Saturday, December 31, 2016

Hello 2017 - Or How 2016 Didn't Kill Anyone

“But Einstein came along and took space and time out of the realm of stationary things and put them in the realm of relativity—giving the onlooker dominion over time and space, because time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.” 
― Dimitri MarianoffEinstein: An Intimate Study of a Great Man

Regular readers of this blog know that two of my fascinations, outside of film, are Zen and Quantum Physics. Both suggest that bookmarks such as dates are merely concepts, and not reality.

Even as we are (sometimes) Sentient Beings, we like those bookmarks to make things feel more orderly, when, in fact, all that is real exists is chaos, an all we have is this very instant, which has already passed as you experience it.

If you were to believe your social media pages, 2016 is some dastardly villain that has chosen to take so many of our beloved artists, not to mention heroes; as if 2016 actually had a conscience. All those we love and cherish, especially in the arts, need to do is make it to 12:01AM on January 1, 2017, and they will be good.

Don't think that is going to be the case.

That doesn't mean we cannot take this arbitrary date to look back at the last 365 days, and forward to the next. It's our decision, and it makes it convenient.

So, here is a look back at 2016 for me, and a look forward to 2017; keeping to old-school Irish bartender rules, meaning no discussion of politics or religion Them there Irish bartenders knew what they were doing.

2016 started for me with a UPM job, working for a very good producer. We knew of each other's work, and thought it would be a great fit. It wasn't.  Instead, it was proof that there is more than one way to cook a goose - but you have to choose one. I could have been more magnanimous in conceding to how she wanted things done. It was still a very good project, and I look forward to seeing it. A reminder of why I chose to be a Big Fish in a Small Pond (Low budget indies) instead of the opposite, which would have meant taking orders from others, which has never been my strong suit. There was a small project that I served as AD on in October that would also bring this home.

Hours on the literal cushion (Zazen) and the figurative couch (therapy) leads to a whole lot of introspection. Some, including my ex-wife, would call it over-thinking. I had a therapist once dryly tell me, "Oh, you have introspection down pat."

Me? I like to think it helps you not be that old dog that can't learn new tricks.

That did come home, when I had the opportunity to UPM a one-day commercial with the wonderful producer, Aliki, who was my production supervisor on The Indonesian Project. I was conscious of deferring to her and a really good AD, and neither ego nor stubbornness ever got in the way, and it was a great experience.

New tricks are needed all the time in this business, and in the Spring I was hired to produce a PSA to encourage millennials to vote. We prepped for a few weeks, wrapped for one; and never shot one day. Client never approved talent. Told you about that one.

I line produced a 6-day short at a camp with a lot of students and a longtime DP friend, Lauretta, who I had last worked with as DP and Line Producer on Keep My Brother. It was, well, 6 days at a camp. As I kid, I hatred camp. Give me a soft bed and air conditioning and no bugs. Did not learn to love it more as an adult.

However, I did get to teach a little bit to some bright kids, and that is always rewarding.

There were a number of small jobs, as well as line producing a feature in September where I felt like the guy on the Titanic yelling "Iceberg" but no one (neither the producer nor the director) were listening. They basically decided to ignore almost every cost-saving suggestion I had, from not casting actors with conflicts (which cost them the shoot), to not shooting short days, to trying to cut our losses after we lost the second lead, to - well, you get the point. I had to stand by and watch them throw good dollar after bad. They were talented and very nice people, but, in the end, it's always their money.

Then, there was a regular return to working as First AD which I chronicled in the last post.

So, on to that proverbial flip of the calendar and 2017.

I am producing an SVA Thesis film through a program legendary producer Bob Giraldi initiated to have experienced producers work with thesis directors.  It is spiritual without being proselytizing.

I am attached to a project about a wheelchair-bound boxer, and a feature that would take place on a real battleship in Boston.

It looks like I will be able to work on a TV series with a actress and dear friend, Maria, as director.

Maybe one of the things I most look forward to is line producing a film called Sarah Q in early Spring, directed by John A. Gallagher.  John is as close to a NY Indie legend in NYC as you get, going back to successful movies in the 1990s like The Deli, Blue Moon and The Networker. He and I have had parallel careers, and we have no degrees of separation in terms of people we worked along side. John's first producer had worked as 2nd AD for me, and I have worked with many of the same cast and crew people that work with him. Ironically, the lead actress was the lead from the camp movie I did in June, and she is as talented and as great to work with as can be.

Given my opening to this post, you might imagine I do not make New Years' resolutions, but I am determined to do a few things in the new year, including at least directing a short, and writing a short and a feature and getting a few short stories published - or at least done, Maybe get back to directing more stage, if the opportunity is there. I have no illusion I will walk away from the production side, but I am consciously going to pour out whatever creativity I have. At my age, there isn't anything to save it for.

This year ended with a birthday dinner. Shooting schedules being what they are, none of my "kids" were able to make it, and regulars Brian and Adam found themselves stuck on set. However, one of the brightest stars from the last few years, Leigh, was able to make it, as were my spiritual "brother and sister, "Maria and Lanier. I also got to catch up with an old friend from all the way back in my WNYU days, Lisa (not pictured below).

Let me conclude with two truths. As Einstein said, "Time is an Illusion;" and as someone said, pictures don't lie. Looking forward to more "thank you dinners" in 2017.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Back In the Saddle -- The AD Life

"Is that a real twenty minutes or a makeup twenty minutes"
-JB when he's been given a "twenty minutes" estimate for the last hour

I was riding back from a shoot on Long Island last night talking to the one PA (one other got sick) we had on a short film on which I was the First AD.  The producer who hired him told me he was "great!" Since I had never worked with this producer, it could have either meant he was great, or that she and I had a different idea of great. I had encountered both situations.

Luckily, she turned out to be a very good producer, who put together a talented and friendly team, and she was very right about this PA. As I've taken to doing with talented people coming up in the business in production, I asked him what he wanted to do moving forward. He gave the right answer - he didn't know - but said that next year would be the year of him trying out new positions. Then, he asked about how I liked being an AD, and it continued a thought that has been going for a few months now, where I have found myself working more as First AD than producer, line producer or UPM on web series or shorts.

Sometimes I'm glad that I let a blog post "simmer" for a while. I had draft of two posts; one on the good people I've had the good fortune work with over the past few projects, and one on returning to working more often as an AD, something that was not a plan but for which I'm thankful.

This post allows me to deal with both as well as my conversation with this young man.

One of the things I love about the film industry is its unspoken tradition of mentorship. Just yesterday, watched as the First AC showed a new 2nd AC about slating and coiling cable, among other things. I see it all the time in G&E.

Sure, it happens more often on low budget shoots, but it happens, to some extent, on every shoot. Someone is always stepping up, and there is a first time for that step up for everyone.

One of the things that impressed me about this young man was that he recognized these things even in his time as a PA, from learning walkie lingo to the first time he had to drive a cube truck in the city and more.

As I've been AD more the last few months, I've been ask which I enjoy more, working as First AD or working as producer. The truth is that both have their advantages and disadvantages, but I must say that, while I have a few producing and line producing gigs coming up in 2017 already, I do feel invigorated by working as First AD.

The First AD's first and foremost responsibility is to make the day, though that does not mean it is  the only responsibility.  No two ADs do things exactly the same. While that can make the shooting hours more stressful, there is a certain sense of "resetting the clock" at the end of the day, being able to put that day aside and start (the fight) fresh the next day.

As producer, I don't have that moment-to-moment stress, but even when the AD has called camera wrap, there are all sorts of concerns that remain, mostly tied to the budgets, logistics, and often the politics of multiple producers, and dealing with director and creative staff demands. Art department wants more money, the location manager informs you that a date change has caused a key location to fall through, and the DP is asking again about those anamorphic lenses for a small coming-of-age story; and let's not talk about agents.

