Monday, February 23, 2015

This Gun for Hire - Part 2 - The "Real" Job

"Seize the day. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart."   -  Erma Bombeck*

Even as I was making the transition from freelancer, some things would remain the same, and some old habits would die hard.

Part of my job still involved handling finances,  something my ex-wife would find amusing. The irony that someone who was never very good at handling his own finances could track a film's finances was never lost on her.

Yet, here I was at a "real job;" the type of job my mother always (not-so-secretly) wished I would get, and the type my ex was sure I never would.

Technically,  I reported to the new president of the company,  who we will call Mark, because he reminded me of someone who thought of himself as a Mark Cuban-like entrepreneur.

I should explain.

First, I need to put the times in context. It was the turn of the Century, and all you heard was that 'content is king.' In many ways that, from my admittedly limited and brief perspective,  was one of the problems at Shooting Gallery. They were near the end of an era where they were "incubating " projects, including web series.  A lot of folks with an idea and not much more were given free rent, free access to equipment, phones,  etc. The idea was they would develop content that Shooting Gallery could later sell and reap the profit. In theory, it could have worked. After all, they had helped develop successes such a You Can Count on Me and Slingblade.

Of course, it's never that easy. In reality, at this point, only the production and post-production division was making money, and that was, from what I could tell, in large part due to Dave Tuttle's stewardship. Although Dave was second to Mark in title, it was in title only. Mark's successes came in other fields, and, from what I could tell, he was brought in only because he brought with him an infusion of cash.

The financial reporting I did came from within,  and from the other cities where Gun For Hire had expanded to Toronto, LA, Vancouver and Miami.  Only New York's Gun for Hire division seemed to be making money, which was part of the problem.

Still, in the beginning, things didn't seem to be that bad. In my early days in theater and film, I had temped to pay the bills, and I was always surprised at how much money big companies threw away as opposed to the low budget projects I worked on, so I just chalked some things up to the sins of largess.

The more mundane part of my job was as facilities manager - things like making sure the custodial help had enough cleaner. Not all that exciting,  but I knew it needed to be even done, and it wasn't that hard.

The upside was some client contact. Our biggest client that was still shooting was a film called Changing Lanes with. Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson.  Like a guy on the romantic rebound who still pines for his ex when with the new lover, I gravitated to spending some time with the line producer,  but no so much as to be a nuisance.  It worked for both of us, as I made sure he was always happy, which, after all, was part of my job.

Remember we were in two buildings that were in prime real estate in downtown Manhattan - 609 Greenwich Street and 110 Leroy Street, which is where my office was located, I spent a lot of time going back and forth, probably a remnant of my former jobs,  wanting to be hands on.

Another remnant of my old freelance production work was staying until the job was done. While  I always preach to coordinators not to burn themselves out and leave at some point because you could never finish everything,  I still slept better if all of my financials were done.

One night,  Dave was leaving a little late and I was still working.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

I pointed out I didn't want to leave without getting my financials done, even though they weren't really due for another day and a half.

He chuckled.

"You've got to get used to your new life, brother.** There will be time to do that tomorrow.  Go home."

As a former line producer, he knew exactly what I was doing.  I eventually changed my routine to include leaving pretty much on time, with the exception of always asking Dave if he needed anything if he was working late.

Those were the good days. For the first time since my days at the political research company, I was soon going to have my health care paid by my company. Sweet.

I could not have known then how quickly they would come to an end.

*More Titanic references to come.

**Of course, all these years later, I am paraphrasing from memory. I do remember him saying something like "brother." More on this in the next article.

The Village Voice did a great article with a lot of research, as did a documentary. All of my articles on this are based from my perspective which, while from the inside, did not include access to interviews or conversations with key ;players like Larry Meistrich, nor was I in on meetings where key financial decisions were made..  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Five Things That an AD IS Not

The list could certainly go on, and there is certainly nothing more wonderful  than a list, instrument of wondrous hypotyposis" - Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

If you have a Facebook account (and who doesn't), you have come across an increasing number of links to - for the lack of a better word - "articles" that count down some random list.

You know the ones.

"Seven Things You Never Knew About Kale"

"Six Actors You Never Knew Were Episcopalian"

"Eight Things You Should Never Ask A Hot Dog Vendor"

They are usually the internet version of those magazines you grab at the checkout counter that alternately tell you of a new cure for cancer, or how they know your favorite TV celebrity is actually a visitor from another galaxy.

Sadly,  more and more of them are now part of more respected sources of news.

I used the terms articles in quotation marks because most of them are the type of off-the-top-of-your-head jottings any of us could come up with,  and often do, in places like this - blogs.

