Sunday, June 23, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods - A Touch of Hollywood

"You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
Some that you recognize, some that you hardly ever heard of"
Celluloid Heroes
Ray Davies, The Kinks

Having trudged many years in the world of indies, there has not been a lot of "Hollywood" in my career, but Floating certainly had a little, not just from future star Norman Reedus, but with his co-star, Chad Lowe.

Chad came to Floating off a successful run on the TV series "Life Goes On", where he won an Emmy for portraying an AIDS sufferer. This was at a time when AIDS was still a death sentence, and also came with the stigma of being gay, which Chad was not. Blessed with boy-next-door good looks, those same looks led to unfounded speculation that he was gay. Worse, he had gained the attention he had not sought from gay audiences, who embraced him as a symbol.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being gay, and its great that actors today feel comfortable coming out and not worrying that it will cost them roles. America was not quite there at that time, and it brought some hardships for Chad. Gay characters on television were either sterotypes or objects of sympathy, because, well, didn't everyone know all gay people got AIDS? There were not the positive gay characters we see today.

He had dealt with paparazzi on other projects looking for pictures of him nude or near-nude. As he played a swimmer on this film, shirtless a lot of the times, he tended to have one eye over his shoulders in those scenes. He had some brief nudity, which he had agreed to before the film, but which he  was now reconsidering, for exactly this reason.

Chad's character on this coming-of-age film develops a physical attraction that is unrequited by Norman's character, although his character doesn't think of himself as gay.

It was with this backdrop that I mention some of Chad's quirks, one of which became apparent shortly after we started shooting and his then-girlfriend Hillary Swank showed up. Chad took every opportunity to steal a kiss, hold hands, or anything else to make clear this was his GIRLfriend. (How ironic that Hillary would later win an Oscar for a transgender role.)

Chad was not, at all, a prima donna, worked really hard, had a strong Method background, and took his acting very seriously. Like many Method actors, there would be a lot of questions, sometimes bordering on questioning, of our first-time director, but, otherwise, he was a team player.

Still, growing up in Hollywood the younger brother of a matinee star like Rob had its affectations. Chad would try to do something nice like send a PA to the nearest Starbucks and pick up the order for everyone. The problem was that Concord was not LA (or NY) and there was not a Starbucks every few feet, and I would lose PA for a while.

We were sitting around one night trying to think of someone for a certain as yet un-cast role. When someone suggested a name Hollywood actor that none of us thought would do it, Chad said he could call "Liza," whose number he had on his phone. Yes, that Liza, as in Liza Minelli. Chad had a lot of ties to that old Hollywood (I only recently read that Charlie Sheen, son of Martin, was a childhood friend). Chad was probably the only guy I ever met who had Liza Minelli's number in his phone.

Then, there was Norman Reedus.

If there is something called industry hot, Norman was it. All I heard from producer friends of mine was, "You're going to work with Norman Reedus?" The thing is, at the time, he hadn't done anything of note, but everyone in town wanted him in their film, and we had him.

Of all the great things I had heard about Norman, there was one second-hand rumor I heard from someone that was not, and I foolishly chose to believe it. I won't dignify it by repeating it, because it proved absolutely untrue, but it had me worry about his work ethics, which was ridiculous. The first few days on the film, I probably keep an eye looking for something that wasn't there.

What was there was one of the hardest working guys I ever had the pleasure of watching work. His work was every bit as good as advertised. Besides his talent, Norman had something you could not teach, a combination of swagger and vulnerability that has made earned him the following he has today.

Although he became good friends with the other actors who played his friend, he partied less than any of them, often leaving to go back to his room and work when he had to be up the next morning while the other actors went out.

It would be in some of the scenes in the water that I would gain the most appreciation of Norman's determination, and for those water scenes, I was glad to have as key grip "Dusty" Keith. He was not only our key grip, he was our water safety person, certified as such, and he made me confident that with all the swimming Norman and Chad had to do deep into the lake, he would always be close enough with a boat to get them out safely.  Dusty was key, and I would have bring him on again when I did Man of The Century,

The role of the father was crucial. It was the father's alcoholism that had lead to his losing a leg, and to Van (Norman's) mother. If Van's friendship with Chad's character (Doug) was central, it was because of how it reflected on Norman's relationship with his father.

I am glad that we did not get any of the Hollywood options, and instead cast Will Lyman, who I would later cast in a film called Matty Fresno and the Holoflux Universe.  Will has a solid career as a voice actor, but he had exactly the depth needed for Van's father. He kept him human without making him a monster or the object of sympathy - just real.

Our DP was Wolfgang Held, who has gained much of his notice for his work as a documentary filmmaker. He has worked on some amazing documentaries all over the world, and a few years ago did the Sacha Baron Cohen film Bruno.  Working in rugged terrain, Wolfgang often would go to handheld, and it was handheld that matched much good steadicam work (though we had a great Steadicam op as well, Will Arnot, who was our dolly grip as well).

Wolfgang and I became closer the farther apart Bill, the director and I, grew. While he never took sides, when there was a problem, Wolfgang often came up with solutions that worked for both of us.  Many of these had to do with safety, which definitely became an issue with the terrain, some motorcycle work, and the swimming.