This Saturday, Christmas Eve, marks yet another turn around the sun for me (as the vaudevillians would say, and, boy, are my arms tired), and while my soul has developed callouses from the stress of producing and line producing, my body has been reintroduced to the physical grind of long hours on set, sometimes in punishing weather conditions. As producer, I can duck into holding or retreat to the office.

As my longtime AD collaborator, Brian, once said in a cab ride home with me, "JB, it's a young man's (or woman's) game."

At the end of the day on set as AD, I now feel like John Wayne astride his horse in his last picture, The Shootist. Yes, the saddle feels familiar, but a day of fending off bad guys (or less than accurate time estimates from, say makeup, uncooperative light switches, uneven terrain and an annoying lack of daylight) takes more of a toll than in my early days of doing this.

Feels a little more like this.

However, those touches of gray around the temples and lines in your forehead give you a little credit for experience, and on the shoots over the last few months, I have relished working with smart, creative and talented up-coming directors who were anxious to take advice, and the feeling of watching them grow right before your eyes, knowing maybe, that you imparted some small thing that they may take with them; well, it makes it all worthwhile.

Did I mention appreciative? When genuinely offered, hearing "thank you," well, that is something that does not get old.

The nature of producing, and especially line producing, where it seems your vocabulary is often limited to one word, "no," does not lend itself to offering of thanks in the course of a day.

However, from the director and producer (and crew yesterday) back to all the directors I've worked with the past few months, and most of the producers and crew, they have been people willing to put in the hard work and fight right alongside you.

Remember my last post about directors who really were willing to put in the work of directing? The producer on this shoot was up for two days straight prepping it; the director drove the van for all the pickups and drop-offs. On a previous shoot, the producer also was at the front of the line loading the van, the writer outside in the cold fire-watching the truck, the producer's Mom making tasty, authentic Dominican food for the crew with great flavor and a lot of love.

So it was on the hour-plus van ride home yesterday that I shared some stories about working as both an AD and producer for this young man. You've read most of them here, so I won't repeat (yet again). As you might suspect, the name Stan Bickman came up a few times. Who knows what path this young man might take next year, or the year after that one. I'm pretty sure I will be there for some of it, as I plan to hire him again.

A lot of downside and stress and aggravation in this business. Seeing talented people move up the ranks and gain more confidence? Priceless.

Now, off to a birthday celebration, where, as you might imagine, there will be producers and ADs, and some who do both.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Speedboat - Part 1 - They Really Did Want to Direct

"Lots of people want to have written; they don't like to write. In other words, they want to see their name on the front cover of a book and their grinning picture on the back. But this is what comes at the end of the job, not at the beginning."
-Elizabeth George

Hello again.

Yes, it's been too many months, and another break from my obligation to this blog, which is, of course, an obligation to not only my followers (however many -  or few - they are) but also to myself, to my stated purpose at the beginning of this blog to not only offer some cool war stories and maybe some good advice, but also to make sense of a crazy career and answer the question, "Why do we do this?"

What does it say that this difficulty came in telling this story of Speedboat, which represented a new beginning for me with wonderful new people, as noted in Rebooting Again - Always Beginner's Mind?

One of the things that had soured me on the business before this project were the number of directors I had met who remind me of the quote above, itself a variation of a quote that has been attributed to many from Dorothy Parker to George R.R. Martin and others. (An interesting discussion of its origin can be found in this Quote Investigator article).

Like the picture above, many want to have directed, but don't want to truly do the hard work required to direct. How many directors have I met who could not take the time to do some sort of shot list or storyboard, to show up on set with ideas but no plan. How many wrote scripts with elements that went beyond the means of the project, and never bothered to figure out how that compromise was going to be accomplished?

Making a movie, especially an independent movie, requires a director to put in a lot of hard work, and to take with it their share of humility. Yes, humility.

Nothing gets handed to the independent director. First, they have to ask for money. Then, they need favors from friends - everything from locations to equipment.

Then, the humility to ask professionals to bring their own creativity and skill to the project, often for a fraction of the rate their services would bring elsewhere.

This element of what Paul and Dan did has served as an example for me to offer other filmmakers looking to do their own projects.

The writing ended about a year before we started shooting, and the script had challenges. Some of it took place in a run-down motel, which became harder to find than we thought, but a good deal took place on a boat that would run along the Gowanus Canal, and a driver to drive that boat, since it was unlikely that our lead actor would be able to do so. There were also scenes in a divey bar.

Just as they finished the script, Paul and Dan spent time in a seaman's bar at the end of Atlantic Avenue called Monteros, and with it's generous owner, Pepe (Montero). Pepe and his family are part of the history of the Brooklyn waterfront, and he shares some of those experiences in an article here.

Some of you will remember the reference because Pepe opened his place as a holding area to us on our Indonesian film, which is where our journey on that film ended.

It was a beginning for Paul and Dan, not only talking to Pepe, the owner, and his lovely wife Linda, but to the week day bartender with many stories, and the regulars, many of whom have their own (unofficial stools). Like any perfect divey bar, many of those regulars were daytime customers, and though there were a lot fewer boat drivers coming in, there were a few, and Paul and Dan worked out an excellent deal with a guy who regularly ran his boat on the Gowanus.

Along the way many of the stories they heard made there way ever so slightly in the script, and one or two of the regulars made it into the movie. Paul and Dan found themselves taking time not and day to spend time with these people.

The reason people opened up to them was that they were about more than just what they could "get" out of the place. Many of the stories of hard times they shared did nothing for the movie, but they listened because they cared.

Let me repeat. They listened because they cared.

People can tell the difference between listening just long enough to see what you can get out of them, and actually caring. The harder the times are for people, the more sensitive their BS barometer tend to be.

The same would hold true for another location they found, a diner that had recently been shut down due to code violations in the kitchen. The older couple lived upstairs, and without the place open, had little income. Paul and Dan talked to them and while they got a good deal, they did not use them, paying them a fair price (but less than we would have paid elsewhere).

In a side note, the couple enjoyed the experience and as thank you I got the word out to some scouts, and soon, they had bigger companies paying more money to shoot there.

The directors did the hard work, and they did it while respecting the people they dealt with along the way, and it brought them better places than they would have found elsewhere, and for a better price and with more genuine cooperation.

That did not help them with one location - a seedy motel. That one involved some script flexibility and a little luck.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

My Little Crazy Greek TV Show

"My cousins have two volumes. Loud and louder."
-Toula, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 

"You obviously never worked with Greeks before"

Those words of advice came from our sound recordist, who was named Boom (I never did learn his real name - it's all anyone called him). Here were the circumstances.

I was hired to come on as production manager for a Greek television show that aired on a Greek-language network in New York City. The office was in Astoria, off 31st Street in Queens, which is probably the heart of the Greek-American community in New York.

Everyone in the neighborhood watched the show, from the hair salons to the bakeries to the diners, which I know is a stereotype but it's true. Years of doing independent projects on modest budgets has taught me that if you have limited financial resources, one way to get in-kind contributions such as locations, etc. is to reach out to communities that will relate to your material.  This show did that very well.

The show was something of a young soap opera of sorts following Greek-Americans in New York. The businesses in the Astoria neighborhood were our regular locations, and they not only provided backdrops but help in areas like catering and crafty.

The crew was small and nimble. There was Boom (who did sound) and a director, and two assistant directors (who sometimes directed, especially if one of them was in the scene), and a few tech people who did multiple jobs. When I came on, there was maybe one PA.

