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.

1 comment:

Steven Gladstone said...

There is a line in a book I read once, about a ships captain. A captain can be right, or wrong, but never indecisive. I believe it is the same with a director. Pick a direction and go, soon enough you will know if you made the right choice. If yes, keep going, if not, change it. You will be so much better doing this, than sitting around for hours trying to figure it out.