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.

No comments: