Friday, November 29, 2013

The Unattainable - Part 2 - The Real Digital Revolution

"The telephone. which interrupts the most serious conversation and cuts short the most weighty observations, has a romance all it's own."
-Virginia Wolfe

When my mentor, Stan Bickman, died, his daughters sent out a memorial postcard. It was of Stan at a payphone, smiling.

For years, most pictures of any producer, especially a line producer, would involve a telephone. Whether it was talking to vendors or agents or staff or potential locations, there was always endless time spent on the phone.

The advent of the cell phone meant that a line producer was not tied to the office, that the phone time could also be spent heading to location or doing other things. I specifically remember a drive to Long Island from Manhattan where my assistant and I got into the car, said hello, and then were on the phone, never disconnecting, hitting the call-waiting button for a trip that lasted over an hour. We did not speak to each other again until we got out of the car.

For line producers of old, this probably seemed impersonal. I am sure many of them preferred to talk in person, and rued the day that telephones did as much to keep us apart as to bring us together.

Stan always said to always have cash on you when trying to lock a location or holding area. Psychologically, it is harder for someone to turn down cash in front of them than a location agreement or a check.

With one notable exception (Alex, from Handheld Films, who I have dealt with since he got there but have NEVER met - we both now feel its a sign of good luck and we don't break this) I have always made a point of meeting my vendors in person and shaking hands.

Having become accustomed to the phone. I am now just getting used to weaning myself off of it in favor of email or text.

Email makes sense: it means I have a "paper trail" of all conversations, which is helpful a)because it's easy to forget the details of one of `100 conversations per day, and b)well, it serves as CYA (the first two being "cover" and "your") if someone says they did not know.

Texts are quicker, though I hate them. Fat fingers and the need to put on my glasses.

My last feature was about 2 years ago, and even though much of my communication on that one included email, etc., I still dealt a good deal on the phone.

When things would get hectic, the constant ring of the phone - and of all the phones in the office - served as the ambient soundtrack to production.

Today, that sound is replaced by keyboards clicking. The way I used to dread answering the constant calls, I now dread being in a meeting for a half hour or more, and then coming back to "refresh" my email - I know there will be dozens. and there is no chain I am in that I can ignore.

This goes for everyone in production. There are nights my last email out would be at 2AM, I would wake up at 6AM, and there would be 10 emails. When does ANYONE sleep?

The communal response in the office is often something like this: I will be reading an email cc'd to others, and hear "Oh, my" (or often something stronger - a film office is not Mayberry RFD). I will know that my producer or coordinator is reading the same email, and reacting how I feel.

While the need for digital copies, shared dropbox for filing, etc. is absolutely essential, there are times (such as looking over a call sheet or production report, or reading a scene, or going over specs) that I still like to have a hard copy in front of me.

In many ways. fewer calls are a good thing. It's faster. Still, it does sometimes feel less personal to me, and then there is always the issue that level of disassociation allows people - myself included - to sometimes go into rant mode in an email they would not if they were just talking to each other. It's the same as flaming on the internet - people say things they would not if they were facing the person.

Tone is lost in an email, as is often sarcasm, a mode I likely go into too often when shooting. It is my way of keeping things light, but is easy to misinterpret. I'm learning.

I love the digital "paper trail." I really like being able to do a meeting with my tablet and not having to lug around my laptop (who ever thought that carrying a portable laptop would be described as a chore!).

So many of the digital improvements have made production better. However, I cannot help but be a little sentimental for the phone lines we used to set up in the office, with a "hunting" feature so that if the first number was busy, it would "hunt" to the second, etc ("Hunt" is a term the "Phone company" used to use). All of this is completely unnecessary in an age when everyone is on their cell.

Much as digital technology has made filmmaking more accessible, though I still think with something lost in celluloid, the digital world has many improvements, but with that intangible something lost. I find that people not only like what the technology offers, but seem to sometimes almost resent being called on the phone, or doing an in-person meeting. Who responds to voicemails anymore? If you want someone to get back, text them.

Alas, I never thought I would become nostalgic for the telephone, that original link to others. While my tablet and smartphone give me access to my crew, staff and set at all times, it also means that there is no time when I am not accessible. Not always a good thing, the inability to be out of touch even for a moment.

To use one of my absolutely favorite movie lines, one I think of often, and have used here before, from Inherit the Wind:

"Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.  
Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, "All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.
Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat.
Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline."

If old Henry Drummond thought that the telephone causes one to lose privacy and the "charm of distance," I can only imagine what that man behind the counter charges for our current digital age.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Unattainable - Part 1 - That's Not What Productions Are Made for

The script for our feature is based on a novel; more precisely, a book of aphorisms.

