Thursday, May 30, 2013

Got Here Straight from a Crooked Path

How do you go straight ahead on a narrow mountain path that has ninety-three curves?
-Old Zen Koan

Budgeting project after project that has yet to see funding as a way of making a living can make one rather jaded, not to mention a bit loopy, but sometimes, the concentrated focus leads one to think about aspects of your life and career.

In the last series on the film Double, I briefly mentioned that the director was mostly a commercial director, and I was known more for features; more specifically, low budget features.

At points in my career, it has gotten even more specific than that, doing a number of mob related films that led folks to believe that was a "specialty" of mine. Some of my "specialties" were only in the eyes of certain folks, as in the time in Los Angeles when I was brought in to interview as AD on a movie with Black filmmakers because, having seen from my resume that I had worked a number of films with DP John Rosnell (J.R.), who had shot Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn, assumed that I was a Black filmmaker. Of course, this misconception started with the erroneous belief that JR was Black.

Type-casting is weird enough when it is related to actors. I am currently producing a short for a bright and talented writer who is a first-time filmmaker who cannot seem to see actors as doing anything other than the type of roles they have done in the past, and he is not alone in that regard. One would hope that trained actors could step outside not just specific types, but show sides of their personality they had not previously.

Certainly when it comes to production people, we should and can make any type of movie. When people ask me what my favorite movies are, I usually say, simply. "good movies." You make it well, and it's my type of movie.

All of this leads me to answering here a question I get from time-to-time when people get past first knowing me and feel comfortable asking: Why did I continue to do low-budget movies and not move on to bigger features as AD, UPM or line producer?

As with most of my career, it was not part of the plan. This was not for a lack of planning; indeed, I made many many plans. It is just that as quickly as I made plans, other things happened.

Lily Tomlin, who I think is one of the most creative comedic talents around, (and, to prove my point about type-casting, someone who has done some great dramatic work) used to do a sketch about a waitress who became a successful actress, when her real goal was to become a better waitress. Every time she got a chance to move up as a waitress - say, from a diner to three-star restaurant, or from a three-star to a four-star, her career path as a waitress would be interrupted by another (always big) acting gig. Playing against the stereotype of the a waitress who really wants to act, all this actress (who eventually becomes more and more successful as an actress) ever really wanted to do was be a great waitress.

Below is one version of the sketch, performed at the 1977 Tony Awards

Much like that waitress, I knew, at every point in my career, exactly what I wanted. When I went to NYU, I was going to be a psychiatrist, just like the priest who I had for Psych 101 at Cardinal Spellman H.S. in the Bronx who I greatly admired. When I got to NYU, I also wanted to write for the newspaper, but they were not open, but the General Manager of the radio station, which was on the same floor, recruited me for the radio station. That was it - I was going to go into radio! I worked in the music business for a while, before becoming bored and getting cast in a play (my roommate made me go and read with him because he needed a partner), which got me into theater, where I met my stage manager mentor, and stage managing got me to directing theater, until eventually, I met up with my stage manager mentor again, who got me my first film job, which got me into film.

That's the abbreviated version - the early posts of this blog will fill you  in on all of the above in greater detail, if you really wish.

Once in film, and with my love for writing, I thought I would wind up in Hollywood as a screenwriter (and maybe director, as I had directed a good deal of theater). That didn't happen. though not for lack of trying.

As I started working in production, I worked a lot, often going from one film as AD or UPM or line producer to the next. I was getting paid decently, working with some good people, and one day, I looked up and I was about forty and doing one low-budget movie after the next.

At this point - and I will explore this in future posts - I tried to get some projects of mine off the ground as producer and/or writer with a number of people with whom I was working. After getting hit in the head enough times, I learned that raising money was not my strong point, in some part, I guess, because money, for the sake of money, was never that important to me. (This says a lot about why I am divorced).

By this point, I am passing forty years of age, and getting "old" in a business that is geared toward youth. You look up one day, and there you are. I was too old to start at the bottom and work my way up in Hollywood, something I did not have an inclination to do and, even if I did, someone my age would not have been welcomed in those starting positions. No one in Hollywood wants someone working for them who has done things their own way for years - they want to train you to do it their way. As they are paying the bills, that is fair, but it was not for me, and would not have been for them.

When I did eventually get to actually produce a feature that I wrote, it was on a scale that my partners and I could raise, and what we knew, which was low budget.

So, as a long way of answering that question from earlier, I didn't decide to stay in low-budget films, it was just the way things turned out, and the same is true for why I did more features than commercials or music videos, though I did some of those as well. I guess when people were looking for people to work those other mediums, they looked for folks that had done those things before, and, hence, the self-fulfilling prophecy.

No, I did not start out aiming to be a low-budget feature line producer, UPM and AD; no one is that masochistic. There may still be bigger budget projects on the horizon. With all the craziness, I have met some great people and gotten a lot of satisfaction along the way. There is no point in re-tracing steps, and I certainly don't regret what I did, even if I might advise someone else coming along now, when the indie world is very different from when I was starting, to do things differently.

All of this was triggered, innocently enough, but the convergence of my breaking down the third script in recent months with the same exact character, and the previous series of posts on working on a feature with a commercial director.

As for that character: I recently posted on my Facebook page that "This Thug # 1 guy must be some sort of muse." Truly, I had broken out "Thug # 1" in about three recent scripts. As I also pointed out, he is loyal, because he often brings along his dear friend, "Thug # 2." Hell, he even seems to have a following.

And a popular video game, whose nickname is THUG.

It would be easy to just suggest that this is a case of amateurs making the usual mob or gang movie or just a case of sunspots aligning to make the same type of movie, but at least two of these scripts are fabulous and unique and based on absolutely true stories. It would be nice if they actually got made (both groups have had other films made, so I have reason to believe this could happen, but, then again, I'm the guy who is not good at raising money, so what do I know.)

I wonder if these projects do get made, and someone sees that I budgeted them (or, if I'm fortunate enough to be the line producer), whether people will then surmise that I have a special knack for movies involving gangs, that I have some insight into how to budget a gang movie.

If they looked more closely, they would see that it is just me moving as straight ahead as I can on that crooked path. As the koan says, how do you go straight on a crooked path?  In truth, life is nothing if not exactly that crooked path, and as I went straight on that path, this is where I landed - at least, so far.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Double - Part 3 - Greetings from Cannes

"I lost a year or two in there, trying to get films financed 
that I didn't know would never get financed."
-Richard Linklater, (Director of Slacker and  Dazed and Confused)

If one lesson to be learned from our experience on Double was about working within your means, Leslie, our director, seemed to be learning a different lesson. 

When I talked with her about shooting ratio, she shot more, convinced that was the way to be more productive. 

The day the reality of the numbers hit, that day when we knew we had to shut the project down if we were to do so with no outstanding debt, was a day that exhibited once again why we were not going to make it as a low-budget, indie project.

I was busy trying to make arrangements for our shut-down when I left set in the morning. When I left, we were about to roll on the first shot of a complicated interior scene/ At this point, a sense of relief had washed over me; even if it took all day to get this scene, hey, we would have it in the can.

I came back hours later to find we were still about to roll on the same scene. It took some incredulous questioning on my part to clarify that, in fact, we had no part of the coverage.

After setting up for the scene set up on one side of the space, Leslie decided she did not like the angle - and had us set up the scene at the other end of the space.

Anyone who has ever been involved in setting up a reverse of a lighting set-up understands the undertaking - the lighting had to be completely torn down, the dolly track moved, the camera set-up re-framed.

In baseball, it is said that a pitcher who takes a lot of time between pitches and/or throws a lot of walks tends to lull his defense to sleep, leading to errors. For similar reasons, a methodical, slow director who changes their mind will make a crew lazy - there is no other word. There are only so many times G&E (grip and electric) will rush to light a scene, only to see the set-up change. Sooner or later, things slow down.

This was the set I returned to - folks moving at medium-speed, awaiting the inevitable change. While the AD and I did everything to keep things crisp, we focused on keeping everything as sharp as possible, and getting it right.

Much like her decision to shoot more film than our budgeted shooting ratio, Leslie now saw our shutting down as even more reason to do things her way. One way to look at it was stubbornness and a refusal to adapt. Another way of looking at it was an artist determined to stay true to her vision despite adversity.

Regardless of how you looked at it, Leslie's plan was to go to Cannes, where she would take a trailer that would help her raise more money to complete the film. She asked me to put together a budget for what it would cost to finish the film the way she wanted to, shooting a higher ration and with more time. That, I did.

The trailer she put together looked great; as an experienced commercial director, she knew how to sell something in a short period of time. Still, I was not convinced she would get the money she needed, but hoped for the best.

We had a party to reward the hard work everyone had done - Leslie made sure that the words "wrap party" never came up, and I can understand that. At the party, I joked that she would go to Cannes and that all I would get would be a t-shirt that said, "My Director went to Cannes and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!"

To her credit, she had not lost her sense of humor. She returned a few weeks later, sure that the contacts she  had made would bring in the additional needed money.

