Saturday, August 31, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods: Drop Me in the Water

"Some are reputed sick and some are not. It often happens that the sicker man is nurse to the sounder"
-Henry David Thoreau

Ok, when we move on from this movie and the pond, I will move on from Thoreau and Emerson. Promise. 

As the title of the movie might imply, a lot of the time was spent in the water; specifically, Norman spent a lot of time in the water.  Both Norman and Chad's characters were talented high school swimmers, and besides spending time lounging by the pond, their characters also competed against each other swimming. It was part of how they bonded.

There must be something about male adolescence and water. From a young Al Green wanting someone to  Take Me to the River, to Neil Young shooting his baby Down By The River, to Springsteen remembering Mary's body tan and wet as they went down to The River and wondering if a dream's a lie if it don't come true, or if it's something worse, right up to The Decemberists filling their cup Down By The Water  (see, and you thought this old guy didn't know any modern music!)  there is something mystical about the creek, the river, the pond, the reservoir.

Maybe it goes back to the biblical  image of baptism and rebirth, or maybe it's just about young men with over-active hormones seeing what young women look like with wet bodies. Probably it's a little bit of both.

We kept putting Norman in the water, and it wasn't biblical or stimulating. Western Massachusetts in the Fall can be chilly, and the water was downright cold. Add to that a very physical shoot and working long hours, and near the end, it was really draining for Norman.

Because of turnaround (the time needed between wrapping one day and starting the next, for those not in film) a lot of the night shoots by the water were near the end of the shoot, when it was even colder. According to a doctor, Norman was very close to having what used to be referred to as "walking pneumonia." Whatever it was, he was sick.

This is an important point for young filmmakers: actors are not moving props. When you decide to work ceaselessly, it takes a toll on actors, especially if they are expected to be doing physically draining scenes. Norman was about as fit as anyone I have ever met, but it was still a lot to handle.

We set up a few tents, and heaters, and did the best we could to keep him dry and warm between takes, but the reality was that we needed a lot of footage of him in the water. Not only did he never complain, he refused to slow down, pushing himself pretty hard to make our days.

I tried to walk that fine line between fulfilling one of the first responsibilities of the Assistant Director - making the schedule - and fulfilling "the prime directive" - safety.

In the end, much as an athletic coach sometimes has to trust an athlete's ability to manage pain, it was clear to me that while Norman was pushing, he was also realistic about his limits, resting whenever he could while still getting in all the shots.

Of course it wasn't much fun for us to be out in that weather either, and a string of night shoots is never fun. Your body clock never really adjusts to working at night and sleeping during the day; the answer is more just about breaking your body clock so it stops complaining.

Believe me, none of us were going to complain with what Norman was working through, remembering that all the while, he had to play a tough, strong, athletic young man on screen. He kept us going.

For people who are fans of Norman now from Walking Dead, it is hard to describe what it's like to see an emerging artist just starting to be aware of their powers. Much like young writers, musicians, etc., the work may become better crafted and more mature as time goes on, but there is still something special about that early work, an energy that is hard to describe.

At the time, I was probably more concerned with just getting it all done, but I was still lucky to have been there for that, and I will always admire Norman for it.


For my part, this shoot was one of the few times that my own challenge became an advantage.

The character of Norman's father, played by Will Lyman, had lost a leg in the car accident that killed his wife. Bitter and feeling useless, he had spun deeper into depression and alcohol, acting very much the invalid, refusing to do much outside his wheelchair and spending a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.

Will did an incredible job of not making this a caricature, always letting his entire personality shine through. One challenge for him came in a scene where he tries to learn to walk with an artificial leg.

Whatever issues of frailty came up for Will's character I had long since gotten over with my own condition as a bi-lateral amputee below knee. The mechanics of putting on a prosthetic I knew very well, as it's something I do a number of times a day.

The prosthetic the prop folks got for Will was a very old one, one that was no longer being used even in the late 90s, no less the better ones we wear today.

The one they got him was one which used a strap, which is only used today in certain situations, replaced by a suction device that is actually more secure.

older leg

Newer leg with suction cup and lock

In any case, this was the leg we had, and almost no one knew exactly how it worked.

Some of the crew knew I used prostheses, some thought so but weren't sure, some did not. Because of the cosmetics, unless I roll up my pant legs, it isn't obvious.

