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.