When I showed up at the office to meet her, on my desk was a t-shirt from Cannes.

Leslie went on to direct some television, and more really good commercial work, but does not have a feature to date. Double was never completed.

Unfortunately, that t-shirt*, some interesting memories, and a great trailer are all I got from that shoot.

*Incidentally, the t-shirt shown above is not the t-shirt I received. That, too, is long gone.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Double - Part 2 - The Tao of Exposed Film

"There is no greater misfortune
than not knowing what is enough
There is no greater flaw
than wanting more and more"
-Tao Te Ching

There are many contexts in which the ineffable question 'how much is enough' can lead to deeply philosophical answers, filled will moral implications.

To the line producer, how much 35MM film stock is exposed on a given day can answer many questions about how the shoot is going.  None of them bring spiritual or emotional closure.

If very little stock is being exposed, that tells you that not much time has been spent actually shooting, and that is not a good thing.

If too much stock has been exposed, in proportion to how much of the script has been covered, then you will likely go over budget.

On Double, we experienced both.

As explained in Part 1, the nature of the film, about twins, led to a number of difficult shots, dealing with reflections. Set-ups took a very long time.

A number of people are involved in how long it takes to set up a shot. First and foremost is the director, as they must clearly convey their idea for the shot, and have an idea of how it will fit in the final cut. The DP needs to make it clear to the grip department how to lay out track, if needed, the camera crew to get the right lens set, and the gaffer to get the scene lit as efficiently as possible.

Then, of course, we have the 1st AD. The AD can give the DP, et al, help by keeping them in the loop as the order of shots change, taking set-up times into consideration when scheduling the work, and answering questions about things such as what we see in shot ("Does that truck have to be moved?"" Can I put a grip stand here?" "Is this a good place to stage equipment?") Once all this is done; once the wheels are properly set in motion, the AD has less control over the time for set-up.

A good AD knows when it's time to get a camera rehearsal going; crew will tend to continue to tweak until someone tells then otherwise. While some DPs take set-up times very personally, rushing their crew, a vigilant AD knows when it's time to ask the DP if we can at least look at the set-up.

All of this is done with some degree of balance. Contrary to one of the many misconceptions about the role of the AD, drill sergeant is not one of them. While everyone needs to be kept on their toes, and aware of where the day is going in terms of schedule, and what is required of them, there is little positive effect to
threatening and badgering people to move faster. There are times when everyone is doing their job as quickly and as efficiently as they can - and it's just taking longer than anyone would like. Those can be the most frustrating times for an AD, and, ironically, can be the easiest time for an AD. A good AD knows when they have done everything in their power to move things along, and now they just have to wait.

AD's don't create the shots, and our AD on Double, Karen, certainly didn't choose the difficult set-ups. It was clear, right from Day 1, that the blame for the long set-ups was going to fall on her, regardless of how hard she worked.

As line producer, I was in the difficult position of trying to make sure Karen was doing her job, while also pushing Leslie, the director, on time. Every time I pushed Leslie, she would push harder on Karen. I tried, as diplomatically as I could, to explain to Leslie that in many cases, it was the set-ups, and not Karen, that were responsible for the time lost.

Admitting that would mean that Leslie was to "blame," if blame is the right word. She is the director, and she has the right to shoot the look she wants, but then she needed to be realistic about how much we could accomplish in a day.  As both director and the source of funding, Leslie was feeling that typical push-pull in two different directions, toward keeping us from spending more money and getting the shots she wanted.

As if all of this wasn't enough, the personal chemistry between Karen and Leslie was about as bad as it could be to start with, and only got worse. Sometimes we know why we have a bad response to another human; sometimes we don't. Does that person remind us of someone else we have clashed with in the past? Are there unresolved issues from childhood at play?

There is no degree in psychology on my wall.  Discovering the origin of the bad chemistry here was above my pay grade, but, with simple observation and years as an AD myself, I could find nothing Karen did, originally, that set this off.  My best guess was that this was one of those instances where two strong, assertive women could not get along. I have seen this dynamic in political work that I did in the past.

I could explore the sociological implications, the way a paternalistic society puts undue pressure on women showing the same assertiveness that is valued in men. Then, again, you don't come here for my dime-store sociological analysis, so I will just leave it at this: they never got along.

Once Leslie started to blame Karen, an entirely new dynamic took shape, in the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Karen, understandably, resented blame that was not due to her, and she began to show that resentment ever-more-openly to Leslie, entering into a game an AD can never win.

Once an AD goes down this road, regardless of how understandable it is, the turn-off ahead can only lead to one place - a new AD. The Chain of Pain strikes again. I brought in a new AD.

Those who have followed this blog know what happens next. Leslie loves the new AD - they always do.

This should mean that we moved faster, and because the communication had become so bad with Karen, the  new AD "(I forget his name - let's call him Tim) was bound to be better. Still, there were days where we exposed very little film.

Then, one fateful day, the opposite happened. As I left set to attend to other matters, I reminded Leslie that we needed to keep moving, to keep shooting.

When I returned, I stopped in at the camera holding area. This is where the 2nd AD would load back-up mags, and also where the exposed was taped and labeled before being sent at the end of the day to the lab.

I was met with a mountain of exposed film. If my 2nd AC had been any shorter, I would not have been able to see him behind the wall of exposed. My first thought, my deepest hope, was that this meant we had covered a lot more of the script than I had expected, but a quick moment with the script supervisor told me that was not true.

Scipty followed me back to the camera holding area, where I began to match up the amount of the script covered with the exposed. As my eyes widened,  the 2nd AC looked at me, then the exposed, then me again, and said, "Hey, it's not my fault." He had been on enough sets to know what I was thinking.

Unlike the picture at the top of this post, there was no lovely lady sitting atop the skyscraper of exposed film, only the knowledge that we were in trouble.

We had exposed almost 10,000 feet of 35MM film - that is not a typo, 10,000 feet - to cover one page of the script. One page. One.  In describing this moment later to Henry, Leslie's producer, in a moment of the dark humor to which I am prone, I said that at this rate, Kodak would have to open up a new facility to keep us in 35MM stock.

You have to understand the implications of something like this. First, it means that the shooting ratio is so high that we will go way beyond the amount of raw stock (un-exposed film) we had planned, what this very good article describes as the "budgeted stock."

The problem with "budgeted stock" is that it is only a guide. If the director has no concept of the ramifications, it is hard to undo. It's not like when we hit the final number, we can just stop shooting, stop buying raw stock. I can't walk in, like a punitive parent, and tell the director, "You have used up all of the budgeted stock. We will not buy more. You cannot play anymore. Bad, director. Bad. Go to your room - the movie is over!"

That is, as my grandmother used to say in Sicilian, like "biting your nose to spite your face."*  You need to finish the film.

This now means that beyond the obvious added expense of more raw stock, there will also be more exposed processed, more developed, inevitably, more printed, more transferred. You get the idea. It's not a good thing.

To truly appreciate the irony that is the line producer's life, when I discussed it with Leslie at the end of the day, she had a decidedly different take.

"JB, look at all the work we are getting done now, with Karen (the previous AD) gone. We didn't waste any time this morning. We were rolling all morning. I've never seen the crew this efficient, and everyone seemed really happy."

Again, I have to point out that Leslie really was (and is) a good director. This was her movie, and she liked getting all of this coverage, and that was it.

In Part 3, I will tell of another interesting day, and the eventual end of Double.

Below, what I would have preferred to see.

*The American idiom is "cutting off your nose to bite your face" - I liked the physically-impossible image Rose Polito's translation of the phrase suggested.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Double - Part 1 - Seeing Double

Fill my eyes with that double vision
No disguise for that double vision
Ooh, when it gets through to me
It's always new to me
My double vision gets the best of me

In almost every way, Double* could not be more different than Plaster.

Where the director on Plaster was ill-prepared and inexperienced - always a bad combination - Leslie*, the director on Double, was a successful and talented commercial and music video director who had pain-stakingly prepared for her first feature film with clear and brilliant story-boards.

Where the producer for Plaster could sometimes be as immature as its director, Henry* was a seasoned commercial and music video director who could not have been more professional, and more of a gentleman.

Moving to below-the-line, the DP - Mike* - had worked with the director previously. They had a good relationship, and he was experienced and -you guessed it - talented. He brought along a solid camera and lighting crew (although I did augment).

What Double had in common with Plaster was that we had to fire the First AD (this time not her fault) and that it was not finished.

Unlike Plaster, where the producers were working with a wish budget  they thought would finish the film, both the director and producer on Plaster knew that more money would need to be raised. Leslie was confident it would happen once she could show her backers some solid footage.

This sort of thing happens occasionally, and it's something I discourage folks from doing. Filmmaking certainly requires some leaps of faith, but this is a leap that usually leaves someone face down in a ravine. To their credit, both Henry and Leslie were upfront about this, so I went in knowing we might be looking at a countdown to zero, and planned appropriately. Basically, that meant starting the "shut-down" process as a back-up from Day 1 of prep, and hoping Zero Day would not come.

