Monday, September 7, 2015

The Indonesian Job - The Line Producer's Nightmare

"Line! Line! Oh My God"
-George Spelvin desperately hopes someone will give him
his line.
-The Actor's Nightmare
Christopher Durang

In the introduction to his play The Actor's Nightmare, Christopher Durang explains:

"I assume that most people who are in theater ...have had these "actor's nightmares." - you dream you have to go onstage, but for whatever reason you've never attended rehearsal and you don't know a single line...I've learned that in psychological literature this dream is called "the good student's dream" and the prototype is the student, in life usually quite conscientious, who dreams that he has to take a test, but that he is totally unprepared.  He has forgotten to study, or he has lost his book, or he can't read the questions..."
The time leading up to opening the production office is spent not with textbooks or play scripts but with lists - miles and miles of lists.

List of positions to hire. List of forms to be created. Distribution list. File List. Cast List. Crew List. Vendor List.

Lists of lists that need to be created.

And the cruelest list of all - the to-do list.

The To-Do list grows with each passing day. Most line producers have benchmarks based on what week of prep you are in of things that should have been accomplished.

On bigger budget films, you get through all of these lists and all of these benchmarks by making sure the people who work with you are helping to clear them. On low budget films, you almost never can afford to give people enough prep time to aid you in the process early on, so you wind up trying to do them all yourself.

And failing.

This is usually solved by having everything ready for these folks once you do hire them, and also by shortening the lists to what is absolutely necessary. Prioritizing is such an essential part of production, where each day sees you knocking off a handful of things on the list as new things that you could not have anticipated get added.

It's a beast you never slay. You hope it just stops being hungry and goes away.

I open my office this coming week, and all of the factors above lead to the inevitable line producer's nightmare.

Some elements are always the same.

I am in my production office, and everyone else seems to know what needs to be done - except me. They are going about their business, and I have this awful feeling that there are things I need to be doing but I don't know what they are. I can't ask anyone directly, because if they know that I don't know, they will fear that I am not competent to lead the ship and that will affect them adversely.

Much like the George Spelvin* in Durang's play, I ask leading questions in the hope that it will come to me. Certainly, they have the answers, and if only I can extract those answers from these very confident and competent people, it will all click.

But, it never does.

There are always new twists. For one, the people in the office change. Sometimes they are folks from past shows, sometimes they are baristas or bartenders or doormen or deli guys I know.

This time, the production office was in a house. The house is familiar to me, though the waking me can't remember which house it is. It seems that prep has started without me, and things are all in hand. While this should reassure me, it doesn't. It only makes me more concerned that all these people are on point and I am, well, lost.

At one point in this dream, I walked to where I planned to put my office - to where I think it might have been on some previous production. It is near the front of the house, maybe even a garage that had been converted.

When I get there, it's stripped bare, with exposed wires and cement floors. It looks like there are renovations or construction going on. In any case, this cannot be my office.

No one leads me to my office or mentions it, so it must be here somewhere. I walk into some offices hoping that, just maybe, I am sharing my office and there will a desk there that is clearly mine.

There is not.

Now, I begin the search for the person who has been running things so far. In this dream, it is a fellow line producer who I may be fortunate enough to have as my production coordinator. I keep heading to her office. She will have the answers I need, and as we have worked well together in the past, and will be partners on this shoot, I will be able to confide in her and we will sort this all out.

One problem. Even though her office is in this one house, and everyone is talking about how she is waiting for me, I cannot find it. In fact, I pass some other offices for the second and third time without passing her office. That is impossible,  but it's true.

I think I was outside the house - maybe on a porch looking in a window - when I woke up.

My reaction was to bolt out of bed, sit at my desk, and check my lists. They were all there, and if they weren't any shorter, they also weren't any longer.

The opening of my office has been pushed back a few days because of visa issues, the Labor Day holiday and an attempt to start the clock - and the outflow of cash - a little later. That has only added to my sense of urgency to scream "Out!Out! Damn Lists!"**

N.B. After writing the above post a few days ago, I had a continuation of the dream. If the first one was noir angst, this one was more David Lynch.

