Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Keep My Brother - The Art of The Possible

"If politics is the art of the possible, then compromise is the artistry of democracy"
-Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It

As the guys on Car Talk like to say in describing their puzzlers, this post is quasi-political, quasi-Buddhist, quasi-film and no small part personal confession and realization.

You've been warned.

If you're a regular reader, none of the above surprises you - including the schizophrenic mix.

You don't need me to link you to political sites to know that our current state of politics is not working, and while the reasons are varied and the answer much too complex for me to get into here, it is failing because compromise has become a dirty word. (quasi-political - check!)

On Keep My Brother, I developed a new-found respect for the true art of compromise at it's best. Going in, I had a game plan for pulling off what I correctly thought would be a difficult feat - shooting a 98 or so page script with F/X in 12 days, more than a few of which would be more than 10 pages, given location, actors, etc.

The game plan included using a small lighting package provided by the gaffer, augmenting the natural light from the interior of the nightclub (which had a full skylight as a roof), a lot of handheld, and a "small footprint."

"Small footprint" was how I approached the previous feature I line produced, and, on that film, it did not work out. The DP - incredibly talented, but not fast and not particularly interested in the budget - was on first, and basically set the tone with too much camera gear, and hired a gaffer who, frankly, was a grip pretending to be a gaffer. That gaffer over-compensated by basically bringing every light she could, and had no idea how to light any other way.

The problem with all of that, beyond the rental costs (same lighting vendor as this shoot, and a good deal from the camera vendor as well) are the ancillary costs: trucks to carry them, people to drive those trucks, parking, gas, etc. You also need more people in the department - what should have been a Grip/Electric department of two grips and two electrics became 3/3, respectfully.

All of that is added cost that does not wind up on screen, and, I assure you, it did not. When you have producers fighting you and backing the DP, not a lot you can do.

In his book  Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology
 the noted Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the "seeds" in our mind that make up "store consciousness." It gets deep, but here is one basic understanding: (quasi-Buddhist? check)

"If you are not mindful, you will believe that your perceptions, which are based on prejudices that have developed from the seeds of past experiences in your store consciousness, are correct."

I definitely brought that and previous experiences with DPs who were difficult to this project, sometimes not seeing when Lauretta, our DP, was trying to work with what we had.

Make no mistake: my perception was not totally off. Lauretta's idea of "small footprint" and "simple lighting" was different than mine, as was, to an extent, our gaffer, Adam's, who thought that the additional lighting gear would truly save time and that every bit of it was essential.

I also believe that my hard line early on costs and sticking to my guns on size and number of vehicles made a huge difference in the budget.

That said, on the day of our final production meeting in prep, Lauretta and I definitely had different agendas for the day; both with what we thought was the best interest of the film in mind. We butt heads during the meeting, and afterward had a two-hour or so talk that, in retrospect, I wish I could have on almost every project. I say in retrospect, because at the time, it was painful for both of us.

It was the two of us as DP and Line producer, but also as friends and respected colleagues, being increasingly honest with each other. Anyone who has had a conversation such as this one - say, a "status of our relationship" discussion with a significant other, knows that while good can come of it, it can also leave scars and go in the wrong direction.

We both spoke our mind. In fact, this may have been the most important two hours of the project. Although neither of us walked away convinced the other was correct, we did agree that it was impossible that either one of us were completely correct. Seems obvious, but if you've every had one of these discussions, you know that while it may be obvious, it is not an inevitable conclusion.

It set the stage for all the encounters we had regarding lighting and time and coverage for the rest of the shoot. Yes, there was disagreement, but underlying was a deep mutual respect as well as truly liking the other person. I can honestly say that our relationship as colleagues and as friends is stronger now than when we started the project.

The compromises from her side definitely helped us get through everything on time; the compromises on my side allowed her to do a really incredible job and make a better-looking movie than the budget or circumstances would suggest, and, frankly, better cinematography than either I or the director envisioned.

We were not the only ones making compromises.

Our director had an idea for a night scene that when the robbers arrive that was crucial to his vision of the film. Unfortunately, we had a difficult police officer as part of our film unit who decided when he got there that he was going to lay down the law and show us who was in charge.

