Wednesday, August 29, 2012

1994 - The Wonder Year: The Ones That Got Away - Pt.1 - Divorce and Clerks

Getting older brings many things, and most of them, let me assure you, aren't good.  One of the few exceptions is perspective.

It was only on my recent viewing of Kevin Smith's Clerks in Central Park that I got to thinking of what a pivotal year 1994 was for me on so many levels, but especially for my career. Over the next few posts, I will try to put that year into my new-found perspective.

Much as the era most people refer to as "the Sixties" actually started late in the Fifties, and probably ended somewhere around 1971 or so, if you are speaking about a mood and a time rather than a series of dates, the films and events I'm going to discuss started before and ended after that year.  Still, 1994 was the axis around which most of the events spun.

On a personal level, it was the year of my final separation from my wife, Maureen, though our amicable and non-contested divorce came years later. We separated once earlier, and gave it an earnest second try.

I've spoken before of the difficulties of this business on relationships , and it would be easy for me to blame the long hours, the time away, the uncertainty of the next gig and the set temptations for the failure of our marriage. However, the success of some relationships I know in the business suggests that a split was not set in the Heavens, that, as Shakespeare's Cassius suggests, "The fault (Dear Brutus) lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."

We underlings in this business, and in the Arts in general, tend to have certain personality traits, so many of the things we can blame on the business is actually more a symptom of the business attracting a certain type of person.  I hesitate to generalize us all, but some of the priorities of our friends - stability, a comfort in the status quo, the desire for certainty in our future - are surely not our priorities.

All adults are, in one way or another, just big children; we just seem to indulge the big kid more.  That often means a willingness to eschew the comforts of a "normal" life for the occasion thrills and constant new adventures our profession brings.  It's okay if we get a little less sleep tonite, Mommy, if we can hear the end of that story (or in our case, provide the ending to it). Fine, Daddy, we'll clean out the car (or the back of the grip truck) if it means we get to go on that road trip (or play with that new piece of equipment).

As for me, the time spent dealing with difficulty with my legs before my operation left me feeling like a kid who had been grounded and then given a reprieve. After years of worrying, I was free again, and probably had a sense of invincibility that should have faded with my Youth.  This led to me "celebrating" my good fortune in many ways, some of which were less than healthy, and more than a few of which were unfair to a wife who had suffered with me.

A simplistic way of looking at marriages that succeed is that they are either between mature adults who understand the sacrifices needed to make a relationship work, or between two people who never leave their adolescence and are completely ignorant of what a great relationship, and not one based on need, can be.

Unfortunately, Maureen was a responsible, mature adult.

I usually say of other failed marriages that they can't possibly be one person's fault, that they both share the blame to some extent; not true in my case, where I was the one who was missing the boat.

As this blog covers my life, it's impossible not to mention the break-up here.  In the interest of those who would rather only deal in film history, I won't go into more detail.

Immaturity, however, is not always bad in our business; hence, my re-think of Clerks (which was released in 1994)  after watching it the other day.

I have often thought every great "first work" has a portion of naivete thrown into the mix, and Clerks is a great example.  By all rights, Clerks should never have seen the light of day, no less garnered the level of success it enjoyed.

Cinematically, it isn't.  Truly, there is hardly a shot that wouldn't have caused most cinematographers to be dismissed.  I know that Smith was very much influenced by another B&W film that seemed to be as series of stills, Stranger than Paradise, but, for me, the comparisons in terms of quality stop there.

The story is pretty simple, and the dialogue breaks every convention of screenwriting wisdom; namely, show don't tell.  Smith tells and tells and tells.

From a business stand-point, hoping that a B&W film with no names and a director with no Hollywood connections would get a distributor, no less become the darling of Sundance, seems beyond idealistic to whimsical.

For all of that, Clerks is a very special movie and a great achievement, and we are better off today because it did "make-it."

Clerks has been reviewed so often that offering another review here and  now would be silly.  Let me just say that Clerks, upon second look*, is nothing short of a modern Samuel Beckett film.  Smith hears a voice rising from the mundane chatter of these Jerseyites much the way Sam Shephard and David Mamet heard that voice rise from cowboys and petty thieves, respectively.  It's almost as if Smith had one of those devices they have at the UN, where words foreign become ideas familiar.  While we originally hear "Blah, Blah, Blah" we eventually hear truth, comedy and, yes, beauty.

I did not, um, always feel this way.

There is irony that, when it came out, I rejected Clerks altogether. As a production person who fashioned himself in the model of a previous generation of cinematic revolutionaries, and also a lover of classic Hollywood films, this seemingly amateur work, well, insulted me.

Yes, that is the right word, insulted.  How dare Kevin Smith make a movie this way, and why were all the industry intelligentsia buying into it, nay, celebrating it?  Didn't they realize that this signaled a death knell for the industry and cinema we loved?  How many more "kids" would go out and shoot their own version of home movies and pass it off as "art"?

If this argument sounds a tad familiar, it is because many, like myself, now use similar phrases when describing the "digital revolution."  At least a part of the comparison, and the resentment, comes from the fact that both Clerks and some of the current digital wonders have driven budgets downward, and that has had a negative impact on our living today much as it did in the wake of Clerks.

Those who were not around when Clerks was released, and feel that the current digital trend will necessarily ruin our industry, need to know that the spate of calls I got in the wake of Clerks to do a "no-budget" movie were similar to the calls I get today.

Clerks was brilliant, but an aberration.  There are not a ton of "Clerk-like" movies that came in its wake, though there were many pretenders, much as Mamet and Shephard, and, on a more pretentious level, Beckett have had their pretenders.  There is only one Kevin Smith; thank God we have him, and thank God he broke the mold when done.

