Tuesday, December 30, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - The Final Cut

"I don't try to guess what a million people will like.  It's hard enough to know what I like."
-John Huston

After JR's death, there was a definite mourning period. He was cremated, and we got together on a beach in New Jersey and spread his ashes, joking as we could amid the tears.

Of course, Jack and I were as determined as ever to finish the project, and we collaborated as much as we could with Jack in Chicago, where JR's editing suite was located, and me in New York. Jack did the editing with JR's assistant editor, which added another dynamic to the process. In theory, it was good to have a fresh set of eyes. In reality, since he had only been an assistant editor, it meant Jack did the first cut pretty much the way he wanted to do it.

My first reaction to the first cut was that it was slow, but that's not unusual. I assumed that we could pick up the pace. I knew the problem started at home.

From the first reading of the script, through listening to sides at auditions, it occurred to me that, despite my best efforts, the script was too "talky." I have a great love for dialogue, and ever since Town Diary, I have pushed myself and the filmmakers I produced to pare down the words. Talking is great on stage, but it is hard to sustain it in film.

There are exceptional writers who can get in a great deal of dialogue and keep a story moving; Aaron Sorkin is my hero in this area. The difference is that the dialogue is always active, always moving the plot forward, and he does a great job of having his characters on the move as well.

Our story was about a filmmaker with regrets, battling his own past and that of a town's. Too often, I felt the scenes were telling and not showing. Worse yet, they often were reflective, which works better in novels than it does on screen.

Part of that was Jack's rather straight-forward style of shooting, which made the dialogue too precious, but I have to take responsibility for laying that foundation for him.

One scene in particular bothered me. The main character, Brian, has a strained relationship with his father. At one point, he discusses it with his mother. This is an adult man in his 40s trying to come to terms with his relationship with his parents.

It worked on paper, but when I watched it, I realized that it was not only reiterating something we had already established (his issues with his father), but it was at a point in the film where we were following a mystery, and it stopped it dead in it's tracks.

I asked Charlie, our cameraman and now de facto DP, to take a look, and he agreed, not only with the scene, but with the pacing as a whole.

Jack and I were past the arguments - JR's death made all that seem trite - and we tried to work out the problems. Jack agreed with some changes, but he felt that the mother-son scene was too good to lose. It was odd - a writer protesting to a director that a scene should be cut, and the director responding that the dialogue and performance made it indispensable.

In the end, the biggest change for Jack was that certain scenes just didn't work, and we needed to do a reshoot. I wasn't sure, but Jack  raised the money on his own to do it. 

We did the reshoot the following June, with Charlie as DP. The scenes we reshot certainly were better than what we originally had, including one in a newspaper office which I completely rewrote. We never found a good location for the original newspaper office, and built it in a studio. It looked awful (not the fault of our designer - there were budget and time limitations).* This time, we found a little underground newspaper office that was perfect. We also cast a long-time character actor named John who I knew from, you  guessed it, West Bank Cafe.

An aside on John.

John had one of the more revealing off-screen lines during the shoot. Word spread on set that Jack Lemmon had just died. When John, an older character actor, heard, his droll response was, "It's just as well. His work was going downhill." John wasn't kidding. He really felt that, if an actor didn't have his work, there was not much reason to stick around. Tells you a lot.

Back to the movie.

Shortly afterward, we had a screening at Tribeca (we rented the space). A table was set up with photos to honor JR, and certainly, much of the party afterward was a celebration of stories about working with JR, as it should be.

The screening itself? I sat with my assistant on the film, who knew me and my feelings better than anyone. She was the one who had to listen to all my complaints about how Jack was missing the main points of the film, how our lead was wrong, etc. Bless her, she helped me get through the entire thing.

The final product, in my opinion, is slow. I sat there, proud to see my name in a writing credit for the first time, but disappointed.

The film you screen is never the film you shot, or the script you wrote. It's rare that it is everything you wanted under the best of circumstances (see "Director's Cuts" and the Coppola's endless retelling of Apocalypse Now); and low budget films are never the best of circumstances. There is a line - and each individual has to find it - where the film that you screen is a true expression of the story you were trying to tell, or it is not. For me, it didn't make it across that line.

That experience has propelled me as a producer. I work with a lot of first-time directors, and, on low-budget, there are always compromises. A point I always stress is that you really need to know what things you would like and what are essential, and fight for the latter.As a line producer, it's a hard balance, but I really have fought on every film since not to have another filmmaker have that sinking feeling watching your baby and realizing that she is not as pretty as you thought.

* Here is a lesson I have learned more than once on low budget: when in doubt, go with a real location. It always sounds enticing to build to your needs, but if you don't have the budget, manpower, and time, too often, the result looks cheap.

N.B. This could have easily been three posts - one on the aftermath JR's death, one on the reshoot, and one on the screening. This series has run the better part of this year, with interruptions and I thought it was time to move on, both for myself, and those who are good enough to follow this blog.

Friday, November 28, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - ...The Ugly

"Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you."
-Dr. Ira Byock, From his Book "The Four Things That Matter Most" on what you need to say to loved ones before they die.

My mom used to visit her mother every day in the hospital. My grandmother was relatively healthy right up until her death in her late 80s. One day, as my mother was leaving to go home, my grandmother, sitting comfortably in a chair by the window, said "Goodbye, Margaret."

My mother was all the way to the bus stop before she got a chilling feeling. My grandmother would always say, "I'll see you tomorrow, Margaret" - never goodbye. My mother thought to go back, but, it was late and getting dark out. She still had to get home and make dinner. She was sure it was nothing.

Mom wasn't home more than a few minutes when she got a call from the hospital telling her my grandmother had passed.

A lot of books and articles have been written on preparing for death, both for the person dying and the the loved ones who are left behind. Many a novel - and likely more movies - have ended with two people reconciling in those final precious moments before the last breath. A popular tear-jerker of a novel from my youth was made into an even more tear-jerker of movie, Love Story, with the syrupy tag-line: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."*

Yeah, but it wouldn't hurt.


Near the end of our shoot, two days stuck out in my mind.

One was the day of a scene where Brian goes to the home of his assistant and she makes dinner. It was a scene I wrote intended to show that there was at least some sexual tension between them. Brian was played by a man in his late 40s; his assistant, Veronica, was played by a lovely young actress and singer who is still stunning today.

I've previously pointed out that the actor Frank (Brian) had become rather boorish, and by this point, Brette (Veronica) was put off by him, as were some of the other actresses. There really was not much chemistry between them, but I still liked the idea that there would be some romantic interest, even though I never wrote a scene where anything more than the suggestion happens.

Jack (director) had made it clear he thought Brian would never become involved in a romance with his assistant. My point was not that he did, but that it had, at least, crossed his mind, even if he thought better of it later. It was hardly an unreasonable assumption, and it added some heart to the story.

Jack thought the steaminess would come from the major sub-plot - that a teenage girl had drowned under mysterious circumstances during an evening skinny-dipping with her boyfriend (who turns out to be a character close to Brian in his childhood).

This wasn't quite a noir, but it was meant to seem like a crime and cover-up might have occurred. Still, I thought a romantic interest for the leads would add an emotional warmth to a story that seemed, as we were shooting it, rather cold.

At Jack's request, I had rewritten the dinner scene from one where it is suggested that they wound up in bed (though not shown) to one where it was made clear that they did not - but that Brian and she think about it.

On the day of the shoot, after agreeing to my rewrite, Jack completely ignored me and shot the scene as if there was nothing between them - making a clear point to both actors that there was nothing there.

What was the point of the scene, then? I didn't need to see two characters eat! Yes, I would have fought him if had told me of his intention, but by avoiding a discussion we needed to have, he gave me no options.

I was incensed as producer and writer. Both of these things should have been discussed with me. Writers get their material changed all the time. Directors get final decision (in indie films, anyway) but producers should always be in on such a discussion that changes a feel of the film significantly. In the end, I would have made the case for shooting it with romantic overtones, and then seeing if it made sense in post. We were set to shoot it, we had the location rented, etc.

Instead, we wasted half a day on a scene that no longer made any sense. When I made my case to JR afterwards, he basically shrugged and said he didn't understand, either, but it was Jack's decision.

If I felt alienated before, I felt more alienated now.