The NYC police film unit is usually great. On shoot after shoot, they have worked with us on things that might not be on the permit but made sense as long as we were working reasonably with them from a safety aspect. Also, most police are thrilled to be in this unit - there is no easier gig.

This guy was the exception, and, in holding to the letter of what was on the permit, it meant a compromised way of shooting it. Mike, our director, made it work, though we later added a bit somewhere else to get closer to his vision. Without getting into particulars, NONE of this involved weapons, stunts or safety.

We also had a day where the production designer's assistant, the art director, failed to do his job the night before a major set needed to be ready. When we got there, it was clearly hours away from getting done. The PD, along with production help and help from the director's friends, got it done by afternoon, while we shot a different scene with the same cast, as well as the director agreeing to move one scene from that office set to the nightclub floor. Compromise, and in a way that I doubt any viewer who hadn't read the script would notice or mind the change of set. That's the key.

I tried going without a caterer at first, hoping we could patch together restaurant deliveries and have production provide craft service. For most of the shoot, though, we found a guy who wanted to be a filmmaker but was able to cater and do crafty within my small budget and keep everyone happy. That worked for most of the shoot until near the end, when he completely melted down and flaked out. Tasha and I pieced it together with a local diner that worked with us and me buying crafty and breakfast and using the money wisely but still providing hot, good meals and more than sufficient crafty.

Because my production coordinator/manager Tasha was so good, we were able to juggle all of the tasks of production with two interns as unit manager and APOC, and one incredibly loyal and hard-working PA, Jack, who stood tall when all the other PAs fell by the wayside.

Other compromises included not having a paid 2nd AC - a great intern did the first week, and our paid DIT jumped in and did double-duty the second week.

As with any shoot, everything did not go smoothly. We hit all of the bumps mentioned above, and probably a few which I have either forgotten or blocked out already - the mind has a great way of protecting us, doesn't it?

In the end, we all kept in our hearts what we wanted and thought was best, but with our eyes firmly focused not on the perfect, but on the possible.

We did not fall victim to a trap first proposed by the French philosopher Voltaire (did I say quasi-philosophical?), often quoted by politicians:

"The perfect is the enemy of the good."

We were far from perfect - but we were very, very good.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Keep My Brother - I Walk the Line

"Good line producers are not simply fixed on numbers. They known what the numbers mean:which ones are critical - and therefore inelastic - and which one's aren't. They know why it's important to have fifty extras in a particular scene and not thirty, and they wont spend time trying to convince you to do it with thirty; they'll be busy searching for a scene where you can afford to lose twenty extras."
-Christine Vachon, Shoot to Kill

At our production dinner (see below), which has become a new tradition on my films (inspired by a production coordinator I hired last fall), I bought Christine Vachon's seminal book, Shoot to Kill, for two of my production interns who had served as production manager and assistant production office coordinator on Keep My Brother.

I did not buy it for my assistant director, a graduate of NYU's prestigious (and I often think over-rated) Tisch producing program. I assumed that it would have been part of that program, but should have understood that it would not have been.

It has too much damned common sense in it.

Regular readers know my admiration for the book and the author. In the quote above, Vachon succinctly states what I try to explain all the time, which is that line producing is not only about setting the line (items) - but moving it.

Although the origin of the title comes from the studio days*, I think of it in terms of moving those numbers, and the ability to do so becomes the benchmark for success or failure.

In that respect, I like to think of both images above; the unforgiving guardian of the line  on the left, and the guardian of justice and being true to the film on the right.

The fact that I walk with a cane and tend to pace on set inspired one of my favorite ADs, Chris, to nickname me "Walking Boss" after the character from Cool Hand Luke. One day on set, as I dug a groove in the ground, he yelled out "Prisoner requests permission to wish Walkin' Boss a happy birthday!" For years, the nickname stuck.

Yeah, I look like this sometimes when we are behind schedule

On this Ultra Low budget, there was a lot of adjusting, and I have to say that the director, Mike, was helpful when it came to this.

On the above-the-line, we initially talked about no casting director, but, then, Mike decided to go with one (and a good one for indie films, and at a good rate). That meant I needed to make room for that.

