

I forced a smile, and changed my drink order back to the original choice before asking that both orders be bagged and taking them to the office staff. Whatever appetite I had was gone.

When you fire someone. the replacement has to be a no-brainer. I went for someone who was not only a good choice, but one I knew Jean-Baptiste would like.

Susan was an athletic, attractive blonde. In addition to being an AD, she was a producer and production manager, and I had actually worked for her. She was what I affectionately refer to as a real "broad," smart, sharp, and someone with whom you do not mess. She lived with her soap-opera, handsome actor boyfriend, so Jean-Baptiste's advances would go nowhere. but I knew he would try, and he would never object to her being hired.

Win. Win.

I got through this lesson in how not to fire someone, but I came out the other side wit h a really good First AD.

We were ready for Day 1. Well, maybe.

* I am well aware that the low-hanging fruit here would have been the idiot with the hair telling someone they were fired. I had no interest in promoting him, and besides, this was more fun and let me post the video. It also lets me inform a generation that may not remember the fun of the side-show that was the Steinbrenner-Martin feud of a different era.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Ray DeFelitta Begins Blogging "Rob The Mob"

Those who follow this blog regularly know the admiration and respect I have for Raymond DeFeilitta, a writer/director I was lucky enough to meet when we were both embarking on our film careers.

As good a director as Ray is, what really sets him apart for me is his writing. It is sharp and precise, often laced with a dry humor that refuses to judge his characters even at their worst. From his first feature, the smart Cafe Society, through the warm-hearted Two Family House and 2009's successful City Island, he creates characters whose biggest flaw is being human, sometimes too much so.

His blog is first in my list of industry blogs because he has an endless amount of knowledge of film history, and he shares it in an entertaining way. Your film history teacher was never this funny.

His love for film is something that certainly passed down from his father, Frank DeFelitta, a talented writer/director in his time. Ray recently produced and directed a documentary, Bookers Place - A Mississippi Story, based on an NBC news documentary Frank did during the turbulent civil rights movement.

He blogged the entire experience of making City Island; that is how his blog started. Like all indie films, it was a road that had its share of bumps, including finding leading actress Julianna Marguilies just days before shooting began.

I know many aspiring filmmakers follow this blog, so I'm letting you know of what should be another interesting ride: Ray is blogging from Day 1 of pre-production the making of his new film, Rob the Mob.

Whether you are an aspiring filmmaker interested to see what the process is like from the director's perspective on a day-by-day basis, the emotions and experiences still fresh in his head, or an experienced filmmaker who can commiserate with the process, or just someone who likes good writing, the process should be fun.

The link to Raymond's blog is to the right, but, in case you don't feel like scrolling, here is the link to the beginning of the series. I highly encourage you to check it out.