Monday, March 31, 2014

Serenity Now

"I'm more likely to lose my temper on a film set than almost anywhere. Often the level of idiocy is so exalted that it's impossible to comprehend"
-John Malkovitch 

The juxtaposition of the image and quote above should be self-explanatory. For one thing, somewhere, someone thought "Buddha" and, in the next moment, thought "Keanu Reeves."

Regular followers of this blog know that I have been a Zen practitioner for some time, and it would not surprise them to find that I spent the last week doing sesshin, an intensive week of mostly meditation, but also includes face-to-face teaching, dharma talks, liturgy, and other elements of Zen.

One of the "precautions" (as the onus is on you, they aren't referred to as rules) is no electronics, cell phones, internet, or reading. The point is to shift your mind away from your usual concerns.

Eight-to ten hours every day is zazen, or zen meditation. Contrary to popular thinking, meditation - at least as practiced in Zen - is anything but escaping the real world, or drifting off into a peaceful place. It is about getting in touch with your true mind - the eyes are lowered but open during zazen. Everything in practice is pointed toward seeing your "true mind" and then taking that into the real world.

That means that practice means nothing if it does not make sense on the subway, at home, and, in my case, on set or in the production office.

And that is where this post comes in.

I avoided using the title "Zen and the Art of Film Production" or something like that because the term "Zen" is thrown around very loosely in a New Age way that has little to do with Zen practice. Phil Jackson is an excellent basketball coach, and surely has studied some with a teacher, but he is not a Zen master.

There is something in Zen called "right livelihood," which basically deals with making a living in a way that does not violate the Precepts. As film production does not (at least necessarily) include killing (thoughts of killing a director are not included if you don't carry it out), misuse of sex (what grips do in their spare time does not count), abusing intoxicants (difficult to determine that fine line of what defines 'medicinal use after rough day'), lying or stealing (add your own wisecrack here), it technically does not count as violating this.

However, day-to-day application of working in film production is a whole other matter.

On a basic level, it's hard to find time for daily meditation when you are barely getting by on four hour's sleep.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is the culture of film. This is something I have thought about in the past, but kept coming to me during sesshin. When you are doing over 50 hours of meditating in a week, you think about a lot of things.

One of the oldest things I remember seeing when I moved from theater to film was the Seven Stages of Film Production. The inclusion in Michelle's blog tells us this still rules strongly today:

Seven Stages of Film Production
  1. Wild Enthusiasm
  2. Total Confusion
  3. Utter Despair
  4. Search for the Guilty
  5. Persecution of the Innocent
  6. Promotion of the Incompetent
  7. Distribution of T-Shirts
Definitely not Zen.

There is no need to explain any of that to anyone who has worked in film. Part of this is true because of the unpredictable nature of film production - weather, actors dropping lines, stunts and effects that need excruciating planning, traffic during company moves, and so many more.

Part, though, is a culture of chaos that production thrives on, as the "stages" above suggest. It often seems that producers or directors are determined to eschew time-honored procedures that work for a different way to do things. I can't say how many times it felt like people involved looked at the way to do things that worked and said, "Let's do this instead!"

I'm not talking here about being creative on screen, but, rather, ignoring procedures that work. Yes, there needs to be flexibility, but some things work, and should only be shunned for good reasons Examples? Go to any one of dozens of posts in this - or most other - film production blog.

Just in recent weeks, I saw a writer/actor sabotage getting a $4.5 million film financed (one he has been trying to get done for four years) because he did not want to transfer the copyright to the production company, which is basic procedure* and done on every film.

There is a Sicilian expression I heard a lot as a kid referring to not "Biting Your Nose to Spite Your Face." **Basically, don't do harm to yourself just to do harm to others you don't like. But, in Rule # 4 (Search for the Guilty) above, I have often seen the the need to "blame" someone outweigh the more important priority - fixing the problem. This need some producers or directors have to assign blame poisons the morale of a crew and, from a practical matter, makes it harder to fix problems, because everyone is now in CYA*** mode and thus look to hide rather than correct problems.

It would be easy for me to go through a litany of stupid things others do or have done, but what concerned me more, as this thought kept coming to me, was my own actions.

I started my last feature film on a good note, waking up each morning offering one of the gathas from my original teacher, Myotai Sensei.

"May this be a day of blessing and being blessed,
Honoring and being honored,
Loving and being loved."

Sounds pretty simple and direct, right? Nice way to start the day.

By Day 2 of the shoot, I found myself publicly (and very unkindly) chastising the director and DP for doing some extra shooting prior to moving to our second location even though they got back on time - I wanted them there early to get a jump on what I thought would be a hard scene.