I certainly don't think the digital revolution is an aberration, but I think that, as people tire of the more simplistic elements of current digital fare, the money that was spent processing film will go into other areas.  Of course, I dearly hope there is always a place for movies shot on film, and the hunger among aficionados for vinyl and the love of celluloid suggests there will be a place for both.

In any case, it makes no sense for us to extol the virtues of an indie cinema that makes room for new voices, only to decry as blasphemes those whose voices we don't quite get at first listen.

It was, then, a mix of irony and hypocrisy when I later regretted not taking an opportunity to work on Smith's  Mall Rats.  I get a call one day, and the voice at the other end of the phone says "Hi. My name is Kevin Smith. I am directing a movie called Mall Rats (it may have had a different working title)"

I had gotten many calls from directors making their second movies, and many of those first movies were artistic and commercial failures. Still, the voice at the other end would usually rattle the title off with pride, and then be filled with indignation that I had not heard of their "epic."

Now, there was no one in the film world, indie or otherwise, that didn't know Kevin Smith, and his success with Clerks. Still, when he continued with "I made a movie called Clerks," it was with the sincere humility of someone who had not let the instant recognition go to his head.  From what I hear from friends, and from interviews I've seen, Smith still has that humility.  He certainly has not lost his self-depreciating sense of humor, which is part of what makes him so wonderful. Success had not gone to his head or his budget, as he was offering $400 a week, modest for a production manager even at that time.

I regretted it at the time, and I regret it even more now, but I never made that meeting. I was working on another project at the time, and the time overlap just would not work. Something in Smith's voice was apologetic for the low rate, and I assured him that was not the problem, and it wasn't.  While I was making more on the other project, and that rate would have been very low for me even then, I respected Smith's tenacity enough that I would have gladly worked for him.

If nothing else, I knew his next film would get released, and I was getting a little tired of being the "King of Unreleased Movies."  What would it be like to work on a movie that the Indie Big Boys were willing to get behind?

Alas, I would never find out.  I never walked away from a project to do a bigger project - and I had that sort of offer before - and I would not this time.

All these years later, I am still guiding movies with a hope and prayer toward the Promised Land, and Kevin Smith is still fighting the good fight, even using self-distributing in it's current form.

The more things change......

* A very talented friend, Wayne Wilentz, writes a blog called On Second Look, where he does just that, take a second look at movies he saw some time ago.  It's a good practice, and a very good blog.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

JB-san To the Rescue - Part 5 - A Hero Rises (Slowly)

I am too young - just barely - to have followed those Saturday morning serials like Flash Gordon, where at the end of each episode it seemed certain the hero was about to meet their doom, only to miraculously escape almost certain demise and come back to fight the following week.

Today, we like our heroes a bit darker, so we need them muddied up a bit before they reappear.  I am old enough to remember a time that when you wondered about the fate of a certain Batman, all you needed to do was bring your youthful certainly that good would always prevail to this same "Bat time" and same "Bat Channel." A "Ka-Boom!" and a "Pow" later, all was right with the world, before it went wrong again.

Each hero today must have his or her "forty days in the wilderness," must have not only their life but their very soul challenged by everything and everyone from the Devil to the Borg*.

A dark side of Snow White?  Really?

"The Temptation of JB-san" lasted something briefer than 40 glasses of Jack Daniels, but not by much.

I did not have to avoid the seduction of Satan (though if she were cute, I most assuredly would have succumbed), nor did I have to survive assimilation from which "resistance is futile" or climb up an incredibly high wall with my bare hands and then leap to my freedom.

I was more old-school, and when JB-san did rise, it was after about the fourth phone call and with an serious hangover.

The first call went to my voice mail.  It was from Mr. K's assistant, a nice young lady.

"Hello, JB-San.  Know last night was a bad night.  Get some rest.  Hope to see you soon!  Give us a call."

Yeah, right.  When I get up, I have to look up the word "Quit" in Korean.

The second call was from my Korean assistant translator.  She left a very sweet and very sad voice message saying that she was sorry I was gone and hoped I would reconsider.

Geez, she was so sweet, it made me feel bad.  But, really, I had made up my mind.  I would call and explain it to her later.

An appeal to my heart.

The phone rang again.  Better I explain it to her now.

It wasn't her.  It was Mr. K.  He was very understanding, and he said if I would change my mind, he would be the go-between dealing with the South Korean crew, and I would only have to deal with him. Oh, by the way, he understood with all the long hours, I would need to be compensated in my weekly envelope.

An appeal to my greed.

The money was good, but I didn't see how I could come back.  After all, I had my pride.  Oh, and could I just get some sleep.  You folks can stop calling me.

A little while later, and the phone again.  This time it was Peter.

"JB, I understand if you don't want to come back. Nobody could blame you. I just want to tell you I appreciate all that you taught me.  There's a lot here, and I don't know everything you know, but I'll do my best.  I just wanted you to know we'll all miss you."

Then, the worst.

"I really look up to you, JB."

The Hell with Kryptonite, you want to take a guy down, there is no more time-honored weapon than guilt.  Yeah, I had taught him a lot, like how to quit and walk out on his team when things got tough.

Regardless of position on a staff or crew on a film, there are times you hang in there simply for the people around you.  It's one thing if you are easily replaceable, and no one is irreplaceable - after all, they fire directors and lead actors in extreme circumstances.

This wasn't big picture, though, and Peter, and to a lesser extent, Hakim, were going to have to do a lot more work with a lot less back-up with me gone.

I gave Peter some instructions to get him going for the day, and I could hear the smile in his voice.

"I don't know how soon I'll be in, Peter, but...."

Peter jumped in. "Doesn't matter.  Whenever you can get here is great, just great!  See you later, JB!"

