|"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse"|
Bruce Springsteen, "The River"
Karma can be a bitch.
The reality of making low budget films is that there will be concessions. You start with the script and make the film as close as you can to what is on the page, but you know there will be changes and things you just cannot do. This is advice I have handed out to first-time filmmaker after first-time filmmaker as I have guided them through the process.
The important thing, I keep telling them, is that at the end of the day, it has to essentially be the movie you wanted to make.
From the inception of this movie I would be making with my good friends Jack (as director) and JR (as DP and editor), we all made concessions. JR and I liked the idea of a comedy, and one of Jack's original premises was about a theater company trying to put on a play. It was familiar territory given my theater background, and it could make for a good movie. Among successful attempts at this genre were the film version of Noises Off, though it has a great history in film comedy, as many film actors and directors come from the stage.
Jack and I had started discussing those ideas, but Jack had dismissed them finally when he saw Waiting For Guffman, a comedy from Christopher Guest and his usual band of wonderful character actors. I didn't think our movie would be anything like that one, but Jack had made up his mind.
Among other things, Jack taught film history in Chicago. There was hardly a scene or a word in a classic film he didn't know, so when I started the film with the a train bringing the character of Brian from New York to his childhood town in Long Island, Jack immediately remembered the imagery from the beginning of Bad Day At Black Rock.*
Bad Day was a favorite of mine, and a favorite of Jack's. The opening sequence has this train carrying Spencer Tracy stopping in a town that is used to seeing the train just pass on by. The arrival of the stranger who upsets the secrets and lies of a small town is another film standard, and we both liked it.
On Page One of the script, I went into great detail to show how we might shoot this scene, with an emphasis not on the exterior of the train, but Brian's POV looking out the window, almost like watching frames of movie.
Admittedly, the mental image was easier to capture than a good screen image. Jack and I rode the train, and the images outside the window were less interesting than the ones I had in mind. Still, the two of us, and JR, spent some time working out what the opening could look like.
When we started shooting, we agreed to just pick up the scene at the train station where David looks for a taxi, and is met by Jimmy Ryan, the hopeless younger brother of his good friend, Frank Ryan. Jimmy drove a taxi, and he grills Brian about being a "Hollywood producer," something the documentary filmmaker Brian certainly is not.
The thought was that we would get the rest of the opening later, but once it was in the can, Jack pretty much decided that we didn't need the train opening at all, and went for something different. Admittedly, whether my opening or his would have been better is subjective, but it was the first in a series of incidents where I felt that we were making compromises before at least trying to do something more creative.
While we were all great friends, the fact that each of us saw filming a different way became apparent before long. While JR and I had worked together on features, Jack and I had only worked together on Dental PSAs, a medium where my concern for the content was minimal. This was different.
Film directors approach directing actors in many different ways. Jack's approach was mostly to trust the actor to bring something, but, when they didn't, he would offer line readings or offer "just do this." It goes back to why he wanted to hire actors who were already close to the part.
I often felt that this method was less than effective, or that he was accepting an okay performance where they might be a better one. I tried to take him aside privately and discuss these issues as often as possible, but when the producer and director are talking, all eyes are on them and little is private.
Eventually, I let go of this, but not before Chris, my AD, rightfully took me aside and said if I was going to keep doing this, he would prefer I not be on set. Chris correctly felt that questioning Jack, even if I pulled him away to do so, was undermining his authority, and it made it harder for him to keep control on set.
It is not easy to admit that he was right, and I found myself spending less time on set during filming and more dealing with producing elements. This was made easier by the fact that most of the actors we hired were wonderful and brought strong performances without much coaching.
Then, there was our lead actor, David in the role of Brian. As I have said previously, David decided early on that he knew more about acting than Jack did (well, as Jack was not an actor, that was true) and he would ignore Jack when he could, and confront him if Jack pressed him. Now, Jack did not envision the Brian character as a version of himself, and while I had used some of Jack's manners to give Brian a fuller life, I didn't see it that way, either.