Much like the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, this was a family affair. Two of the actors and crew were brothers. Dad was the executive producer, and technically, he was the boss. When I say 'technically', I remember this quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding after Toula complains that Dad is so stubborn and quotes him saying "Ah, the man is the head of the house!" Mom replies :
"Let me tell you something, Toula. The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants."
Argy was Mom, not just to her two sons in the cast, but to all of us. I loved her, and still do. Mom was not to be messed with, but underneath, she looked out for everything. She took a personal interest not only in how work was going, but how you were doing.

She also kept a close eye on budget, and she would ask me some questions on costs that were smarter than producers with degrees.

I was hired by producer/director Leon.  The show had been shooting for a while. As they had gotten along without a production manager, I wondered why they needed one. Leon explained that there needed to be more discipline, more order. We talked about various things that could be improved, one of which was call times.

It was during this meeting that I met Deena, who was one of the ADs. Deena was happy to have someone else be part of organizing.

There was a van that would take folks to the locations from the office every day. Leon and Deena informed me that people would often show up late, and that would get the entire day off on the wrong foot. The van would leave from the office, and often people would arrive at call time, when the van should be leaving, and then stop to get their coffee, chat, use the restroom, etc.

I had an easy solution. Institute a policy that coffee and breakfast would be available 30 minutes prior to call time. If people wanted to get breakfast, get there early. Of course, this is standard on any film set.

Furthermore, the van would leave EXACTLY at call time, and anyone who missed the van would be sent home and not paid (or responsible for getting to location on their own dime, if they were essential). Those who did the latter would be docked part of the day.

Leon liked the plan. Deena loved the plan. I assured Leon I would have no problem enforcing this plan. We left his office and announced this to the crew. No one protested. A good start!

The next morning, I got to the office about an hour early. It was locked. I waited until about 30 minutes before call time, when breakfast was meant to start, when someone with keys showed up. I was mildly upset that breakfast would be a little late. What would happen if people showed up on time for breakfast and it was not ready?

That wasn't a problem. The only crew person there was Deena, who helped me set up breakfast.

We waited. And we waited. And we waited.

About five to ten minutes before call time, a few people trickled in. Those people seemed to take their time getting their breakfast, chatting and using the rest room.

But, at least they were there. I was keeping close tabs on who was not there as of yet. I was going to make examples of them. They would be left behind.

Call time came and went. More crew trickled in. They casually got their breakfast. I kept reminding them that as soon as the van arrived, we better be ready to leave. I got a lot of knowing looks from the crew. Clearly, there was a problem with my plan. The van wasn't there yet.

Who was driving the van, I asked? There would be hell to pay!

Um, it was Leon.  The producer who had hired me to bring order to the crew. Turns out he overslept. He and the van didn't arrive until almost a half hour late. While other crew people had arrived late, they were still there before the van. What could I say?

Boom could see my frustration. That was when he said to me, "You never worked with Greeks before. Relax. This is what it's like."

He offered a smile and a pat on the back and then he got into the van.

Over the next few weeks, I got to understand some realities of working with this crew, the ups and the downs.

The ups.

They were very efficient for a small crew.  In part, this was because there was a film school mentality in many ways, and everyone did everything. The director for the day wasn't afraid to carry gear and everyone chipped in. They also were very good technicians. I would wind up bringing more than a few of them onto other shoots. In addition to being good, they were very hard workers. A very good combination.

They also had shooting on subways down pat.

In order to get a permit to film on the subway in NYC you need $2M per occurrence. Most indie insurance packages are $1M per occurrence, and the added cost is significant. As a result, many indie films will "steal" subway shots, shooting without a permit. Doing so requires organization and smarts, and if this crew was not traditionally organized at other times, on the subway, they were like a Navy SEAL team.

The downs.

Disputes, which would happen multiple times a day, seemed to be resolved by volume, as the quote above suggests. The loudest voice would often prevail, and, thankfully, that would often be Deena. As stated elsewhere, I usually disliked having my ADs be yellers, but, well, this was an exception.

I loved Deena, because I actually got to be good cop most of the time. Plus, I didn't have the appropriate Greek slang to win an argument.

I've worked on a lot of mob movies, and growing up Italian-American, I knew Italian slang. I'm not talking about Italian-American slang ('fuhgetaboutit', 'he's a mook', etc). Every culture has their slang that does not translate literally, but are better at expressing the full spectrum of an insult.

On this shoot, a phrase I quickly picked up on was "malaka." Many cultures, especially Mediterranean ones, reserve their most expressive slang insults for "crazy" or "idiot." Malaka  seemed to align more specifically with the British expression 'wanker,' as both refer to someone 'soft in the head' from self-pleasuring.

Deena also had an expression that was pure - Deena. She had little patience for, well, bullshit, and she would often express her displeasure by starting a sentence with, "I'm not going to lie to you." I came to love that expression because I knew straight up truth was coming.

I wasn't the only one who got along great with Deena. I brought that PA from the bad shoot, G, onto the job. I wanted someone to work as 2nd AD and give Deena some back-up. The two of them became fast friends, and they were a team that would work together on a lot of my other projects. G was much more proper than Deena, and while that made them something of an odd couple, G being Felix to Deena's Oscar, they were a really good team.

My little Greek TV show. It was wild, It was crazy. And I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Rebooting Again - Always Beginner's Mind

"What we call 'I' is a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale." *
-Shunryo Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

My Dad, who was not a Zen master but a pretty astute observer of human nature, used to say, "When one door closes, another one opens." I think he and Suzuki Roshi would have gotten along just fine.

There was a post named "Beginner's Mind, Beginning Again - Or the Great Reboot" from January 2012. In that post, I discussed how I started again after recovering from my operation. It was really when I focused my work on film more than theater, though I never really abandoned theater.

If you stick with this business long enough, you will find yourself "rebooting" a number of times. I think of this time as significant because I met a number of people who became part of my team for a while, and we did a lot of good work together.

As those who follow this blog are aware, there have been a number of times where I questioned whether this was really what I should be doing.

By 2008, I was not sure if I was done with this business, or if it was done with me. More and more, I was seeing people with less experience get positions for which I knew I was qualified.

Despair set in, not only because of what I was going through, but what the people who were important to me were going through. My good friend JR was dead some time at this point. Most of that crew had either moved up in the business or moved on to other businesses.

The filmmakers I had the closest association with had made their movies, and like the movie JR, Jack and I had made, they had received little attention and the barest of distribution.

The few projects I was working were, well, less than inspiring. One was a student thesis project that was very ill conceived (let's just leave it at that). A second was a Greek TV show which was, well, if you imagine the characters from My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a production team, you get the picture.

While neither of these projects seemed of any note, they brought me two of the people who would become a regular part of my team. It's why I always tell people that, however bad or crazy the project, do the best job that you can, and keep your eyes peeled for the good ones to bring on another project.

So it was that I was contacted by two brothers who were doing a short I'll call Speedboat**. It was a clever story of a rather inept small time hood who gets has stolen bribe money and is being chased by two killers when he thinks he finds the perfect out - a boat driver along the Gowanus river who looks like him can take the rap.

The two brothers, Paul and Dan, admitted after they hired me that when they saw my extensive resume, they thought about not contacting me because, given my extensive resume, they thought I wouldn't take it. Ha! I had actually heard that before.

When we started looking for a First AD, I saw a resume from a woman who clearly had been around as long as I had. The brothers admitted they had thought about her for my job, but that, again, thought she would say 'no'.

Her work went back a long way in LA, and she has done a lot of television back to 1980s shows I remembered. Wow.

I knew firsthand that if she sent a resume, she was looking for work. I brought her in - we'll call her "W" - and she and I immediately knew we had something in common. She was a short, stout chain-smoker, who seemed straight out of central casting as a gun moll. When she was trying to encourage the director to move along after a particular take, she would use expressions like "Moving on. You don't want to put your foot through a Rembrant!"

I loved her. I knew she would be perfect.