I think he wanted to get off the phone before I changed my mind.

Time for that cold shower.

I didn't ride in on a suped-up vehicle, but a yellow cab.  There was that walk back to my desk, and smiles and hand shakes exchanged, and, thankfully, not a lot of words. Its one of those times when most of what anyone says on either side is awkward.

Just move on.

Among our bigger challenges yet to come was a hotel lobby that we had to take over.  The SK crew had money, but not the type of money the hotels wanted for their lobby, and the old courthouse down by the Brooklyn Bridge, which I had used for an elaborate lobby or mansion because of its chandelier and marble staircase, didn't work for the director; not that the MOFTB was anxious to give it to us.

I had pulled out the big guns, and while we weren't in a position to hire him, I leaned on a location manager friend, Mitch, to help us with this and a few of the tougher locations.  It was purely a favor to me, though Peter would follow up with him.

One morning I noticed Peter a little shaken after getting off the phone with Mitch, who is Jewish.  It was a High Holy Day, and Peter should not have been calling him, which Mitch now had made clear to Peter.  Another mea culpa for me to offer.

A few days later, before I had a chance to call him, Peter tells me that Mitch is on the phone for me.  I am about to apologize when Mitch offers one of the funniest un-PC things I've ever heard.

"You know, you should be careful.  We killed your God once, we can do it again."

Mitch, who is also an accomplished harmonica player and guitarist, happens to be one of the funniest and sincerely nicest guys around.  He once stood on his head on my desk to get my attention when he needed to leave on a scout on another shoot and I was dealing with something else.  He always had the perfect way to make me laugh (he still does) and break the tension in an difficult situation.  This time, he outdid himself.

The shoot crawled to it's conclusion, and Peter and Hakim would work with me on other projects, including Paper Blood.

Oh, and the part about things that start silly end silly?  Big Mr. K was very interested in having a nice wrap party for the American crew.  I explained that the important things about crew wrap parties was free alcohol and the discretion to forget who went home with whom.  Big Mr. K thought that too simple, and had an elaborate sit-down dinner at a too-nice Korean restaurant.  The idea was very nice, but the crew sitting around in a fancy restaurant - eating Korean food, of all things -  wasn't their idea of a wrap party.  The crew thought it odd, and Big Mr. K silently resented the crew's lack of appreciation.

Much like the shoot, too much money spent and nobody happy.

Still, lost in translation.

Big Mr. K did take me to another dinner another day to talk about doing another project.

"This one will be different," he promised.  "We will get it right from the start."

Sorry, Big Mr. K, but there would be no sequel to this action adventure.  Sometimes, the hero needs to know when to ride off.

*Picard. Star Trek Enterprise. You want me to start explaining every cultural reference, these posts are going to get even longer - and brevity has never been one of my strong suits, as regular readers have figured out.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

JB-San to the Rescue - Part 4 - Never Can Say Goodbye

Even though the pain and heartache
Seem to follow me wherever I go....
Never can say goodbye
No no no no

-Never Can Say Goodbye
           The Jackson Five (via Clifton Davis)

Haebing was one of those shows where you always felt you were being chased by a train, and staying one step ahead took all the energy you could muster.  Not only did the show require a lot of New York locations, they were often difficult locations to find. As the plot seemed to basically follow some Koreans dealing with a Crime Family in New York*, there were also scenes that required firearms and stun tts, and hence NYPD assistance.

If the Korean staff never fully comprehended the vehicle requirements, the specifics of working with other city agencies seemed truly difficult for them to grasp.  We had gotten through the meeting with the Mayors' Film Office (MOFTB) and the various agencies, and it seemed a nuisance to them that we had to stick to strict dates, locations, and times as well.

Hakim was assigned as the US AD, though he had almost no authority on set. Much like the military advisors sent to Vietnam at the beginning of that conflict, Hakim often experienced the frustration of seeing his advise ignored, and only being able to stand by as disaster ensued.**

Some of these incidents were humorous.  Life in the office keep me busy, so I didn't have a lot of time on set, but there were times when my presence was imminently requested.  On one day when we were filming a scene in a Greenwich Village bar meant to represent a jazz club, Hakim's request came in the form of, "JB, you have to see this." What I found when I arrived was like nothing I have seen before or since.

The scene required about sixty extras to fill the club for a scene we were shooting starting at 9AM, and one where we had to be out by 5PM, as that is when the bar opened.  Finding a place the Korean director liked on a reasonable budget was not easy, but I had called in a favor and got this place for a very reasonable rate.  Though the Koreans evidently had a good-sized budget for the NY segment (again, I never got a finite number), it did reach a point where they started to feel  the financial pinch of the late start.  Getting this location for a very small fee was a minor coup.

I don't know exactly how it started, but one of the American extras told the director and the Korean First AD that in order for the scene to "feel" right, they should serve real alcohol. Hakim had made it clear it was not a good idea, and definitely not protocol, but the director said it was important the scene feel real, and the drinks began to pour.

The bartender for the bar started serving early, and started keeping a tab.  By the time I was called there about 1PM, not only had the tab gotten quite big, but the effects of the alcohol and the early hour had definitely taken a toll on the extras.  It was realistic, alright, if realistic was a room full of people who were in all stages of inebriation, from dancing wildly to practically passing out at their seats.

Hakim's first words were, "I told them not to let them drink." If that didn't upset me enough, I learned that the  Korean AD had specifically instructed Hakim not to call me, as he did not want interference.

This was not the first time, and would not be the last, that I was intentionally kept out of the loop. When the crew would wander from where the Schedule A said they were to be shooting, I would initially get a call from Hakim, and then I would either try to talk them into going back where they were scheduled or try to smooth things out with the MOFTB.  This was difficult, as planning required holding parking for our vehicles as well as all the other logistics, and we could not get permission for our trucks and vans on this short notice, so they were inevitably parked illegally, with more calls from NYPD to MOFTB, and from them to me.