I have never made an issue of hiding it, nor have I felt the need to announce it, but this was a time it came in handy.

On a break, I took Will into another room and showed him how mine worked, and how he would put his on. Mystery solved.

One of the humorous notes at this point was Bill, our director. I didn't ever tell Bill, and he didn't know. As we were not on particularly good terms, I didn't see us needing to bond over this point. Once the character had the prosthetic, Bill would constantly ask if it were possible, say, for him to walk up steps with it, or other simple tasks that any amputee learns early on in rehab.

Will, to his credit, would just smile, having seen me go up and down not only steps but hill and dale around our beloved pond. Some of my crew would chuckle. No one filled him in.

One of those moments when, as Thoreau mused, the sicker man was nurse to the sounder.

For my younger readers, another blast from the past.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods: Come, Feel the Noise

"Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment"
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

We were shooting just miles from Walden Pond, on another pond, and the image above, and Thoreau's commentary on it, are what comes to people's mind when they think of that part of the woods.

Nature. Beauty. Listen closely, and what will you hear?

A distant bird's chirp? The crack of a branch as some small critter crosses it?  A breeze rippling along a pond? Maybe.

An airplane flying overhead? Dogs howling? Construction? Music blaring from a neighbors party? More likely on our shoot.

We were about 10 miles from Hanscom Air Force Base. Most residents owned at least one, if not more, dogs. It was Fall, and most of the local residents were doing repairs and additions to their homes before Winter took over, and also getting in their last chance to hold parties in their backyards.

Added together, we had about as much chance of getting a quiet take as one would in Times Square.

I particularly remember one touching scene between Van (Norman) and his father (Will). Their relationship was contentious, but this was that special moment when they really connected, when they felt each others' pain, when they put the past behind them and moved forward.

It's not a scene you want to do twenty times; there are only so many "special moments" in them. Sure, we could get coverage, but we wanted one. nice, beautiful master shot, which meant we would need quiet for at least 3 and a half minutes.

By that point, we had a rather complex system in place of PAs stationed by folks homes, where they would bring in their dogs during takes as well as hold on use of construction equipment while we shot. For the most part, they were very polite, friendly and accommodating.

The Air Force, needless to say, was not about to work around our shooting schedule, nor were they about to give us a timetable of flights.

We were about 45 seconds into a take when I heard a dog barking. Was it loud enough to ruin our take? Could we fix it in post? All of my senses were alive, my "spidey-senses" kicked in, as I watched the take and listened to this dog, wondering if this was a good one.

When the director called cut, I immediately sought out the sound mixer, who was not in my line of sight during the take, a take that was absolutely perfect and heart-wrenching.

"Was the dog a problem in that shot?" I anxiously inquired of our sound mixer.

"No, the dog wasn't a problem," he said in the calmest of voices. "The plane drowned him out."

We had been dealing with these sound issues all along, and our mixer had long ago come to accept that this was just the way it was going to be.  Meanwhile, I was so fixated on the dog barking that I had completely missed, well, the airplane. "Spidey-senses," indeed!

Yes, we had to shoot it again. It worked out great in the final scene (which I don't want to show here, as it will be lost when you see the movie - and you should see the movie).

What it does remind me of is this, from Living in Oblivion, the Tom DiCillo film that inspired the title for this blog. Somehow, on that one perfect take, something affects the shot....

Sound was not our only struggle, and in the next post, too much time in the water, and a scene too close too home.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods: Why Can't We Be Friends?

"Can't We All Just Get Along?"
-Rodney King
When you're an only child, as I am, being liked is important; sometimes too important. With no siblings who are required to spend time with you, a lack of social skills insures a lonely childhood.

However, as I have observed and discussed with only-children, there is also a fierce sense of independence (not to mention a need for alone time, but that's an issue for another day).

No one is loved by everyone, but this is a business where you are going to work with all types, so if you cannot adjust, cannot let things go, then life is going to be hard. I know producers, ADs, and, for that matter, crew people, for whom every situation is a battle, a test of wills.

It's a rough way to get through a career.

All this by way of trying to understand why Bill, the director on Floating, and I just never got along, not from Day One. The simple answer was that I was always right and he was always wrong; that I was a wonderful, open human being and he was a spoiled kid with a sense of entitlement who had rarely been told "no" in his life. That would not only be simple - it would be a gross oversimplification, and not really the answer.