It was in interviewing for PAs on the shoot that I found a few amazing future crew people, as well as one I brought along from two previous oddball films.

One, named G (She used this as short for her actual name) I had found on the otherwise forgettable student short where I was hired to AD. When I got to the van, and we had all introduced each other, and I found that there was only ONE PA, G, and she didn't drive. Once on set, however, I realized she was bright and hard-working.

From the Greek TV show, I met Deena, who was that show's AD. While I usually do not like ADs who are yellers, on this shoot, everyone yelled, so there was definitely an advantage to yell the loudest, which she did. In fact, she would scare the director more than I could, and there was something to be said for that. Lovely and talented enough to be an actress, I knew Deena had a future in production.

Then there would be the other PA positions.

Em was bright and hard-working, with a "can-do" approach to everything. As good as she was with me across many projects, I appreciated her skills the most when I threw her in the deep end of the pool PMing for the first time on a feature that was quite difficult. She shined.

I always had one personal assistant. One resume got my attention because of her background as a stage manager. Everything about her resume screamed organization. We met at a Starbucks, and she was every bit as smart as I assumed she was. Her name was Maura - I use it because I mentioned her already in the Don't Shoot post - and she was an organizing whiz, with just the right amount of irreverence to speak up if she didn't agree.

As she was leaving, she said, "By the way, I can be a bit A.D.D., so you better keep me busy or I get really bored." I came to learn she wasn't kidding. She would finish any task in no more than half the time you thought it would take her and be back asking for more to do. She also turned out to be a math whiz with a love for Sudoku and Excel.

One of the other PAs was Dion. Sorry, D, there was really not another short version of your name that wasn't "D" and I know there would be other folks with names starting with "D."

D was a born organizer, and over shoots to come, he would quickly move from PA to Key PA to 2nd AD. First AD? More on that, later.

These folks would all be involved in the next chapter of my career. I will have more on Speedboat, but before that, I should tell you just a little about that Greek TV show.

Next post. Then, I'll get back to Speedboat.

* The painting is from the rather iconic Zen Ten Ox-Herding Pictures. They are meant to represent the stages of awareness through a man who "loses" an Ox, chases him, finds him, only to realize he is back where he began, but with more awareness. This is a terribly shortened version of the meaning of the story as it reflects Zen practice. These good folks explain it better.

** As these stories are closer to my current place, and most friends know these folks, I do my best to not always use their names or names of the projects. It's not because I have anything negative to say of them, but the process of production is bumpy, and I figure these folks don't deserve to have those bumps shared. With Maura and Dion, well, most of the bumps are humorous, and using pseudonyms wouldn't do much to protect their identities for those who know them anyway.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Back from "Vacation" Soon....

First, sorry for having resorted to a meme, and one with a cat no less. Is there anything easier than a meme or using a cat to portray an attitude?

Please forgive. Baby steps here.

I realize it's been almost two months since I have posted, and I haven't gone that long since I started the blog.

Shorter hiatuses in the past have usually been due to work, and, although I've had work over this period (some of which I will share), I really can't blame it on that this time.

Some hiatuses have come due to dry spells. I've said before during these gaps that I'm more committed to keeping the quality of the posts than just churning one out every week (or so). As with most writers, I'm my worst critic. For every post you see there are tons of (figurative) pages crumbled up and sitting near the waste basket, and even those that make it go through a lot of red-lining.

Oddly, when this gap started, it was almost because there was too much.  I had a pet peeve post, which was meant to be the first in a series. Then, there was a post on a short film I was producer on recently with an long-time DP friend and lots of students.

Then, there was the desire to start posts on my 2nd "reboot" in 2009 when I taught for a while at NYFA, and where I met a young crew that would go from PAs I helped train to the best crop of young production people I had met in a long time. I have referred to them here before as "my kids" (a reference they universally despise - but hey). I met them, as well as a handful of great NYFA students who went on to move me from that guy in the posts up to that time to the guy I am now.

These came after another sort of hiatus - one that was a combination of a series of disappointments with the jobs I was doing and trying to get my aging mother past the early stages of dementia before finally realizing it was too much for me to do alone.

In the time since I started this gap in my posts until now, working on a short with a lot of students seems to be a perfect place to start talking about this stage of my career, which continues today.

I was brought back, again, to the first book on Zen that influenced me (I can't say it was the first book on the subject) called Zen Mind Beginner's Mind. In fact, we are always beginners in some way and always students, and always learning. I like the confluence of the two.

The posts should come more quickly now, as I have drafts of the first few and know where I want to go with them.

As with my other "I'm coming back" posts, I'l refrain from editing this one, lest I get tempted to over-think it.

It's just a bookmark post, after all.

New posts soon!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Don't Shoot! - What If they Prepped a Web Series...

"Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon"
Emily Dickinson

They say that every time you go to a baseball game, you might see something you've never seen before. I thought it was just a saying, but just recently, Bartolo Colon became the first baseball pitcher to hit his first home run at the age of forty-two.

Forty-two is old for baseball, and working in a young person's business, I sometimes feel old for production. However, I, too, had something happen to me for the first time recently.

I never understand how people in this industry, especially on the production side, get pigeon-holed. You work in television a lot, you are not a film person. You do a lot of indie films, you are not a television guy. You do scripted, you aren't a reality person.

When I was doing a ton of indie films in the late 90s through mid 2000s, I rarely got called for commercials or music videos, Others, who did them all the time, rarely got called for film.

One of the best production managers I ever hired on an indie feature had just come off winning an Oscar - yes, that Oscar - for her documentary, yet still felt she had to prove herself in the indie film world.

So it was that I was pleasantly surprised when I got hired a bit ago to production manage/production supervise,/produce (each title was used for those of us in this position at one time or another) a five minute web-series episode for a commercial company. It was one of a number of episodes being shot as part of a series.

Now, I am going to be especially vague here about some of the specifics, not only because of the legality of having signed a very detailed NDA but also out of respect for a lot of talented and smart people that were part of the process.

The original plan was for me to prep ten days, shoot two days, and wrap three days. Without getting into the subject matter, the client saw the lead as a snarky spokesperson, such as a William Shatner or Alec Baldwin.

The problem was that their budget for the role did not hold out much hope for getting such a person, and they did not want to go SAG originally, which made it even less likely.

Here is where it gets weird.

I never met the client, but I can tell you that everyone at the production company were smart, experienced people, from the show runner to the overall line producer for all the episodes to the director they hired.

I have a number of years under my belt, and every person in my position for the other scripted episodes did as well.

The director was disappointed with the first round of casting, so we went out and hired another casting director to try again, this time after working with SAG.

Along the way, we worked to secure a location. An AD was hired, as was a DP and a gaffer (Adam, from my previous projects). A production designer and a stylist were already on-board. A location scout and a tech scout happened.

The location manager helped secure a location initially, but we lost it when we pushed back the first time (does this sound familiar?). We simultaneously worked to get a new location while we held new auditions, which yielded good choices for the spokesperson and the supporting young person role. As a matter of fact, one of the folks who was an option for the spokesperson was none other that one of he leads on Keep My Brother.

Meanwhile, I was ably assisted by Maura, someone you will learn much more about in subsequent posts. Maura was one of a small group that I lovingly call "my kids" because they worked a short film with me about nine years ago, when I was coming back to the business after a short hiatus, and who worked with me on a number of projects right after that. More on them later.

Maura was my coordinator, and I needed her, as she has been working in television, which, compared to my indie film world, has an insane amount of paperwork. Don't get me wrong. We have a good deal of paperwork on a film, but the duplication and, in my opinion, unnecessarily cumbersome minutia causes us to spend more time on paperwork than is needed.