An hour later, I was sitting wondering why I had done that.  Had making the day become so crucial to me that logic and basic courtesy needed to be abandoned?

Yes, I apologized to both later, but, after all these years, the pressures of production still lead to these types of moments, to sometimes doing things that are technically correct but not very nice.

My producer's assistant was an incredibly nice young lady, who was doing this project for the love of it and not for money (it was unpaid,as she could not work for pay here). She was earnest and kind. Near the end of the shoot, I asked if doing this job had given her more insight into producing.

She said that it showed her that she did not want to be on the production side. "Seeing how production works has brought out my dark side," she said.

If you met her, the idea that she even had a dark side would be comical.

I'm not about to give up, convinced that there is a compassionate way of producing film that is also practical and efficient. My way of dealing with folks on set reflects this in a much stronger way than it once did, and I will work to keep moving in that direction, work harder to make that work.

My progress will be noted here from time-to-time. Will definitely try to be more successful than the folks below.

*Film is the only medium I know of where the author does not retain copyright, even if it is not a work for hire. It MUST be in the hands of the production company as part of Chain of Title.

** The phrase evidently goes back to the 12th century when women would disfigure themselves to protect their virginity.

***Do you  really need me to define CYA?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The "Abby" is Up - That's a Wrap on Mr. Singer

""In television, we would make maybe five or six moves during the day — going from one set to another, or from one stage to another. Or we'd move from the back lot to a stage. I would say, 'Fellas, we'll do this [shot] and one more and then we're moving.' This would give the crew a chance to begin wrapping up their equipment or to call transportation for gurneys, so they'd be ready to get out quickly... I did it really to save time for the director. If we did it during the day, I could save 10 to 15 minutes each time we had to move. I could give the director another hour a day of shooting." - Abby Singer

Anyone who has been a 1st Assistant Director, a position I have been blessed to have filled, has called "the Abby."

Here is how it is normally explained to AD's: "Abby Singer was this AD who called the last shot (the martini) too soon.

Abby Singer passed away Thursday at the age of 96. Variety shares this obituary, which I encourage any production person to check out.

In fact, Abby Singer was not some hack who called the "martini" (the last shot of the day) too early, which is how it is normally explained to newbies.

He was a pro who spent many of his years as a Unit Production Manager for MTM (Mary Tyler Moore Productions), which means he was the UPM and later production exec on my favorite television show of all time ("St. Elsewhere") and such classic television as "Hill Street Blues", "Lou Grant" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." If you are a millennial and too young to remember these shows - they cut a large swath that laid the ground for the shows you love today, in an environment that was nowhere near as accepting.

In 1985, he was awarded the Frank Capra Achievement Award, reserved by the DGA for assistant directors and unit production managers/

It is a bit ironic that I just posted about "the Abby" in a post on Sarah Jones - and why I did not want the first shot called "the Jonesy."

The way these things work, years later, only a faint memory and some lore lives on. I think both Abby Singer and Sarah Jones deserve better.

Abby Singer's death comes at an odd time for me. Today. the day of his death, is my Mom's 93rd birthday. I do not need reminders of my Mom's limited years remaining.

It is also less than a week after the death of a female monk who I greatly respected, who showed nothing but strength up until her last year and who I have still failed to find the words to honor. My apologies, Kaijun.

The film business, especially the production side, is, as my long-time First AD Brian said recently, a "young man's game." With every job, I wonder if the job has passed me by, and, with every job, I work my hardest to keep up with a game whose rules change as we speak.

We all owe a legacy to those who came before us. No one can say they have not learned from an elder, from camera to grip to production.

I never met Abby Singer, though I, like most AD's, used his name - sometimes in vain.

The Buddhist tradition is to offer a poem on the passing of someone who has touched us. Though I write this blog, and have written some screenplays. poems are, well, not my strong point.

All I can offer is this:

The "Abby" is up, the martini can not be far behind;
The end of the day nears. but there is still work to be done;
Leave that work for us, Abby Singer,
As you have earned this "martini,"
No more "one mores," no more companies, no more moves;
To those of us who have finally crossed out that last shot at the end of the day,
The one that meant we could all go home,
We take this moment to bow to you.
Take off the headset., take off the walkie;
That's a wrap on Abby Singer.
Enjoy your send-off*; you've earned it.

*When an actor is wrapped, the AD will often do a "send-off," reminding the crew that it is a 'picture wrap on (so-and-so).' Figured Abby deserved that.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The South Beach Job - Part 3 - Mañana Time

"Old Men in tank tops
Crusin' the Gift Shops,
Checkin' out chiquita's down by the shore"

Jimmy Buffet, Marguaritaville*

Some places are not built for hard work.

Bud was a good friend of mine for many years. He was a published poet, had a PHD and two Masters, and taught for a while at Columbia University. After a short time in Key West, he quit his job at Columbia and took a job teaching writing at a small woman's college in Florida. When I called a bar that I knew he frequented down there, the Green Parrot, they said "oh, it's only 3PM - he doesn't hit here until around 5PM." They then gave me the number of another bar where he could be found at that time.

I suppose you can't find happiness if you don't know what your happiness looks like. Bud knew exactly what his happiness looked like.

Places with palm trees, scantily clad hard-body men and women, more bars and nightclubs than book stores and the word "beach" in their name tend not to be good places for hard work, especially the hard work and long hours of making a movie.

Welcome to South Beach.

After settling in to our offices at the hotel, it was time to staff up. It started with the office staff.

Recently, I spoke about how important the office staff is to me, and how great they were on my last feature.

Whether it is hiring staff or searching the aisles for clothes, I'm not much of a shopper. As most of my co-workers will tell you, in the latter department, it's mostly black or black light, gray.

In terms of staff, I trust my instincts as well as a feel for the little things, the things folks tell me is important to them, the little things between the line. For the most part, my instincts are good.

The same name came up three times for production coordinator, and when I met her, she certainly knew her stuff, knew the locals, and had an assistant (APOC) she was able to bring on. Sounded good,

For this series, I am going to refer to most of the crew by positions, for reasons that regular readers can imagine.

It took me a little longer to find the location manager, a very nice young lady for whom this would be her first time as location manager.

She was definitely smart, and I chalked up the slow start to bad luck, as she certainly was working hard.

It was on Day 1 of prep that I started doubting the production office staff. For the office, meals are usually working meals, meaning production pays for it, and you are still doing some work while you eat. Now, for those who have read my posts over time and have come to think of me as a nice person, here is where you get to put me into the "producer jerk" category.

I have posted here more than once of an unusual quirk of mine; because I like to eat my meals in peace, and there is little of that while on a shoot, I almost never have lunch while working a shoot. I quickly encourage those working around me in the office, who are not restricted by a call time for lunch, to just eat when they get hungry and not go by me.

POC asked if they could have lunch, and I gave her that usual line. At that point, she, the APOC and the office PA got up and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" I asked. With a confused look, they proclaimed lunch.

Now, on my last shoot, my great office staff got into the habit of taking a work break and eating together. Understand, this staff worked incredibly long hours, often coming before I asked them to get in and staying later. If this time sitting taking a break together made their life better, cool.

My South Beach staff, though, were clock-watchers, and now, were going to leave the office for an hour lunch. I pointed out that we normally ordered in, and that we never took a full hour.

The reaction suggested that I was even meaner than my caricature on the last shoot. After a brief discussion of cultural differences in how we did business, I pointed out that at least one of them needed to stay behind - a film production office doesn't close.

"Well, you're here if anyone calls," the POC said. I pointed out that with three staff people, I should not be expected to answer phone calls or do their jobs for them, and laid down the law that at least one of them would remain behind.

The next issue was a hurricane.

South Beach, as many may know, is separated from Miami proper by a bridge, and we had hurricane warnings. Understand that we had a very shortened prep period, and the staff at that point was not getting through our normal work at any break-neck pace.

Our office was in a hotel, and I told the staff that with a hurricane approaching, if any wanted to stay the next night so there was no danger traveling, production would, of course, take care of that, as well as dinner and any other costs. After all, the office needed to be open, and we had work to do.

Besides, Miami is more accustomed to hurricanes than we are here in New York, and the hotel had a back-up generator and was probably among the safest places to be.

Again, they were aghast. They would go home, they informed me, and if the hurricane hit, come back in a day or two when it had passed and all was well.

"We don't close a production office," I informed them. With recent discussions on safety, I have to make clear that I never did, or would, suggest they drive in such conditions, nor would I have sent crew out. None of them were married, so I was not taking them away from their loved ones.

They all seemed to think it was not a big deal if they closed the office for two days - maybe we could just push the movie back a few days.

Without discussing tone, this may all seem reasonable to many reading this, but the cost of pushing back - not to mention the trouble rescheduling performers who were coming in from out of town - made this problematic. As said earlier, this was a staff that was already seriously behind where we should have been, and it seemed not to bother them one bit.

