Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Of Human Bonding

My first taste of the sick and incredible bonding experience that is low-budget filmmaking was my first year of graduate film school at NYU. Each one of us had to write and direct three films, shuffling ourselves into teams of three students, with the other two crewing for the director. The nine days I spent with my third film crew include some of the most stupendous highs and lows of my life (some of the others being the death of my first gerbil, realizing someone I thought loved me didn't, most of junior high [bad], and just about all of college [very good]). Most of the highs and lows of first year film school were at least partly induced by strong doses of sleep deprivation, and since my film was the last of the three films to be shot in our most important and most complicated shoot to date, by the time we got down to it, I was feeling the hallucinatory brunt of six, previous 18-hour days of budding megalomaniacal creative insanity. For my part, I was convinced that my 10-minute version of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" would be considered a small masterpiece, a tiny gem, perhaps a calling card for me as a precocious young filmmaker, despite the fact it was being shot with no sync sound on black and white, 16 mm reversal stock, which I would end up cutting into little scratched-up pieces held together with splicing tape and possibly some of my own blood (them splicers is sharp!). Still, out of the three of us, I can't say I won the prize for pretension, since my crewmate, Karl, was making a film based on the Magritte painting "The Betrayal of Images" featuring a pipe-smoking artist painting a painting of a pipe who walked around musing about what, indeed, was the relationship of art to life, while my other crewmate, Zalisa, insisted on doing the entire voice-over for her film in a throaty, barely-audible whisper.

Looking back on it now, I think it was my line-by-line literal reading of the poem that ensured my slide into disaster, since it dictated that we shoot so many scenes in diverse locations, including an Edwardian-era tea party where women could "wander to and fro/Talking of Michelangelo," and a drowning in the ocean scene that included "sea girls/Wreathed with seaweed red and brown." Since I had no money for locations or set dressing, I somehow convinced one of my high school friends to let us shoot at her parents' house in New Jersey (it was big and had a lot of nice furniture in floral patterns), and ended up there with six actors, my two crew-mates, my boyfriend, the TA who had a crush on me, and any additional friends and schoolmates I could press into service, convincing them it was all going to be one big slumber party. It was not. On day two of my film, after shooting had already gone on way too deep into the night and, thanks to my producing skills, we'd had nothing to eat but turkey sandwiches, (except for the one macrobiotic actress who brought her own food, God bless her), I tried to add just one more wheelchair dolly shot. For the uninitiated, this actually is the lowest-rent, film school version of a dolly shot, done by pushing the DP with the camera in a wheelchair – not as complicated as a real dolly shot, but it takes some time to get it so the camera doesn't shake. My crewmates balked and I burst into tears on the set in front of everybody, thereby achieving the kind of full-on humiliation most people only dream about. And yet, while I hated the two of them in the moment (along with the rest of the world), never had I felt closer to anyone. You can't hide much from people you've spent virtually 216 straight hours with – I'd seen what was in that fridge in Zalisa's tiny studio apartment (day 4) and what Karl looked like in one of the actresses nighties (that was on day 9 when we really needed a laugh). I knew only we could truly understand what we'd been through together and appreciate the depths of beauty and madness that had been revealed in each of us in the process.

The first feature I ever worked on was a film called Sleepover, on which I somehow ended up in the job of swing, a person who works in both the grip and electric departments. Actually, I know how I ended up there: my roommate was working on it, I was looking for experience and they were desperate. I had just finished my third year of film school and wanted to get out on a real set, and I thought I knew a thing or two about c-stands and color temperature. But when you're running around for hours in the dark in the rain without waterproof shoes, trying to figure out what kind of gel the DP wants you to put in front of the light (Who can tell the half CTO from the full CTO and why does everyone have one of those cute little flashlights but me?), you realize you're not in Kansas any more. In many ways, this production was like my third student film: we were sleeping in the same place we were shooting – articles of clothing hanging from the hardware and cutlery mixing with clamps in the sink – and we were all working for free, or actually, "on deferment," which in the film world, once you catch on, equates to "free, but with a side of bullshit."

But the people were great. As swing on a small crew I had three masters - the DP, the gaffer and the key grip – who very quickly caught on to the fact that I really knew nothing and not only were tolerant (because they had nobody else), but actually seemed to like me in spite of it. Plus, the thing about jobs out of town is that you've got nowhere to go at the end of the day except your room, which, if it's a low-budget job, you are probably sharing, and therefore has all the privacy of an all-freshman dormitory on a Friday night and sometimes a similar feeling. So you spend every night getting to know each other – talking, eating, drinking (lots and lots of lots of drinking), playing pool and hooking up. On this job there didn't seem to be too much hooking up, or maybe since I was only there a week or so and was new to the film business, I just didn't know how much typically goes on in that situation (a LOT, but that's fodder for a future blog). Personally, I was hoping for a little romance, having recently left a 3-year relationship and, now, developed a wicked crush on the key grip. But he seemed mainly to be infatuated with his job - I once caught him, in a private moment, lovingly lining up the c-stands in perfect formation – and had no eyes for me, perhaps knowing that I would never make a good grip, or good gripette. But the rain and rejection and the hard work for zero pay only seemed to make the camaraderie seem that much more like it was the real reason we were there.