But, I guess, having to answer to a client as well as keep their own records, maybe it is inevitable. Having Maura, who is a whiz at this stuff, as well as a great foil for me to brainstorm with, was essential.

I've always liked to have people who are not afraid to disagree with me in my corner, and Maura (and Leigh on Terjebak) certainly fit the bill; bright capable people who will challenge me and keep me on my toes.

With all these smart people, the shoot must have went great, right?

Well, in one sense, it went flawlessly; not a single mistake. That is, of course, if you don't take into account that we never shot it.

Commercial and television shoots get pushed back all the time, but as it has been weeks since the hiatus, I suspect these may not happen. Mind you, this is not just my shoot, but some of the other scripted shoots as well.

From what I can tell - and I did not get to sit in on the high-powered meetings (thankfully), the issue was finding a way to make sure the client was happy with the final product, and getting their approval.

Now, in the indie film world, we have many people involved in the process, but the producer can usually be the last word, often in concert with the director, who is also often a producer. Once the investors sign off on the project, it is in the producer and director's hands, and any decent investment contract makes it clear that investors, after having done their due diligence, now have to trust the one or two decision makers.

Not so in the world of clients, or, for that matter, in television as a whole, where there is often network approval in mind.

The difference was once highlighted in a John Sayles' story I have told here before. Sayles' first paid project was Roger Corman's Piranha, a silly movie basically that served to have voluptuous women run around in skimpy outfits being chased by flesh eaters.

Sayles later wrote the prestigious Eight Men Out for the studios, the true story of the Chicago White Sox betting scandal  that changed baseball.

Sayles tells of the rewrite process on Eight Men Out, where he would be ushered into a room of people with suits who knew little about writing who would give him textbook feedback that made little sense to him.

By comparison, Corman's notes were more simple (and I'm paraphrasing from memory).

'You have the monsters attack on page 30, and then again on page 34. Why don't you have the girl nude on page 34 and have the monsters attack again on page 38,' Corman suggested.

"That," Sayles said, "I could do."

It may not always result in great art, but having one person making final decisions is certainly more effective.

Whether it eventually happens or not, the difficulty in getting everyone to sign off on the final product will mean a whole lot of somebody's money was wasted. Coming from the indie film world, where every penny matters, it still hurts me to see money wasted like this.

I have worked on films that producers abandoned after a director proved unprepared or a producer and director were at odds, or even other reasons. Those were all odd, but never have I spent this much time prepping and wrapping a shoot that never happened.

In the end, I spent three weeks, and Maura spent two weeks, doing prep and wrap work for a two day shoot that never happened. If we come back we will need another ten days prep, and it will only be a one day shoot.

Much as other pitchers had hit home runs before Big Sexy (a nickname Mets' Pitcher Noah Syndergaard has for Bartolo that has stuck), other people had prepped and wrapped television projects that never shot.

But, at 58, it is a first time for me, and the time spent on a project seems to me even longer than Bartolo's seemingly slow-mo trek around the bases.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Indonesian Job - Day 6 of 6 - And in the end...

"The web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues."
-William Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well

To paraphrase old friend and respected writer/director Ray DeFellita, things that start crazy end crazy. Our last day on Terjebak Nostalgia reflected the pattern from the day I came onto the job - turmoil throughout but ultimate success.

It started at the Carousel in Central Park (sorry, refuse to promote the man who stuck his name on it). It was the worst combination of Interior and Exterior - covered, so it needs to be lit, but not covered to the extent that it is protected from weather.

Aliki was a hero, putting together the permit for the the Carousel and Bow Bridge, made famous by numerous movies.  This was maybe our best result at delivering iconic locations that all viewers in the Indonesian market would recognize, outside of Times Square. It is a permit that would normally have taken much longer to secure; Aliki secured it within days of shooting and it finally came in the day before we filmed.

We were not able to secure parking as close as we would have liked, and we had never tech scouted it, as it was not on original list of places to shoot. As such, G&E had to scramble to do the lighting, and they did a great job.

Once done with the park, we still had a company move, our first. It was a little bumpy, but we eventually arrived at the foot of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where we had holding at a bar I had filmed a short in, Montero's Bar and Grill. It's a fascinating place, and I've known the owner for years, but unfortunately, it was just used for holding.

This area of Brooklyn provided the closest access to the 'Dumbo' that Rako really wanted, that sense of old New York. Our tiny but brilliant art department hastily put up a flea market on the street, but we still had more to film, including Scene 108 - the Magic Hour scene to end the film.

Before we ever got to this scene, one of our actors became sick with a balance disorder similar to vertigo. He was taken to the hospital but fortunately wound up being ok.

Complicating matters was the fact that two of our actors had a flight home that night. It was a Friday night, which meant traffic would be a mess, so I asked that the actors be allowed to leave be a certain time, that still would allow us to film at sunset. Word back from Rako, the director, was that yes, he would move the Magic Hour shot a little early.

What wasn't communicated was that he then still planned on another scene, and clearly did not feel bound to finish and get those actors out when I wanted them out, albeit for their own good. I feared actors stranded on a Friday night in New York without another flight out until the next day.

Now, the day grew late and, to be honest, I grew unnecessarily testy with Leigh, who I had asked to work with Rako to make sure he understood they needed to be out, and Rini, who was of course the liaison to the team. Both, to their credit, responded well. I ordered a car service, only to have it sit around for some time. Then, when I sent the car to where I thought they were, they were, in fact, somewhere else, and still had to come back to the bar for holding.

Meanwhile, some of the drama of the scene - for the Indonesian creative team and actors- was whether the actor in the scene would or would not wind up kissing Raisa. Rako gave him the opportunity to let it happen naturally. Did he kiss her or not? You'll have to wait for the movie!

Finally, we did get the actors into the car, and they did make the plane on time.

At 6:23 PM, we were officially camera wrapped.


For maybe the first and only time in the many years I have worked with Brian, I hugged him when he got back to holding. Along with Leigh and Rini at the site, and Aliki back at the office, they had helped pull off something that, if you had described it to me beforehand, I would have said could not be done.

We were fortunate that we ended the shoot at a bar, and it was the only time we were able to sit and celebrate and drink with the Reza and Rako, as they left late the next day. We bought each other drinks, and Peppy, the owner, was happy to oblige us (And make a couple of hundred more). Crew that wanted to could order drinks on us, and so an impromptu wrap party happened, at least for a little bit.

Many of you have noticed that it took some time for me to finish this series, and also that I have offered it in a fractured time line, starting by telling you it was a success and then going into detail.

Part of the time it took me to finish this series was being interrupted by a number of projects. However, it was also the case that I kept examining the experience and trying to make sense of, as a Zen master would say, 'looking the other side of it.'

The Shakespeare quote above is one of a few in All's Well That Ends Well that deals with the basic truth of life, that good and bad are relative, and we would not know one without the other.

In the middle of this project, I was constantly stressed, constantly trying to figure out how it was all going to turn out for the best, and often I could not see it. It was, however, exactly that difficulty that made our success all the more fulfilling.

Another expression of what Shakespeare wrote above can be found in the Buddhist liturgy, Identity of Relative and Absolute *:

"Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness. Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light. 
Light and darkness are a pair, like the foot before and the foot behind in walking. Each thing has its own intrinsic value, and is related to everything else in function and position."
Working in film, we all have our war stories. We love our war stories, and they are fun and entertaining and help us to maybe get a little laugh at what seems like the end of the world at the time.

One thing I always remind directors is that, at the screening, when they get to see their work projected, all the war stories don't matter. There is always difficulty. There will always be slights and bumps along the way.

I hope this series, if you follow it from the beginning, can inspire you at those moments on a shoot when it seems the whole world is falling down around you, and for producers, it can feel like that often.