He was going to work with a few long-time actor friends, but in budgeting the other featured roles, we originally talked about offering more money for a "name." Now, "names" on this level is a tricky game - suffice to say someone recognizable from TV or supporting roles in bigger films. In the end, we settled on not offering more than the $100 a day upfront in the SAG Ultra Low contract.

This proved a good decision, as we got some great folks and I doubt we could have done better dangling extra money.

As that number fluctuated, so did the numbers for production personnel.

One of the things I hate about very low budget films is not having the right make-up of production personnel. To save money, I was going to originally take the budget for an AD and just bring on an intern "2nd AD" - basically a PA willing to move up. I would LP and AD.

Yes, I am past the age when I should be doing both, but I remember some of the greats like Paul Kurta doing both, and Stan did both in his younger years. Because we would be in one location 9 of twelve days, and only two others with no company moves on any day, I thought this could work. When I realized my regular AD was not going to be on, and because so many of the schedule decisions we would make were intertwined with the budget decisions, I thought it could also be prudent.

I used some of that money to hire a Production Coordinator. I could not keep an eye on the big picture and even remotely try to handle petty cash and day-to-day management, not to mention setting up files is far from my strong point.

Here, I brought on one of my heroes from my last shoot, Tasha. Tasha was the APOC on that shoot, and, working for an insanely low rate, proved a hero when, on the day before Thanksgiving, when everyone was off and thinking turkey, she ran around half the city solving a parking and storage problem herself that she could have easily said was not her responsibility - because it wasn't.

Like a wounded animal that has a thorn removed from it's paw, I will never forget her dedication that day. Anyone wondering if doing the right thing matters should make a note of that.

In the crucial positions of APOC and UPM, I brought on interns. I love to teach and train, and, in Stephanie and Jason, respectively, I got truly lucky - they were incredible.

As production got closer, I was still thinking a 2nd AD who could fill in for me when I needed to leave set when I met "M," a young Asian-American lady who had one 1st AD credit. Usually that would not have impressed, but it was on a feature in Beijing. I have worked on a few Asian productions, and life is not kind to assistant directors. I figured if she could handle that, she could handle this. Thus, the idea of me being a 1st AD at all went out the window - thankfully for all.

M and I talked for about a half hour, but I had a sense she could be a good AD within a minute of meeting her. Much of being a good AD can be taught; much cannot. She had the latter.

Having assigned more money there, I took money from the number of paid PAs we would have rather than interns. I knew we needed at least one driver, and I would not let an intern drive. I hired additional paid PAs for pick-ups, but not for the shoot, as, without the company move, I needed less drivers.

I have always, back to my early days, tried to pay everyone, even if it was not a lot. At $50 a day, I thought it was better than nothing.

We did wind up with one loyal PA - Jack - but the others fell by the wayside, including a few who expressed how excited they were to be on a film. In the end, we spent less here than I planned, although it came with pain and difficulty.

I thought we could get a good 2nd AD in terms of a PA wanting to move up for the credit. That did not work out. As a matter of fact, we found the kiss of death was teaching someone the Exhibit G, the SAG sign-in form. It has a few quirks (it's in military time, cannot be erased, etc) but it's not a Rubik's Cube. In the first four days, EVERY person we taught quit the next day, as did the two people we taught how to do call sheets.

So much for the desire to learn.

This left M on her own in terms of communications way too often. Which brings us to another place we saved money, but it inflicted pain.


The nightclub had about 15 walkies - I usually would want more, but thought we could make do. Although they were good quality, they never seemed to work well with each other. Some would work with some but not others. In the end, I'm glad we saved the money - but I can't say it did not make the job a good deal harder.

Besides M, my G&E team was definitely less than impressed, but, whether they admit it or not, it worked in the end.

Speaking of G&E.

I had a hard number for rental of G&E gear. Shortly before we started, my gaffer, Adam, whose opinion I respect from other shoots, increased our order, much of it for speedrail, The idea was that we would not have to be doing as many relights and could light more from the grid, much like a studio.

It was 45 percent more than I wanted to spend - plus two days of pre-rigging - that I would have rather not spent money on. I trusted that it would solve what I knew would be my biggest problem - time.

