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!

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