To (again) share one of my favorite Hitchcock quotes, "A child has not died." Remember if things are difficult for you, they're difficult for the guy or gal next to you as well. Work not just with mindfulness but compassion, and don't be afraid to say "I'm sorry" if a moment overwhelms you and you are less than compassionate.

Surround yourself with good people, who are not only talented but who want to be that fox hole with you and who care about their work. I was blessed on this shoot with the best, not just my immediate production team, who I've praised endlessly, but the entire crew, and some great vendors (some of whom I've listed below).

One thing I've learned over the years is as a producer, especially on low budget project, don't be afraid to treat your crew, especially department heads, as partners. If you have chosen your people well, they care about the final project as well. No one person has all the answers, and while, as producer, you must make the final decision, input from others is essential.

While much of this blog is recounting productions from the past, this series, if you follow from the first post, The Inspirational Email,  on September 4, 2015, is a good account of both being in the fire and observing the fire after it has been extinguished.

Now, we can move on.

* There are many translations.

Some of our wonderful vendors - Thanks

Catering By Shawnee (

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Indonesian Job - Days 4 and 5 - Parks and Recreation

"Never get behind old people. Their bodies are littered with metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left. Bingo, Asians. They pack light, travel efficiently, and have a thing for slip-on shoes. Gotta love 'em"
-Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), Up in the Air

After the disappointment with not getting the Magic Hour shot on Day 3, we moved to other challenges wanting to make sure we came through and Day 4 was definitely a challenge - MacArthur Airport.

As mentioned in an earlier article, NSA guidelines make filming difficult at airports, although the security arrangements are understandable.

Here was the warning that went out with the call sheet:

The location is extremely sensitive, please read all of the following:
  • When we arrive at the airport we will meet at the Cell Phone Parking Lot for breakfast.  All vehicles must land by 7:30am.
  • No one will be allowed past the airport security without an escort. 
  • Once you go past security, you must have an escort at you at all times.  if you violate this TSA may result in an $11,000 fine. This means if you need to go to the bathroom/if you want to get a coffee, or even if you want to go to HOLDING - ask LEIGH first. 
  • Here is a list of things you can not bring on your person through security:
  • All equipment vehicles will be escorted to a cargo entrance with a driver.  Once vehicles are emptied they must return to the parking lot, and the driver must go through TSA security.  
  • Lastly, we will have a working lunch as our time in the airport is limited.  All crew will be compensated $25.

The working lunch was because we had a good deal to shoot and not much time to shoot it.. Because of travel time each way, our actual shooting time was going to be less than eight hours. The last item above was negotiated with crew. In effect, it was a meal penalty so we did not do a full lunch break but the crew was paid for making lunch a working meal. The fact that we had a great crew willing to work with us made all the difference in the world.

The heroes of the day were Leigh, whose preparation for a difficult location made it happen, and Rako, the Indonesian director, who made adjustments on the fly to get everything done. There were originally six scenes scheduled. Rako cut two but added one, and we got home with everyone satisfied and no overtime. Kudos to the Grip and Electric team as well, who worked under those restrictions down two crew members.


Day 5 was, by our standards, relatively uneventful. Most directors have heard my joke about the perfect scene to shoot for a line producer - two people on a park bench, day exterior. While we had more than two people, on more than one park bench and seven scenes and over seven pages, all the scenes were in a park, exterior day.

Day successfully completed, with the exception that we had to recast one of the small roles because Rako was not happy with the casting.

All that was left was Day 6 - our last day - with a company move, actors who needed to get to the airport, and still that Magic Hour shot - Scene 108. More on that in next article.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

How Many Assistant Directors Does it take to Change a Light Bulb?

This blog has been my way of sharing how this one guy has done all levels of production all these years. I do think it's representative of how many of these things work.

So, it was interesting when a long-time colleague, who writes a blog for the B&H, asked me to take part in an interview about what ADs do. It's part of a series he is doing highlighting different set positions, and it should be pretty informative. He also asked for contact info for other ADS.

I gave him a good number, and as it turns out, he chose two people with whom followers of this blog will be familiar; Brian Bentham, my longtime partner-in-pain on set, and Leigh, who I met a little over a year ago and who I think is a bright shining production professional for some time to come.

I will let Steven Gladstone's article speak for itself - please click the link in the title. For me, what was interesting was seeing different takes from ADs spaced a little less than a generation apart from each other.

By the way, if you scroll down to the bios at the end, Leigh shares her own blog on the art of being an AD. We can always use more of those!

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Indonesian Job - Days 3 - Let Me(a) Culpa

Sometimes finding the right photo for the post is hard. None, though, was easy as this one - a layup - as the author actually chose to title the person who refused to fall on his sword "JB." Photo and caption all done for me. How convenient!

This fortuitous find kept me from trotting out my Christine Vachon quote from Shoot To Kill: "It's all my fault. Now can we just move on?" (Ok, so I still managed to get it in here)

It's probably true in other businesses as well, but folks in this business often want responsibility, but are not always as willing to take responsibility. The good ones do.

We weathered the many delays pretty well, with the exception of having to come up with locations at the last minute. One of our replacements for "iconic" locations was a theater as part of the replacement for Grand Central Station, because Raisa is a singer and we got to put her on stage.

After originally going after the Apollo, and then realizing it wouldn't work, we secured a verbal agreement on a theater where a friend had an Off-Broadway play running on the Friday before our Monday shoot. We didn't have a signed agreement with the owner of the theater until we actually got there. All of this meant that we had no time to get permits from the Mayor's Film Office for our exteriors of the club, or the our one company move that day, the closest park for the final Magic Hour sunset shot.

The day went relatively well, with sidewalk walk-and-talks being no big deal. We had a hard out at the theater (they had a show that night) and while we wrapped camera in way enough time, getting gear and such  out cut it close.

The theater staff - the Production Stage Manager, a lighting tech and a rep from the owner - were great and made the experience a lot of fun. The Indonesian team got everything they wanted.

And, then, there was the rush for the Magic Hour shot.

The word "idiot" comes up in front of many things. "Idiot check" - that check you do to make sure everything has been taken out of the space when you leave and that nothing is left behind - is a perfect phrase because what seems obvious often is not.

That morning, Brian (AD) and Leigh (PM and LM) and I had made a point of explaining to the Indonesian team that we did not have a permit for the walk-and-talk outside. In fact, it was borderline, under the new rules, whether we even needed that permit.

The important Magic Hour shot - it would be the last shot of the movie - we did not discuss. We had scouted a park, and thought we could get a shot off.

Somehow, none of us - Brian, Leigh, nor I - told the Indonesian team that we did not have a permit for the park.

Between that and the fact that we were rushing to make sure the light was right, the company move was a little hectic. Leigh was trying to make sure we were out of the theater on time, and had left her assistant with specific instructions of who should be in each vehicle and in what order. Somehow, her instructions weren't followed and the move was choppy.

Worse, by the time we set up at the park, a park official came by and shut the shoot down.

We knew we had another opportunity to get the shot later in the week, but with all the good work we had done, it was our first fail. The Indonesian team had not complained about anything to that point, and my experience with them was that it was not in their nature to be difficult. Still, when they got back, they were clearly disappointed.

I could see from their questions that they were disappointed with our team, and as it was a location issue, I could see how the blame, such as it was, could fall on Leigh, as their questions were directed toward her. This was completely unfair, and I knew I had to nip it in the bud.

Again, there was no way, given the late notice, that we could have gotten that permit. Why none of us mentioned it to them eludes me, other than that with all of our discussion that morning about not having permits outside, we thought it was understood there were not permits for the entire day.

Another reminder that in our business, nothing is obvious.

The rest of our team had worked too hard and too well to have any doubts about their ability remain in the minds of the Indonesian team, and that night, I wrote a heartfelt email to the director and producer, apologizing and taking personal responsibility.