It quickly became a game of "Where in New York is my crew," with Peter and I putting together clues as we got them, sometimes from Hakim, who one time went on a very short bathroom run about a block from set, only to find the crew completely gone when he returned.

The Korean's response to my complaints?  Just don't tell me; that is, until the NYPD was trying to stop them, when I would get a frantic call.

One of the most frustrating things for a line producer or assistant director is to be out of he loop of information. Usually when it happens, it's an oversight or a newbie mistake; a director going directly to the costume designer to tell her that he wanted a different scene ready next, and it then coming as a surprise to the AD.

Having information intentionally and willfully kept from me was not frustrating; it infuriated me.  On this occasion, my diplomatic skills eluded me.  I asked the bartender to hand me the tab, and I waved it at the director and AD, and said, "This is on you. I hope they take it out of your pocket!"  When one of the drunk extras started to laugh, I marched up to him and said, "You think this is funny?  How funny will it be when I don't pay your drunk ass when the extras casting agent submits your invoice, and when he asks me why, I point out that you were drinking on set.  Think they are going to book you again?"

I assured the very apologetic Hakim that I didn't hold him responsible.  My anger extended to the director and AD putting him in the impossible position of lying to the person he had to report to - me.

When I returned to the office, I made it clear to Mr. K that this was yet another costly mistake by the Korean crew, and I took no responsibility for the schedule or the budget if this continued.  By now, a fission had developed between Mr. K and his older brother, the bigger US investor, Mr. Big K, and the Korean producers.  The financial arrangement for Mr. K and his brother clearly hinged on the US section coming within certain monetary parameters, and they were quickly falling outside of those parameters.

Mr. K was also in an impossible position.  Although he was of Korean descent, the Korean producers treated him with no respect, and his older brother held him responsible for any overages.  I felt for him, I really did, but at moments like this, I was unhappy with just about everyone.

This was the mood when, a few days later, I learned that the South Korean crew had committed an even more egregious violation of our permit requirements.

Like just about every producer in New York, there are times I have skirted the rules, maybe sent a crew with a camera in a bag to shoot a short scene on the subway without going through the expense of getting it cleared  (the fees are high, even with a discount, and then there is the cost of increased insurance).  We are talking simple walk and talk (or often sit and talk or MOS*** scenes), and never anything that involved risk or personal safety.

Early on, I established that the American shadow crew would not work without at least a ten hour turnaround, and the Koreans complied. The Korean crew, however, kept to no such schedule, and would often be back at work after a twenty-hour day after a four or five hour nap.  It was this grueling schedule that led to me dealing with the second Korean line producer on this shoot; the first was fallen by a stroke. No surprise there.

I was starting to feel like he was the lucky one.

One night, when neither I nor the American crew was on, the Koreans shot a scene that involved a boat-to-boat transfer.  We had spoken about this shot from Day One. The scene was meant to be a small boat of (drug) smugglers bringing their cache onto a bigger boat, up a rope ladder.  To be done properly, it required either the NYPD Harbor Unit, or, depending on how difficult and where it took place, the Coast Guard.

Obviously, this required a good deal of planning and paperwork, neither of which the Korean crew especially appreciated.  Knowing I would never give my go-ahead, and worried the American crew would balk or get back to me, they shot it without any of us.

Not just a permit violation, this was flat out illegal, not to mention potentially dangerous.  To make matters worse, there were American actors on set; they had gone along because, well, actors hate saying "no" and being labeled trouble-makers.

The potential for real disaster in one form or another, not to mention repercussion for me, were endless.

I learned about it the next day.  Livid doesn't remotely describe my feelings.  I had had it, with the insanity, and especially, the outright deceit.  Mr. K tried to calm me, and out of deference to him, I agreed to have a sit-down and  production meeting that night.

The Korean staff was fine with production meetings, as long as they were at the end of the shooting day.  I made it clear to Mr. K that if were going to do this, I needed the Korean director, line producer, and AD at the end of a reasonable day. He agreed.

It should have come to no surprise to me that the Korean staff completely ignored both of us, and as the hour got later and later, I fumed more and more.

The production meeting began about 1AM.  Early on, it took on the feel of many of the production meetings, with everything taking twice as long because of translation.  My translator was also working as my assistant, and she and I had become friendly, with me taking the time to mentor and teach her things she could use on upcoming US shoots, as she lived in NY.

It was at this meeting that she and one of the director's assistants, who was translating for him, got into an argument.  When I asked for an explanation, my assistant made it clear that, once again, I was not being told everything, and she was being told not to translate certain things.

That was it.  I have been upset with productions before, and I have quit one or two other times when I felt I was not in a position to help, but never with the type of anger I had here.  While I am not a pussycat now, years of Zen and meditation have gotten me to a point where I control my anger, and it does not control me.

I wasn't there yet.

I slammed my production book shut and threw it against the wall. "If I'm not going to be involved in these decisions, then I don't need to be here." Peter and Mr. K quickly got up and tried to calm me, but I would have none of it.  I wanted to make sure I left in such a definite manner that there was no turning back.  My portion of the meeting ended with me waving my finger at the director and Korean AD, and making clear, in a tirade that would have made a Joe Pesci character proud, that I wanted nothing to do with them.

That was it.  I was out!

Or so I thought. (To be continued)

* As noted in earlier posts, I never did get an English translation of even the NY portion of the script, no less one of the entire story, though my translater did her best to fill-in the blanks on whatever I really needed to know about a scene.

