Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Unattainable - Part 3 - The Seat of Wisdom

Scripty Extraordinaire Melissa
"She comes in colors everywhere,
She combs her hair
She's like a rainbow.
Coming, colors in the air
She's like a rainbow."
-She's a Rainbow, Rolling Stones

My admiration for script supervisors was made clear in a previous post. When it came time to hire a script supervisor for The Unattainable, I reached out to Andrea, who is pictured in that post.

She was not available. I explained the complexity of the script; that we would be shooting in digital and 16MM, that the script would be broken down into present, past and voice-overs that were part of the lead character's imagination.

She gave me one name - that of our scripty above, Melissa.

I spoke to Melissa briefly, and then sent her out our latest copy of the script at the time.

At the time, we had not published a script, which was undergoing constant revisions, and continued to do so right up until and after filming.

In order to keep track of changes in all paperwork, starting with the script, a color code is used to distinguish revisions. In the case of the script, the line producer, AD and script supervisor will confer on whether the changes are few enough to just color code certain pages, or go to a new color entirely.

The guide we used was: white, blue, pink, yellow, green and goldenrod. The standard color code includes more colors, but in order to save us the cost of buying even more reams of different colors (remember, this same code is used for paperwork such as schedules, vendor and crew lists, etc) I cut it off at Goldenrod.

Coming, colors everywhere. It is, indeed, like a rainbow, with a wash of different colored paperwork.

This being a very low budget project, I had originally budgeted one day of prep for script supervisor, which clearly was not going to work with our complex script.

For one thing, there was establishing a timeline. Designers needed to know what happened when, hair and makeup needed to know if this was our leads now or five years ago, the AD needed to schedule so as to not constantly having us change set dressing and the rest during the middle of the day.

The director had a very clear timeline, and it was laid out on index cards along one of her walls. She would show it to anyone who wanted to reference the timeline. When I say it was laid out on a wall, it was an entire wall, floor to ceiling.

The prospect of carrying around the wall was, well, not very enticing. We needed something simpler.

We needed the right person. After getting Melissa's initial response to the script, I knew she was the right person. I knew we had to have her, and looked to get her together with our director as soon as possible.

Below is a somewhat edited and redacted (national security, proprietary information, and all that - very hush hush as they used to say in the spy movies) version of her first email explaining how she broke down the script.

I have attached my Short Form Breakdown by Scene Number below.  .  Everything after Sc11 is supposed to be chronological 

A few notes: 
1952 = Harry's birth year
1970 = Harry goes to Vietnam
1956 - 1975 = Vietnam War
10/1/2000 = FEMALE & Kevinbegin dating
10/15/2003 = Our story begins (Sc31)
2004 - 2006 = FEMALE & KEVINPAST
2010 = FEMALE & Harry's PRESENT

I will fill in the other details later.

Please let me know if you have any questions/comments/etc.


Here is the chronological list that (directors assistant) made yesterday:
PAST: (x)scenes
TOTAL: 124 scenes

The Short breakdown she refers to starts like this

Scene Location Characters D/N Date Time 1/8s ERT

Scene Location Characters D/N Date Time 1/8s ERT

Scene Location Characters D/N Date Time 1/8s ERT

1 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - AFTERNOON D10 Sat-10/08/2005 12:36P

1 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - AFTERNOON D10 Sat-10/08/2005 12:36P

1 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - AFTERNOON D10 Sat-10/08/2005 12:36P

2 INT. PRISON VISITING ROOM (FLASHBACK) - DAY D11 Sun-10/09/2005 2:10PM 2 5/8 2:37

2 INT. PRISON VISITING ROOM (FLASHBACK) - DAY D11 Sun-10/09/2005 2:10PM 2 5/8 2:37

2 INT. PRISON VISITING ROOM (FLASHBACK) - DAY D11 Sun-10/09/2005 2:10PM 2 5/8 2:37

3 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - DAY D10 Sat-10/08/2005 1:43PM 2/8 0:15

3 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - DAY D10 Sat-10/08/2005 1:43PM 2/8 0:15