JR was definitely weaker from the chemo. Thankfully, he trusted Charlie fully as operator and to make decisions about the photography. We all suggested that JR could go back to his room early whenever he wanted, but the professional in him would not allow it. Unfortunately, on some days, the chemo got the best of him, and he would rush through set-ups or suggest we could cut coverage.

All of this was sub-conscious on JR's part. I knew it was not intentional Still, on one day when I really thought we needed more, JR insisted it was fine. I don't remember my exact words, but they were something like this:

"Great. We're just going to compromise and accept average again. That's just great."

It was one of those things you say out of frustration. I know JR never stopped giving his all, and I could not imagine what it was like to be dealing with minutia while literally being sick to your stomach.

The three of us went through the rest of the shoot - this was the last or next to last day - saying little, and I didn't have any real discussions with JR after that, and Jack and I dealt only with what we had to discuss.

JR and Jack went back to Chicago, where JR, with his now-trusted assistant editor, would begin editing. As the days after wrap went by, it occurred to me that when we got to the point where we were close to final edit and I was scheduled to go out to Chicago to join Jack and JR, it would be good to get back to the three friends we were.

One morning - maybe a week or two after we had wrapped - Jack called me.

"Are you sitting down?" he asked.

What a silly question. Just tell me what you need to tell me. Anything about the movie that needed to be fixed....

"John's dead," he said.

JR was told he was in remission, and all was going well. That morning, JR was getting dressed after taking a shower, and Jack went to the ATM to get some cash. Jack would only be gone a few minutes. Jack said JR seemed fine and healthier than ever.

When Jack got back, just a few minutes later, JR was on the floor. The EMTs later told him that John was already dead by the time Jack got back, and we later learned that his body was filled with cancer.

From that moment until this one - more than 14 years - my last words to JR stay with me, the unintended meanness that I never got to undo.

Stacy, JR's girlfriend, flew out to Chicago to see him before he was cremated. She and Jack flew back to NYC where his friends gathered and each of us tossed a few of his ashes into the ocean near where he had grown up in New Jersey.

At some point, I took Stacy aside - it might have been that day, or later. You think you're going to be supportive for that person. but I could not hold it in. I started crying as I told her that I could not forgive myself for having the last thing that I said to a dear friend, to someone who was so instrumental in every step of my development as first an AD, and then, after introducing me to Stan, as line producer and UPM, not to mention the love and support we shared.

No thank you for all he had done for me and had meant to me.

No 'I love you', though I certainly did.

He had nothing for me to forgive him for, but I would have liked to have taken back faulting him for what were much bigger problems.

Certainly, no "Please forgive me."

Like JR, Stacy was reassuring, and said that JR had never even mentioned it to her, and, knowing him better than I did, that there was no way he took it to heart. I hope she was right.

I could not find an obit, and his IMDB does not begin to tell his story. John Rosnell never thought of himself as a mentor, but there are a gaffers and grips and make-up people and others that he helped get a leg up, valuing loyalty and hard work over resume or even previous experience. Oh, and one First AD and line producer. My post about when we met - aptly titled "When JB met JR - The Birth of JB" - tells it in a bit more detail.

There are a lot of us who remember him. He fought cancer not once, but twice, and the disease may have finally laid him down, but could never take away the tenacious, loving person he was, though I'm sure if he were here, he would scoff at the latter.

I like to imagine JR and I talking over a glass of wine (he still with his white zinfandel, God love him) at his favorite Italian restaurant, both laughing at what a sap I am to make such a big deal out of one bad day for both of us, among so many bad days on set, where things that are said out of weariness or frustration are allowed to dissolve and disappear like bad frames cut from a movie.

So, I won't burden his spirit out there with a pathetic request to forgive me - I hope he has better uses for his energy now. I will just leave it at - thank you, and I love you, man.


Next post, the editing, a re-shoot a year later, and the final product (as you might have imagined, that might be more than one post)

* Tear-jerkers are a genre that go back to the silent era in film. As they play on emotions we all have, they tend to work. Beware, images on the screen are sometimes more shallow than they appear at first viewing, JR would get a real kick out me using this clip in a post about him (or, more likely, kicked me). Enjoy, JR!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

All In the Family: The Making of Town Diary - The Bad....

"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse"
Bruce Springsteen, "The River"

Karma can be a bitch.

The reality of making low budget films is that there will be concessions. You start with the script and make the film as close as you can to what is on the page, but you know there will be changes and things you just cannot do. This is advice I have handed out to first-time filmmaker after first-time filmmaker as I have guided them through the process.

The important thing, I keep telling them, is that at the end of the day, it has to essentially be the movie you wanted to make.

From the inception of this movie I would be making with my good friends Jack (as director) and JR (as DP and editor), we all made concessions. JR and I liked the idea of a comedy, and one of Jack's original premises was about a theater company trying to put on a play. It was familiar territory given my theater background, and it could make for a good movie. Among successful attempts at this genre were the film version of Noises Off, though it has a great history in film comedy, as many film actors and directors come from the stage.

Jack and I had started discussing those ideas, but Jack had dismissed them finally when he saw Waiting For Guffman, a comedy from Christopher Guest and his usual band of wonderful character actors. I didn't think our movie would be anything like that one, but Jack had made up his mind.

Among other things, Jack taught film history in Chicago. There was hardly a scene or a word in a classic film he didn't know, so when I started the film with the a train bringing the character of Brian from New York to his childhood town in Long Island, Jack immediately remembered the imagery from the beginning of Bad Day At Black Rock.*

Bad Day was a favorite of mine, and a favorite of Jack's. The opening sequence has this train carrying Spencer Tracy stopping in a town that is used to seeing the train just pass on by. The arrival of the stranger who upsets the secrets and lies of a small town is another film standard, and we both liked it.

On Page One of the script, I went into great detail to show how we might shoot this scene, with an emphasis not on the exterior of the train, but Brian's POV looking out the window, almost like watching frames of movie.

Admittedly, the mental image was easier to capture than a good screen image. Jack and I rode the train, and the images outside the window were less interesting than the ones I had in mind. Still, the two of us, and JR, spent some time working out what the opening could look like.

When we started shooting, we agreed to just pick up the scene at the train station where David looks for a taxi, and is met by Jimmy Ryan, the hopeless younger brother of his good friend, Frank Ryan. Jimmy drove a taxi, and he grills Brian about being a "Hollywood producer," something the documentary filmmaker Brian certainly is not.

The thought was that we would get the rest of the opening later, but once it was in the can, Jack pretty much decided that we didn't need the train opening at all, and went for something different. Admittedly, whether my opening or his would have been better is subjective, but it was the first in a series of incidents where I felt that we were making compromises before at least trying to do something more creative.

While we were all great friends, the fact that each of us saw filming a different way became apparent before long. While JR and I had worked together on features, Jack and I had only worked together on Dental PSAs, a medium where my concern for the content was minimal. This was different.

Film directors approach directing actors in many different ways. Jack's approach was mostly to trust the actor to bring something, but, when they didn't, he would offer line readings or offer "just do this." It goes back to why he wanted to hire actors who were already close to the part.

I often felt that this method was less than effective, or that he was accepting an okay performance where they might be a better one. I tried to take him aside privately and discuss these issues as often as possible, but when the producer and director are talking, all eyes are on them and little is private.

Eventually,  I let go of this, but not before Chris, my AD, rightfully took me aside and said if I was going to keep doing this, he would prefer I not be on set. Chris correctly felt that questioning Jack, even if I pulled him away to do so, was undermining his authority, and it made it harder for him to keep control on set.

It is not easy to admit that he was right, and I found myself spending less time on set during filming and more dealing with producing elements. This was made easier by the fact that most of the actors we hired were wonderful and brought strong performances without much coaching.

Then, there was our lead actor, David in the role of Brian. As I have said previously, David decided early on that he knew more about acting than Jack did (well, as Jack was not an actor, that was true) and he would ignore Jack when he could, and confront him if Jack pressed him. Now, Jack did not envision the Brian character as a version of himself, and while I had used some of Jack's manners to give Brian a fuller life, I didn't see it that way, either.

