Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Orphan Posts - Volume 1

"Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every afternoon."
-Raymond Chandler on rewriting

Maybe I'm over-thinking - that would be nothing new - but there are a number of blog posts that I've started recently that have gone nowhere. There was something in all of them, but none of them deserved a full post.

Full disclosure. My next series is on a film called Town Diary, which I co-wrote and produced with two dear friends. From writing to completion spanned over two years, and, because it involved so many friends, it was the most emotional journey in my career. Of course, that is why I am procrastinating starting it.

In this mode, I have tried to get out a few posts that have been in the germination stage for some time. Whenever I  approach a broad subject, I try to make sure I haven't covered it somewhere else. Often, I found that I have, but not completely. My last post on mentors is one example. I had talked about my dad, Stan and Kevin elsewhere, but never in that context. That post worked for me.

Others, not so much.

For the most part, I've avoided trying to "instruct" here directly, rather letting it filter through the stories of different gigs. This was also one of the points of the last post. However, some things do keep coming up.

I have certainly talked a lot about what a line producer does, about preparing budgets, about the real-life application of theory. Still, I see folks who don't get what a line producer does, and I want to put it in one place. Then, I Google around, and it's been done.

I may do a "So You Want to Be a Line Producer" post one day where I just clear up the misconceptions.  (If you posted an ad on Craigslist that started your job description for line producer with "you will be responsible for catering", watch out. I will find you and make you read that post.) I recently had a "producer" who wanted me to line produce and report to a local "UPM". That's backwards.

However, if you want a good clarification, you can find an excellent one at the site Stephen Marinaccio, who created the site, is excellent at breaking down the experience while being informative and easy-to-understand. He has resources galore. I've had the pleasure of both emailing and speaking with Stephen, and he is as nice as he is smart. If it's instruction you seek, this is an excellent place to start.

Of course, Stephen works on budgets that are higher than those I usually work on. There are plenty of sites that talk about "guerilla" or "no-budget" filmmaking. Frankly, that is not my bag, as we used to say.I don't particularly enjoy it, nor am I an expert at it, so I will leave that talk to others. I know I have some excellent horror film bloggers as followers, and they can be much more instructive than I can in this area - among them, the always entertaining and informative blogs of Mr. Kangas.

My realm has, for the most part, been the area in-between, the films that fall in the SAG indie contract arena. A full description of these are at I am working on a series on producing on the SAG Modified Low Contract, one of the trickiest because you have a foot in both worlds, with not enough money to be a big film, but enough invested that you need to sell like a big film, with budgets from $200K to $625K (and up, with what is referred to as the Minority Exception.) That series I will do, but likely after the series on Town Diary, since I will have covered much of it there.

Then, there are other posts, which, as I look at them, are more rants than anything else, and I'll spare you those, or at least only spoon them out a little at a time in mini-rants within other posts.

I am working on a series about the line producer/First AD relationship, but will likely ask one or more ADs I know to chime in on that one.

There they are;  the orphan posts, as I call them. Some of them will likely become part of other posts, others, like screenplay ideas that don't pan out, will likely die a natural death. I started thinking of them as "where stories go to die," and, in Googling found this very funny story about a Washington journalist having a very bad few days.

While blogs are often stream of consciousness, I think it important that if you are good enough to take the time to check these pages, they should be worth your time.

This is what I am working on. Feedback on any of the above, and what you might like to read about, always welcomed.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Going and Coming - Mentors Passing On

            "Master Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
             Caine: No.
             Master Po: Do you hear the grasshopper that is at your feet?
             Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
             Master Po: Young Man, how is it that you do not?"*

When I was setting up a timeline for this blog, I knew there would be a time where I dealt with the death of people who had an affect on me and my career. One of those posts I knew I would write would be on the death of Stan Bickman, who most influenced my work as line producer and production manager.

In the "timeline," I have passed that point. As I started putting this post together, I realized that there was one thing in common when three of my mentors passed - I wasn't there for any of them. I also realized that, to this day, they are there for me, that they had already "passed on" what I needed, hence, the play on words in the title.