I have worked with too many producers over the years who would find blame with everyone else but themselves, who were quick to accept thanks but would never accept responsibility for things that went wrong.

It wasn't easy writing an email that basically said I screwed up, but it was what I had to do. It is also a lot easier when you reach a certain age and you are pretty comfortable in your own skin. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I have had my share of grief sent my way over the years, and a little more wasn't going to kill me. The same can not be said of Brutus.

Although these things tend to be sketchy in terms of history, a little research suggests that the term "falling on one's sword" dates to Brutus, and this account from Plutarch's The Life of Brutus:
Finally, he (Brutus) spoke to Volumnius himself in Greek, reminded him of their student life, and begged him to grasp his sword with him and help him drive home the blow. And when Volumnius refused, and the rest likewise...grasping with both hands the hilt of his naked sword, he fell upon it and died.
Clearly, Brutus didn't work on a film set, where neither Volumnius nor anyone else would have refused to help. In fact, the grips would probably build a rig to facilitate it.

Thankfully, my response went a little better.

The director wrote me back a very nice email, basically saying that he understood. It was a relief. As it turns out, we did get the shot on our very last day - but not, again, without its share of drama.

As with the Asbury Park scene in Lucky Stiffs, some scenes just seem to be haunted, or looked upon with disfavor by the Film Gods.

Oh, they do exist, and while they do not always require a human sacrifice (it's why I sometimes hire an extra PA - just in case) they require a hearty mea culpa now and then.

Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Indonesian Job - Day 2 - That Time You Meet "Chris Pratt" In Times Square

"Just be comfortable with who you are"
-Chris Pratt

First, my apologies for the delay in getting on with The Indonesian Job series.

The irony of Terjebak Nostalgia is that immediately after it was over, it felt like the best experience in the business that I had in a long time. As I started looking over the production reports and reliving the days, and the lead-up to it, I remembered how challenging it was.

As I've said before on this shoot, it's about the people. Stan, my mentor, used to say that the work is fine, but the worst is when your biggest obstacle is the people you are trying to help. Conversely, there is no challenge that makes a job miserable if you have the right people, and on this shoot, we certainly did.

I tried hard to really evaluate the experience objectively before moving on with the series. As I have said before, I like to keep this blog interesting, informative and entertaining, so I didn't want to move on to the next post until I felt confident I was representing it correctly.

After Day 1, we moved on to filming in Times Square, and then a subway scene for Day 2.

Filming in Times Square involves working with Times Square security, NYPD and unpredictable tourists. I have used Birdman as an example of how we could shoot Times Square, as we were not going to be able to control pedestrian traffic. Our shoot day was a Sunday, which meant more tourists but fewer workers. For the most part, my AD Brian's familiarity with shooting in Times Square made it smooth sailing.

We then moved on to filming on the subway. Getting a permit for the subway is expensive, both because of the insurance requirements and personnel that needs to be hired. I informed the Indonesian creative team that we could film this without a permit, provided they were willing to work within our parameters and deal with what we got on the subway. Between language and cultural differences, I worried about getting this done in time, but, again, not only was it on time but shy of our twelve hour day and they got B-Roll. Another set of scenes that had cost us a lot of worry in prep but that went as smoothly as it could have.

The Day 2 Production Report noted that we did lose some time because of slight incompatibility of our rig with the steadicam.

Oh, yeah, the steadicam.

Steadicam, like hair stylist for Day 1 for Raisa, were things I had repeatedly asked about and repeatedly was told we didn't need it and that Easy Rig was fine. On Day 1, the Indonesian team had felt a little frustrated with the limits of Easy Rig because it wasn't well, steadicam. One of those instances where a low-budget indie tries to get they look they want with something less than they want to pay for it.

After much discussion, we all thought steadicam would be a good idea, and we hired a really good guy named Victor. The Indonesian team was impressed!

Yes, he was good - very good - but that was not why they were impressed. Over and over what I kept hearing back was how much they loved working with  - Chris Pratt.

Victor is pictured upper left, the Parks and Recreation actor lower right, with the sound advice to "be who you are" (and, I suppose, not your celebrity doppelganger). In case you have trouble telling them apart, Victor is the one wearing the steadcam rig.

OK, while I see the resemblance, I didn't quite find Victor Pratt's twin. Nonetheless, he was good at his job, and the resemblance and his work made them happy. Good enough for me. Victor got used to being called Chris Pratt. Below a picture of Victor with some of the crew in Times Square.

Oh, and one more thing about Day 2. It was the birthday of our production supervisor, Aliki. That may have been one of the few "almost" fails of the day.

Good production people are efficient, and Aliki is very good. She was scheduled to stop by set, then head back to the office. The plan was to get her flowers on set, and both my PM Leigh and two trusted PAs worked hard to keep her there and get her the flowers. Ah, but Aliki was too fast for them, and she slipped away while the flowers were only moments behind her!

As our office was only about 10 blocks away, a PA rushed down with the flowers. Below, me with Aliki and Arneece, our POC.

Next, day at the theater (Day 3) and an airport shoot (Day 4).

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Indonesian Job - Day 1 - Greetings, Blessings - and Where's the Grip Truck?

"Camera truck's comin' in....We're about two blocks away...Where do we park?...Excuse me, where do we park?...Anybody know where the camera truck can park?...No."
Opening of Living In Oblivion

Crew Call for Day 1 on Terjebak Nostalgia* was 5:30AM. Neither Brian, my AD, nor I have a fondness for unnecessarily early call times, but there was a dawn scene included, and we needed to get there early to get it.

I got there a half hour early, at production call, and the Indonesian crew and Brian were already there. I emerged from my cab with gifts for our Indonesian counterparts.

Reza, the producer, was a huge New York Knicks' fan. Earlier in the week, I contacted the Knicks' PR department and told them I had a guest from Indonesia who was a big fan. They immediately (and kindly) sent over a large bag of swag that I presented, last, to Reza when we met.

My first gift, for all of the Indonesian cast and crew, were NY Mets' baseball caps. My beloved Mets had made it to the playoffs, and I thought it was a timely and slightly different gift. The result: a number of Indonesian crew (not to mention Brian and I) wearing Mets' caps.  (see pic above)

We had some fun with that, especially when a passerby, after being told they were from Indonesia, said she didn't realize Indonesians were Mets' fans. At least temporarily, they were.

What wasn't fun was the grip truck, which had camera as well, being 55 minutes late. We had hired a PA who we did not know very well to drive it (none of our regulars were available). When I confronted him with why he was late, and had not even bothered to contact anyone, his answer was "Hey, it was a long drive from the parking garage."

I let him go on the spot. Things can happen. Alarms can be missed. But simply ignoring the amount of time the trip would take (it was a Saturday morning with no traffic) and then having no remorse for not at least calling to inform us was inexcusable.

My company was the production company in New York, and after going out of my way to greet them properly, and after my team had done an amazing job of putting it all together, this was a total embarrassment. Fortunately, the Indonesians were very understanding.

Due to Reza's quick thinking and Brian's usual ability to make things happen, we got the opening dawn scene, but not before Rako and Reza offered a brief prayer for good fortune with all of us gathered around. It was a very touching moment.

Although they had originally said we would not need a hair person in addition to our makeup artist, I thought it would be best to have one first day to make sure we could establish Raisa's look here, and further, to make a woman who was a pop star in her country feel comfortable here. Rachel, that stylist, is pictured far right above, in front of Monda, a PA we hired who spoke both English and Indonesian as well as an additional translator. He wound up being crucial to the camera department and is now working with them on their next feature!