Part of it may have been the age difference, and the natural tendency of those fresh out of college to have a disdain for authority, on his part, and a lack of patience for explaining why things need to be done a certain way on my part.

The truth is, there are people who rub us wrong. In most situations, you can just avoid that person; as AD and director, that is not an option.

Early on, Bill took a certain delight in defying me on simple procedure. I remember a day when I was getting the keys in motion for one scene when, over the walkie, I hear the wardrobe assistant announce that another scene is coming up next. Yes, the wardrobe assistant.

When I calmly and politely went into HMU (translation: stormed into HMU) to find out why the wardrobe assistant took it upon herself to announce the next scene, and to ask her in a reassuring and loving tone not to do it again (okay, maybe not so loving and reassuring a tone), she quickly pointed out that Bill had just been there, and asked her to announce the next scene he wanted to shoot. When she pointed out that was not what was on the call sheet, he told her that he would correct me later.

Needless to say, Bill and I had a discussion about how things run on set. There are a million reasons why the schedule needs to be the domain of the AD, mostly because he or she knows all the little details about why a specific order works. That is not to say that someone else, say the DP, can't point out to the AD why something else might be good right now, and certainly, if the director really wants to change the order, this is a discussion with the AD, and every attempt should be made to take his needs or concerns into consideration.

The moment I tried to explain this to Bill, it became a "because I said so and I'm the director" moment. Bill had a lot of those, which, when this is the first thing outside of class you have ever directed, is not a good attitude.

From that moment on, we went from a mild dislike to a test of wills. If you have ever been on set where something like this starts happening, it makes things difficult for everyone. I leaned on my professionalism, my experience, and just being older, to try and make it better, but, in retrospect, I'm sure I could have handled it better as well.

One area I was not going to give in on was safety, and Bill (who, BTW, was also an only child) liked to ignore this as well. Being buddies with the three guys playing the locals (Norman, Jonathan and Josh) was really important to him, and so he took every opportunity to show them how cool he was.

There was a scene where Norman's character (Van) rides a motorcycle, and does so quite fast. Norman didn't have a license, which didn't particularly bother me, as we were in the middle of the woods. He also didn't seem to have extensive experience riding, though he insisted he did.

Norman really wanted to do his own motorcycle stunts; he was a hard worker and I respect him going for the reality. So, there was me, and there was Bill and Norman. I chose what I thought was a reasonable middle ground; I would leave it up to our stunt coordinator, who was a seasoned stunt rider.

Our stunt guy told me that he was okay with Norman doing standard stuff, being the guy to ride off, but absolutely not for the stunt. Neither Norman nor Bill was happy with the decision, but I literally stood in front of the bike, legs straddling the front tire, hands on the handle bar, explaining that I would not let Norman start the scene unless he agreed to stop as soon as he cleared frame and to let the stunt rider do it.

He begrudgingly agreed, but, after having clearly discussed it with Bill on the side, took off to do the stunt once he started going as Bill encouraged the DP to keep shooting, making it clear he had planned to ignore me all along.

That night, Bill and the producer (his father) and I met. I was prepared to quit, and was sure he was prepared to fire me, which was fine by me.

However, my 2nd AD, Christine, was instrumental and making it clear to me that it would be a mistake for me to quit, and assured me that I was helping in ways I didn't see. I was fed up, and not the least bit concerned that if I lost the respect of the crew, if it seemed that I was not in control, there was no point in me being there, and it would even be detrimental.

To Bill's dad's credit, he handled it great. He made it clear to Bill that I wasn't going anyplace, and that he (his father) had put a lot of money up to get this done, and he wanted someone with my experience.  Bill was going to learn to work with me.  He also realized that one of the original producers who was trying to do everything was not strong enough, and that without that, Bill and I would always be bucking heads, that I was making too many of the production decisions.

It was at this point that he brought in Mary Feuer, who I had worked with in different capacities on other films. I respected her, and was happy to have her on. That didn't mean she always took my side, or always agreed with me, but the day-to-day got much better, and she was the right person for the job.

Having gotten that pretty much out of the way, we still had an idyllic setting filled with dogs, airplanes, and construction, weather that did not cooperate, too much time in the water and finishing the film on time to get Norman off to his next project. More on those in the next post.

NB: Sorry for the delay in getting this post out - next one should be sooner. Thanks for the patience!