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.

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