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.