We often think of mentoring as it is depicted above; the master-student relationship. In that image, there is the wise master passing on knowledge - in one direction - to the student, directly telling the student what they need to know.

Most mentors impart knowledge more like this example from Charlotte Joko Beck, talking about her days at Oberlin Conservatory wanting to study with the "best" piano teacher in Everyday Zen:

When I went in for my lesson I found he taught with two pianos. He didn't even say hello. He just sat down at his piano and played five notes and then he said, "you do it." I was supposed to play it just the way he played it. I played it, and he said, "No."He played it again, and I played it again. Again, he said, "no." Well, we had an hour of that. And each time, he said, "No."...At the end of three months, one day, he said, "Good."...Finally, I had learned to listen.

How familiar does this sound to those of us in film - or any area? We learn by example, not by words or instruction.

As someone who taught film school (New York Film Academy), and who feels I have taught more on set, the process is not that simple.

Oddly, it is pop star Phil Collins who may have put it best:

"In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn."

I know that I learned a good deal from preparing lessons, and in answering questions from students. The formality of planning lessons forced me to consider what I do in detail, point-by-point, and not just go about doing what I've always done.

On my last shoot, I had to train a production coordinator - she had a great deal of experience producing, but had not specifically done the functions of POC on a feature. As usual, I also had an assistant, who also did not have experience with a lot of the things she needed to do. Having to create and offer a structure was important to me.

If my Zen practice has taught me anything, it is how what seems like the simplest thing - just doing the task in front of us and not having our mind many other places - can be the biggest challenge. Look at your day -how many times are you doing one thing while also focused somewhere else.

More on that another time.

As for the mentors here, they are my father, actor/director Kevin O'Conner and Stan Bickman. I have talked about all three, and will offer links to cover ground I have already covered. Here, in discussing Stan's passing, I also wanted to devote the proper time to mentors, in one place.


My father. For all of the years I lived at home, my dad was a manager and repairman for an air conditioning and television repair shop in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Later, he would go on to be a construction foreman.

He had offers to run his own business many times, and to take office management jobs. It was not his style - he would have died in an office. He was fine with leading men if he was out there with them. If he had stayed in the military (highly unlikely, as he hated being told what to do), he would have been a platoon sergeant who turned down officer rank.

He always referred to "his men." He could tell them anything, but he would defend them completely to anyone above him. He would never ask them to do anything he hadn't done.

On a personal level, that was what he most left for me. There were other things: I remember him sitting down with me after a long day of work making me do spelling quizzes every day after I failed one when I was in grammar school. He also took interest in anything that interested me, reading many books on Buddhism after I took an interest, though he was never a religious man in the traditional sense.

When I worked at the radio station in college, at WNYU-FM, he would always listen to my show if he were home, just to listen to my breaks, even though he had no love for the music that took up most of my show. When I went into theater, first as a stage manager, he would come at least once to every show, even though he had no great love for live theater.

There were little things, too, like he would never take a drink at work, even though he was often offered when he did repair work. Remember, my dad was from the Mad Men era, where having a drink at work had no stigma. This is why I will rarely have a drink in a work setting, even when it might seem ok and others are.

When my Dad found out he had cancer, he met me for lunch, and said he did not want to go like his father, who suffered for years. He said that when the time came, he wanted me to let him go. Unfortunately, like his father, my Dad was pretty tough, and lived years beyond what doctors thought. By the time he could no longer leave his hospital bed. he looked nothing like the father I knew - my Mom actually thought they had transferred him because she didn't recognize him one day.

Weeks before he died, he made me promise not to come anymore. One feature he still had was his stern eyes when he was serious - and he was serious. He had a way he wanted to remember him. He wasn't asking - he was telling me. Many would disagree, but I honored his wishes, and did not see him for weeks before he actually died.

Kevin, from his days as one of the original members of La Mama theater troupe, a landmark Off-Broadway theater company. Kevin surrounded by women - not at all unusual.
Kevin O'Conner was one of the best actors I ever worked with. I spoke about him extensively in another post. Check it out. It not only covers his achievements professionally, but some of what I admired about him.