As with everything else I do, I probably over-think this blog. I pour over every word, research,  and scratch ideas that fail to come to full fruition.

That does not make this journalism, or high art. However,  if you're going to ask others to use their minds to read something,  you should use yours first.  Yet, these "journalists " who are getting paid to offer up something, are satisfied with these frills - or, really,  no-frills - offerings. As someone who had the pleasure of working with future CNN correspondents, PBS news hosts and network news execs* in college, I find this a soft-core excuse for journalism

This will be one of those.

One of my regular First ADs and I have been friends for many years, and we occasionally share an adult beverage  (or more), as well as our incredulity at the lack of awareness of what a First AD does.

Now, there are a few great blogs on being a First AD (like the one offered by my blog-sister Michelle ), so rather than offer five things your AD does, I will offer five things that you should not expect from your AD. (I use the male pronoun because AD in question is male; your AD's gender may vary.)

#1. First ASSISTANT Director Does Not Mean He Should Help You Direct.

Inspired by my AD's latest experience.

In a group email, the producer asked the director if he had sent a shot list to the AD, who he had just hired.

Now, they had just fired their last DP. The director asked if he were to send it, could AD put the shots in order of shooting.

AD was brazen enough point out that could not happen yet, as he a)had never been on a scout of the location (s), b) had yet to meet the DP, and c) had yet to speak with the director.

Director was upset and decided to go with another AD.

It is my belief that misconceptions about what an AD does start in film school,  where the AD is inevitably someone who, as the t-shirt suggests, just wants to direct. As such, they love having long conversations about the perfect angle, blocking,  mise-en-scene and any other aspect of directing.

In Europe,  I understand that being a First AD is a path to directing. In the U.S., that is not true, and ADs who offer directing advice don't last.

Now, most experienced First ADs have been around the block enough to be helpful when needed in that department. More often, they should be focused on keeping things moving.

Which leads me to #2.

#2 A Good AD Can Lead You to Set, But He Can't Make You Shoot.

This goes for the director and the DP. Let's deal with the director first.

The director must have the scene blocked, and then be ready to shoot. Directors generally call action on takes, and ultimately must decide if they are satisfied and ready to move to the next set-up.

When faced with an indecisive director,  good ADs will employ a series of tricks to keep them moving. Some will anticipate and start to call the roll when they sense the shot is ready but the director is still wavering.  Stan used to encourage me to do this, and let the director stop me if they weren't ready. This was a tactic only to be used as last resort, as it has the potential to cause conflict and undermine one or both.
One of my favorite versions of this was a tough-talking, chain-smoking Mama of an AD who, when she wanted to push a director to move on from one setup to the next, would call out, "Movin' On. You don't want to put your foot through a Rembrandt. "

As for trying to get a slow DP to move faster, suffice to say you cannot ask a DP to shoot when they are not lit or when they don't have frame. I've pissed off enough DPs that I will leave it at that, as I've covered this ground before.

Yes, keeping things moving is part of the ADs job, but that doesn't mean ...

#3 The AD is (Not) A "Grip With An Attitude"

This was the exact phrase a producer once (incorrectly ) used to describe a good AD.

A truly good AD moves the crew along with communication,  and, not unlike a good sports coach, will use various means to encourage a crew to move as quickly - albeit still safely - as possible.

Most crews want an AD to keep everything moving quickly,  as they don't want to spend endless hours on set when they can get home. In those rare occasions where a crew is slow or, let's face it, just a bit lazy (hey, it can happen ), private discussion or talks with department heads are options.

This does not mean screaming at them like the above drill sergeant. 

Past high school football,  this technique rarely goes well. I always remember, and have often reminded more vocal ADs,that we in production may be figuratively be doing some heavy lifting,  but the crew is literally doing it.

Speaking of grips, I once saw an encounter between a bellowing AD, and the grip whose face he decided to get in, which is right on point.

The grip put down the equipment he was carrying,  took a breath, and said,  "I have two speeds, and if you don't like this one,  you definitely aren't going to like the other one. "

#4. The AD is Not a Script Supervisor

I have waxed and swooned about my love for the skill and.craft of script supervisors here. Suffice here to say that it requires laser-like focus on the action, which is impossible if you are also trying to make sure the actors for the next scene are through the works**, checking with art department if the next set is dressed, directing background action, and setting lock-up.

Yet, while no reasonable producer would double the 1st AC job with Best Boy Grip, I still see "keeping script notes" as duties listed in low-budget AD ads.

Somehow, smaller crews means "cut production people " first to many digital producers.

This leads to an even more common pet peeve that is becoming all-too-common.

#5. A First AD Cannot Prep Call Sheets.

