Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Sunday, March 16, 2008

How You Know It's All Going To Go Horribly Wrong

When I show up for a job, very often I go in with a minimum of information about it. Particularly if I'm booming and I'm only going to be on whatever it is for a couple of days. The unspoken rule for crew is don't ask too many questions because everyone is far too busy to bother with you, and when I'm booming I do pretty much just have to come as I am. Plus, I generally just don't want to know. My work ethic is simply, "I work for money, you pay me enough, I show up."

But there are a few details that can clue you in, either during the initial meetings about a production, or on the first day, to the fact that you are in for a bumpy ride. Here are some of them.

1) "This is such a great project!"
Hearing this from someone who is trying to hire you for a movie is generally an indication that
a) You will not get paid or
b) You will get paid very little and, in fact,

c) Probably nobody is getting paid, because

d) There is no money in the budget for just about anything.

This generally can lead to conclusion

e) The job is going to most likely have inexperienced crew, bad/tiny locations, not enough equipment, bad catering, long days because they're trying to cram an insane amount into them and don't have to pay overtime…so in other words, it ain't going to be pretty.

2) "This production is going to be run like a military campaign!"
Back when I was still mixing features, an AD/Producer once began a job interview with me with this line. If the script featuring the dominatrix and screen direction like "THREE LARGE-BREASTED WOMEN enter the room" and the fact that the film was being financed by the Guccione Brothers hadn't been enough to drive me away, this would have. Because only ADs with absolutely no clue think that indie film crews getting paid next-to-nothing have army discipline, or like to take orders, so any intention he had of whipping us into shape was going to backfire royally -- and if that was his overriding idea of what was going to make the movie happen, that was even worse.

3) The script is a rainbow of differently-colored pages.
When you get a production script with a cornucopia of colors, and with lots of scenes that say, "OMITTED," this means that the script has been rewritten many, many times. And very likely will continue to be rewritten as time goes on. Perhaps you will even be getting pages the day you are supposed to shoot them. Needless to say, this means everyone is always going to be extremely prepared.

4) The production calls you in the days leading up to the job with really stupid questions.

These people don't know what they're doing.

5) Several different people from the production call you with the same stupid questions.

These people don't know what they're doing, and they don't talk to each other.

6) The day before the shoot they order all sorts of new equipment.

This means that only at this late date did they decide exactly how they're going to do the job -- like either they decided to shoot with two cameras, or decided to use playback -- all of which has huge ramifications that will now confuse everyone.

7) There is not enough parking.

This can indicate all sorts of people not doing their jobs. And even if not, it's just a royal pain in the ass.

8) The location is a 5th-floor walk-up.

9) The location is a functioning nightclub/bar/restaurant or is across the street from a firehouse/construction site/functioning nightclub.

Two words: sound nightmare.

10) The location is Gary's Loft.

Gary is a nice guy, and his loft is very pretty. But it has only one, fairly slow freight elevator that you have to go up a flight of half a dozen stairs to get to, the floors are creaky, there are inevitably people walking around on the floor above you, the windows are thin, and it's in a post-industrial zone where there's all sorts of post-industrial noise to be had coming in through them.

11) You arrive on set to find that everyone is either really old or really young.

Now, I don't like to be ageist. But the truth is, when you show up on a set and only the crustiest of grips and electrics are there, you know that they scraped these guys up off the bottom of the barrel. On the flip side, if everyone looks like they're 12 and they all just got their union cards, then you're really fucked. Not just because you have to work with all of these jokers, but there's something wrong with a production when these are the best people they were able to hire.

Mind you, it means something entirely different when people on the production side are young. I tend to meet a lot of baby-faced agency and directors these days, so that doesn't necessarily predict a bad day, just a lot of immature jokes, and a high level of arrogant hipsterdom.

12) You arrive on set to find you don't recognize anyone on the crew.

Not that I know everybody, but if you've been working in the business as long as I have and you show up on set and only recognize the person who hired you (sometimes not even them!), you have to wonder what kind of circle (of hell?) you've entered. Though, um, if we've never worked together, no offense…

13) You arrive on set and recognize one particular person who spells DOOM.

There are a few directors who you know will make your day difficult -- or at least interesting. They are screamers (Giraldi, Pitka), or incommunicative idiosyncratic celebrity wackos (Tony Kaye). There are also a few DPs/Gaffers/Key Grips who can do the same, either because they're lousy at their jobs, or because they hate you, often simply by virtue of the fact that you are sound. Then there are the actors who are notorious for spelling trouble -- either because of their drug habits, their attitudes, or just the level of stress that travels with them like a cloud of tear gas. Or they can be cute and charming but incredibly high maintenance, which drives the crew mad -- like whenever it was a Kristen Davis day on Sex & the City, the sotto voce groans of grips could be heard echoing throughout set. And rock stars -- you know you're in for a ride. Of course, the difficulty level of talent can vary widely depending on where they are in their career. People on the way up are usually the most gracious, then when they get that first mainline shot of fame, they often become impossible for however long it takes them to either adjust to the situation or slide from the pinnacle -- although sometimes people on the way down are the most evil of all.

Then there are one or two people who, when you see them on set, you know you're in trouble because the jobs they work on are always bad, and any production that hired them must somehow be in trouble. Of course, this goes both ways, because then you have to wonder, "Why am I on the job? What if I'm that person?!"

Of course, sometimes you can also be lulled into a false sense of security by seeing all the right people on a job -- and then it still ends up being a total nightmare. Sometimes bad jobs just happen to good people.

14) The sound guy is soldering something when you arrive.

You can usually tell from the look of the equipment how much abuse it's taken, and how well it's going to work, and how hard or easy that's going to make your day as a boom. But early-morning repair work is generally a bad sign. So is when you arrive to find him or her frantically going through cases, looking for something.

15) The camera crew is standing around.

This can mean one of several things:

a) The camera hasn't arrived.

b) The camera arrived and had to be sent back.

c) The camera arrives but isn't working -- in which case the poor First and Second AC are not standing around, but are trying desperately to fix it.

Bottom line: you, too, will soon be standing around.

16) Everyone is standing around and nobody seems to know why.

This tends to mean the AD is awol, or is trying to make time with the agency producer,
or simply has no clue –- which is always a sign that things are going to go to hell real fast.

17) The director is a still photographer.

This means that he (or she -- if she's Annie Leibovitz) thinks that he knows everything, but really knows nothing. Bad combination.

18) The still photographer-director is also the DP.

This triple hyphenate means that this person is taking on two jobs at one time which he (I'm just going to say "he" since they are nearly all "hes") really does not have down -- but they're going to try to cover that with swank threads, loud music, and attitude to spare.

19) When any director is the DP.

This means that either the director has decided he is such a control freak that he must be his own cameraperson, or that the DP has moved up to directing but can't let go of the camera. Neither one is good for you. These are both big jobs and neither one should be half-assed. Plus, on these jobs the flow of information is even more of a disaster; because since the DP and director are communicating intercranially, they just forget to talk to anyone else.

20) Y-Cats is the catering/craft service company.

Eeew. Not very often do you see everything on the table scattered with M & Ms or Gummi Bears, on purpose.

21) The First AD has his own mic and speaker system/There is a bus-load of 200 extras between you and your breakfast burrito.

Choreographing large groups of people always makes for a fun day.

22) "We just wrote this this morning" or "We just added a couple of shots."

This actually gets said all the time on commercials, and it never bodes well.

23) Nobody knows the timecode frame rate.

This actually happens more and more often in the age of HD. There's still enough shooting on film that most people haven't switched their mindsets and technical knowledge fully over to video, least of all people in production, so very often they haven't thought to ask the editor how things are going to be done -- or haven't hired one yet. Not only will this lead to confusion on set (and indicates confusion on other fronts), but inevitably, something gets decided, and then, also inevitably, no matter what the decision was, the transfer people or editor will call and blame the sound person when it's wrong.

24) There are babies.

I love kids, but I especially love not working with them -- especially not when they're under two. They just don't tend to deliver on cue. And generally toddlers and younger come on jobs in twos and threes, so that there can be back-up babies around if one goes into meltdown, and those babies will be doing their own burping and crying off set during the take as well.

25) Second meal is already on the schedule.