Friday, September 27, 2013

The Great Man Directs - Pt.1 - The Long Road to Overnight Sensation

"Movie directing is the perfect refuge for the mediocre."
-Orson Wells

My first job on a film set was as a production assistant on the 1981 film The Fan (the one with Lauren Bacall, not to be confused with the 1996 version with Wesley Snipes). My first directing job came on a short called The Yellow People earlier this month.

Thirty-two years from PA to Director. Think I'm rushing things?

We all know that by-now (in)famous expression, "What I really want to do is direct." It was quite the popular t-shirt for a while, and even wound up as the title of a book.

I had a PA wear one on set once; I really really wanted to fire him, but could not come up with a good enough excuse.

When you've worked in film as long as I have, you invariably get asked things like, "Have you ever directed a film?" and, if answered in the negative, "Don't you want to direct?"

Especially if you  have worked on the production side, as producer and assistant director, the question comes up.

I've never really had a good answer, short of a sidebar answer, which was, "I'd like to direct my film, not someone else's," by which I reference all those folks I see on set, from PA to producer, who seem determined to tell the director how to do their job.

As both First AD and line producer, I have walked my share of first-time directors through the process, and sometimes even a little more, but I always made a point to offer advice when asked, or, if it were a matter of keeping a director from making a mistake, offering the advice in private. As I said in the article linked, the crew must believe in the director, for better or worse, and if you do anything that undermines the director, even if unintentional, you undermine the movie.

More importantly, the director is the one who will be judged on the final product, and I always figured if they were going to be taken to task for problems with the film, they deserved to be judged for decisions they made, not those made by others.  Besides, I have often seen "mistakes" turn out to be creative and compelling, so who is to say.

Alright, that doesn't quite answer the question.

What attracted me to the arts in general was writing, not directing, and I've had two scripts of mine produced as features (albeit one was ghost-written). Another is in development. That has helped to fill the artistic side of me.

Then again, I have directed theater, and, for a while, back in the Eighties, directed a good deal of small, Off-Off Broadway and regional theater. That transition, from actor (very briefly) to stage manager to director, was much quicker.

In large part, the reason I did not have the same path in film is simple: money. The reason I work more as a line producer than a producer is that I have neither the inclination, nor the stomach for, the money-raising side of the business. My few attempts have been frustrating and unsuccessful.

Theater was a little different. There always seemed to be some small production looking for a director, and once I started, I got more offers. In film, the chicken-and-egg Catch-22 - if you want to direct, someone needs to see a reel, and how do you get a reel if you haven't directed - is in full force.

As costs have come down in the digital age, I could, of course, have just gone out with a friend or two and shot something on some low-end digital camera.

Frankly, I am too much of a snob for that. If I had done it, I would be a hypocrite, having often described these ventures as self-indulgent ego stroking.

Now, before you hit the keyboards and spew venom at me while explaining that you have done just that, and I am just being a snob, let me remind you that I already said as much. If I did something, I wanted it to look professional, which means I wanted a real DP and a real crew, and for it to look up to my standards. I will fully admit that this is my hang-up, and I say more power to those who have done it and who find it fulfilling.

I would not.

I learned this about two years ago when I tried to work with two friends to get a web-series off the ground. Web-series can be done very inexpensively today, and often are, and, to me, many of them look like it. When I budgeted how I wanted to do the web series, it came out to $20K per episode, with all crew paid something, if not a lot, and solid art direction.

My partners, two dear friends, pointed out that this was ridiculous, and, in hindsight, they were surely correct. They could not see spending anywhere near that amount of money, and I could not see shooting it any other way. Again, you shout "Snob!" and, again, I reply, "Guilty!"

Hey, I'm a Capricorn, and one of my favorite descriptions of Capricorns is that they aren't stubborn, they just know they're always right. It is exactly this sort of winning personality that explains why I'm divorced (from one of the most patient people you will ever meet) and have not directed previously.

So, how did it come about that I wound up directing a short on an incredibly micro-teeny-limited budget? You notice, I cannot bring myself to say "No-Budget," a term that is so mis-used that it is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

I am, by trade, a line producer, the guy who does the budget. You bought a prop? That's money. You paid for a hard drive? That's money. You bought expendables? That should be in the budget. As such, I cannot call something "no budget" when any money was spent on it.

We did, however, spend very little, and that is in part a tribute to the producer, and the kindness of some very professional people who did it for a song.

This all came about, oddly enough, because of my involvement over a year ago with a reality show, and a producer on that show who spends very little time talking about getting things done, and a puts a great deal of his time actually doing things. He is a one of the real good guys, the type of people who always saw how something could be done, optimists; basically, the opposite of me.

I worked on a reality show over a year ago, and through that connection, he offered me a slot directing a play for a one-act festival, and that play became the short that I directed. How unlikely that reality TV, never one of my favorite genres, and theater, my first love, came together to provide my first film directing effort.

That's the short version of the "how it happened," though, as usual, I took long enough to get to it.

In the next post, the people who made it happen, the script, and how it all came together. For once, I will be able to share information about the actual shooting, like the script, set pictures, etc, and, down the line, when the editing is done, I will share that here as well.

