Friday, April 19, 2013

Plaster - Part 5 - Not A Dry Eye In the House

"When I come home baby,
And I'm working all night long
I put my daughter on my knee
And she says  'Daddy, what's wrong'
Fool To Cry, Rolling Stones

There are no absolutes in film production. Great movies have bad days. Lousy movies have good days. On the best productions, there are people who make things harder. On the worse productions, there are good people doing their jobs.

Even on films that don't get finished, there are sometimes great scenes that you wish had seen the light of day.

In discussing casting, I mentioned that the producer. Joey, and the director, Jean-Baptiste. had gone out and gotten a signed deal memo from an actor for $10K. The actor was quite good and special, and known enough to be worth that much money, but it was a bad idea for a number of reasons.

It was outside of the pay structure we had established with Most Favored Nations agreements with agents. It could have led us to having to renegotiate with actors we already signed. We got lucky on this one.

It was outside of our budget. This is worth discussing.

Hollywood productions go over all the time. For most of them, it is just paperwork. Money is moved from one production to another by the studio. Yes, there might be consequences and raised voices in meetings, but at the end of the day, as long as the final product does well, it is not a big deal.

As I used to say in my line producing class at NYFA, when productions go over budget on small, indie films, checks bounce. I should have added "or the movie doesn't get finished."

Productions constantly rob Peter to pay Paul.* Money needs to be moved around. When it cannot be moved around, the phrase "we can take it from post (production)" rears its head. What that translates to is "hopefully I won't be here when the shit hits the fan," or, "it's gonna be someone else's problem."

During production, post-production becomes that great land of enlightenment when all good things will come to pass. Sound problem? Fix it in post. Continuity problem? Don't worry, we can cut around it. Went over budget? We can take it from post.

There is an incongruity in the above suggestions. If you are dumping all you problems to post, then post will probably need more money, not less. Unless you know there is more money coming from somewhere, it's a recipe for either not finishing the edit of your film to get it to a distributor, or taking short-cuts in post that negatively impact your product.

The more reasonable solution is what families do in budgeting - they put the money where it's needed, and then decide that they can do with less somewhere else. Money can - and should - be moved from one line item to another when it serves the production, not dumped randomly but with some rationale. One useful example is the relationship between art department and locations.

If you can find a location that needs little dressing, you can take that money from art department. IF, on the other hand, you find a space that is cheap, but has almost nothing, then the money you saved on the location needs to go to the art department to dress it properly. That sort of movement of money makes sense.

If paying this fee to one actor had meant an ability to not spend more on other actors (because we already had a "name" we wanted) that could have worked. If we were still in the process of funding the film, and getting that "name" got us more money, that is certainly okay. In fact, this is the ethos behind the theory that "name" actors don't cost a production money; that their potential worth at the box office will off-set the cost enough that investors are willing to fund the project at a higher level.

Joey and Jean-Baptiste hoped that this was the case with this actor - who we will call Reggie. In fact, they had wrung the Money Tree bare. There were no more leaves. We were now officially $10K over with no way to make it up.

Then, there was Reggie.

While Reggie was - and is - an incredible actor, he had drug dependency issues at that time. Thankfully, he has long-since cleaned up his act, and those issues are very much a thing of the past. At the time, it was an issue, as it was on our production.

On the day of the shoot, the actor was late by a number of hours, and when he arrived, he was in no shape to work. We rescheduled the scene for the next day, having lost a good part of that day working around him.

To his credit, he took his responsibility seriously. He took me aside - we knew each other from previous work - and said he would stay in one of the apartments we were using as sets in the Bronx, so as to insure that he would be there the next day. Further, he said being away from his usual contacts would guarantee that he would be in better shape the next day.

The next morning, indeed, he was a different person.

The scene was one where he played a guy who had gone to prison, and missed the birth of his daughter. When he comes back and sees her for the first time, she is about five years old. She doesn't know him, and is scared of him at first. She runs away from his embrace. He is heart-broken.

Movie crews become jaded, and are rarely moved on set. As one is not watching a movie, there is no context, and with all the lights and trappings, there is no "magic."  There is no sentimental music. There is no editing, bringing the attention of the viewer where it needs to be at any moment. Unlike the theater, there is no context, no lowered lights. There is no mystery.

In this context, I have rarely seen a crew member cry. Forget that weeping could ruin a take; it just rarely happens.

This was different.

Reggie was beyond wonderful. There was no trace of the actor; he was the character.The child actor was perfect as well, but it was Reggie that made it happen.

During the master, as I looked around through my own watery eyes, you could see members of the crew covering their mouths and nose to prevent openly weeping. I cannot remember a case where this many crew members were moved like this during the shooting of a scene, and to this extent. It continued during coverage, as Reggie kept pulling out emotions from even deeper on his single and close-ups.

It was a special moment on a project that had it's fair share of problems. This day - and this scene - weren't one of them.

In the poem by 8th Century Zen master Shitou Xiqian known in the East as the "Identity of Relative and Absolute," a central part of Zen liturgy, the following phrase appears:

Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness,
Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light....

Within the darkness that was Plaster, this day was the light; however, within this light, the darkness of the budget problems would not go away.

"She whispers in my ears so sweet,
You know what she says?
She says, 'Daddy. you're a fool to cry
You're a fool to cry,
And it makes me wonder why."

* The interesting etymology of a phrase that is used less and less today, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul. My dad used it all the time.

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