Aphorisms have a long and distinguished place in literature, going back to the Ancients. Wiki describes them as "an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic( concise) and memorable form."

This original script had a few key, diverse characters who muse on life, and centered around a main female character who is a  writer. We will call her Justine.

Justine has two important men in her life; her ex-husband, who we will call Kevin, and her long-time lover, who we will call Harry. By the end of the story, she has found a third man in her life, a theater director.

She loves them all in one form or another, and each fills a place in her life. Together with some fellow writer and artist friends, she explores on the nature of love and relationships and why we do - and need to do -what we do.

All of this is beautifully laid out in the book. Presenting this on screen is slightly more difficult.

When I first read the script, I was intrigued by the wit and depth of insight. Many of the scenes were two or more characters presenting their struggles through these musings. The play had been originally scheduled for 18 days, at a modest budget (budget numbers always being confidential, even without an NDA). While it seemed a challenging schedule given the script pages covered, I thought we could accomplish it, as scenes with two to three characters talking, no stunts, etc. tend to be rather easy to film.

My first hint that this would not be the case was my first almost 3 hour meeting at a coffee shop with the director, A bright, organized, prepared woman with an incredible visual sense and background, she revealed her visual references. While there would be the literal action of the scenes, there would be sub-text, presented through voice-overs that were more "temporal," to use the words of my amazing script supervisor.

Every draft of the script improved the movie exponentially. Following Murphy's Law that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, every improvement made the script more difficult to shoot. Additionally, the producers and director had hired an experienced Director of Photography with an ability to bring exactly this type of movie to life, but also wanting and needing the proper time to get the beautiful shots I have since seen in dailies.

Additionally, constant changes right up until beginning of shooting make the schedule a moving target; never a good thing for production.

Here is an irony I have learned from years of making movies. Boring scripts are easy to shoot. As someone who has budgeted 34 scripts in the past year, the easiest for me is when there are few characters in few locations mostly talking. For the line producer breaking down a script, two characters talking for 6 pages in one location - preferably something simple like a park bench or their apartment - means a quick breakdown, budget and turnaround of both.

It also makes for a movie most people will sleep through.

The nightmare in breaking down a script is many short scenes in many locations. You are adding many more sheets, and scheduling becomes difficult because of company moves and the difficulty shooting out performers.

This makes for a fast-paced movie people that will keep people sitting up in their seats.

So, there's the rub. Boring script; easy for production. Challenging, engaging script; challenging for production.

All this got me thinking of the quote from John Augustus Shedd that a DP friend of mine keeps in her room: "A ship is safe when it is in harbor, but that is not what ships are built for." It's the challenge we are always presented with, whether we realize it or not.

On this film, we are definitely not in harbor.

N.B. Because production has kept me insanely busy, I have not been keeping up the blog as I had hoped. With luck, I will catch you all up over this holiday break.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Unattainable - A New Series

"Man approaches the unattainable truth through a succession of errors"
-Aldous Huxley

These pages have been blank for a longer period since I restarted the blog a while back because I am currently, once again, line producing a feature.

The changed world of indie films is not a pleasant one for line producers. While digital has made filmmaking cheaper, it has not changed the fact that certain costs - food, gas, tolls, vehicles, etc - are inevitable and have not gone away. Additionally, I refuse to do a movie with unpaid interns in paid positions. There is a place for interns, where they can learn and move up and you can utilize them in places you cannot afford to hire. That should not be your key grip, or, for that matter, set PAs.

The combination of good scripts being unable to raise the proper amount of money, bad scripts being done for silly figures, and scripts being shot in a range I am unwilling to work on, I have turned down more work than I have taken the last few years, making my living mostly preparing budgets and breakdowns and doing shorts.

This all changed when I got a call from producers who had just been greenlit for a film on the SAG MODIFIED LOW budget. As I consider budgets proprietary, and I also have an NDA, I will not and will never discuss budget publicly. It's low, but not so low as to fall into that bottomless pit known as "guerilla filmmaking."

Needless to say, about the only moment I have not been working the past four weeks - we started shooting yesterday and were in prep until that point - have been the few hours when I sleep. Not being a martyr. The same can and should be said for my producers and the director, all of whom have been great partners and, just as important, incredibly good human beings.

Not always easy to say about the people you are working along  side.

I will catch you up on prep, and then do a day-by-day diary. Unlike my long, winding posts on the past, the present will fly by, a brief thought here or there to let you know how it's going.

Those posts will start tomorrow - hope they give a little insight into what a line producer thinks and does