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.