In the end, I don't think it solved the time problem as much as I would have liked, and much of that gear was likely not needed, given the way we ultimately lit the film. That was counter-balanced by a vendor (who I had worked with on a previous shoot) giving me an insane discount (a one-day week PLUS a 40% discount) and a camera gear vendor who also worked with me because of past business.

We also made up part of that time because of the success of the G&E interns, who were unpaid and supplemented a crew of Gaffer, Grip and Swing.

We were able to save in one of my biggest areas - transportation - by returning the bulk of the gear when we wrapped the first location. That meant having the more expensive cube truck (as opposed to our cargos) only for the one day where it returned after the extra gear was dropped off. Cubes cost not only in their rental, but in gas and parking - and that is money that is not on screen.

Production is about winning the war even when you lose battles.

I will discuss more balancing in the next post, but I thought this would be informative to producers looking to do very low budget as to the realities of what they can expect, even after the hard work of budgeting is done. Choices made in pre-production are important, but good producers must understand they will keep making choices as the film goes on, and those choices will determine whether you stay on budget or not, and the type of film you ultimately make.

More on the art of compromise in the next post - that one may be a primer for our current-day politicians.

For now, a look at that production dinner I mentioned. From left, the old man (me), my Production Coordinator (and really Production Supervisor) Tasha, APOC Stephanie, First AD "M", and Jack, our loyal PA. Not pictured is Jason, our UPM, who offered the only acceptable excuse - he was working OT on another shoot.

*There was a producer, who dealt with the director and stars, and a "below-the-line" producer, who dealt with the day-to-day operations, the title being shortened over the years to line producer.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Keep My Brother - The Pros From Dover

"Look, mother, I want to go to work in one hour. We are the Pros from Dover and we figure to crack this kid's chest and get out to golf course before it gets dark. So you go find the gas-passer and you have him pre-medicate this patient. Then bring me the latest pictures on him. The ones we saw must be 48 hours old by now. Then call the kitchen and have them rustle us up some lunch." - Trapper John, M.A.S.H.

I have spoken often about my process for putting together crew, and how I think it is almost as important to get the right mix of crew as the right mix of cast.

On the SAG Ultra Low Budget, I knew it was going to be difficult to bring on a lot of the "pros from Dover." On the Production Side, my regular First AD said he would do it for the lower salary I had available if I really needed him, but I could tell that after a challenging film we did in the Fall of last year, his heart was not truly into it.

I knew the right Director of Photography was essential. The eternal battle between line producer or AD and DP in a low budget indie is something I've discussed here. In that case, it was a less-than-talented DP trying to get by with bluster. However, in the best of circumstances, the DP and production have two different priorities.

Yes, every one's priority is to make the best film, but for the the LP and AD, doing it quickly is essential. On a shoot I did in the Fall, the producers were under the false impression that a good AD could turn a talented but slow DP into someone who would move quicker. They were wrong.

The DP is charged with the look of the film, and they are going against everything they were hired to do if they let the camera roll without having achieved the best image they could muster. That is why I look for DPs on low budget indies that have delivered quality work under similar circumstances. As they say at the track, never bet on a horse to do something it's never done before.

One of the people I suggested to the director was named Lauretta, who was not only someone I had worked with on other projects and known many years, but I knew she was a skilled operator, and there would be a lot of handheld an run-and-gun on this film. It would be needed for time, and it was also the style the director liked best.

Timing was going to be tricky. The only time the club would be available to us would overlap with Burning Man, an annual week-long gathering in the Nevada's Black Rock desert where participants "dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art self-expression and self-reliance." That hardly begins to explain its importance to regular "burners;" indeed, the site states: "Trying to explain Burning Man to someone who has never been to the event is like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind." Suffice to say, it is as essential to regular participants as any religious experience.

The director knew of Lauretta's work; he had almost worked with her once before After seeing a short that she shot that had a lot of hand-held, he definitely wanted her, but would she pass on her sacred gathering?

Lauretta was not just a work acquaintance, she had become a good friend. Shortly after I made the emotional move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I found myself in a house that had no power due to Superstorm Sandy. Lauretta took me in with no questions. Subsequently, I became a regular at weekly pot luck dinners she held at her loft, where the crowd was a mix of film folks and burners. Frankly, I did not think she would pass on the Burning Man event.