Brian was the lead character, however, and as such, Jack was more invested in his performance than any other. David, as I have mentioned, was an actor who had not often been the lead in a movie, and he was determined to make this part his. This conflict devolved to the point where David would pretty obviously challenge Jack on set. These were the worst days, and David made it worse by being passive-aggressive when I tried to talk to him privately about it.

There were the usual practical problems as well.

The bane of my existence on other shoots reared its ugly head again - location manager. We went through two ineffective ones before I brought on a third - a woman who had been great on another shoot. The difference now was that she was pregnant, and it meant more time for her on the phone and less time scouting, and worse, an irritable mood that no one appreciated. We had to let her go as well, leading to a total of four location managers in all.

My savior through the bad times was my assistant Christine, who became as much a confidante and voice of reason as an assistant. She was incredibly helpful as I spent more and more time off set, either dealing with production issues or trying to make up for the deficiencies of our location department.

Chris K, as AD, was in the middle of it all, and as time went on, I saw he felt the pressure of balancing seemingly different marching orders from friends. I have been there as a First AD, and it is no fun. That blew up on day in a sign of frustration that also wound up being unintended humor.

Shooting out in New Jersey, one of our weak location managers had printed poor-to flat-out wrong driving directions. As each vehicle was attempting to get there - Chris driving in his own car, we all were calling each other trying to figure out a) where each of us were, and, b) where the heck was the location. I was one with one such call when Chris K tried to call me and got my voicemail. His message would have made NY Jet's coach Rex Ryan** or Joe Pesci (see below) proud. I think you can work your way through my redaction:

Son of a f****ing bitch. This is so f***ed.  We're f**cked. You have f**cking f**cked me....."

It went on like that for about 45 seconds, with Chris K deftly finding uses for his new choice favorite word as verb, adverb, noun, adjective  and just about every other part of speech imaginable.

I put in on speaker, and as concerned as we were about the situation, Christine and I could not stop laughing - something we kid about to this day.

Understand that Chris would use the occasional profanity as any of us might, but was usually well-spoken and not someone of limited vocabulary. This was an exception.

Chris was involved in another unintentional funny moment  that went badly. There is a mock-TV reality cop show sequence that is playing for a few seconds before a scene between Brian and his father. The scene is MOS***, and brief. We needed two actors to be in the car, and we talked through an improved scenario where a boyfriend and girlfriend get into a physical argument in a car.

The girl was an acting student of mine who had bugged me to be in a scene, a stripper who was trying to become a serious actress. The bg car we wanted did not show up, and Chris reluctantly volunteered his car.

When Jack called "action" the improv - or I should say the actress - went insane. She started screaming and kicking and made the character who pulled her out of the car practically drag her. In doing so, she did some serious damage to the front of Chris' car.

When Chris came over and challenged her (I'm being polite) as to what was wrong with her, she looked at him, tears in her eyes, and screamed "Leave me alone - I've just been raped."

Now, there is nothing funny about rape, but never in our description of the improv did Jack, Chris or anyone else suggest that her character was raped. If that worked as "motivation" for her, okay, but there was no reason for the over-the-top performance.

Chris walked over to me and made a suggestion about getting that "psycho bitch friend of (yours)" out of his car. We all agreed we would go with the first take.

Even these funny moments did not reduce the strain, and more and more, at wrap, all of the "friends" went their separate ways without much said.

Good friends. Your script. It should have been a dream, but too often, it was more of a nightmare. When the expectations of what it can be are so high, the disappointment when it is something less is exponentially worse.

The worst moments, and biggest disappointments, were still to come. The last post was the "good." This one is the "bad." You know what the next one will be.

*Bad Day at Black Rock should be on your list of must-see movies if you are in the business, or just a fan of good movies. John Sturges at his best directing, and a cast of great character actors around Tracy, from Robert Ryan to Ernest Borgnine to Lee Marvin and more.

** Both Rex Ryan and Joe Pesci, in different movies, have become known for their colorful language.

*** Without sound, for those not in the business.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - The Good...

"Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness"
-Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn*

(This post picks up on the series of posts about a film I produced and co-wrote, called Town Diary. The last in that series is here (it started here), which ends with the end of pre-production. Here starts the story of production.)

Low budget indie films are about Plan B. They are about letting go, which is definitely the only path to happiness in making your movie.

Understand what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that you drop your basic vision for the movie - and you have to have one. Reality is that it will never be exactly what you envision. Ted Hope, a great producer and a source for sage advice in the indie world, in part described it this way recently:

I often say that there is the role of the producer and there is the role of the director that are remarkably similar. The producer comes in and has to extract the big vision, the dream of everything that you want to accomplish, and then cut the legs out from under it and say, “That’s where we’re going. But with these funds, with this story, with this cast, we’re only going to be able to capture forty percent.” And then through work and through structure, hopefully [you can] achieve a place where you get another twenty or twenty-five percent. And then through good engineering, having built a structure where serendipity can occur, where the miraculous might be achieved, you get something more. And then to be able to sit and help the director recognize that you still may not have hit that full vision that you had before you ever shot, but you have something very unique and distinct that you were able to capture.

I can't say if the world owes anyone anything, but I know that the world owes no one a movie. If you get to produce or direct a film, it is a privilege. In this case, while I didn't get to see my name on the slate, I did get to see a script that I wrote actually shot. To hear my words on set and on film spoken by really great actors like Terry Quinn and Angelica Page and Annie Grindlay and Bob Hogan and so many more that I have mentioned.

Making an indie movie is hard - but not as hard as getting one financed, and JR and Jack put down their money and let this come true, all while trusting my decisions as producer.

Some of the good days included seeing Annie do a scene with her "children" not being excited to see their dad, the lead character of Brian, her ex-husband. While my ex and I never had children, I could still feel the heartbreak in the room.

Terry Quinn was every bit as terrifying as we imagined, all while being a very real and human character.

Luke Reily, as Frank Ryan, sold a scene where he talks about the vagaries of 'doing what's right' when it harms other people.

My dear friend, Angelica Page gave me maybe my best day.

She came in off the red-eye from LA, a flight, for those who are not familiar, leaves a person having lost three hours and landing early in the AM NY time. It often takes a lot out of people.

She had one scene where she is interviewed by a reporter. The reporter has a few questions, but it is pretty much a four page monologue where she coldly describes viaticals, a practice of buying insurance policies for pennies on the dollar which became "popular" during the AIDS crisis of the 80s and early 90s. Angelica is an amazing actress, and it took that to pull this off and make it believable.

She got out of make-up, showed us the wig she chose (she gave Jack and I cursory right of approval - of course, it was perfect) and then sat down to rehearse the scene.

All through the rehearsal, when she would try something out, she would call for "line" from the script supervisor. Usually, this is a clue that the actor may not, in fact, know their lines.

Jack was concerned. Was she going to be alright? Was it maybe the flight?

As I've said, her mom was the great Geraldine Page, who was not only a great actress but a founding member of The Actors' Studio. Angelica is on the board. Professionalism runs deep with Angelica, so much so that she once related a story of chastising a rather famous actor in an airport scene for not knowing his lines.

It was this discussion and others about professionalism that made me confident, and I told Jack she would be fine. I never asked her if there was a problem.

The minute we rolled camera, the lights went on; not just those that provided an image for the camera but within Angelica. She nailed it the first time. We did a second master for safety. She nailed it again. We did her CU - she nailed it once more.

As we were relighting for the reverse on the "interviewer," I stopped by her holding room. She grabbed my arm and asked "JB, was that okay?" She really did care what I thought, and thanked me for giving her the opportunity to do the role.

"It was more than okay," I told her. "It was great."

He face changed from questioning to recognition. She grinned and said, "Mommy knows how to get home." As she had told me often before, she knew that if you show up and do your job, it can be a short day for everyone with none of the stress. Her reaction was classic, and almost as good as the scene for me.

There were many other great performances and days of satisfaction. But, of course, there were those days that were not. If this post is entitled "The Good..." you can imagine what the next two posts will be entitled.

N.B. Sorry for the delay between posts. Been dealing with some personal issues, and also basically outlining and roughing all three posts about the making of - this and the ones to come - to make them part of a whole and not miss anything. I'm certain as soon as I hit "publish" I will think of more good things - but it's time to put it up there.