**There are a number of good books on the subject; one of the better ones is ironically entitled Lost in Translation Vietnam A Combat Advisor's Story by Martin J. Dockery.  The more popular is Neil Sheehan's wonderful book, and less wonderful movie, A Bright Shining Lie.

***For those not in the business, MOS here refers to scenes shot without sound. In a different context, it can also refer to Man on the Street interviews.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

JB-San to the Rescue - Part 3 - The "Car Talk" Call

It was announced earlier this year that Car Talk, an NPR show that has been delighting audiences for almost 35 years, will cease to produce new shows later this year.  With 35 years of shows, their producer will put together composite shows, that will run, as co-host Tom Magliozzi suggests, " 'I Love Lucy' and air ten times a day on 'NPR at Nite' in 2075."

I first ran across Tom and Ray ("Click and Clack - The Tappet Brothers" as they like to describe themselves) on a Saturday morning while turning to one of my usual NPR stations.  I caught the show somewhere in the middle, and all I knew that two guys with deep Boston accents were giving people car advice such as this (Sample - not from actual show):

CALLER: My car makes this really loud noise when I go over 40 miles an hour.

TOM: Ooh.  Ooh.  Make the noise.

This would be followed by the caller making some silly sound and asking if they could help him (or her).

RAY: Sure.  Turn your radio up real loud.

CALLER: Will this fix the problem?

RAY: No - but you won't hear the noise any more!

I'm doing the guys a disservice - they are much funnier -and upon more listens, I realized these two "dummies" were actually engineers, one of them holding a PhD in Engineering from MIT.  None the less, they so much became a part of pop culture that they played animated versions of themselves in the Disney film Cars, with their signature sign-off advice.

TOMMY: Don't drive like my brother.

RAY: And, don't drive like my brother!

They also became a regular part of my Saturday mornings.  Certainly, with webcasts and such, I could listen at any point during the week, and would if I missed them on Saturday at 10AM.  However, that hour and day seemed perfect - not too early to start off the weekend, not too late to get out and do things on a nice Saturday.  My weekend was guaranteed to start off with a belly laugh or two, and not many things make me belly laugh, but in no week did I not find myself truly laughing out loud (no, not LOL - the real thing).

Their self-deprecating humor (they have a "Hate Mail" section on their website) was in full swing a few weeks back when a listener wrote in saying he wanted to start a boycott of the show, but had no way to reach their audience, and could they help.  Sure enough, they read his letter!

I got to thinking about Tommy and Ray, and their last original shows, as I thought of what element of the insanity that was Haebing to cover next.  Without a doubt, motor vehicles were a large part of the insanity, much of which I chronicled in Part 2 of this series.

The first incident could have been a call on "Car Talk," from one of our favorites on the Korean crew, Yu Bong.  It would go something like this:

RAY: Hello, this is "Car Talk."  Tell us your name and where you're calling from.

CALLER: My name is Yu Bong.

TOMMY: Yu Bong.  Let me guess.  Is that Y-O-U B-O-N-G

YU BONG:  No "u".

TOMMY: (laughing) : No, "you".  You're the one calling.

YU BONG (laughing - he had a very cheery disposition and would instinctively laugh with you, even if he didn't get the joke):  Yes, me!

RAY: Where are you calling from, Yu Bong?

YU BONG:  New York City.

TOMMY: From your accent, Yu Bong, I take it you're not originally from New York.

YU BONG:  No,  I'm from Busan.

RAY: What brings you to New York Yu Bong?

YU BONG:  I'm working on a television show, and I'm working with some fun people from New York.  They told me something and I wanted to find out if it's true.

TOMMY:  Ah, so you have some doubts about something one of your American co-workers told you.

YU BONG:  I hope it's true, because it is pretty good - for me, I mean.  I was about to leave work the other day, and Peter, our production manager, asked if I could take the 7-passenger van with me.  At first, I didn't really want to drive any more, but then he said it could be my van to use after work.

RAY: So, he offered for you to use it for your personal pleasure, is that it?

YU BONG: Yes, like that.

RAY: And, what, exactly, if I may ask, is your personal pleasure, Yu Bong. (Tommy and Ray can be heard laughing at this point).

YU BONG: JB - he is the American boss - he tells me that 7-passenger vans are "Chick magnets."

Laughing increases.

RAY: "Chick magnets?"

YU BONG : Yes, that's what he said.  He seems to have been around, so I expect he knows.

TOMMY: Oh, really.  What did Peter say?

YU BONG:  Peter must have known as well, but he forgot to tell me, because once JB mentioned it, Peter starting saying, "Yeah yeah.  It's a chick magnet!"

RAY: (laughing) : Right, he forgot to tell you.

YU BONG:  So, tell me, is this true.  Is 7-passenger van a chick magnet?

RAY: It's hard to say what type of car is a "chick magnet", Yu Bong.  My brother Tommy has, however, discovered every car that is a "chick repellent."

TOMMY:  Yu Bong, let me ask you.  Does your leg hurt?

YU BONG: No.  My leg feels good.  Why?

TOMMY: Because I think that knucklehead JB is pulling your leg.

I have no idea whether Tommy and Ray would have told him the truth like that, or kept him going, but we always had one vehicle too many, and it seemed a harmless, white lie, in the grand scheme of things, might help to solve things with a minimum of muss and fuss.  Yu Bong started taking the 7-pass - whether it ever fulfilled his wished, I don't know.

The other incident would be too weird even for Click and Clack.

At one point, I apologized to the manager of the van and truck rental service we were using.  A good deal of their work was with the film business in New York, and they had seen everything, but the constant switching out of vehicles, the constant nicks and dents (the Koreans were not good at our road rules) exceeded even the poor returns to which they had become accustomed.

