Wednesday, September 12, 2012

1994-The Wonder Year:The Ones That Got Away - Pt. 3 - "Spanking the Monkey"

Caan with co-star Alan Arkin in Freebie and the Bean

"I said, 'This is burgeois, middle-class horseshit.' I mean, 'Cut to the kid crying.' Oh, please. F*ck you."

"It's not a movie. Who wants to look at four institutional walls?"

-James Caan on turning down, respectively, the leads in Kramer vs. Kramer and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

James Caan used to have this pat line during interviews that producers should have paid him to read scripts and then immediately produce whatever films he turned down.  There was a period of time when he famously turned down not only the two Oscar winners above, but roles in Blade Runner, Apocolypse Now, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While he was turning down a good deal of the seminal movies of the Seventies (with the exception of the ones he did make, of course, The Godfather I and II), he was taking films like Freebie and the Bean and Slither.

I've made my share of "Slithers." I probably would have made Freebie and the Bean for a chance to work with one of the most over-looked comic (and, for that matter, serious) actors of all time, Alan Arkin. If you have any doubt about that, I have one word  for you - serpentine.*

While I do have films that I am proud of, some of which received some level of success, I don't have a Godfather.

Still, whenever I would see Caan use that line, I would think of the movies that I lost due to ego (Welcome to the Dollhouse), turned down for another (Mall Rats), and the one I turned down for money, Spanking the Monkey.

Two of them,  Dollhouse and Spanking the Monkey, were among the better indie films of that fertile 90s period.  All three of them would have given me the chance to work with great directors.

Having documented the misses on the first two, it's time to talk about Spanking the Monkey and David O. Russell.

David O. Russell

When I read the script, it had a different title, not Spanking the Monkey, though, for the life of me, I cannot remember it. Much like Dollhouse, it covered coming of age and sex in a way rarely addressed, especially the elements of masturbation and incest.

It says something about the nature of films, and the process of bringing them to the screen, that in both Dollhouse and Spanking the Monkey, the humor was not apparent to me on first read. Dark comedies often to not read funny, which is only another reminder that the script, while an essential backbone to a good movie, is only words on paper until it is filmed (and, then, of course, recreated again in the editing room).

In either case, I thought it was a daring and strong script, but I had read many of those. This had something more going for it that made me sure that it would not only get distributed but probably see good coverage; namely, the wife of writer/director Russell, Janet Grillo.

Janet Grillo

Janet was a producer on the project, and even then, I was quite aware that she was an executive at New Line Cinema. If I had missed it, David and one of his other producers pointed it out to me when they offered me the position of production manager.

I liked the script. I had heard good things about the director. I knew it would be released. What more did I want? How could I say no?

Here is the rub.

The movie would shoot for four weeks in Upstate New York. While everyone had a lot of faith in David Russell, they were not willing to sink a lot of money into the project, so the entire crew was working deferred.

For those of you not familiar with how deferred works, it goes like this. Usually, they will work out a rate at least close to union scale (or at least a lot better than most low budget indies) but the catch is, you only get that money if it is distributed. Also, it is rare that crew is ever in what is referred to as "1st position," namely, the first ones to be paid if it sells. That distinction is, understandably, left for the investors, who have risked the most.

Crew would usually angle for second position, but on this film, crew was actually third position, behind, I believe (and I could be wrong on this) the actors. That meant a lot of people were getting paid before crew would see their money.

I had never worked deferred, because, to me, it always seemed like a shell game. Previous to Spanking the Monkey, I knew of no one who ever got paid from a deferred gig. (In fact, I don't personally know of many who have since).

Now, at a point in my career when I had established myself, I was going to work deferred. Part of me felt like a schmuck. The other part of me knew that with Janet Grillo and New Line behind it, this was not your typical wish-and-a-prayer deferral.

The added pressure was that my marriage was not going great at this point, with a lot of the tension coming from the long hours and lack of communication. Four weeks away was not going to help it. Four weeks away with no paycheck was going to be even worse.

In fairness to Maureen, my (now ex) wife, she never said anything like "If you go I'm outta here." She left the decision to me.

The deciding factor was per diems.

It is standard practice that when a crew goes on location, they are provided a daily stipend to cover meals not provided on set (and other expenses). On the lowest of the low, I had paid crews at least $20 a day per diem, and usually more like $25 or $30.

For SAG actors (and union crews, which this was not) that would have been an absolute.

They were not offering a dime in per diems, saying that food for meals offset would be "provided." Yeah, I had heard this before.

One of the difficulties with being part of production management, whether it be line producer, or UPM, and even the assistant director, is that you have responsibility to those above-the-line, the producers and director, as well as though below-the-line. If meals were not provided, and I was not given the budget to assure it, then I would be the one answering to crew as to why they weren't being treated properly.

This now went beyond my concern for my own welfare, and went into that area of both responsibility and reputation. Many first-time producers and directors become one-time producers and directors. The villain the crew remembers are the members of the production team - did they look out for them. While this sometimes seems unfair, if you want to be one step away from the top, then take the responsibility that goes with it.

I called David directly. If he could come up with per diems, I would do it. The answer was "no."

In fact, it was more than a "no." It was a "how silly are you to ask." The hairs that were now at attention on the back of my neck told me that this was not someone who particularly respected crew. That was going to be a problem, if I was right.

Those hairs were correct. I know, from people I was friendly with who did work on the shoot, that the first weekend break, certain crew people were left there without sufficient food or money to provide it.

My sense about Russell seems to have been borne out in countless incidents later in his career, with Three Kings and I (heart) Huckabees. To be fair, I did not hear anything of that nature from the crew on Spanking the Monkey, with the exception of the food situation.

The crew did eventually get their deferrals, albeit long after the film received it's acclaim.

Neither the AD, nor the original PM, nor the line producer worked with Russell again. (Though the AD did go on to work on Living in Oblivion - something I would have died for). So much for "just do this one for me and the next one will be bigger." That is a line, much like deferral, that I have always detested. If there is anything I have passed along to people about low budget indies, it is that, if you are going to take a gig, take it for what you think this gig is going to do for you. Often, the director won't have the control to hire you on the next, bigger, gig, and that is assuming that his promise was sincere in the first place.

It is very likely that, outside of a nice check over a year later and another merit badge for working on a well-known, successful and important movie, I would never have worked with Russell again, would not have hobnobbed with Clooney and Wahlberg on Three Kings or Tomlin et al on Huckabees.

For the period I was turning down the three important films I covered in this and the last two posts, I was basically doing my version of Freebie and the Bean, Slither, and Rollerball.

Maybe this is what James Caan felt like. Nah, he still had The Godfather.

* There is hardly a moment Arkin is on screen that is not drop-dead funny in The In-Laws.

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