*At this writing, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn, the great Vietnamese Buddhist leader, is battling a brain hemorrhage. It may be why he was in my thoughts as I searched for a quote this week. Please send out whatever good vibes you can.

Monday, October 13, 2014

When The Music Stops

"When the music's over
Turn out the lights"
-Jim Morrison
Don't worry. I'm not ready to retire. Not just yet. Or, maybe, I am again.

At wrap of any project, Stan used to smile and say "Well, another gold watch!" As you might imagine, we don't get gold watches at the end of shoots, nor is there a retirement party. As producer or line producer, though, it's rare that you are jumping right into another project.

Movie shoots are an adrenaline rush, and like people in any situation driven by adrenaline, there is bound to be a reaction when the rush is over. Certainly, athletes and military folks famously experience this sort of feeling when, after a long time being needed in crucial situations, suddenly, you are not.

For production, it is even harder, because even though the filming is over, your job is not. There is the period of wrap, where a LOT of paperwork has to happen.

Line producing low budget shoots, this can be excruciating. Normally, I keep my office staff on for a week. While that is enough time to get returns done, settle out with vendors, make sure all crew is paperwork and invoices are done, and petty cash floats are accounted for, that is not the end of it.

Unlike money producers, I will not be that involved in the marketing or selling of the picture, which would be the next step for those folks. Pretty much my responsibility ends with production.

On an Ultra Low film like ours, I kept my staff on for a day - and then, only the trust-worthy and ever-loyal production coordinator, Tasha.

SAG has a lot of paperwork that has to be completed to get the bond you put up at the beginning of the shoot returned. First, they need to have proof from payroll that everyone was paid, with all of those totals.

Then, there is the issue of reconciling the budget. On a bigger shoot, this is not too insane, as there is an accountant, assistant accountant, etc. On lower budget shoots, we handle everything. This can takes a few days.

As grueling as shoot days are, the truth is, they are the best for a line producer. They are, as the phrase I used often with my newer staff goes, one foot in front of the other. You have prepared all you can, and you just keep everything moving as smoothly as possible while problem-solving.

Prep is filled with all the onerous details and to-do lists, and the constant fear that either something won't get done in time or will fall through. This location hasn't been found; not sure if that prop will arrive on time. We are replacing which cast member because they dropped out? What do you mean the script supervisor took a better gig?

Once you start shooting, there are no worries - just solutions. Fix it as fast and as well as possible, and, to use another over-used phrase of mine, it is what it is. No time to worry about it.

The height of adrenaline.

Now, in post, you are at your home office, surrounded by supplies and petty cash envelopes and invoices and SAG documents and so much more. What, I didn't know about this ticket. What do you mean there was loss or damage you didn't notice on return date? No, I'm not sure where this thingamajig is, or that what-do-you call it is. I will call the gaffer/art director/last PA to do drop-offs/anyone else who might know the answer.

All of this is being done in that post-adrenaline rush, and, without the satisfaction that comes every shoot day from seeing great footage in the can. In the can. Such a sad phrase. With actual film rarely being shot at this level, the data is on drives. In the can sounds so cool. In the drive? Doesn't really work for me.

On this last shoot, where getting it 'in the can' in 12 days and looking as good as it did was such a thrill (and on budget) the post-shoot blues were even worse for me, made even worse by the lack of wrap week for my staff. As usual, I had no one with whom to be upset. It was the budget that determined that I could not afford to keep them, not someone telling me we could not.

So often, in production, when that frustration or anger comes up, you have nowhere to look but the mirror, or the myriad of circumstance. As AD, when you write 5AM as a call time because you need every second of daylight, there is no one else to curse when the alarm goes off at 3:30AM. As line producer, it is you who wrote the budget that now leaves you alone surrounded by paper.

This time, it also coincided with some health issues, and the process seemed particularly painful and stressful. I found it a little helpful to have put up five posts talking about the process, but the rest? Ugh.

So, it has also taken me a bit to get back to the blog, and telling the story of Town Diary, which I left off right before we started shooting. Switching gears has been a little difficult.

I am back at it, though, and those posts will hopefully resume later this week. Until then, I hope this post offered a little look into what happens for production when the music stops for a line producer.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Keep My Brother - The Art of The Possible

"If politics is the art of the possible, then compromise is the artistry of democracy"
-Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It

As the guys on Car Talk like to say in describing their puzzlers, this post is quasi-political, quasi-Buddhist, quasi-film and no small part personal confession and realization.

You've been warned.

If you're a regular reader, none of the above surprises you - including the schizophrenic mix.

You don't need me to link you to political sites to know that our current state of politics is not working, and while the reasons are varied and the answer much too complex for me to get into here, it is failing because compromise has become a dirty word. (quasi-political - check!)

On Keep My Brother, I developed a new-found respect for the true art of compromise at it's best. Going in, I had a game plan for pulling off what I correctly thought would be a difficult feat - shooting a 98 or so page script with F/X in 12 days, more than a few of which would be more than 10 pages, given location, actors, etc.

The game plan included using a small lighting package provided by the gaffer, augmenting the natural light from the interior of the nightclub (which had a full skylight as a roof), a lot of handheld, and a "small footprint."

"Small footprint" was how I approached the previous feature I line produced, and, on that film, it did not work out. The DP - incredibly talented, but not fast and not particularly interested in the budget - was on first, and basically set the tone with too much camera gear, and hired a gaffer who, frankly, was a grip pretending to be a gaffer. That gaffer over-compensated by basically bringing every light she could, and had no idea how to light any other way.

The problem with all of that, beyond the rental costs (same lighting vendor as this shoot, and a good deal from the camera vendor as well) are the ancillary costs: trucks to carry them, people to drive those trucks, parking, gas, etc. You also need more people in the department - what should have been a Grip/Electric department of two grips and two electrics became 3/3, respectfully.

All of that is added cost that does not wind up on screen, and, I assure you, it did not. When you have producers fighting you and backing the DP, not a lot you can do.

In his book  Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology
 the noted Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the "seeds" in our mind that make up "store consciousness." It gets deep, but here is one basic understanding: (quasi-Buddhist? check)

"If you are not mindful, you will believe that your perceptions, which are based on prejudices that have developed from the seeds of past experiences in your store consciousness, are correct."

I definitely brought that and previous experiences with DPs who were difficult to this project, sometimes not seeing when Lauretta, our DP, was trying to work with what we had.

Make no mistake: my perception was not totally off. Lauretta's idea of "small footprint" and "simple lighting" was different than mine, as was, to an extent, our gaffer, Adam's, who thought that the additional lighting gear would truly save time and that every bit of it was essential.

I also believe that my hard line early on costs and sticking to my guns on size and number of vehicles made a huge difference in the budget.

That said, on the day of our final production meeting in prep, Lauretta and I definitely had different agendas for the day; both with what we thought was the best interest of the film in mind. We butt heads during the meeting, and afterward had a two-hour or so talk that, in retrospect, I wish I could have on almost every project. I say in retrospect, because at the time, it was painful for both of us.

It was the two of us as DP and Line producer, but also as friends and respected colleagues, being increasingly honest with each other. Anyone who has had a conversation such as this one - say, a "status of our relationship" discussion with a significant other, knows that while good can come of it, it can also leave scars and go in the wrong direction.

We both spoke our mind. In fact, this may have been the most important two hours of the project. Although neither of us walked away convinced the other was correct, we did agree that it was impossible that either one of us were completely correct. Seems obvious, but if you've every had one of these discussions, you know that while it may be obvious, it is not an inevitable conclusion.

It set the stage for all the encounters we had regarding lighting and time and coverage for the rest of the shoot. Yes, there was disagreement, but underlying was a deep mutual respect as well as truly liking the other person. I can honestly say that our relationship as colleagues and as friends is stronger now than when we started the project.

The compromises from her side definitely helped us get through everything on time; the compromises on my side allowed her to do a really incredible job and make a better-looking movie than the budget or circumstances would suggest, and, frankly, better cinematography than either I or the director envisioned.

We were not the only ones making compromises.

Our director had an idea for a night scene that when the robbers arrive that was crucial to his vision of the film. Unfortunately, we had a difficult police officer as part of our film unit who decided when he got there that he was going to lay down the law and show us who was in charge.