3 EXT. DOCK BY THE SEA (FLASHBACK) - DAY D10 Sat-10/08/2005 1:43PM 2/8 0:15

4 CREDITS OF FILM Z 1/8 0:08

4 CREDITS OF FILM Z 1/8 0:08

4 CREDITS OF FILM Z 1/8 0:08

5 INT. APARTMENT, EAST VILLAGE, NYC - DAY D17 Mon-09/20/2010 3:43PM 7/8 0:53

5 INT. APARTMENT, EAST VILLAGE, NYC - DAY D17 Mon-09/20/2010 3:43PM 7/8 0:53

5 INT. APARTMENT, EAST VILLAGE, NYC - DAY D17 Mon-09/20/2010 3:43PM 7/8 0:53

6 INT. BAR (IMAGINATION) - NIGHT Z16 Sun-09/19/2010 10:33P

6 INT. BAR (IMAGINATION) - NIGHT Z16 Sun-09/19/2010 10:33P

6 INT. BAR (IMAGINATION) - NIGHT Z16 Sun-09/19/2010 10:33P

7 EXT. HALFWAY HOUSE - NIGHT N16 Sun-09/19/2010 11:28P

7 EXT. HALFWAY HOUSE - NIGHT N16 Sun-09/19/2010 11:28P

7 EXT. HALFWAY HOUSE - NIGHT N16 Sun-09/19/2010 11:28P

This is a small part of the work Melissa did.

As we moved forward, Melissa's understanding of the script became crucial to every aspect of the shooting, and I have to say she was more involved in helping to get coverage and tell the story than most supervisors I have had the chance to watch work.

One day in particular that I remember was our Day 2. It was all meant to take place INT THEATER. At one point, the DP got the idea of shooting one section EXT in order to break up the shots and give us an intro the those scenes.

What time of year was it? Was she wearing a coat? If so, how heavy?

As our first team was discussing it, Melissa calmly looked at her notes and said, "It's January 20th, 2011."

End of discussion.

Her daily notes continued to not only help for editing, but helped me know details about what was happening during the day that would have been impossible for someone else to keep up.

I've waited some time for script supes to get me notes in the past; Melissa's were usually within two hours of wrap. She gave credit to some software she said she was using - I think she secretly created the software and just didn't want us to know. After my AD, she was the second person I would seek out when I came to set to get a sense of what was happening.

As with most movies, the color wheel kept on turning, with schedule revisions necessitated by actor availability (we were sharing our male lead with a TV show filming in LA) and locations.  My small but incredibly efficient production office kept us constantly with the proper color, as "Megan, what color vendor list are we on?" would be answered with something like "Pink, but don't publish that one yet - we're still revising it."

I often wonder if we make making movies too hard, if we secretly enjoy it more if it's more of a challenge. Somewhere, people work with those simple, boring scripts I referred to in the start of this series. As my long-time AD once said when we were doing a complicated dolly shot through every room in a house on an Indian-American co-production a few years back, "JB, remember when people used to point the camera and shoot? What ever happened to that.?"

Maybe it's me, and I'm just drawn to more challenging scripts, having become numb to the endless stream of scripts that just regurgitate the same, worn-out plot lines and characters.  Indeed, sitting through trailers for upcoming films the other day, I wondered if I was in a revival house, watching movies that were just remakes of older movies, either clearly or inferred.

What I do know is that on this film, on this script, I was glad to have this lady.

"Have you seen her all in gold(enrod - my edit)
Like a Queen in days of old
She shoots colors all around
Like a sunset all around"

For this shoot, no, I have not seen a lady fairer.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Moving Target - A Line Producer Looks Back at 2013

I have decided I am no longer going to produce films for my living.  To do so requires me to deliver quantity over quality. Or to not contribute as fully as I like since I won’t be fairly compensated.  Or to make something that is virtually guaranteed to not have the cultural impact it warrants.  Those are three things that I am refusing to be part of.
-Ted Hope, Truly Free Film

Last year at this time, as my birthday approached, I offered this somber look back through the words of Neil Young. This year, I reflect back through the words of Ted Hope above, and also my own experience this last year.

Much as I lamented last year, the business is still changing; more specifically here, I am referring to the business side of our business, the side of raising money and selling movies. My own small part in this process over the years has been as a line producer helping folks to raise money for a film.

This process is confusing to many people. The answer to "how much will it cost to make my movie" is not a simple or straight-forward one.

My first response is always, "How much can you realistically raise?" Without that answer, the rest of the work I do is meaningless.