While I was not in my office, I was no longer looking for it.

It seems we are ready to shoot in two days (the actual shoot is more than three weeks away). I am walking around checking on progress.

As one point, I talk to a person rigging lights. She is actually a hairdresser I know, but this does not seem to bother me.The person directing the lighting is a female monk from the monastery I attend. She seems quite confident and on top of what she is doing, despite the fact that in waking life her background is in pottery.

I get on an open elevator that takes a circuitous route to the next level and then seems to have mind of it's own as to where to stop.

Although the rigging seems to be taking place in a theater, when I go outside, it's outside that same house. It starts to rain. A woman walking toward me as she exits the garage gets into a crouch and does front flips to avoid puddles, seemingly in fast motion.

Part of the crew is idling (always a bit of my nightmare). I inform them that all special equipment orders must be in by tomorrow, and before they can protest, I tell them, yes, I am aware that we have not chosen, no less scouted and certainly not tech scouted the locations. I look in their eyes one-by-one to make sure they understand, even though it makes little sense to me. One of them, lying on the ground, looks up at me and nods. He is a key grip who I once fired and would never work with again.

There are two directors, neither being the actual Indonesian director who is working on this project. They are the two gentlemen who I work with in development, neither of whom has ever directed. When I talk to then, they have their backs to me, but not, seemingly, out of disrespect. It just seems the norm with them

I can't wait to see what dreams may come once we get closer to actually filming!

*George and Georgina Spelvin are traditional actor pseudonyms in theater, the way Alan Smithee is for theater and film directors.

**The lead character in Durang's play is pretty sure he is in a Shakespeare play, but he can't remember which one, and he keeps butchering famous Shakespeare lines. My apologies, Willie.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Indonesian Job - The Inspirational Email

"Director: [in Japanese] Mr. Bob-san, you are relaxing in your study. On the table is a bottle of Suntory whiskey. Got it? Look slowly, with feeling, at the camera, and say it gently - say it as if you were speaking to an old friend. Just like Bogie in Casablanca, "Here's looking at you, kid" - Suntory time.
Translator: Umm. He want you to turn, looking at camera. OK?
Bob: That's all he said?"
     - Lost in Translation

When I was working on an odd film in Miami, I wrote a series of emails for a friend back home. That became my first blog.

I am now line producing the US portion of a film that was shot in Indonesia. Both sides are dealing with translation and visa issues.

In order to keep my key creative and production folks in the loop, I wrote an email that was both brutally honest but also meant to say that while it is not the way any of us want to do it, we can make it work. As a matter of fact, because these people are so talented, they are in an even better position to make it work.

Over the years, I find that rumor can be much worse than even the scariest truth. It is why I am trying to keep the people who need to know not only in the loop, but provided with all the facts. If any were to say they did not want to do this (which I do not expect), I would understand and respect their decision. Staying, they can do so with all of the facts in front of them.

I will try to do more real time posts like this as we move forward. As much of the information is proprietary, I have gone to using the same method of protecting information as when sensitive documents are released - but without the black marks. Readers of this blog well know that since the folks who work with me deserve their privacy, I rarely use real names unless it is to praise, so I have not here, though they all deserve praise.


Welcome to the world of international co-productions.

First, the great news. We are on with a slight adjustment. The office will open next Wednesday, September 9th, at [REDACTED}. Will give you all more specifics on that and schedule soon.

As you probably know, my company, [REDACTED}, will be the production services company for [REDACTED} which is the Indonesian company. That means all funds will be sent to my company, and all deal memos and payments will be through me. I have secured this, and a cash flow that has all funds secured weeks before production, so as to assure that I control getting you all paid and on time, and neither you nor I have to chase a company from overseas for payment. Pay will be as I usually do it - at the end of each week with no wait. All contracts will be independent contractor with you being responsible for your own taxes.