Oh, and for those of you who think the title of this series, "The Great Man Directs," is self-aggrandizing, I direct you to the film on which it is based, a really good 1956 film called The Great Man, itself based on the novel of the same title by Al Morgan. It is \a less-than-flattering portrait of a successful television and radio show host who turns out to have been quite a bit less than the sum of his parts, played by the wonderful Jose Ferrer and rumored to have been based on Arthur Godfrey. Links provided because if you work in the entertainment business, you should know who these folks were, especially Godfrey, who, while it seems not than a wonderful person (my dad never forgave him for firing singer Julius LaRosa - on air live!) was an influential figure.

Arthur Godfrey
Jose Ferrer, in probably his most famous role, Cyrano

Hopefully, I won't wind up like Joe Harris.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Blast from the Past

For those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning, or who have gone back and caught up, you will remember the series of posts about a very influential period of my life - when I was the First Assistant Director on Lucky Stiffs. The link should help you catch up ow if you like.

Our sound person - Bill Kozy (in the back - second from right) sent me this Polaroid (yes, you read that right - Polaroid) which was taken by our 1st AC, Lorelei (kneeling next to camera and razzing someone OS).

This was the first crew I worked with regularly; this was JR's crew.

I wrote a lot about the DP, John Rosnell (JR), including how close we were for many years.

I don't know why I was not in this photo

Monday, September 23, 2013

Floating: A Swim in the Woods - All's Well That Ends Well

"Love All, Trust a Few, Do Wrong to None"
-W. Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well
There are skills we start out with, skills we acquire, and skills that are a little bit of both.

I don't know if it's time, or being worn out over years from conflicts important and trivial, or just a part of my personality, but I have long since stopped carrying grudges.

Everyone comes to projects with baggage, and sometimes your baggage and my baggage make for a bad combination. Crew people have been screwed by producers; producers have been let down by crews. For every person we worked for who was appreciative, there were those who hardly noticed.

If you carry all that baggage with you, you carry a lot of regret and anger, and, frankly, it's just not worth it. I explained this recently to a director who thought certain crew and cast "disloyal." Maybe he was right; maybe not. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, or, at worst, just assume I will not work with them again, and let it go at that.

I've documented the difficult relationship William, the director, and I had on Floating. It was business, and, at times, it was personal.

After Mary came on as line producer, things definitely got better. At the very least, we were not antagonistic to each other; at best, there were times we would share a good moment. In between, we were civil and respectful to each other.

On the last day for key crew or cast, the AD will do "send-offs." announcing, "That's a wrap on (fill in person here)." Everyone claps, sometimes enthusiastically (for those we love) or at least politely (for those who we loved less).

On the last day of principal photography, the AD gets to say "and that's a wrap on (name of movie)." Emotions tend to run from regret that you would not see these people again soon (or maybe ever), to mentally dropping to your knees that this travesty is over.

When I did the wrap for everyone, and got to the end, William and I looked at each other. We could have just shaken hands, fist-bumped, or given a polite wave. We did indeed shake hands, and then, simultaneously, we wrapped our arms around each other and hugged.

I don't know why we I did it, and I don't think he knows why he did it. It just seemed right. One of the grip/electric guys actually said "I need a picture of this." That produced a genuine laugh from all of us.

Hey, it wasn't Nelson Mandela raising his hands with the representative of his former persecutors, F.W. de Klerk, at the end of Apartheid (pictured above) or one of the symbols of the U.S. during the Cold War, President Richard Nixon, who had been a Cold War Hawk since his Senate days, reaching out to Mao Zedong, China's leader and as much as anyone the symbol of Communism (pictured below).

History is filled with such reconciliations. Perhaps it is in our biology. Scientists have suggested that the physical responses we associate with anger - adrenalin rush, etc -  last approximately two seconds; yes, that is two SECONDS. That means that in order to remain angry, we have to work at it. As such, it seems only natural that we try to find a way to make our lives easier, to let go of anger.

Still, given what we had been through, it certainly came as a surprise to many, and probably to William and I, that we had let go to that extent.

Often in these pages, I have made the point that, at the end of the day, the final film is not necessarily reflective of the time on set. Films that are fun to make are sometimes awful; films that were brutal can be great.

If I am fair, this is a very good movie, William is to be commended. I highly recommend it to anyone, and especially to those who are current fans of Norman Reedus and his work on The Walking Dead, or older fans from The Boondock Saints.

Speaking of that latter film, which helped to propel Norman to a bigger audience:

Before we knew that it would be a good film, we were determined to have a good wrap party, and William and his dad provided a good one. The celebration went to the wee hours of the morning, and everyone was full of that combination of joy at the culmination of work done together, and, well, alcohol.

As the sun came up, Norman had to leave, heading off for his next film. He left with a few of the other guys who played his friends, but only Norman was going to his next film  that day, while the rest would be able to crash and rest.

We put Norman on a plane directly from the party; he said he would sleep on the plane(my first phrase here was "crash on the plane" - I thought better of it). Wow, I thought, what will the next project think of him, as their first peek at him would inevitably be less than flattering.

That film, it turned out, was The Boondock Saints, and if the film, it's cast, and the stories that came out of it are any indication, they knew Norman would fit right in.

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. Given the pressure that time, money and reputation, as well as the fear of seeing a dream die, that this business produces, not a bad philosophy at all.

N.B. A busy summer lead to a slow time with this blog; my apologies. In return for your patience, the next few posts will be something a little different - posts of some of the current projects that have side-tracked me. Then, we will go back to all of those intervening years that I still have to cover!