In the end, because I could not, of course, force them to stay there, we compromised on one day, and they did make it back the next day. This concession did not come without me explaining I expected them to actually put in the time to catch up afterward, and, no, they would not be paid for the day off.

Meanwhile, locations was moving slowly, and my location manager - a very nice person - had the disturbing habit of crying whenever things went wrong. I have seen folks cry under pressure - male and female - on sets. It can happen. Location manager, however, was not under this sort of pressure, and her crying at the drop of a hat had caused me to speak to her in increasingly calming tones, bordering on how one might speak to a frightened child.

It is not how I normally talk to people, and it was frustrating for both of us, but I had no idea what else to do. As we got closer, and she did this one day, I calmly told assured her that we would work everything out, but could she please try not to cry on a regular basis (it should be noted she did not only cry when talking to me, but sometimes when she would get off the phone, or come into the office crying).

That is when she hit me with a line I will forever remember.

"I don't just cry, JB. I cry to get things done."

I could not imagine any career that did not take place in front of a camera on a soap-opera where crying-on-cue- would be considered part of one's skill set, and I was not about to ask her to explain herself. Over time, suggestions came that it made people feel sorry and help her, but I'm not sure it was that cut-and-dried.

The slow pace of prep was getting to me, and I shared that one day with our production designer. Production designer was originally from Brooklyn, and still worked in both cities. By contrast to many of the locals, she was an incredibly resourceful hard worker.

She laughed when I expressed my dismay.

Production designer was of Puerto Rican heritage, and was very much in tune with the vibrant beat of a city that derives much of its cultural richness from a mix of Latin American and Caribbean influences, on everything from cuisine to nightlife to architecture. Indeed, Time Magazine once referred to Miami as "The Capital of Latin America."

All of that can bring with it the slower pace that tropical climates bring out; in part, a concession to the heat, in part, a response to the sun and the beauty that surrounds one.

"JB, it took me some time to get used to it as well," she shared. "Everyone down here is on manana time."

I pointed out that she, and her crew, did not share that slow pace, and she still moved at a New York pace, but had spent enough time in South Beach to appreciate it.

"Stay down here long enough and you will find yourself moving at that pace as well," she offered. I wondered if she was right, as the slow pace crossed the diverse ethnic make-up of my staff and crew.

Wise, she was offering the same advice that Walsh offers Gittes when he admonishes him. In my mind, I heard:

"Forget it, J.B. It's South Beach."

*These evidently are lost lyrics that were cut from original single to make it more radio friendly.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why We Will Remember Sarah

"A great soul serves everyone all the time. A great soul never dies. It brings us together, again and again." - Maya Angelou

When I wrote my post on the tragic death of Sarah Jones, I was determined that this would be the only one I would write. Say what you need, and move on.

Since then, however, I have seen something else happen that has really made me think, and so, I felt the need to put that here.

We know what social networking is at it's worst: tweets from the Kardashians, Facebook "friends" who we cannot truly remember how we know, and, worst of all, rather than making us more "social", it keeps our faces buried in an electronic device rather than allowing us to come face-to-face with each other, and, heavens forbid, actually talk.

While it is easy for old guys like me to see the danger in technological advances, we also have to see how there are times when a unique set of circumstances hopefully make a difference in all of our lives.

There is a Zen koan that goes something like this: if a man was standing in a window, wishing he could buy something, and did not know that he had in his pocket the money to buy it, would he be any better off than the man who truly did not have the money?

The truth all around us - the trick is, do we see it?

The tragic circumstances of Sarah Jones death have come together in such a way as to hit us with a stick; to wake us up.

Inherently, we all know that there are dangers in this business, and worse, that productions and individuals often look past safety concerns to get the shot. This isn't news to most of us.

Anyone who has worked in the business at least knows the incidents of The Twilight Zone movie, Brandon Lee, and some of the others I mentioned in my first post.

Is there any reason that Sarah's tragic death will be any different. Sadly, when this first happened, the pessimist in me thought, 'yeah, maybe for a month or a few months, and then it will be just another incident.'

The Universe - pick your religion or belief - works in mysterious ways, and this time, I think the circumstances have come together in a way that makes me think we won't be forgetting Sarah's name for a long time.

First, there were the opportunities lost. This was not one mistake, one last second incident of poor judgement on one person's part. Numerous people - line producer, producer, production manager, AD, location manager, to name a few - had to miss the opportunity to nip this in the bud. I'm not placing blame, as I don't know what each of these folks knew or understood - but it had to be someone's responsibility.