I will have deal memos available by next Wednesday, and will be bringing each of you in to sign them, either that day or the day after. You are all people who are important to me and to this project.

Because of the visa situation the dates have changed.

The new shoot dates are 

Day 1 - September 30
Day 2 - October 1
Day 3 - October 2
Day 4 - October 4
Day Off - October 5
Day 5- October 6
Day 6 - October 7
Day 7 - October 8
Day 8 - October 9
Day 9 - October 10
Day10 - October 11
Day Off - October 12
Day 11 - October 13
Day 12 - October 14

Needless to say, this means the schedule and strips will change. We need to take into consideration things like turnaround, when certain locations are available, etc. The shoot cannot go past October 14th because the star, Raisa, needs to leave the next day.

Again, because of the Visa situation, the key creatives (Director, DP, etc) may arrive AS LATE as September 27th.

That is not a typo.

I have explained to the US-based Indonesian producer as well as the producer and director in Jakarta what this means. 

It means that they will have to sign off on everything - from locations to wardrobe right down to props - by photo, skype, etc. We can't be scouting locations 2 days before a shoot (though we will do a tech scout and production meeting).

I will be meeting the US-based Indonesian producer in DC on Tuesday for a long meeting to discuss logistics. Jakarta is 11 hours ahead of us, and we will be doing a lot of Skype meetings at some odd hours. Some will be from production office, but, depending on the hour, will certainly be good with some including my keys from wherever they are (like the comfort of their home). Likewise, there will be meetings during our business hours that will be inconvenient for them.

This is clearly not the textbook way to do a movie, especially when you consider that beyond that the Indonesian producer speaks conversational English, the director enough to get by, and the others not much at all.

I assume none of you speaks Indonesian.

We will be scheduling skype meetings individually with your counterparts there; [REDACTED}, with the DP; [REDACTED}, with their AD [REDACTED} and the director [REDACTED}[REDACTED} and [REDACTED} with their production designer and costume designer, respectively, as well as their director. 

[REDACTED} will be part of all of those meetings. She is fluent in both language and has a production background in the US. She understands how we work, so she will not only be translating, but helping both sides with  understanding how the other works, as she has worked there as well.

Additionally, a recent negative exchange rate of their currency vs the US dollar has forced a cap on their budget, while their entire point in coming to NY was to show iconic (and, unintentionally, expensive) landmarks like Grand Central, an Amusement park (currently Luna Park), Times Sqaure, JFK, etc.

This means that budgets will be tight in all departments.

I have to do a new budget. It will force them to make hard choices, and likely cuts to things the director wants to do, some likely painful for them. Similarly, I have explained to them that while you are all wonderful, you are not magicians nor do you have the ability to turn water into wine or feed 5000 people (or extras, who are similar to people) with five loaves and two fish. Neither do I. 

On Wednesday, when we meet, I will have a set budget. With all of you, that will include flexibility with how many and what type of support crew you need and working out salaries for the people who are important to you.

The budget is similar to an Ultra Low[REDACTED}.

I will need your feedback in helping me convince them of what we can do and what we can't do, as well as creative solutions to problems.

The above email is as upfront as I can possibly be about the project. I truly believe we can make it work, and those of you who have seen the trailer know they can produce a professional product. The director has won awards in Indonesia, as have some of the actors. The director has done 15 movies, so he is not a novice, nor are the DP or design people. We have all been on directors' first features, so we can be thankful that we are working with people who understand the art and the craft.

I think together, we can help finish a film that we can all be proud of. I don't doubt we will have a few stories along the way.

IMPORTANT - In replying to this, PLEASE reply only to me. I don't want a long chain of woe. I will gladly address your concerns (and I can imagine some of them and await others).

I hope this addresses the big picture questions, and am available to answer your questions individually. You are my IMF . At the beginning of the old show, Phelps picked the people he most trusted. 

You all would get picked every time. And, remember, they ALWAYS got it done :)*

*However, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your action in the event.......