Peter had one of those dispositions where he might be fuming or worried inside, but would force himself to act calm.  There was a lot of George Kostanza in Peter, though he was a good deal younger.

One day, I heard his voice get increasingly louder as he searched through papers on his desk frantically while talking to one of our drivers on the phone.

PETER: "Where are you?"  (Pause). "Ireland?" (Pause) "What island?"

I start mouthing some possibilities.  City Island?  Coney Island?  Long Island?  Please don't let it be Governor's Island, as there is no reason in the world why he should be there.  Then again, we weren't scouting any of the others, either.

We finally established that it was Long Island, but where exactly where was still undetermined (we started running through towns, then exits on the Long Island Expressway).

As I noted earlier, the Koreans insisted on having their drivers go out, even though many of them spoke little English, so road signs often meant as little to them as Korean road signs would mean to me.

PETER (into phone):  OK, get in the're in a truck?  What truck?

Again, Peter tried to determine which truck he might be in.  He mentioned traffic, so maybe the Long Island Expressway; bad, but not as bad as if he was on one of the Parkways, which are off-limits to trucks or commercial vehicles (most of our rentals, even the small vans, had commercial plates).

I asked Peter if he was okay, but, as I would have imagined, Peter had already determined that he was - that's the first thing we ask.  Vehicles can be fixed and replaced.

PETER (into phone): Now, I don't want you getting back in the car....I'm sorry truck...until we know where you are.  Parkway?  What Parkway?

Oh, this wasn't good.  His license permitted him to be driving, but not on the Parkway with a commercial vehicle.  I started preparing my mea culpa to the nice Nassau County Highway Patrolman who was sure to be the next call.

PETER: (into phone)  Ok, I don't want you to get back on the Parkway in the truck...wait, I thought you said it was a truck?  Convertible?  What convertible?

Now, I was really confused.  We had rented a lot of vehicles, but, as far as I could tell, even the picture vehicles weren't convertibles.  What were we doing with a convertible?

PETER (into phone):  Give me the plate number.  The plate number. (Pause)  We don't have a convertible!

Peter listened closely, and it seemed that he had a revelation.  His expression first took a turn for the worst, but when we met eyes, a strange thing happened.  He started laughing uncontrollably.

If there was something funny here, I was missing it.  However, Peter's attempt to clarify with the driver made it all clear to me.  Peter was now letting me in on what was happening.

PETER: (into phone):  So, there is no roof on the cab of the truck....No, not cab, truck.  The front part of the....How did the roof come off? (Pause).  Did you realize you weren't going to be able to go under...Okay, Okay.  Just stay where you are.  We're sending someone to pick you up.  (Pause) Yes, the convertible, too.

The Southern Parkway on Long Island has many wonderful features.  It also has some low overheads, which  is not usually a problem, as trucks are not meant to be on the Parkway.  Our driver could not imagine why there would be overheads too low for a truck, and by the time he had discovered that there was, it had sheared the roof off.  Amazingly, my driver was able to pull the truck to the side of the road, and neither he nor anyone else was hurt.

As I later learned from the manager of the rental house, the tow truck driver told him that we all got lucky because the roof 'peeled back like a sardine can .'  It had not fallen onto the roadway.  All of that was too difficult for our driver to convey in the little English he had at his disposal; "convertible" was the only word he could think of, and if driving with an unencumbered view of the open sky above was one of those definitions way down in the dictionary of a convertible, our driver was, technically, correct.

From that point on, when Peter or I told the manager at the rental place that we had to bring in a vehicle, he would ask things like, "can you drive this one in, or do we have to pick it up," and " does this one have a roof?"

Yeah, the joke was very much on us.

And don't drive like my Korean drivers.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Walter Brennan Effect

While I have been following the Olympics, I have tried to avoid the hype around it, especially NBC's attempt to make every athlete a human interest story.  Comic Andy Borowitz summed it up with his faux news report - "Athlete without compelling personal drama expelled from Olympics."

So it was that I had (happily) missed the idiotic controversy about South African runner Oscar Pistorius, a bi-lateral below knee (BK) amputee who used prosthetics to compete in the (not Special) Olympics.

Anyone who has followed my blog knows why this would be of interest to me - I am a BK double amputee and get around with standard prosthetics, as well as a  cane .  For those who need any background as to whether Pistorius had an unfair "advantage", let me assure you, he did not.  Even the advanced prosthetics he used to compete are a strain beyond what using your natural legs would cause - a single amputee uses three times as much energy to walk as a non-amputee.  So, no, it was not an advantage.

I have to find the issue of an advantage humorous, as amputees are often referred to as "disabled," so it seems we are both disadvantaged and advantaged at the same time.  Interesting.

All of that said, it reminded me of my experience in this business, being a person who walks in for an interview with a cane.  Let me tell you - no one ever took one look at the cane and said "wow - what an advantage to have this guy!".

My prosthetics are cosmetically correct, so without telling someone, most would not realize they were artificial.  The assumption would then be that either I had some temporary injury, or some permanent condition that made it hard to walk, both of which would be incorrect.

After standing on artificial legs for a long time, the stump that goes into the prosthetic gets sore, much the same as your feet or legs would get tired.

All of that said, I have always made a point of telling potential employers my condition, usually adding the joke, "I can't run with PAs - but I can trip them."  As most of my career in this industry has been since my operation, I would say I have been able to overcome any reservations most people have, though I am sure that I lost jobs here and there because of it.

An interesting effect, though, is that even when I was working in my late 30s and early 40s, I was treated as an elder statesman.  Now, this is a young person's business, but even by our standards, I wasn't old, all of which got me to thinking of Walter Brennan.