Brian was the lead character, however, and as such, Jack was more invested in his performance than any other. David, as I have mentioned, was an actor who had not often been the lead in a movie, and he was determined to make this part his. This conflict devolved to the point where David would pretty obviously challenge Jack on set. These were the worst days, and David made it worse by being passive-aggressive when I tried to talk to him privately about it.
There were the usual practical problems as well.
The bane of my existence on other shoots reared its ugly head again - location manager. We went through two ineffective ones before I brought on a third - a woman who had been great on another shoot. The difference now was that she was pregnant, and it meant more time for her on the phone and less time scouting, and worse, an irritable mood that no one appreciated. We had to let her go as well, leading to a total of four location managers in all.
My savior through the bad times was my assistant Christine, who became as much a confidante and voice of reason as an assistant. She was incredibly helpful as I spent more and more time off set, either dealing with production issues or trying to make up for the deficiencies of our location department.
Chris K, as AD, was in the middle of it all, and as time went on, I saw he felt the pressure of balancing seemingly different marching orders from friends. I have been there as a First AD, and it is no fun. That blew up on day in a sign of frustration that also wound up being unintended humor.
Shooting out in New Jersey, one of our weak location managers had printed poor-to flat-out wrong driving directions. As each vehicle was attempting to get there - Chris driving in his own car, we all were calling each other trying to figure out a) where each of us were, and, b) where the heck was the location. I was one with one such call when Chris K tried to call me and got my voicemail. His message would have made NY Jet's coach Rex Ryan** or Joe Pesci (see below) proud. I think you can work your way through my redaction:
Son of a f****ing bitch. This is so f***ed. We're f**cked. You have f**cking f**cked me....."
It went on like that for about 45 seconds, with Chris K deftly finding uses for his new choice favorite word as verb, adverb, noun, adjective and just about every other part of speech imaginable.
I put in on speaker, and as concerned as we were about the situation, Christine and I could not stop laughing - something we kid about to this day.
Understand that Chris would use the occasional profanity as any of us might, but was usually well-spoken and not someone of limited vocabulary. This was an exception.
Chris was involved in another unintentional funny moment that went badly. There is a mock-TV reality cop show sequence that is playing for a few seconds before a scene between Brian and his father. The scene is MOS***, and brief. We needed two actors to be in the car, and we talked through an improved scenario where a boyfriend and girlfriend get into a physical argument in a car.
The girl was an acting student of mine who had bugged me to be in a scene, a stripper who was trying to become a serious actress. The bg car we wanted did not show up, and Chris reluctantly volunteered his car.
When Jack called "action" the improv - or I should say the actress - went insane. She started screaming and kicking and made the character who pulled her out of the car practically drag her. In doing so, she did some serious damage to the front of Chris' car.
When Chris came over and challenged her (I'm being polite) as to what was wrong with her, she looked at him, tears in her eyes, and screamed "Leave me alone - I've just been raped."
Now, there is nothing funny about rape, but never in our description of the improv did Jack, Chris or anyone else suggest that her character was raped. If that worked as "motivation" for her, okay, but there was no reason for the over-the-top performance.
Chris walked over to me and made a suggestion about getting that "psycho bitch friend of (yours)" out of his car. We all agreed we would go with the first take.
Even these funny moments did not reduce the strain, and more and more, at wrap, all of the "friends" went their separate ways without much said.
Good friends. Your script. It should have been a dream, but too often, it was more of a nightmare. When the expectations of what it can be are so high, the disappointment when it is something less is exponentially worse.
The worst moments, and biggest disappointments, were still to come. The last post was the "good." This one is the "bad." You know what the next one will be.
*Bad Day at Black Rock should be on your list of must-see movies if you are in the business, or just a fan of good movies. John Sturges at his best directing, and a cast of great character actors around Tracy, from Robert Ryan to Ernest Borgnine to Lee Marvin and more.
** Both Rex Ryan and Joe Pesci, in different movies, have become known for their colorful language.
*** Without sound, for those not in the business.