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.

No comments: