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!