He won multiple Obie awards for achievements on the Off-Broadway Stage. His television and film work was not as impressive, although he did play Bogart for a TV-movie entitled Bogie.

A life-long chain smoker, Kevin developed cancer. Even as he was getting sicker, he still had not lost his love for teaching or acting. His acting students often would ask him to work on their short projects - rarely for any money, and I remember Kevin doing a night shoot on one such project while he was wheezing and coughing from the cancer. As in my example from the other post, it just never occurred to him to say "no."

I was in LA in 1991, and when I returned to New York and looked Kevin up at the Chelsea Hotel, I learned that he had died just a few weeks earlier. The last time I spoke to him on the phone, he never mentioned he was in his last stages.


Stan Bickman is the person I've talked about most extensively here. Check out this post on how we met, or this one, a faux Stan guest blog post.

He had emphysema, and by the time I knew him, he had one lung and carried a respirator. By the time I hired him as my production manager on his last film, Man of the Century, he was dragging around a tank.

Dianne was his longtime production coordinator, assistant, aide, confidant, and friend. I had left messages for Stan and Dianne for a while, and not heard back. One day. Dianne called. I could hear the tears.

"Stan is dying, John. He is on a ventilator at the hospital, and he has asked to be taken off. He probably won't make the weekend."

I immediately asked where he was, but Dianne cautioned:

"That's why I haven't called you back. Stan doesn't want to see anyone, not you, not JR (John Rosnell, who had introduced me to Stan.). Not like this. He insisted."

Same as the instructions I would get from my father years later.

After he died, I got a nice card from his daughters in LA. It was a thank you card for my condolences, and had a picture of Stan at a pay phone - that's how they always remembered him, on the phone and on the road.

I could not find an online photo, and, sadly, that card got lost in a production office (Stan would have been amused by the irony of that), but the results in Google Image when I entered Stan's name (not counting the men shown - none of them are him) gives a good picture - one-sheets and posters for a lot of B-movies. He would be proud. (Also of the fact that the movie he thought would launch his career, T-Bird Gang, can now be seen in its entirety)


Besides not being there at their death, they shared other things. All were charming with women, in a gentlemanly manner that was neither offensive nor quite flirting when it was inappropriate. I remember each of them being as flattering to a woman of eighty as a girl of ten as to a starlet.

In many ways, all were products of - for better and for worse - another era.

All were mild-spoken men, which didn't mean they didn't let you know when they were serious. Their educations varied, but all of them learned most of their skills at their jobs.

In one way or another, the Ackroyd tribute at Beluschi's funeral from my Kevin post fit them all - they were good men if sometimes bad boys.

There were obviously others who helped and guided me along the way. As Joko Beck says, "Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need....Every moment is the guru."* Certainly, Nancy Juliber, the stage manager who got me into stage managing and later my first film office job, changed the course of my life, as did so many at that WNYU radio station.

These men stand out for the times I met them in my life, and the fact that what they taught, without saying it, was as much about how to treat people, how to approach work, how to respect your work, as it was any specific task.  It is why I think of them more as mentors in life than teachers of any specific skill, though with each of them, there was the latter as well.

I don't know how many other "students" they have out there, how many others were influenced by them. For me, I know that they speak to me when I need them - and sometimes when I'd rather they didn't. They would all agree with the fact that one of the things you need to learn from your mentors is how to move on from them, to adapt, to be someone with something new to offer the next generation.

You can take the time to teach others. To be a mentor, you owe it to yourself to be the best example of what you would like to see in those that come after, and hope that you are, indeed, up to that task; that they will sort the good from the not-so-good, they will take the best and leave the rest.  As one of my past ADs, Chris Kelley, used to say when I tried to influence him specifically to do something my way and he felt otherwise:

"If you meet the Buddha along the road, you must kill the Buddha."*

So, in this moment, what are you passing on today, grasshopper?

N.B. The internet at its best, and certainly blogs, should be interactive. Along the lines of not trying to "teach" as much as point here, I would love to hear of your experiences, either your mentors or experience as a mentor yourself. Pass them along!