Brennan was easily one of the most respected character actors of all time (he is the only actor to have three Best Supporting Actor Oscars), certainly of the Studio era.  My favorite portrayal is probably from the movie pictured above, To Have and Have Not, where he played Eddie, Humphrey Bogart's boozy sidekick.  He played similar characters often, notably Stumpy, a boozy sidekick to John Wayne in Rio Bravo.

People of my generation probably knew him best as Grandpa on The Real McCoys, which is appropriate, as he was playing characters named "Gramps" or something similar even when he was relatively young.  To many movie-goers, there was no "young" Walter Brennan, and this was not a coincidence.

He lost most of his teeth in an accident when he was only forty; additionally, his friend, sound recordist Jack Foley, suggested when he was playing one part that he put a pebble in his shoe to give his character a distinctive limp, and he kept that affectation for many years and in many (though not all) parts.

I could regale you with stories of my other favorite Brennan roles - there are so many - but then I would be missing my point.

Because of a perceived disability and an accident, he was seen as "older" even when he was, in fact, middle-aged for many of those roles.

In thinking about it, my use of a cane over the years may have led to a perception of me being older even when I was not.  I, at least, prefer to think it was that and not the fact that I was cranky.

Like Brennan, I eventually grew into my age, and at fifty-four, have enough of the gray hairs to justify the older designation.

As for Pistorius, he finished last in his heat, simultaneously proving that he did not have an unfair advantage and proving to the haters that he should not have been allowed to compete because he was not as good.  Too bad he didn't have a cane; he could have tripped them. Now, that, would have been a real advantage.


Pistorius will get another shot at a medal as part of the South African relay Team.  Video also added below

Sunday, August 5, 2012

JB-San To the Rescue-Part 2 - Lost in Translation

Production on Haebing*, the Korean mini-series on which I was now the US line producer, started less than 16 hours after I was hired, and the fun started right from the beginning.

Day One on any low budget film is like a first-date, with a lot of introductions and figuring out where everything and everyone stands, the First AD seeing what the director he has been in prep with for weeks is like on set, members of the crew who haven't worked with other crew members learning how he department head likes things, 2nd AD trying to make sure HMU is all cozy.  Lots of tentative steps mixed with, if there are old acquaintances, a few hugs and handshakes, and then off to the job at hand.

As line producer, it means a lot of double and triple checking the things that you already went over two or three times, to make sure they are actually working the way you want them to, and to make sure any little missteps are overcome as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

This, as you might imagine, bears little resemblance to how Haebing started.

I was in the office early with the hope that once I knew we were at least in motion, I could make my way to the Mayor's Office (MOFTB) to get the permit process started.  This would, inevitably, mean entering the MOFTB much as slaves and messengers approached royalty, with a lot of figurative bowing and even more mea culpas.

I know I should have come sooner.  Mea Culpa.

Yes, I know that the things I'm requesting require meetings with NYPD, NYFD, the Coast Guard (we had water scenes), the Parks and Building Departments.  Mea Culpa.

No, I don't expect shooting or scouting permits (more on this later) for my vehciles without the appropriate insurance, Drop/Add lists, Schedule A's, etc.  If my vehicles get tickets today, you will not be able to clear them.  Mea culpa.

Those were the mea culpas for which I was prepared.  As it turned out, there were more.

However, before I had the pleasure of lying prostrate before the rep and wondering how long it would be before I heard the first "JB, you've been doing this so long, you should know better," (Mea Maxima Culpa!) I was hit with bigger problems at the office.

The producers had contracted a local equipment vendor to provide a full truck with grip and electric equipment, as well as support camera equipment for their camera package.  This was a vendor that I never used, because they broke every protocol I have for vendors.

They would underbid other companies, then try to make it back with phony "loss and damage" charges.

They sent out faulty equipment and then blamed your grips and electrics.

They would charge you for equipment you ordered while sending "similar equipment" without telling you.

The company was run by two brothers, who had their mother working for them and a mangy dog.  Personally, I didn't even like the dog.

Still, the producer had an agreement with them, and had paid them one-third of the total in cash.  It seemed unlikely that I would be able to get us out from under the deal, something I had done on other shoots with this same company, which made me not their favorite line producer.

Peter and I got a frantic call from set.  It was about 7AM, and the truck was there, and the entire Korean (and American) crew was there, and the driver refused to unlock the truck.  It was too early to get the brothers who ran the company on the phone at the office, so I asked to speak to the driver.

The driver proceeded to inform me that the deal was that the 2nd third of the cash was to be paid today, and
if he didn't have it in his hands, he wasn't opening the truck.

Let me say that I understand that equipment houses dealing with new producers (especially those whose ties are overseas) are hesitant to give credit.  Today, where everything is pretty much done by credit card up front, it would hardly be an issue.  Mr. K had only recently established his production company, and was dealing mainly in cash.

I tried to reason with the driver.  It was 7AM, and my producer could not get him cash until his bank opened.  Let the crew start and he had my word that the money would come today.  I had worked in this town for years and never stiffed anyone, and if he had any worries and the money didn't come later, we could talk.

Before I could finish, the driver laid into a profanity-laced tirade saying he didn't know who (the expletive) I was and I could go screw myself; get the cash over there or nobody works.

There is no better way to shake off the morning haze than having someone attack and threaten you.  There are probably ways he could have put his request that would have led me to tell Mr. K that we needed to wait until the bank was open.

However, I already didn't like this company (we'll call them "France"), and now the driver had decided he was going to be a belligerent jerk, something that should not have surprised me.  Unfortunately for him, he also let on that he was a Teamster.

I knew France was completely non-union and would never pay Teamster rates, which meant the driver  was doing this gig on the side, without the knowledge of the Local.  Maybe he assumed since the crew was Korean I was a newbie and wouldn't figure it out.  He assumed wrong.