Second, the wonderful article by D on that asked why no one on the crew had said "no", why none of the experienced crew people - and this was an experienced crew - had questioned shooting on a live railroad track. Again, this is not to blame any of those folks - we all know how in the rush to please, the rush to get the shot, we hope that someone else has done due diligence.

If this incident proves anything, it is that there is no "someone else."

That is where the third element comes in: the photos of Sarah. You've seen many, and there are many more on the Facebook page "Slates for Sarah" (more on that shortly). If there is anything we in the business of putting art on film should understand, it is that photography at it's best - still or moving - captures something deeper than merely an image - it captures a soul.

We know it about film "stars" - in the very successful ones, you can't take your eyes off of them. It has more to do than being physically attractive - its something that you can't make up - it is either there, or it is not. It is a life-force, and Sarah exhibited it when she was working.

Sarah's photo sparked one thought: We are Sarah Jones.

As a production person, from that first photo on IA's site, it reminded me of some of my best and favorite crew people, a few who I've seen "grow up" over the years. My best friend and ex-wife jokes that they are "like my kids" - and they are to me. That first photo made me think of any one of them working one moment and beneath the wheels of a train the next, and it broke my heart.

Even those of us who never met Sarah had met that energy before, had seen it's beauty, and were horrified that it was snuffed out in a meaningless moment. Sarah, thank you for that smile.

Fourth, there was the previously mention Slates for Sarah Facebook page. People put up tributes all the time, but this one struck a cord, and inside of a week, tens of thousands were sending in their slates.

It was the technology - Facebook - combined with something genuine and heart-felt  that made "Slates for Sarah" such an important moment.

Fifth, it was the Oscars. Timing, as comedians tell you, is everything. There was nothing funny about this, but the absolutely random nature that this should happen less than two weeks before the Oscar telecast - the star-studded, overly-hyped, glitz-fest that is meant to represent our business (though it rarely does to most of us).

With this timing came the outpouring from the industry to get Sarah's name in the telecast in the "In Memorium" section. In mere days, more than 57,000 people had signed, and, because Sarah had worked on some high profile television shows, some high profile TV "Celebrities" added their voices. We also got photos of screen icons like Dustin Hoffman with slates remembering Sarah.

I do not think the industry, in any way, shape or form, wanted to remind movie-going audiences during the three-plus hour commercial for the industry that a lot of "grunts" - and I use that term affectionately - do the work that gets the stars to that night. With the overwhelming outpouring, however, it was impossible for them to ignore, and the risk/reward guys probably told them that if they didn't do SOMETHING, the questions and outrage would bring even more bad publicity.

That, and hoping for the best in human nature, I'm sure some of them were sincerely touched.

For all of those reasons, I truly believe that Sarah's name, and the circumstances of her death, will not be forgotten.

Let me caution, as I did in my last post, that I am uncomfortable with the idea of unintentional martyrs. I do not think of Sarah as a martyr - she died doing what she loved, and not to be a symbol for anything. In truth, it probably never occurred to her that she she was putting her life at risk, and, if it occurred for a moment, that thought was quickly replaced with the checklist of things she needed to do for her job.

I saw something about naming the first shot "the Jonesy" for her, the way we call the next to last shot "the Abby"  after an AD who often called the "martini" too soon. * I'm not crazy about that, to be honest. When we start to brand things like that, it often takes away the human component, and it becomes about rote.

It would be easier to keep Sarah where she belongs, in our hearts. As line producer and sometimes Assistant Director, I have spent part of the last week or so going over every decision like this I have ever made, and wondered if I had ever, unintentionally, put someone at risk when I should not have. I hope all of my production brethren partake of the same soul searching.

I won't need to etch Sarah's name into the call of the roll to remember her, or to remember that safety is not only first thing  - it is the most important thing. I do not think any of us will.

When the hurt is gone, when the tears are dry, let doing the right thing in term of safety be something so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we don't need to hear a name, though we most likely will.

Let Sarah continue to live on in a positive way, to bring a smile to our face, to represent the joy that doing what we love brings to all of us, with the caveat that the joy needs to be respected and protected, and that in the end, that responsibility lies with all of us.

Like that man standing outside the window, Sarah, you have reminded us of what was right in front of us, but we were too busy to put into words. We are a family, a family filled with all the turmoil that humans bring, but bound by love. Now, for us, that bind has a special name, and it is Sarah.

*I've always thought Abby Singer got a bum rap.  He had a great career and is still with us, and  seemed to have a good reason for that "one more."