*Although influenced by my Zen practice, I try very hard not to preach. Folks don't come to this blog for instruction in Zen, nor should they. As such, I often make light of issues serious practitioners might see as deeper - my reference to Kung Fu or Serenity Now are ways of avoiding being self-important, without meaning to minimize Zen. Along those lines, Joko Beck's quote is much longer, and the 'Buddha along the road' quote is not meant to be taken literally (though Chris sometimes did when I bugged him), but has a much longer explanation, which you are free to explore.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The South Beach Job - Part 5 - Play it Again, Lou - I Dare Ya

"You played it for her. You can play it for me...If she can stand it I can. Play it!"

Rick may have been strong enough to hear "As Time Goes By" again, but, in the late Summer, early Fall of 1999, I can't say that I was strong enough to hear "Mambo No. 5" one more time.  I am not a violent person by nature, nor do I condone the use of violence, but in 1999, if I could have gotten away with it, I might have killed Louie Bega.

Radio is known for over-playing hits - they've done so since the advent of pop radio, when the most popular songs were put in "heavy rotation." Sometimes, however, a song will take over more than just the radio - it gets played everywhere. It often happens in summer - songs become the hit of the summer and everyone just has to hear it, or, ironically, songs about being 'happy.'*

The combination of a popular, catchy tune and a city heavily influenced by Cuban culture meant that  Lou Bega's Mambo No. 5 was everywhere; not only on the radio, but in supermarkets, delis, bars, clubs, and even pharmacies. One day, I got of a cab that was playing it to walk into a store that was playing it and out onto the street to a boom box (boy, I DO NOT miss those) playing it.

I didn't want any of Monica in my life, or Erica by my side. I didn't need any of Rita, or want to see Tina. I wanted to see the sun without Sandra, and I could go all night long without Mary. Sorry Jessica - none of you makes me your man.

There was no escape.

Other aspects of Cuban culture I liked a lot better. There was the wonderful old woman from whom I bought Cuban coffee every morning. This woman made an exceptionally strong blend, and initially was concerned when I did not add milk. Her coffee was not bitter, but such that you could almost (but not quite) feel the grounds. Eventually, she just smiled when I would turn down the milk, seeing that it was not too strong for me.

Then, there was a certain Cuban-American female bartender that I took quite a shine to. Charming, funny, and spunky, she would ask me if she could be in the movie. As I always tell folks, I do not have final say in casting, but her natural assets did suggest to me that Lex would have no problem including her in the movie, and I was right. In fact, she wound up in a scene with Fat Joe, a talented hip hop artists who has since lost a good deal of weight. At one point, he was up to 350 pounds.

Evidently, one of the things that influenced him to lose the weight was the death of an early influence, Big Pun. Like Fat Joe, Pun was a distinctly Latino rapper from the Bronx.

We tried to get Big Pun for the movie, but scheduling and other issues prevented it, but it did lead to one of my more interesting conversations with his agent, who tried to work around his schedule to get him to us. Understand that by the time of his death less than a year later of a heart attack and respiratory failure, Big Pun was reported to have been more than 600 pounds.

When I asked about flying Pun to Florida for the shoot from North Carolina, where he was in a weight loss program (which he subsequently quit), his manager laughed.

"Have you ever seen Pun," he asked me. I told him that I had seen pictures, which, he indicated, did not give a true appreciation of his girth. He explained that it was near impossible for him to fly on a commercial airline, which led to one of my favorite quotes from an agent.

"Pun don't fly. We ship Pun. You just tell me when and where. We'll try to get him there."

Sadly, he never did make the trip.

There were a host of characters, and the shoot itself was less than memorable. The director had more of a music video background, and he would loosely plan the main shot, with a lot of emphasis on B-Roll. This was starkly different than the majority of feature work I did, and our two styles did not complement each other very well.  There was, additionally, the fact that the other producer with me on the project was his long-time girlfriend and producer, and, as with other times when people in relationships made movies together, they would go from protective of each other to battling each other, with each complaining to you about the other, then, alternately, defending the other one to you.