I was relieved when we made the day. The notes on the production report are below.
G&E Truck 55 minutes Late, PK (name deleted) the driver did not inform anyone he would be late, he was let go.
STJ (name deleted) was hired as PA but informed us at call that he is no longer on this production and did not show up.
Breakfast was 30 minutes late to set up due to us not being let into the location until 5:20am.
Sound reported Walkie frequencies are interfering with sound.

*Pictured above, from left to right, are Eric, our glidecam operator, and Hani and Reza (DP and Director, respectively) with Brian behind them in his own Mets' cap, and their AC in front of him. Reza, the producer, is wearing the Knicks' scarf.

**While I referred to it previously as Letters for Raisa, which is what we called it, the Indonesian name for it  was always Terjebak Nostagia. One is not a translation for the other. As it has now been released with the Indonesian name, that is what I will use.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Indonesian Job - Location, Location, Location

"If I'd lived in Roman times, I'd have lived in Rome. Today America is the Roman Empire and New York City is Rome Itself"
-John Lennon

When film companies from other countries - especially Asian or South Asian countries - come to New York City, they want to shoot "iconic" New York locations; those locations that people back home have seen in movies.

The problem, in part, is that the New York of movies does not always exist anymore. There was an excellent article in The Guardian earlier this year called "Confessions of a location scout: Why the New York of the movies doesn't exist anymore." Much of the article deals with the "dangerous" locations highlighted in 1970s films like Fort Appache:The Bronx and The Warriors. However, it also deals with many of the nicer landmarks that have changed.

Showing the "grimier" side of New York has become harder. When I worked on the original season of Taxicab Confessions, we often would spend time in the Meatpacking District.  We knew we could find hookers - straight and transvestite - and that we'd find sordid people with racy stories. Indeed, even on low budget film shoots, I spent many a morning on those cobblestone streets reminded why it was called the "Meatpacking District": the many warehouses that did just that, as well as slaughterhouses.

Unlike in Apocolypse Now, no one every said, "I love the smell of dead animal flesh in the morning."

Now, if you were to go down those streets late at night, all you will smell is money and the most interesting characters would be those few who were not club kids waiting for their Uber.

Before the hiatus Leigh had locked up some great iconic locations. Among them were Grand Central Station and Luna Park in Coney Island. The time lost also meant locations lost, and these two locations were among them.

No time to fret. Leigh went about trying to lock new "iconic" locations on no notice. The shortened shoot meant that we were going to lose the interiors for the most part, and that those would be filmed in Indonesia. In fact, the Indonesian team had crammed days of shooting into three days over that weekend, with almost no prep time. They had met their challenge; now, it was on us.

We kept going in circles on what made a location iconic, and more importantly, what would an Indonesian audience find iconic. Leigh was able to cobble together a Times Square day, after which we would film a scene on the NY subway.

We needed the airport scene where Raisa arrives and goes home. The shortened window made JFK very difficult, so we moved to MacArthur Airport. Leigh did a great job of making MacArthur Airport work, which included her making a scouting trip that meant leaving Manhattan at about 5AM for a 7AM meeting on Long Island.

While MacArthur had decidedly less traffic and complications than JFK, it would not be easy. As the scout suggested, it was even further from NYC than JFK, and that meant less filming time in a 12 hour day. In addition, we were still talking about an airport and TSA. On Leigh's scout, she learned what that meant, including dogs sniffing the truck for bombs, equipment and people separately going through metal detectors using the same procedure you would use for a trip.

We would also be assigned one TSA agent per 10 people, and anyone straying away on their own would be subject to arrest and up to a $10K fine that they, personally, would have to pay. This definitely got everyone's attention.

While Leigh was battling getting these locations Brian, my AD, was trying to put together details for a scout that included this long trip as well as locations we did not have yet.

Of course, these other locations still had to be approved by the director, who would not be able to see them for himself but rely on pictures. This process went well into Wednesday, when our team was complete (or as complete as it would be) with the arrival of Rini from Washington DC. We were thrilled to finally be in the same room with our counter-part in DC, who we had spent countless hours with on the phone, online and various other methods from text to Facetime. We still had the communication and time differential with Jakarta, but at least we were in two locations and not three.

We started talking about parks - there were many in the script, and it turned out some of the "parks" were actually meant to be on a college campus. We went through an arduous process of figuring out what was "Park 1" vs "Park 2" etc. As we kept sending more pictures, which park was which would often change. This meant that while Leigh was trying to secure the permit the chicken-and-egg game of her permitting and Brian scheduling was happening. We wound up doing most park scenes at a park in Brooklyn.

Reza, the director, became focused on getting something in Dumbo, and much of his desire fell around a picture he had of Dumbo which was by the bridge, something like this.

As we took different pictures, some of the best angles would be in a private park adjacent to the bridge, which would be difficult to get on short notice. Other streets were on the MOFTB hiatus list, meaning that they had filming so often that locals complained and there would not be permits issued for a while. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, they had become so popular that no one could go there anymore,

We knew we wanted something in Central Park, and late in the process - even while we were shooting - we secured the well-known carousel in Central Park (now hideously named after a presidential candidate I will not name). Aliki helped get that for us at the last minute.

We were trying to replace Grand Central, and the only obvious equivalent, the Empire State Building observatory, was not going to happen easily within our budget or in the time we had to secure it. So where?

Since Raisa was a singer, we thought about putting her in a theater. Why not the Apollo in Harlem? That was iconic, right?

Leigh made inroads there by literally walking in a back way when they did not return her calls. She is a lady who does not take "no" for an answer easily, and she spent a short time on the verge of incarceration from Apollo security. Somehow, she had an outline for a deal there, and we added it to the scout while still trying to secure a location agreement.

By Thursday, it was time to do the tech scout, a tech scout that had been rescheduled numerous times. I did not go, with much to do and knowing that two great production people, Leigh and Brian, were on the trip, and that Rini, a producer herself, could be there to represent Reza's wishes.

While they were away, word began to filter back that there were problems with The Apollo. Frankly, I was annoyed at first. At this late date, I did not want to hear complaints. We had a great place that Reza agreed to that seemed willing to work with us.

However, during the production meeting that followed, it became obvious that it was no small problem.

The ground rules the Apollo wanted were strict. Often, when working in a union house on a non-union shoot, there will be insistence that union "shadow" crew be hired. While costly, I could live with this. Let's just pay them and get it done.

But wait! It turns out they not only wanted their people on, they were insisting that ONLY their people could handle equipment. Basically, my grip and electric crew would be sitting there while they watched people with no interest in our shoot set up equipment. I started to imagine this while an Indonesia-speaking Cinematographer and Director were trying to give directions. Furthermore, there would be no showing anything that branded the space as the Apollo Theater.

Together, these demands became too much. What was the point of paying a very high fee to not show that the location we were shooting in was iconic? None of us could see any situation where the union requirements would not make filming there a nightmare.

I suggested a downtown venue, where a theatrical producer I had come to know pretty well had a successful show. Doug, the producer, was on board, but we also needed the signature of the theater owner, and she was out-of-town and not being communicative. So it was that we were now going to a place on that Monday while still trying to figure out if the permission would come through. I decided to take that chance and late on Friday night, pulled the plug on a place, the Hammerstein Ballroom, that was holding a security check from us.

Leigh and I were in the office late into the night before Day 1, Leigh refusing my imploring that she get some sleep. She was not going to set until she had everything.

Through all of this, Aliki and Arneece were generating all the paperwork needed at a pace that entire office would normally have, and Rini would work her usual 2 days for one, the 12 hours on NY time and then another 12 hours on Indonesian time, desperately trying to keep the flow of communication going.

Brian and Patrick, our AD department, were planning for a shoot in two languages with no shot list and no real idea of what the director and DP wanted in the scenes.


Next, the filming of the New York portion of Terjebak Nostalgia, which had its release just this past week in Indonesia. We congratulate them!