The NYC police film unit is usually great. On shoot after shoot, they have worked with us on things that might not be on the permit but made sense as long as we were working reasonably with them from a safety aspect. Also, most police are thrilled to be in this unit - there is no easier gig.

This guy was the exception, and, in holding to the letter of what was on the permit, it meant a compromised way of shooting it. Mike, our director, made it work, though we later added a bit somewhere else to get closer to his vision. Without getting into particulars, NONE of this involved weapons, stunts or safety.

We also had a day where the production designer's assistant, the art director, failed to do his job the night before a major set needed to be ready. When we got there, it was clearly hours away from getting done. The PD, along with production help and help from the director's friends, got it done by afternoon, while we shot a different scene with the same cast, as well as the director agreeing to move one scene from that office set to the nightclub floor. Compromise, and in a way that I doubt any viewer who hadn't read the script would notice or mind the change of set. That's the key.

I tried going without a caterer at first, hoping we could patch together restaurant deliveries and have production provide craft service. For most of the shoot, though, we found a guy who wanted to be a filmmaker but was able to cater and do crafty within my small budget and keep everyone happy. That worked for most of the shoot until near the end, when he completely melted down and flaked out. Tasha and I pieced it together with a local diner that worked with us and me buying crafty and breakfast and using the money wisely but still providing hot, good meals and more than sufficient crafty.

Because my production coordinator/manager Tasha was so good, we were able to juggle all of the tasks of production with two interns as unit manager and APOC, and one incredibly loyal and hard-working PA, Jack, who stood tall when all the other PAs fell by the wayside.

Other compromises included not having a paid 2nd AC - a great intern did the first week, and our paid DIT jumped in and did double-duty the second week.

As with any shoot, everything did not go smoothly. We hit all of the bumps mentioned above, and probably a few which I have either forgotten or blocked out already - the mind has a great way of protecting us, doesn't it?

In the end, we all kept in our hearts what we wanted and thought was best, but with our eyes firmly focused not on the perfect, but on the possible.

We did not fall victim to a trap first proposed by the French philosopher Voltaire (did I say quasi-philosophical?), often quoted by politicians:

"The perfect is the enemy of the good."

We were far from perfect - but we were very, very good.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Keep My Brother - I Walk the Line

"Good line producers are not simply fixed on numbers. They known what the numbers mean:which ones are critical - and therefore inelastic - and which one's aren't. They know why it's important to have fifty extras in a particular scene and not thirty, and they wont spend time trying to convince you to do it with thirty; they'll be busy searching for a scene where you can afford to lose twenty extras."
-Christine Vachon, Shoot to Kill

At our production dinner (see below), which has become a new tradition on my films (inspired by a production coordinator I hired last fall), I bought Christine Vachon's seminal book, Shoot to Kill, for two of my production interns who had served as production manager and assistant production office coordinator on Keep My Brother.

I did not buy it for my assistant director, a graduate of NYU's prestigious (and I often think over-rated) Tisch producing program. I assumed that it would have been part of that program, but should have understood that it would not have been.

It has too much damned common sense in it.

Regular readers know my admiration for the book and the author. In the quote above, Vachon succinctly states what I try to explain all the time, which is that line producing is not only about setting the line (items) - but moving it.

Although the origin of the title comes from the studio days*, I think of it in terms of moving those numbers, and the ability to do so becomes the benchmark for success or failure.

In that respect, I like to think of both images above; the unforgiving guardian of the line  on the left, and the guardian of justice and being true to the film on the right.

The fact that I walk with a cane and tend to pace on set inspired one of my favorite ADs, Chris, to nickname me "Walking Boss" after the character from Cool Hand Luke. One day on set, as I dug a groove in the ground, he yelled out "Prisoner requests permission to wish Walkin' Boss a happy birthday!" For years, the nickname stuck.

Yeah, I look like this sometimes when we are behind schedule

On this Ultra Low budget, there was a lot of adjusting, and I have to say that the director, Mike, was helpful when it came to this.

On the above-the-line, we initially talked about no casting director, but, then, Mike decided to go with one (and a good one for indie films, and at a good rate). That meant I needed to make room for that.

He was going to work with a few long-time actor friends, but in budgeting the other featured roles, we originally talked about offering more money for a "name." Now, "names" on this level is a tricky game - suffice to say someone recognizable from TV or supporting roles in bigger films. In the end, we settled on not offering more than the $100 a day upfront in the SAG Ultra Low contract.

This proved a good decision, as we got some great folks and I doubt we could have done better dangling extra money.

As that number fluctuated, so did the numbers for production personnel.

One of the things I hate about very low budget films is not having the right make-up of production personnel. To save money, I was going to originally take the budget for an AD and just bring on an intern "2nd AD" - basically a PA willing to move up. I would LP and AD.

Yes, I am past the age when I should be doing both, but I remember some of the greats like Paul Kurta doing both, and Stan did both in his younger years. Because we would be in one location 9 of twelve days, and only two others with no company moves on any day, I thought this could work. When I realized my regular AD was not going to be on, and because so many of the schedule decisions we would make were intertwined with the budget decisions, I thought it could also be prudent.

I used some of that money to hire a Production Coordinator. I could not keep an eye on the big picture and even remotely try to handle petty cash and day-to-day management, not to mention setting up files is far from my strong point.

Here, I brought on one of my heroes from my last shoot, Tasha. Tasha was the APOC on that shoot, and, working for an insanely low rate, proved a hero when, on the day before Thanksgiving, when everyone was off and thinking turkey, she ran around half the city solving a parking and storage problem herself that she could have easily said was not her responsibility - because it wasn't.

Like a wounded animal that has a thorn removed from it's paw, I will never forget her dedication that day. Anyone wondering if doing the right thing matters should make a note of that.

In the crucial positions of APOC and UPM, I brought on interns. I love to teach and train, and, in Stephanie and Jason, respectively, I got truly lucky - they were incredible.

As production got closer, I was still thinking a 2nd AD who could fill in for me when I needed to leave set when I met "M," a young Asian-American lady who had one 1st AD credit. Usually that would not have impressed, but it was on a feature in Beijing. I have worked on a few Asian productions, and life is not kind to assistant directors. I figured if she could handle that, she could handle this. Thus, the idea of me being a 1st AD at all went out the window - thankfully for all.

M and I talked for about a half hour, but I had a sense she could be a good AD within a minute of meeting her. Much of being a good AD can be taught; much cannot. She had the latter.

Having assigned more money there, I took money from the number of paid PAs we would have rather than interns. I knew we needed at least one driver, and I would not let an intern drive. I hired additional paid PAs for pick-ups, but not for the shoot, as, without the company move, I needed less drivers.

I have always, back to my early days, tried to pay everyone, even if it was not a lot. At $50 a day, I thought it was better than nothing.

We did wind up with one loyal PA - Jack - but the others fell by the wayside, including a few who expressed how excited they were to be on a film. In the end, we spent less here than I planned, although it came with pain and difficulty.

I thought we could get a good 2nd AD in terms of a PA wanting to move up for the credit. That did not work out. As a matter of fact, we found the kiss of death was teaching someone the Exhibit G, the SAG sign-in form. It has a few quirks (it's in military time, cannot be erased, etc) but it's not a Rubik's Cube. In the first four days, EVERY person we taught quit the next day, as did the two people we taught how to do call sheets.

So much for the desire to learn.

This left M on her own in terms of communications way too often. Which brings us to another place we saved money, but it inflicted pain.


The nightclub had about 15 walkies - I usually would want more, but thought we could make do. Although they were good quality, they never seemed to work well with each other. Some would work with some but not others. In the end, I'm glad we saved the money - but I can't say it did not make the job a good deal harder.

Besides M, my G&E team was definitely less than impressed, but, whether they admit it or not, it worked in the end.

Speaking of G&E.

I had a hard number for rental of G&E gear. Shortly before we started, my gaffer, Adam, whose opinion I respect from other shoots, increased our order, much of it for speedrail, The idea was that we would not have to be doing as many relights and could light more from the grid, much like a studio.

It was 45 percent more than I wanted to spend - plus two days of pre-rigging - that I would have rather not spent money on. I trusted that it would solve what I knew would be my biggest problem - time.