Although I did mostly low budget projects, I had a good relationship with the head of the Teamster Local in NY - we'll call him T.  I would call him when I started a project, let him know my budget, let him know what vehicles I was using, and that my rates probably wouldn't work for his guys.  If I used a bigger vehicle (or a HMU or production trailer), I would hire one of his lower-priced guys.

My honesty had put me in good stead, and we worked well together.

I picked up the phone and left a message on his cell phone.  "T," I said,"I didn't know you let your guys work   non-union for (this lousy production company)."  This guy just called me and said he was one of your guys and doing this job...."

Within five minutes, T gave me a call back.  I gave him the info, and where the vehicle and the driver were parked.  T sent some of the driver's fellow members over to "remind" the driver of his responsibility (and, subsequently, pull his union card).

This got the attention of one of the brothers.  When one of them called me, irate, I told him that, from dealing with me in the past, he should have known better than to have some punk driver blackmail me.  He didn't like the word "blackmail", so I repeated it.

"Now," I said, "if you want to continue with this job, let's talk about a new deal, or your driver and your truck can just sit there and you won't see another dime.  Your call."  I hung up.

I have bluffed in the past, but I wasn't really bluffing now.  Mr. K was a little freaked out, worrying he would not be able to shoot, but I assured him that even if we lost a half-day or a day, it would be worth it to go with someone else if the brother didn't change his tune.  Time was of the essence for the Koreans, and another day was not in his plan.

Before this discussion went too much further, Rick (the brother at this company) called back.  We negotiated a new deal, and I had Mr. K send over the revised amount (in cash) as soon as the banks opened.

Mr. K was very happy; Rick, not so much, but still getting a good deal, and he knew it.  Peter, my production manger, was impressed.

Starting the day as a hero was great, but the accolades would have long faded by the time I made it to the MOFTB.  My reception there was quite different, much as I expected.

Look, in the end, the folks at the MOFTB want to help you make your movie.  They know that newbies get it wrong very often.  I was almost at a disadvantage, being a veteran, because I could not plead ignorance for myself, but did use that defense when discussing the producers.

After accepting my penance like the good Catholic-raised (turned Buddhist) boy that I was, and a few calls back and forth to Peter to figure out the paperwork, I left the MOFTB with a permit to shoot and some tags (for vehicles) for our fleet - and we did have a fleet of vehicles.

We had two vehicles to move crew, plus cars to scout location, plus cars for the producers, plus vans and cube trucks outside of the one we rented from France.  It was an ever-changing fleet of vehicles, large for a production of this size.  Over time, Peter became the transportation coordinator (in addition to other responsibilities he had), and keeping a handle on it was no easy task. As we added or dropped a vehicle, information had to go to MOFTB (at that time, you could not fax the changes - they had to be brought over. That has long-since changed) tags had to be picked up or sent back.

This was one of the many cultural differences for the Koreans.  From what I was made to understand, once you went through a lengthy paperwork process in South Korea, you could basically park wherever you wanted.  Police would even tow and clear cars from the streets you needed to shoot.

I have never gone about checking the procedure in South Korea for myself, but this was not the case in NY, and it took a toll on us.

There were two types of permits then, shooting permits and scouting permits.  Shooting permits were for vehicles that would be part of production on days of shoots, and their permits were tied to where and when you were shooting.  Scouting permits, which were scarcer, allowed people to park at any LEGAL parking spot while scouting locations.

The latter scouting permits no longer exist, in large part because so many productions improperly used them as "free parking" stickers like diplomatic plates, which they were not.

The Koreans never really grasped the system, basically never getting past the word "permit".

As a result, we got lots of tickets, and, worse, we had vehicles towed.  Some were towed because they were at fire hydrants or bus stops or crosswalks (all definite no-nos).  Some were vehicles with shooting permits that they decided to use for scouting, and were no where near where we were shooting.  One was towed for being parked on a curb; another because the driver hid the permit in the glove compartment so no one could steal it (unfortunately, the nice parking enforcement officer that day was not psychic could not intuit that there was a permit in the glove compartment).

It got to the point where Peter would send a passenger van to the Impound Lot in the morning with two drivers - one to drive the passenger van back, and one to pick up whatever vehicle had been towed.

While the Koreans were not learning "permit", I was learning enough beginner Korean to get through the day.

The first three expressions I learned (after ano) were:

yaw bo seh yo - hello (how are you?) informal.

kamsahamnida - thank you

jam can man yo - Please hold

The last one, which I pronounced something like "chomka manyo" was for those times when I would pick up the phone and the person on the other end spoke only Korean.  It was a signal to stay on the line while I got someone who spoke Korean, that is, if they understood my butchered translation.

Day One I learned that language was not the only oral difficulty. We had the entire crew - Korean and American - eat together on Day One, and I had the day catered by a very good caterer.  In my "kumbaya" world, I guess I hoped this time together would help to bind the crew.

Unfortunately, it was all American food, and it made many of the Koreans sick.  So much for good intentions.  Afterwards, we did split meals, as the American crew was not a big fan of Kimchi or the other spicy foods the Koreans liked.

Still, we got some footage in the can on Day One (they were shooting on tape), no one got hurt, we had our permit (even if we did not have specific permits for each days shooting yet), some tags, and were learning each other's customs.  The American grip and camera guys were in sync enough with their Korean counterparts that actually filming was relatively smooth.

Mr. K, the director, and the Korean line producer were all pretty satisfied so far, and I was feeling a little more confident that this might go better than expected.

Yeah, right.  Stay tuned for Day Two and more.

*Haebing is a Korean female name.  I still, to this day, can't tell you more about the title.