My first booming job for money was a film called Ben and Rachel. I was still trying to edit and pay off the bills from my thesis film and my part-time job at a financial management firm was threatening to become full-time - they had offered me $35,000 a year and a full business wardrobe, since they were appalled by the Friday casual wear I wore every day of the week but liked the idea of having an Ivy League-educated file clerk who could also do a little light bookkeeping, paperwork, etc. So when I got the call from Bill, a mixer I'd worked with on a student film, to work on Ben and Rachel, I leapt. Even though I'd only be making $250/week, I was sick of paper cuts dying to get back on to a film set. I had a feeling it would be a fun job because while Bill always cared about the sound, he was probably equally if not more concerned with entertaining the crew. For kicks, he would do things like speaking through the video monitor speakers in strange voices, or do his own impromptu foleying, if they didn't roll sound on a shot of a person walking, by pointing the mike at his own feet and try to match their sound to the movement of the person on screen. Then there was the ringmaster of the production, Kevin the first AD, a tall, foul-mouthed, son of a New York city cop who, with a cigarette glued to his lower lip, could get anything done – which he often had to, because it was a tight schedule - either through threats or sweet talk or just simple alpha-male charisma (the PAs worshipped him). But to be honest, it was an entire crew of fun people looking for a place to party, as if they all were hired on that basis (and that might have in fact been the case, since Kevin got hired early and recommended a lot of the others). People repaired most nights of the week to the Blue and Gold on East 7th Street, the then-film crew hangout and there were plenty of hook-ups above, below and across the line. As for me, I still didn't hook up (you may see a trend developing here), but I still loved being on that film. I was settling into the sound department, I was actually getting paid, there were actors in it who, if they weren't famous names were at least familiar faces. And the fact that it felt like a family, albeit an incestuous one verging on alcoholic, made me feel there was no place I'd rather be.

At least, for 2-6 weeks. Because what I had finally begun to learn at this point was that every shoot has to end, and once it does and they're suddenly released from their bonds, everyone goes their own way. They're all off to other jobs with other people and have no free time to see the people they met on the last job – assuming they want to. Shooting crews are like atoms, with those protons, neutrons and electrons somehow held together but vibrating, just waiting to split apart. Maybe it's that when you get into relationships that intense that fast, they're impossible to sustain, like when you jump into bed with someone on the first date and then, the next morning, realize you didn't really like them all that much. Or maybe it's the other way around: just like one-night stands, the knowledge that the whole thing's going to end lets you get close to people you normally wouldn't in ways you probably shouldn't. Wrap parties that take place at the end of film shoots are often both fraught with conflicting feelings and anticlimactic, eagerly anticipated by some (to get closure or take that crush to the next level), avoided by others like a disease, and ending with somebody crying in the bathroom. Then sets in what we call the post-partum depression – not to speak lightly of the real thing or Brooke Shields, but there is that same difficulty of dealing with the abrupt end of what was your everyday existence accompanied by, again, acute sleep deprivation to heighten the emotional crash. And if you're a crew person, the baby is not yours, so if you don't have another job to go on to, you have to try to go back to your old life, a place where you once had friends and family and significant others who you may realize you actually missed, and an apartment that probably needs a major cleaning.

So you get used to the rhythm of moving on and letting go. These days, I'm hardly in touch with anyone from film school any more. The crew of Sleepover got together a couple of times for drinks but then I pretty much forgot I'd ever done the film until one day I actually got a check in the mail (just to prove that some people in the business do mean what they say). I do still hear from Bill, who's segued into acting and comedy where he belongs, in e-mails that always include attachments with headings like "Irish Viagra" or "How to make your own Death Star ray." But the truth is, there are only a handful of folks from the film world I'd consider more than set friends, despite our fun or excruciating or bizarre experiences together. Or perhaps because of them - because you've all spent those kind of hours together, hauling heavy cases, burning yourself on hot lights, running backwards behind a four-person camera crew and trying not to trip them all while holding a boom over their heads pointed into the actor's mouth (not that I've ever done this), all of you basically working like dogs until everything clicks and everything comes together for a few perfect takes, and then talking during your extensive down time about the strangest and sometimes most personal things. After you've done this and repeated it over and over and over again, packing the ups and downs of a normal relationship into a couple of weeks – well, where is there to go?

But whenever I run into former crew-mates, it is an unexpected treat. One morning at 7 am you arrive on a commercial for Levitra and who's there but someone you stayed up all night with three weeks straight once, a long time ago. And then it's "Oh my God, that job! Do you remember that 17 hours we spent under the Brooklyn Bridge?…" Or sometimes you don't even have to say it because there’s a grin and a glint in the eye and you know, just between the two of you, it was hell and it was wonderful.


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