In the end, I don't think it solved the time problem as much as I would have liked, and much of that gear was likely not needed, given the way we ultimately lit the film. That was counter-balanced by a vendor (who I had worked with on a previous shoot) giving me an insane discount (a one-day week PLUS a 40% discount) and a camera gear vendor who also worked with me because of past business.

We also made up part of that time because of the success of the G&E interns, who were unpaid and supplemented a crew of Gaffer, Grip and Swing.

We were able to save in one of my biggest areas - transportation - by returning the bulk of the gear when we wrapped the first location. That meant having the more expensive cube truck (as opposed to our cargos) only for the one day where it returned after the extra gear was dropped off. Cubes cost not only in their rental, but in gas and parking - and that is money that is not on screen.

Production is about winning the war even when you lose battles.

I will discuss more balancing in the next post, but I thought this would be informative to producers looking to do very low budget as to the realities of what they can expect, even after the hard work of budgeting is done. Choices made in pre-production are important, but good producers must understand they will keep making choices as the film goes on, and those choices will determine whether you stay on budget or not, and the type of film you ultimately make.

More on the art of compromise in the next post - that one may be a primer for our current-day politicians.

For now, a look at that production dinner I mentioned. From left, the old man (me), my Production Coordinator (and really Production Supervisor) Tasha, APOC Stephanie, First AD "M", and Jack, our loyal PA. Not pictured is Jason, our UPM, who offered the only acceptable excuse - he was working OT on another shoot.

*There was a producer, who dealt with the director and stars, and a "below-the-line" producer, who dealt with the day-to-day operations, the title being shortened over the years to line producer.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Keep My Brother - The Pros From Dover

"Look, mother, I want to go to work in one hour. We are the Pros from Dover and we figure to crack this kid's chest and get out to golf course before it gets dark. So you go find the gas-passer and you have him pre-medicate this patient. Then bring me the latest pictures on him. The ones we saw must be 48 hours old by now. Then call the kitchen and have them rustle us up some lunch." - Trapper John, M.A.S.H.

I have spoken often about my process for putting together crew, and how I think it is almost as important to get the right mix of crew as the right mix of cast.

On the SAG Ultra Low Budget, I knew it was going to be difficult to bring on a lot of the "pros from Dover." On the Production Side, my regular First AD said he would do it for the lower salary I had available if I really needed him, but I could tell that after a challenging film we did in the Fall of last year, his heart was not truly into it.

I knew the right Director of Photography was essential. The eternal battle between line producer or AD and DP in a low budget indie is something I've discussed here. In that case, it was a less-than-talented DP trying to get by with bluster. However, in the best of circumstances, the DP and production have two different priorities.

Yes, every one's priority is to make the best film, but for the the LP and AD, doing it quickly is essential. On a shoot I did in the Fall, the producers were under the false impression that a good AD could turn a talented but slow DP into someone who would move quicker. They were wrong.

The DP is charged with the look of the film, and they are going against everything they were hired to do if they let the camera roll without having achieved the best image they could muster. That is why I look for DPs on low budget indies that have delivered quality work under similar circumstances. As they say at the track, never bet on a horse to do something it's never done before.

One of the people I suggested to the director was named Lauretta, who was not only someone I had worked with on other projects and known many years, but I knew she was a skilled operator, and there would be a lot of handheld an run-and-gun on this film. It would be needed for time, and it was also the style the director liked best.

Timing was going to be tricky. The only time the club would be available to us would overlap with Burning Man, an annual week-long gathering in the Nevada's Black Rock desert where participants "dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art self-expression and self-reliance." That hardly begins to explain its importance to regular "burners;" indeed, the site states: "Trying to explain Burning Man to someone who has never been to the event is like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind." Suffice to say, it is as essential to regular participants as any religious experience.

The director knew of Lauretta's work; he had almost worked with her once before After seeing a short that she shot that had a lot of hand-held, he definitely wanted her, but would she pass on her sacred gathering?

Lauretta was not just a work acquaintance, she had become a good friend. Shortly after I made the emotional move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I found myself in a house that had no power due to Superstorm Sandy. Lauretta took me in with no questions. Subsequently, I became a regular at weekly pot luck dinners she held at her loft, where the crowd was a mix of film folks and burners. Frankly, I did not think she would pass on the Burning Man event.

Though she had been shooting a lot of other forms, she had not DP'd a feature in a while, and decided that she would do it. I was thrilled, and concerned.

Lauretta was certainly no prima donna - not in the least. Still, I know I was going to be asking her to shoot an insane schedule, and the prospect of rushing a friend was not enticing. As I came to tell her often when we would hit those bumps, I don't expect a DP to be able to pay attention the the lighting with one eye on the clock. Add to that I knew I would have to stick to budget on camera and lighting gear, and, friend or no friend, this would be a battle.

It would be a battle, also, with the gaffer, another person who was both a film colleague and friend. I've discussed Adam before in these pages, in another article on working with regulars.

Friends. "Family." It seems to be a theme of the last number of posts.

Rates for both positions were much lower than their usual, but higher than many would get on this budget. I needed them. Unfortunately, the lighting package both Lauretta and Adam thought they needed, and the lighting plan, meant that a plan I had for bringing on Adam with his slightly smaller lighting package and vehicle would not work, a blow to my idea of a small footprint and Adam's ability to supplement his rate with a rental.

Right from the beginning, I found myself in what Lauretta and Adam joked was my "default mode" on this shoot - saying "no." At one point in pre-production, Lauretta started making a suggestion, and one of her words must have triggered something, and I started unconsciously shaking my head.

"What could you possibly be saying 'no' to,"she asked. "I haven't even said anything!"  Sadly, she was right.

Each of them knew a RED camera owner who was also willing to DIT, for a rate that would be hard to match elsewhere. Steve is a very talented guy who I liked from a previous project, but, again, there were long negotiations on rate.

There were times in prep - and also during shooting - that I didn't know if having people who I not only liked but respected on was a blessing or a curse. It was a situation where we all would hope that we had earned the trust to respect what the other wanted, but our budget and time limitations meant that, often, compromise was not an easy thing to achieve.

A line producer has to walk a balance. Everything can't be "no." As Stan famously said, "first you have to make the movie." A reason I dreaded this budget was that there was no contingency, no room to be wrong, and who is ever right all the time on any feature, no less one that would have less resources and more folks who were holding positions for the first time.

In the end, with both of them, the difficulties that did arise would have been impossibilities if we did not have that mutual respect, though, to the untrained observer, that might not be what they always saw during the shoot (which I will discuss in more detail in another post). The fact that we were all able to be open and frank with each other led to a better result, and better work, even when it was not always pleasant for any of us,

Both of them brought on a handful of other talented folks, in addition to taking advantage of Adam's love of teaching, which led to some great Grip and Electric interns.

So much for camera and G&E. Putting together my production team was another matter, and one that proved to be in flux up until the day before our final production meeting.  More on that in the next post.

Until then, a more light-hearted look at the inescapable truth as offered by Spike Jones. Yes, I spelled his name right. Weird Al was not the first to make song parodies. Here, a take on the somber Mills' Brothers tune, "You Always Hurt The One You Love." Take note of how it changes about halfway through.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Keep My Brother* - The Dreaded Ultra Low

"I know not at all what may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing"
-Moby Dick

It started with a budget. It always starts with a budget.

Yes, I know, it is probably more accurate to say that a movie starts with a script; and, if we were to get philosophical (or technical) it actually started as an idea.

With all due respect to my fellow script writers (and I have written more than a few), for me, it starts to be real when I prepare a budget. The budget is not just the number, it is a game plan for how to make the movie.

Another truth is, for all the budgets I prepare, very few raise the money.

This guy, Mike*, had written a film that he would be the lead in. Additionally, he had raised the total budget he was going to raise, which was much less than $100K. He had access to a nightclub for two weeks while it was closed for vacation. Unlike most "free locations" the director was the General Manager of the club, and we were able to have it for absolutely free.

When I first broke down the script, I agreed with Mike it should be twelve days if we were going to come in on budget. However, a closer look, and I did not believe the breakdown or the schedule. In an email I now joke with Mike about, I told him that I was sending him a 14 day schedule because I did not 'believe a 12 day schedule was possible.'