Though she had been shooting a lot of other forms, she had not DP'd a feature in a while, and decided that she would do it. I was thrilled, and concerned.

Lauretta was certainly no prima donna - not in the least. Still, I know I was going to be asking her to shoot an insane schedule, and the prospect of rushing a friend was not enticing. As I came to tell her often when we would hit those bumps, I don't expect a DP to be able to pay attention the the lighting with one eye on the clock. Add to that I knew I would have to stick to budget on camera and lighting gear, and, friend or no friend, this would be a battle.

It would be a battle, also, with the gaffer, another person who was both a film colleague and friend. I've discussed Adam before in these pages, in another article on working with regulars.

Friends. "Family." It seems to be a theme of the last number of posts.

Rates for both positions were much lower than their usual, but higher than many would get on this budget. I needed them. Unfortunately, the lighting package both Lauretta and Adam thought they needed, and the lighting plan, meant that a plan I had for bringing on Adam with his slightly smaller lighting package and vehicle would not work, a blow to my idea of a small footprint and Adam's ability to supplement his rate with a rental.

Right from the beginning, I found myself in what Lauretta and Adam joked was my "default mode" on this shoot - saying "no." At one point in pre-production, Lauretta started making a suggestion, and one of her words must have triggered something, and I started unconsciously shaking my head.

"What could you possibly be saying 'no' to,"she asked. "I haven't even said anything!"  Sadly, she was right.

Each of them knew a RED camera owner who was also willing to DIT, for a rate that would be hard to match elsewhere. Steve is a very talented guy who I liked from a previous project, but, again, there were long negotiations on rate.

There were times in prep - and also during shooting - that I didn't know if having people who I not only liked but respected on was a blessing or a curse. It was a situation where we all would hope that we had earned the trust to respect what the other wanted, but our budget and time limitations meant that, often, compromise was not an easy thing to achieve.

A line producer has to walk a balance. Everything can't be "no." As Stan famously said, "first you have to make the movie." A reason I dreaded this budget was that there was no contingency, no room to be wrong, and who is ever right all the time on any feature, no less one that would have less resources and more folks who were holding positions for the first time.

In the end, with both of them, the difficulties that did arise would have been impossibilities if we did not have that mutual respect, though, to the untrained observer, that might not be what they always saw during the shoot (which I will discuss in more detail in another post). The fact that we were all able to be open and frank with each other led to a better result, and better work, even when it was not always pleasant for any of us,

Both of them brought on a handful of other talented folks, in addition to taking advantage of Adam's love of teaching, which led to some great Grip and Electric interns.

So much for camera and G&E. Putting together my production team was another matter, and one that proved to be in flux up until the day before our final production meeting.  More on that in the next post.

Until then, a more light-hearted look at the inescapable truth as offered by Spike Jones. Yes, I spelled his name right. Weird Al was not the first to make song parodies. Here, a take on the somber Mills' Brothers tune, "You Always Hurt The One You Love." Take note of how it changes about halfway through.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Keep My Brother* - The Dreaded Ultra Low

"I know not at all what may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing"
-Moby Dick

It started with a budget. It always starts with a budget.

Yes, I know, it is probably more accurate to say that a movie starts with a script; and, if we were to get philosophical (or technical) it actually started as an idea.

With all due respect to my fellow script writers (and I have written more than a few), for me, it starts to be real when I prepare a budget. The budget is not just the number, it is a game plan for how to make the movie.

Another truth is, for all the budgets I prepare, very few raise the money.

This guy, Mike*, had written a film that he would be the lead in. Additionally, he had raised the total budget he was going to raise, which was much less than $100K. He had access to a nightclub for two weeks while it was closed for vacation. Unlike most "free locations" the director was the General Manager of the club, and we were able to have it for absolutely free.

When I first broke down the script, I agreed with Mike it should be twelve days if we were going to come in on budget. However, a closer look, and I did not believe the breakdown or the schedule. In an email I now joke with Mike about, I told him that I was sending him a 14 day schedule because I did not 'believe a 12 day schedule was possible.'

Mike said he would try to raise the additional money - about $20K - for a 14 day schedule and some adjustments. However, he found that he would not be able to raise that additional money until after we would be shooting the film, so it would have to be 12 days. Twelve days for a 98 page script.

