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.

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