Mike said he would try to raise the additional money - about $20K - for a 14 day schedule and some adjustments. However, he found that he would not be able to raise that additional money until after we would be shooting the film, so it would have to be 12 days. Twelve days for a 98 page script.

Something had to give. In fact, a lot had to give.

Here is where the process of matching the script and logisitics to the reality of the budget begins, and this is an important lesson in films that pull off low budgets, and those that don't.

If we were going to get this done, we needed some adjustments, and the fact that Mike was flexible about so many things allowed it to happen.

First, I wanted to go with a small crew, paying key positions decently so we would make a good film and move fast. Second, I wanted to limit company moves, so that I could put money needed for vehicles, gas and parking toward making the movie.

Toward the latter end, we built two offices within the club to save  moves, and Mike agreed to move two scenes to the club so we need only shoot one day in his apartment, instead of an awkward day that would have been one and a half day with a company move. Neither Mike nor I thought these were bad compromises that hurt the story. In the end, we shot nine days at the club, one day at his apartment, and one day at a friend's apartment. All absolutely free.

The Ultra Low is a budget I always said I didn't want to shoot, not because my fee would be less (which it would) but because it meant too many interns in positions that should be paid, not enough paid prep time for positions I needed (like AD, and DP prep), and basically a lot more work for me in addition to less money. At 56, the additional work, having to do everything I normally do PLUS a lot of what I normally assign to others, is just usually not worth it to me.

However, Mike seemed like a realist right from the beginning, Some things you just go with your gut, and my gut on Mike was a guy who would work with me every step along the way, and I turned out to be right.

I decided to do this blog now, while it is fresh in my mind, so it serves as a guide for those doing these new VERY low budget projects, on the types of adjustments that must be made, how to move money from one line item to another, and how to make the most of your resources.

Let me be clear - you win or lose as a team. I can bring all my experience and expertise, but without cooperation from the director, and some key people working out, it simply does not happen.

To paraphrase Star Trek's good Doctor McCoy, 'Dammit, filmmaker, I'm a line producer, not a magician.'

The next key was having faith in people in some key positions. As it turned out, I was able to bring on those key people and work with some people who I had known for a long time, and also got lucky in some other positions. More on that in the next post.

*Folks on this film were great - using first names only because don't want to publicly share info some people might prefer remain private, like their names.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Return from the Belly of the Beast

This pic came with it's own caption.

Apologies to you, my readers, for my absence this past month. No, I have not taken up the European tradition of vacationing in August; actually, quite the opposite.

Since the "digital revolution," I have known friends and co-workers who have done Ultra Low films. For myself, I have avoided it. As one of my ADs said recently, "this is a young man's game," and I knew that doing a film under $100K meant lots of interns, lots of training, and impossible days.

I also feared it meant an inferior product, which, at this point in my career, I have no interest in doing just for another line on my resume or a few dollars.

However, I did a budget at $75K back in May, for a guy who had a script and the $75K, the former being the norm, the latter being the definite exception these days.

Additionally, he was the general manager of a nightclub where a majority of the action took place, and the two other locations were his apartment and a friend's apartment. We would be in the nightclub for 9 of the twelve days.

Ironically, one of his choices for DP was a close and dear friend who I had worked with as an operator, but not as DP. Another good friend came on as Gaffer.

Still, 12 days was going to be rough, and we did not have the money for more, nor did we have a budget that would allow OT pay, something I always offer on bigger budgets because it's hard to get even talented non-union folks to do it without it, and I don't believe in insanely long work days if it isn't needed.

I offered no OT, but promised that we would keep the days to 12 hours, with lunch off the clock.

Amazingly, we were able to do that, and finish on time and on budget. We were also on nights most of the shoot (the club has a complete skylight such that we were shooting day for day and night for night).

It involved a lot of training new people mixed in with some very experienced folks, and it was exhausting. Just as I started to not be exhausted, last night was the wrap party, so now, as I write this, recovering from that.  There was no way for me to write any coherent posts.

I will write a blog or two on this shoot starting Saturday, while it is fresh in my head, and then return to the saga of Town Diary. Next post on this shoot, My Brother's Keeper, on Saturday.

In the meantime, cut to the end - the wrap party. Picture of me with my office staff, from left to right, my production manager, production coordinator (and indispensable partner in this film) and APOC.  As I said in my Facebook post, these days, pictures with my staff at wrap parties look like the kids went out drinking and Dad showed up.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

All In The Family: The Making of Town Diary - Cancer is Not Funny*, Well Sometimes

"Dark humour is like cancer. Not everybody gets it."
Anonymous cancer joke

Cancer. Among the scariest words around, because almost everyone has been touched by it, either directly or through a close relative. I lost my dad, grandfather, and two uncles to cancer, as well as many friends.

JR, my longtime friend and business partner in Town Diary, as well as our DP, was a cancer survivor, having beat the disease back in the 1980s, before I met him. Now, JR found out it had come back, but that the doctors were optimistic they could keep it under control.

Whatever JR's level of concern, he did a good job of hiding it. Because he knew he would be undergoing chemotherapy again, and that it would make him weak, we discussed hiring an operator. As a DP, JR had always been his own operator, so we knew this would be tricky.

JR was open to the idea, but it had to be the right person. The first and only person that came to mind was my old friend, Charlie Houston, the gaffer on The Rook and my DP on Plaster. (Follow the linked words for some of the fun Chalie and I had in the past).

Much like me, JR was a man of habits. He liked one wine - White Zinfandel (something I teased him about endlessly). He had a favorite restaurant, a little Italian place down the block from him on Carmine Street called Alfredo**.

JR was truly the Godfather of Alfredo. When he made a reservation, we got the best table in the house. He knew all the busboys. I could not kid JR about the food at this place, which was the wonderful, authentic, Italian cuisine.

So it was that when JR and Charlie would meet, we set up a time for them to do so at the restaurant. Stacey, JR's girlfriend, and I waited at his apartment down the block. It was like a waiting for a mob conference to take place.

One hour. Two hours. It was a good three hours later that JR got back. How'd it go?

It seems it was bromance at first bite. They liked each other immediately - the rest of the three hours seems to have been them talking DP geek stuff and movies endlessly. Obviously, a good fit.

My AD was Chris K. who had been my 2nd AD on Lucky Stiffs and 1st AD on many commercials and other gigs. A big, brusque Irishman, Chris K had started out as a stock broker, left a very successful job to work in film. We met when I was taking my Certificate in Film at NYU after my operation.

Chris K and I had some interesting adventures together. Years earlier, we had started a company that would produce music videos. One of our first meetings was with a record company on 57th Street, and we came out feeling certain that we would get it (um, we didn't).

Years earlier, a girlfriend of mine from a wealthy family had an aunt who used to take us for Royal Afternoon Tea at the Russian Tea Room. We got through the traditional parts of Tea pretty well - the mini-sandwiches, blinis, dessert et al - but then we decided to celebrate with small drinks of vodka. Mind you, we did not do shots - we sipped very good vodka in a very proper, gentlemanly manner.

Only, sadly, too many of them. Don't ask how many. All I remember was getting up to leave and thinking how far the door was from our table and how was I going to ever traverse such an expanse.

Chris had earned my never-ending admiration when he quit a shoot after a well-known actress (I won't mention her name, but her dad, a much better human being, was Detective Mike Logan's second partner on Law and Order) slapped a make-up artist, and told the producers Chris should apologize to her for pointing out that it was she, and not the makeup artist, who was wrong.

It was Chris who had nicknamed my crazy PA Satan's Child on Lucky Stiffs, and Chris who had this wonderfully dark and ironic sense of humor I loved. I walk with a cane, and on one children's PSA I was producing in Central Park on which Chris was the AD, I would tap my wrist (the sign for tapping a watch, or 'look at the time') as I feared we were behind. Chris did not take well to micromanaging (and he knew he was doing alright but I was having a little fun pushing him). He grabbed my cane, threw it as far as he could, looked at me and said "Oh, go fetch."

As the clients looked on astonished, I could only laugh as the horrified children scrambled to get it back to me as quickly as possible. That mean man!