On the indie scale, most scripts presented could be done on any one of a number of levels. There is the bare-bones level, the full-blown budget (if you had everything on your wish list), and any series of numbers in between. The answer usually lies in the middle somewhere, and I often discuss it in terms of the different levels of the different unions, if one is to even use union workers.

The union that is relevant to most projects is SAG, which has modifications of it's guidelines for New Media (web series and such), Ultra Low, Modified Low, and Low. A quick check of the SAG INDIE site will explain all this in more detail; suffice to say here that you can still work with union actors for less than general scale, depending on your budget.

The important numbers for this year to me are as follows: 34 budgets prepared, none has yet to raise the money. The other important number is 1: one feature that I actually shot this year, which I refer to here as The Unattainable, raised it's money from a budget prepared by the producer on the Modified Low Contract.

I know how people used to sell films on the indie level: regular investors, pre-sales, direct-to-video, etc. I don't know how they do it today, with distributors seemingly only being interested in no-budget projects they can pay insultingly-low fees to acquire, or larger budget films. One of the producers on this movie assures me there is a path in between, and I hope she is right, as she has done it before.

What all of this means is that work for folks like me is scarce, at least as it comes to actually line producing a film. I have no interest in line producing a film on a budget that requires me to bring on mostly film students and get almost everything for free. Additionally, one of my maxim's is that the work is just as hard on a bad movie as a good movie, so you might as well make a good movie. Too many of the extremely-low budget projects are just not very interesting projects, and at my age, if I'm going to put the effort into it, I want it to count.

On many of the budgets I prepared this past year, the numbers kept moving; hence, the moving target above. People would hire me to prepare a budget on one level, then get investors who swore they were ready to invest if they budget were either higher, or lower. For some people, they experienced both.  In almost all these cases, after chasing this moving target, the so-called investors did not come through.

As Ted Hope regularly points out, this is no way to sustain either an investor class for film, nor encourage experienced producers to make their living producing features. Almost all have the need to create some other form of "content" to keep afloat.

Two of the young people on my feature have approached me on learning line producing. Sad that they are afflicted with this dreaded disease to actually do this for a living, I will help them anyway.

Most crew seems to thinks producers make lots of money for less work than they do; on this level, in fact, the exact opposite is true. The producers on this film would have made more money and worked significantly less days and hours if they had worked crew. Money cannot possibly be the motivation for them; it is that determination and possibly-naive belief that this may be "the one," as a love-lorn friend of mine used to describe almost every boyfriend she dated for more than a few weeks.

In this atmosphere, I feel lucky to look back at my 55th year to have worked on one great feature where I worked with a great team, read some incredible scripts (which I still hope get produced), had the opportunity to work with some great actors and actresses and directed my first project, a short. My producers and director on the last project proved they valued experience that comes with age, and that was a nice thing to see.

This, for me, is what qualifies as glass-half-full. If it sounds less than optimistic to you, then you don't know me very well. The folks from my last film characterized me and my production coordinator with this picture below, from Despicable Me 2.

My coordinator was a cheery redhead. You can imagine which one I am.

Cheery is not the description of a person whose role is to very often say, "no," as is the case with a line producer. Crew thinks you give them too little; producers think you give crew too much.  Making people happy? Not as often as you like.

Every year, I wonder, as Danny Glover's character used to say in the Lethal Weapon series, if I'm getting too old for all of this. Every year, I find myself like Michael Jordan, threatening to quit more many times before it actually happens.

As Michael Corleone once famously said, "Just when I thought I was out, they PULL me back in." I expect I will be pulled in a few more times next year.

NB: Yes, I will still finish the Series "The Unattainable." I am trying to put a little distance between the end of the project and when I look back at it in order to have perspective, and with the added difficulty that as a line producer, NDA or not, so much of what I do is proprietary and I feel it is a breach to share, even if I don't mention the film or people specifically. Still, there are stories I can share, and I will in the days and weeks to come.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Smile To Go Before I Sleep

"Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day."
-A.A. Milne. Winnie-the-Pooh

First, my apologies for not following up on the series based on the film I just line produced, which I called, "The Unattainable." As it is for all production people, especially my hard working fellow producer (who is never afraid to drive a vehicle herself, help lug equipment or remember to thank people for their work), the days seem to never end, and the weariness persists even once the shooting stops, as there is the dizzying process of wrapping.

Though I knew that there was not going to be the time to do my full posts, which I like to make as thoughtful as possible, it was my intention to do short missives as we went along.