Along with Norman, Josh Marchette and Jonathan Quint, who played Van's friends, became like three amigos, and their chemistry together was great.

The guys
Before I move on to stories about the film, I should note the work of Christine McMillan, my Second AD. Christine was close to my age, and a mother, and was great to help with the actors. There was one scene, in particular, where she helped. When had three young girls (of age, but early twenties playing teens) who had a skinny-dipping scene. I had done many nude scenes with men and women, but given the age of the girls, I thought they would be more comfortable with Christine on set.

There had been times in the past when I had a 2nd AD take the set, but this was one time I thought there was a good reason. Also, because walking on sand was difficult for me, as was the terrain, letting Christine run rehearsals meant I didn't have to make multiple trips that were physically difficult for me. She was a real partner on this film.

As for my relationship with the director, I will talk about that when we get to the film. On films I line produce, I usually have the director meet a few ADs, because even though anyone I recommend can do the job, personality is important. In our case, Bill and I did not have compatible personalities to begin with, and it only got worse when we got into safety and procedural issues.  A large reason I did not quit - or get fired, which was likely - was the even-headedness of Bill's dad, who had put together the financing for the film. More on that later.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods - A Preview

"A lake is a landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the Earth's Eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."
-Henry David Thoreau

With the following series on the film Floating, on which I was the First Assistant Director, I am breaking with one of the tenets of this site; namely, not using real names (no pun intended).

A large part of what made the experience of making this film memorable for me was working with two, then, young actors: Chad Lowe and Norman Reedus (much more on both to follow). A few other actors from the film also went on to notable careers.

It would have been awkward and inconceivable to transmit the experience of working on this film by creating pseudonyms for the two leads, and referring to them as "Actor A famous for (x)" and "Actor B famous for (y)." While I allow my posts to digress at times, cumbersome references are to be avoided.

Norman and Chad were great, and both endured a lot working on a physically demanding film. As the AD, if anything, disagreements with either had to do with them wanting to do too much (again, more later).

The relationship between a 1st AD and a director is always a tricky one, and, on this production, it was not best fit in the world. For various reasons, Bill, the director, and I got off on the wrong foot and the relationship just got worse, being saved in the end by a line producer who came aboard that I had worked with in the past and who I really respected. Having named the film, it's pointless to try and keep the director anonymous. Understand that in keeping with the tone of this blog, any negative comments regarding that relationship are offered with no malice toward Bill. I wish him nothing but the best, and, I'm sure he would agree, there isn't a chance in Hell we would ever work together again.

A little background.

The film took place in Concord, Massachusetts, on a small pond not very far from idyllic Walden Pond made famous by Henry David Thoreau. We filmed in the early Fall of 1996. Those who have followed this blog know that I have worked on a few films that shot in the Fall in idyllic settings, and the results were not always the best.

Floating is an emotionally brutal coming-of-age film on many levels, and features Van (Reedus) as a teen dealing with difficult circumstances. His alcoholic father is responsible for a car crash that killed his mother and left his father an amputee, dependent on Van for everything. Van, an accomplished swimmer, finds true friendship and someone he can relate to in Doug (Lowe), but even that friendship produces problems, as Van, Doug, and Van's friends try to find a "perfect life" in a place where everything seems perfect, but is far from it.

The idea of doing a film with actors in their late teens and early twenties in remote woods in the Fall left me with images of hormones gone amok, a woodsy version of Spring Break. That turned out not to be the case, though the surroundings had other challenges.

At 39 years old at the time, a number of features under my belt,  Floating was a film that had a lot of lessons in store for me. One of them was that while you bring all the tools in your bag, you have to learn which ones to use when, and just going to the same ones isn't always the answer. At that point, I was doing more UPM and line producer work than AD work, and putting on the AD hat, and being quite a bit older than most of the cast, a lot of the crew and the director, I sometimes fell into the role of "Dad," which was not always the best role as AD.

It was probably the first production where age really hit me. The terrain was uneven and difficult, which was a challenge, being a bi-lateral amputee below-knee. Flex feet work best by doing what a real foot does, transferring energy from the heel to the toe as you walk. That works best on flat, solid ground. On Floating, I was dealing with hills or walking on sand, neither of which are strong points for flex feet.

Add to that being older than most of the rest, and that first time you feel the aches of age (any of you who are approaching, or have reached, "middle age" know what I mean). It was my first sense of mortality since my operation.  Up to that point, I had been able to meet every physical challenge and feel great, and while I did on Floating as well, it was now not without drained energy and those few aches.

This is a moment we all hit, a place we meet differently. Like an athlete who has physically lost a step, you start to put your experience to use, getting a good jump in the right direction to make up for that lost step. You start to rely more on experience than dealing with things by the seat of your pants, although there is always plenty of the latter on a film set.  For better or worse, you start to anticipate.

A little of the "depth of (your) own nature" Thoreau noted.

In the next post, an introduction to the cast and crew, as well as prep on Floating.