So it was that one afternoon we were sitting in our production office, discussing a production meeting that had transpired in the morning. In the office was the production coordinator, Alison, and a few other crew members who were left over from the meeting. Keeping with the family theme, Alison was a friend from West Bank cafe who had a background in event management. If you're counting, that is one cast member (there would be another), the producer's and director's assistant, and the POC from West Bank Cafe.

The moral of that story is make sure your local watering hole has talented people in your industry. Or not.

JR had not been able to make the production meeting in the AM, having undergone chemo. He showed up as soon as he could in the afternoon.

Understand that Chris had worked with Jack and JR and I on a lot of ADA PSAs, and other projects, so we all went back a long way. Chris looked at him and said, "Hey, JR where were you this morning for the production meeting?"

JR informed him of the chemo session, which triggered one of the funnier very non-PC moments I have experienced.

In his very deep voice, Chris bellowed, "Gee, I wish I had cancer so I could skip production meetings."

Much like my reaction when he tossed my cane, JR immediately cracked up laughing. Going back to my early days with JR and his crew, a constant ribbing was how we got through 16-hour days on sometimes mindless movies with sometimes more mindless people. I started laughing right afterwards, and, after the shock wore off, so did JR's girlfriend (who had been my assistant, POC, and 2nd AD on various shoots).

Anyone who knew JR well knew the last thing he wanted was people's concern or worse, pity, which he ranked up there with sympathy.

The rest of the office, who did not share our past, had the more anticipated reaction - shock, horror, dismay and outright disapproval. Their reaction started with Chris' comment, and moved to these people actually laughing at it.

It's one of my favorite moments with, as well as memories of, JR (who sadly lost his battle with cancer shortly after the film was finished). It was a snapshot of group of friends preparing to embark down the dark river that is film, on the usual boat, the one whose last nail has been put in just as it was about to leave the dock on it's maiden voyage. Each new one is a maiden voyage, like the regulars on Starship Enterprise embarking on some newly-commissioned ship because the last one got destroyed by angry intergalactic neighbors. In our own insane way, this was the image of the crew smiling on the dock, all hope and good wishes.

As Star Trek fans (and JR was a big one) know, they don't make movies about the easy missions.

* It isn't Alfredo, but when I checked a Google map, it seems the restaurant is no longer there. It is something like that, though.

Cancer is Not Funny is a wonderful site that wields one of the most powerful weapons against the biggest fellow enemy of cancer, despair. Laugh on, please.

Monday, August 4, 2014

All in the Family: The Making of Town Diary - The Trouble With Sluttish Eroticism

"Some people have been unkind. If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don't expect me to be serious about my work."
-Marilyn Monroe
Actresses often find that they're damned if they are and they're damned if they aren't - sexy, that is.

Marilyn may be an obvious case of an actress who kept striving to be taken seriously for her work, only to have it all boil down to her looks.  She was, however, neither the first nor the last actress to be "too sexy" to be taken seriously.

One notorious example of this was with none other than (now) Dame Helen Mirren, who faced this problem even as she was a featured actress on the London stage doing "serious" work, including Shakespeare and other classics,  with directors like Peter Brook and Trever Nunn.

In the interview below, Michael Parkinson, a famed BBC interviewer for many years, opens the segment by repeating a review that said Mirren was "telling at projecting sluttish eroticism." When Mirren comes out with a headpiece that she turns into a not-so-subtle phallic prop, she proceeds to turn the table on Parkinson. When he presses her on whether it makes it harder to be an actress when others focus on her "physical attributes," she coyly acts as if she isn't sure what he means.

"Physical attributes? Like my fingers?"

She finally gets him to be as specific as he will be, referring to her "figure." The interview has taken on the stuff of lore. If you've never seen it, watch a truly masterful performance below. (Note that in the shot below, Parkinson's eyes are definitely not on future Dame Mirren's eyes.)

This dilemma is one reason I always gave Charlize Theron credit for taking the role of the unattractive serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster early in her career. She was taking no chances of playing someone's love interest and arm candy forever. Winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar didn't hurt, either.

The misogyny and hypocrisy that surrounded the hiring of women in front of (and behind) the camera had always annoyed me. Men wanted to cast sensual women, but then seemed to blame the women for being to sexy. In both theater and film, I fought to get past this out-dated silliness, so you can imagine how annoying I found it with when it came from my director, Jack. In the year 2000, Jack was still arguing that we could not cast an actress that was 'too sexy' to play Brian's associate and assistant producer, Veronica.

I thought it essential that there be some level of sexual tension between the two characters. It didn't have to end with the two of them in the sack - in fact, I don't think that would have worked - but at some point, it would not be unusual for two people working closely together to form an attraction, whether or not they acted on it.

Jack was insistent that this would never happen, because of sexual harassment laws and because 'workplace romances never work out.' His logic flew in the face of the endless examples in every workplace of people who started out as co-workers and ended as romantic partners.

Jack rejected one attractive actress after another, insisting that he did not want there to be any suggestion that there was anything between the two. Among the women he rejected outright was Sofia Vergara, who was submitted to us. I know what you're thinking. Bad example for my case, as she plays mostly a sexpot on Modern Family. If you had seen her acting reel, you would have seen a lot of good work that went well beyond her "physical attributes."

As luck would have it, we wound up casting an athletic, natural beauty named Brette.

As attractive as Brette is, I think something about her almost her earthy demeanor was less threatening to Jack than actresses that came off softer.

Brette was a real find, and I will give Jack credit where it is due - had we stopped at some of the other actresses, we would not have wound up at Brette (who turned out to be a neighbor of mine at the time). Not only have I never regretted that we cast her, I always saw this as one of those times when two people with starkly different opinions on a project can bring about a better result if they are willing to keep working at it honestly.

Both my casting director and my assistant were thrilled with Brette as well.

I wish this had a happier ending.

Having cast a woman who had charm, beauty and depth, it would have made an attraction even more natural and powerful. However, two things stopped that from happening.

First, Jack kept making it clear that he wanted no suggestion of an attraction on either of their parts. This infuriated me; I had clearly written them with an attraction in mind, and David, who played Brian, thought it made sense as well.

Here was the second problem. David's personality had a negative effect on a lot of people, and Brette had the same aversion to him as a person that my friend Annie found. She was a professional, and it she never let it show in her performance, but any spark between them on screen was dampened before it ever had a chance.

Having cast the two leads, the issue of attractive women came up in the last role we cast, that of the 2nd wife of the retired sheriff (played by Terry Quinn). The idea was that she was much younger and had worked for him, with the suggestion that there was something unsavory about it.

We both thought she should be Hispanic. Jack was more willing to lean to someone more sexy here, but when it came to defining that, Jack and I were not on the same page. It seemed the stress from the compromise each of us felt on casting Veronica spilled over into casting the young wife. Anyone one of us liked, the other one disliked. It's one of those things that has always been hard for me to understand, but, I don't think either of us were rejecting the other's choices intentionally, or certainly not spitefully.

The role of the young wife became a place where, having agreed she could have more on-screen 'heat,' now, it would be a matter of how much. It is possible Jack is one of those male directors who is just not comfortable with working with that side of the male/female connection. Frankly, I always felt that most of Martin Scorsese's early films had this problem, and thought maybe there was some side of Scorsese's Roman Catholic upbringing that allowed him to show women as either Madonnas (not the singer) or Temptresses, and the lack of any real love scenes was interesting.

There was no Catholic guilt that I could detect from Jack, even though he was Irish-Catholic. He had a normal and healthy sex life. I just think he had trouble with bringing that out on screen, directing an actress to express that side of her.

We went through an amazing number of women for a role that had less than a handful of lines. Our casting director and my assistant Christine were past the point of rolled eyes. Jack actually suggested Vergara for this role; we all quickly pointed out that while her people submitted her for a female lead, they never would have considered her for such a small role.

I don't think we ever agreed on anyone, but we did eventually settle on someone neither of us hated (but neither of us were exited about, either).

With casting done, we had just a few more things to settle in pre-production before moving on to filming. In the next few posts, the difficulty with location managers, dealing with the recurrence of an illness for JR, and more on the down side of working with "family."

UPDATE: An interesting note. Brette will be appearing in TWO TV series this fall - As Batman's mother in "Gotham" and as a Luke's new back-up singer and muse on "Nashville." Good to hear.