Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Goodbye 2017 - Or, How 2017 Didn't Kill Me (But It Tried)

Every time you go to the park, you have a chance to see something you've never seen before.

-Ernie Harwell, Detroit Tigers Longtime announcer*

If I were to tell you that this was a year that started with me producing a short that I really loved with some of my best people, that I would get hired to line produce a well-funded project with a great director, and also be hired to direct my first feature, you'd think it was a really good year.

You'd be wrong, though those were all true.

In preparing this post, I looked over my end-of-year post from 2016. At the end of 2016, I was looking forward to a clever short with a talented SVA student as director to begin the year, and "right after" a movie with acclaimed long-time Director/Producer friend, John Gallagher. John and I had known each other for many years, but had never worked together.

The short with that talented student got done in February, and I must say it took a lot out of me. Shorts are difficult from a producing standpoint. You don't have the budget for extended prep time with the crew. You don't have the budget for the proper support staff, such as a POC. Yet, many of the same things need to be prepped and get done.

Then, there was the added pressure I put on myself. This director could not have been nicer, and had all the talent to get the project done. I was able to work with many of my best crew, who came on for a fraction of their rates. While all of that was great, I put extra pressure on myself to really make this something special. I was producer and line producer, and I sometimes led a little more with my producer heart than my line producer head, and that was stressful.

In the end, we made a very good movie, but it took a toll.

The picture with John Gallagher did not get completely funded until mid-December. That's the nature of projects and funding. It's like that elusive prize that someone dangles just out of your reach, and as it gets closer, they pull it away.

However, at least it did get funded. More on that project in future posts.

The same could not be said for another project that took up almost three months of my time. It is the project that inspired the Ernie Harwell quote below the title.

Another line producer referred a project to me, as it conflicted with one she was already on. I was hired the first week of July, a deal memo was signed, and they immediately sent me a first payment. The project was being funded through an EP from Australia, and the actual money was coming from an international, multi-billion dollar source. The producer was from L.A., and both he and his entertainment attorney had seen proof of funds. All that was left was the draw down, or so we thought.

After many fits and starts and delays, which included a "pop the champagne" conference call with the EP, the draw down kept getting pushed back, finally to the point where we would not be able to get it done before Thanksgiving. After attaching two of my key crew, including one who would have been flying in from Sweden, it was postponed until 2018.

At least one more post on that one, with more of what that journey was like. In 2016, I did a post about a webseries that we spent weeks prepping but never shot, so it just had prep and wrap. I had never had that happen. Now, a feature that had a "green light," proof of funds, and money spent didn't get the draw-down in time to shoot before the end of they year.

No matter who long you do this, you experience things you've never seen, and usually, that is not a good thing.

When that got pushed back, it was like a guy punch, in part because, again, it hit not just me (And my wallet), but two cherished members of my crew who had put time aside for it. Hopefully, it happens this year, especially for the producer, who is a great, sharp, guy; and the director, who is an exceptional talent and team player.

My production manager, who was very upset as she had switched plans to come here from Sweden to work on it, said, "I don't know how you have survived this all these years." That would not be the end of it.

Between then and the funds coming through for John's film, Sarah Q, which happened on Christmas week, the following happened:

I did a short with one of my dearest friends directing. She is so wonderful and so talented, but we were trying to work with less money than we really needed, and under time pressure to submit it to a specific contest. I kept trying to keep her from finding herself in debt. It was hard emotionally, and if out friendship were not as strong as it definitely is, it would have been strained.

I was hired to line produce an micro-budget feature, which I was then asked to direct. I went over the funds needed with the EP, and he agreed. I rewrote a melodrama to a suspenseful and tough noir. I was very proud of the rewrite.

Three days before the shoot, the EP got cold feet, and though he had paid me and paid the producer, he decided not to do the project.

This was over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Meanwhile, about two weeks before Thanksgiving, a producer asked me to come on and save a SAG Ultra Low project that was a mess. I soon realized it was a mess of her making. I had budgeted it back in the Spring for $50K more than she had. She had gone through three line producer/PM/AD teams, and was about to split from her British producing partners. She had no experience in the business, but kept trying to tell me what we did and did not need to shoot. As an example, one of the previous LPs left out payroll fringes, gas, tolls, enough vehicles and other essentials, but she kept referring to his budget as "proof" it could be done for less.

On the day I was supposed to begin directing my first feature, I quit her project, with an email that, essentially, said, 'You've been through numerous producers and line producers. Look in the mirror."

That isn't even the entire year, but will serve to let those of you who say you really want to produce what you may have in store.

To paraphrase Bette Davis, producing ain't for sissies.

There is a numbing effect, though. After my experience with the project that did not get the draw-down, I was emotionally drained. When I quit the LP job and the directing job went away, I just took a deep breath and thought, "Ok. Next?"

There was a time that it would have left me emotionally devastated, but I wasn't.  You take enough punches, getting up is just an instinct. It's not determination, or grit, or any of those things motivational speakers offer. It's just the reality that this is your life, and you just keep moving forward, a little worse for wear, but with a little more confidence that you can handle the worst, because you already have.

You are no hero, that's for sure. It is, to borrow the overused Hyman Roth quote from The Godfather II, the business we've chosen. Live with it.

I have given some interesting experiences short shrift. I may seek to expand on some of them in future posts, though I really don't want to dwell on difficult things past, and some details that might make the telling more interesting might step over the proprietary line I draw in this blog. It's one thing to do into detail about projects long past, but these are projects with good people who still have stake in them, so I do not feel as comfortable divulging too much.

OK, 2018, you're next!

* The Harwell quote is from a book called Cubs Forever: Memories from the Men Who Lived Them by Bob Varwald. Other baseball men have been cited as saying similar things, but I'll go with the Harwell.

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