I did do a breakdown to let them know how much money they needed to raise, and then sent them on the business of doing it.

I liked and respected both of them, but really got along well with Henry and enjoyed working with him. I have done commercials and music videos, but somewhere along the line, I got a rep for being an indie-film guy, so I did a lot fewer of them than most. Henry was a pro in that area, and there was a mutual respect as well as a sense we could learn from each other.

Having been Leslie's regular producer, he knew the good and the bad. The good was her talent. The bad was the excess. Music video directors, and to a certain extent commercial directors, use a higher shooting ratio than indie-film folks - or feature folks in general, for that matter.

Let's talk shooting ratio, a topic that was much more important in the days when even low budget indies were shot on film.

In short, shooting ratio tells you how many feet of 35MM raw stock is needed for one minute of screen time. I found a script supervisor blog that does an excellent job of explaining the math.

At the time, all the "books" told you that indies should shoot a 3:1 ratio. That would mean estimating approximately 270 feet of raw stock per page. Frankly, I don't know anyone who did that. Stan Bickman, my mentor, always said 1000 feet per page was safe and left you a little cushion. That is a more than 10:1 ratio, and it's a ratio that proved itself out for me on most shoots. Some came in lower, an occasional few came in higher, but usually only slightly so.

Henry warned me that even that number might be a little low for Leslie.  Here, we should talk about the script, and coverage.

The script involved many aspects of the life of a specific pair of female twins in the their 20s, but reflected on twins everywhere. Every scene had reflections, and sometimes reflections of reflections, and sometimes - well, my favorite was where one twin is outside of a cafe window, looking at the other twin. We sees a reflection of both of them in a glass of water, while the seated twin sees the same reflection in the glass of water, but from a different POV. The reflection from the outside window is also seen in one of the reflections.

You see where this is going.

As one of my favorite ADs once said to me, "Whatever happened to pointing the camera at people and filming them?" You know; master, single, close-up, with the occasional hero shot thrown in.

There was little of that here. Everything was a dolly with a focus pull with a reflection.

In low-budget filmmaking, when I would see things like this, I would explain my own little conversion chart, and it went like this:

You can either do multiple angles (more coverage) or multiple takes. If you went with more coverage, you needed to live with fewer takes, knowing that even if not every master worked, for instance, you had it covered somewhere else, such as the single or close-up. If you wanted to do a cool 360-degree dolly with 3 focus pulls, that's fine. You will need to do multiple takes to get it right - and you have to keep shooting until it's right because you have no back-up. In that case, you don't also shoot coverage.

What you cannot do is lots of coverage with lots of complicated shots that require lots of takes. There is almost never the budget for that on the indie-level we are discussing.

When I gave this little speech in a meeting with the Leslie, Henry and Mike, I got the following reaction. Henry  looked skeptical. Leslie said she understood, but the fact that her mind was already elsewhere halfway through the explanation suggested she didn't care. Mike, her usual DP, looked at me with a slight grin, as if to say, "yeah, that'll happen."

The latter told me a lot. It wasn't that Mike was blowing me off; it was as if he was saying, "You don't know Leslie."

The key thing to remember here is that these folks worked big, well-paying jobs with Leslie on a regular basis. Under no circumstances were they going to do anything that bit the hand that fed them. I don't hold this against them, I really don't. I get it.

That is why I was there.

The next hint of trouble was in the hiring of a First AD. Because Leslie was a member of the DGA, we had to hire a DGA First AD. I was happy about this, knowing that I would get someone with professional experience. I asked if there was a regular AD that Leslie worked with, and was told there was pretty much always a different AD.

DPs like to keep their operators; operators like to keep their 1st ACs. We develop relationships. Directors like working with the same First ADs. When an experienced director is working with a different AD every time, it does suggest that there might be some difficulty in that relationship.

I was relieved when we found a strong female First AD. As I've stated, films can reflect the personality of keys, and I didn't see Leslie as someone who would respond to a testosterone-driven AD. Our AD, Karen*, was a big, assertive and well-prepared woman. It was going to be great to have someone who could relate to Leslie and still run a tight ship.

While Leslie agreed to use Karen, I got the feeling she saw her as the best of a weak lot, which was certainly not my take. There was a definite coldness toward Karen from Leslie; but I thought, "Hey, they don't have to love each other, just work together."

It was a good script that was more visually than dialogue driven, on the border of being impressionist. Actual twins were cast, so we were not using one actress to play both of them, and they were solid actresses.

While the issue of having to raise more money as we were shooting was challenging, we certainly had the right group to pull it off; or so it seemed.

If only it were this easy:

*All names changed here. You know why.