Monday, May 16, 2016

Don't Shoot! - What If they Prepped a Web Series...

"Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon"
Emily Dickinson

They say that every time you go to a baseball game, you might see something you've never seen before. I thought it was just a saying, but just recently, Bartolo Colon became the first baseball pitcher to hit his first home run at the age of forty-two.

Forty-two is old for baseball, and working in a young person's business, I sometimes feel old for production. However, I, too, had something happen to me for the first time recently.

I never understand how people in this industry, especially on the production side, get pigeon-holed. You work in television a lot, you are not a film person. You do a lot of indie films, you are not a television guy. You do scripted, you aren't a reality person.

When I was doing a ton of indie films in the late 90s through mid 2000s, I rarely got called for commercials or music videos, Others, who did them all the time, rarely got called for film.

One of the best production managers I ever hired on an indie feature had just come off winning an Oscar - yes, that Oscar - for her documentary, yet still felt she had to prove herself in the indie film world.

So it was that I was pleasantly surprised when I got hired a bit ago to production manage/production supervise,/produce (each title was used for those of us in this position at one time or another) a five minute web-series episode for a commercial company. It was one of a number of episodes being shot as part of a series.

Now, I am going to be especially vague here about some of the specifics, not only because of the legality of having signed a very detailed NDA but also out of respect for a lot of talented and smart people that were part of the process.

The original plan was for me to prep ten days, shoot two days, and wrap three days. Without getting into the subject matter, the client saw the lead as a snarky spokesperson, such as a William Shatner or Alec Baldwin.

The problem was that their budget for the role did not hold out much hope for getting such a person, and they did not want to go SAG originally, which made it even less likely.

Here is where it gets weird.

I never met the client, but I can tell you that everyone at the production company were smart, experienced people, from the show runner to the overall line producer for all the episodes to the director they hired.

I have a number of years under my belt, and every person in my position for the other scripted episodes did as well.

The director was disappointed with the first round of casting, so we went out and hired another casting director to try again, this time after working with SAG.

Along the way, we worked to secure a location. An AD was hired, as was a DP and a gaffer (Adam, from my previous projects). A production designer and a stylist were already on-board. A location scout and a tech scout happened.

The location manager helped secure a location initially, but we lost it when we pushed back the first time (does this sound familiar?). We simultaneously worked to get a new location while we held new auditions, which yielded good choices for the spokesperson and the supporting young person role. As a matter of fact, one of the folks who was an option for the spokesperson was none other that one of he leads on Keep My Brother.

Meanwhile, I was ably assisted by Maura, someone you will learn much more about in subsequent posts. Maura was one of a small group that I lovingly call "my kids" because they worked a short film with me about nine years ago, when I was coming back to the business after a short hiatus, and who worked with me on a number of projects right after that. More on them later.

Maura was my coordinator, and I needed her, as she has been working in television, which, compared to my indie film world, has an insane amount of paperwork. Don't get me wrong. We have a good deal of paperwork on a film, but the duplication and, in my opinion, unnecessarily cumbersome minutia causes us to spend more time on paperwork than is needed.

But, I guess, having to answer to a client as well as keep their own records, maybe it is inevitable. Having Maura, who is a whiz at this stuff, as well as a great foil for me to brainstorm with, was essential.

I've always liked to have people who are not afraid to disagree with me in my corner, and Maura (and Leigh on Terjebak) certainly fit the bill; bright capable people who will challenge me and keep me on my toes.

With all these smart people, the shoot must have went great, right?

Well, in one sense, it went flawlessly; not a single mistake. That is, of course, if you don't take into account that we never shot it.

Commercial and television shoots get pushed back all the time, but as it has been weeks since the hiatus, I suspect these may not happen. Mind you, this is not just my shoot, but some of the other scripted shoots as well.

From what I can tell - and I did not get to sit in on the high-powered meetings (thankfully), the issue was finding a way to make sure the client was happy with the final product, and getting their approval.

Now, in the indie film world, we have many people involved in the process, but the producer can usually be the last word, often in concert with the director, who is also often a producer. Once the investors sign off on the project, it is in the producer and director's hands, and any decent investment contract makes it clear that investors, after having done their due diligence, now have to trust the one or two decision makers.

Not so in the world of clients, or, for that matter, in television as a whole, where there is often network approval in mind.

The difference was once highlighted in a John Sayles' story I have told here before. Sayles' first paid project was Roger Corman's Piranha, a silly movie basically that served to have voluptuous women run around in skimpy outfits being chased by flesh eaters.

Sayles later wrote the prestigious Eight Men Out for the studios, the true story of the Chicago White Sox betting scandal  that changed baseball.

Sayles tells of the rewrite process on Eight Men Out, where he would be ushered into a room of people with suits who knew little about writing who would give him textbook feedback that made little sense to him.

By comparison, Corman's notes were more simple (and I'm paraphrasing from memory).

'You have the monsters attack on page 30, and then again on page 34. Why don't you have the girl nude on page 34 and have the monsters attack again on page 38,' Corman suggested.

"That," Sayles said, "I could do."

It may not always result in great art, but having one person making final decisions is certainly more effective.

Whether it eventually happens or not, the difficulty in getting everyone to sign off on the final product will mean a whole lot of somebody's money was wasted. Coming from the indie film world, where every penny matters, it still hurts me to see money wasted like this.

I have worked on films that producers abandoned after a director proved unprepared or a producer and director were at odds, or even other reasons. Those were all odd, but never have I spent this much time prepping and wrapping a shoot that never happened.

In the end, I spent three weeks, and Maura spent two weeks, doing prep and wrap work for a two day shoot that never happened. If we come back we will need another ten days prep, and it will only be a one day shoot.

Much as other pitchers had hit home runs before Big Sexy (a nickname Mets' Pitcher Noah Syndergaard has for Bartolo that has stuck), other people had prepped and wrapped television projects that never shot.

But, at 58, it is a first time for me, and the time spent on a project seems to me even longer than Bartolo's seemingly slow-mo trek around the bases.


Michael Taylor said...

Well, that sucks. Civilians might not understand, thinking that hey, you got paid for all that work, so who cares that the shoot never happened? I imagine this is what screenwriters go through when then keep selling scripts that never get made into movies -- yes, they get paid, but there's no sense of completion, of a job well done… of actually doing anything at all.

Given that my end of the biz deals in much shorter periods of employment, the closest experience I had to this was helping light a screen test for the young and incredibly gorgeous Priscilla Presley when she first came to Hollywood back in the early 80's. We worked all day, then she shimmered onto the stage… and all work stopped. I was standing atop a ladder at the time, and damned near fell off. She was astonishingly beautiful -- and suddenly we all understood why Elvis went bonkers over her.

But that was as good as it got -- she shimmered off stage, and an hour later we were told to take all the lights down and go home. We got paid, all right, but it didn't feel right.

As for Corman -- I did two weeks on a highly forgettable feature at his studio/compound out in Venice, west of LA. At one point, amid all the yammering confusion, The Man Himself walked on set, issued a few clear, succinct commands in a deep, loud voice -- the voice of God, it seemed -- then exited, leaving his director to pull some order from all the chaos.

Who knows if that worked -- I left the movie for a more lucrative job -- but Roger Corman was a guy who knew what he wanted, and what his movies needed. You have to respect a man like that.

Great post!

JB Bruno said...


Love your response. Thanks, The "Second tier" stars such as Priscilla et al (I worked on a project with former Ringo interest Barbara Bach) often have it harder than we know - and they may not realize the short-lived happiness they bring!

You got the main point. I worked on more than one Corman project, and high art was rarely the main concern. Still, having ONE final voice had its strong points.