The movie was, in the end, an extended booty video - which made pretty much everyone who planned it happy. It was my last encounter with the music video world - and I don't miss it, though I would not have missed it for the world because, as is so often the case, the better movie would have been the 'making of.'

As for Mambo No. 5? For me, it is my 'Niagra Falls.'

* If the talented Bobby McFerrin's song, "Don't Worry Be Happy" went from clever to annoying over time, Pharrell Williams' "Happy" has gotten there much more quickly - at least for me.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The South Beach Job - Part 4 - Play on, Playa

"This is Bishop Don Magic Juan. I can't come to the phone right now. I'm out in the fields, doing God's work."
-Answering Machine Outgoing Message for Bishop Don Magic Juan, Pimp.

That voicemail was my introduction to Bishop Don Magic Juan, a pimp (which he liked to remind you stood for 'Player Into Making Progress') who was featured on Pimps Up, Hoes Down, a film that highlighted the goings-on at The Players Ball on HBO.

Yes, that is his real name (or at least the name he uses). Regular readers know I often use pseudonyms to protect people's identity, but nothing I discuss here will surprise anyone who knows Bishop Don, and I'm sure he'd get a laugh out of it.

He was credited with founding The Players Ball in 1974, and was certainly something of a celebrity by the time we hired him and his entourage, King Boo and G.O.D. (pronounced "G" "O" "D", and not the title it spells out).

The three flew from Detroit, and again, this was in the pre-9/11 days, when I.D. was not as much of an issue, but was still required for flying. It was also required for checking into hotels, which was a problem, as none of the three of them had any of the appropriate I.D. on them. In Detroit and the other places they traveled, the nom de guerre seemed to be good enough.

The same was true of their SAG contracts - they had never signed ones - and their encounters with our payroll company.  It seems reasonable to assume that checks are not the generally accepted form of payment in their usual business, and as such, they did not have bank accounts, or ID that was acceptable to either a bank or check-cashing place we used. Eventually, we came to the resolution of having them write the checks over to us, and we would give them the cash.

I have negotiated actor contracts with many agents over the years, but none of those negotiations were as colorful as the negotiations with Bishop Don Magic Juan and his crew.

In politics, many a deal has occurred in a smoke-filled room, a term that took on new meaning with these folks. Coming off the elevator on their floor, one experienced a contact high, and that experience only deepened on entering their room. They did not trust anyone who did not share a joint with them, and this became a regular part of our negotiations.

Negotiations is plural is here, because Donald Trump never enjoyed the Art of the Deal as much as these guys did. Oh, the money was important, but just as important to them was winning the negotiations, which took place over a few days.

One might wonder why these deals weren't worked out before they left Detroit, and the answer is simply that  this was not the way they did business, and if we wanted them , we needed to play the their game. Lex definitely wanted them, and so, over the course of a few days, I would come to their room (always to their room) where they would treat me as their honored guest and then go to some paragraph in their contract and see if it could not be improved, in their favor, in some way.

Fortunately, I have bargained with some very good agents, and in the end, we got a good deal on the money, while they got enough perks to feel good as well.

Being around them was like a trip back to the Seventies.

With all of that, the guys were a lot of fun, and because of our "quality time" together, we got along very well, with a lot of ribbing on both sides. Of course, also like good agents, they were always on the look-out for new talent. Watching pimps procure workers in movies is one thing; watching it in person, well, that is special.  Bishop Don was not a young man even then, but he and his two pals had charm to spare. While I don't think they ended up adding to their stable, it was rare for a young lady to leave their company without a smile.

As someone who has had to deal with the threat of sexual harassment suits (not against me, BTW) with a producer or two and a crew member, this was never the case here. Most of the women were quite charmed, or at least amused

As a matter of fact, when they left, my location manager (who never really got any better at her job, but it did get done - albeit with more crying) waved them off with a plaintiff "Play on, Playas" as she waved goodbye.

There wasn't a dry eye in the production office.