Something had to give. In fact, a lot had to give.

Here is where the process of matching the script and logisitics to the reality of the budget begins, and this is an important lesson in films that pull off low budgets, and those that don't.

If we were going to get this done, we needed some adjustments, and the fact that Mike was flexible about so many things allowed it to happen.

First, I wanted to go with a small crew, paying key positions decently so we would make a good film and move fast. Second, I wanted to limit company moves, so that I could put money needed for vehicles, gas and parking toward making the movie.

Toward the latter end, we built two offices within the club to save  moves, and Mike agreed to move two scenes to the club so we need only shoot one day in his apartment, instead of an awkward day that would have been one and a half day with a company move. Neither Mike nor I thought these were bad compromises that hurt the story. In the end, we shot nine days at the club, one day at his apartment, and one day at a friend's apartment. All absolutely free.

The Ultra Low is a budget I always said I didn't want to shoot, not because my fee would be less (which it would) but because it meant too many interns in positions that should be paid, not enough paid prep time for positions I needed (like AD, and DP prep), and basically a lot more work for me in addition to less money. At 56, the additional work, having to do everything I normally do PLUS a lot of what I normally assign to others, is just usually not worth it to me.

However, Mike seemed like a realist right from the beginning, Some things you just go with your gut, and my gut on Mike was a guy who would work with me every step along the way, and I turned out to be right.

I decided to do this blog now, while it is fresh in my mind, so it serves as a guide for those doing these new VERY low budget projects, on the types of adjustments that must be made, how to move money from one line item to another, and how to make the most of your resources.

Let me be clear - you win or lose as a team. I can bring all my experience and expertise, but without cooperation from the director, and some key people working out, it simply does not happen.

To paraphrase Star Trek's good Doctor McCoy, 'Dammit, filmmaker, I'm a line producer, not a magician.'

The next key was having faith in people in some key positions. As it turned out, I was able to bring on those key people and work with some people who I had known for a long time, and also got lucky in some other positions. More on that in the next post.

*Folks on this film were great - using first names only because don't want to publicly share info some people might prefer remain private, like their names.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Return from the Belly of the Beast

This pic came with it's own caption.

Apologies to you, my readers, for my absence this past month. No, I have not taken up the European tradition of vacationing in August; actually, quite the opposite.

Since the "digital revolution," I have known friends and co-workers who have done Ultra Low films. For myself, I have avoided it. As one of my ADs said recently, "this is a young man's game," and I knew that doing a film under $100K meant lots of interns, lots of training, and impossible days.

I also feared it meant an inferior product, which, at this point in my career, I have no interest in doing just for another line on my resume or a few dollars.

However, I did a budget at $75K back in May, for a guy who had a script and the $75K, the former being the norm, the latter being the definite exception these days.

Additionally, he was the general manager of a nightclub where a majority of the action took place, and the two other locations were his apartment and a friend's apartment. We would be in the nightclub for 9 of the twelve days.

Ironically, one of his choices for DP was a close and dear friend who I had worked with as an operator, but not as DP. Another good friend came on as Gaffer.

Still, 12 days was going to be rough, and we did not have the money for more, nor did we have a budget that would allow OT pay, something I always offer on bigger budgets because it's hard to get even talented non-union folks to do it without it, and I don't believe in insanely long work days if it isn't needed.

I offered no OT, but promised that we would keep the days to 12 hours, with lunch off the clock.

Amazingly, we were able to do that, and finish on time and on budget. We were also on nights most of the shoot (the club has a complete skylight such that we were shooting day for day and night for night).

It involved a lot of training new people mixed in with some very experienced folks, and it was exhausting. Just as I started to not be exhausted, last night was the wrap party, so now, as I write this, recovering from that.  There was no way for me to write any coherent posts.

I will write a blog or two on this shoot starting Saturday, while it is fresh in my head, and then return to the saga of Town Diary. Next post on this shoot, My Brother's Keeper, on Saturday.

In the meantime, cut to the end - the wrap party. Picture of me with my office staff, from left to right, my production manager, production coordinator (and indispensable partner in this film) and APOC.  As I said in my Facebook post, these days, pictures with my staff at wrap parties look like the kids went out drinking and Dad showed up.