N.B. - You may have noticed that my posts on Floating are not quite in sequence with other films: Man of the Century and 1999 happened later. Frankly, the issue of how to tell this story took me some time, so I put it off until now. I hope you will find it worth the wait.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Passion Project

"Really, Dr. McCoy, you  must learn to govern your passions. They will be your undoing."
-The Wisdom of Spock (Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan)

Sometimes doing budgets is just work, with not a lot of concern for whether the projects get made. Other times, I become attached to projects.

Years ago, I read a script by Dan Lauria (probably best known for his work as the dad on "The Wonder Years," though he has done other cool work.) I won't say what it was about (hopefully he gets it made one day), but it was written for an famous actor friend of his, and it was brilliant. I did the budget for this script, and really wanted to see it made; alas, it was not. Years later, when I met him, I had the pleasure of telling him how much I enjoyed the script.

Much like foster parents, it is probably better when I do not become too attached to projects that I budget, but, inevitably, if the people making it are nice, I do. I hate to see the pain and heart-ache that goes with putting years of your life into getting a project you believe in made, and paying people like me to help get the funds raised, and then not seeing it ever get to the screen.

My skills are in knowing how to make the best use of the dollars you raise, and how to get that money on screen. As I stated in the last post, raising the money has never been a strong point for me.

Four of the budgets I am currently working on are from filmmakers coming back with the project for a second time. To be clear, I do not charge folks for slight alterations - these are people who have rewritten and rethought their project - often more than once, and often at different budget levels.

One paid me to put one of three different potential budgets for him in a completely different template, even after I tried to discourage him (from having to do it, and from paying me to do so), because, well, it needed to be done for a specific investor.  Anyone who has dealt with budgets knows how tedious and exasperating this can be; on one budget, for instance, craft service might be under "set  operations," on another, under "location." Matching all of these up is tedious; hence my need to charge again.

Two of the scripts are based on true, heart-breaking stories.

It's probably why I get annoyed when I see folks doing no-budgets say their project is a "passion project," and thus, somehow more worthy, and professionals should work on it for free.

These folks who are trying to raise money for their films are every bit as passionate about their project, let me assure you. The project my partners and I did took years of us setting money aside from mind-numbingly boring projects to fund, and we took two years to develop the script.

Folks who were dear friends of mine spent almost five years before they got to see their dream project done,  spending the money he made from editing to continue in development. When it finally got done, it was re-thought for a smaller budget than we originally planned but, as with the film my partners and I produced, everyone we brought aboard was paid.

When I see the sacrifices made by people at all levels to get their project made - including a director who was ready to mortgage his house to finish a film - I take offense at folks who are ready to shoot their film the second they type FADE OUT and expect other professionals to donate their time and sometimes equipment to make it happen.

Let me be clear: you want to make your film with your buddies and your collective equipment, go for it. You want to spend time collecting resources such as locations, trading favors, etc., I wish you the best and will even offer free advice.

What bothers me is the tone of those who choose to use the term "passion project", the suggestion that because you are willing to not make a profit on the project, complete strangers who you solicit online should jump on-board.

Your script is special? As I said, I have read incredible scripts that did not make it to the screen, some with name attachments. Note that none of the folks I am talking about were shooting for the stars - the budgets ranged from the very high at $16M, to the low at $200K. Most fell in the range of the SAG LOW or Modified Low, $625K and up, so these folks were not poised to get rich on these films.

Lack of budget does not suggest more passion; Plaster was only one project I did where an inexperienced director on a low-budget project was not willing to put the work necessary into doing the job right. The opposite is also true; just because you have a lot of resources, it doesn't suggest a lack of passion. Coppolla's decades dedicated to the Apocalypse Now story certainly was not motivated by money. I knew some people who worked on Redux, and they said his determination to get the story told "right" bordered on manic.

Look, I know there are people who go into this business to get rich, but, for the most part, they fall by the wayside. At every level, making movies is hard work, and, at the financial level, unless you have a cushy studio job, your "success" is only as real as your last box office.

This is not to suggest that you don't require passion from the folks you bring on board. With any of the "Key Creatives (there are certainly other creative crew people)" - DP, production design, costume design, editor - I want to know on a low-budget project that they really feel they can bring something special to the project, that it speaks to them in some way that will hopefully translate on screen.

Beyond that, I find that most other below-the-line  crew bring a passion as well. While the Best Boy Grip might not be excited about your script (most likely he didn't read it, and he doesn't need to), those who toil in these positions bring a different passion - pride in their work. I've seen that passion on the face of a grip who successfully levels track over difficult terrain, or an AC who nails a focus pull.

Most of us bring passion to our work; especially on the low-budget indie level, no one in their right mind is just doing this for the money, so when you say your project is a passion project, truly, I have no idea what you mean.

Any project worth doing has passion. I have no idea of knowing what karma you may or may not have accumulated, and I don't know what the Universe owes you, but I am pretty sure it does not owe you a movie, just as I'm pretty sure it doesn't owe me a movie. What is good advice for directors and screenwriters is also good advice in looking for collaborators; don't tell me about your passion, show me.