Even this proved to be difficult, as if I had a moment to write such a short note, I felt guilt at the idea of using that time to write an indulgent blog post, as others on the team were working hard to keep us going and get work done.

We have wrapped principal photography on that project, and I will now look back at it with a little perspective and try to relate the experience while it is certainly much fresher in my mind than the other projects from my past.

Before I get into that process, I will offer this lesson that good things, indeed, do sometimes come to those who wait.

There was a period around 1994 where I almost worked on three seminal indie films of the 1990s - Welcome to the Dollhouse, Spanking the Monkey, and Mall Rats (not a seminal movie, but Kevin Smith is certainly one of those filmmakers who define that era).

One post discusses my disappointment in not getting to work with Todd Solendz, who I consider a genius.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine - the actress from my play and short film - asked me to First AD a trailer for a short film.

She had done the play and the film for free, and I felt it only fair to return the favor, even if it meant working the day after we wrapped our film office on the feature. I was intrigued when she mentioned that one of the actresses was Heather Matarazzo, the lead in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

As my previous post on the subject tells, I felt there would be two difficulties shooting Dollhouse: finding a school that would agree to be represented in the movie, and finding a young actress at that delicate stage in our development when our egos are fragile enough to begin with who could handle the psychological abuse the lead character experiences.

When I saw the movie, I knew that the second problem proved no problem at all. Heather Matarazzo was brilliant in that movie, as good as any teen actress in any movie ever. As her career continued, she proved that this was not freak luck, that she was not only talented but willing to keep taking on challenges as an actress.

As with anyone who has been around as long as I have in this business, I've worked with many name performers, and names don't impress me. My Facebook page does not have the all-too-forced photos of me with these actors. This may not be true, but I always found it a little unprofessional to treat a fellow worker the way a fan might. Again, many of my co-workers do this, indeed, it is the norm, and this is probably just another one of my many personal quirks.

What does impress me is talent, and Heather is a unique talent. One fear of meeting someone whose work you admire is that they disappoint your higher expectations, that they are difficult to work with and not the special person you think they might be.

Luckily, this was not the case with Heather. She proved to not only be a wonderful actress, but a real trooper, dealing with the difficulties of working with a super-micro budgeted trailer and a very small crew in a very tight space.

After doing a feature where we had a big crew and a lot of equipment, working with one grip/gaffer/AC, one person who line produced and 2nd AD'd, one PA, and everyone else doubling and tripling up actually felt like a relief. Furthermore, having to not worry about the budget and just making the day proved, if not relaxing, a pressure that seemed less stressful.

Meeting and working with Heather made it all the better, and I did relate to her the story of almost working on that project many years ago. I did so very late in the day, so as not to take away from her focus on the work in front of us.  At this point. she had volunteered to discuss other acting projects, so I felt it would not be inappropriate.

In a nice surprise, I found that we were both touched in the same way by a film that was ostensibly made for children, but touched every adult I know who has seen it: The Last Unicorn.

All day, she agreed to do things like stand-in for lighting or do things herself that would be done by others on a bigger set, and her input into the scenes was always spot on.

The day before, I had spent a day in my office doing Purchase Orders and getting out last minute checks as well as managing money, a line producer's biggest responsibility. Last night, I got on a LIRR train home, exhausted not from the day but from the collective work and hours of the last two months, but it was a good tired. The producer (the friend previously mentioned) and the director (a new friend) could not have been more appreciative, the crew worked well together with nary a complaint (something I cannot always say on bigger crews) and the experience made me feel good about what film-making, on a very small level, can be.

When I agreed to do the gig yesterday, it seemed crazy, and as I rode out on the train after closing the office, going over the shot list, planning the shooting order, what sort of masochist was I? Wouldn't resting be a better use of my time?

Today, as I head out to my Zendo to return to a little bit of normal life, I realize that there will be time for rest, that we who work in an field we choose and get to keep working in a field we chose are blessed, that every project, even if it is only for a day, presents an opportunity to experience something new and wonderful.

I am reminded that on every project. whether it goes well or not so well, good things happen, good people are met, there are reasons for smiles. Yesterday, on a shoot that was over for me in less than 10 hours, meeting the the talented Heather Matarazzo and working with some truly selfless, easy-going people brought me a relaxed smile as I drifted off into sleep on a Penn Station-bound Long Island Railroad car.