The First AD is responsible for the schedule and everyone knowing said schedule. Long ago, in a movie - making galaxy now far, far away, call sheets were invented to distribute this information.

A proper call sheet is a work of art; a finished symphony; a perfect diamond. It also has a great deal of information to fill out, much of which can change right up until it is published. My favorite 2nd AD created a call sheet template (not the one listed below) so perfect that I would hire just for the call sheet alone, if not for the many other fine qualities he brings.

The First AD makes the major decisions on call times and what will be shot, but it is the 2nd AD who must get all this info loaded into the call sheet, in addition to all the other things he is doing. The call sheet is time-consuming and requires some free hands.

Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion shown above, vowed to not rest until he had saved all sentient beings. He struggled to meet the needs of so many, and his head split into eleven pieces. Amitaba Buddha, seeing his plight, gave him eleven heads to hear the cries of many, but when he reached out to them all, his two arms shattered, and, to once again aid him, Amitaba Buddha blessed him with a thousand arms.

Many a 1st (and 2nd) AD can attest to feeling like their head was going to split into eleven pieces, but all are limited to two arms, and as line producer, I do not have the power of Amitaba Buddha to give them any more.

More and more, First ADs are hired, and then told there will be no budget for a 2nd AD. This means often training a PA, which almost always mean it will be wrong for at least a few times - and teaching call sheets should not be part of the AD's job.

Now, on a very small shoot, with a very small crew, if everyone is fine with gathering everyone and just telling them where, when and what tomorrow, great. However, there is a reason for call sheets, and not having them will cause some level of confusion. 

You can have a proper call sheet and a 2nd AD, or a First AD alone and you do the best you can. You can't have both. Just don't go screaming at your First AD when the Best Boy Electric (I've been picking on grips too often) shows up at the wrong time or the wrong place.

I'm sure every department has it's own complaints. If you ever wondered about the types of things ADs bitch about when they need to blow off some steam, this is a small sample.

*Richard Roth of CNN, Ray Suarez formerly of the PBS News Hour and now with Al jazeera America,  and Bernard Gershon, ABC News and now Gershonmedia.

**Hair, Make-Up and Wardrobe

Friday, February 6, 2015

Eye of the Beholder

"The more I see of men, the more I like dogs"
-Clara Bow, silent-screen siren

Maybe only America Ferrera, whose introduction to us was as the title character of Ugly Betty, had as ignominious an introduction to the entertainment public as Heather Matarazzo.

Heather's first major role was the "unattractive" pre-pubescent lead, Dawn Weiner in Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse. Early on, we learn her nickname has become "weinerdog."

I've told the story before that when I was up to line produce the film (I didn't get it-check out links), I thought finding a girl at that impressionable age who could handle the negativity would be challenging. As Heather has pointed out more times than she cares to remember in interviews, she just saw it as acting.

Movies are illusions, and the illusion works both ways. Lucille Ball was known as a comic, so she always toned down her looks; I've met a few actors who met her in person when she was younger who said she was a knockout. That didn't work for her comic image, so we think of her a lot plainer.

Phyllis Diller found a hard time getting work as a woman and a stand-up comic until she decided to make herself look unattractive and thus unthreatening. Again, she was far more attractive in person.

Subsequent roles for both Heather and America have shown off their beauty.

I was lucky enough to work one day with Heather on a short, so I was happy when I saw that she is starting a blog, and, in true honest fashion, she starts with a bang. A woman who spent a good deal of time doing inversion training so she could hang upside down naked and come to an unpleasant end in Hostel II was not about to pull any punches in her inaugural post, linked here.

In it, she tells of being a 19-year old who had been attached to a film project for two years, only to find out she was being replaced a month before production because some investors felt she was an not, um, an object of their desire.

Heather puts it much better - but I won't even try to steal her thunder.

It's certainly not unheard of, and sometimes can even apply to men. I did a short once with a very talented and nice gay male director who, when casting his lead man, wanted to know if he was attractive to women.

One after another, he asked female members of our staff, "Would you fuck him?"

However, as men are still the predominant power players in film, it is women who have to not only be pretty enough, but desirable enough. This goes back to the silent days, when Clara Bow was referred to as the "it" girl, with little doubt as to what the "it" was. Our great-grandparents weren't as prudish as we would believe.

Girl-next-door works for rom-coms; for meatier female roles, it is preferable that you look good in tight clothing.

Anyway, I won't go on about women and casting here. My point of this impromptu post was to introduce you to a blog you may want to follow. Heather has had an interesting career, and after years as a New Yorker, has just recently made the movie to LA. I've never seen her be boring in a movie, and I doubt her blog will be.

I will add it to the list soon. In the meantime, check it out.